The Caviar Thugs

Poverty, corruption, and crime are threatening to destroy a Russian institution

T he words chornaya ikra—"black caviar"—have recently acquired an illicit ring in the Volga River-delta town of Astrakhan, the caviar capital of Russia if not of the planet. (Three quarters of the world's caviar comes from sturgeon caught in the Volga and the Caspian Sea, into which the river drains.) When I asked for caviar during a visit to Astrakhan last fall, shopkeepers answered with incredulous stares or handed me second-rate, red salmon roe from the Russian Far East. Merchants in open-air markets responded to my request with a muttered "Nyetu" ("There is none") and then looked both ways and advised me to ask the shaven-skulled thugs in track suits loitering nearby. The thugs, members of local gangs, whispered that they were selling caviar "stolen straight from the Astrakhan fish-processing plant," but their wares turned out to be hastily processed poached caviar packed in cans pilfered from the plant. First-class chornaya ikra, I soon realized, was nowhere to be found.

The reason, I learned, has to do with poaching, an activity that, by devastating sturgeon populations, shrank Russia's legal sturgeon harvest from 10,000 tons in 1992 to 500 tons last year. (The famed giant beluga, the largest and most highly prized species of sturgeon, has all but disappeared.) As supply has decreased, caviar prices in the West have risen, prompting suppliers both legal and illegal to export most of their caviar for hard currency rather than sell it locally for rubles.

The Russian government permits sturgeon fishing only during the spring and fall. Poachers, who fish year round, collectively take in some 8,000 tons of sturgeon a year—ten times the legally allowed catch. Some poachers—generally small-timers—operate in the delta's reed- and willow-lined maze of creeks, departing from the village docks after dark in rowboats. Their haul is diminishing steadily; many of them catch only a few fish a year, but even this is enough to justify the effort. "I make nine dollars a month driving a tractor here, and they don't even pay me that on time," one poacher, who works on a collective farm during the day, told me. "I've got a family to feed, so I turn to the river. I manage to catch about five fish a year. At a hundred and eighty-five dollars' worth of caviar a fish, that means nine hundred dollars. If I didn't poach, we couldn't eat."

Once the poachers have hauled a sturgeon aboard, they kill the fish and immediately extract its roe, which they place in jars. After cleaning the fish and wrapping it in paper, they do their best to hide it—possession of a sturgeon carcass out of season is prima facie evidence of poaching. Around dawn they pull into hidden coves where local resellers gather to buy their wares. The caviar brings eighty dollars a pound, the sturgeon flesh two dollars a pound.

Although the patrol boats of the Rybokhrana (Fish-Resources Guard) may intercept poachers en route, and the beat-up Ladas of the militia may be waiting for them on shore, capture is little more than a nuisance these days. Because the Soviet government relied on caviar as a vital source of hard currency, it dealt poachers stiff jail sentences—typically twelve years. But in 1991 the Russian government, in the spirit of leniency prevailing in the early post-Soviet years, reduced sentences to two years and introduced fines—about seventy-five dollars for each poached fish. If the Rybokhrana or the militia shows up, poachers either dump their catch overboard or try to bribe the officers. This is generally an easy task: militia salaries are only sixty to a hundred dollars a month.

When the authorities encounter a poacher, they must by law take his fish and roe (and even officers who accept bribes do so). This provision practically guarantees that poaching enriches the law-enforcement agencies ostensibly working to eradicate poaching. Former poachers I spoke with described what typically happens when a militiaman intercepts a poacher: The officer releases the poacher in exchange for a bribe and then, following the law, takes the caviar to a store designated by the government as a buyer of konfiskat, or confiscated roe. The store buys the konfiskat for the equivalent of about eighteen dollars a pound—a price set by local authorities. It will later transfer the money to state coffers. The militiaman demands an additional ten dollars a pound, which he pockets. The store then calls a trader and sells him the caviar for sixty dollars a pound. When the deal is done, eighteen dollars a pound have gone to the state, ten to the militiaman, and thirty-two to the store. The market value of roe is $122 a pound in Astrakhan, so the trader makes a profit of more than 100 percent—some of which he returns to the store clerk in order to ensure continued business.

But of course the real danger to the sturgeon population doesn't come from small-time poachers or their associates. Official connections and a means of transport are needed to get large amounts of illegal caviar across the delta and out of the country to markets in the West. This is where the mafiyoznyye brakashi, or "mafia poachers," come into play. They are usually employees, rather than members, of criminal gangs. They devote themselves exclusively to the trade, earning $3,000 to $4,000 a month. Because they have official connections, discretion about their wealth is unnecessary: their two- and three-story brick houses, sporting freshly painted window frames and surrounded by neat lawns, stand proudly amid the rusting tractors and weathered shacks of decrepit collective farms; their new fiberglass skiffs, outfitted with powerful Yamaha motors, rock serenely in the lazy currents of the delta. The mafiyoznyye brakashi generally fish in the Caspian Sea, where small-timers in unsteady craft cannot safely venture. They treat sturgeon solely as a source of caviar, slicing open their living prey, scooping the roe into cans, and dumping the carcasses overboard.

Corrupt militiamen meet the poachers upon their return to shore and accompany them to Astrakhan. Every few miles along the delta's cracked highways and dirt roads one comes across checkpoints, at which officers stop vehicles and search for caviar. Over and over again, driving those roads, I saw cars carrying a militiaman and a couple of bare-skulled toughs shoot straight through the checkpoints with a wave and a friendly toot of the horn.

Back in Astrakhan the poachers deliver the caviar to safe houses for processing—a simple matter of cleansing the roe in ice water and then in a saline solution. They can the caviar, pack the cans in ice and towels, load them into suitcases, and fill the trunks of their cars. They then either make the twenty-hour drive to Moscow, where they sell the roe in open-air markets for as much as $400 a pound, or ride two days to Brest, a city in Belarus near the Polish border, where they sell it to their counterparts in the local mafia. The Brest mafia sends the suitcases over the border with forged documents certifying the caviar's legal provenance. In Eastern Europe caviar fetches as much as $700 a pound; in Western Europe and the United States it goes for as much as $2,000 a pound. Legal or not, the taste is the same.

Smuggling caviar could become even more lucrative, at least in the short term. In the next year or so diminishing fish stocks could prompt the Russian government to impose a moratorium on commercial sturgeon fishing, an act that would cause caviar prices to soar and would make the mafia's business more profitable than ever—until stocks became too depleted to make poaching worthwhile. However, poaching could also become much riskier. Those in the trade fear that President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official who came to power promising a "dictatorship of the law," may decide to clamp down on them. If he does, their partnerships with corrupt members of local law-enforcement agencies will make them highly vulnerable: the agencies could arrest the poachers and smugglers immediately, knowing all too well who they are.

From the archives:

"Russia Is Finished" (May 2001)
The unstoppable descent of a once great power into social catastrophe and strategic irrelevance. By Jeffrey Tayler

Caviar has held a place at the top of Russian menus under czarist, communist, and post-Soviet regimes alike; until the economic crisis of 1998 even people with modest incomes could afford half a pound or so a month. In a land of ice and chains and endemic suffering, caviar provided gustatory salvation from grief and black days, a sensual escape from temporal woes. It was prized for medicinal reasons as well: it contains lipids, vitamins, and albumen that, Russians believe, can cure anemia, fight cancer and other illnesses, lower blood pressure, increase virility, and lessen fatigue in pregnant women. For centuries caviar has embodied the superlative and extravagant qualities that Russians enjoy attributing to their homeland. But soon, like the country's matryoshki (nesting) dolls and onion-domed churches, it may become a symbol of a vanished past.