Earlier this month, “Forbes” magazine listed Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov as one of the 10 most-wanted criminals in the United States, citing sources in U.S. government agencies such as the FBI and the CIA.
Tokhtakhunov, who is better known in Russian by the nickname “Taivanchik” (Little Taiwanese), has long been reputed to be a leading figure in Russian organized crime and is the subject of an Interpol arrest warrant on suspicion of fraud, trafficking in arms, drugs, and stolen cars. He denies the allegations.
Tokhtakhunov sat down recently for a rare interview with RFE/RL’s Russian Service in Moscow to discuss his life and the allegations against him. He made global headlines in 2002 when U.S. officials accused him of trying to pressure judges in the figure-skating competition of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. He was arrested in Italy in 2002, but an Italian court declined to extradite him to the United States.
A 62-year-old native of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Tokhtakhunov has led a high-profile life for decades, often being photographed in the company of the elite of the Russian sports and entertainment industries. During the 1990s, he was a business partner of Shamil Tarpishchev, who was then-President Boris Yeltsin’s tennis coach and the head of the National Sports Fund, which was a major importer of cigarettes and alcohol and is believed to have served as a slush fund for the Yeltsin administration.
According to Russian media reports, he is believed to be a “thief in law” [vor v zakone] in Russian organized crime and to hold French, Israeli, German, and Uzbek passports.
RFE/RL: How did you get your start in business?
Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov: Before 1989, I was a professional card player. But then all my partners left the country. The age of cooperative businesses came along, as you recall. We didn’t know how to do business because we grew up under Soviet laws, where anyone who was engaged in business was considered a speculator. So we, as card players, scorned them — we thought people who speculated were people for sale….
We played among ourselves, in our own circle. We didn’t cheat anyone. It was all sort of just among ourselves. We played for money, of course. In our network there were some rich people, collective farmers, or some more…some vegetable traders who ran warehouses. We played together and this money sort of went around among us….
But speculators, they were speculators. If a person is selling something, that means we thought then that he’s a person for sale. You understand?
I had some legal violations. They weren’t even crimes — I didn’t steal anything, didn’t kill anyone. They were sort of legal violations.
Our Soviet times, we lived with a Soviet mentality, we were the fruit of that kind of upbringing. In Russia, you probably read — I wrote about it in my autobiographical book “My Silk Road” — I wrote there that I had some legal violations. They weren’t even crimes — I didn’t steal anything, didn’t kill anyone. They were sort of legal violations, violations of passport regulations. Social parasitism? These are criminal articles that don’t exist anymore today, you understand? What does “social parasitism” mean? I have a creative soul, that was obvious. I couldn’t go…. They sent me to work in some brick factory. Am I supposed to haul bricks? I can’t carry heavy things. When I was a child, I was a soccer player. That’s not the kind of person I am, understand?
‘Similar’ To Brodsky
RFE/RL: Social parasitism. That’s the same article they convicted Joseph Brodsky under.
Tokhtakhunov: Of course, there was Brodsky. And the fate of Brodsky was similar to my fate. He also left the country. Only he was given the Nobel Prize and I was given the title of mafia boss. In my opinion, back then in 1980-something or rather 1993 or 1994 or so, back when here all that elemental lawlessness, in a manner of speaking — you know, there was such a period when nothing worked. I arrived in Moscow in 1993, and when I saw how on Tverskoi Boulevard people were selling on the street mushrooms, canned food, knitted socks, I thought it was some revolution like in the movies. Remember the ones we saw about the time during the war [World War II]? I was horrified. I was horrified. It was, it seems, a time when some laws didn’t work, one thing or another.
There was no authority, as I would say, probably. At that moment, probably, a lot of people left, not wanting to see all that. Of course, the ones who left were the ones who had some money. Do you understand? And so, in order to — they thought up, from their point of view, the law enforcement organs thought up, probably, in order to prevent these important people from running away, most likely, they created, developed the myth of the Russian mafia. As if those who left must be the Russian mafia.
And for them they created departments for combating the Russian mafia abroad — that is, for people who wanted to leave the country themselves. So, they created this mafia — and people would say, “Come on, give up your mafia bosses. Who are they?” But there weren’t any! None. And so they asked, “Who has a name?” I did. You understand, who and what. It was me and some other guy and a third. Presto! Five guys, 10 were picked. Everyone knows me, for example. I live openly. I’m not hiding from anyone. And this was useful for them. If I’d been hiding or encrypting everything, maybe it would have been better for me. But I lived.
I am an honest person. I lived openly. I had money and I spent it. They questioned me — where did I get the money? I answered that I earned it. And they’d ask, “Where did you pay taxes?” Nowhere. “Why not?” Because we don’t have taxes. “Pay taxes here.” Why should I pay taxes here? I didn’t earn the money here, but in my own country. “And why don’t you keep the money in the bank?” We don’t have banks. There weren’t any banks, you understand? All our banks died, were robbed. The times were that way, and it wasn’t my fault…. That’s the way that I answered and they didn’t like that. I was supposed to speak the way they wanted me to.
Under the cover of that Russian mafia were opened departments for combating the Russian mafia, where all our pension-aged law enforcement officers made themselves a nice little nest.
RFE/RL: You mean that the Russian mafia, according to you, is just a colorful myth?
Tokhtakhunov: A necessary myth. Under the cover of that Russian mafia were opened — again, I repeat — were opened departments for combating the Russian mafia, where all our pension-aged law enforcement officers made themselves a nice little nest. They moved into those departments. And they said, “We need to investigate this, we need to investigate that.” They investigated, but without results, except for wasting money. And we seemed like a mafia, to people abroad, we seemed like a mafia. And there was nothing to do about it.
RFE/RL: You mean you seemed like a mafia because of the way you looked?
Tokhtakhunov: I guess so, yes. Why? Because we had a different mentality. We lived differently. That’s the way people live where we come from.
RFE/RL: We aren’t just talking about street thugs, but about people in offices where financial flows were controlled.
Tokhtakhunov: I can’t know about that because I wasn’t here when the serious cases came up. That’s why when they told me that so-and-so has a billion dollars. I didn’t believe them. Because I had that mentality — I understood that it takes not one generation but many generations to make that kind of money, and a person can’t become a billionaire in 30 years unless he stole it. I didn’t believe it, and when people told me such things I thought they were lying and they must have earned or stolen some $50 million or $100 million. That’s what I thought, at least.
I’ll tell you, there was one businessman who lived near me in France for eight years by the name of Mikhail Chyorny. [Editor’s note: a former aluminum oligarch who helped create the Trans World Group, a company that was the third-largest producer of aluminum in the world.] They were writing that he was a billionaire and I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it. When we ate in restaurants, I was always trying to pick up the check. When he wanted to pay, I’d say, “Misha, it is awkward for me that you pay all the time.” He would say, “Alik, this is a business meeting. I’ll put it on the business credit card.” It was awkward for me, but it turned out he really was a billionaire. I didn’t have that kind of money, but I didn’t want to — you understand — I was thinking maybe he doesn’t have that much money.
‘Pomegranates’ To ‘Grenades’?
RFE/RL: Later you ran into legal troubles.
Tokhtakhunov: There were such times. What can you do about it? We survived it, thank God. There were scandalous cases and journalists started calling up more often. But I always say, “How could I have anything to do with it?” You understand? Buy a gold medal — that’s impossible, particularly in figure skating. I wasn’t even there. I can’t say — if they were listening to my phone calls, then all the more they should be convinced that I wasn’t doing anything like that. Maybe I told someone: I’m sure that our skaters will win. Even if I said that I bought it, does that mean it is a fact that I could buy it? That’s, that’s [trails off]….
I’d say, “Since I’m honest, they are going to understand that I’m honest.” But it turns out that things aren’t like that abroad.
I’ll tell you another example. When I was younger, I was always an open person. I never looked around me because I was never committing any crimes. And when I was speaking on the phone, my friends sometimes said to me, “Alik, what are you saying?” No, no, it wasn’t like that. Just the opposite. I said, “Why do you talk so much on the phone?” And my friends said, “Alik, if you are an honest man, the more openly you speak over the phone then the better those who are listening will understand that you are honest.” I really liked this idea — my friend said that to me — and when I lived abroad I always spoke openly over the phone. And they would say to me, “Why are you talking so much?” And I’d say, “Since I’m honest, they are going to understand that I’m honest.” But it turns out that things aren’t like that abroad.
I’ll explain. There, they listen to everything and then they give it to a translator to put on paper and all the phrases that you were talking about can be changed. For instance, I had an example about pomegranates. They called me from Tashkent and said, “We’ll send you some pomegranates.” You know, to eat, I was sick, living in Rome. And so the prosecutor asks me why I need bombs in Italy. I said, “What bombs?” They said, “We translated what your friend said. You asked him to send you some bombs. Or rather, he suggested that he send you some bombs.” I look at the translator and say, “What is this all about? I don’t understand.” They said “grenades” and I said, “Oh, pomegranates. We eat them. You know, from Tashkent. We have big pomegranates. They send them. There is a direct flight from Tashkent to Rome. And they said we have friends, we’ll send you some plov [pilaf] and kishmish [raisins].” You know, Uzbek raisins? I explain this to the prosecutor. And how did they translate it? Pomegranates were translated as “bombs.” Kishmish was translated as “hashish.” And so they tell me I’m trading in weapons and drugs. I said, “Look, they sent me this suitcase.” And they brought them five times. He sent it to me regularly. I said, “You could already check if you were listening to my conversations. Seize the suitcase, open it, and check it. You probably already did that. Why are you now asking me such stupid questions?”
At some point, maybe from Russia, some sort of information came that I was in the mafia, for example, or in organized crime, when we began and groups were formed. So they began to follow me. They spent money, over several years. [They] didn’t collect any proof. But they have to explain their work. They need to prove that I’m in the mafia. So they proved that I’m such a powerful mafia boss that I can buy the Olympics.
RFE/RL: And haven’t you been drawn to politics in Moscow?
Tokhtakhunov: You know, I’d be happy to go into politics. But thank God, I didn’t. After all, my resume is spoiled. I’m a convict. I don’t need to hear even more stuff aimed at me.
RFE/RL: But you could have your record cleared. Like they cleared Brodsky’s…
Tokhtakhunov: Well, what are you going to say? If they want, they’ll say everything differently. We’ve already had experience with that. You understand? The times are like that. If they want, they forget everything and don’t remember. But if they want, they remember.
RFE/RL: Why were you attracted to politics earlier?
Tokhtakhunov: You know, I was attracted because at some point, I saw injustice and I wanted to help the state, taking into account my experience. I have experience. I have seen a lot, know a lot, have thought a lot. I have spoken to a lot of people of various standings. I have seen some things that I would have done differently. And because of that, I wanted to try. But then I thought and I didn’t have the courage. I didn’t want to deal with all those insects, you understand. I have a lot of energy and I wanted to help, to help Russia. Even today I see a lot of things that I would do better than, say, any governor or any mayor or whatever. You understand? I know that I would do better. I have the character; I have the will; I have everything.
RFE/RL: There is a picture of you on the Internet wearing a T-shirt with a photo of [former Russian President and current Prime Minister] Vladimir Putin on it. Do you know him personally?
Tokhtakhunov: Not really. Not really. I saw him once in Monte Carlo. He arrived with a Russian delegation of businessmen back when he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. We met and spoke a bit.
Putin arrived [in Monte Carlo] with a Russian delegation of businessmen back when he was deputy mayor of St. Petersburg. We met and spoke a bit. He had a very powerful energy, I’ll tell you that. Very powerful. I took note of him then.
RFE/RL: What were your impressions?
Tokhtakhunov: He had a very powerful energy, I’ll tell you that. Very powerful. I took note of him then. I even followed his movements.
RFE/RL: What does a person have to be like for you take note of him?
Tokhtakhunov: I can’t even say what you’d need to do. But apparently he had something, some sort of charisma. I took note of him, you see. Later, when I was living abroad, I was told, “Putin is in the Kremlin, Putin something else.” And I said, “I saw him in Monte Carlo, said hello to him.” But I never saw him again.