USSR's 3 most NOTORIOUS gangsters

Kira Lisitskaya (Photo: Ivan Kurtov/TASS, Public domain)
A pickpocket who robbed Lenin, a clandestine king of the criminal world, and a “honorable gangster” – the three most legendary members of the Russian mafia.

1. Yakov Koshel’kov

Yakov Koshel'kov in 1916.

Yakov Kuznetsov was just one of Moscow’s gangsters of the 1910s, but he earned instant notoriety in the criminal world after robbing Vladimir Lenin himself – although he didn’t realise it at the time.

Yakov was born in 1890 into a convict family and started stealing as a boy. By 1917, he had 10 indictments to his name as a pickpocket, and had become a notorious criminal. His nickname “Koshel’kov” meant “man of purses.”

Koshel’kov was a courageous criminal. In 1918, he was apprehended by the CheKa [the forerunner of the Soviet NKVD and KGB] in a town near Smolensk. However, while en route to Moscow one of his accomplices, disguised as a peddler, gave Koshel’kov a special loaf of bread. The loaf contained a Browning pistol, which Koshel’kov used to shoot the CheKa officer who had arrested him. Yakov escaped. He continued his criminal activities, not just as a pickpocket, but as a leader of an organized gang that performed armed robberies. A year later, he would commit his most infamous crime.

Vladimir Lenin and his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya in a car

On January 6, 1919, Koshel’kov and five accomplices stopped a car near the Moscow district of Sokolniki – the bandits simply needed a ride to perform a robbery. It just happened to be Lenin’s car – the Bolshevik leader and his sister Maria, accompanied by a driver and a guard, were on their way to visit Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya in hospital.

The bandits ordered the passengers out of the car and searched them. “What’s going on? I am Lenin!” – Vladimir Ilyich exclaimed, but Koshel’kov misheard his name. “You may be Levin all you want, and I’m Koshel’kov, the boss of this city at night,” Yakov said. He took Lenin’s documents and a gun, and the gangsters drove away in Lenin’s Mercedes. Only in the car, looking at the documents, did Koshel’kov realise what a grave error he had made. He turned the car around and sped back to where the gang had left Lenin, but the head of state had disappeared.

After the incident, a major search was launched for Koshel’kov and his gang. Several unsuccessful attempts to catch him were made, with Koshel’kov killing a number of secret police officers in shootouts. When he was finally caught in July 1919, the CheKa agents took no chances and opened fire with all they had. Koshel’ko was riddled with bullets, killed by six shots. Lenin’s Browning automatic was found on Yakov after his death.

2. Vasya Brilliant 

A rare photo of Vasya Brilliant

Vladimir Babushkin was the undisputed king of the Soviet criminal world until 1985, when he died, aged 57. During his life he spent a total of 35 years behind bars. It is this that made him a legend.

Vladimir started out as a pickpocket – the most “respectable” criminal trade, and at 20, was sentenced to his first 10-year term. In jail, he was dubbed “Vasya” – to hide his real identity, which was a tradition among the Russian thieves. He was also nicknamed “Brilliant” (“Diamond”) in tribute to his senior position in the prison hierarchy. “Vasya” never worked for the Soviet State in his free life, and never collaborated with prison authorities behind bars. He was prepared to face the harshest of penalties for this.

As a notorious thief with an impeccable reputation, Brilliant became the ultimate authority in jail – fellow inmates asked him to act as the final arbiter when they needed to resolve conflicts. He died in prison in 1985. Several years later, Soviet gangsters erected an 8-ton granite monument over his grave in Solikamsk, 135 miles south of Perm in central Russia’s Urals region.

3. Sergey Maduev

Sergey Maduev in court during his trial

Sergey was a rare natural born criminal – he was born in a detention facility in the Kazakh Soviet Soсialist Republic, USSR. His father was a Chechen, jailed for resisting deportation, and his mother, a Korean woman, had been jailed for illegal trading. No wonder the boy started stealing as a kid, and at 18, was sent down for the first time – he got 6 years for taking part in a robbery.

Sergey had no education or skills, except for criminal ones. In 1980, he was released from prison, but spent just a year free before getting 15 more years. 8 years later, he made a daring escape and was on the lam for 2 years.

Maduev sported the image of an “honorable gangster.” In Grozny, he and an accomplice burgled a family in their apartment, and Maduev stopped his fellow crook from raping the daughter. In Moscow, a man had a heart attack during a robbery, and Maduev called an ambulance for him. While on the run, Maduev didn’t hide. During his 2-year robbing spree, he robbed and killed dozens of people. He was finally apprehended in 1990 in Tashkent and taken to Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) for investigation.

However, while on remand in Leningrad, Maduev managed to charm Natalya Vorontsova, one of his investigators, and persuaded her to secretly pass him a gun. Using the weapon, Maduev attacked his guards and attempted to escape, but was caught. Natalya Vorontsova was tried and sentenced to 7 years in prison.

Maduev was sentenced to death, but in 1995, a moratorium on the death penalty in Russia was introduced. Maduev spent the last years of his life behind bars. He died while in prison in 2000, aged 44.

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