Olga Lautman on the Russian Mafia
If you are on Twitter, you know that there is no one more deeply versed on the Russian mafia’s incursion into American business and politics than New York’s Olga Lautman, a freelance researcher and analyst who worked on Craig Unger’s House of Trump, House of Putin and on Malcolm Nance’s The Plot to Betray America, among other projects. Raised on Brighton Beach and fluent in Russian, Lautman was wise to the danger of Donald Trump from the start.
Andrea Chalupa: Welcome to Gaslit Nation. I'm your host, Andrea Chalupa, a writer and the screenwriter and producer of the upcoming journalistic thriller Mr. Jones.
Sarah Kendzior: And I'm Sarah Kendzior, a journalist and researcher on authoritarian states, and the author of the book The View from Flyover Country.
Andrea Chalupa: And today we are talking to Olga Lautman, an independent researcher and expert on the Russian mafia. Olga did research for Craig Unger's book House of Trump, House of Putin: The Untold Story of Donald Trump and the Russian mafia, as well as Malcolm Nance's forthcoming book The Plot to Betray America: How Team Trump Embraced our Enemies, Compromised Our Security, and How We Can Fix It. So Olga's on the show today to tell us how we can fix it. [laughter] It's all up to you, Olga.
Olga Lautman: Hi. How are you? Thank you.
Sarah Kendzior: Thank you so much for coming on. So how did you get involved researching these books, and just in general studying the Russian crime syndicate that has now infiltrated our government?
Olga Lautman: Well, actually I've been following Russian politics and Ukrainian politics my whole life, and I got alarmed in 2015 when I saw Russian media tilting towards Donald Trump, and I became intrigued, because before that they never really favored a candidate. So I started looking into it to see what is going on, and I kind of fell into the mob world.
Andrea Chalupa: Why? Because Donald Trump is the rabbit hole into the mob world?
Olga Lautman: Well, what happened is that I wanted to see why would the Kremlin favor Donald Trump? I know from being a New Yorker that Trump, I mean everyone in New York knows that he was dealing with Italian mafia. So I thought at the beginning when I went into this that maybe the Kremlin has some kind of kompromat on him like with dealings with the Italian mafia. As I started digging into it, I kind of started seeing all his properties going back almost four decades, all his properties being occupied by senior Russian Mafia figures, Russian oligarchs. And that's where I kind of fell into it and started trying to unravel the whole thing.
Andrea Chalupa: Wow. And so your background as well—you're Ukrainian and Russian, and you grew up in Brighton Beach. Could you speak a little bit about your story? Were you born over there? Were you born here?
Olga Lautman: I was born in Italy. My parents were on the way here from the Soviet Union, and I was born in Italy and then we came here when I was 2 months old, in the 70s. We basically came with a wave of Soviet immigrants, because of the Jackson Varick amendment that allowed Russian Jews to come in. And I grew up in Brighton Beach, so I was very familiar with the mob world. I always followed Russian and Ukrainian politics, and I have family in both countries. I got along with both sets until Crimea, and then after that I became more hostile with the Russian side, and obviously I partnered with the Ukrainian side, because Putin invaded Crimea.
Andrea Chalupa: Yeah, and he is a mass murdering thug.
Olga Lautman: Exactly.
Andrea Chalupa: And so obviously with your story what's so interesting is that when you read Craig Unger's book, Brighton Beach is ground zero for so much of this, even with Donald Trump's own father building sort of slummy buildings there and being all mobbed up himself and getting ensnared in all these scandals. Could you talk about sort of that period in time in Brighton Beach? Give us a snapshot of why this neighborhood in Brooklyn was so significant for organized crime, how it came to be, and what it sort of meant for Donald Trump and Fred Trump.
Olga Lautman: Well, when the Soviets were coming over, especially in New York, I mean they kind of settled in Brighton Beach. It was called Little Odessa. I mean, partly to be familiar with their surroundings, and they kind of set up everything very culturally to how it was back home. At the same time, when the Soviet Union allowed the Soviets to come here, they also released a lot of criminals, and also spies. So they—
Andrea Chalupa: Of course, because they were like, "Fuck you, freedom of the West." [laughter] That's exactly what they did.
Olga Lautman: So they did that, and pretty much at the beginning, the Soviets were coming in, and it was the same wave, like I came with the same wave as like Felix Sater's family and the Bogatins and Tamir Sapir and Sam Kislin.
Andrea Chalupa: And so who are all these people? They're mobsters, right?
Olga Lautman: They ended up being mobsters. [laughter]
Andrea Chalupa: You escaped. You're like a Disney story. [laughter]
Olga Lautman: I didn't. They ended up being mobsters. So they allowed a lot of the criminals out. They came here, and they started driving cabs, you know, for a few dollars, and at that time what happened is they partnered with the Italians.
Andrea Chalupa: Right, because the Italian mafia was ruling.
Sarah Kendzior: Was this 90s, or the 80s?
Olga Lautman: No, this is the 70s.
Sarah Kendzior: Oh, it was the 70s, okay.
Olga Lautman: No, I'm way back. [laughter]
Andrea Chalupa: This is some old school shit, like half of New York was on fire.
Sarah Kendzior: Right, right.
Andrea Chalupa: My parents were—my mom was in the South Bronx at this time, and dad was in Astoria, so I grew up with a lot of these New York back in the day war zone kind of stories.
Sarah Kendzior: And Trump was just starting out with Roy Cohn. Alright, we have set the scene. Tell us more Olga.
Olga Lautman: So Brighton Beach became, it wasn't only, like Brighton Beach became known for Russian mafia, but at the same time, the neighborhood over is controlled by this Italian family, and everything in Brooklyn was kind of divided and under control of a certain family. So basically, the Russians partnered with the Italians, and at the same time Trump's family was with the Italians. And it's even funny because you have even a case of there was a Russian mobster on Brighton who ended up being the second godfather after he had the prior one assassinated.
Sarah Kendzior: Wait, who is this?
Olga Lautman: Marat Balagula
Sarah Kendzior: Oh, okay.
Olga Lautman: So when he got in trouble, there was a rabbi in Brooklyn, and he went to the rabbi and the rabbi actually tried to get him a lawyer, and he went to Alan Dershowitz. So this is how far back—and this was like in 1984 or 85.
Andrea Chalupa: So Dershowitz was already in the mix back then?
Olga Lautman: Dershowitz was I think a professor at Brooklyn College.
Sarah Kendzior: Wow.
Olga Lautman: And Dershowitz declined. But the fact that—
Sarah Kendzior: That he was even on their radar as a person to go to!
Andrea Chalupa: Hey, we know somebody with no scruples! [laughter]
Olga Lautman: I know, right? And this rabbi, which is extremely fascinating, his name was Greenwald.
Andrea Chalupa: Glenn Greenwald? [laughter].
Olga Lautman: No relation to Glenn, I don't think, but his name was Rabbi Greenwald. He was in Brooklyn in like the Midwood area. He wasn't just a local rabbi. He became a huge international player, so not only was he tangled up with the Russian mafia, he was also helping this Russian spy who was in Latin America, Kalmanovich. He was helping to have him transferred back. And he was close to Kissinger. So it was like this little rabbi from Brooklyn had a lot of very powerful connections inside the Reagan administration.
Sarah Kendzior: That's interesting. It's interesting how Kissinger just keeps appearing in all this, and part of me is like, okay, yes, he's obviously a famous statesman involved in multiple—
Andrea Chalupa: War criminal.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, and war criminal, and an old man, so that happens, but...
Andrea Chalupa: Who happened to appear in the Oval Office the day after Trump fires Comey. Remember?
Sarah Kendzior: That's the thing!
Andrea Chalupa: It was like, Comey gets purged, America gasps, and then suddenly it's like the news cuts to Kissinger and Trump in the Oval Office. Everyone's like, "What is going on?"
Sarah Kendzior: And then it's Kislyak and Lavrov.
Olga Lautman: OK. So with Kissinger, he's behind national interest with the Russian spy Simes.
Sarah Kendzior: Right. Dimitri Simes, right?
Olga Lautman: Yes. They're the ones who moved the meeting to the Mayflower to make it more intimate. So Kissinger was involved before, and for an old man he had a lot of flier miles through 2015, 2016, and on. And Kissinger knows Putin since Putin was a deputy mayor in St. Petersburg. So Kissinger knows Putin for decades. And he went to Russia several times in 2015, 2016. Then the Mayflower event he was involved with. And then when it came to the Cabinet picks, he was also showing up in Trump Tower during the transition period to help pick the Cabinet. He's the one I think who actually picked Tillirson.
Sarah Kendzior: That's what I was just wondering about.
Olga Lautman: Yeah, and then after that he again kept making trips back and forth.
Andrea Chalupa: Back and forth between the U.S. and Russia?
Olga Lautman: Yeah, he even has an apartment I think, on the outskirts of Moscow.
Andrea Chalupa: So the Tillerson appointment is interesting. Kissinger having a hand in it is certainly interesting. Chris Russill came out saying that Romney, when he was being considered for Secretary of State, that got nixed by some Kremlin friends of the Trump transition team, saying no way, no to Romney, because Romney perhaps was slow to get on that Trump train. He was very critical of Trump during election, and even called out Putin in his famous debate with Obama back in 2012, which seemed very retro at the time, as Obama pointed out. But Romney was off, and so Tillerson came in as a much friendlier choice for the Kremlin, because they had all that money to make together with Exxon.
Olga Lautman: They had a contract that went on hold because of the sanctions.
Andrea Chalupa: The sanctions, yeah. So Kissinger coming in to sort of—god, and Kissinger's friends with Condoleezza Rice, who was pushing Tillirson. This is what kleptocracy looks like everyone. It's just profiting and just putting your morals and your patriotism and state sovereignty aside. So I had a meeting back, I want to say, early 2015, with a Russian lawyer who is a big civil rights lawyer, Mark Fagan, who represents Pussy Riot and lot of political prisoners inside Russia. And he was trying to get Nadia Savchenko, the Ukrainian pilot and POW that the Russians kidnapped, trying to get her freed. So he represents all those sort of civil rights political prisoner cases in Russia. And so I said to him, I'm like, "Is there anybody in the West that could go over and negotiate directly with Putin?" Bill Clinton, I believe, did that with Korea, right? He went over to get a journalist out of North Korea. Which Western statesman does Putin respect? And he said, "Kissinger. Kissinger." And I think it's just because with war criminals, it's game recognize game.
Olga Lautman: I also, I don't know, I was always under the impression because of the way the Russian press idolizes Kissinger, that Putin kind of also maybe fears him in the same way as respecting him, because he was way more powerful when Putin was just a deputy mayor.
Andrea Chalupa: Right.
Olga Lautman: And it's just the way the Russian press, write about him.
Andrea Chalupa: This old school respect.
Olga Lautman: Yeah.
Andrea Chalupa: The elder statesman. I had, as a young idealistic woman—because now I'm an old idealistic woman [laughter]—as a very young little chickadee I had a vow to myself if I was ever at the same party or if ever found myself in proximity to Kissinger I'd pour red wine on him, naturally. You know those promises you make in youth. And then I found myself as a reporter at the Google Vanity Fair party covering I think it was the 2008 presidential convention for the Republicans, and there was Kissinger. I had a glass of wine in my hand, and I was like, "Well, Andrea. Time to woman up." I got spared because—could you imagine? I'm like, "Eh, I don't need a job. Just throw this wine at Kissinger." But he was surrounded by the thickest-neck white men you could imagine. They were just like groupies. It was Kissinger as this little dark doughnut hole in the center of this massive, massive old-fashioned beige donut of like Republican groupie men. All men, with like the thickest necks, all suited up. I couldn't believe it. I could even get anywhere near him because he was just holding court. So this was at the Google Vanity Fair party the Republican convention in St. Paul Minnesota in 2008. I was like, "Okay, well I guess that spares me of that."
Olga Lautman: Yeah, it's unbelievable, because everybody from the 80s is surfacing back. All of them. They're all coming back.
Sarah Kendzior: But one more thing I want to bring up regarding Kissinger is that so much of this seems to date back to Nixon, who of course was linked with Roy Cohn, and then all of these sort of proteges that came out of there, which includes Kissinger, includes Dimitri Simes, includes so many individuals. It even includes Hillary Clinton, who was on the opposing counsel trying to indict Nixon. I feel like we're all just—
Olga Lautman: Yeah, and Paul Manafort and Roger Stone.
Sarah Kendzior: And Manafort, and Stone. Yeah, it's like Nixon's revenge. Like we're in some kind of baby boomer’s nightmare.
Olga Lautman: And they all travel. They went from Nixon, then they went into the Reagan administration, then they went into the Bush administration.
Sarah Kendzior: Right. They tried for Dole, and that's also another shady thing, because I think he's involved in overseas ventures. But for Brighton Beach, you're describing it is these different crime families. Just in New York in general, like there are Italian crime families and Russian crime families. Then comes Giuliani, who in the 80s gets known as this like super prosecutor, like he's taking down the Italian mafia. What's the deal with Giuliani, and how did that action affect the presence of the Russian mafia in New York?
Olga Lautman: Well, that is the thing that took me many decades to realize. So in the 80s, you have the Russian mafia rising. They're splitting—there was the famous deal that they were involved with for several years with the gasoline skimming, the New York state taxes off of the gasoline .and the Russian mafia and the Italian Mafia were working together, and slowly the Russians are getting very confident. And at the same time what's happening back in the Soviet Union, you have now the KGB, because the system is kind of destabilizing even in the earlier to mid 80s, and you have the KGB who now is looking to move money out. And they start with a Russian mobster, Burshteyn. Boris Burshteyn, who actually his son in law was Tom's business partner from Toronto. So you have them using someone like him. They send him to Canada, and he opens up a company, a trading company, because they all had trading companies. And the KGB sets up a series like hundreds of companies across the world to move money out of the Soviet Union. And I feel the same what's happening in New York. They had Sam Kislin, who became partners with an attorney in Russia who was a very influential at that time, like he was one of the top influential people in the 80s and early 90s in Russia.
So at that time I think that's what happens. Now they're getting more confident because they know how our system works. Already the Italians kind of taught them old loopholes, and now they kind of decided that the Italians are becoming competition. And then you have Giuliani, who is the prosecutor of the century, putting away Italian family after Italian family behind bars. But then at the same time, by the early 90s, he becomes associated—even maybe the late 80s—he becomes associated with Sam Kislin. And Sam Kislin, he at that time was a Soviet immigrant. He's from Odessa, I think. He's Ukrainian. He becomes a very important factor, because Sam Kislin was donating a lot of money to Giuliani into his campaign. And at the same time, Sam Kislin pops up on the FBI's radar because—the Thief in law.
Sarah Kendzior: Basically, the Russian mafia interconnected underground brotherhood of crime. [laughter]
Olga Lautman: Yes. There was there was a famous Thief in law who was connected to one of the main leaders of the Russian mafia in the late 80s and early 90s, Simeon Mogilevich. He released this Thief in law. His name was Ivankov, and Ivankov makes his way to New York, and he knows Kislin, and they end up working together. And at the same time, they end up getting a visa, sponsoring a visa to get a contractor to the country, into New York. And from that, he pops on the FBI's radar. And Giuliani knew this.
And at the same time, the interesting thing with Sam Kislin is that now going back to 1977, when he comes, he becomes partners with Tamir Sapir. Trump somehow walks into this—Kislin and Tamir Sapir had an electronics store in Manhattan. At that time, it was kind of known that it was like Soviet dignitaries who went to this electronics store, and it was kind of definitely involved in Russian intel collecting and whatnot. So they have this electronics store. Trump walks into this electronics store in 1977 and takes TVs on credit from Sam Kislin for his Commodore Hotel. So the Kislin guy pops up in the 70s into Trump's circle, then he pops up in the 90s and around Giuliani, and Giuliani ends up putting him on the New York Business Council. And then he spends a decade in Giuliani's circle. Then he's back with Trump when Trump opens Trump U.N. World Tower, and he's writing out mortgages for Russian oligarchs and also a Ukrainian oligarch who runs a, you know, becoming a leader in the Party of Regions. So this has been continuing on over the decades.
Sarah Kendzior: Right.
Olga Lautman: And you have Felix Sater involved. You have Kislin involved. You have Tamir Sapir. Tapir Sapir ends up partnering with Trump in Trump Soho.
Sarah Kendzior: I mean, it just seems like such an ideal situation. It's like, Giuliani gets rid of the Italian mafia, so there's no competition. There's a lackey of the Italian, I mean of the Russian mafia installed into a business commission as Giuliani becomes the mayor of New York. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union collapses, and so everyone is finally able to get out, move money freely. Everybody is getting into the capitalist bory of the time and I think a lot of that Russian money-making activity was viewed as oh they're just you know embracing capitalism and having a difficult go of it. We're just gonna like let that roll. I mean, just in retrospect a lot of this seems extremely sketchy at the time. Maybe we were young then. I mean, I was a kid, so I don't know. I guess one of the things I'm wondering is then you get to the question of like, "Okay, well where was New York law enforcement? Where was, for example, the New York FBI? What was their relationship to this rising mafia syndicate?
Olga Lautman: That I have the same question, and apparently, they didn't see the Russian mafia as a threat. That's the answer that I got. They didn't see it as a threat despite, I mean, besides the fact of everything, you know, then becoming national security risk because of you know the dealings back and forth between the Soviet Union and then after a collapse, you know, Russia and here. So they didn't see it as a threat, so they didn't have Russian speakers to kind of infiltrate it. Now if you lived on Brighton Beach at the time, every other store was a brothel. [laughter].
Sarah Kendzior: This was in the 90s, you mean? Or 80s?
Olga Lautman: It was in the 80s and 90s. 90s, it got even worse. I mean, it was really sad, because at the same time they were trafficking girls in. Then would put ads in papers in Russia. "Oh, we're looking for a nanny. We're looking for housekeeping." The minute these girls come here, they confiscate their papers and tell the girls, "If you open your mouth, then we'll kill your family back home." And it was really sad. The local police department got it, because I think they spent the whole day every single day going after these prostitution places. But it took quite a while, and at the same time, like eventually Brighton Beach became, you know, they wiretapped it, because they were involved in everything. I mean, if there was a way to scheme the government or to scheme financial institutions or anything, they found it, whether it be setting up medical centers, whether it be setting up car accidents and then scheming the insurance companies, the gasoline scheme, everything. Like anything they could do. Food stamps.
Sarah Kendzior: And that was kind of like on the low, local level. Like low-level guys. But at the top, with Mogilevich and stuff, it was more like—I mean, from what I've read—like sex trafficking, drug trafficking, nuke trafficking, intelligence trafficking.
Olga Lautman: Well, perfect example: Trump sold condos in 1984, which was probably the first money laundering deal, to David Bogatin. David Bogatin ends up later, and his brother ends up working for Mogilevich in the 90s, and becomes a very important partner in Pennsylvania for him with YBM Magnex.
Sarah Kendzior: I'm just going to briefly say—Bogatin is the first Russian mobster to move in to Trump Tower, right, in like 1984?
Olga Lautman: Yes.
Andrea Chalupa: He bought like five apartments.
Olga Lautman: Five apartments for cash.
Sarah Kendzior: So the beginning of an official record of a Trump property with Russian mafia involved. Okay, go on from there.
Andrea Chalupa: The beginning of a beautiful friendship. [laughter]
Olga Lautman: And he came in 19—I think '77 or '78—with like two dollars in his pocket. And he bought five apartments for cash.
Sarah Kendzior: Of course he did.
Olga Lautman: Yes. So anyway, with him, he ended after, because finally he fell on the radar of law enforcement here, so he left and he went to Poland. He had like a Polish-Italian partner who was handling, you know, also a mobster and handling organized crime there. He was shipping heroin into New York, and he was probably one of the biggest heroin traffickers. And heroin was coming in to Staten Island and Brooklyn, so that just shows you that even though it looked localized, they were all involved, whether it be in Panama, whether it be in Sierra Leone, whether it be in Israel.
Sarah Kendzior: It was like a globalized crime.
Olga Lautman: Yeah.
Sarah Kendzior: It was the era of globalization. I was reading an old speech. It was Bill Clinton in 1995. He spoke at the U.N. and was saying, "Organized crime is a threat." And mostly emphasizing Latin America, but he talked, I think, briefly about the Russian mafia, and it reminded me of like, you know, Obama gives this warning in 2011 about "organized crime is a national threat." And of course, Mueller made his famous speech, but no one really seems to act on this threat, and at the same time, another interesting thing is if we look at who is in charge in the national level of the FBI in the 90s, we have William Sessions, and then after that I think Louis Freeh. They both warned quite a bit about the dangers of the Russian mafia and its power after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then went on to work toward it. Can you tell us more about that?
Olga Lautman: Well, with William Sessions after he was dismissed by Bill Clinton, he ended up representing Mogilevich, and Mogilevich was one of the top ten on the FBI list.
Sarah Kendzior: Do we know why he did that? Like you would think he could get other job opportunities. Like why would you go work for the head of the Russian mafia if you were the former director of the FBI?
Olga Lautman: I just think that the corruption was...I mean, it just seems the more you look into it that the corruption, it kind of goes into the 70s, to after the Nixon administration. I think that we never actually dealt with the corruption, and, for instance, I have spoken with Kalugin—Oleg Kalugin—who used to be head of counter intel for KGB, and he said that America was his best client. He said that he used to come in—nonetheless, to Brighton Beach—but he used to come in the 60s and 70s. He came here as a student, and then, I think, to Columbia Journalism School, and then as a journalist. Those were his covers, and he said, "America was one of my top clients." And he traveled. I mean, he recruited spies everywhere. In the Middle East. He went on several, you know, several countries he was in charge of. But he said that America was the best. He's like, "Well yeah." He had people in the State Department and the CIA.
Sarah Kendzior: By people, what does he mean? Like informants, or assistants?
Olga Lautman: Yeah, informants for the KGB.
Sarah Kendzior: Wow.
Olga Lautman: Absolutely, and he said he used to walk on Brighton Beach and recruit people, and then famously meet with them and one of the Russian restaurants to kind of get information. He had people in New York City. So I think the Russians, obviously since the 50s, they have been trying to infiltrate. The problem is that they are experts at collecting blackmail.
Sarah Kendzior: Right.
Olga Lautman: And it's like one wrong thing you do, then they will use that. And it starts off simple. So they'll start off with something like a small favor, like, "Oh, can you just deliver me these files?"
Sarah Kendzior: Right.
Olga Lautman: That you don't think anything of. Or these papers, or this article. And then it kind of builds and builds and builds, and then once you cross that line, then you kind of suddenly when you want to back down and say I can't—"Oh no, now you work for us." So you can't really get out. And I think that's what was happening. And perfect example: when I went to look for—because Trump's first wife was Czechoslovakian, I went to see if there were any Czechoslovakian spies in New York. Perfect example: I find this Czech spy Karl Koecher, and at the time Karl Koecher was reporting to the Czech agency and they were reporting back to the KGB, because there was a satellite. But then eventually he had a fight with STB. He had a fight with that agency and started directly working for the Kremlin, for KGB. So he works for KGB. He ends up becoming one of the biggest CIA moles. And you know what he did? He would go to a sex-orgy place in Manhattan and find his fellow agents, you know, who was doing what. It was, you know. And he would report that information back to the KGB.
Sarah Kendzior: Good Lord.
Olga Lautman: And supposedly Bolton was involved with that.
Sarah Kendzior: Oh really?
Olga Lautman: That's in the 70s. Because apparently what happened—
Sarah Kendzior: Ew! Sorry. Gut reaction.
Andrea Chalupa: John Bolton?
Sarah Kendzior: Ew.
Olga Lautman: Yes.
Andrea Chalupa: How was he involved? Mustaches were the thing in the 70s.
Sarah Kendzior: Ew.
Olga Lautman: He used to attend Plato's Retreat, and apparently when his wife—he was out of the country in the early 80s—his wife, when she left, she—
Sarah Kendzior: Can you imagine the poor woman? I just want to say.
Andrea Chalupa: Plato's Retreat, the swingers club? Wait he was into that? John Bolton?
Olga Lautman: Yes.
Sarah Kendzior: He was swingin'.
Olga Lautman: All of them were, I think.
Sarah Kendzior: I've heard about this, too.
Andrea Chalupa: I mean, Roger Stone advertised. He and his wife advertised to do some swinging, and Manafort of course had those texts released about his own—
Sarah Kendzior: Oh God. If this all gets out it's gonna be—no. Nothing. [laughter] We're in some nasty viewing.
Olga Lautman: When he was out of the country, his wife fled and filed for divorce, and in divorce papers she said that he used to take her to Plato's Retreat. When I read that, I was like, "Wait, Karl Koecher used to go to Plato's Retreat."
Andrea Chalupa: That's why I will never go to a sex party. Because you never know who you're fucking. It could be John Bolton. [laughter]
Sarah Kendzior: Oh God. Ugh. Sorry. I feel like I need a shower.
Olga Lautman: So listen to how much weirder this gets. So this Karl Koecher is operating in New York. He ends up being caught as a mole in the CIA. Guess who's prosecuting his case? Giuliani.
Sarah Kendzior: That was going to be my guess, sadly enough. [laughter]
Olga Lautman: And he screws up the case, and he ends up being exchanged in a spy swap. And that's it. And off he went.
Sarah Kendzior: Good God. I have to ask you about Felix Sater, because he of course exemplifies so much of this. Like he came from a Russian mafia family from the former Soviet Union, then fled to Israel, then came here when he was I think pretty small, right?
Olga Lautman: Yeah.
Sarah Kendzior: Like he was a child. Grew up in Brighton Beach, and then became a Wall Street dude, became a gangster, was a gangster, and then became an FBI informant. We have asked so many people about this, and no one seems to have an answer, of like, "Okay, so Trump is running for president." You already know Trump—
Andrea Chalupa: [laughter] School book series for Sarah and I to figure out.
Sarah Kendzior: Trump is like sketchy anyway, like you don't even need to do the Russia stuff. You could just look at a zillion bankruptcies, his shady ties, all this stuff. But if you want a direct connection between Trump and the Russian mafia, you have Felix Sater, who of course worked for Trump, worked for the Russian mafia, also worked for the FBI. Therefore, you kind of think the FBI knew about Trump.
Olga Lautman: And if you want to hear even of a weirder coincidence, Felix Sater—so here's Trump Tower. You have a building behind on Madison Avenue and Trump Tower's on Fifth Avenue, and there's an atrium that next the building on Madison Avenue to Trump Tower, and it goes into the lobby of Trump Tower. So this building—Felix Sater, I mean I don't know if it was like where you rent just the address and you're physically not there, but both Felix Sater and Carter Page had companies on the same floor.
Sarah Kendzior: So Carter Page was there, too. Okay, great.
Olga Lautman: On the 21st floor, the same floor, for years. I'm not kidding. Like a decade.
Sarah Kendzior: Just to add to that, you also had Sater of course, who's childhood best friends with Michael Cohen, who is Trump's lawyer. So you have like a zillion connections. Then you could throw in Manafort, and then you could throw in Stone.
Olga Lautman: Well, even with Manafort! Manafort had a partner who was involved also with Mogilevich in the lawsuit that was filed by Yulia Tymoshenko in New York that was dismissed. So she filed a lawsuit against Mogilevich, Manafort, and a guy, Brad Zackson. Brad Zackson was Fred Trump's protege in the 70s, sorry, the 80s. Brad Zackson went to jail. He came out of jail. Fred Trump took him under his wing and taught him all the ropes. He ends up becoming partners with Manafort for with Firtash. And he ends up becoming partners and lands in this lawsuit of like the mafia.
Sarah Kendzior: We'll just briefly explain. Firtash a Russian oligarch—
Andrea Chalupa: Ukrainian.
Sarah Kendzior: Sorry, Ukrainian. Mobster oligarch who is represented by Lanny Davis, the lawyer who is also representing Michael Cohen, because everyone has to be connected. This is like, I don't even know. But my question is, it's like, okay, so you're like in intelligence, or law enforcement—
Olga Lautman: How do you miss all of this? I don't know.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah. It's 2015, and you know that Trump is going to be—or 2016—Trump's going to be a candidate at the least. May well ascend to the presidency.
Olga Lautman: Well, why did he even become a candidate? Why wasn't he prosecuted decades ago?
Sarah Kendzior: Well yeah! I mean all these dudes should have been in jail like decades ago. But I keep thinking, at some point Trump was getting intelligence briefings. How could they possibly give this guy intelligence briefings with his connections?
Olga Lautman: I don't know. With Manafort living downstairs, because Manafort's been there for a decade.
Sarah Kendzior: With like a dormitory of mobsters, and you're going to go in and give them the most classified information.
Olga Lautman: He had at one point, and I'm not kidding, at one point in his Trump Tower, which I call the Kremlin mob tower, he had Chuck Blazer running the FIFA scandal for Putin, and Chuck Blazer was very close to Putin. He was very close with Trump. They were very good friends. He had Bayrock with Felix Sater and Tamir Sapir running out of the building during the same years, and he had a huge international money laundering operation running out of the building with this guy, his name is Tokhtakhunov, who ends up being on Trump's red carpet—
Sarah Kendzior: This is Alimzhon Takhakhunov, right?
Olga Lautman: Yeah. He ends up being on the red carpet at Trump's Miss Universe event in 2013, literally a year after his whole crew just got taken out of Trump Tower for money laundering and gambling.
Andrea Chalupa: What's significant about the Miss Universe pageant, Trump bringing it to Moscow in 2013, at that same exact time, Putin has just signed the anti-gay laws to try to scapegoat gay men and women inside Russia to sort of build up his fake family values campaign, the classic scapegoating of the far right likes to do. And of course, that was horrendous, and so many on the world stage were boycotting Russia, were speaking out against this, except for Donald Trump. Donald Trump instead shows up to Moscow with his monopoly man persona of being a successful business man in the West, which is all just marketing, as we know, and helps legitimize him. Because mainstream America wasn't onto Trump at that point. He had a like a cameo in Home Alone. He had all this gold around him.
Sarah Kendzior: He was thought of as a joke, and that's actually I think the most dangerous thing of all. You know, he was the Apprentice guy, and he was thought of as just like a giant jackass, or a sort of regular mainstream celebrity, neither of which is immediately threatening.
Andrea Chalupa: He was a caricature.
Sarah Kendzior: Yes exactly.
Andrea Chalupa: He was just another mascot of New York City.
Olga Lautman: And that's what I don't understand, because when I first started looking into this, I mean, it blew my mind. All the classic examples of someone becoming a Russian asset were there. He gets involved with the mafia in the late 70s, with the Russian mafia, Soviet mafia, in the late 70s, 80s. He goes to Soviet Union in 1987. He comes back and starts bashing American foreign policy. Roger Stone is pushing him to run for President. Then he goes back to the Soviet Union in the 90s. He wants to build this Trump Tower, which I personally don't think there ever was a Trump Tower.
Sarah Kendzior: No, I don't think so either.
Olga Lautman: I think it was just cover to move money and also to take the trips. But you see him developing. I mean, in the 80s he was so obsessed with the Soviet Union that he asked for a Russian post. Like who wanted to go and become ambassador of something in the Soviet Union?
Olga Lautman: Right.
Olga Lautman: He was so obsessed with Gorbachev that he tracked down an American doctor who had come back from overseas who was Gorbachev's doctor, brought him over from I think Boston, brought him over, arranged a meeting in Trump Tower to find everything out about Gorbachev. Why? Why?
Sarah Kendzior: And didn't he try to meet with Gorbachev but was fooled by some sort of doppelganger? I think there was a story in Spy or one of the older publications from them.
Olga Lautman: Eventually he did, and the strangest part is so you have him starting like legitimately with the Russian mafia in the 80s, around '84, and around 1986, you have the Soviet ambassador's daughter. She goes, picks up her father who just landed. He was either the Soviet ambassador to the U.S. or to the UN.
Sarah Kendzior: Is this Dubinin?
Olga Lautman: Yeah, Dubinin. And she picked him up and she's like, "Oh Dad, let's go to Trump Tower." And she drives him to Trump Tower and they go to have lunch. And that was their first encounter. Now at the same time, the Russian intel services are having difficulties with recruiting people, so they're trying to develop new methods, and obviously money, sex work. So they find now that sweetening the pot for Americans will kind of recruit them. Using sex as a weapon, we'll recruit them. I mean KGB had a whole you know unit where they trained women to have sex and collect kompromat on men.
Andrea Chalupa: They trained they trained women to have sex with disgusting men like Trump, serving their country.
Olga Lautman: And he goes to Soviet Union in '87, gets high level meetings. How did our intel agencies not flag that?
Sarah Kendzior: I don't know, dude. I discovered all this like during the campaign, because all he was doing was. People are like, "Where did you get this information?" Journalists would ask me this. I'm like, "I got it from your publications back when you reported on things." It was all there. It was in Vanity Fair, in New York, Spy, all of Wayne Barrett's work, David Cay Johnston's work. That's what's mind boggling to me, because I'm like, if there's this much incriminating information that all you have to do is going to put it together in public, what did the I.C. do—the intelligence community? What were they doing with all of their extra resources, besides like joining the Russian Mafia after they retire?
Olga Lautman: And that's what people fail to grasp, because Americans think of the Russian mafia as like the Italian mafia.
Sarah Kendzior: Right, like all tough guys in tracksuits and stuff.
Olga Lautman: Yeah, and they kind of do their corrupt things and make their money and that's it. The Russian mafia is the Russian government.
Sarah Kendzior: And Russian business.
Olga Lautman: Yes. There is a very thin line between Russian oligarchs, Russian government, and the Russian mafia. The Russian intel services use Russian mafia to do things that they don't want their fingerprints on, so they can deny it. That's what Americans don't understand. So here, when you're dealing with a with senior-level Russian mobster, or he's living—in Trump's case, he had so many of them living in all his properties—everything is going back right to Russian intel, and they are devising a file, and they know the weaknesses, and they know what works, what doesn't work. So that's the big difference, whereas here, with the Italian Mafia, they're dealing with somebody. You don't have to worry that they're going to use—they might blackmail you for personal gain, but not for—
Sarah Kendzior: State gain, or something like that.
Olga Lautman: Exactly.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, it's frightening, and I think it went less detected because plutocratic Americans, or Americans that were high up in the espionage services or in law enforcement—people like Sessions, Louis Freeh—but lacked moral fiber, maybe they just saw a version of themselves over in the former Soviet USSR.
Olga Lautman: Clearly, because they went that way.
Sarah Kendzior: They're like us. They wear suits and ties. They like expensive things. They are part of a globalized new economy of kind of, "We don't need states, history has ended." I sometimes see the sort of glorification of the post-Soviet area, where Americans felt so triumphant and these oligarchs felt so empowered. But I don't know, I'm just sort of thinking out loud about how this has brought down the world that we have to raise our children and we have to inhabit.
Olga Lautman: And in plain sight.
Sarah Kendzior: In plain sight. Yeah. That's actually the title of my new book is Hiding in Plain Sight, because it all happened like right there. It's a sad thing when you can write about an espionage story using back issues of like, Spy. You know I mean? That's not how life should go.
Olga Lautman: That's the thing that people also fail to grasp, that the Russian intel agents, they studied us. And this is going back to the 50s. They studied us. They studied every loophole, every financial loophole. I mean, in the 80s they were opening up shell companies and moving money around. Then they got into using Citibank and all the big—like Felix Sater worked for Wall Street, so they found a way to make money off of Wall Street by finding the loopholes.
Sarah Kendzior: Right.
Olga Lautman: They found the loopholes in the banking sector. They found loopholes everywhere, and at the same time, they also found divisions.
Sarah Kendzior: Right.
Olga Lautman: And they kind of collected all this information, made their money, but on top of it, and that's actually adding insult to injury, then on top of making the, I mean moving around billions and billions if not trillions of dollars over the past several decades, they kind of collected all this information to devise this grand plot.
Sarah Kendzior: Right. I mean that's what it seems like. I think everyone we've talked to, we're all kind of re-evaluating who won the Cold War, and what was the point of the USSR ending it. It just seems like, in one sense you have internal factors: you have Chernobyl, you have the war in Afghanistan, you have a collapsing economy, all these things that really did contribute to the collapse. But you also have a lot of very ambitious mobsters, people like Mogilevich who are like, "Oh, well this is ideal for me. I no longer have to go procure an Israeli visa to go travel. I can just take off." And all of these, you know the aluminum magnets, all these guys saw a very advantageous situation.
Olga Lautman: Yeah, with Deripaska. I mean, Deripaska started under Cherney.
Sarah Kendzior: Right, it's rational.
Olga Lautman: And Cherney was one of the top Russian—he was probably one of the most influential at the time, after the Soviet Union collapsed. Everyone knew he was a Russian mobster.
Sarah Kendzior: Right.
Olga Lautman: And he took—what's his name—Deripaska under his wing and helped him, and Deripaska himself said that he had to kind of fight through the aluminum wars to get to where he is.
Sarah Kendzior: Right, and it's weird to me that people look at this and they're like, "You know, what a big mystery. I can't believe they acted this way." It's like, well they want money and power.
Olga Lautman: And revenge!
Sarah Kendzior: It's like literally the same things that every bad guy in every movie wants. And revenge. That's true.
Olga Lautman: They want revenge, because the Soviets—especially the hard liners—they will never forget the West and America and the West for collapsing the country. They feel that it was the West, and particularly the United States, who are responsible for the collapse, and hence you have people like Putin, who is rising through the KGB ranks, and he's in Dresden, comes back, works in St. Petersburg, and he has this Soviet, like, it's this hatred towards the West for what they are doing to his country. Because don't forget: at the same time, you have, like the whole population was indoctrinated. You are brainwashed there. Throughout the whole Soviet Union existence, you are brainwashed of what you have to believe, what you have to say, how you have to say it, what you're allowed to say, what you're not allowed to say. And here, when you see everything kind of collapsing around you, you start having this resentment.
Sarah Kendzior: Right.
Olga Lautman: So for the West, yes, the Cold War ended. For the hard liners and the people who were kind of left in the wings, it never did.
Sarah Kendzior: Well, yeah. It's been a complete disruption of your life. Like when I would meet people from Uzbekistan, even if they were glad for independence, they still—older generations—have nostalgia for that time, because it was a predictability.
Olga Lautman: Exactly.
Sarah Kendzior: Like at the time the immediate aftermath was deeply traumatic. And I think as Americans we're sort of getting a sense of what is that instability like. Like what would it be like if America fragmented? What would it be like if, you know, Cal-exit and Tex-it actually happened, and we lost our states? I think that you're right, that they do want us to feel that, and possibly have that loss. I think with Trump, we see them wanting to just strip the country down for parts.
Olga Lautman: Oh absolutely. That's why they were funding Cal-exit.
Sarah Kendzior: And who is the buyer? All of these international big shots are the buyers.
Olga Lautman: And everyone surrounding Putin are his inner circle, and they have the same mentality. They don't have the mentality that looks to work with the West. They have the mentality of, "Let's destroy the West. And the quicker we can destroy the West and humiliate the West, the better we will be." Even if it produces zero, it's more of that revenge. You know, even if there's no money gain, even if they lose money, it's the point. I mean, there's nothing more—
Sarah Kendzior: It's the winning. It's the winning for the winning.
Olga Lautman: Yeah. There's nothing more, like, there's no more joy for them than to see, for instance, a Russian ship today trying to hit a U.S. Navy ship.
Sarah Kendzior: Right.
Olga Lautman: And then having the U.S. president with his hands tied who can't even make a statement.
Sarah Kendzior: Right.
Olga Lautman: You know? Like for them, that for them is everything.
Sarah Kendzior: And it's interesting, because their mechanism of doing this, I mean they seem to have infiltrated all sorts of groups.
Olga Lautman: Everything.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah. You know, intelligence agencies, the NRA. But like their primary vehicle seems to be the GOP, which of course was—they were the Cold Warriors. It was Reagan who brought down the collapse of communism, brought down the USSR. What do you make of that, that that was the party that ultimately led them to triumph in this spot?
Andrea Chalupa: It's Animal Farm. It's literally the plot of Animal Farm.
Olga Lautman: I actually told my mom this. I think what it is that the Republicans aren't, you know, they're white men. [laughter] And they think alike, you know? Like it's harder to infiltrate—.
Sarah Kendzior: Conformity.
Olga Lautman: Yeah. It's harder to infiltrate, for instance, Democrats, where you have representatives who are African-American, representatives who are Latin American, representatives who are Russian, who are Americans, Irish, women, old, young. It's harder to get everyone on the same page, but when you look at the Republican Party, and even the people involved, you have, I mean, you can't tell the difference between a Lindsey Graham and McConnell. [laughter].
Sarah Kendzior: They're the hollow men. They're the straw men.
Andrea Chalupa: They are the men circling Kissinger like groupies. That's exactly what.
Olga Lautman: They also had those clicks I feel like, because they come from the Trent Lott party, and I feel—
Andrea Chalupa: The good old boys club, as we say. So I interned on Capitol Hill for Senator Barbara Boxer, a very progressive little Jewish woman from New York City. And you would see through the summer months on Thursdays all these Republican members of Congress wearing seersucker suits, like Colonel Sanders suits, basically. [laughter] It was a boy's club. It was like, my male colleague interns that summer, they would get invited by a member of Congress to sit down in the cafeteria. Like, "Hey Sonny, why don't you sit down and have lunch with me?" Do you think they would ever say that to me as a female intern? No.
Olga Lautman: Nope. And that's what it is, and I feel—and also they have that greed and that power.
Andrea Chalupa: And women are objects.
Olga Lautman: Yeah. Absolutely.
Sarah Kendzior: I mean honestly, like the way you were describing Putin's idea of revenge on the West reminds me so much of the GOP idea of revenge, or just sort of wanting to stamp down liberals or the left, where there's no actual gain necessarily, it's just, "I am going to push you down.".
Olga Lautman: It's because they want to destroy democracy. I mean they, I don't think the Republicans, I think something happened. Because they were never like that, and I can tell you, I'm half Russian Ukrainian, and if anything, I always look more—prior to Trump—to the Republican Party to kind of help Ukraine.
Sarah Kendzior: Right.
Andrea Chalupa: Oh yeah, my family, too.
Olga Lautman: Because the Democrats are now in la la and.
Sarah Kendzior: Yeah, some of my relatives, too, because of Eastern Europe. Because they were the ones who were going to bring freedom to Eastern Europe.
Olga Lautman: And Democrats were more, you know, they were always more the domestic party. They worried about the domestic issues, whereas the Republicans always were involved in international affairs. They were always hawkish against Russia, or so I thought they were. We looked to them to help us with this. And then after Trump, I just, I couldn't believe it. Romney is a perfect example. Romney predicted everything that is happening. He warned America. He was like, "We are going to be attacked. We need to kind of push back Putin." And no one listened to him.