I shouldn’t be alive today.”
That was one of the first things Boris Nayfeld told me when I met him four years ago.
On a sweltering Saturday in late June 2018, we sat outdoors at Tatiana Grill, a popular restaurant on the Brighton Beach boardwalk, tossing back shots of Russian vodka chased by the warm salty Atlantic breeze, surrounded by young women from St. Petersburg and Kiev and Odessa who wore more makeup than clothes.
Known to his friends and family as “Biba” and described in the New York tabloids as “the last boss of the original Russian Mafia in America,” Boris had every right to marvel at the fact that he was alive and smiling and talking into my digital recorder. He’d survived multiple assassination attempts—shot point-blank by that Uzi submachine gun in 1986; he also escaped unscathed in 1991 when a grenade planted under his Lincoln Town Car failed to detonate. At age eighteen, he served three years of hard labor in a Soviet prison camp; after emigration to the United States, he spent a substantial portion of his life in various federal penitentiaries.
Now seventy-four, Boris is still an imposing figure with a shaved head, piercing blue eyes, and a burly physique covered in prison-inked tattoos. Four macabre skulls. A menacing tail-rattling scorpion. A massively hooded king cobra. A Star of David inset with a Hebrew Bible topped by an elaborate crown. To initiates in the world of Russian organized crime, the blue ink on his upper body can be read like a pictorial storybook, rendering Nayfeld’s entire résumé as a professional criminal: it’s a rap sheet that includes convictions as a racketeer, a heroin trafficker, a money launderer, and an extortionist. He’s also been suspected of orchestrating several high-profile gangland murders, though he was never charged or indicted and has—of course—repeatedly denied complicity.
Few of his contemporaries from the Soviet émigré underworld in Brighton Beach made it to his advanced age. Many, though not all, died public and violent deaths. Boris is virtually the last mobster of his generation standing.
The ultimate survivor.
His life story offers us a window into a singular moment in modern history—when a wave of Jews fleeing Soviet oppression in the 1970s arrived in the United States and, following in the footsteps of a previous generation of young hoodlums like Meyer Lansky, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, applied both brains and brawn to making their fortunes as outlaws in America.
But that wave of Soviet émigré criminals in the 1970s and ’80s was unlike any that had come before. They were cosmopolitan, sophisticated, often university-educated men who’d survived for years in the Soviet Union by applying their ingenuity and daring to bilk the corrupted state. They settled in the decaying South Brooklyn neighborhood of Brighton Beach, for generations a haven for immigrant Jews, and refashioned it as their own “Little Odessa.”
Almost immediately, criminals like Boris Nayfeld distinguished themselves for their fearlessness. They partnered with, but were never cowed by, the Italian American Mafia. They joked about how easy it was to steal in America. They scoffed at the cushiness of U.S. penitentiaries in comparison to the starvation conditions in the forced labor camps they’d experienced in the Soviet Union. They displayed a ruthlessness and casual use of violence that shocked even jaded members of U.S. law enforcement. In contrast to more established organized crime groups—as Boris never fails to remind me—their power lay in the fact that they felt they had fuck all to lose.
Yes, they were tough, but their intellect, creativity, and global ambitions truly distinguished them among the ranks of American gangsters. The schemes concocted by Boris and his fellow criminals from the Soviet Union seem, even today, remarkable for their ingenuity and brazenness. These were guys who’d survived in a totalitarian state that normalized illegal activity, one that viewed crime as a form of anti-communist rebellion and even elevated it to an art form.
In the United States, their illicit ventures escalated from audacious and theatrical jewelry swindles to the most sophisticated financial fraud, stock manipulation, and international money laundering. In a few short years, the Brighton Beach mob’s tentacles stretched over to Antwerp and Berlin, from Bangkok to Sierra Leone. As you’ll read, Boris Nayfeld and his partners were among the first to spot and exploit the untold fortunes to be made in the economic chaos after the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union began its inexorable collapse.
They also targeted many routine aspects of daily life that we all take for granted in the United States—from putting gas in our cars to the credit cards we use to pay for it. Soviet-born criminals, and their Italian American mob partners, stole billions of dollars in gasoline excise taxes through daisy-chain schemes that have become the stuff of underworld lore. And it took FBI and IRS agents years to figure out how they were doing it. They pioneered and perfected new forms of bank fraud and myriad health insurance scams; they counterfeited everything from hundred-dollar bills to Marlboro cigarettes.
Their criminal genius lay in exploiting the unseen weaknesses within the economic system right under our noses.
When I met Boris Nayfeld, he was seventy years old and on parole for his final felony conviction—a bizarre murder-for-hire plot turned into an extortion scheme that was splashed all over the tabloids for weeks; at the sentencing hearing in the Southern District of New York in July 2016, the prosecutor described Boris as “an extremely complicated person with a rich criminal history” who’d spent “most of his adult life in Russian organized crime.”
“Extremely complicated” is an understatement.
In the four years I’ve known Boris—interviewing him at his home, hanging out in noisy Brooklyn restaurants and scorching banyas—his personality remains a conundrum. He’s at once chilling and charming; cunning and street-smart, and, somehow, remarkably naïve.
I’ve watched him describe with utter detachment scenes of extraordinary violence committed to him, around him, by him. I’ve also listened to him talk with passion and sophistication about reading Dostoevsky’s novels while locked up for eight straight months of solitary confinement in the notorious Special Housing Unit (or “Shoe”) at the Metropolitan Correctional Facility in Lower Manhattan.
Boris has said repeatedly that he has no regrets for anything he’s done in his life. Yet across his stomach, tattooed in massive blue Hebrew letters, are the words “God Forgive Me.”
It’s hard to reconcile many of these internal contradictions; but this duality is, I believe, what makes Boris Nayfeld a uniquely fascinating character.
His story provides the first authentic insider’s perspective on the birth of modern Russian organized crime and its continuing ramifications in our contemporary world. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has often been described as a virtual mafia state; the criminal career of Boris Nayfeld, a man roughly the same age as Putin, offers us a unique, granular insight into how the former Soviet Union became the largest kleptocracy in history.
On one level, this is a classic immigrant story: in the early 1950s, Boris Mikhailovich Nayfeld was just some abandoned Jewish kid in a backwater city in the Byelorussian Republic of the USSR. In 1979, he managed to escape to the West, and by the early 1990s he’d become a Bentley-driving multimillionaire who’d clawed his way to a top perch in the New York City underworld.
Almost from the first moment I met Boris Nayfeld, he fascinated me. In part, this could be because our family roots are so similar. Though one of my grandfathers hailed from Warsaw—before the Holocaust the largest Jewish community in the world, outside of New York—my other three grandparents came to the United States from Bialystok, then a predominantly Jewish city within the Russian Empire, located approximately four hundred miles to the west of Boris’s hometown of Gomel.
That’s the literal translation of “Byelorussia”—today’s independent Republic of Belarus.
Though the borders were constantly shifting, in my grandparents’ era, the Jews of White Russia lived within the Grodno Governorate, a far western province of Czar Nicholas II’s empire, abutting on Poland and home to some of the largest cities—Bialystok, Grodno, Minsk, Brest—in which Jews were allowed to live and work under the restrictive laws of the “Pale of Settlement.”
Unlike Boris’s family, my grandparents were lucky to get out of Russia in time.
Still teenagers, traveling alone, sometimes lying in the official paperwork about their ages, they escaped the pogroms and the Czarist conscription of World War I and, later, the scorched-earth devastation of the Nazi invasion of the USSR, the Shoah that took the lives of almost all their older siblings and their families—landing in Ellis Island several years before the 1917 Revolution.
The Nayfelds were the ones who stayed behind.
Citizens of the USSR, they were subject to the incomprehensible collective sacrifice of the Great Patriotic War against Hitler. Boris’s grandparents survived the Nazi invasion only by escaping into the interior of the Soviet Union—settling in Kazakhstan. After the war, returning to Gomel, they lived through the decades of official antisemitism under the repressive Stalinist state.
My grandparents, on the other hand, like many working-class Russian Jewish immigrants, had their youthful values shaped in the cauldron of the Pale of Settlement; even before the Bolshevik Revolution, they embraced the utopian ideals of Marx and Engels. Well into their golden years, in retirement in Chicago and Miami Beach, I remember them reading Der Morgen Freiheit (“The Morning Freedom”), the far-left Yiddish-language newspaper published daily in New York City.
Lifelong progressive idealists they may have been, and Yiddish was always the mama loshen—the “mother tongue”—yet they all became proud American citizens.
Throughout the last century, the immigrant experience bred a wide variety of tough Jewish types. It produced infamous gunmen, gangsters, and labor racketeers. Also: anonymous hardworking men like my maternal grandfather, Willie Smith—born Velvel Schmid—who’d fled from Bialystok in 1914 to avoid the Czar’s draft at the start of the First World War. Even as a teenager, he was highly politicized, considering himself an anarchist (not a communist); he was a short, powerfully built guy with an explosive temper who often had to use his fists to fend off antisemitic insults when he arrived for the morning “shape-up” as a longshoreman on the Brooklyn waterfront during the Great Depression.
After leaving Russia, he and my grandmother settled in a small apartment on West Twenty-First Street, Coney Island—that was where my mother was born in 1930—a short walk from where Boris Nayfeld and his family, a half century later, would find their first modest American home, in the housing projects, on Neptune Avenue and Thirty-Sixth Street, near Seagate.
One morning in 2019, while staying at Boris’s sprawling house in Staten Island, I awoke to find him whipping up some scrambled eggs and lox and blini. He’s a very good cook; when I asked, he explained that he’d spent a few semesters at a culinary school in Gomel in his early twenties.
But before breakfast, we both needed to swallow our morning levothyroxine pills on empty stomachs—we learned, with mild amusement, that we shared the autoimmune disease of hypothyroidism, and we had the exact same dosage of medication prescribed to correct it.
In the brilliantly sunlit kitchen, Boris smiled and offered me a glass of hot tea.
It reminded me of how my Grandpa Willie drank his tea.
Black. In a water glass. Not a mug.
I remembered how he, too, had been able to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Babel in the original Russian. How he, too, loved to play cards and gamble with his Yiddish- and Russian-speaking friends, though their game of choice was pinochle and Boris’s game is clabber.
Of course, none of my grandparents were convicted criminals—let alone headline-making heroin traffickers, money launderers, or suspected murderers. But in the years that I’ve been hanging out with Boris Nayfeld, I’ve often wondered what my grandparents would have made of him. Would they have regarded him with revulsion—as a shtarker, a gonif who made a fortune preying on his fellow Jews? Or would they—if even begrudgingly—have recognized a familiar character in Boris Mikailovich Nayfeld: The Jew with the indomitable spirit? The Jew whom absolutely nothing could break?
For me, Boris represents a throwback: a walking reminder of the hardscrabble origins of Russian Jewry in America—the world that produced a cohort of muscular, savvy, steely-eyed men, men for whom survival often meant doing the things that were necessary—difficult, unsavory, oftentimes outside the law.
Over the past four years, I’ve listened to Boris describing mind-boggling tales of greed and violence and betrayal.
Breathless accounts of daylight shootings in Brooklyn. Audacious heists in the diamond districts of Manhattan and Antwerp. Mountains of pure China White heroin smuggled from Thailand through Warsaw into JFK Airport. Suitcases stuffed with millions in counterfeit U.S. currency. Marathons of high-stakes gambling over cards in West African beach resorts. Escapades with young call girls in Moscow casinos and onboard the yachts of oligarchs in the Black Sea.
I’d only been talking to Boris for a few hours that first afternoon at Tatiana in Brighton Beach when I jotted down a phrase in one of my spiral notebooks that seems, in hindsight, as appropriate an introduction as any to this book:
“Welcome to the dark side of the American dream.”
Excerpted from The Last Boss of Brighton: Boris “Biba” Nayfeld and the Rise of the Russian Mob in America, by Douglas Century. Published by William Morrow & Company. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.