The Heist of the Century: How a million was stolen from the State Bank in 1977
The morning of August 8, 1977, was very grim for the employees of the State Bank of the Armenian SSR. Arriving at work, they discovered that the vault was short of over one and a half million rubles.
A hole had been made in the vault’s ceiling. Its diameter was no more than 34 centimeters, and it was unimaginable that a thief could enter through such a tiny opening.
The facts spoke for themselves: the hole and the missing amount, astronomical by USSR standards. The majority of the stolen banknotes were hundred-ruble bills from the AI series. These bills were just being introduced into circulation and had not yet made their way to the cities and republics of the country. It was this thread that the investigation caught onto.
Everyone understood that this case was extremely unusual, and not only because of the colossal amount of money stolen.
Investigative authorities faced a new type of crime for the USSR: a bank had been robbed, implying the existence of an organized gang, a carefully planned scheme for breaking into the money vault, and then “laundering” the money. Everything was like in American gangster films.
The Soviet Gangster Gang
The “Soviet gangster gang” consisted of two people – cousins Nikolai and Felix Kalachyan. They were very different people, and their lives until a certain point took very different paths, but the end result was the same – execution by firing squad. Nikolai was born in the Krasnoyarsk region.
His childhood was poor, his father was seriously ill, and all the money went to his treatment. As a teenager, Nikolai joined a Gypsy camp, involved in drug trafficking. He had no education and no steady job. He committed his first theft with friends at a very young age.
The boys managed to rob a savings bank. After blowing all the stolen money in taverns, Nikolai realized that this was the life for him – risk, fun and no need to work. Felix lived with his family in Leninakan.
He married early, had two children, and despite all Felix’s efforts, they were constantly short of money. He was very flexible, strong and agile by nature, holding the title of a sports master in artistic gymnastics.
This was exactly the kind of person Nikolai needed to implement his plans: strong, agile and compliant. He convinced Felix to try. It was not easy, the thought of theft horrified the decent and positive Felix.
However, he gave in, as he really wanted to provide for his family. Thus, an ideal gangster group was formed: a leader and an executor, a brain calculating various options and combinations, and a strong, muscular body ready to perform the most complex trick.
The first job went very smoothly for the Kalachyan cousins. They robbed a consumer goods store. For this, they broke into the premises next to the store, dismantled the wall. Felix easily climbed into the hole and handed over the deficit tape recorders to his brother.
The brothers sold the tape recorders, ultimately making 15 thousand rubles. Very good money for the USSR! The most important thing was that no one missed the tape recorders, the store continued to operate as if nothing had happened.
The goods were “hot”, and the store manager rightly assumed that in case of a criminal case, he would also end up in the dock.
The Heist of the Century
Nikolai Kalachyan decided to rob the State Bank in Yerevan after getting a tip from his friend Zaven Baghdasaryan, who was part of a commission for counting banknotes. Zaven told Nikolai that the money in the vault was not in safes, but simply on shelves, and that there was a lot of money there, millions of rubles.
He also spilled the beans about how the bank’s security was organized and the layout of the rooms inside the building. Nikolai planned the operation for five months.
It was decided to act according to the usual scheme: to enter the premises sharing a wall with the bank, make a hole, penetrate through it into the rest room located just above the vault, dismantle the floor there, and thus climb into the vault itself.
A week before the scheduled date, Nikolai had an accident, however, he did not abandon the plan, and directed the operation from the hospital.
On the evening of Friday, August 5, Felix Kalachyan entered the building that shared a wall with the bank and tried to make a hole. It didn’t work out, the wall was too thick.
Then he climbed onto the roof and found that the window in the rest room was open and there were no bars on it. It later became known that the room was being renovated, so the bars were removed, and the caretaker forgot to close the window.
First, Felix tried to throw a rope. It didn’t work. And then Felix made a very risky jump from the roof to the window. Having ended up in the rest room, the thief made a hole in the floor, broke into the vault, grabbed as much money as he thought he could carry – his bag weighed more than 30 kilograms, and got out the same way he came in.
During the investigative experiment, Felix attempted to reproduce the trick of penetrating a hole 34 centimeters in diameter, and he managed to do it with great difficulty. On the night of the theft, according to him, everything was much easier. Apparently, it’s a matter of a sense of danger and adrenaline.
In order to legalize the fantastic sum they had acquired, the brothers went to Moscow. There, Nikolai had a girlfriend, Lyudmila Aksenova, whose brother – a taxi driver named Vladimir Kuznetsov – he made his assistant. Nikolai persuaded the brother and sister that he wanted to marry Lyudmila, but the wedding, he said, should be lavish, worthy of such a beauty. He had money, having won a large sum playing cards.
Gambling was banned in the USSR, but among the common people, such a sin was considered, in general, forgivable. The money had to be legalized. For this, Nikolai entrusted Vladimir with buying bonds of a three-percent loan.
The bonds were then planned to be sold. At one of the savings banks, Vladimir tried to purchase bonds for 3000 rubles. The savings bank cashier did not have securities for such an amount, and she, asking Vladimir to wait, went to the next room.
The wait was prolonged, Vladimir got nervous, and ran away, leaving 3000 rubles on the cashier’s table. Of course, such strange behavior could not go unnoticed.
The girl checked the money, it turned out that these were hundred-ruble bills of the AI series, exactly the ones that all bank and savings bank employees were advised to pay the closest attention to.
In addition, the girl had an excellent visual memory, and she was able to make a composite sketch of Vladimir, by which he was identified quite quickly. Then they learned that Kuznetsov’s sister had a wealthy lover from Armenia.
The Kalachyan brothers and Vladimir Kuznetsov were arrested on the night of June 6-7, 1978. The court’s verdict was expected: Nikolai and Felix Kalachyan were sentenced to the highest penalty – execution by firing squad.
The Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of Armenia, B.E. Sarkisov, tried to mitigate the sentence. He appealed to the Supreme Soviet with a plea for clemency.
He wrote about the youth of the convicted, neither of whom were yet 30 years old, that they had not killed anyone, and that Felix had minor children.
The petition for clemency was satisfied, however, the documents from Moscow arrived in Yerevan the day after the sentence was carried out.
Source: ANTITOPOR (IAPS)
Translated by Vigen Avetisyan