Last month, a Siberian gang leader accused of dozens of murders was unexpectedly given a prison sentence. Could it be that Russia is finally getting to grips with organised criminality? There is more to this case than meets the eye, says Aleksei Tarasov
At the same as two Siberian oligarchs were fighting an expensive battle in London’s High Court, sharing out some of their ill-gotten gains with the British legal establishment, a parallel court drama was unfolding back home, in Krasnoyarsk. On trial was a man who might easily have become as rich or famous as Oleg Deripaska or Mikhail Chernoy, had he only had a bit more luck in the bitter and bloody Aluminium Wars played out in the 1990s.
In a strange verdict that turned heads for differing reasons, the Krasnoyarsk Court eventually sentenced Vladimir Tatarenkov, a 58-year old recidivist known as ‘Tatarin’ [‘the Tatar’], to thirteen and a half years imprisonment in a penal colony. Putting it a different way, they gave one of Russia’s most cynical and ruthless gangsters — a man suspected of being behind dozens of murders — a sentence roughly equivalent to punishment for repeat burglary. Throughout the entire trial, there was no mention of the bloody massacres that so traumatised the region during the 1990s. With one exception: the double murder that ‘Tatarin’ was eventually sent down for.
This all seemed somewhat strange to the assembled observers, who recalled how the General Procurator’s office had publicly stated that they had clear evidence of Tatarenkov's involvement in a criminal group, his mob activities and role in seven murders. The observers had been told to expect nothing short of a life sentence.
Business is war
Tatarenkov is a figure of almost legendary renown in Krasnoyarsk Krai. In the 1990s, he headed up a team of assassins, who worked across the regions of Krasnoyarsk, Khakassia and Moscow, tirelessly removing his own personal enemies and those of his good friend, the influential politician and businessman Anatoly Bykov. Bykov in those days enjoyed the informal title of ‘Shadow mayor of Krasnoyarsk’; today, his influence has been legalised, and he enjoys the more sanitised title of MP in the regional parliament.
‘Tatarenkov’s assassins usually worked for free. No one, it seems, made money on the contract killings. Daily life was generally wretched, spent in cheap hostels, with the only perks being free grub in the cafe and prostitutes. They also each got a gun and a motor.’
The phrase ‘business is war’ may have become trite from overuse, but this phrase is certainly the most appropriate cover note to Tatarenkov’s life story. Tatarenkov, who had set his sights on profits from the Sayanogorsk Aluminium Smelter (SAZ), did not flinch from sending killers out to do his work. His people often worked in broad daylight, showering victims with bullets, filling the streets with blood and terrorising passers by (‘Look what a big machine gun the man has’, one case note records a young girl saying to her mother, as they returned from play-school). There was an atmosphere of fear and panic among ordinary people; when questioned by police, witnesses would keep a deathly silence.
All Tatarenkov’s assassins were residents of either Sayanogorsk or Minusinsk, born in either 1970 or 1971 (the one exception being a officer-paratrooper, born in 1966). The killers would often practise boxing and body-building together. Those who lived in Minusinsk would mess around in the city’s markets, issuing permits to traders and generally getting involved in petty commerce. From what we know, the men were from ordinary families and the majority of them had served in the army. Two had previous convictions, though for trivial offences. What is particularly interesting, however, is that they usually worked as Tatarenkov’s executioners for free. No one, it seems, made money on the contract killings. Daily life was generally wretched, spent in cheap hostels, with the only perks being free grub in the cafe and prostitutes. They also each got a gun and a motor.
Ultimately, ‘Tatarin’ was unable to follow in the footsteps of his friend and patron Bykov. As Bykov consolidated his position at the helm of the Krasnoyarsk Aluminium Smelter (KrAZ) in 1994, a series of events saw the godfather of Sayanogorsk forced to withdraw from his battle with the Chernoy brothers and Oleg Deripaska for control of the Sayanogorsk Aluminium Smelter (SAZ). During the summer and autumn of 1994, structures owned the Chernoy brothers obtained a controlling stake in the SAZ plant, and in November 1994 they implemented a change in management. 26-year old Oleg Deripaska become the chief executive of the plant, and Vladimir Lisin was made Chairman of the board. Both, of course, would later break free of the brothers’ control and become oligarchs in their own right.
‘Tatarin’ was unable to follow in the footsteps of his friend and patron Bykov. As Bykov consolidated his position at the helm of the Krasnoyarsk Aluminium Smelter (KrAZ), the godfather of Sayanogorsk was forced to withdraw from his battle with the Chernoy brothers and Oleg Deripaska for control of the Sayanogorsk Aluminium Smelter (SAZ)’
Having lost SAZ, ‘Tatarin’ was forced to join a number of his hit-men on the run. Some of these associates were eventually caught, others found dead and yet others are still on Interpol list. Occasionally, ‘Tatarin’ would make an attempt to crawl out from hiding, issuing thinly-veiled threats to Deripaska like ‘have you chosen the colour of your tombstone yet, Oleg?’, but to little effect. ‘Tatarin’s’ power had faded. As they said in the Godfather, ‘your enemies always get strong on what you leave behind’.
In 1997, ‘Tatarin’s’ ‘Aluminium foot soldiers’ were one by one sentenced in Krasnoyarsk. Given a slightly different chain of events, some of them could easily have found themselves on the board of the Sayanogorsk Aluminium Smelter.
Skeletons in the cupboard
That ‘Tatarin’ would become a fugitive criminal while his associate Bykov became one of the richest and most influential people in Russia, is in large part explained by the fact that ‘Tatarin’ came to be seen as a secret weapon to use against Bykov. If Bykov dug his heels in and refused to yield some business, or began exercising inappropriate political ambitions, he would be reminded of his former colleague, the master executioner, ready to plunge the proverbial knife into him at any minute.
In reality, ‘Tatarin’ never said anything particularly intelligible or incriminating against his one-time friend. Indeed, he eventually refused to give any evidence against him.
The first time ‘Tatarin’ was harassed was in 1999, which was when Bykov’s competitors had tried to wrest some of his energy and metal holdings from him. These competitors first managed to get the police authorities to arrest Bykov; this led to the arrest of ‘Tatarin’, just a little while later, in August 1999 (as if there hadn’t been a five year search for him previously). When ‘Tatarin’ was detained, he was wearing underpants and a tee-shirt, having been walking along a beach in Komotini, a city in northeastern Greece.
Tatarenkov had just left a hotel he had purchased in March 1997 for 1.5 million dollars. Half of that sum was his own money, the other half came from Bykov and a comrade named Gennady Druzhinin. By 1999, Bykov had already removed Druzhinin from ownership, and had promised to transfer his own rights to ‘Tatarin’. However, three days before that deal (a meeting had already been arranged in Germany), ‘Tatarin’ was arrested. Greek authorities found an impressive stockpile of arms in the hotel, and imprisoned him for 14 years and 4 months. ‘Tatarin’ had always had a weakness for anything that went ‘bang’.
There was a twist. Literally on the eve of his arrest, ‘Tatarin’ had recorded a home video, accusing Bykov of ordering the killing of various criminal bosses and businessmen. He had been encouraged to do so by intermediaries, who had convinced him that Bykov was out to destroy his past, a plan which supposedly included him. The film was meant to act as a security.
From prison in Patras, ‘Tatarin’ repeated his video message in written evidence to Russian security officials, and he also handed over his archive to investigators.
‘Tatarin’ wrote a letter addressed to Bykov: ‘Dear Anatoly Petrovich. I have prepared a number of texts and videos which dish the dirt on how you’ve lived the last few years, about how much blood has been spilt so you could get to where you are today. Have you forgotten how many people died — perhaps not by your own hand, but on your orders? You have forgotten? Let me remind you. There was Chistyakov, Lyapa, Siny, Tolmach and Sasha Petka. In Minusinsk, we had Terekhov and Loban. In Sayanogorsk - Shorin, in Moscow - Sergey Skorobogatov, the guy from Nazarov. In Nazarov itself we did away with Oleg Gubin. Skorobogatov and Gubin were well-known in Nazarov. Your voters might be surprised to learn who they had voted for. Murderers have never been received too kindly by people on the street. And you have an impeccable record in this respect — enough points on the board to warrant life imprisonment. I’ve documented everything I write here, by the way. I’ve checked my facts and the evidence is safe with reliable people.’
‘Tatarin’ continued in another letter sent to a comrade: ‘I want Bykov to know that if I am suddenly hit by lightning, documents will soon start flying out of fax machines at newspapers in Russia and outside Russia. I’ve made many copies of the videos and they will be sent to TV companies, including foreign ones. There’s no way of finding out who I’ve entrusted with the information: I’ve thought really carefully about this. I was a true friend to Bykov, but I don’t like it when people betray me. I’m not bluffing. [...] I can hold my tongue, but you shouldn’t leave me without a choice. All I’m asking is that you leave me alone’
The letter was made public by one of Bykov’s adversaries, the then-governor of Krasnoyarsk Alexander Lebed’. But the timing of the publication had all the hallmarks of a coordinated attack led by Oleg Deripaska. Around that time, Deripaska had acquired control over the Krasnoyarsk Aluminium Smelter, yet Bykov held a blocking share. Never and nowhere has Deripaska tolerated dual power, so it could be assumed he was trying to force Bykov to retreat.
Poet in residence
And so ‘Tatarin’ was brought back to his native lands to act as a witness in a criminal case against Bykov. As investigators collected their evidence, ‘Tatarin’ was held in a tiny cell at Krasnoyarsk Detention Centre No. 1 with another five suspects. Beds were three tall constructions of metallic tubes and panels; the toilet was a corner of the room papered over with torn, coloured plastic bags. ‘Tatarin’ was for a little while placed in ‘Cell 53’, a cell known as ‘The Bunker’, which has no table because there is no room for it (meals are instead eaten sitting on the floor). He was escorted from the detention centre for interrogation in a bullet-proof vest.
‘In prison, ‘Tatarin’ began writing about his ‘gnawing pain and anguish’. A little balder and a little greyer, ‘Tatarin’ had turned into a nervous, insecure baby. He had become the crying cannibal.’
In prison, ‘Tatarin’ took a religious turn, and began to write poetry. He wrote about what seemed to be uppermost in his mind:
‘As I boy, I was fond of serious metalware,
So growing up was razor-quick
And in place of a penknife blade,
Under my arm I carried Madam pistol’
Tatarenkov’s fascination with arms was an obsession (when the Sayanogorsk Aluminium Smelter ‘opera’ achieved its conclusion, and ‘Tatarin’’s gang was smashed, a stash of more than two tonnes of various firearms and ammunition was found in one of ‘Tatarin’’s garages). His love for guns was matched only by his passion for money: he would make little houses from wads of cash, crawl into them and lie there for hours on end, thrilled by the smell of it all.
But back in prison, ‘Tatarin’ began writing about his ‘gnawing pain and anguish’. A little balder and a little greyer, ‘Tatarin’ had turned into a nervous, insecure baby. He had become the crying cannibal.
Whether by mistake or a deliberate ‘blunder’, ‘Tatarin’ was held in the same prison as Bykov. Soon enough, ‘Tatarin’ began to retract his incriminating video testimonies. As there was little new in his ‘revelations’, ‘Tatarin’ was able to say that he had used newspaper publications to construct a smear job on Bykov. ‘Tatarin’ then wrote a letter to the district parliament. In it, he claimed he was being forced to give evidence against Bykov, and that he was being intimidated. He alleged that he had been offered offered two million dollars to provide incriminating evidence in court.
And so ‘Tatarin’ was sent back to his Greek prison, and Bykov was allowed to continue his business and his political career.
At various points during the intervening years people back in Siberia would remember about Tatarenkov’s existence and begin talk about possible new extradition. This happened, coincidentally, every time ‘Bykov’s bloc’ (or however it was named at the time) threatened a victory at regional or municipal elections. The Kremlin’s party ‘United Russia’ frequently ran worried: Bykov beat them every time by a margin of 3:1. Perhaps they shouldn’t have worried too much, No matter what promises were made, Bykov and his team would be no different from the ‘United Russia’ team, once in office.
The Russian process
One day, out of the blue, ‘Tatarin’ telephoned through to Krasnoyarsk with an offer to testify against Bykov. ‘Up until the very end they promised my wife and me freedom and that she would be allowed to stay in Greece. But she is being deported to Russia. She has been held in Komotini prison for three weeks now, sharing a prison cell with men. They rape women there. The only reason she hasn’t been touched yet is because people have been warned that she is my wife.’
‘Tatarenkov received a lesser sentence for dual murder than he had in Greece for the much less serious offences of holding firearms and forging documents. But perhaps the fact he was given even a lenient sentence was surprising in itself.’
It would appear that it was indeed the circumstances of Tatarenkov’s civil wife Galina Tselyak that compelled the Sayanogorsk godfather to start talking. He told prosecutors how ‘Little Tolik’ had personally shot the boss of the Red Ravine casino in Krasnoyarsk in 1993. ‘Little Tolik’ was the nickname of Bykov’s then bodyguard Anatoly Koldev, who was later made a director of the Krasnoyarsk Aluminium Plant (and subsequently emigrated to the USA). This was sweet revenge for ‘Tatarin’. When Koledov heard about ‘Tatarin’’s Greek sentence of 14 years and 4 months, he was reported to have shrugged and said to ‘Tatarin’’s lawyer ‘C’est la vie’. That is, as if no gentlemen's agreements had been made made. ‘Tatarin’ promised to get in touch again in two to three weeks to give more details. Though this did not happen, The authorities had, it seemed, resolved outstanding issues they had with Bykov amicably, without need for recourse to their Greek anti-irritant medicine.
Tatarenkov was transferred to Russia once he had served the majority of his sentence in Greece. On his return, and despite all the loud pronouncements of the law enforcement agencies, he was charged only with one double murder. He received a lesser sentence than he had in Greece for the much less serious offences of holding firearms and forging documents. But perhaps the fact he was given even a lenient sentence was surprising in itself. Many believed ‘Tatarin’ would be released, and representatives of the authorities and law enforcement agencies did little to discourage this expectation.
In the end, ‘Tatarin’ was convicted of the 1994 murder of Alexander Naumov and Kirill Voitenko, but the judge threw out the charge of murder in relation to the Moscow criminal boss Vladmir Mustafin (Mustafy) because of procedural violations committed during his extradition from Greece (Russian prosecutors forgot to document the episode and submit a report). Charges of setting up a criminal gang and engaging in organised crime were also thrown out, owing to the time that had lapsed.
Tatarenkov himself received the verdict impassively and announced his intention to appeal. ‘I am ready to contest any accusations I cannot accept’, he said. ‘Naumov was killed by a policeman, who was aiming for someone else, but missed and killed Naumov himself. And Bakurov has already been tried and sentenced to life for the crime. I’m being framed for a murder I didn’t commit’
Sergei Bakurov was indeed the first of ‘Tatarin’s’ hitmen to be arrested by police after the shootout in central Krasnoyarsk. Bakurov could consider himself a little unfortunate to have been caught. A local private security firm reacted to the sound of gunfire, not knowing how influential the gunmen’s patrons were. When the time came, it was already too late for these patrons to get involved: police investigators had long taken away the gang’s bloody evidence.
The court records of Bakurov’s evidence in 1997 make interesting reading. I reproduce an edited excerpt, starting on page 155 of the judgment.
‘Bakurov started work as a retailer in a firm called Gaiana [where Tatarenkov worked as a forwarding agent - A.T.] After returning from military service, his friend Yuri Kochurin also began to work there. Although Bakurov and Kochurin did not think of themselves as Tatarenkov’s bodyguards, they did look after his security, accompanying him home. They took particularly special precautions after a grenade was thrown into Tatarenkov’s apartment. Bakurov has stated that during his work in Gaiana, he got to know people from Bykov’s gang, who were also known to Tatarenkov.
Bakurov had meetings with Bykov himself, when he came to Sayanogorsk from Krasnoyarsk to meet Tatarenkov and when Bakurov himself travelled with Tatarenkov to Krasnoyarsk. People from Tatarenkov’s team socialised with people from Bykov’s team; relations were generally friendly. Bakurov discovered that an attempt had been made to kill Bykov in Krasnoyarsk. Bakurov, Tatarenkov and the rest of the gang found out almost immediately, since Tatarenkov received a phone call a few moments after the attack, describing how a mine had exploded under Bykov’s car, that Bykov himself had not been hurt, and that there were two assailants. At about midday on either 17 or 18 August, Tatarenkov came to Sayanogorsk market, took Bakurov to one side and said that he’d found out who carried out the attack, naming Kirill Voitenko and a Sasha who went by the nickname ‘Petka’ (whose real name, it later transpired, was Alexander Naumov).
Bykov had himself incorporated Voitenko and Naumov into his gang, and had included them in many aspects of his business. This meant they would not be easily identifiable as suspects, and could keep good relations with his people. Nobody expected Voitenko and Naumov to stoop to such a dirty trick, and for Tatarenkov this meant just one thing — they needed to be removed. So Tatarenkov turned to Bakurov. There were a number of reasons why Tatarenkov felt Bakurov was a good candidate to carry out the job. He knew Bakurov was friendly with Bykov and his gang. He knew Bakurov was vulnerable because of family problems — he had left his home to his wife and was forced to live and sleep wherever he could. He knew that Bakurov was also incensed by Voitenko and Naumov’s treachery. Tatarenkov was also unable to ask Bykov’s people to do the job, since Voitenko and Naumov had practically become part of their gang. Bakurov agreed easily enough. And Bakurov knew where Naumov lived, because it was the same block that many of Bykov’s men also lived in.
The judgment goes on to explain how Bakurov was taken to Krasnoyarsk and given a machine gun, how he followed his victims, and how he shot them. The judicial committee came to the conclusion that the murder was initiated and organised by Tatarenkov, who considered it necessary to avenge the assassination attempt on Bykov. It is curious, however, that Bykov wasn’t asked about this episode or his role in it. Bakurov’s accomplice Chuchkov is still officially a wanted man, although according to our information, he was killed near Novosibirsk.
Some have come to view the current case as an possible indication that the authorities are beginning to get serious about punishing organised criminals, but this seems too fanciful. The current sentence is most probably of no great significance in its own right; it should instead be viewed as a signal aimed at Bykov. Just a month previously, Bykov had announced his intention to create a new party in Krasnoyarsk in preparation for next year’s municipal elections. He said that he already had party lists 100 names long, many of whom were young people: ‘We will put forward my candidature for governor’ he said (he often referred to himself using the royal ‘we’). ‘I will keep my word. People ask me why I haven’t put myself forward for the mayor’s job? My answer is, will you support me for governor? In what way am I any worse than Abramovich? Why is it OK for him, but not for Bykov?!’
It is unlikely the Presidential Administration back in Moscow will have been too happy with the scenario that Bykov had painted for them.
The current verdict was clearly the result of numerous backroom agreements. ‘Tatarin’ did not get a life sentence, but he will do some time. The government wants to keep business and local politics under its own control. And it has in its box of tricks this unhappy man-eater-in-limbo to call on at any time it needs a bit of extra help.