Meet Leonid Fainberg, the ultimate Ukrainian mobster

The man who tried to buy a Soviet submarine to transport drugs is fast becoming an internet celebrity from his prison cell in Panama.

Speaking out from her cell in Kharkiv, jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has called on Ukrainians to “rise up against the mafia” she believes are running, and ruining, her country. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, a man born just a few hundred kilometres, and a couple of years before Tymoshenko, widely reputed as one of Ukraine’s most infamous mafioso, is fast becoming famous from his Panama cell in the notorious La Joya prison. Not that Leonid “Tarzan” Fainberg (also known by a litany of aliases) restricts himself to a cell, as he wanders about what resembles a large shack, flirting outrageously with fellow "female" inmates, preparing meals, and mostly giving every indication that, despite the filthy conditions and general bedlam, he’s rather enjoying the whole experience. Even if incarcerated, Leonid Fainberg has never been one to let life pass him by.

Criminal Beginnings

Born in Odessa in 1958, in 1971 a young Fainberg and his parents (of Jewish origin) emigrated to Israel. Later, he tried out for the Israeli Marines, apparently wanting to become a Navy Seal. However, he failed to pass basic training and, when he again failed the army’s officer exam, his pride was dented, and the young man decided to look further afield. Fainberg’s "career path" followed a descent through the realms of criminality. 1980 saw him in Berlin, going under the name Ludwig, and scraping out a living as a "runner" for local mobsters, while carving out his own niche in extortion and credit card fraud. When one hit went wrong, Fainberg narrowly avoided a serious beating by rival Russian mobsters, and decided it was time to move on.

Having learned his trade, he headed for the United States in 1984. With his thick, long, chestnut hair (which along with his uninhibited behaviour, and muscular physique, earned him the moniker ‘Tarzan’) and handsome appearance, he was every inch the aspiring émigré. However Fainberg’s designs on the American Dream were always criminal, with his belief that it was easier to steal and extort in the “Wild West”. Ostensibly, his New York business consisted of running a video rental shop in Brooklyn’s Little Odessa district. In actuality, Lech Tarzan, or Lenny, as he was known, was already making mob connections and earning a reputation as an arsonist-for-hire, with his services usually employed in torching businesses in competition with the Russian mob.

Fainberg reportedly married the ex-wife of an imprisoned gangster while in New York, and partly lived off his criminal proceeds, though details of this union are sketchy. Falling in with brutal Russian gang boss Grisha Roizes, Fainberg found himself working in the furniture stores used as a front for drug trafficking. A good turn for mob kingpin Frank Santora supposedly saw Santora take a shine  to Fainberg, advising him that Miami was the place for him to be, and setting him up with enough Colombian connections there to get started in the South Florida sun.

Miami Vice

Living in Miami between 1990 and 1997, Fainberg ran an infamous strip club called Porky’s, and revelled in a life which made hit 80s TV series Miami Vice seem understated. A three-year investigation, led by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), uncovered a byzantine narcotic trafficking network, which involved shipping cocaine from Ecuador to St. Petersburg, concealed in cargoes of iced shrimp. Fainberg was the middle man in the operation, and is also believed to have facilitated in the purchase of Russian war helicopters and other military equipment for his Colombian "partners".   

The most famous tale that has attached itself to Fainberg is the tale from the mid-1990s, which saw him attempting to purchase a former Soviet submarine from the Kronstadt Naval Base, for the Colombians. The base was reportedly littered with Cold War relics, waiting to be snapped up by the right buyer, and they decided on a 90-foot Foxtrot Class Attack Submarine that could carry up to 40 tons of cocaine, to be painted to resemble an oceanographic research vessel. The deal ultimately fell through, not apparently, before a deal for USD 5.5 million complete with a crew, had been reached. The fact that at the time, Fainberg’s lawyer dismissed the claims as “ludicrous” has done nothing to diminish their widespread credence.  
At the time, Fainberg was referred to as a “Redfella”, the term given to CIS mobsters. And it was a purple patch for such Redfellas, with an estimated 5,600 organised crime groups and over 100,000 active members in the CIS. Kenneth Rijock, a Miami-based financial crimes consultant described the CIS gangs, around 300 of whom had moved abroad as having “more money than God, more ruthless than the 1920s Prohibition gangsters.”

Fainberg  was known for a quick, and at times ruthless, temper. In one reported incident in Miami, undercover agents with the FBI and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency allegedly watched from a distance as Fainberg chased a stripper out of Porky's and slammed her head repeatedly against the door of his Mercedes, until the car was covered in blood. In another episode, he allegedly beat a dancer in the parking lot outside the club and then made her eat gravel.

During his time in Miami, Fainberg married a waitress from Porky’s, and fathered a daughter, but it wasn’t to be a settled domestic life. An FBI investigation which saw 11,000 conversations taped eventually saw Fainberg arrested and charged on 30 counts. Pleading guilty, he cut a deal for the minimum term of 37 months by testifying against his accomplices and contacts. In 1999, having served his sentence, Fainberg was deported to Israel. But, around a year later, he found himself back in North America, this time, Canada. He hadn’t stayed in Israel long, but long enough to legally change his name to Alon Bar.

New Country, Same Story

On arrival in Ottawa, Fainberg appeared to be leading a reformed life, with his daughter and a new Canadian wife, devoted to family and Jewish worship. He did reportedly attempt to "go straight", and work for a mobile phone company, being dismissed after management cottoned on to his criminal past. Any notion, however, that he’d put his old ways behind him was debunked when he was the subject of a sting operation by undercover journalist, Victor Malarek, who exposed his role in the sex trade. For his book The Natashas, Malarek described Fainberg as handing over a custom-made two-fold business card sporting the “caricature of a mop-topped muscular man under the name of Porky's. The inside featured a cartoon of an ample nude woman bending over in knee-high stiletto-heeled boots. Underneath was his name - "Tarzan Da Boss" - and on the opposite side "Welcome to Planet Sex, Land of Fantasy.”

Fainberg’s Canadian plan was to open a strip club in Gatineau, Quebec, to feature imported talent - Russian and Ukrainian strippers and lap dancers. During his ‘interview’ with Malarek, Fainberg boasted of his ability to import women from Russia, Ukraine, Romania or the Czech Republic. "No problem. The price is $10,000 with the girl landed. It is simple. It is easy to get access to the girls. It's a phone call. I know the brokers in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev. I can call Moscow tomorrow and show you how easy it is. I can get ten to fifteen to twenty girls shipped to me in a week."
Shortly after the sting, authorities swooped on Fainberg, who had been trying to claim refugee status in Canada under supposed threats to his life from political groups in Israel. On charges of violating the visa regime, he found himself back in Israel in 2003.

Panama and Mr Prisoner

Fainberg’s actions in the intervening years are a little murky, though at some point he headed to South America, more particularly, Panama. Once again he began apparently operating a prostitution and drugs-based business, in three bars – Moulin Rouge, Doll’s House and Habano, in Bella Vista, Panama City. In June 2011, he was arrested and charged with pimping and trafficking, both of which he denies, with the second charge now reportedly dropped. Various trials have come and gone in a country not noted for the transparency of its judicial system, with one hearing suspended when the translator didn’t turn up.

And, in recent months, from prison, Fainberg has re-invented himself via YouTube and his blog, posting as Lev Panama and Mr Prisoner. In his videos, which have attracted hundreds of thousands of hits and international attention, he alternates between Russian, English and broken Spanish as he variously strolls around a prison which shows fellow inmates toting guns, mixed-sex cells, squalor, general chaos but also wifi and other inmates communicating with the outside world via laptops.  

When he addresses the camera directly, still with his trademark long hair but now sporting an unkempt beard flecked with white, he does so as Leon Bar, a Russian citizen, he appeals both for his country to come to his rescue, and for people to donate $65,000 to help his cause. So far, Russia has been circumspect about whether to come to his aid. An investigation is on-going as to whether he does in fact hold a Russian passport. He would also be eligible to a Ukrainian passport, if he rejected all others.

As it is, he is believed to hold Israeli citizenship, however, even if he does possess the Russian passport he views as a ‘get out of jail card’, the implications of assisting a character with such a shady past seem to be giving his ‘countrymen’ cold feet, for now. How much financial aid he has so far raised is also unclear. In his clips, along with thanking his viewers, Fainberg admits to involvement in the criminal scene, but puts his own spin on events, citing some ‘confusion’ as to who was a celebrity and who was a gangster, back then, and playing down any role in drugs and people trafficking.

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of his recent activities is that he is a co-creator of popular CIS children’s animation "Lelik and Barbaricks”. But then, few things in Fainberg’s life have ever followed the expected path, indeed many websites refer to him primarily as an ‘adventurer’. One thing Fainberg certainly is, is a survivor, having lived through the so-called ‘mobster years’ of the 80s and 90s, and outlived many of his contemporaries and counterparts. Few would bet against this notorious, Ukrainian-born mobster-turned-YouTube sensation having a couple more acts left in him. Where those acts take place, remains to be seen.

This article also appears here at pravda.ru

Photograph: Getty Images

Graham Phillips is an English journalist, based in Kiev, Ukraine. Find him on Twitter as @GWP_MG. His book Kiev or Kyiv -  Notes from a Year in Ukraine, is out soon.

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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear