On January 17, Fontanka published an interview with the St. Petersburg criminal mastermind Ilya Traber, nicknamed «the Antiques Dealer,» given to Yevgeny Vyshenkov (who had been tried for his ties to organized crime, but now poses as a journalist). In the complimentary interview the crime lord is presented as a «heavyweight of Russian business», who denies any ties to criminals. Traber was the closest associate and business partner of Vladimir Kumarin (Barsukov), the notorious leader of the Tambov Organized Crime Group who gave a very similar interview to Vyshenkov in 2007 (where he also presented himself as a businessman and denied any connection to the criminal organizations). Just months after that interview he was arrested as a gang leader and has been behind bars ever since.
Kumarin was convicted of organizing murders and raids, including the seizure of the St. Petersburg Oil Terminal, through which aircraft fuel was delivered to Pulkovo Airport. After that, the terminal fell under the control of three key figures: Sergei Vasiliev, Traber, and Gennady Petrov (see the investigations by Novaya Gazeta, The Insider, and the wiretaps obtained in the Spanish case of the Tambov Organized Crime Group).
Traber himself, in an interview with Fontanka, didn't shy away from describing how he ran the terminal:
«For instance, Pulkovo Airport. 1995. I went to the airport director and told him: you buy fuel for a ruble at Kirishi, you deliver it for 10 kopecks, you store it for 20 kopecks, and you refuel the planes for 30 kopecks. I have a proposal for you: let me rent the oil depot from you, and I will deliver fuel to you at the factory price, everything else will be at my expense, and I will also pay the rent. He gasped: «What's your interest?» What I told him, I'll tell you later. So, I rented the oil depot for 10 years. You know what I did?»
«After that you revealed your secret plan to him, and he gasped again and regretted his agreeing to your proposal».
«At the time, Pulkovo's own aircraft were consuming 80% of the total volume of fuel, and 20% was being consumed by foreign companies. I realized that the fuel volume consumed by foreign companies would grow, while the price was 5 times lower. They were filling up at the Russian market price, while in the West the fuel prices were 5-6 times higher. So, I set a new price. The Foreign Ministry started calling me on the phone. I told them to get lost. I told them: this is my business, if you don't want it, fly to Finland for fuel. A few planes stayed grounded for a week and then they started paying up. They tried to pressure me, called me from the Foreign Ministry: «How can you act this way?» It's my company, that's how. It's mine.»
There's one person involved in the story whom Traber humbly omits to mention: Vladimir Putin. On May 17, 1996, when Putin was Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg, he signed Decree #488-P to lease the Pulkovo fuel and filling complex to CJSC Sovex. At the time, Sovex was controlled by the same people who controlled the oil terminal: Dmitry Skigin, Traber, and Sergey Vasilyev.
According to Sovex co-founder Maxim Freidzon, Putin demanded a kickback for such a «gift» from the Mayor's Office and held lengthy negotiations with the majority owner Dmitry Skigin, Putin wanted 15%, but in the end they settled for 4% of the profit.
Putin wanted 15% of income, but in the end he settled for 4%
Tambov Gang accountant
Freidzon recalls it was Traber who was the liaison between the Tambov Organized Crime Group and the Mayor's Office:
«Ilya combined some business skills (selling antiques, working as a bartender in a beer bar) and an unmistakable and often grotesquely accentuated gangster image: weirdly enough, he doubled down on it, unlike other members of the criminal underworld of that level. He served as a liaison, he was able to talk more or less coherently, to add, subtract and multiply numbers, to calculate percentages. <...> During the formation of the Petersburg Oil Terminal (POT) and the Association of Banks Investing in the Port (ABIP), he took an active part in that. I think he was a liaison between Kumarin, Vasiliev and the people who worked at the Mayor's Office.»
According to Freidzon, Skigin finally surrendered control of the terminal to the gangsters in 1997-98 and when he died in 2003, the Tambov gang, while trying to seize his share of the company, made an attempt on the life of Freidzon (he was wounded but survived) and drove him out of the business.
Western companies flying through Pulkovo transferred fuel payments due to Sovex to Horizon International Trading, a Liechtenstein offshore company that owned Sovex and Sotrama in Monaco. When Monaco began probing money laundering by the Tambov gang, it led to a ban on Skigin's entry (in the case file, he was listed as «Traber's man from the Tambov gang»). According to the Monaco police, Skigin «used to bring Traber to the Côte d'Azur.»
The fact that the Tambov gang money was not welcome in Monaco upset Traber, as he seems to seriously want to be considered a businessman: «In Monaco they called me a gangster too. We've been trying to figure it out for 14 years. The Monegasque judge pointed to the French police, and the French police have been refusing for 14 years to give up the names of those who, back in 1996, informed them about me. They say it would harm the security of France.»
Ilya Traber said he had appealed to the ECHR; he speaks about it as if he had already won the case:
«So, you are fighting on three fronts. One in Spain, one in France, one in Monaco?»
«No, it's already over in Monaco. They lost. There is one in France, but my lawsuits are already in Strasbourg.»
There is a ECHR case-file from 2017, Traber of St. Petersburg v. France. The case has been combined with 16 other complaints against France and concerns requests for disclosure of information related to «state security». Judging by the complaint, the description of which was read by The Insider, Traber demanded the disclosure of the sources the French intelligence services used to link him to crime. Even if the ECHR grants the lawsuit, which is unlikely, it will hardly help Traber's reputation.
Traber also claims in the same interview that he is not a defendant in the «Troika» criminal case in Spain concerning the Tambov/Malyshev criminal group. But it follows from the Bill of Indictment that he is still a defendant in a money-laundering case and is listed as having fled justice. Simply put, the Spaniards were investigating the origin of funds invested in Traber's villa in Mallorca.
The Tambov money laundering case in Spain was handled successively by several investigators and investigative judges. These include the famous investigating judge, Balthazar Garzon, and his colleague Jose de La Mata, but Traber was particularly irritated by the investigating prosecutor, Jose Grinda. Traber even tried to sue him for slander and, of course, failed, but he took it out on Russian journalists, whom he sued for quoting Grinda:
«Do the Russian authorities believe your legal fight is important?»
«You want to present me as a hero? If they do, they should give me a medal. I don't know how important it is, how interesting it is. It's hard for me to say. But if I destroy that asshole prosecutor in Spain, I think I'll do the homeland some good. Because it's too high-profile a case. <...> And most importantly, to name the most important problem, this problem is Spain. Our journalists referred to a Spanish journalist who published an interview with a Spanish prosecutor who's been leading a case against me and another 30 Russian citizens. I was unable to win a lawsuit against the prosecutor and the journalist in Spain. The courts flatly rejected it. They rejected my slander lawsuit against the prosecutor who said I was going to kill him and his family. They said it wasn't slander. And here in Russia, our media outlets reported the whole thing. And I didn't have to deal with them on a case-by-case basis... Most importantly, this is a civil lawsuit. So according to the 1990 Convention between the USSR and Spain, the court decision would have to be recognized in Spain as well. After all, my lawsuit against our media outlets included an indirect claim against the prosecutor's statements and against the Spanish journalist. I saw a chance. Because once I get a ruling that's positive for me here, I'm going to use it as an argument for my defense in Span. That's all there's to it.»
«What is the name of the prosecutor?»
«His name is Grinda. He's a dishonest man,» Traber said quickly and lit a cigarette.
In fact, the lawsuit against the Business News Agency, granted last year by the Dzerzhinsky District Court in St. Petersburg, would not help Traber in any way in the trial against Grinda. But more importantly, the information about Traber's gang-related biography did not come out of the newspapers at all and was not made up by Spanish prosecutors but was quite official. As The Insider previously wrote, investigative prosecutor Juan Carrau showed a letter from the Russian Prosecutor General's Office about Leonid Khristoforov and the murder of Pavel Kapysh that had been provided to the Spanish prosecutors as part of international legal assistance in 2009 (at the beginning of the «Troika» case in Spain):
«During its establishment in 1991-93, the Baltic Financial and Industrial Group (BFIG) maintained relations with the Tambov OCR (organized crime ring). The OCR exercised control over the firm's activities and provided cover for illegal oil and petroleum product operations. Starting from 1999, Kapysh pursued an independent policy, going into open conflict with Ilya Traber, the Tambov gang accountant«.
It's worth pointing out that in addition to the leaders of the Tambov/Malyshev OCG (such as Gennady Petrov, Ilya Traber, Sergey Kuzmin), Spain put on the wanted list the co-founder of Bank Rossiya, State Duma deputy Vladislav Reznik, and Colonel General of Police Nikolai Aulov (former Deputy Director of the Federal Drug Control Service). The list of other prominent figures with ties to the Tambov/Malyshev criminal group at the time of the Spanish investigation (late 2000s) included Anatoly Serdyukov (then defense minister), Viktor Zubkov (then prime minister), the head of the Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin, and Igor Sobolevsky (then his deputy), Leonid Reiman (then communications minister) and Sberbank President German Gref. As a result, 17 associates of Petrov, Malyshev, Kuzmin, and MP Vladislav Reznik were put on trial. In total, the investigators accused them of laundering nearly $50 million for the Tambov/Malyshev OCG.
Despite the ample evidence presented by the investigation, the Spanish court sensationally found most of the defendants not guilty, including the two of them who confessed to money laundering. But it was little consolation for Traber as the court acknowledged the existence of the Tambov Organized Crime Group, and he himself remained on the case file as «the accountant of the Tambov Organized Crime Group» and he was still wanted in Spain on charges of money laundering at the time of this writing. Although Traber assures Russian journalists of his readiness to prove his innocence, he is in no hurry to come to Spain to testify.
Fake Businessman, Real Billionaire
In the interview, Traber not only calls himself a businessman but also claims to be among the top 40 businessmen on Forbes Russia's list (which, in fact, puts his net worth at more than $2.5 billion). At the same time, Fontanka itself explains Traber's fortune by his ownership of three businesses: «According to open sources, all of I.I. Traber's assets are in the seaport and energy infrastructures of the Leningrad region. These are UPK Primorsky, the Baltic Methanol project in Ust-Luga, and JSC LOESK.
It is unlikely, however, that ownership of these assets allowed Traber to become a «heavyweight of Russian business», as Fontanka calls him. Thus, Baltic Methanol has one employee, UPC Primorsky has 11 employees and only JSC LOESK, of which Traber is a shareholder, is really a successful electric grid company bringing its owners about a billion rubles a year, but it is not enough for being included in the Forbes list, to put it mildly.
Yet Traber claims in the same interview he has made as much as half a billion dollars in the last six months. This certainly cannot be explained by the assets he officially owns in Russia. Though Traber brags about his excellent entrepreneurial skills, nothing in his business career hints that this is really the case.
In 1990, Traber started off as an antiques dealer, then worked at the Zhiguli beer bar (at exactly the same time when Kumarin was also «tending the bar»), then became chairman of the Rus Cooperative Society (which later co-founded the Rossiya Bank, also known as the «Bank of Putin's Friends,» whose founders included the leaders of the Tambov/Malyshev criminal group and people from Putin's inner circle).
But in the 1990s Traber was not known as an antique dealer or a bartender, but as the crime lord who controlled the St. Petersburg Seaport and ran contraband there, including cocaine. There are many indications that Traber was in close contact with Putin at the time. A curious detail, discovered by Alexei Navalny: in the 1990s Lyudmila Putina used to send faxes to her friend using the Seaport number:
What could Putin have in common with the cocaine hub owned by the Tambov/Malyshev gang? You can make your guess based on the Traber interview:
«In 1995, high ranking officers from the uniformed agencies came to me and asked me for money under a good pretext. They came right here, to Starorusskaya. At that time, I was already involved with the port. They simply told me they could be of use. I replied that if they wanted to work for me, I would pay of course. But if they meant they're going to protect me, then they might as well get lost... That's what I said...»
It was probably because of Putin's patronage that Traber hired Alexei Miller, Putin's former colleague in the St. Petersburg Committee for Foreign Economic Relations and later head of Gazprom, as the port manager.
Another key asset of the Tambov gang, the Petersburg Fuel Company, may also be related to Traber and Putin, since the St. Petersburg Mayor's Office was actively involved in the establishment of the company. The PFC was headed by Vladimir Smirnov, who at that time was also the first director of the notorious Ozero (Lake) cooperative. The company's vice-president under Smirnov was Vladimir Kumarin (Barsukov), head of the Tambov gang. Surprisingly, immediately after the establishment of the PFC in 1995, Putin signed Order #292-R «On the Establishment of the City Motor Fuel Reserve» to purchase large amounts of fuel from the PFC at the expense of the Petersburg city budget.
Ilya Traber is not the only one who continues the legal fight. After the resounding acquittal of 17 suspects in Spain, other individuals from the Tambov/Malyshev OCG circle are still being prosecuted. Recently, at the end of December 2021, Irina Usova, the sister of Aleksandr Malyshev's wife, was sentenced to one year in prison and fined for money laundering on behalf of Aleksandr Malyshev. The new verdict, seen by The Insider, states that according to the wiretaps from the «Troika» case, Malyshev ran a criminal organization in which Gennady Petrov, who remains a suspect, was also a member. Usova received money from a firm affiliated with Petrov's firm, which was later bought by MP Reznik. Igor Salikov, Petrov's associate who had been previously acquitted in the 2018 case, was also convicted in another case for tax evasion in 2019. He had ramped up the capital of his and Petrov's firm through a fictitious loan.
Evidence of ties between the Russian leadership and the mafia can also be found in US case law (complaints under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) filed by Freidzon and two victims of the Izmailovo gang), in Germany (verdict in the Izmailovo gang case with references to well-known oligarchs), England (the case of businessman Vitaly Arkhangelsky). We can also recall the Ukrainian investigation into the Rosukrenergo scheme – the export of Gazprom gas to Ukraine with the participation of the Solntsevo gang, or the Spanish cases of the Taganskaya and Solntsevo gangs, in which Traber was not involved.
The Russian authorities, on the other hand, only mention large organized criminal gangs when talking about the «wild 90s». As Kumarin (Barsukov) serves his time in jail for taking over the St. Petersburg oil terminal, people connected with his closest associate Traber continue to win new state contracts.