By Carl Schreck
September 30, 2014
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denounced the chaos, criminality, and gangster capitalism that beset his country in the so-called "wild 1990s" following the Soviet collapse.
But one of that era's most notorious alleged gangsters is claiming that the Russian leader recently honored him with a presidential wristwatch -- an assertion the Kremlin flatly denies.
Sergei Mikhailov, widely believed to be a leader of the powerful Solntsevo organized crime group, boasts on his website that Putin awarded him the prestigious timepiece on May 14.
As evidence of the accolade, Mikhailov has posted photographs of the watch, which is embossed with Russia's double-headed eagle and Putin's signature, with an accompanying certificate purportedly signed by the Russian president.
Mikhailov wrote on his website that Putin honored him with the presidential watch in part as recognition for his charity work with World War II veterans and the widows of recipients of Soviet and Russian state honors.
Putin's spokesman, however, denied that the Russian president had given a gift to Mikhailov, who is also known by the nickname "Mikhas."
"It's fake," Dmitry Peskov told RFE/RL, though he said the Kremlin would not contact Mikhailov about the claim on his website.
"Why would we?" Peskov said. "We haven't [publicly] said anything about this, which means that it didn't happen."
Mikhailov has been identified by law-enforcement authorities in Russia, the United States, and Europe as one of the most influential players in Russia's criminal underworld, though he has never been convicted in connection with his alleged mob ties.
He appears to be standing by his claim about the presidential watch.
RFE/RL reached out to Mikhailov through an associate, who wished to remain anonymous. Mikhailov said he did not wish to comment because his statements on the issue are available on his website, the associate told RFE/RL.
The supposed award from Putin went largely unnoticed until earlier this month, when the well-known Russian blogger and Kremlin critic Andrei Malgin reposted photographs of the presidential gifts published on Mikhailov's site.
The attention prompted Mikhailov to publish an open letter to journalists defending his reputation. "It's true; I have been detained, both in Russia and abroad. But in the end they always apologized to me," he wrote.
Mikhailov added that his charity organization has donated more than $100 million over the past 20 years and that no one should be surprised that such largesse would be noticed by the Kremlin.
"Why, esteemed journalists, have you raised such a ruckus about the recognition that [Putin] has granted me? Was it not deserved?" he wrote.
Solntsevo And The Swiss
Mikhailov was allegedly a top figure in the Solntsevo crime group at the inception of the gang in the late 1980s.
Named after a Moscow neighborhood, the group was one of numerous extortion and racketeering gangs that preyed on a nascent entrepreneurial class during the Soviet Union's twilight and in the years following its disintegration, according to experts and law-enforcement officials.
"The first time I heard of Mikhailov was in 1987, when his Solntsevo group was extorting protection money from street kiosks in Moscow," Nikolai Uporov, a former Moscow police official specializing in organized crime, testified in Mikhailov's 1998 trial in Geneva, according to a Reuters report at the time.
Mikhailov was arrested and charged with extortion along with other alleged Solntsevo members in 1989, though the case fell apart when witnesses reportedly refused to testify. The crime syndicate would go on to expand its operation into arms and drug trafficking, Uporov testified at the trial.
Mikhailov later moved to Europe and settled in Switzerland, where he was arrested in October 1996 and charged with belonging to an organized crime group. The following year, a witness Swiss prosecutors had planned to call, Vadim Rozenbaum, was shot dead at his home in the Dutch town of Oirschot.
The Swiss jury acquitted Mikhailov due to a lack of evidence in a trial held under unusually tight security measures -- including witnesses wearing bulletproof vests while testifying. A Geneva court later ordered cantonal prosecutors to compensate him for loss of income due to his detention to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars.
Swiss authorities reportedly complained about a lack of cooperation from their Russian counterparts in the investigation. Russia's prosecutor-general said in 1999 that the acquittal resulted from a lack of coordination between the two countries.
In 2002, Russian organized crime police raided Mikhailov's summer home in connection with an investigation related to extortion and kidnapping, though he was never charged with a crime in the probe.
More recently, the Solntsevo group was mentioned in a February 2012 U.S. State Department cable obtained by WikiLeaks and published by the British newspaper "The Guardian."
In the cable, an expert is cited as saying that both the Russian Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB) have "close links" to the crime syndicate but that the FSB provides the "real" cover for Solntsevo.
Mikhailov has repeatedly insisted that he is an honest businessman and denied any links to the Solntsevo crime syndicate.
Mikhailov appears to have successfully integrated himself into elite political, military, business, and religious circles in Russia during Putin's 15 years in power.
He has been photographed together with senior lawmakers and Russian Orthodox Church officials, including the now deceased Patriarch Aleksii II. (Mikhailov's website also features photographs of him together with former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson.)
Mikhailov also claims on his website that four days before Russia formally annexed Ukraine's Crimea territory in March, he received a medal commemorating Russia's "reunification" with the peninsula from Admiral Vladimir Chernavin, the former commander in chief of the Soviet and Russian navies.
Despite Mikhailov's movements in these circles, it would be surprising if Putin personally allowed his signature to confer an honor on someone whose name is consistently linked with organized crime both in Russia and internationally, said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian organized crime.
"It's not a kind of situation where the Kremlin could in the future declare itself 'shocked, shocked' to discover that crime was going on within Mikhas's business empire," said Galeotti, a professor at New York University.
Sergei Kanev, a veteran crime journalist with the independent Russian newspaper "Novaya Gazeta," suggested Mikhailov could have received the watch from an organization that hands out awards "supposedly from the president or from the prime minister."
"I don't think Putin set himself up like that," Kanev said.