A June 24 Outlook article incorrectly attributed the source of a remark by Natan Sharansky that the KGB sought emigration visas for Soviet criminals. Sharansky revealed this during a 1988 interview with Robert Toth of the Los Angeles Times. (Published 7/1/90)

ON MAY 4, 1985 a small, balding man weighing less than 140 pounds emerged from his Brooklyn apartment at 100 Ocean Parkway and waited on the fifth floor for an elevator. He planned to take his daily trip to the famous Turkish health baths across the river on 10th Street in Manhattan -- but he never made it. Two assassins, one wearing a jogging suit and sunglasses, approached and shot him three times in the head with .22- and .25-caliber bullets.

It was like the 1930s, when Italian mobsters would riddle one another with machine-gun fire along city streets. This time, however, the mobster was a Russian Jewish emigre and Chicago was Brighton Beach.

Once considered untouchable, the dead man had built an empire as a professional killer, thief and master of extortion. He'd used his riches for fine clothing, the fast life and the acquisition of a nightclub-singer wife. His name was Evsei Agron, an ex-con who'd emigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union. On American soil, he became the king of the "Russian Mafia."

Brighton Beach -- "Little Odessa by the sea" -- has become home to 35,000 Russian refugees since 1979. The quaint community on the southern tip of Brooklyn is famous for its Atlantic Ocean boardwalk, its health baths, its nightclubs, its blintzes and its Old World food stands lined up under the elevated D-Train. Now an organized crime network is thriving there.

Some Americans find incongruous the idea of the mob flourishing in the Soviet Union. Still, while the vast majority of Russian Jews emigrate to avoid political and religious persecution, a small clique are already veteran criminals with a very special conception of the land of opportunity. In the Soviet Union, the black market appeals to those who are often denied access to more legitimate livelihoods. Transplant this experience to America -- with its free-market economy -- and you have endless opportunities for the creative criminal mind. "Here it's like being a kid in a candy store," says Laura Brevetti, former head of the organized crime task force in Brooklyn.

A recent tally places the Russian criminal population here at about 1,100. Specialists in the field say the emigre network extends to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami as well into some Canadian provinces. They say the Russians specialize in heroin importation from India and Thailand, cocaine exporting to Europe, counterfeiting, loan sharking, homicide, confidence scams and several varieties of fraud: Medicare, Medicaid, credit cards and welfare. The financial rewards are enormous. Russothugs, law enforcement officials say, have made well over $1 billion in bootlegging gasoline alone.

Mob profits have brought massive infusions of cash into Brighton, making it quite the bustling neighborhood. Real estate prices have skyrocketed, creating new economic opportunities for the community's numerous merchants. A few even consider the Russian mafia valued citizens. Ben Letterman, director of the Brighton Business Improvement District, is one of many who laud the new emigres. "So what we have the mafia here? The streets are clean," he says. "They do the same things that Milken and Boesky do. They're not bad people. Maybe we're crazy to work for an honest living."

This murky world has not gone unnoticed by prosecutors. Earlier this month, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York announced four indictments of members of what a press release called the "Soviet emigre criminal group." The stakes in those cases were relatively small: The four were charged with a jewelry scam that allegedly netted them several hundred thousand dollars. But U.S. Attorney Andrew J. Maloney said the investigation was continuing. He also promised that a separate, more far-reaching probe will result in the indictment of principals in Canada and the United States.

The known scams have ranged from ingenious to petty. For example, in February 1988, California's attorney general formed a task force that uncovered a scam involving medical insurance fraud costing companies $125 million. The operation was controlled by three Russian emigres in Los Angeles, who created over 100 paper companies for their cut-rate clinics to do simple exams of the patient, then billed insurance companies for more elaborate and expensive work. Other swindles were less ambitious: In New York, 13 shoe salesmen netted hundreds of thousands of dollars before being charged with grand larceny in November 1986. They sold inexpensive shoes to thousands of Medicaid recipients while charging the insurer for orthopedic shoes.

FBI special agents, police investigators and federal prosecutors say the Russian thugs have come to realize the value of making the right friends and have forged close ties to four of five nearby Italian mafia families. "It's a kissing cousin kind of thing," Maloney says. "This Russian emigre group is much more dynamic than your traditional group." But as the power of this extended family grows, low-level officials -- particularly police and prosecutors -- are becoming increasingly angered and despondent over what they perceive as the government's inadequate response. For example, disputes for control of key markets ended in 12 gangland-style assassinations from 1982 to May 1989; to date, none has been solved. "These Russians are starting out like the Black Hand Sicilians of the 1930s," said Joel Campanella, a recently retired intelligence division New York Police Department investigator with experience in tracking both the Italian and Russian mobs. "We in law enforcement are reactionary and always act after the fact."

Eric Seidel, the deputy chief of the rackets division in the Brooklyn district attorney's office, says the low priority given to fighting the Russian mob complicates the law enforcement effort. Since the Justice Department does not consider the Russian mob to be organized crime, it doesn't treat it with the seriousness that it reserves for more VIP criminals. "We have over 100 federal agents looking into John Gotti alone. We don't have a fraction of that for the Russians," says an FBI special agent who works in the bureau's Brooklyn/Queens organized crime task force. Laura Brevetti put it more bluntly: "They're not acceded the same seriousness that the Italians are. Anyone who says it's not organized crime is fooling himself and giving the Russians too restrictive a definition."

"The Italian mafia has a very definite form, structure and tradition that emerging groups just don't have," Brevetti added. "You just can't build the same type of organization that you could 70 years ago when organized crime was congealing. Now, with the Russians . . . it's a more ad hoc criminal organization." Maloney offered a similar assessment: "They're not organized in the old LCN {La Cosa Nostra} fashion. It's simply the guy with the brightest idea leads."

The lack of national interest in the Russothugs was dramatized by their omission from a congressional report on non-traditional organized crime submitted last fall to the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Groups that did make the grade include Colombian drug traffickers, Jamaican Posses, Chinese and Vietnamese gangs and Los Angeles' Bloods and Crips.

The report, which focuses on these groups' role in the drug trade, also failed to mention that the Russian mobsters are aggressively trying to get a piece of the narcotics action as well. Arrests of Russian "mules" carrying cocaine and heroin into the United States have become so commonplace, according to Maloney, that an FBI special agent -- William Moshella -- has been posted at John F. Kennedy International Airport to keep tabs on Russian mob activities.

Investigating the Russian mob has proved to be unusually difficult. "They are more secretive than the Italian mafia ever was," said reporter Boris Khurgin of New York's largest Russian-language daily, Novoye Russkoye Slovo. Infiltrating a tight-knit group that speaks Russian and has its own alien customs would be difficult in any circumstances. The problem is exacerbated in New York because of police procedure. One was a decision by the NYPD Intelligence Division to dismantle its covert criminal counterintelligence unit in the public security section -- a move prompted by concerns of a backlash over perceived police racism. The department also issued a regulation stating that the police can no longer maintain intelligence files on the basis of race or ethnicity. Moreover, the department last month lost its sole Russian-speaking detective, Peter Grenenko, who retired.

On a national level, the effectiveness of law enforcement isn't much better, but for entirely different reasons. Federal authorities and local police have slashed criminal law enforcement staffs and instead, even in the age of glasnost, opted for beefed up elite KGB spy-catching units.

Recently, the FBI requested that a handful of local law enforcement experts brief its counterintelligence specialists at the FBI training facility in Quantico, Va., about the Russian mafia. But as one participant put it, "I was happy that they cared, but all they wanted to discuss was the KGB."

The confusion became most apparent this October when the FBI placed an ad in Novoye Russkoye Slovo requesting help in tracking down KGB agents. The bureau, apparently, was unaware of police suspicions that a high-ranking staffer at the newspaper had ties to Soviet and Italian mobsters. Since the ad was placed, only a handful of informants tipped off the FBI. Alexandre Grant, editor of the 65,000-circulation paper, offers a theory: His readers feared a possible set-up.

Political considerations have also complicated law enforcement efforts to stem the flow of criminals from Russia. The White House, Congress and the State Department have consistently made emigration of Jewish refugees a high priority, particularly now that antisemitism in the Soviet Union appears to be on the rise. Recently, efforts have been made to direct Soviet Jews to Israel; yet between 1979 and 1989, over 172,000 Soviet Jews entered the United States. About 80,000 live in the New York area, 15,000 in Los Angeles and 8,000 in both Philadelphia and Boston.

"How do you as a policymaker stand up and say that the Soviet Union is oppressing its minorities and should let them go and then have us turn around and say we are being victimized by their criminals?" asked Laura Brevetti.

All this has been further complicated by the espionage question. Recent intelligence reports from Soviet emigre and law enforcement officials provide ample evidence that the KGB has sent to U.S. shores a number of emigres equipped with false passports. The KGB cynically places them among the Jewish refugee population to confuse Immigration and Naturalization Service agents; once in America, they spy on emigres and diplomats.

Natan Sharansky, the Soviet dissident, verified the KGB placement practice with a personal experience of his own. He told CIA debriefers that during his years of imprisonment, he met a professional con artist who said that the KGB had helped three of his friends get to America by obtaining for them exit visas for Israel. The three were not Jewish but were issued Jewish-stamped passports. Not only has Moscow sent us spies, but it has used the Jewish refugee flow to cleanse itself of undesirables -- many of whom were not Jewish. According to the March 1986 report by the President's Commission on Organized Crime, "a significant number of criminals were forced to leave Russia" for America.

Meanwhile, America's newest addition to Murder Inc. is honing its skills, moving into new markets at a remarkable clip. Glasnost, Americans are learning the hard way, has its downside, too.