The Fishery Case: How Did State Fight Corruption in the USSR

A case from the past: how officials earned on fish

In the Soviet Union they did not like to admit their mistakes: until the 1980s, the trials of corruption cases were held behind closed doors. Only in the late 1970's, open investigations of the first high-profile case of corruption in the USSR began. The “fish case” involved senior officials from the Ministry of Fisheries. Russiangate explains how the bribery case in the commercial and industrial company Ocean, which began with a series of anti-corruption investigations among the highest ranks of the Soviet power, unfolded.

After the Second World War, the Ministry of Fisheries was headed by Alexander Ishkov, who headed the same department in the pre-war period. Back in the 1950s, a fishing fleet began to develop in the Soviet Union, and in the 1970s, production of seafood grew exponentially. Together with the lack of meat, this led to the return of fish Thursdays in 1976 – the days when fish could be bought at least cheaper than the meat, and sometimes meat was impossible to get at all.

In the same year, Ishkov managed to obtain from Prime Minister Alexey Kosygin the right for the Ministry to independently sell its own products: it was cheaper and faster and made it possible to avoid long-term coordination of various departments. In the Soviet Union, new fishery associations, which dealt with the distribution and trade of fish products, were founded. Yuri Rogov, who was personally supervised by Ishkov's deputy Vladimir Rytov, was appointed the head of the All-Union association Soyuzrybpromsbyt.

Immediately, there opportunities for earning popped up: caught fish was weighed on the water, where it was difficult to accurately determine its weight, and sailors often put more than necessary. On the shore, two or three extra pounds of fish in each box turned into tons of unrecorded products.

After the Prime Minister's permission to trade fish at Ishkov’s direction, a chain of stores called Ocean made by the Western model – selling various seafood – was opened in the country. According to the legend, Ishkov saw delicatessen shops with aquariums with live fish, fresh food and a cafe in Spain, and he got the idea to open one in his homeland. More than a hundred stores were to be opened across the country.

The stores did not disdain double-entry bookkeeping: the “substandard” product – aspics and jellies made from fish heads and tails – that employees had to write off was sold in delicatessen shops. But under the guise of canned food the Ocean illegally sold black caviar: there is an anecdote about a pensioner who found caviar instead of sprats in the can and went to return the delicacy back to the store.

It was suspected that under the guise of sprats and herrings, stores supply black and red caviar to restaurants where it is already served at restaurant prices. According to the calculations of Vladimir Kalinichenko, the investigator for especially important cases, who took part in the “fish case,” the price of such a can could increase by several times: “Imagine that a can of red caviar cost 5 rubles, and in a restaurant, after the retail margin, it cost 20 rubles. Therefore, if the caviar is put in a sprat can, which cost 32 pennies, it would make a profit of five to six times.”

In the late 1970s, KGB officers detained the director of the Ocean trade and production firm, Feldman, and the director of one of Fishman's subordinated stores. Feldman and Fishman, who were suspected of exporting money abroad, reported that they received funds as bribes and led operatives to the next links of the corruption chain. The unsuccessful bribe takers called the name of Yuri Rogov, the head of the Soyuzrybpromsbyt association.

Alexander Ishkov. Photo:

During Rogov’s interrogation, as investigator Kalinichenko recalls, he first confessed to everything, but later said that he had testified under pressure. However, a little later, Rytov realized that no one was going to get him out of arrest, and gave testimony against all the officials and civil servants who gave him bribes.

One of them was Arsen Pruidze, the director of the Sochi Ocean, whose arrest started the investigation in Sochi. At the interrogation, Pruidze admitted to bribing the Sochi chairman of the city committee, Vyacheslav Voronkov, who was immediately detained. As a result, more than 5 thousand officials were dismissed from their posts in the resort region – many received long terms, the first secretary of the Krasnodar Territory Committee of the CPSU, Sergei Medunov, lost his post.

Together, these cases were called the Sochi-Krasnodar case, which resulted in a separate, even more ambitious investigation. The anti-corruption purges were personally attended by Chairman of the KGB Yuri Andropov, who hoped to prevent the high-ranking officials from escaping responsibility.

Ivan Denisenko, who headed the All-Union Association Azcherryba formed in 1976, also became a hero of the corruption case. Denisenko, who managed the infrastructure of the Black Sea, received bribes from the Georgian subordinates. After head of Soyuzrybpromsbyt Rogov was arrested in 1977, Denisenko took his place and continued to take bribes – for example, from the head of the Poti Ocean Fisheries Authority, Davisi Kartozia. Soon he was arrested as well.

The career of Minister of Fisheries Alexander Ishkov after the fish case was over: he was removed from office and sent to retirement. Ishkov’s deputy Vladimir Rytov, who directly supervised the Oceans and received bribes for more than 300 thousand rubles, was sentenced by the Supreme Court's panel of judges in April 1981, despite cooperation with the investigation and testifying against other corrupt officials.

It was rumored that they were willing to executed Ishkov, but Leonid Brezhnev stood up for him. These days, among the possible explanations for the scale of the fishing case is called the confrontation between Brezhnev's protege, Interior Minister Nikolai Shchelokov and the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov.

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