Russian Caviar Mafia

I put it on my toast in the morning!

Johnson’s Russia List,10 September 1998

Russian Caviar Mafia

By Robert King

It’s a full moon, hours before dawn as Victor a reformed poacher who during
the Soviet time was jailed for poaching sturgeon is now the team leader of
a Russian State Fishing Team working on the Volga Delta. While floating in
a small wooden one man boat, Victor tells me about the problems facing the
families of the State Fishermen who work on the Volga. “Our State Fishing
team of twenty men must only catch Vobla, Lesh, Sezan, and catfish. Our team
must through back every male and female sturgeon we catch in our nets according
to the Russian Fishing Law.” Victor goes on to say “I have three children
and a wife to look after and the State has not paid me or my team our wages
of 3 dollars a day in over two and a half years so Sturgeon is our payment
from the State.

On the starry night Victor and I both almost drowned in the fast moving river
water of the Volga while floating in the middle of the river. Victor was
leaning over the side of the boat checking the fishing net slipping into
the water. As the final 100 yard of the net quietly slipped into the dark
water making the sound of cotton sheets softly blowing softly in a cool
Mississippi river breeze. Large fish could be heard helplessly fighting for
their freedom. As the fish fight their bodies become tangled in the fishing
net while their tails frantically brake the surface of the water. Victor
was heavily concentrating on his job and did not see or hear the large tanker
headed strait at for us. Victor could not understand my repeated warnings
in English until I said the newly learned Russian phrase used by the fisherman.
As I screamed the Russian word for “fucked in the mouth” Victor looked up
and smiling and seconds later Victor’s smiling face turned into a face of
horror. His facial expression is seen only in the faces of men who can look
death strait in the eyes and still calculate their options for survival.
Victor jumped to his feet as he pulled out a box of wooden matches kept dry
in his shirt pocket. Victor frantically started striking small wooded matches
and tossing them over board.

As the tanker got closer and closer I said a few fox hole prayers I learned
during my 5 years of photographing wars. It goes like this “God I’m not ready
to die and if I live this out I promise I’ll go to church, stop doing drugs,
excessive drinking, sleeping around, and using your name in vain.” Then I
went on to say “please Lord save us from death and let the captain on the
large approaching tanker see our small sparks and flames before they are
either blown out in the wind or burn out in the water. I promise I’ll go
to church when I get back to the port. To my surprise my prayer was answered
and tanker missed us by about ten yards. The waves from the tanker almost
sunk the small little wooden vessel but we never had to abandon ship in our
hip boots . I was never able to keep my promise I made that night because
The village where I was staying had no Church and plenty of smoke. I think
the Olya village is the only Russian village I’ve visited that does not have
a Church but does have a tattooed female who sold me plenty of grass to smoke.

As the full moon dawn ended my darkest hour on the Volga. The delta sun rise
silhouetted Victor’s 20 man fishing team working the nets out in the Volga.
The sturgeon that were captured in their nets are ripped out of the Volga
and tossed through the air. The poached Sturgeon flew across the orange and
purple sky while twirling nose over tail before crashing head first into
a floating wooden fishing boat. A fouled mouth Cook silhouetted by the same
sky stood next to that wooden boat smashing the sturgeons over the head with
a small wooden truncheon.

As the cook was dragging the dazed sturgeons into his open air kitchen on
the muddy river bank , out in the distance you could see and hear a drunk
and corrupt fishing official. The official was screaming as he swung a large
flash light in the air and repeatedly kicked a yelping wild dog. The dog
had gotten to close to the officials pregnant Sterlyad he hid in a burlap
sack near the river bank. The fishing official had poached a “Sterlyad” sturgeon.
The Sterlyad is the rarest Sturgeon found on the Volga and is known as the
Czar’s fish. After beating the wild dog to death and before washing his hands
the official returned to his hidden burlap sack and pulled out a Vodka bottle.
As the wild dog yelped for the last time the official poured two large glasses
of Vodka. After five hundred grams of Vodka and our long toasts for a new
friendship, the official started justifying his poaching. “The pregnant
Sterlyad?… Well…. I’m not poaching because the fish is a birthday present
for my wife. She wants to make Sturgeon cake for me.” Before heading back
out to work the fishing nets the official gave me a great bear hug and said
” I had quit drinking four years ago but today I drink with my American friend”.

As the state fishing team’s 9 hour fishing rotation was about to end. The
early morning shadows from a tree fell upon on tiered and hungry fishermen
sitting or standing around a wooden picnic table. As most of the fishing
team ate fresh sturgeon boiled in sated water from the Volga. One or two
of the fisherman took a quick nap in the golden cats tail rocking softly
in the a delta breeze. Up above the picnic table in the tree was a dead raven
hanging by its feet moving from side to side in the same delta breeze. The
fishing team said the dead raven was scare off the bad omens other ravens
bring to their fishing hole.

Every day or night as the state fishing teams rotation ends their nets are
neatly resting on top of a small fishing barge as each member of the team
cleans and hide their two too four poached male sturgeon in the bottom of
the boats. Before the twenty to thirty cut heads of the sturgeon end their
frantic fight through the air before resting on the rivers bottom four the
team members wearing green and black clothing drag the ten to twenty pregnant
female sturgeon caught during nine hours of fishing into shallower water.
Hidden by the cover of thick brush one man beats the pregnant sturgeon over
the head with a small wooden club. A razor sharp knifes used by the other
two fishermen slit open the sturgeons belly before scooping out the sturgeons
eggs and filling a large garbage bag. Seconds later , before the female sturgeon
can feel the pain or realize they just had their bellies cut open they are
being dragged back into deeper water. The sturgeon start flopping around
in the water as the fight natures gravity. As the last female gives up her
fight she sinks to the river bottom resting next to the hundreds if not thousand
of decapitated heads from the male sturgeons.

Before the blood from the sturgeon could be washed off from the fisherman’s
blade, a speed boat with two men arrives and departs from the fishing hole.
The two men in the speed boat wore blue track suits purchased over ten pounds
of caviar from Victor for under 250 RBIs. The two men in the speed boat returns
every day at the end of the fishing teams rotation and buy the fresh eggs.

Each day elderly W.W.II Veterans and pensioners living in the Russian fishing
village of Ola wait at the fishing dock as the boats return to the village
port. The elders greet the fishermen and their boats loaded down with fish.
With every new sun rise during the fishing season these elders before fresh
fish from the State Fishermen who only want to hurry home to their wives
who wait next to the phone.

The moment the fishermen returns home from a 9hr fishing shift. The men inform
their wives on their daily sturgeon count as their wives work the phone selling
the poached meat and eggs. The wives use code words when selling the illegal
caviar and sturgeon meat to their various clients and dealers. Most of the
fisherman’s wives have married three to four times and hate the local police
and openly give the universal fuck you sign to the passing or visiting police.

Over 90% of the men of Ola have been in prison for poaching, rape, murder
and theft. While the other 10% are still hiding from law. These ex-cons and
fugitives are now Russia’s state fisherman and role models for the young
village boys who dream of becoming fishermen one day. Most of these young
boys of Ola fish off the dock, pick dead fish out from fishing dry on the
fishing dock. The kids wear fake tattoos, dream of owning their first pair
of rubber hip boots, and of the day of catching his first sturgeon and telling
their first fisherman lie. The biggest lie the kids are told is that they
will be able to fish and pouch sturgeon just as there father and grandfathers
did in the past

Fishing regulators on the Volga have expressed a growing concerns about the
fate of the sturgeon that spawn up into the Volga from the Caspian Sea. The
life of the Sturgeon on the Volga is endanger of disappearing along with
the fishing villages tradition and the fishermen lively hood. The reason
is because the young male and female sturgeon are being poached freely in
order to supplement back pay from the Russian Government. Most local law
enforcement in the region now turn a blind eye to the systematized poaching
of Sturgeon and are working directly with caviar Mafia in distributing it
to the black market..

The demand of illegal, low cost caviar selling at 2.5 pounds at $50 -$100
US Dollars on Moscow’s Black Market is also a major factor that is hurting
the Sturgeon’s survival and next generation of Russian Fishermen. Russian
experts on the Sturgeon say that by next year there will be no adult sturgeon
left in the Volga for the next ten to twenty years. The reason for the depletion
of the sturgeon is because the current generation of young and immature Sturgeon
on the Volga have been fished out of existence.