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The Making of a Chechen Hitman
Russia’s best killers learned their skills fighting Moscow.
Borz (not his real name, for fairly obvious reasons) was in many ways the stock image of the wily Chechen of a certain age: a spry man in his indefinable sixties, with the weathered skin and deep wrinkles that spoke of a hard life and an outdoors one, at that. But he had a cheerful smile, a sparkling eye, and an energy to his speech and his movements that transformed him into someone younger, vital, unstoppable. He was also one of the most skillful and expensive contract killers in Moscow.
That made him a fine example of one of the most feared figures in the Russian underworld: the wild Chechen. Back in tsarist times, the Chechens’ skill and ferocity had been proverbial in Russian circles. Gen. Alexei Yermolov, imperial viceroy of the Caucasus, was especially exercised by this “bold and dangerous people,” and one of his staff officers admitted that “amidst their forests and mountains, no troops in the world could afford to despise them” for they were “good shots, fiercely brave, [and] intelligent in military affairs.” Their ability to hold their own against modern Russian firepower and numbers in the long and brutal Chechen wars of the 1990s burnished their image internationally.
What has earned less attention, however, is the distinctive role that Chechens have come to play in Russia’s vast criminal underworld. As many of Russia’s other gangs have successfully pursued ambitions of becoming political players and business empires, Chechens have focused on cornering their traditional market niche: the inflicting of severe violence.
I met Borz in a cafe in Sheremetyevo International Airport, of all places, which was still half-shrouded in tarpaulins as it went through a much-needed remodeling, in line with Moscow’s desire to slough off its dowdy Soviet image and look like a glittering Western capital. Earlier that day, a contact I knew well enough — and trusted — had called and told me there was someone I just had to meet.
Who? A Chechen, a professional assassin, who was thinking of retiring and happy to talk. An invitation to have a chat with a killer for hire is something that I find almost irresistible, but, on the other hand, my recondite area of research had taught me the value of being cautious to the point of paranoia. The airport cafe seemed the ideal venue for a meeting, somewhere not only very public, but also behind a screen of metal detectors and humorless security guards, watched over by cameras and prowled by sniffer dogs and their handlers.
As it was, Borz was the soul of congeniality. I was immediately reminded that, while most Chechens are Muslims, they typically bear their faith lightly and flexibly as he produced a bottle of vodka and insisted that we toast not only friendship and health, but also Mohammed, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. He proved delighted to talk, even as he deflected certain specific questions, and was a natural storyteller.
His stories were also polished from ample retelling and more than faintly hard to believe, so a few days later when I had the opportunity to mention his name and some of his claims to an officer from the Moscow Police’s main criminal investigations division, I was half expecting to be told that he was some Caucasus Walter Mitty canny enough to spin tales to keep a gullible Westerner buying drinks. The officer gave me a grave look. “Oh no, that’s all true. If anything, he probably didn’t spill the really big stories. He’s serious, a very serious man.”
In many ways, Borz’s tales outlined the very trajectory of the Chechens in recent decades and the ways whereby they became the most feared (and mythologized) players in the Russian underworld, not least through the effects of official Russian oppression. As he put it, “the Russians taught me to want to kill, and then they taught me how to do it well.”
Conquered by the Russian Empire in the 19th century, as it spread south into the mountainous Caucasus region, the Chechens have periodically rebelled when they have felt their masters were weakened or distracted. The Russians have brutally repressed them each time, crushing the forms of resistance but never managing to extinguish the desire. Joseph Stalin, true to form, adopted the most murderously comprehensive response in 1944 when the Chechens took advantage of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union to launch another series of uprisings. On Feb. 23 — coincidentally Red Army Day in the Soviet calendar — the Chechens, along with their ethnic cousins the Ingush, were ordered to report to local party centers.
This was the start of “Operation Lentil,” the forced deportation of two entire nations in which anything from a quarter to a half of the total population died. Stalin had them scattered across Siberia and Central Asia, and amongst the human flotsam were the newborn Borz and his family.
Borz’s sister died in the crowded but freezing railway carriage on the way. Guards simply hurled her body off the train when they stopped for the day’s count. The rest of the family made it to Bratsk in southwestern Siberia, where they were told to stay, on pain of a 25-year stretch in the Gulag. Borz, his older brother, and their parents scarcely made it through to the summer.
But they did survive, whatever it took. They took over a deserted and tumbledown hut, and they hunted and foraged outside the city for food. In 1947, Borz’s father managed to find work building the new Angarlag labor camp nearby. Ironically enough, the year his family’s exile was lifted, 1957, Borz volunteered to join the Soviet army, a decision he explained away with a shrug and a reference to it being “a man’s job.”
If nothing else, I imagine it was more rewarding than a hardscrabble life in Bratsk and less frustrating than the extensive campaign his family had to wage frustrate, which started with court cases and petitions to the local party and ended with threats and a burned-out car, in order to drive outthe Russian family that had taken over their farm back home.
Borz became a sniper and scout, and after 10 years in the ranks and with a sergeant’s stripes, returned home. He became a wheeler-dealer, an enforcer, graduating up to the local crime syndicate in Shali, Chechnya’s second city. As he put it, “Once I had found my family again, my brothers, we looked after each other. We fought, lived, and rose together.”
And they made the big time, in their own small way. He hand-waved his way over his intervening career, but, by the time I met him, he had moved from the local underworld on the far southern borderland through to becoming one of the most feared hitmen in Moscow. The deaths to his name were not as many as other figures such as Alexander Solonik, but as he himself stated with quiet pride, he was no torpedo, as a common hitman is called.
Instead, he specialized in high-risk, high-value targets: organized-crime figures, and usually senior ones at that. How much did someone have to pay him to have an enemy “ordered,” as the jargon has it? Borz wouldn’t say, but by my count he lived well on maybe one or two hits a year. The policeman who expressed such grudging awe of this “serious man” had rattled off a list of hits possibly attributable to Borz. Later rumor, though, suggested that some of them were actually carried out by his younger relatives, up-and-comers working his “franchise.”
Borz’s career exemplifies how the Chechens rose, united by the fierce loyalties of a dispossessed and persecuted minority, and characterized by tremendous hardiness and skill in the tradecraft of violence, such that they ended up preying not so much on ordinary Russians as on other gangs. Given how fiercely the Chechens would fight, those gangs would often rather pay them off than resist.
The Chechen criminals, often described as the Chechenskaya bratva or “Chechen brotherhood” (and occasionally Chechenskaya obshchina, “Chechen commune”), have no formal structure in common. They do represent a distinctive criminal subculture, though, holding itself apart from the mainstream Russian underworld. A characteristic mix of modern “branding” and bandit tradition means that they have such a powerful place in the Russian criminal imagination that now they are even a “franchise,” with local gangs not made up of Chechens competing to use their name.
Banditry and resistance are deeply ingrained within the Chechen national identity, not least in the traditional figure of the abrek, the honorable outlaw whose banditry is driven by righteous vendetta or a refusal to knuckle under before the crimes of the powerful. The abrek is a self-sufficient and wily figure, a Caucasus Robin Hood, who often gathers a gang of like-minded daredevils around him, raiding the rich, feeding the poor, protecting the weak, and dismaying the corrupt. While essentially mythological, the figure of the abrek still provides a degree of legitimacy to the modern gangster.
The Chechens’ failure to prosper in the same way as the other major networks also reflects their clear and conscious determination to buck the rest of the Russian underworld’s trend of diversification into business and politics. Most Chechen gangs have tended not to evolve beyond their core specialty: the use and threat of violence. Perhaps remaining true to their bandit roots, they continue to be heavily involved in extortion and protection racketeering. However, in many cases they have become in effect the “protection racketeers’ protection racketeer,” acquiring networks of client gangs (from any ethnic background) from whom they simply demand tribute on pain of gang warfare.
The police, often their competitors in the protection business, have guns and badges, but the Chechens have something far more terrifying at their disposal: guns and folklore. Russians are, in a way, victims of their own literature. Nineteenth-century works such as Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat and Aleksandr Pushkin’s Prisoner of the Caucasus imparted a sometimes admiring, sometimes horrified picture of the Chechen as a fierce primitive who would never shirk from a fight, an impression only solidified by their performance during the Chechen wars. As a result, there is a general assumption that, to quote one gang hanger-on, “you don’t mess with the Chechens. If you challenge them, even if they know they will lose, they will fight, and they’ll summon their brothers and their cousins and their uncles and keep fighting. Even if they are going to lose, they’ll fight just to bring you down, too. They are maniacs.”
There is a perverse bonus for the Chechens in being considered implacable, indomitable maniacs: It makes sense to cut a deal with them, even if the logic of force and connections would seem not to be to their advantage. This actually has made Chechen-related gang violence less common since the mid-1990s, for the very reason that people are disinclined to challenge them.
The efficiency and ruthlessness of the Chechens has given them a powerful “brand name.” So too has their perceived honor. As one of their victims put it: A lot of people are afraid of the Chechens, but they are very good people when you get to know them. They are loyal. They don’t double-cross you, and they are honest people. … They can do anything. If I needed a driver’s license, tomorrow they would bring me a new license. If I needed legal help, or someone to fix a problem with my apartment, they can help out too. They are really serious people.”
Honest, serious, loyal, able to do anything — what’s not to love? Since the late 1990s, this image has increasingly been “franchised” to other gangs, many of which contain no Chechens and may even be entirely made up of Slavs. By being able to claim that they “work with the Chechens” (this is the usual expression) and thus can, if necessary, call on their support, gangs acquire considerable additional authority.
Victims who might otherwise consider resisting their extortion are more likely to pay, rival gangs are less likely to encroach on their turf, and even law enforcers might think twice about taking them on. In return, the gang pays a cut of its proceeds and subordinates itself to the nearest influential Chechen godfather, who may call on it for services in the future. In this respect, the Chechens, for all their traditionalism, have truly joined the modern market.
This article was adapted from Mark Galeotti’s new book, Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia.