Man in the Middle: Semion Mogilevich

The Brainy Don has enormous reach.

“In the morning, I wait for the next scandal. That's the only way that my name is understood. And in the evening, I suffer if there hasn’t been one.”
—Semion Mogilevich, sarcastically

He’s been described as “a real-life Keyser Söze.” Despite being active for decades, there are only a handful of pictures of him. He neither looks nor sounds like the capo di tutti i capi of the most powerful crime syndicate that ever existed—“the most dangerous mobster in the world,” as the FBI once called him—or an elite intelligence operative. But then, neither did Söze. As Verbal Kint says in The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

At five-six and 300 pounds, he may look like the proprietor of some greasy New Jersey diner, the guy who rings up your cheeseburger deluxe, but Semion Mogilevich really does exist, and really does wield considerable power in the intersecting worlds of organized crime and intelligence. His tentacles extend everywhere, and his nickname—The Brainy Don—is well deserved (and not, as he claims in the one major interview of him that exists, because he has a ginormous head). An FBI report had this to say about his criminal enterprise, back in 1996:

Principal activities of the Mogilevich Organization include weapons trafficking, nuclear materials trafficking, prostitution [i.e., sex trafficking], drug trafficking, dealing in precious gems, and money laundering. The Mogilevich Organization operates across Central Europe, including Prague, Czech Republic; Vienna, Austria; and Moscow, Russia. Its activities also extend to the United States, Ukraine, United Kingdom, France, Slovakia, and Israel.

Since then, his operation has only grown larger and more audacious. What “Seva” Mogilevich does, better than perhaps anyone who ever lived, is move around things that aren’t meant to be moved around: narcotics from Southeast Asia, arms to Iran, sex slaves from Eastern Europe, diamonds from Africa, nukes to God knows where—and money, vast sums of money, from Point A to Point B. Meyer Lansky may have written the book on money laundering, but it was Semion Mogilevich who turned it into a blockbuster motion picture.

As with Keyser Söze, a mythology has sprung up around him. The curious reluctance of the mainstream media to mention his name only contributes to that mythology. Here is the full quote from the movie, delivered by Kint:

Nobody ever believed he was real. Nobody ever knew him or saw anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Söze. You never knew. That was his power. The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

And that’s where the comparison breaks down. “Seva” Mogilevich is not some Hollywood antihero. Nobody disputes that he was born in Ukraine, that he is of Jewish descent, that he studied economics at Lvov and lived for years in Budapest, that he now resides freely in Moscow, with the blessing of Vladimir Putin, the ex-FSB officer he helped install. Lots of people know him, lots of people have worked directly for or with him. There are plenty of reports covering the activities of his criminal organization. Two important crimefighters—Bob Levinson of the FBI and the CIA, and Alexander Litvinenko, of the FSB’s organized crime unit—sacrificed their lives to expose Mogilevich as 1) the boss of bosses of the most powerful crime syndicate in the world, and 2) the supervillain who helped turn Russia into a mafia state.

If we bother to look, we see that the Brainy Don has left his pudgy fingerprints all over the place. As the world’s pre-eminent trafficker, the alleged head of the Russian mob, and a top-shelf intelligence operative besides, he is perhaps the ultimate Man in the Middle. He said so himself, to the BBC: “We acted as middlemen. We acted as middlemen.”

Let’s start with his O.G. partner in crime. . .

Monya Elson

As Robert I. Friedman reported in The Village Voice in 1998, Elson, leader of “a pack of thugs and killers known as Monya’s Brigada,” then based in Brighton Beach, was known to law enforcement as “one of Mogilevich’s closest associates and partners in prostitution and money laundering rings.” In an interview with Friedman, Elson categorized his relationship with Mogilevich like so: “I lived with him. I’m his partner, don’t forget. We are very, very close friends. I don’t mean close, I mean very, very close. He’s my best friend.” The feelings are mutual. Mogilevich himself told Tom Mangold of the BBC, “My feelings for him are no less than his for me.” Friedman explains the relationship:

In July 1993, after Elson was grievously wounded by rival mobsters in a bloody shoot-out outside his Brooklyn apartment building, Mogilevich spirited him out of the country. Mogilevich then set up his Russian Jewish refugee friend in an alleged massive money-laundering scheme in Fano, Italy, where he was eventually arrested and extradited back to America. Elson, an integral part of the Red Mafia, had been one of the most feared mobsters in Brighton Beach, ground zero for Russian organized crime in America, which has exploded here following perestroika.

Another Mogilevich associate plying his trade in New York at this time was. . .

Vyacheslav Ivankov

One of the more brutal Russian mobsters going, “Little Japanese,” as he was known, was dispatched to the U.S. in 1992, where, per Friedman, he was “Godfather of the Russian mob in America.” Ivankov owned a quarter share of an import-export company, Arbat International, that Mogilevich registered in the Channel Islands, and the FBI considered him an intimate associate of the Brainy Don. In the BBC interview, Mogilevich unconvincingly denies all of this. (When asked why he formed a company in the Channel Islands of all places, he quipped, “The problem was that I didn't know any other islands. When they taught us geography at school, I was sick that day.”)

In the roll-up of La Cosa Nostra by the Russian mafiya in the 80s-90s—what LB describes in “The World Beneath” podcast as “America [being] invaded from the underworld up”—Ivankov was a key figure, the commanding general on the battlefield. He spent a lot of his time in the U.S. hanging out at the Trump Taj Mahal, and living in Trump Tower. Apartments in Trump Tower were purchased in 1984 by. . .

David Bogatin

. . . whom Friedman describes as “a top Russian crime figure.” Bogatin served time in prison for his participation in a gasoline tax fraud scam that is a calling card of the Russian mob. His brother. . .

Jacob Bogatin

. . . was president and CEO of a company called YBM Magnex, which was busted by the FBI in 1998. Jacob Bogatin himself revealed that the company was owned by Mogilevich, and he is named in the ‘96 report as an associate of the Brainy Don. “Seva” himself admitted as much, although he predictably disputed the assertion that Bogatin was associated with organized crime: “The thing is that maybe in the professorial circles where Jacob Bogatin teaches, the University of Saratov, he is a Doctor of Science, a professor of metallurgy, he is known by all the metallurgists in Russia, maybe it’s an organized crime group of metallurgists.” Narrator’s voice: It is not an organized crime group of metallurgists.

Donald Trump

The criminals in The Usual Suspects may not have been aware they were working for Keyser Söze, as Gint suggests, but Trump can’t claim ignorance of who his bosses are. Per David Kay Johnson, David Bogatin arranged for shell companies to purchase those five deluxe Trump Tower apartments, and Trump personally attended the closing. “Thus,” Craig Unger explained, “according to the New York state attorney general’s office, when Trump closed the deal with Bogatin, whether he knew it or not, he had just helped launder money for the Russian Mafia.”

If he didn’t know at the 1984 closing, Trump certainly figured it out soon after. Ivankov made Trump Tower one of his bases of operation; plenty of Russian mob activity went down there. Monya Elson was headquartered in Brighton Beach, where most of the residential housing units were owned by Fred Trump, longtime front man for the Genovese crime family. The Former Guy is second-generation mobbed up, born into it. He knew exactly what he was doing.

We can’t say for sure if Trump has ever spoken to “Seva” Mogilevich directly, much less been in the same room with him. But one of Unger’s sources for House of Trump, House of Putin, whom the author describes as having “direct contact with the Russian underworld over many years,” puts the chances that the Brainy Don and the Not-So-Brainy Don had met at “one hundred percent.” Unger writes:

The source. . . claimed Mogilevich had a relationship with Trump that dated back many years as well. “It didn’t sound to me that [2016] was the first business they did,” he told me. “I know that Seva met Trump when he was in America.”

He added that the U.S. meeting took place during the days of YBM Magnex [the scam that Felix Sater1 helped the FBI bust in 1998]. The relationship between the two men, the source said, had nothing to do with politics. “I don’t think that anybody really believed that an idiot like Trump could become mayor of a Texan village. A big businessman, let’s get something on him.”

There’s also this: Two years before the YBM bust, Trump attended a party in Moscow, held at a swanky hotel owned by the Brainy Don. Perhaps “Seva” made a special appearance?

Speaking of places in Moscow controlled by Mogilevich. . .

Sheremetyevo International Airport

. . . was described by Elson as “a smuggler’s paradise.” Mogilevich, Friedman says, “controls everything that goes in and out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport.” It is safe to assume that “everything” extends to human beings, particularly American human beings on the lam for filching classified intelligence information from the NSA. Whether the traitor realized it or not, there is no reality in which Edward Snowden’s 40-day layover at this airport, and his subsequent residence in the Russian Federation, did not have the blessing of “Seva.”

And that’s the truly remarkable thing about Mogilevich: It’s not possible for a criminal, however gifted, to hold that much sway in the underworld, for that long, without also being a highly effective intelligence operative. The Brainy Don moves easily in both (under)worlds.

Robert Maxwell

The British journalists Gordon Thomas and Martin Dillon make the claim in their book Robert Maxwell: Superspy that Max & Mogi were business partners back in the day. As Nina Burleigh nicely summarizes in a piece she wrote for Rolling Stone, “Maxwell was a conduit between the KGB, the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, and the emerging Russian kleptocrat oligarchy in the 1980s, creating some 400 companies that were used to launder the newly capitalist Slavs’ dirty money.” At least one of those companies was a jointly-held venture between the two “middlemen.” Maxwell—father to Ghislaine, mentor to Jeffrey Epstein, friend to the Queen—is himself the paradigmatic Man in the Middle, so it’s perhaps inevitable that he and Mogilevich would have crossed paths. But it’s no less shocking.

And Maxwell was not the only spy Mogilevich had ties to. The Brainy Don has been linked to Czech intelligence, Israeli intelligence (it was with an Israeli passport that he was able to travel to the U.S. and U.K. in the 90s), Iranian intelligence (Iran was a major client for arms deals), and. . .

Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND)

. . . the German intelligence agency, which, Friedman says, citing a report on a German network, “had entered into a secret contract with Mogilevich to provide information on the Russian mob. The charges were made by several sources, including Pierre Delilez, a highly regarded Belgium police investigator who specializes in Russian Organized Crime.” If accurate, this means that Mogilevich was effectively a confidential informant for the Germans—trading intelligence for qualified immunity. The Brainy Don thus benefited by ratting out his rivals while simultaneously having investigations into his own illicit activities stymied.

Needless to say, Mogilevich holds enormous power in Moscow, via the. . .

FSB / Vladimir Putin

Alexander Litvinenko, who headed the Russian Federal Security Service’s organized crime division, told the world in November 1998 that his own intelligence agency, the FSB, had been infiltrated and taken over by criminals. Russia, he said, was now a mafia state.

The head of the corrupt agency at the time? Vladimir Putin, an obscure functionary who spent his formative FSB years in Dresden—not exactly a glamour job. By the end of the following year, after a series of apartment bombings in the Moscow environs said to be the work of Chechen separatists that galvanized popular support for his performance, Putin replaced Boris Yeltsin as president of the Russian Federation. He’s been in charge ever since. And so has the Brainy Don.

In this remarkable video acquired by Cit Journo, Putin is seen in his campaign headquarters. At 1:15 in the video, Mogilevich makes a corpulent cameo:

Viktor Orbán

That Mogilevich, who lived for many years in Budapest, would have close ties to the far-right Hungarian president is no great shock. Katalin Papp, his second wife, is from Hungary, and because of that marriage, “Seva” became a Hungarian citizen. But the way in which he and Orbán are connected is a bit surprising.

According to reporting by the Russian journalist Anastasia Kirilenko, a longtime Mogilevich associate with the colorful name Dietmar Clodo was tasked by “Seva” with delivering a million Deutschmarks to a young Hungarian politician in 1994. That politician, of the far-right Fidesz party, initially refused to go into the house to collect the dough. But Clodo convinced him by saying, “Listen to me, I have the damned money in a suitcase. I don’t want to go out on the street with this suitcase. . .If you don’t come in, I will give it back to Mr. Mogilevich. I don’t care.” Whereupon young Viktor Orbán came into the house, and was caught on videotape carrying off the money.

Kirilenko writes:

[I]n 2008. . .Mogilevich was arrested in Moscow, not as a result of an FSB request, but for tax evasion in relation to the “Arbat Prestige” case. Mogilevich spent a year and a half in jail, and was released in June under written undertakings not to leave Moscow.  Soon the case was closed “due to insufficient crime elements.” Dietmar Clodo believes that in order to secure his release, Mogilevich yielded some of his assets and shared his documents compromising Viktor Orbán with the Kremlin.

If Clodo is right, that means there are two reported instances where Mogilevich cooperated with law enforcement to save his own hide.

Dmytro Firtash

A Ukrainian businessman who operates as a middleman between Ukraine and Gazprom, the Russian energy company, Firtash has admitted his close association with the Mogilevich Organization. U.S. prosecutors consider him an “upper-echelon” associate of organized crime, and seek his extradition to try him for bribery. His company, Group DF, is all over the Offshore Leaks database:

Prior to his arrest in Austria in 2014, Firtash was a key figure in the government of Viktor Yanukovych, the Kremlin-backed president of Ukraine—the thuggish politician Paul Manafort worked for. In 2019, to help fight his extradition to the U.S., Firtash retained the legal services of Rudy Giuliani chums Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing. Gazprom, meanwhile, was the main client of the boutique law firm where FBI director Christopher Wray was a partner.

As shady as that might sound, Wray never worked directly for Mogilevich—unlike one of his predecessors as FBI director. . .

William Sessions

President Clinton fired Sessions2 in 1993, after the Washington Post published an expose on his alleged ethical improprieties. In 1997, as Unger reports in House of Trump, House of Putin, Sessions traveled to Moscow, where he railed against the scourge of Russian organized crime. Ten years later . . . Sessions was Semion Mogilevich’s attorney. That means that when Mogilevich was included on the FBI Ten Most Wanted list in 2009, his attorney was a former director of the FBI.

I’m going to say that one more time, and put it in bold, because I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around this: When Mogilevich was included on the FBI Ten Most Wanted list in 2009, his attorney was a former director of the FBI!

Why would Sessions do such a thing? He understood better than anyone how dirty his client’s money was, and he must have known how bad the optics would be. Was he that hard up for coin? Were the ethical improprieties that got him pink-slipped from the Bureau indicative of a defective moral compass? Or. . . was his post-FBI working relationship with the Brainy Don merely a continuation of a prior working relationship?

Sessions died last year, so we can’t ask him. But I can’t help but recall the oddly specific answer Mogilevich gave to Tom Mangold in the BBC interview, which ran in December of 1999:

MANGOLD: Would you give evidence on Russian organized crime to a Congressional committee if you were guaranteed immunity?

MOGILEVICH: I would do so if anybody asked me to. It wouldn't bother me at all. But no one has asked me to.

“Seva” was probably lying about that last part. By then, if the reports are to be believed, the Germans had already asked him to cooperate. Two decades later, according to one of his closest associates, the Russians would do the same. Might Williams Sessions’ FBI also have asked?

“There are two things that I dislike about the Unites States,” Mogilevich told Mangold, “their bread and the FBI.” Then why retain its ex-director as your attorney?


This is hardly an exhaustive list. I didn’t go into the banking stuff—the Bank of New York racket, Alfa Bank, Inkombank, Bank Balchug, RZB Investment, Raiffeisen—or the many Russian gangsters and white-collar crooks he’s worked with through the years, or the links to various terrorist groups. Nor did I list the well-known American attorneys and businessmen with rumored ties to the larger Mogilevich Organization. Suffice it to say, the Brainy Don has enormous reach.

Mogilevich is 75 years old. More recent photos hint at extreme weight loss indicative of infirmity, and for most of his life, he was morbidly obese and smoked like a Siberian chimney. Outside, the pandemic rages on. He is unlikely to leave Russia, for fear of being apprehended in Budapest or Vienna or London and spending his remaining years in prison. Is he still all-powerful? Is he semi-retired? We can only guess. Mobsters don’t typically live that long, so he has already beaten the odds. He has already won.

I’ll end with another quote from The Usual Suspects: “You think you can catch Keyser Söze? You think a guy like that comes this close to getting caught and sticks his head out? . . . My guess is you’ll never hear from him again.”

We should be so lucky.

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Further reading:

1996 FBI Report

1999 BBC Interview

Cit Journo Extended Bibliography

Transborder Corruption Archive / Mogilevich

The Insider, “Suitcase Full of Cash”

1

Rumors of Sater’s involvement with Russian organized crime, and with the Mogilevich Organization in particular, have circulated for years. In House of Trump, House of Putin, Unger cites a quote from a Russian mobster that ran in The Insider: “Felix Sater from Bayrock counted Seva Mogilevich [and Ivankov] among his friends. Sater served as [errand boy] to Seva when he resided in the U.S.” Sater, for his part, vehemently denies any of this, denials he has made repeatedly under oath before various Congressional committees.

2

Father of Texas Rep. Pete Sessions. No relation to Jefferson Beauregard.