If you happened to be in Brighton Beach in south Brooklyn in the Eighties and Nineties, you couldn’t throw a stone without hitting an Eastern European gangster – although this was not an action to be recommended if you didn’t want your kneecaps turned into paperweights. The enclave known as “Little Odessa” was a hotbed of drug smuggling, money laundering and inter-mob brutality.
The king of the kingpins was Boris “Biba” Nayfeld, a Russo-Belarusian who arrived in Brighton in 1979 and within a decade became the leading Russian gangster in the US, his rivals having mostly come to sticky ends (not at his hands, Nayfeld insists). Now, aged 75, Nayfeld has provided the veteran journalist and true crime author Donald Century with several hours of interviews, resulting in this blood-soaked biography.
Nayfeld was born into a Jewish family in Gomel, Belarus. Like Vladimir Putin a few years later, the teenage Boris became a member of a khuligan (hooligan) street gang – what Putin has called his “street university”.
His brief career in petty theft landed him in a labour camp in Bobruisk (had it been less brief and the thefts less petty, he would have faced the firing squad, like many of his friends). It was a brutally hard existence, leading to the one incident in his life he seems ashamed of: when he and his fellow prisoners were digging the foundation for a factory, they came across a mass grave of Holocaust victims, and stole their gold teeth.
Inevitably, once he was out of prison he used what he had learned from his fellow cons to turn seriously to crime. At that time baking matzoh was enough to get you arrested in the USSR, but when he joined the mass exodus of Jewish refugees heading for the US in the Seventies, it had less to do with fleeing state-sponsored anti-Semitism and more that he was a relentless swanker whose fancy clothes and car had alerted the authorities to his various rackets and embezzlement schemes.
Settling in Brighton Beach – the bizarre aesthetic of which is outlined by Century with characteristic neatness as “a fever dream of Western opulence filtered through a Slavic sensibility” – Nayfeld became a fixer and heavy for various mob bosses. After a protracted war with chief rival Monya Elson – although Century describes it as “less of an outright war and more a series of double- and triple-crosses [and] spectacularly botched assassination attempts – as well as a few gruesomely successful ones” – he rose to be Brighton’s unchallenged crime king.
Most ex-crooks are old bores, their memoirs as soggy a mixture of self-pity and self-justification as any politician’s, but Nayfeld is a fiendishly compelling presence on the page. This is partly because he comes across as ready to assess his life honestly, admitting to his many cock-ups and the role of good luck in his successes. (He eventually served three stints in US prisons, with his most recent release in 2018, but one of the reasons he avoided jail for many years was his embarrassment at his poor English; he largely kept silent at meetings where jobs were planned, so FBI bugs never picked up anything that could incriminate him).
In a book so enjoyably mayhem-crammed as to make Howard Marks’s drug-smuggling memoir Mr Nice read like Barbara Pym. Nayfeld is wisely allowed to tell the tale in his own words for the most part, with Century only popping up occasionally to point out where these apparently candid reminiscences part company from other accounts. Century largely avoids the hero-worship that so often mars gangster biographies, but does admit to a suspicion that his own law-abiding Jewish immigrant grandparents might have had a grudging admiration for Nayfeld as an incarnation of the archetype of “the Jew with the indomitable spirit… The Jew whom absolutely nothing could break”.
Still, like many born survivors, Nayfeld has ended up wondering if survival is all it’s cracked up to be, having ended up exiled in Russia and estranged from his children and friends. The ending of The Sopranos, it seems, got it spot-on with its depiction of the miserable paranoia that blights a gangster’s retirement. “Happiness is only possible when… you’re on someone’s yacht in the Black Sea and you know no one can sneak up on you,” Nayfeld says. “Otherwise, you’re always on guard.”
The Last Boss of Brighton by Donald Century is published by William Morrow at £20. To order your copy call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk