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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Unmasking Russia's Crime Gangs

Andrei Tereshonok looks like the stereotypical Russian mobster. Gold caps on his upper teeth and steely grey-blue eyes below his short blond hair suggest this is a man who does not suffer fools gladly. He favors black pin-striped suits, preferably double-breasted, with a black shirt and a black tie to cover his tall, thick frame. Peeking out from between the cuffs of his pants and his black shoes is the true mark of the television mobster: a pair of white socks. But looks can be deceiving. Tereshonok is an agent of the Federal Counterintelligence Service, the former KGB, which specializes in penetrating organized crime. In a new book called "Criminal Godfathers: Thrust to Power," he offers readers a unique glimpse into the KGB's operations inside the criminal underground. "I'm a professional with a very complex biography," he said last week. "Yet they considered me a normal person." Writing with magazine journalist Georgy Podlesskikh, Tereshonok traces the beginning of modern organized crime in the U.S.S.R. to the late 1970s. He credits the KGB for waking up the nation to the problem at a time when Leonid Brezhnev's interior minister proudly boasted that the organized crime that had arisen in the wake of World War II had ended in the 1950s. Yet by the late 1970s, criminal gangs "had an influence in some regions as strong as that of state organs," according to the book. Acknowledging that organized crime -- the blight of capitalism -- was everywhere from Moscow to the country's outer regions was no easy pill for the Soviet leadership to swallow. The Interior Ministry resisted these KGB reports and was especially irritated by accusations that the Soviet Union's police forces were riddled with corruption, the book states. Tereshonok's role in unmasking organized crime is unclear, as he creates a fictional composite character in the book, Captain Malyshev, to serve as his hero in what is supposed to be a non-fiction book. Even at a press conference launching the book, Tereshonok declined to discuss his operational activities and seemed surprised that anyone even asked. The most startling revelation in "Criminal Godfathers: Thrust to Power" comes in details of a criminal plot to kill Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev because he made it harder for organized crime to divide up spoils. "Gorbachev's perestroika, which started in March 1985, had taken the criminal world by surprise," he writes. "Self-financed enterprises received the right to control their profits," and crime gangs lost several sources of income. Captain Malyshev foils the 1986 assassination plot, leading to the would-be killer's imprisonment in Matrosskaya Tishina prison. From there the alleged assassin is said to have disappeared for ever. The KGB's agents also concluded that the U.S.S.R's crime godfathers sought not only money, but power. Their primary instrument of influence was big bribes, the KGB found. The book even mentions a congress of godfathers held in 1982 in Tbilisi, Georgia, where capturing political power in the U.S.S.R. was discussed. The book ends with a most unusual list: Russia's 226 leading crime bosses, 50 of whom operate in Moscow, collected by secret agents in the KGB and the Interior Ministry. Most are said to come from the Caucasus. As with most of the book's information, it is hard to know how much of this to believe. For Russia's businesspeople, the most useful information may come in the author's practical suggestions, such as what to do if racketeers come to you to demand protection money. One suggestion -- to follow at your own risk, of course -- is to appeal to the godfather who rules the person threatening you. The other is perhaps a disturbing caution. Without the proper connections, the authors advise, do not even consider going to the police.