Nearly five years ago, underworld kingpin Yuri “the Russian” Ulianitski was assassinated in Milnerton, Cape Town. Not one arrest has been made in the case.
Now Ulianitski’s closest friend has broken his silence, detailing how Ulianitski rose to power in the city’s underworld, leading to lasting divisions and an ongoing battle for control of resources.
To date, the fight for power in the city’s criminal network continues – at least two murders have already been linked to it.
“You can’t be number one forever. You’ll be taken down,” Igor Russol, 40, Ulianitski’s best friend, says softly, in a heavy Russian accent.
Russol, wearing an expensive tailored suit, gold rimmed-glasses and a thick bronze ring on his left hand with his initials on it – a gift from his mother on his 16th birthday – explains that since his best friend’s death, he has now filled his place and become known as “the Russian” of Cape Town.
He speaks languidly, a cigarette often hanging from his lips. When Russol emphasises a point, or uses the word “kill”, he either takes his glasses off or firmly pushes them up his nose. His bodyguard is sitting nearby.
Russol was born in Odessa, Ukraine, formerly part of the Soviet Union, in 1972, about four months before Ulianitski.
Russol and Ulianitski were Russian nationals but had Ukranian citizenship and passports. The two became best friends, playing in the streets and going to school together.
At the age of 18, Russol had to join the army.
Ulianitski instead enrolled at a sports university in Russia and became successful and excelled in the Russian version of judo, called sambo, developed by the Soviet Red Army.
In the late 1980s Ulianitski’s father, an engineer, travelled to South Africa and ended up in Cape Town for work purposes.
About a year-and-a-half later, Ulianitski arrived in Cape Town to be with his father and intending to carry on with sambo.
But Russol says Ulianitski soon swopped to kick-boxing, and in this sport he met a man known only as “Hoosain Moroccan” – a member of the Moroccans gang, who introduced Ulianitski to city night life.
Russol says at roughly the same time, Ulianitski met Cyril Beeka, who was then known for beating up barmen in clubs to get free drinks.
He says Ulianitski urged Beeka to start offering his services as a bouncer to clubs, and this was how Beeka got into the security industry.
Beeka, Ulianitski and Hoosain Moroccan then became partners and started offering – or violently enforcing – their services at city clubs.
In the 1990s, their services were being used by most clubs in Cape Town, where drugs were also being peddled, bringing in cash. Angolan bouncers were often used as they were burly and good drug dealers.
Russol says the city centre was targeted because youngsters with rich parents, and therefore money, frequented the clubs.
Clubs in the northern suburbs were overlooked because the clientele was not as wealthy.
Towards the end of the 1990s, Ulianitski started pestering Russol to join him in Cape Town and in 2001 Russol relented. He arrived here to find that his friend was into club security.
Russol says Ulianitski had by then started working with a well-known local businessman, who was dabbling in various ventures, and the two moved into co-owning a nightclub.
He says Beeka, who he describes as very intelligent, started the company Pro Security and another rival company, PPS security, was set up and run by a local gang leader, who fronted for the local businessman. Russol says Beeka did not like the businessman, but the gangster was a buffer between them.
Russol, making a quick snorting motion with his nose to indicate cocaine use, says cocaine is a major business in Cape Town and it is easy to become rich if dealing in the drug.
He says Ulianitski soon became very powerful in Cape Town’s underworld, which upset others who wanted to be in his position and wanted him out of the way. Russol says this is what led to Ulianitski’s assassination. He was gunned down while driving in Milnerton on May 21, 2007.
His four-year-old daughter, Yulia, was killed in the incident and his wife, Irina, a professional swimmer, was wounded.
Russol says he then virtually replaced Ulianitski in the underworld, creating enemies of his own. He had a fallout with the local businessman.
Russol says that about eight years ago, Beeka’s Pro Security and PPS Security started fighting for complete control of security at clubs in Cape Town.
Eventually, Beeka’s company succeeded and forced PPS Security to work in the northern suburbs. This upset PPS’s management.
Beeka, who moved to Joburg, visited Cape Town frequently and was involved in property deals and illegal diamonds, proving he still had a firm grip on the city.
Russol says this led to Beeka’s assassination.
He says that a few months before Beeka was murdered, he noted that Beeka had employed a number of Serbians, who had a military background, to protect him. Among them was fugitive Dobrosav Gavric, whom Serbia is now trying to extradite so he can be imprisoned there for 35 years for killing Serbian warlord Zeljko Raznatovic, better known as Arkan.
After Beeka’s murder, Russol says the fight for control over the city started heating up. He says one businessman, in particular, wants to be known as “the Godfather of Cape Town”.
PPS Security became Specialised Protection Services, which started taking back control of clubs.
Russol says there was an attempt on his life in May 2010.
“I’m not scared now. I stopped being scared about 15 years ago,” he says.
Russol says he decided to speak out because false information about Ulianitski had been published in the media over the years and he wanted to set the record straight, out of respect for his friend.
He is also fed-up with South Africa because of the way local gangsters act. “In Russia if you have a problem with someone, you meet them face to face and shoot them if you have to. Here, it’s different. Here people get other people to sort their problems out,” he says. “If you f*** with me, I look you in the eyes and say, ‘I kill you’.”