Balagula was born in 1943 in Orenburg, Russia, at the height of World War II. His mother, Zinaida, fled with the children from their home in Odessa after the German Wehrmacht swept across the Russian steppes. Marat's father, Jakov, was a lieutenant in the Red Army; Balagula claims that he was one of the armored corps that stormed Berlin during the last desperate hours of the war. In the harshness of the Joseph Stalin era, the Balagulas led a comfortable, middle class life. Jakov worked in a factory manufacturing locks, as did his wife. Young Marat, an average high school student, was drafted into the Soviet Army at the age of nineteen and served as a bursar for three years, after which the Party assigned him to manage a food co-op in Odessa. Determined to get ahead, Marat attended night school, receiving diploma as a teacher of mathematics and then a business degree in economics and mathematics. Like many ambitious Russians with capitalist predilections, he promptly plunged into the country's flourishing black market. He quickly learned to attend to the demanding appetites of the apparatchiks, making certain that the choicest meats and produce was delivered to them.
Arrival to the U.S.
In 1977, Balagula decided to move his family to the United States under the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. At first he worked as a textile cutter in Washington Heights, Manhattan for $3.50 per hour. His wife Alexandra later reminisced, "It was hard for us, with no language, no money."
Balagula's fortunes improved markedly when he relocated his family to Brighton Beach and began to work for the infamous vor Evsei Agron... Agron, it turned out, was no match for the ambitious Balagula. While Agron's technical expertise didn't go beyond seeking sadistic new uses for his electric cattle prod, Balagula wanted to lead the Organizatsiya into the upscale world of white collar crime, and with the experience he had gained in the Soviet Union, he developed a business acumen that put him in a class by himself. surrounded by a cadre of Russian economists and math prodigies at the Odessa restaurant, he acquired a knowledge of global markets that enabled him to make millions in the arcane world of commodities trading. He also energetically cultivated the Italian mobsters he met as Agron's consigliere. After Agron was executed, Balagula organized his followers into a hierarchy, much like the Italian Mafia and before long, succeeded in transforming the Organizatsiya into a multi-billion dollar criminal empire that stretched across from the tatters of Communist Eastern Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Ultimately, however, it was Balagula's spectacular success in the gasoline bootlegging business -- a scheme that would reportedly earn him hundreds of millions of dollars and an honored position with the Italian Mafia -- that would usher in the first Golden Age of Russian organized crime in America."
According to a former associate "Marat was the king of Brighton Beach. He had a Robin Hood complex. People would come over from Russia and he'd give them jobs. He liked professional men. Guys came over and couldn't practice medicine or use their engineering degrees. He sought them out. He was fascinated with intellectuals. He co-opted them. He put them into the gasoline business, he put them into car washes or taxi companies. He'd reinvest his own money in their business if they were having trouble. He had a heart."
According to a former Suffolk County, New York prosecutor, however, there was another side to Balagula.
"Everybody in Brighton Beach talked about Balagula in hushed tones. These were people who knew him from the Old Country. They were really, genuinely scared of this guy."
Lucchese Crime family associate
After the Colombo crime family began shaking down his gasoline business, Balagula asked for a sitdown with Lucchese crime family consigliere Christopher Furnari at Brooklyn's 19th Hole social club. According to Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso, who was a Lucchese family soldier present at the meeting, Furnari declared,
"Here there's enough for everybody to be happy... to leave the table satisfied. What we must avoid is trouble between us and the other families. I propose to make a deal with the others so there's no bad blood.... Meanwhile, we will send word out that from now on you and your people are with the Lucchese family. No one will bother you. If anyone does bother you, come to us and Anthony will take care of it."
New York's Five Families imposed a two cent per gallon "Family tax" on Balagula's bootlegging operation, which became their greatest moneymaker after drug trafficking. According to one former associate,
"La Cosa Nostra reminded Marat of the apparatchiks, power structure and hierarchy in the Soviet Union. He thought as long as he gave them something they would be powerful allies who would protect him from enemies and law enforcement. Then all of a sudden he was at risk of being killed if he couldn't pay to the penny."
Because Anthony Casso and Balagula hit it off so well, Casso was soon partners with Balagula in a diamond mine located in Sierra Leone, Africa. They opened a business office in Freetown. Casso also arranged for an Orthodox Jewish friend of his named Simon Stein, a diamond expert and member of the DeBeers Club, to travel from the Forty-seventh Street diamond district to Africa to smuggle diamonds back into the country in the linings and collars of overcoats and in secret compartments of very expensive leather luggage.
It didn't take long for word on the street to reach the Russian underworld: Marat Balagula was paying off the Italians; Balagula was a punk; Balagula had no balls. Balagula's days were numbered. This, of course, was the beginning of serious trouble. Balagula did in fact have balls -- he was a ruthless killer when necessary -- but he also was a smart diplomatic administrator and he knew that the combined, concerted force of the Italian crime families would quickly wipe the newly arrived Russian competition off the proverbial map.
Shortly afterward, Balagula's rival, a high-ranking Russian mafia member named Vladimir Reznikov, drove up to Balagula's offices in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. Sitting in his car, Reznikov opened fire on the office building with an AK-47 assault rifle. One of Balagula's close associates was killed and several secretaries were wounded.
Then, on June 12, 1986, Reznikov entered the Odessa nightclub in Brighton Beach. Reznikov pushed a 9mm Beretta into Balagula's skull and demanded $600,000 as the price of not pulling the trigger. He also demanded a percentage of everything Balagula was involved in. After Balagula promised to get the money, Reznikov snarled, "Fuck with me and you're dead – you and your whole fucking family; I swear I'll fuck and kill your wife as you watch – you understand?".
Shortly after Reznikov left, Balagula suffered a massive heart attack. He insisted, however on being treated at his home in Brighton Beach, where he felt it would be harder for Reznikov to kill him. When Anthony Casso arrived, he listened to Balagula's story and seethed with fury. Casso later told his biographer Philip Carlo that, to his mind, Reznikov had just spat in the face of the entire Cosa Nostra. Casso responded, "Send word to Vladimir that you have his money, that he should come to the club tomorrow. We'll take care of the rest." Balagula responded, "You're sure? This is an animal. It was him that used a machine gun in the office." Casso responded, "Don't concern yourself. I promise we'll take care of him... Okay?" Casso then requested a photograph of Reznikov and a description of his car.
The following day, Reznikov returned to the Rasputin nightclub to pick up his money. Upon realizing that Balagula wasn't there, Reznikov launched into a barrage of profanity and stormed back to the parking lot. There, Reznikov and two of his underlings was shot dead by Gambino crime family veteran hitmanJoseph Testa with a machine gun. Testa then jumped into a car driven by Anthony Senter and left Brighton Beach. According to Casso, "After that, Marat didn't have any problems with the Russians ever again."
In 1986, Balagula masterminded a $750,000 credit card scam when a business associate, Robert Fasano, began wearing a wire on him for the U.S. Secret Service. After being convicted on Federal charges, Balagula fled to Antwerp with his longtime mistress Natalia Shevchenko. After three years as a fugitive, Balagula was arrested in Frankfurt am Main, West Germany on February 27, 1989. In December 1989, Balagula was extradited to the United States and sentenced to eight years in prison for credit card fraud.
In November 1992, Balagula was convicted at a separate trial for gasoline bootlegging and sentenced to an additional ten years in Federal prison. While passing sentence, Judge Leonard Wexler declared, "This was supposed to be a haven for you. It turned out to be a hell for us."
Balagula served his sentence and was released from Federal prison in 2004. Balagula was quoted as saying; "They claim I made $25 million per day bootlegging. It's crazy! I got nothing. What have I got? The government took my apartment in Manhattan, my house in Long Island, $300,000 in cash. They said, 'If you don't cooperate with us you'll go to jail for twenty years.' ... They want me to tell them about the Mafia, about gasoline, about hits. Forget it. All these charges are bullshit! All my life I like to help people. Just because a lot of people come to me for advice, everybody thinks I'm a boss. I came to America to find work, support myself, and create a future for my children."
Balagula died of cancer in 2019.
- Vladimir Kozlovsky. "The Godfather of the Russian Mafia in Brooklyn - who was Marat Balagula?" BBC News Russian. December 24, 2020. Translated by Google Translate. Accessed July 4, 2020.