MOSCOW – One of Russia’s biggest criminal bosses was gunned down in the center of Moscow on Wednesday as he left his favorite hangout surrounded by bodyguards.
Aslan Usoyan, a 75-year-old gangster known as Grandpa Khasan, was hit by a sniper perched on the sixth floor of an apartment building, shot in the head with a round from a silenced assault rifle, the Russian Investigative Committee said. He died at a hospital, leaving behind a nephew he was grooming for succession and the prospect of a bloody turf war. Usoyan controlled prostitution, construction and all manner of protection rackets in Moscow and a wide swath of Russia, according to Mark Galeotti, a New York University professor who has studied the Russian mob for 20 years. The crime boss reportedly had a stranglehold over Sochi, home of the 2014 Winter Olympics, to the envy of the underworld.
Although Usoyan confined his criminal activity to the former Soviet Union, some of his close associates went farther afield. Last year, the U.S. Treasury Department put five of them on a list of transnational criminals belonging to a group considered a threat to the United States. The five were named under an executive order that allows seizure of their assets in the United States and essentially prevents them from banking in dollars anywhere in the world.
Usoyan had a long criminal career, cinematic in scope, Galeotti said. He reportedly was first arrested at age 19 for attacking a policeman, and he went on to specialize in robbery and extortion. During the Gorbachev years, he ran a protection racket, Galeotti said, shielding aspiring entrepreneurs operating on the black market in return for payment.
“So he had the money and contacts to capitalize on the collapse of the Soviet Union,” said Galeotti, who described Usoyan as one of the three or four top figures in the underworld in Russia. “He built a very broad-based criminal network.”
Usoyan, an ethnic Kurd who was born in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, built a multiethnic network of Georgians, Ingush, Chechens and Armenians. He was at war with a clan run by a Georgian, Tariel Oniani, known as Taro.
A few years ago, underworld leaders organized a meeting to settle the dispute, but it failed. One of the negotiators on Usoyan’s behalf, a gangster known as the Little Japanese, was shot dead in 2009. The next year a sniper took a shot at Usoyan a few blocks from the Kremlin, but he recovered from the wound.
“He was a classic gangster, like Corleone,” Galeotti said, likening him to the New York don of “The Godfather” books and movies. “In recent years, he collected tribute.”
Usoyan lived in a universe of people with names such as Grisha the Dumpling, Ed the Sturgeon and Kostya the Tomb. He drove around Moscow in a black limousine, accompanied by bodyguards in two Jeeps.