Bout was born on Jan. 13, 1967 in Dushanbe, the capital of the then Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic. But Bout is even secretive about this simple fact, saying that he comes from a place in Turkmenistan, a claim that mystifies even his brother, Sergei.
The two brothers grew up in a sheltered environment. The father was an auto mechanic and the mother was a bookkeeper -- Russian atheists surrounded by a majority Muslim population on the southern edge of the USSR.
Viktor was the adventurous son, the more ingenious and clever of the two boys, copying banned pop songs to earn a little extra pocket money and teaching himself Esperanto in the belief that it would come in handy later in life. He also joined Komsomol, the Communist Union of Youth, because it seemed that the only career opportunities could be found within the Communist Party. After completing a special training program with Soviet military intelligence, which he continues to deny today, he attended the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow.
Portuguese became his favorite subject. In the late 1980s, the army sent him to Mozambique and Angola to work as a military translator. It was still a time of proxy wars between East and West, with Moscow backing the African anti-colonialist movements.
Bout never lost his cool, always remaining levelheaded and calculating. He seduced a Russian diplomat's wife, a woman named Alla, and then married her. Everything seemed to come to him naturally, and his language skills were legendary. During his time in Africa, Bout apparently met Igor Sechin, who was also working as an interpreter and who would later embark on an extremely successful political career. Some even believe that Sechin, now Russia's deputy prime minister and a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, helped and protected Bout. To this day, both men deny having had any relationship.
Back in Moscow, Bout was discharged from the military in 1991, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. When the Soviet Union collapsed soon afterwards, an entire world fell apart for many in the military. But Bout, in his mid-20s by then, astutely saw the unfolding chaos as an opportunity. Unused aircraft stood idle on the tarmac at the waning superpower's airports, and unsold weapons were piled high in the country's weapons factories. The enterprising Bout purchased -- with the help of military intelligence, some claim -- three old Antonov cargo planes for the ridiculously low price of $40,000 apiece. Also working in his favor was the fact that there was no shortage of pilots, and that many were without work during those months of turmoil.
Perhaps Bout was clever enough to register his fleet, which soon grew to four dozen aircraft, in obscure countries and to creatively conceal the identities of his clients, and perhaps he received help from Moscow. In any event, Bout registered his planes in countries like Equatorial Guinea and the Central African Republic, benefiting from their lax regulations.
In 1993, Bout, accompanied by his brother Sergei, moved his fleet to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. There they met Chichakli, another aviation buff, who told them: "Give me a few pieces of steel and I'll build you an airline." Like the Bouts, Chichakli paid little heed to what the planes were carrying, as long as they weren't flying empty and the recipients of their cargo paid on time.
The cargos were often routed through the Bulgarian city of Burgas en route to Africa. The routes were mysterious and the pilots were reckless, flying ancient but robust planes that could land anywhere.
Africa's elites needed a lot of things, but weapons were always part of the mix. In Nigeria and Angola, so-called liberation movements were battling so-called regular armies, while powerful politicians in both East and West served as interested onlookers -- and often as clandestine players. Everyone wanted access to the region's vast and valuable mineral resources.
Two US journalists, Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun, learned that the Russian merchant of death and his fleet played a particularly shameful role in Liberia, where Bout reportedly supplied the brutal warlord Charles Taylor with large numbers of weapons after Taylor had assumed power. Armed with these weapons, Taylor's child soldiers, often high on drugs, became notorious for mowing down everything in their path.