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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Lost in translation: what we lose when we leave the EU

From learning Irish to studying in Switzerland, my richest memories are all in Europe. What will happen to our creative culture after Brexit?

I’m rubbish at languages. Worse than rubbish, actually; hopeless. (You can ask my old German teacher, if you like. Sorry Frau Sarcher.) I don’t have the ear for inflection or the memory for grammar. I don’t have the patience for diligent vocab lists. I can barely spell in English, let alone in French.

So it was with some trepidation that I headed to West Donegal a few weeks ago to do an immersion course in Irish. I know: Irish, of all things, a language which is famed for sounding entirely unlike how it looks on the page and is spoken only by a small number of people, almost all of them in places I don’t live.

Well, I had to do it: I’m working on a novelist for my PhD who wrote in the language. But alright, fine, I also wanted to – wanted to at least grasp at the bones of the thing, even if I’d never be fluent.

I moved around a lot as a child, although always within the UK, and like a lot of people I know I never really had a proper and precise sense of origin. (Irish classes, replete with diaspora, handled this one fast: I am from here; now I live here.) I’m happy in most places, yet no geography has the ring of home. Yes, I’m undeniably English, but I always felt like I was looking at my own Englishness through glass.

I’m aware this might be the most English thing of all.

After my BA, I was awarded a grant to do research in Switzerland, and after that given a grant to do an MA, and everything changed. Suddenly, I was travelling across the continent, able to afford solo trips on the Eurostar to Paris and long months in a sticky Swiss summer, sending photos of the suspiciously clear rivers and cuckoo clocks back to England. In my early 20s, this became my home: always feeling slightly out of place, as ever, but willingly and joyfully so, stumbling through language after language. A whole world of pleasant unfamiliarity opened up on the continent.

A Swiss professor I met said that the very impossibility of translation is its greatest gift, because it reveals native quirks. I’m not sure I fully became a person until I started translating myself in those European summers – until I had to give an account of myself, as an English woman and as a person, out there in the world. Which is why, this morning, I found myself close to tears on the Tube.

I’m no more informed than you are as to why exactly Leave had such a good result. It might have been the headlines, or the promises of NHS funding, or simply long, dulled anger finding an outlet, however counter-intuitive.

But it was undoubtedly something else, too: an opportunity to wield power.

Feeling part of a movement is a seductive thing. This was a campaign entirely run in the negative, by both sides. I mean that in the most literal sense: not that there was no “positive” option, but that there was no option that offered a yes in relation to Europe – only a no more, thanks or a continuation of the same. Remain had no chance of promising us more. Leave, at least, could try, and even if it didn’t quite all ring true, it still offered action over inaction.

Getting ready for work this morning, I couldn’t get the words of sociologist and broadcaster Laurie Taylor out of my head. A few years ago, I went to a lecture he gave on popular culture, and saw him tell an audience of academics what he knew from growing up in Liverpool, and from watching the Dockers’ Strike: that turkeys will vote for Christmas if there’s a chance to stick two fingers up at the middle class while they do it.

That’s trite, perhaps, but less trite than pretending voters necessarily bought every promise from Leave. True, not everyone knew the ins and outs of trade negotiations, but most people were able to twig that Boris Johnson isn’t exactly a working class hero. As tends to be the case, there’s very little to be gained from calling the electorate stupid.

If the same communities that voted Leave are also those likely to be hit the hardest by a Brexit-induced economic downturn, they are also those who might reasonably have wondered: what have we got to lose?

Well, who knows. I’ll speak responsibly and say that I’m worried about EU funding to Cornwall (whose council is already scrabbling to secure a promise for alternative funds, after the population there voted Leave); about the medium-term prospects for the UK markets; about how we will handle cross-border security initiatives both in these isles and across the continent. I’m worried because I know where the money came from to regenerate Northern cities, and it wasn’t a Conservative government.

But I’ll also speak with feeling and say that something less tangible has been eroded. British culture is watchful and insecure, sarcastic and subtle; it has a class system awkwardly incomprehensible to outsiders and a sense of humour loved for being the same.

And the thing that makes it all beautiful, the Midas touch that takes the British bundle of neuroses and double-edged banter and endless, endless griping about the weather and turns it to gold, is openness – however grudgingly given. I won’t pretend we ever enjoyed a Halcyon age where we welcomed immigrants whole-heartedly. It would be an insult to history and those who fought to come here. But we are a mongrel country, in spite of our intentions, and most people, most of the time, cope. It is at the moments where we shrug and decide we’re not too fussed about difference, actually, that we shine most strongly.

Over and above the economy, even over the personal fear I have for European friends and lovers of friends and parents of friends, I worry about the loss of culture we may have triggered by choosing this course; what a Keynesian might call the “negative output gap” of creativity. We won’t ever be able to know precisely how much talent and creative joy we’ve effectively just told to fuck off, because you can’t measure pop songs or novels or new dishes like you can expenditure.

But that doesn’t mean that right now, across the country, hundreds of small stories forged from difference aren’t being foreclosed. A hundred little acts of friendship, or love; a hundred chances to look at Britishness through someone else’s eyes. The essential richness of being forced to translate ourselves, and receive others’ translations in turn, is being lost from our future. And our culture will undoubtedly be a little the worse for it.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland