My time in Драгалевци – living side-by-side with the Russian mafia

For a while I lived among the Russian mafia in a very usual neighborhood at the southern edge of the capital city of Sofia in the wonderful country of Bulgaria. The neighborhood was called Драгалевци, or Dragalevtsi.

Here is a view from Dragalevtsi looking towards downtown Sofia:

And here is another view looking down towards Sofia:

By the way, those are the Balkan Mountains off to the distance in the north.

But what does this have to do with the Russian mafia, you might ask?

Well, Bulgaria – next to Turkey – which itself is next to the Middle East – is not only infamous as Europe’s most corrupt country, but in fact infamous because it’s a major gateway into Europe for  illegal things like drugs, and a major gateway out of Europe for illegal things like smuggled women.

Of course, no self-respecting Russian mafioso would spend too much time in any of the hotels in Sofia, so they all lived in massive chalets they built in the neighborhood of Dragalevtsi. This made Dragalevtsi into something of the Beverly Hills of Sofia. I don’t think any of them lived here full-time – mainly, I assume, they stayed here during business trips.

Anyway, here is a snap of one of these chalets taken from my apartment:

I always thought it would be wonderful to count a few powerful Russian mafioso’s among my friends, so since I was living next to them, I did everything I could to meet them!

Sadly, with little success.

The Russian mafia are people like anyone else, and from time to time I’d see one of them shopping in the posh local Dragalevtsi supermarket, called Супермаркет МАКС, or “Supermarket MAX.” Whereas normal supermarkets in Sofia catered to the Bulgarian locals, who on average earned around EUR 250 / month – in fact this supermarket specialized in caviar and Cuban cigars and many other things that normal Bulgarians could not afford.

The mafia were easy to spot: in the parking lot I’d see a large, armored Rolls-Royce – engine running – with the driver wearing white gloves. More often then not my mobile phone would stop working – I think they carried mobile phone jammers in their cars. And standing next to them in the supermarket would be two enormous Russian bodyguards, with the obligatory black leather trenchcoats.

I tried. And I tried and I tried and I tried. And sadly, there was only a single time I could start a conversation with one of these guys. In fact, he came up to me, and in surprisingly good English he remarked that I looked like a foreigner – I told him I worked for Hewlett-Packard as an IT guy. I was hoping he would invite me over for a cigar and brandy.

But sadly, he just shrugged and walked away.

(Interesting aside: on the weekends I’d usually rent a car from Herz, then go exploring the Bulgarian countryside. The fellow at Herz told me that the rental cars will never be stolen, because of the Herz label on the back: the rental car companies all have contracts with the mafia. But, he told me, should the car be stolen, under no circumstances should I call the police. Instead he gave me a private telephone number, and he told me the car would be returned in less than 24 hours! It was a very interesting time for me – the Bulgarians are incredible, great, passionate people. But I also have more great experiences involving corruption than I could ever tell!)