Cover of Brigada DVD
Brigada, subtitled "Once Upon a Time in Russia" in the U.S. and "Law of the Lawless" in Europe, is probably the best-known Russian mafia mini-series. Brigada made actor Vladimir Vdovichenkov a star. Vdovichenkov went on to portray a heroic ex-con in the 2003 hit movie Bumer, and also in Bumer 2. With good English subtitles, Bumer and Bumer 2 could easily be shown on HBO.
Brigada on the other hand, was made for RTR TV in 2003, and Director Alexei Sidorov only had $200,000 to shoot the entire first season - or roughly what the producers of Fox's hit "24" spend on each episode. Unfortunately, this shoestring budget (by Western standards) means that cheesy background music and terrible English subtitles make it difficult for non-Russians to appreciate the quality of the acting or comprehend the storyline.
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Watch the opening credits for RTR TV's Brigada, in Italian
Still, watching Brigada is an educational experience, as it more or less portrays what many veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan came back home to in 1988-89. The story begins with Sasha Belov (White) returning to his tough neighborhood in Moscow after completing his enlistment in the Red Army. Sasha finds his old buddies Cosmos and Pychela (Bumblebee) engaged in petty crime. Cosmos is spoiled by his father, a well-connected professor of astrophysics with a young second wife, and rolls around the neighborhood in a flashy Lincoln Town Car. Cosmos and Pychela tell Sasha that they can work together and make a lot of money in the new perestroika-era Moscow. Unfortunately, Cosmos and Pychela also have bad news for Sasha: his girlfriend, who was supposed to wait for him to get out of the army, is now a whore.
1989 - Just four Russian boys in the hood...
With Depeche Mode's Personal Jesus blaring in the background, Sasha calmly picks up a set of brass knuckles and walks down to the night club where his girlfriend is working as a prostitute, and beats up her pimp. Sasha's girlfriend begs for his forgiveness, but he tells her to leave him the hell alone. Her pimp wants revenge and so Sasha offers to take him on in a fistfight to settle the score. After beating up the guy (again), Sasha becomes a regular at boxing matches where his friend Phil (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) fights for money. At one of these fights, the pimp gets shot to death and Sasha is framed for the murder by the victim's vengeful cousin, a detective in the MVD (Andrei Panin).
1989 - The incident that launches the bratvas' life of crime
After a night of drunken debauchery, the house where the four buddies are partying is shot up by an MVD SWAT team with Kalashnikovs. The "brothers" and their girls for the evening escape, but Sasha is wounded, and they decide to go into hiding outside Moscow. Sasha swears loyalty to Cosmos, Pychela and Phil, and they become "The Brigade".
Sasha meeting the beautiful Olya...
While keeping a low profile in the countryside, Sasha meets the beautiful violinist Olya (Yekaterina Guseva), and they get married. Sasha returns to Moscow after Cosmos' father uses his connections to help Sasha find a lawyer and be cleared of the bogus murder charge. Sasha's nemesis, the MVD Detective, is fired from his job when the Soviet Union collapses and he is left to fend for himself. The Detective's resentment of the youths who thrive amidst post-Communist chaos is evident in every episode, as he plots with rival gangs and corrupt officials to undo Belov.
Sasha Belov, played by Sergei Bezrukov
Cosmos and Bumblebee know Artur, a sleazy and spastic businessman in Moscow, and with Phil and Sasha one day they muscle in on his lucrative aluminum business. After the Brigade hires a lawyer and sends him to Artur's office to collect their cut, the businessman's thugs nearly beat him to death. Deciding that ruining Artur is the best revenge, Belov arranges for his business partner's huge aluminum shipment to be stolen. Artur is forced by the Detective and his ex-KGB fixers to sign a confession and run away from his creditors. The Brigade then throws a party for their maimed lawyer at the hospital and they give his devastated wife a hefty check for her husband's injuries.
From this point, the storyline is fairly predictable, focusing primarily on marital tensions between the respectable middle class artist Olya and her mafia husband. On their wedding night, someone places a tripwire and grenade outside their new apartment, and the couple narrowly escape being blown up. Meanwhile, Sasha's corrupt patrons in the Moscow government and security services don't want him dealing drugs in the city, but they allow him to transship heroin bound for Europe ("so we're going to destroy the West after all?" Sasha jokes to his siloviki patron).
Farkhad and Sasha together in the Red Army in 1989
More tension builds when Farkhad, Sasha's Tadjik "brother" from the army, comes to Moscow. The Brigade and Farkhad's gang have a grand time until the Tadjiks demand Belov's permission to sell heroin to Sasha's new "partners". The ex-Spetznaz commandos, egged on by Belov's enemy the Detective, murder Farkhad and steal the drugs, delivering them to the Detective. Sasha has to personally accompany the bodies on a plane back to Dushanbe in Tadjikistan to reassure Farkhad's family that he did not betray his friend.
Sasha's revenge, as it plays out while he respectably sits with his wife in a concert hall box, pays tribute to the closing montage in Godfather III. In another sly tribute to the Godfather trilogy, Belov agrees to baptize his son (born on October 3, 1993, the day the West's darling Yeltsin, the hero who foiled the 1991 coup against Gorbachev, shelled the rebellious Russian parliament). While standing on the church steps, he spots his siloviki patron going into the Orthodox church with his family. The next scenes show Belov playing tennis with an aged businessman at the Moscow Tennis Club. In a subtle dig at the abuses of "non-profits" in Russia, Belov tells the old man about his plans to start a charity called the "Restoration Fund" to fix up old churches and historic buildings. In reality, Belov wants to exploit a lucrative tax exemption from the Kremlin so he can import luxury goods (during the 1990s, the Russian Orthodox Church was the largest tax exempt distributor of alcohol and oil in the country).
1994- Sasha Belov's government patron tries to talk him into selling guns to Chechnya. When Belov hesitates, his "partners" hire contract killers to murder him. Phil ends up taking a bullet for his friend.
In the Autumn of 1994, Belov is approached by his siloviki handler with an offer he can't refuse: Belov must run guns into Chechnya, because people "very high up" in the Kremlin want to support friendly factions in the rebellious province. The Detective, having decided to destroy Sasha's gang from within by turning the brothers against eachother, tells Sasha that "Chechnya is a gold mine" and urges him to agree to smuggle arms. Sasha is hesitant, which his siloviki contact warns him could be bad for his health. A few days later, assassins try to gun Sasha down in front of his apartment as his mother and wife look on in horror. Belov's bodyguards kill the assailants, but Phil is wounded. After Sasha flees to a dacha in the countryside to negotiate an end to the war with a rival mobster, Phil confronts his old friend by telling him "the higher you go, the more shitty you've become to me...I saved your life today". Belov apologizes to his "brother" - but like Michael Corleone, he must defend his friends and family with devastating force. Belov however, is no match in ruthlessness for his erstwhile partners in the security forces.
Throughout Season 1, every time the Brigade uses violence, there is some security services official or corrupt politician ready to come along and tidy up the mess - in return for a hefty cut of the profits. As with Oligarch, the political message in Brigada (to the extent that there is any) is unmistakable: Russia's politicians and bureaucrats are the real mafia.
A depiction of Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovich and his associates using the Brigada poster
If you have many hours to kill some weekend and want to see one of the most popular Russian TV series of this decade, then rent Brigada: Season 1 from Netflix like I did.