Isaac Babel’s Odessa Tales—1920s stories following the misadventures of the fictional Jewish gangster Benya Krik—codified the lifeblood of Odessa’s famous criminality into literature. The gangster funeral has always been an important set piece in that mythic world. Babel’s story “How Things Were Done in Odessa” charts the entrée of the man who would become the king of the Odessa gangsters on his climb to the top of the pyramid. In the tale, a robbery gone awry concludes with one of Benya’s henchmen shooting a clerk and revolves around the machinations over who pays for—and profits from—the clerk’s funeral. Now, in a tale straight out of Babel, the possible passing of Odessa’s main underworld mafia boss, Aleksandr Anatolevich Angert, universally known as “the Angel,” has launched a thousand conspiracy theories and thrown both legitimate and illegitimate political arrangements in the city and in the nation into turmoil.
Angert is (or was) considered to be the “don of dons” of the Odessa mafia, a position that placed him at the center of multiple concentric circles of organized crime, the oil business, shipping, banking, drug- and gun-running, and political influence. It also offered control over assets and financial flows spanning the length of Europe from Moscow to London, whose total valuation runs into the billions of dollars. The compulsively secretive Angert, who is known to hold various European passports as well as Venezuelan and Israeli citizenship, has spent the last few years living quietly in London with the full knowledge of the British authorities and intelligence agencies. Significantly, one of Angert’s major business partners is the reputed mafioso Alexander Zhukov, the father of Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art Director Dasha Zhukova, the current wife of London-based Russian-Jewish billionaire Roman Abramovich. Zhukov and Angert have both been implicated in crimes in Italy, but neither has ever been convicted.
In 1979, while he was still in his mid-20s, Angert was convicted of premeditated murder and sentenced to a 15-year prison sentence. Serving ten, he was paroled and upon his release in 1990, he began his ascent of the ladder of the Odessa crime syndicates. The dissolution of the Soviet Union saw the same sort of bloody street fighting between armed thugs in Odessa and the same sort of gangland-style executions in broad daylight as happened in other post-Soviet cities. Within several years and after a struggle, “the Angel” had, according to reported conversations with those active at the time, bested men with sobriquets such as “Karabas” and “Katsap.” Odessa’s mafia wars concluded as a hierarchy was instituted and spoils were distributed.
Angert swiftly expanded his underworld mastery into political influence and diversified into any number of businesses. In the mid-1990s he came into concerted conflict with Odessa’s legendary and colorful Jewish mayor Eduard Gurwits (Hurvits), who served from 1994–1998 and 2005–2010, and was cheated out of a third term.
Though it is well known that Angert has been battling an illness, perhaps cancer, for at least a year, the rumors of his demise have set off preparations for the bloody battles that are likely to split the Ukrainian underworld. Yet while numerous obituaries have already appeared in local Odessa and national Ukrainian media, the question of whether the man who has sat atop Odessa organized crime since the early 1990s has actually died remain unanswered as of press time. Ukrainian intelligence operatives and political sources have yet to provide a definitive answer on whether the shadowy figure, of whom there allegedly exists only one known public photograph, has actually expired.
The current mayor of Odessa, Gennadiy Trukhanov, is widely considered to be a protégé of Angert, and the mayor has never denied the intimate relationship between the two men. A bald and chiseled former army officer in his fifties, Trukhanov is the patron of a chain of kickboxing clubs all over the city. Mayor Trukhanov has been widely implicated in a variety of legal and illegal businesses. Bank accounts of offshore companies connected to him as well as photocopies of his Russian passport were the most prominent Ukrainian revelations to have come out of the publication of the Panama Papers.
According to Ukrainian and several foreign-intelligence officials, Angert relied on the young sporty men that Trukhanov’s kickboxing clubs produced, as well veterans of the Afghanistan war, as enforcers. Though they are skeptical of Trukhanov and view him as a potential separatist and a front man for figures connected to Russian intelligence agencies, the Ukrainian presidential administration seemed to have come to an arrangement with the mayor, thus ensuring that he remain on the Ukrainian side in exchange for being allowed to remain in power, a deal that played out within the context of widespread latent separatist feeling present in the majority Russian-speaking region.
Over the past two years Angert, Trukhanov, and the old Odessa regime essentially broke former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s attempts to reform and root out corruption in the city.
Saakashvili had been the appointed governor of the Odessa region for 18 months from May 2015 until his flamboyant resignation from the post in order to move to Kiev to continue his assault on entrenched political forces and his quest for political power. Saakashvili was sent to the region in the context of widely held latent pro-Russian and separatists feelings held by many Odessans and a year after fighting at and conflagration at Trade Union Houses killed about 50 citizens of the city. During the September 2015 mayoral elections, Saakashvili attempted quixotically to wrest control of the mayoralty from the mafia clans by running one of his deputies, Sasha Borovik in the mayoral election. In his fiery populist speeches aimed at mobilizing the progressive elements in the city for a frontal assault, Saakashvili had held rallies in which he publicly denounced both mayor Trukhanov and Angert as bandits.
“This Angert! … Only in Odessa do they refer to the devil as an angel!” Saakashvili would thunder to the ecstatic crowds.
Still, Saakashvili’s attempts to replicate a Euromaidan-style revolution in Odessa would invariably founder. Pragmatic, mercantile, and essentially apolitical, Odessa was simply interested in business as usual. The 2015 elections would turn out to be among the most dishonest in the history of the Ukrainian state. The projected second round of the elections, to which the pro-West/progressive camp was projected to advance, never took place, in the wake of widespread voting irregularities. I was a member of The Committee for Open Democracy’s international election monitoring mission during the election, which was led by the Kiev-based American political operative and analyst Brian Mefford.
Instead, the international media filled up with news that a candidate named Darth Vader was running for office under the aegis of his own political party (this was done to disrupt and split the vote, and in fact Darth Vader’s man had been appointed to be the head of the city electoral commission) and that Chewbacca had been arrested while illegally campaigning. Trukhanov’s bodyguard, a 25-year-old kickboxing champion who had legally changed his name to “Emperor Palpantine,” was elected to the city council. “You must inform the Americans, and the international public of the plight of Chewbacca!” the muscular goon instructed me impudently, as we watched his votes being tallied at 2 in the morning.
Mefford, the premiere non-Ukrainian expert on Ukrainian electoral policy, penned the definitive summarization of that criminally-flawed election in which he aptly predicted that it would be viewed by historians as Saakashvili’s Waterloo:
Smelling victory close at hand, Trukhanov’s team went for the jugular with the blessing of Odessa’s top criminal authority Aleksandr “the Angel” Angert. Trukhanov, the Angel, and Russian businessman Aleksandr Zhukov are business partners on multiple ventures. By stealing a first round victory and breaking the “deal” with Saakashvili, the Georgian team was caught flat-footed. Thus, as a key Saakashvili ally said the day after the election, “war has begun.”
Indeed, after the elections, an enraged Saakashvili would mostly lose all interest in governing Odessa and began spending ever more time in Kyiv and building a political movement around the country. Hereto having concentrated his fire on Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, he now began openly attacking the presidential administration. He essentially declared total war against almost every political player in Ukrainian politics. “Bankova,” named for the street in Kiev on which the presidential administration is located, was understandably wary of allowing Saakashvili to grasp too much power in the region, which he would inevitably use as his regional power base for seizing power in Kiev. Though he would continue on as governor for another year before stepping down from the post, Saakashvili accused President Poroshenko’s administration of collusion with Trukhanov. Saakashvili would eventually begin accusing the president’s loyalists and the president himself of corruption. By the end of his tenure, a clearly frustrated Saakashvili began to succumb to his populist impulses, and a month before his resignation, his press secretary threatened me with a lawsuit, with him himself lashing out at me with a defensive post on Facebook after I pointed out his troubling behavior in relation to a scandal involving Roma in Foreign Policy magazine.
I interviewed Saakashvili in his Odessa Regional administration office in early November of 2015—he served me tea with lemon as we sat on low couches under a bust of President Ronald Reagan that he had installed in the office. As Saakashvili had by that point earned a reputation for stamping deals with various shady Odessa characters to advance his agenda, I inquired whether he had ever met with Angert personally. Saakashvili assured me that he had not. Hinting at Angert’s nebulous nature he also claimed that he did not even know what the Mafioso looked like.
When I asked him point-blank if he thought that there had been a deal brokered by the (then acting) powerful head of the presidential administration Boris Lozhkin and the Odessa mafia clan to allow Trukhanov to take the elections in the first round, Saakashvili said, “I do not know of any such deal in particular.”
Yet any deal struck between the local elites and the presidential administration is now likely to have been called off, as President Poroshenko’s loyal enforcer and fixer Igor Kononenko has, according to intelligence sources, engaged in direct conflict with Angert. Kononenko has been accused by both Ukrainian officials and foreign experts of continuing to generate money in an illicit manner with utter impunity under the cover of his legal immunity as an MP from Poroshenko’s “Solidarity” fraction. Kononenko is a deputy chief of the president’s party, known as a “gray cardinal,” and was also mentioned in the Panama Papers. Over the last few months, Oleksandr Onyshchenko, a Ukrainian parliamentarian who is now a fugitive in London in other parts of Europe, has publicly accused Kononenko of being part of a scheme to bribe lawmakers as well as extort from state companies. The presidential administration has vigorously denied those allegations. It should be noted that President Poroshenko, has according to the commentary of multiple American and European diplomatic sources who have spoken to Tablet on condition of anonymity, refused innumerable Western entreaties and threats to sack his army buddy Kononenko.
The well-known English language blogger on Ukrainian security matters Nick Holmov (he is also a contributing columnist to my magazine, The Odessa Review) has explained that “a weak or dead Angel naturally makes Trukhanov weaker, and opens up a succession issue which would create questions over the ownership of some prime assets and their future.”
According to a highly-placed intelligence source who tracks these connections, Angert, through his control of the Odessagaz company, had spent years to get to the point where he could decide to file for bankruptcy of the Odessa CHP—the Odessa regional thermal power plant. A large portion of the debt of Odessa CHP is owned by Odessagaz—which would proceed to take over Odessa CHP as part of any debt settlement. Taken in conjunction with Odessa CHP control by the Odessagaz company (another unresolved issue in the wake of Angert leaving the scene), ownership of both utilities would have constituted a regional energy monopoly and would provide its owners with considerable political clout within both the city and the region.
The individual or entity that controls the majority of the Odessa CHP debt will be in a position to controls its future when it inevitably declares bankruptcy. That individual was supposed to be Angert. However, in December of last year, Kononenko stepped in to purchase a majority of the Odessa CHP debts, and thus placed himself in the position of arbitrating the future of the CHP. These were the same debts that Angert had been accumulating in order to seize the plant as payment for his debts, according to the intelligence source.
In January, Igor Kononenko was diagnosed with acute mercury poisoning. More than 50 times the normative amount of mercury was found present in his bloodstream. Any insight on whether the poisoning of Kononenko constituted an act of retribution can only be speculative in nature.
Holmov added that “if Angert is still alive and aware that this loss to Kononenko may be viewed as the Don losing his grip, then a loyalty test may have been decided upon. If this was indeed a “barium meal” to flush out disloyal elements within his organization, floating the rumor of his early demise would identify those that would make associated plays for assets.”
If indeed Angert is with the other sorts of angels, and thus actually no longer with us, and the announcement of his death is not merely a stratagem to flush out disloyal members of his coterie, the death augurs a wholesale realignment within Ukrainian (and also Russian) mafia hierarchies. Conflicts will now most likely erupt over the control of arms smuggling, black market counterfeiting, skimmed port duties, as well over the contraband that flows through the port and control over billions of dollars in business assets.
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Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.