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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Following Donald Trump in New Hampshire

It would be easy to dismiss the 69-year-old property mogul - but Trump is impossible to ignore.

Donald Trump doesn’t miss a beat. When a man in the front row of a packed school auditorium shouted, “We don’t want a scripted president,” he bellowed straight back, “No you don’t! And you don’t want a politically correct president,” a comment that sent the thousand-strong audience into a raucous standing ovation.

It was classic Trump: a move aimed at underlining his credentials as a populist, anti-politics insurgent. For bemused outsiders, his stump speech on 14 August at Winnacunnet High School in the tidy New Hampshire town of Hampton offered fresh insights into the methods by which Donald Trump has successfully hijacked the Republican race for the White House.

It would be easy to dismiss the 69-year-old property mogul. Trump’s campaign is powered by little more than personality and wealth. His pitch features few policies beyond building a giant wall along the Mexican border and putting his business associates in positions where they can strike better deals than the current administration. His campaign shtick resembles nothing so much as a stand-up comedy show. On Iraq: “It isn’t even a country. It’s a bunch of corrupt people.” On oil: “Iran, Isis, everybody has it but us.” And on China: “You hear that sucking sound? You know what that means . . . jobs, money.”

And yet he is impossible to ignore. Trump has led the polls for the Republican nomination since declaring his intention to run on 16 June – in a speech that accused Mexico of sending both rapists and murderers to the US. In New Hampshire he has a double-digit lead over Jeb Bush, who remains the favourite to win the nod, given his record as governor of Florida and his party connections – not least his father, George, and brother George W. This makes Trump the people’s choice.

Something similar is happening among Democrats. Although Hillary Clinton has a monopoly on donors and party grandees, Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed socialist senator from Vermont, is making a move in the polls. The US version of Jeremy Corbyn – the unreconstructed lefty selected to balance the debate – offers a different way of doing things from Clinton, who comes from a tired elite, or so runs the familiar argument.

And this is Trump’s main message: the rich are running politics for their advantage, donating money to the establishment in return for favours when they return to office. “Who knows it better than me?” he boasted to more whoops from the audience. “I’ve contributed to everyone.”

Trump acts like a heckler on stage. It’s his brash honesty that appeals to the likes of Bob Pennell, an orthopaedic surgeon who had travelled from neighbouring Massachusetts to see him speak. “He is shining the light on the rich and how they use the government,” Pennell said. “I always suspected it. But now I know.”

The result of such poor leadership, Trump argues, is that the US has lost its place as the dominant global economy – hence that sucking sound from China. It’s a message that strikes a chord with an audience that feels squeezed financially at home and sees its country adrift in the world.

Trump’s larger-than-life persona – and frequent, unverifiable boasts that his net worth stands at $10bn – felt like a throwback to days gone by, when “the American dream still meant something”, according to Jimmy Riordan, a diesel engine parts engineer. “It’s a cut-throat world and he’s the best businessman,” he said.

Quite what a Trump administration would look like, however, is anyone’s guess. In a rapid-fire question-and-answer session, he committed to federal investigations into the treatment of army veterans and the Environmental Protection Agency. An audience member asked if he would send astronauts to Mars. Trump smiled, saying he would first fix the US’s crumbling roads and airports. “Who’s better at infrastructure than Trump?” he asked, to more laughter.

Even a string of glaring gaffes has failed to dent his lead. Most recently he tried to undermine Megyn Kelly of Fox News after she probed his attitude towards women. Her dogged questioning, Trump said, was down to “blood coming out of her wherever”.

Yet to his supporters in the school auditorium, this kind of comment is not a misstep but a breath of fresh air. They say it shows he is his own man, that his personal fortune frees him from the need for spin doctors, lobbyists or donors who would seek favours should he reach office. Even his opponents can sense the appeal. “He doesn’t have to have their influence,” said Kerri Ruggiero, who is campaigning in the state for George Pataki, the Republican former New York governor, who is failing to gain traction. “It’s just him.”

Not everyone at the stump speech was a supporter. In New Hampshire, people take their responsibility as an early primary state seriously. A good showing here in February can make or break a candidate’s campaign. In the 1968 Democratic primaries, Eugene McCarthy came within 7 per cent of Lyndon B Johnson, a close enough result to force the sitting president to announce he would not run for re-election. Some showed up last Friday to gauge whether Trump was a credible figure. Others came to make a point. Noah Thompson, an 18-year-old student, wore a giant golden sombrero to protest against Trump’s comments about Mexicans.

“I probably would have voted for him,” Thompson confessed as the crowd headed for the exits, “if he hadn’t opened his mouth for two months.”

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars