Illegal dogfights. Mafia assassinations. And a goodfella who wanted to kill me because I wore a blue shirt to a mob boss’s funeral. My essay, “The War of the Werewolves and the Minotaurs,” offers a glimpse of the mafia in Vladivostok, Russia, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when I lived there. The piece appears in the latest edition of Spolia, edited by Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin. Here’s the opening.
Kill the Clown
Every day at the Vladivostok News, an English-language newspaper I used to edit in the Russian Far East, we would pull up our chairs and discuss the headlines in the local dailies. Sometimes they merited a follow; sometimes—as when papers defended the governor against the “provocations” and “bullying” of foreign reporters such as me—they did not.
One week early in July 1997, the big news was the investigation of the assassination of a reputed mob boss named Anatoly Kovalyov outside the Royal Park Casino, which was close to our home and boasted a Swedish chef named Micke, whose bacon and scallop salad was particularly recommended. At 1:15 a.m. one Monday, a brawl broke out amid the slots and roulette wheels. Men threw roundhouses and crashed into tables as faun-legged girls in miniskirts shrieked and danced out of the way. Possibly the fight was staged; at any rate it drew the entire security cohort into the room, the media later reported. Guards in blue camouflage and bulletproof vests stormed in to break it up, even the guys who scanned you for weapons on your way in, leaving nobody up front. Kovalyov and his entourage reckoned it was time to clear out. His enforcers swept aside the riffraff and hustled the boss out to his automobile, model unknown, although the papers did hint that Kovalyov was extorting from the importers who brought cars from Japan. On a rooftop fifty meters away a patient gunman had been waiting since the time of Kievan Rus. He leveled his Kalashnikov and squeezed off three rounds. The first hit a friend of Kovalyov’s, the second ricocheted off the pavement, the third drilled lengthwise through Kovalyov’s liver, felling him, the cops told the media. The killer clearly was a professional. He laid down the AK-47 and apparently evaporated into a sulfurous vapor as chaos broke out below, wise guys probably shouting “Get down! Get down!” and waving machine pistols as they looked around, too late, for the shooter. There was no one to fire back at in the dark. By now the gunman had rematerialized in a nether realm of stalactites and bubbling pitch—or at least no one has ever proven otherwise to my satisfaction. The police found his rifle on the roof.
The day of Kovalyov’s funeral we were discussing the case. It was our deputy editor’s birthday—Nonna, now my wife—so there was cake and champagne, maybe a couple of small presents. In a Russian office you bring your own cake on your big day; you don’t creep around with a hopeful, hurt expression, wishing you were one of those popular people whose birthdays everyone remembers when, after all, why should they? But, relieved of the burden of remembering, they do, so there may have been a gift or two, pens, a coffee mug; that’s all I am saying. Several days out the papers were still talking about Kovalyov. His family had doubtless consulted tarot cards and the entrails of sacrificed geese before concluding that the birthday of an English newspaper’s deputy editor was an auspicious burial date. Then again, coincidences do happen.
“Probably not much we can add to the story,” I said, “but we ought to have something about it.”
“I know him,” said Katya, one of our interpreters.
“What? Know Kovalyov?”
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