Usoyan controlled prostitution, construction and all manner of protection rackets in Moscow and a wide swath of Russia, according to Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor who has studied the Russian mob for 20 years. The crime boss reportedly had a stranglehold over Sochi, home of the 2014 Winter Olympics, to the envy of the underworld.
Although Usoyan confined his criminal activity to the former Soviet Union, some of his close associates went farther afield. Last year, the U.S. Treasury Department put five of them on a list of transnational criminals belonging to an organization considered a threat to the United States. The five were named under an executive order that allows seizure of their assets in the United States and essentially prevents them from banking in dollars anywhere around the world.
Usoyan had a long criminal career, cinematic in scope, Galeotti said. He reportedly was first arrested at age 19 for attacking a policeman, and he went on to specialize in robbery and extortion. During the Gorbachev years, he ran a protection racket, Galeotti said, shielding the aspiring entrepreneurs operating on the black market in return for payment.
“So he had the money and contacts to capitalize on the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Galeotti, who described Usoyan as one of the three or four top figures in the underworld here. “He built a very broad-based criminal network.”
Usoyan, an ethnic Kurd who was born in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, built a multi-ethnic network of Georgians, Ingush, Chechens and Armenians. He was at war with a clan run by a Georgian, Tariel Oniani, known as Taro.
A few years ago, underworld leaders organized a meeting to settle the dispute but failed to do so. One of the negotiators on Usoyan’s behalf, a gangster known as the Little Japanese, was shot dead in 2009. The next year a sniper took a shot at Usoyan a few blocks from the Kremlin, but he recovered from the wound.
“He was a classic gangster, like Corleone,” Galeotti said, likening him to the New York don of “The Godfather” books and movies. “In recent years, he collected tribute.”
Unlike the latest underworld generation, however, Usoyan was not much involved in moving heroin out of Afghanistan, Galeotti said.
Usoyan lived in a universe of people with names such as Grisha the Dumpling, Ed the Sturgeon and Kostya the Tomb. He drove around Moscow in a black limousine, accompanied by bodyguards in two Jeeps. He had been dining Wednesday at a restaurant near the Writers Union, in an old Moscow neighborhood about halfway between the Kremlin and the U.S. Embassy. A female bystander was wounded, according to the Investigative Committee.
Alexander Mikhailov, a former official in the police, security and anti-drug forces, told the Interfax news agency that he saw Usoyan’s killing as the end of a war. “He was quite a significant figure in the underworld,” Mikhailov said. “I believe that his murder means the redivision of that market is over.”
Galeotti wasn’t so sure, suggesting that a settling of scores could ensue. “His nephew will have to assert himself fairly quickly and aggressively,” he said. “There could very well be a new round of turf wars.”
On the other hand, he said, mob leaders may decide that shooting each other up is bad for business. Perhaps it’s time to make someone an offer he can’t refuse.