Russian mob boss laid to rest

Criminals pay respects to Vyacheslav Ivankov, aka Little Japanese, a member of the "thieves-in-law" fraternity of gang leaders.

MOSCOW // It took about five minutes for the brawny thirty-something to sniff out the stranger standing against a back wall in the chapel lined with religious icons. "Are you here to pay your respects?" the man, dressed in a black bomber jacket and black jeans, asked this reporter firmly, though not impolitely. "If you're not here to pay your respects, then get out." On the other side of the small church, lying in a casket with a cloth wrapped around the forehead in Russian Orthodox tradition, was the body of Vyacheslav Ivankov, a godfather in the notorious, secretive fraternity of crime bosses known as the "Vory v Zakone", or "thieves-in-law".

A parade of rough-looking men were walking up to the casket to kiss the late Mr Ivankov's forehead. This was their time to bid adieu to the man known because of his vaguely Asian visage as "Yaponchik", or "Little Japanese", away from the prying eyes of the press. Hundreds of representatives of Russia's criminal underworld arrived at Moscow's famous Vagankovo cemetery to mourn Mr Ivankov, who died at the age of 69 on Friday from injuries sustained in a sniper attack in central Moscow in June.

Mr Ivankov had become an elder statesman of the Vory - who reject every institution but their own - since his extradition to Russia in 2004 after serving 10 years in a US prison and his subsequent acquittal in a Russian court on murder charges. The sniper attack came at a time when, observers say, the Vory world is split by a bitter feud over commercial interests and a philosophical dispute pitting those with greater respect for the relatively austere lives led by the original Vory against those who embraced the high-life that a life of crime affords.

Little wonder then that Moscow police stepped up security at the cemetery, patrolling the perimeter of the property and dispatching a sapper unit with bomb-sniffing dogs to roam the grounds. Mr Ivankov's funeral, however, went off without incident. The ceremony was conducted in the elegant Russian Orthodox tradition, though it included imposing men - some in tracksuits, some in pinstripes and at least one in a snakeskin jacket - acting as pallbearers and carrying dozens of enormous wreaths of roses that they could barely wrap their arms around.

Over the course of about four hours, small groups of these made men - not a few of whom had facial contours that recalled cauliflower - stood speaking quietly, some in Russian, some in Georgian. While many small-time criminals attended Mr Ivankov's funeral, fewer Vory than expected showed up, according to the team behind, perhaps the most exhaustive public source on the Vory world. Among those who did were Alexander "Sasha the Spark" Okunev and Konstantin "Kostya Gizya" Ginzburg.

The Russian government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported in April that Mr Ginzburg is believed by US authorities to oversee an organised crime group consisting of natives of former Soviet republics operating in America. Russia's Federal Security Service believes he inherited the group from Mr Ivankov, the report said. Several other Vory - including Konstantin "Kostya the Scar" Vasilyev - opted to pay their respects at the cemetery late on Monday evening, said.

After waiting several hours outside the cemetery chapel, mourners escorted Mr Ivankov's casket to his grave on a cool but sunny afternoon. So dense was the crowd that many opted to hop around graves overgrown with grass to get a view of the legendary crime boss. After prayers from the priest, several people came to give Mr Ivankov his last kiss. Police sirens whined in the distance as the coffin was closed, carried to the grave and lowered into the ground.