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On the last weekend of September, one of the world’s frozen conflicts heated up. Armenia and Azerbaijan, two small nations in the Caucasus Mountains on the southeast frontier of Europe, accused each other of shelling around the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Officially part of Azerbaijan on the map, Nagorno-Karabakh is de facto controlled by Armenian forces, following a bitter war in the 1990s. In the last week, 220 people have died and conflicts have spread to the major cities in the region.
It’s hard to remember a time when the two neighbors, both former members of the Soviet Union, weren’t full of mutual hatred and distrust. But in 1993, an unexpected event briefly brought them together.
Rafael Baghdasaryan was born on Feb. 10, 1930, in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. As a boy, he admired the hoodlums and ruffians he saw on the streets. He began stealing at age 11 and before long started skipping school. By 14, he’d run away from home and been crowned a “thief-in-law,” one of the youngest to earn the title.
A thief-in-law, or a vor-v-zakone, is the Russian mafia’s equivalent to a “made man.” A vor is a highly respected figure in the criminal underworld that emerged from Stalin’s gulags, abiding by a set of rules and principles known as the thieves’ code, which strictly prohibits cooperating with the authorities. While hardly progressive — the thieves’ ideology, such as it is, is famously apolitical and misogynistic — the underworld was inclusive: Almost all nationalities of the USSR were represented. In the early days, there was a strong Jewish influence, and much of the underworld’s slang is borrowed from Yiddish.
Baghdasaryan, going by the nickname Svo Raf, would spend 34 years — more than half his life — behind bars for theft, robbery, hooliganism and drugs. The brief spells of freedom when he wasn’t incarcerated were spent plotting robberies. In 1971, he learned of a black market jeweler in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, who was an easy mark at a time when all private entrepreneurship was illegal under the laws of the USSR. Svo turned up with an associate dressed in police uniforms and confiscated 800,000 rubles’ worth of cash and jewels, then told the mark to report himself to the local authorities the next day.
“He really was one of the true, old-school vory-v-zakone, who clung to the traditional code of the underworld that dated back to its earlier days,” explains Mark Galeotti, author of The Vory, a book about the Russian mafia. “After the 1940s and 1950s, the rules were relaxed to allow some cooperation with the authorities, especially corrupt figures within it. Svo stuck to the old taboo against even the most token such actions, even if it meant he spent longer in prison and missed out on the lucrative opportunities to be had in black marketeering with corrupt Party officials.”
By the late ’80s, the Soviet dream of a brotherhood of nations was coming apart. The USSR split its territories seemingly arbitrarily. Nagorno-Karabakh was mainly populated by Armenians, but assigned to Azerbaijan. In 1988, protests over the status of the territory escalated to bloody anti-Armenian rioting in Azeri cities. After independence in 1991, the fighting became a full-scale war. In 1992, Armenian forces entered the town of Khojaly and slaughtered hundreds of Azeri civilians, including women and children. The remaining Azeris, around a quarter of the population of Nagorno-Karabakh, fled the region.
Weapons were being sent from the Tula armaments factory in Moscow to Azerbaijan. According to one conspirator, on a foggy night after the weapons had been loaded onto trucks, a group of men overpowered the shipment’s guards, who were gagged, bundled into a car and driven to a country house outside Moscow. After the weapons arrived at their destination in Armenia, the guards were set free.
In December 1992, Svo had just returned from a “business trip” in Germany when his room at Moscow’s Hotel Minsk was raided. He was found in the company of his faithful Azeri henchman Fikret Magerramov and an American-made Ingram submachine gun, complete with a silencer. Svo was taken to Lefortovo Prison, where German investigators questioned him about a series of murders — and where, the following June, he died in the prison hospital. His relatives still insist the autopsy was botched to conceal what they believe was his murder.
Svo’s body was flown to Yerevan, where he was buried on June 27, 1993. Hundreds of underworld figures from across the former Soviet empire attended the funeral, including four crime bosses from Azerbaijan. For the first (and only) time in the ’90s, a flight took off from Baku to Yerevan, carrying a delegation of Azeri mobsters to pay their respects. Svo had built a reputation of living up to the ideals of a vor, never giving in to the authorities, even when it meant extra jail time, and was given his due respect by crooks of all backgrounds.
Thanks to financial difficulties and the war with Azerbaijan, Yerevan was experiencing serious power outages, with only two hours of electricity per day. But the mafiosi arranged for gas and electricity to be switched on for three days to facilitate the funeral. When they left, the city plunged back into darkness.
“If it is an urban legend, it’s a phenomenally widespread one, as I’ve heard it repeated several times, and never seen any rebuttals. As I understand it, the fuel oil for power was indeed arranged by both Armenian and Azeri criminals as their parting gift to him,” says Galeotti. “He was indeed a criminal legend, and even today’s vory-v-zakone — whom he would probably regard with contempt as a pallid, weak caricature of the figures of his generation — talk about him as such.”