The Russian Mob: The Gangster of Brighton Beach
John William Tuohy
Balagula, Marat: (Pronounced Balla-Gool-A) Russian-American Gangster in Brighton Beach, New York, Born September 8 1943 in Odessa, Russia. Balagula’s father, an infantry Lieutenant, was a World War Two hero. After the war, the Soviets rewarded him with a better than average job at an Odessa lock factory. All considered, unlike most Russian gangsters, Balagula was raised in relative comfort.
Balagula was drafted into the Russian Army at age 19. Afterwards, while serving on a cruise ship, he smuggled Russian artwork to the west and imported restricted consumer goods into the east. Virtually all of his criminal activities were done with the tacit consent of the Soviet government, which desperately needed the hard currency.
The Soviet government granted him a management position in lock factory in Odessa after the war. Marat himself served on hitch in the Soviet Army who mistakenly placed him in charge of a food cooperative, essentially introducing him to the lucrative Russian black market. He was so powerful, that according to Balagula that future party chief Mikhail Gorbachev was on his kickback payroll
Once out of the military, he attended night school receiving his diploma as a teacher in mathematics and returned for a second degree in mathematics and economics. After that he returned to the exploding Russian black market.
He married in 1971 and in 977 moved to the United States as an oppressed Jew. He laid low at first, working for minimum wage as a textile cutter and then moved to Brighton Beach and went to work for local mob boss Evsei Agron (below) as hired muscle.
Far more intelligent and educated then Agron, Balagula had been the Godfathers chief advisor and financial guru for several years. In the aftermath of Agron's murder, which he blamed on Agron’s inability to get along in the Brighton Beach neighborhood, Balagula took over as the gangster in residence in Brooklyn. However, local and federal authorities placed the blame of Agron’s death squarely in Balagula camp.
One of his first project as boss was to build a massive scam to collect gasoline tax from selling gasoline, which turned him into a multimillionaire. When Balagula's men started to get shaken down for cash by members of the Colombo and Luchese crime families, Balagula met with Luchese boss Chris Furnari and entered into a working agreement with the Luchese, giving Balagula and his gang a sort of junior partner status with the Mafia.
Using a maze of dummy companies, Balagula organized a massive gasoline-bootlegging scheme that evaded billions of dollars in sales taxes. About 2 cents on every gallon went to the Italian Mafia for protection (generating them income of over $100 million per year for the Mob) By 1985, the Balagula operation included over 100 gas stations run by Russian Jews, oil tankers, seven oil terminals, several dozen gasoline trucks and an oil-refineries in Eastern Europe.
Balagula then went international and formed networks with other gangsters from Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia. Balagula and his friends all but ran the African nation of diamond-rich Sierra Leone. Genovese gangsters, who had toured the country courtesy of the Russian Mafia, had underwritten President Momoh's 1985 presidential and several Genovese soldiers stood with Momoh on the podium as he was sworn into office. The hood took diamonds out of Sierra Leone and traded them for heroin in Thailand.
There were a few minor setbacks. In 1986, two Russians mobsters, Michael Vax and Vladimir Reznikov, sprayed the Brooklyn office of Balagula's company, Platinum Energy, with Uzi submachine gunfire, killing one of Balagula's men. The hoods claimed that Balagula had sold them invalid state gasoline distributorship licenses. Balagula counter claimed that the shooting was an attempted robbery.
A while later, as Balagula was standing outside the Odessa restaurant in Brighton Beach, Reznikov walked up to him and stuck a gun his face and demanded $600,000 and a partnership in his operations. Balagula suffered a heart attack on the spot.
On June 13, 1986, Reznikov was told to attend a meeting at a restaurant on Brighton Avenue. As he sat in car, Joe Testa, a Luchese solider, walked up and fired off two shots into the back of head, killing him.
That same year, when Balagula was at the very top of his game, when everything he had worked for came to together, the bottom fell out. A petty crook named Robert Fasano called Balagula and told him that he had stolen the numbers of two dozen Merrill Lynch credit cards with six-figure authorization codes. He also had sheets of white plastic and a machine that could emboss the stolen numbers on dummy cards.
He needed Balagula to introduce him to shady merchants who would be willing to let him use the cards to by top dollar merchandise, for a consideration of course. Balagula introduced Fasano to Russian merchants all across New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia. Accompanying the little crook to each store were two of Balagula’s goons. In all, the scam produced $75,000 for the gangsters.
Then Fasano was arrested by the US Secret Service. He agreed to wear a wire in his meetings with Balagula who quickly implicated himself in the credit card fraud. He is also overheard discussing the fact that he can no longer obtain an erection, a portion of the tape that the government felt necessary to play in court to prove that Balagula and Fasano were close friends.
Balagula was convicted of credit card fraud and there were still other charges pending. Rumor was that he poured several hundred thousand, perhaps more, into a bribe to fix the trial that got him nowhere. After his conviction, Rabbi Ronald Greenwald, an interesting character in his own right, introduced Balagula to attorney Alan Dershowitz to discuss an appeal. Balagula insisted that the world famous lawyer bribe the appeals judge. Indignant, Dershowitz refused the case. Three days before his sentencing in November 1986, Balagula fled the country.
In February 1987, federal agents found Balagula in Johannesburg. He was living with his mistress, former model Natalia Shevchencko, and her daughter, who had enrolled at a local university. The found him by tracing his girlfriend’s credit card receipts. At the same time, they also learned that Balagula was receiving monthly deliveries of $50,000 in cash, stuffed in a worn black leather bags, from his New York underlings. The money was hand delivered by Balagula's driver, the ex-submarine commander.
The US Embassy notified local police who, federal agent’s suspects, took a considerable bribe and let the Russian slip out of their grasp and escape to Sierra Leone. Spending $20,000 for Sierra Leonean and Paraguayan diplomatic passports, he spent the next three years in thirty-six separate countries. It ended on February 27, 1989, when he was spotted by a border guard at the Frankfurt airport. Deported to the US, he was sentenced to eight years in prison for credit card fraud and, in November of 1992, he was given an additional ten years for tax evasion. Balagula was released from federal prison, at age 61, in September of 2004