What does Idris Elba, the ‘Poker Princess’ and Russian Organised Crime all have in common?
Award-winning actor Idris Elba is no stranger to the fictional world of crime and gangster glamour, never more so than his role as Charlie Jaffey, in the 2017 film Molly’s Game. Elba plays the part of a sharp-suited lawyer torn by the moral dilemma of representing a prospective client Molly Bloom, a former Olympic mogul skier, also known as the ‘Poker Princess’ who is accused of aiding criminals in an illegal card game!
Based on a true story, Molly Bloom played by Jessica Chastain, not only runs an illegal poker game but also gets involved with Russian organised crime, which comes back to haunt her after she is investigated and raided by the FBI.
This might seem just like any other ordinary Hollywood movie glamorising crime and glossing over money laundering (without ever showing the real-life implications or effects), until you start joining the dots...
Here at NorthRow we have been running PEPs and Sanctions checks and Molly Blooms name recently popped up as an associate of Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov, otherwise, known by his nickname Taiwanchik or the Little Taiwanese. Alimzhan is perhaps best known for bribing figure skating judges in the 2002 Winter Olympics, and his apparent links to Russian organised crime (otherwise known as Vor V Zakone). As we looked into the report on him, it became apparent that out of all the organisations and associations, the most common link was with the Vor V Zakone organisations and different members within it.
What is Vor V Zakone?
Translated into English it means a ‘thief in law’. Anybody that has seen the movie Eastern Promises will be more familiar with this term and how this organisation operates. It emerged in the Soviet Union during the fall of the Tsar as a way to dissent against communist authority. It went on to blossom in the post-Soviet states, like Serbia and amongst the respective diasporas. The membership specifically grants a formal status of a professional criminal who enjoys an elite position within the organized crime environment and employs informal authority over its lower-status members. The phrase "Thief in Law" is a rudimentary, word-by-word translation of the Russian slang phrase "вор в зако́не", literally translated as "a thief in [a position of] the law", that can have two meanings in Russian: "a legalized thief" and "a thief who is the law". Each new Vor (thief) is vetted (literally "crowned", with respective rituals and tattoos) by consensus of several Vors. Vor culture is inseparable from prison organized crime: only repeatedly jailed convicts are eligible for Vor status. Thieves in law are drawn from many nationalities from a number of post-Soviet states.
In 2011, the Obama administration implemented sanctions against an organisation known as the Brothers' Circle, several members of which are thieves-in-law.
Blurred lines between reality and fiction
The worlds that Hollywood movies portray, although often based on real-life events, are often dramatises and real life gets blurred and can be difficult to separate sometimes, especially in money laundering cases. But this case get even more bizarre as in 2010 a documentary was released at the Tribeca movie festival entitled ‘Vor V Zakone’ where it’s main subject and actor was Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov. The documentary has been criticised for glamourising their way of life and only showing the story from one perspective which was the subject himself.
However, what it certainly did not miss was to display how this organisation has become completely globalised and how the proceeds of crime, otherwise known as obschak in Russian, are pooled together and invested into assets abroad. The best known case of this is Gregory Lerner, who was not only mentioned in the documentary but was also prosecuted for laundering over $1 billion of Vor V Zakone money from his base in Tel Aviv, Israel.
In the recent OCCRP.org report there has been 75 companies identified who existed purely to launder money coming from Russia and post soviet union states. The Troika Laundromat as it is known even had their own bank based in Lithuania to launder over $400 billion dollars and unknowing stooges included Prince Charles, Portsmouth and Hearts football clubs and many others who would now show up in the NorthRow report to help you connect the dots to prevent money laundering.