MOSCOW - The man once described by American prosecutors as the chief of the Russian mob in the United States will walk out of a Pennsylvania prison in a week and head home after almost a decade behind bars.
What happens next will be a test of how far Russia has come since the early 1990s, when organized crime bosses controlled much of the economy. It could also show the strength, or limits, of the links between U.S. and Russian law enforcement agencies forged after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Vyacheslav K. Ivankov - an ethnic Russian known as "Yaponchik" or "Little Japanese" because of an Asian cast to his features - is scheduled to be released July 14 from the federal penitentiary in Allenwood. Authorities expect to put him on a plane back to his hometown, Moscow, which he left 12 years ago.
His return is widely anticipated here, where one authority on Russia's elites has called the steely former acrobat one of the five most influential figures in Russian organized crime and "the major ideologist of the criminal world."
Ivankov, whose shoulders bear tattooed stars applied in a Siberian prison, is described by police officials and journalists as a vor-e-zakon, or thief-in-law, a crime lord commanding a small army of associates inside and outside of prison.
Since the Soviet era these criminal kingpins, elected by their peers, have traditionally settled disputes, divvied up loot and enforced the underworld's ruthless code of conduct.
A senior U.S. law enforcement official working in Moscow, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said Ivankov has threatened the lives of FBI agents and Russian police.
Earlier this year, Ivankov's term at Allenwood was extended by several months because of an alleged fight with another inmate. "His behavior in prison combined with his clearly unrehabilitated posture does give us cause for concern," the U.S. official said.
Ivankov is wanted for questioning here in connection with the killing of a Turkish man during a quarrel in a Moscow restaurant in the early 1990s. But Ivankov's lawyer here, Aleksandr Dobrovinsky, said authorities don't have enough evidence to charge his client. One of the two key witnesses in the case has returned to Turkey, the lawyer said, and the other has died.
Whatever Ivankov did in the past, Dobrovinsky said in an interview, his client has changed. In prison, he read Greek philosophy and talked about fishing with his grandchildren.
"He's an old man, and he spent about 30 years in prison," the attorney said. "I think he wants to retire and go somewhere in the countryside and live the rest of his life in peace."
Russia has changed as well. "It's absolutely not the same as it used to be in the 1990s, during what they called `romantic capitalism,'" Dobrovinsky said, referring to the rise of criminal gangs here after the collapse of Soviet power.
A spokesman for the Russian Interior Ministry's Department of Organized Crime confirmed that investigators are trying to build a case against Ivankov in the restaurant killing.
"I can say only one thing: that it is quite possible that Yaponchik, when he comes to Russia, will be arrested," said Lt. Col. Oleg Elnikov. "But this is only possible if prosecutors find additional evidence of his guilt."
Even as a child, Ivankov was said to be fearless. A friend once told a reporter that Ivankov had run around Moscow tearing down posters of Stalin, a crime then punishable by a long term in the gulag.
At times courtly, Ivankov gained a reputation for a quick temper. He was first arrested in 1966 and convicted of assaulting an acquaintance in a Moscow bar. After his first brief spell in prison, he rose through the ranks of the criminal underworld. He became the protege of Gennadi Korkov, a powerful criminal boss known as "Mongol," according to Aleksei Mukhin of the Moscow Center for Political Information, an authority on Russian elites.
According to press accounts, Ivankov was formally elected a vor-e-zakon by other convicts during a stay in Moscow's dank Butyrskaya prison in 1978.
Convicted of leading a gang of armed robbers who disguised themselves as police in 1982, Ivankov spent nine years in a Siberian prison. Released during the last days of the Soviet empire, he was flown back to Moscow on a chartered plane and welcomed home with a lavish party at the Metropol Hotel, across the street from the Bolshoi Theater.
"Yaponchik inherited Mongol's gang, his power," said Mukhin. "But he didn't have enough time to develop his business in Russia." Instead, he fled after the restaurant slaying.
Law enforcement officials say Ivankov entered the United States in late 1991 or 1992 using a false passport. He settled in Brooklyn's Brighton Beach, a haven for Russian emigres, and allegedly began welding scattered criminal groups into a single organization.