GANGSTERS NEED SUNSHINE TOO
As you might imagine, gangsters want to come to the US also, and to travel they need US visas. Gangsters especially like Miami Beach. As soon as I started to work as chief of the non-immigrant visa section at the US Consulate St. Petersburg in early 2005 I started to encounter gangsters on the visa line; they were generally pretty easy to spot amongst the otherwise dreary and unkempt lines of babushkas wanting to visit their grandkids.
My first encounter was with that classic from the Hollywood gangster movies of the 1920’ and 30’s: the gun moll (or gangster’s companion or mobster’s whore, depending on your taste).
Veka Razkolnikov was tall and tan, perhaps a little too tan, hair varying shades of blonde (she could use a more professional colorist), but her look was all about branding: Prada purse, Gucci shades, Omega watch, Chanel jacket and pants (no bra). These were not knock-offs that she had purchased at the Udelnaya flea market on the north side of town. Despite the fact that it was St. Petersburg in March and it was snowing, she looked as if she was out for a bit of lunch and shopping with friends in St. Tropez. She had a few miles on her, so to speak, but it appeared that these had been fun miles.
Her application told me that she had been married to Vasili Razkolnikov, president of owner of International Commerce Bank, for two years. This was her third marriage. The on-line database used by federal law enforcement told me that her previous husbands were not exactly Disciples of Christ. Both were serious gangsters. I wasn’t sure if Veka was a smart cookie that was continually trading up to bigger and better, or was just some cheap whore being passed around in gangster circles. It was time for the interview.
VISA OFFICER: So, Ms. Razkolnikov, are you working right now?
Veka: I work at my husband’s bank, I am vice-president. I am a manager.
VISA OFFICER: Great, what department do you manage?
Veka: I am a manager.
VISA OFFICER: Okay, you’re a manager. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about the bank. For example, can you tell me how many depositors the bank has right now or the bank’s total assets? Or maybe who some of the bank’s largest customers are?
Veka: I have to go to an important meeting in Miami and talk to clients. Very important meeting. (At this point, Viktoria took off her sunglasses and looked over her shoulder, at who I do not know. She then leaned a little towards me and using both hands she pulled back on her Chanel top at the hips to reveal more of her substantial (and apparently natural cleavage). In fact, she had made the fabric covering her bosom so tight that I could clearly see the outline of aureole and nipple through the thin silk fabric).
VISA OFFICER: Yes, important meeting. I understand. So, tell me about this meeting…Who are the clients? Is this a financing? An underwriting?
Veka: Very important meeting. It is at the Fisher Island Club. (Viktoria shifted her stance and looked bored with me. Then her green eyes brightened and she moved closer). Have you been to Florida before? This is my first time. I bought a bikini. (At this point, Veka began to either consciously or unconsciously touch the area around her right nipple ever so gently so that I could detect a noticeable rise. It was also cold in the visa waiting room. She licked her lips. I had an impure thought.) The first thing when I get there is I am going to change into my new bikini and run to the beach and slather myself with coconut oil (she used a Russian word that means to apply syrup to blini or pancakes).
I refused Veka a visa under Sec. 214(b) of the Immigration Act. Not because I thought she was going to stay in America, but because she was lying to me about being a bank officer. Then I went and took a cold shower and tried to think of Aunt Bea from Mayberry RFD.
Incidentally, Veka was not the only woman who tried to seduce me from behind the visa window glass. That group includes a Sports Illustrated model, numerous model-wannabes, and a gun-moll/actress/multi-media sensation that we called the “pseudo-hottie,” but that is a story for another time.
Veka’s third husband and his bank were dirty as a pig in slop. The Russian mafia originally viewed banks as just a place to park their ill-gotten gains. Over time, they realized it would benefit them to own the banks. Mortgages? Home equity loans? Creative financing? Banks in Russia don’t offer such mundane services. Banks in Russia are merely conduits for money laundering or for getting the money to Switzerland, Dubai, etc. The gangsters have totally penetrated the banking system and anyone from the State Department or US Treasury that tells you differently is a mother-fucking liar (I have witnessed their lies but kept my mouth shut).
The poor state of Russian banking impedes economic progress. The Russian Central Bank created the position of First Deputy Director and put Andre Kozlov in charge of fettering out bad banks. He attempted to rescind the charters of 40 banks allegedly involved in money laundering. On September 14, 2006, the gangsters killed Kozlov and his bodyguard. In the past 10 years, over 95 bankers in Russia have been murdered. Honest Russian bankers are as hard to find as a warm sunny day in Petropavlosk.
But bad bankers are having the times of their lives. Sergei Melnichenko, head of MDM Bank, married a Serbian supermodel two years ago and paid Christina Aguilera $4 million to sing at his wedding. This year he paid Jennifer Lopez $2 million to sing at his wife’s 30th birthday party.
SUSHI, BOXING, AND AEROBICS
The mob is difficult to avoid. Big gangsters have late-model S Class Mercedes or Hummers and park wherever they want. Little gangsters have older Mercedes or BMWs. Lexus and Infiniti are missing marketing opportunities. The gym across the street from our apartment is mob-owned; in fact, when we were looking for a gym we could not find one without mobster connections.
During the day, the mobsters’ girlfriends and wives work out in the gym in full make up and impossibly revealing outfits. While on the Stairmaster I must constantly keep my head down and repeat to myself over and over again “look but do not touch” as a veritable cornucopia, a literal smorgasbord of tight bottoms, flat bellies, and silicone enhancements grinds away to the barking of Natasha, the aerobics instructor.
At night, the big gangsters gather for boxing lessons in the ring custom built for the gym. The big gangsters like to associate with champions and contenders and usually receive lessons from former Soviet Olympians. Afterwards, they have a rubdown and a sauna (or as the Russians say, a banya). The girlfriends and wives sit in the lobby of the hotel next door, smoke cigarettes and drink champagne and try not to look bored.
One night, as I was finishing my workout, I noticed a giant of a man giving boxing lessons. The guy was certainly at least seven feet tall. Two days later, he was at my visa window. Nikolai Valuev, the Beast from the East. WBA world champion. Seven feet one inches tall. 330 lbs. Hands like Christmas hams. I wondered if he landed a punch on me if I would explode like a burst melon or simple vaporize. Either result seemed bad. I was happy for the bullet-proof glass at the visa window. But bullet-proof is not necessarily punch-proof.
He couldn’t have been nicer. He kept calling me “Gospodeen (mister) Consul.” He was not articulate or effusive, but he was polite and spoke in a slow deliberate manner. He offered to give me tickets to his title bout with John Ruiz at the Chicago Stadium (I politely refused). He gave me a signed poster and said he would be happy to give me a lesson on the speedbag.
Next in line behind him was one of his “backers” or “supporters:” Valery Baranov. Bad dye job, but a nice suit, maybe Ermengildo Zegna. Too many big clunky gold rings. “Mr. L——- (he is not supposed to know my name), I see we work out at the same gym. I have been meaning to introduce myself. Perhaps you will join me in the banya sometime?” The invitation is not a gay come-on; rather Russian men tend to conduct a lot of business in the sauna while enjoying a repast of vodka, pickles, black bread, cheese, and more vodka.
I was polite to Baranov, but thought nothing more of it until next week when I was trying to relax in the banya but Baranov (all sweaty, hairy, musty, 220lbs of Baranov) decided to sit down next to me. He tells me that his daughter spent time studying in the US in high school and would very much like to go back.
I know where this is going. “She should apply for an educational exchange visa,” I say, helpfully. Then Baranov, takes it up a notch.
“I was good friends with your Public Affairs Officer, Donald ____,” says Baranov, placing his hand on my lower-thigh. “I was hoping we could have the same relationship.
SELLING VISAS, MAKING BANK
“Don” is a homosexual. That is neither here nor there, but is important for this narrative. Our tours overlapped somewhat. “Don” was the public affairs officer, essentially a press secretary that also promoted cultural exchanges, etc. The first time I met “Don” in Washington before I went out to Russia I realized that he was gay (I don’t claim to have a highly developed sense of “gay-dar” but I know what I know). Therefore, I did not know what to make of the woman he introduced as his wife, Maria. She was substantially younger, wearing a leather bodice and a slit skirt and boots that are hard to describe without using the terms sado-masochism or bondage and domination. Impure thoughts flooded my mind: I wondered if she had a whip to match the boots.
As I noted, Don’s tour and mine overlapped slightly. Shortly after he left post, as part of my job I started to receive “blue sheets” from the Department of Homeland Security. These blue sheets tell consular officers that people to whom they have issued visas have either overstayed their visa in the US and been picked up or have attempted to adjust status and stay in the US (or have fallen afoul of the law in some way). It is a way to tell if an officer is exercising good judgment.
As more time passed after Don’s departure from post, more blue sheets started to arrive. So many that we could have wallpapered part of our office. Some cursory research by my boss and I revealed that Don, in the last few months of his tour, had issued 325 referrals for visas, an un- believable number. A visa referral is the only approved method for a non-consular officer working in a consulate or embassy to vouch for a prospective visa applicant. It essentially says, “I vouch for this person, he or she is a good citizen, and has ties to Russia and will likely come back once their visit to America is completed.” The referral process is serious and not to be taken lightly. Abuse of the referral process is subject to punishment. Receiving consideration (money, gifts, other goodies) for making a visa referral is a crime. As the months went on, more and more blue sheets started to arrive that bore the stamp of Don’s initial referral.
MARIA THE POTTY MOUTH
We passed the information along to the diplomatic security and the FBI. They told us that Don recently purchased a home in France. Meanwhile, Don’s wife Maria re-entered our lives.
Allegedly, when a CIA officer stationed overseas wants to marry a local, both spouses must immediately leave that country and the CIA officer must spend at least one year stateside while the CIA does a thorough background investigation. Further, both spouses must understand that it is highly unlikely that the couple will ever be stationed in the spouse’s native country again or any associated country. The CIA feels these are the minimum steps that must be taken to ensure no one in the family has “competing loyalties.”
Not so for the generous, affable, foolish US Department of State. Not only does the State Department seem completely unconcerned about dual allegiances, but the good old trusting State Department will provide “expedited citizenship” for spouses of Foreign Service officers. Instead of waiting five years, they State Department will pressure the Department of Homeland Security to speed the process up to less than a year.
Don and Maria were scheduled for a tour in a Balkan country. However, as soon as Don and Maria returned for a short visit and training in the US, Maria took off and took her US diplomatic passport with her. No matter that she was supposed to surrender the passport if they ever became separated or divorced.
As the consulate was in the throes of preparing to host President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice during the G-8 Economic Summit and the consular section was trying to deal with the summer travel rush, my boss and I got a call from the Russian Customs Officer in charge of the Port of St. Petersburg. “Could you possibly come out the port today, near pier six?” asked our trusted contact. “We have a situation.”
My boss and I got a car from the motor pool and went out the port. After the usual lengthy Russian bureaucratic formalities of showing our diplomatic passports, getting them photographed, showing our Russian identity cards, getting them photographed, etc, etc. we were led over to Pier 6. We noticed there were two blue containers open near the customs office. A few boxes had been taken out. The boxes were labeled as containing Panasonic plasma screen TVs.
Maria was in the customs office waiting room. She was pacing and smoking one of those long dark cigarettes favored by European women and effeminate art gallery owners in Seattle. She had lightened her hair. Her earrings were too large. Her breasts too dangerous. And those boots… God bless her, she was wearing those boots again. The impure thoughts started swirling in rich, vivid tapestry of inexcusable acts.
Our contact gave us the particulars: “Gentleman, thank you so very much for coming. You see in the waiting room Ms. Maria _____, who claims she is the spouse of an American diplomat However, her husband is no longer accredited in Russia and therefore she has no right to use this diplomatic passport in Russia.” The customs officer was being oddly formal, at least for him.
He then produced some bills of lading and a document with the seal of the US Consulate. I could tell the document was the type used to clear diplomatic cargo through customs. The document was written on Consulate letterhead, but the stamp was not a consulate stamp and the wording was not right. Diplomats, of course, are allowed to import things into their host country without tax or customs duty and without inspection, but only for their own personal use.
“It appears that your fellow diplomat’s wife wanted to import some high value electronics into Russia under diplomatic seal. As you can see, we opened the cargo. We became suspicious when she showed up here with a truck. Of course, normally when your mission has cargo, Igor from your customs and shipping office comes, and so when Maria arrived we became suspicious. She became very agitated and threatened to call you. I called her bluff and called you myself.”
I could see that my boss was embarrassed by this.
“What would you like me to do?” asked the customs officer. “Will you certify that she is a member of your mission and allowed to import goods duty free?”
“Could you give me her passport?” said my boss. “It is the property of the US government and I am taking possession of it as a consular officer. We should leave now. The cargo is not diplomatic cargo. What you do with her or the cargo after we leave is not our concern.”
At this juncture, Maria burst into the room:
“What are you fucks doing?” She screamed, pointing a finger at us. “What business is it of yours what I bring into this country!! Do you know this little cock took $2000 of my money last year and now he wants $5000 and for me to suck his cock!! So since I won’t suck his cock, he breaks our deal and calls you. The motherfucker, he has probably already got a buyer for the televisions.” Maria was now very red in the face. I detected a slight blush on the face of the customs officer. He looked away from me and began writing something.
My boss informed her we were keeping the passport. He also suggested she might want to stay in Russia and take her chances with Russian law enforcement.
Maria then let loose with a string of expletives that would make a crusty old sailor blush. She repeatedly described us with words normally used to describe the female anatomy. She mentioned my mother having sex with farm animals. She invited me to have anal sex with several telecommunications devices. The words spewing out of her mouth were so coarse and so foul that it made me rethink my earlier fantasy of putting something else in her pie hole.
As we walked out she made a move to slap the customs chief, but was restrained by one of his staff, who by the way had witnessed the entire episode.
As far as I know, she is still in Russia.
Kyrill is a pseudonym for an American who is a lawyer by training and diplomat by profession. Kryill has served in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, El Salvador, Iraq, Jordan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Nepal.
His stories focus on the risks and absurdity of Foreign Service and expatriate life abroad. This is his first contribution for Outside In.