What emerges most clearly from these books is that the Russian ‘mafia’ (the Italian name has been taken over into Russian) has so deeply penetrated government, business and the security forces as to have reconstituted the society which lives on one-sixth of the earth’s land surface into a wholly criminal formation. Organised crime, all four writers warn continually, has encircled the globe, has found in Russia a safe laundry for its money and is trafficking in nuclear material drawn from the ex-Soviet arsenal. The picture is one of a vastly rich, closely calibrated series of crime networks which are now able and willing to challenge the Russian Government, among others. Handelman quotes President Yeltsin in January 1993: ‘We have become a mafia state on a world scale. Everyone thinks that political issues could lead to an explosion but crime could as easily blow us asunder.’ Sterling quotes him as saying a month later: ‘Organised crime is destroying the economy, interfering in politics, undermining public morale, threatening individual citizens and the entire Russian nation ... our country is already considered a great mafia power.’
Yuri Boldyrov, the Parliamentary Deputy who was briefly in charge of the anti-corruption committee, is quoted by Kampfner as saying that Russia is a ‘mafia-controlled state’. Even more chilling is a flat news item put out in January 1992 by the Tass-Krim Press and reproduced by Sterling: ‘privatisation of the capital’s trade and service sectors, delayed because the various mafia clans were resolving the distribution of the enterprises among themselves, is likely to go ahead soon.’ Implicit here is a worrying acceptance that the commercial life of the city is now wholly within the competence of the gangs. Sterling concludes that ‘nothing in history compares to this cancer consuming the largest country in the world. Devoured by criminal predators and rampant corruption within and without, Russia seems helpless to save itself.’ If these authors are right and Russia really is a ‘great mafia power’, a ‘mafia-controlled state’, and really is ‘helpless to save itself’, then those of us whose governments and media encouraged the collapse of Communism and the USSR have exchanged a stable stand-off with a rational totalitarian opponent for an unstable engagement with a semi-democratic, dubious ally not in control of itself. Are they right?
To say that one does not believe the worst is to court accusations of blindness or smugness. After four years living in Moscow during the period in which crime passed from virtual invisibility (at least to a foreigner) to daily omnipresence, I am sure the situation is extremely serious. At the beginning of March, Vladislav Listyev, the newly appointed head of the main state TV company, was murdered; the following week, the head of an industrialists’ union was also murdered – like Listyev, at the doorway to his block of flats. My wife returned from a recent business trip to be told by her driver on the way from the airport that three dismembered bodies – two men and a woman – had been found two days earlier in the dustbins next to her office. Between finishing this review and correcting its proofs, an acquaintance who heads a brokerage company was shot and seriously wounded, and his six-year-old daughter killed, by assassins waiting at the child’s kindergarten.
So I know it is bad. Yet I also believe that countries can be dynamic and relatively free even while they support huge, predatory, organised crime structures: Italy is the most obvious case, but Japan, the US and Hong Kong fit into the same frame. In all these countries the gangs have strong links to the power structure, but they live largely in a separate world; and while they may contaminate the workings of the state, they don’t threaten the state itself. The Russian state has broken down – it hasn’t disappeared – and at present, as a militia lieutenant put it on TV recently, everyone is grabbing what they can. (A man educated in Marxism, he called it ‘primitive capitalist accumulation’.) Soon, he said, they will want the law to protect what they have got.
I believe, moreover, in the Russians. This is to put it mawkishly, and it is in some sense a mawkish belief: but I cannot think that the intelligence and stoicism which have so often been their distinguishing characteristics will desert them now. The fear, rather, is that when they recover their ability to act collectively, the iron hand which deals with crime will suppress a number of things besides.
An Armenian gangster told Handelman that he and his fellows had survived Communism ‘thanks to our purity, our structure, our ideology ... and now we have received a new lease of life.’ Zoya Kofeyeva, chief judge of the Moscow Appeals Court, told Handelman that she was ‘amazed at how bold these criminals have become’. Handelman describes extraordinarily well the emergence of the criminals who make up the Soviet underworld. In his account, the roots of Russian criminality, treated more briefly by Kampfner and Sterling, lie in a society in which all crime had a political aspect because all property belonged to the state: ‘The faint beginnings of organised crime in Russia can be seen in the outlaw peasant bands of the early 17th century. In a society where land and all who laboured on it were the property of the Tsar, political resistance and criminal activity were nearly indistinguishable ... systematic plunder often turned into organised rebellion.’
The distinctive nature of the modern Russianhood derives, however, from Soviet times. For Handelman it is embodied in the figure of the vor v zakonye, the ‘thief in law’, and the Russian equivalent of a godfather: an aristocrat of crime, hardened by the brutality of Soviet society, and of the prisons and camps which were often his operational base, observing a rigorous code of thieves’ honour and a rigid separation from Soviet society, especially the Communist Party. No man, no matter how fearsome or successful, who had ever been a Pioneer (the CPSU Boy Scout/Girl Guide equivalent) could become a vor v zakonye: he had to be seen to be ‘pure’, untouched by Party or state.
The result was a special type of individual, not wholly reprehensible to those who saw it at close quarters. The scholar Dmitri Likhachev, an early political prisoner, said of his more conventionally criminal fellow convicts building the Baltic-White Sea Canal that ‘their lives are governed by a network of strict regulations that extend to the most minute matters ... regulated and circumscribed by innumerable rules, standards and notions of property and good manners.’ Handelman is no romantic: he knows, probably better than any other foreigner, that the vory lived brutally, and killed easily. But his interlocutors agree that they were often men of a certain integrity who neither sought nor gained great wealth. They valued close friendship, behaved generously to the poor and were personally modest.
Naturally, this idyll has broken down. Both Handelman and Sterling stress the rift in the vor movement which opened after World War Two, when those who had served in the Soviet Forces were cast out by others who had avoided war service and who held that to have worn a Soviet uniform was a fatal taint. The result was the so-called Scab War, which provoked huge bloodletting between the vory and the suki (‘bitches’), as they were called – the latter conceding the heavier losses. Handelman says that the ‘bitches’ who survived broke their ties with the old criminal establishment when they emerged from prison. ‘Having already been violated for having broken one tenet of the code, they felt little compunction about ignoring its other commandments, particularly the prohibitions about going into business or trade. The suki in effect became the financiers of the black market.’
The environment encouraged the growth of crime. As Arkady Vaksberg makes clear in The Soviet Mafia (1991), the mafia of Brezhnev’s days thrived under the direct patronage of Communist Party leaders in Central Asia, in the Caucasian states and on the Russian Black Sea coast: areas where distance from Moscow, local wealth and the clan loyalties which existed before Communism allowed the growth of a second economy and a second power, though one restrained by the need to display a proletarian propriety. To be fair to the Soviet rulers, the system they inherited from the Great Lenin could only survive with a large black market – the ‘living blood in a dead organism’, as the writer Lev Timofeyev has described it. Most managers, especially those engaged in trade, had to know how to operate according to the black market’s rules: had to know who to pay off and to whom to grant favours; they also knew how to line their own pockets. They were thus ready for a market – but had already acquired bad habits.
The private sector, as we know, began to achieve legal status during Gorbachev’s time. Unlike capitalism in China, where corruption is also massive, its only support came from the upper echelons of the Party and even there it was very ambiguous: the lower layers were hostile, or demanded a large cut, or more often both. Thus, the first private businesses, known as co-operatives, were obliged to bribe, lie to the authorities and hire muscle in order to stay in business, even if they wished to work ‘honestly’, which most did not. They were regarded by most Soviet citizens as criminal enterprises. In 1988, I took a Soviet journalist to the first co-operative restaurant in Moscow: he was boorish with the waiters, complained that the food was bad and carped at the size of the bill. For him, restaurants were either the awful stolovayas (canteens), or the often relatively good dining-rooms in the professional unions such as in his own. He was unimpressed by the fact that the co-operative served decent food in a pleasant room: the main issues were the profit being made, the nature of the transaction (bribery) which secured the building for the co-operative and what kickbacks were being earned by whom. When he returned my hospitality in his own home, he made it clear that the freedoms he welcomed under Gorbachev did not include the right to ‘exploit’ the restaurant’s employees and clientéle.
It didn’t take long for all that to change. In a book full of closely observed incident and character, John Kampfner describes a zadvorkia, or courtyard party, which he happened upon in Central Moscow soon after Yeltsin won the Russian Presidency in June 1991: ‘I had stumbled on the nouveaux riches, the New Russians as they came to be known, at play for the first time ... 1991 was the year when homo sovieticus met money. These people had it, and flaunted it. Some came from the criminal mafia, running the illegal casinos to which their friends in the Politburo turned a blind eye. They were usually easy to recognise, surrounded by henchmen in leather coats or loud sports jackets.’
In this bandits’ playground, where vicious children meet weak adults, crime has flourished. Protection has been the natural trade to which criminals turn. With the militia absent or corrupted, Russia’s gangsters have been able to control almost all of the new commercial space – kiosks have sprung up in all cities, especially Moscow – offering protection against freelance hoodlums or rival gangs in return for rent. Another Armenian contact tells Handelman of a contretemps over the cuts made by a local shopkeeper under his gang’s control, who faced a demand from a rival gang.
The frightened shopkeeper mentioned the Armenian’s name, stammering that he already paid the proper tribute. The hoodlums didn’t believe him. They gave him two days to come up with the cash. The shopkeeper called his protector, and the Armenian swung into action.
‘We set up a strelka [a meeting: literally, ‘little arrow’] that they couldn’t refuse,’ he said contemptuously.
The gang leader went to the meeting in a black limousine, accompanied by his bodyguards, as if he were a government official. The head of the rival band arrived in the same style. Everybody was well dressed and extremely polite. They discussed matters ‘firmly’, the Armenian said with a hint of a smile. Finally the opposing gangsters allowed that they might have made a mistake. ‘Shopkeepers will say anything to save their skin but who believes them?’ they joked. ‘Don’t worry: the place is yours.’ The meeting ended with handshakes all round.
From Handelman’s description, the Russian mafia share the common contempt for shop-keepers, and treat them as mere moneybags to be periodically shaken down: with any luck, this will sooner or later stimulate revolt.
Extortion is only the base of the pyramid. There is no area from which criminal and corrupt activities are absent. The deaths in the past year of two Russian colleagues at different ends of the journalistic ladder – Dmitry Kholodov, a young reporter on Moskovsky Komsomolets, killed by a briefcase bomb while investigating corruption in the military; and Vladislav Listyev, killed after he announced that notoriously corrupt advertising practices would be suspended at the main state TV channel – point to the vulnerability of the media. There is little censorship but revelations of corruption in government, of which there are many, are either dismissed or ignored. Murders such as those of Kholodov and Listyev are followed by emotive promises of action, and then the investigations dribble away in the dust. The real political effect of Listyev’s murder in early March was to make public the struggle between the President and Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of Moscow: Yeltsin instantly fired the Moscow city police chief and the procurator, both of whom were close to Luzhkov; Luzhkov retaliated by threatening to resign – a serious threat because he would be in a position to expose (or withdraw his protection from) an array of important people, including many in the President’s swollen entourage.
The Russian mafia gets rich in a number of ways. Drugs are among the most lucrative of its businesses. According to Sterling, the former Soviet Union produces 25 times more hashish than the rest of the world – another example of the Almighty’s heedless generosity in seeing that the country had so many valuable raw materials. Drug production and dealing were not unknown in Soviet times, but they were limited. ‘When Soviet controls fell apart,’ Sterling writes,
things changed. By 1992, family-sized poppy fields yielding two crops a year were rationalised and put under heavy armed guard. New plantations in Uzbekistan increased by 1000 per cent. Around 200,000 acres were planted to poppies in Kyrgyzstan. The number of opium growers tripled in Kazakhstan’s Chu Valley. Plantations were springing up in Tajikistan. Others were spreading over a thousand square kilometres of empty radioactive terrain around Chernobyl ... underground laboratories started to produce synthetic drugs such as krokodil and chort (‘devil’), a thousand times stronger than heroin. The most lethal, methyl fentanyl – diluted in proportions of 1 to 20,000 – was made exclusively in Russia. These were cheaper than in the West ... Russia had the rare distinction of being at once a user country, a transit country and a producer country, all on its customary extravagant scale.
The newer trade – in terms of size, possibly unique to the former Soviet Union – was in metals as Russia was and is a massive metals producer and enjoys monopolies or near-monopolies in the production of rare metals such as titanium. Because of low labour and energy costs, plants can undercut world prices; because of the rapid decline in military industries after 1992, they had very large production surpluses. The newly-privatised metallurgical plants, and even those that remained state-owned, were run by managers who wanted to bypass the formal export routes and transfer the proceeds into their own bank accounts in Cyprus or Switzerland. The nearest ports, in most cases, were in the Baltic states – Tallinn in Estonia and Riga in Latvia.
In the past three years, these tiny countries have been listed as two of the largest metal exporters in the world. It is not true, as Handelman asserts, that ‘smuggling was the key to Estonian prosperity’: the former government’s decision to make a series of macroeconomic changes in 1992, which have left Estonia with a stable currency and relatively low inflation, is a more important factor, as is the national determination to draw away from Russia and closer to the Scandinavian countries. But there is no doubt that the proceeds from smuggling have helped the transition enormously: ‘the huge commissions earned from the sale of aluminium, copper, silver, titanium and other materials whose production had been controlled by the Soviet military-industrial complex were invested in local banks and businesses, which in turn produced the tax revenue that made the Estonian kroon one of the most stable currencies in Europe.’
The most frightening trade is the one about which none of these authors has very much to say and certainly nothing definitive, probably because no one knows the extent of it. Russia is the world’s largest or second largest producer of nuclear fissile materials. It can only convince the rest of us that it controls its stock by demonstrating that it has the most stringent security. But this is unlikely to be the case. Handelman says that there were 189 separate sites for the mining and manufacture of nuclear raw materials in the Soviet Union, 151 of which are in Russia. It would be hard to believe that all the guardians of these sites, and of stockpiles of weaponry and uranium, were immune to the temptations of sudden wealth.
Sterling admits that ‘reporters trying to sort the facts from the cover-ups are forever at risk of being misled,’ but like Handelman, she points to documented instances of nuclear materials being intercepted. In particular she tells the tale of one Alexander Kuzin in Vienna, a trader with a firm called Kuzin International, whose involvement in this business was discovered by Swiss investigators. In his own testimony, Dezider Ostrogonac, a former associate of Kuzin, described a multinational operation protected and promoted by the governments of the former Soviet states. ‘I can say with absolute certainty that this traffic’ – in nuclear warheads and technology – ‘depends on the complicity and decisive participation of the ex-Soviet republics. The transfer of materials is between state and state, and those managing the traffic are state functionaries.’
It is commonly believed in Russia that non-Russians are primarily responsible for the surge in crime: Jews for financial skulduggery, Caucasians (‘the Blacks’) for organised crime. There is something in this. Jews, hugely over-represented among those who have received tertiary education and often retaining some experience of market behaviour, are now disproportionately the leading bankers and financiers: Vladimir Gusinsky, head of the Most Bank and himself Jewish, once told me that 90 per cent of the heads of banks were Jews (which seems to me an exaggeration) and the way things are in contemporary Russia, some will be corrupt, even mafia figures. The cause of anti-semitism in Ukraine has been greatly advanced by the defection to Israel of Vladimir Zviagilsky, one of the country’s former premiers, while charges pending against him allege misappropriations involving tens of millions of dollars from a state that is desperately hard-up. Earlier this month he told the newspaper Ha’aretz that he would not leave his flat in Tel Aviv and return to Ukraine because he knew he would not get a fair hearing.
While there is much open anti-semitism, spoken and written, there are few incidents of physical brutality and no pogroms. The Caucasians have more to fear. Easily recognised by their dark hair and skin colouring, as well as their names, they are often targeted by thugs and police, and were the victims of a pogrom organised by the Mayor of Moscow after the siege of the White House in October 1993, when many were expelled from the city by the militia. A majority of the gangs in Moscow are run by Caucasians, and it is not by chance that Handelman’s first interviewee is an Armenian, though Azerbaijanis and Georgians, Dagestanis and Chechens are equally well represented.
Handelman’s book was published before the war in Chechnya, but he singles it out as a society riddled with criminality and arms-dealing. He quotes Salambek Khadzhiev, an opponent of the Chechen leader General Dudayev, as saying in 1993 that ‘the leadership here doesn’t fight the criminal underworld, it belongs to it.’ (Khadzhiev’s own reputation, it must be said, is not simon-pure.) ‘Whether or not the Dudayev Government directly profited from the arms trade,’ Handelman adds judiciously, ‘it made little effort to stop the business ... the timing of the Chechen gangs’ transformation from small bands involved in petty extortion and stolen-car rackets into sophisticated crime conglomerates trading in guns and drugs coincided with the rise of Chechnya as a financial and political force.’ Sterling, also writing before the war, says that the Chechens have ‘their own army of 600 killers in Moscow’ who had unquestioned sanctuary in Chechnya. ‘Their swaggering toughs are taking over the streets in Moscow, Warsaw and Prague, stealing cars in Germany, Austria and Sweden, running drugs into Western Europe, working frauds and currency scams in the US. Wild, cruel and impenetrably secretive, they are singularly frightening villains.’ It was the Chechens who gave London its most highly publicised taste of post-Soviet crime, when two of Dudayev’s official emissaries were found murdered in their flat in March 1993: the most common theories are that they were setting up a base for drug-running or money-laundering. According to their credentials, they were looking for a printer of postage stamps for the new republic.
Russians have a saying that the fish rots from the head. In all of these books, there are vivid accounts of men at the top who use their power and position to enrich themselves, to cheat and to terrorise – and to evade any responsibility or accountability to the law. In Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasian and Central Asian republics, the governing structures, the leadership’s entourage, often the leaders themselves, are enmeshed in criminal activities designed to fill their pockets, bolster their positions and spread fear among their enemies. The trouble for the societies in question (and for these three books) is that since these are the people in control, there is simply no agency – not even the judiciary – which can offer any real evidence of their misdeeds. The authors and the journalists are left with nothing more than allegations – and allegation is now a routine part of the political struggle.
Among the senior politicians in Russia against whom major corruption is persistently alleged are General Alexander Rutskoi, Yeltsin’s first (and only) vice-president and still a major figure on the nationalist right; Vladimir Shumeiko, the present leader of the Federation Council, or Russian Senate; General Pavel Grachev, the Defence Minister, and many of his deputies and senior generals; and Yuri Luzhkov. Handelman quotes Len Karpinsky, editor of the liberal Moskovsky Novosti, writing in March 1993 that ‘the struggle for power in our country is the struggle for property. Capital and wealth are the key to position in the power structure ... if the former bureaucrat continues to be pivotal to the system, we may find ourselves living under “nomenklatura capitalism”, whose despotism will not be inferior to the planned socialist system.’ And Vadim Bakatin, Gorbachev’s Minister for Internal Affairs: ‘our bureaucrats, police, judges, even the KGB, were merging with the underground world. It was a critical change in our country.’
Naturally, Yeltsin himself has been accused of having a personal finger in some of these pies and will, no doubt, be as glad as other rulers in non-democracies to have about him ‘men who are fat’ – that is, those who are enriching themselves under his protection, whose corrupt activities will always ensure their loyalty and could, if necessary, be a pretext for their dismissal. In The Emperor, Ryszard Kapuściński says of Haile Selassie that ‘he liked the people of the court to multiply their belongings, he liked their accounts to grow and their purses to swell.’ No one who made his career through the Communist Party under Brezhnev will be too shocked by what is happening, but nothing in Yeltsin’s biography suggests that he, personally, is especially corrupt. In a sense it hardly matters. Relatively clean or relatively besmirched, he must govern through and with people who are certainly on the take, since nothing short of the totalitarian rule he came to power to end could put a stop to the division of spoils. Kampfner concludes that
economically and politically, the ground has shifted. The rights to private property and monetary prudence have largely been accepted by all sides, even the President’s arch foes. Yeltsin’s own political survival is, with each passing day, becoming less crucial to Russia’s long-term stability. After the turbulence of recent years, when his removal could have opened the way to a far more autocratic regime, that is achievement indeed.
One can imagine a quasi-Italian scenario, with another ‘revolution’ in ten or twenty or fifty years, when a more enfranchised, civically conscious generation, disgusted by decades of élite accommodation with organised crime, demand an end to it. Perhaps they will have more luck than the Italians have had. Russian crime and corruption are also a worry for the West, however. Handelman quotes David Veness, head of Scotland Yard’s Organised Crime Unit, at a conference in 1993: ‘In five years’ time I have absolutely no doubt the major threats confronting the inner cities of the United Kingdom will be Central and Eastern European and Russian criminals.’ By this account, the Russians are coming – not with the hammer and sickle, but with the silenced gun and the Semtex – to colonise the more easily terrorisable parts of British cities. They will presumably show the same ruthlessness, the same disregard even for those limits observed by other gangs, as they show on their home turf and in the Eastern European and American cities where they are already strong.
Both Clare Sterling and John Follain extrapolate from Italy’s experience of organised crime. Follain suggests a malign relation between the liberal democratic system that Russia is attempting to introduce and the flourishing of mafia activities. He argues that once the mafia gains a political purchase, the appearance of free choice consolidates its position.
Vittorio Orlando, who had, as prime minister, represented Italy at the Congress of Versailles following the First World War, ran for a seat in the poor and mafia-infested town of Partinico, near Palermo, in 1948. The posters he put up bore his slogan: ‘Vote Orlando, the Friend of the Friends’. He was elected. Some years later Virgilio Titone, a professor at Palermo University, suggested that all elections be suspended in Western Sicily ... for at least ten years as an effective remedy to fight against the mafia. He argued that the mafia could only exist in a liberal democratic system.
Many democrats in Russia are now arguing that Parliamentary elections, due at the end of the year, will hand over power to those forces with the desire and the money to pack the Duma with compliant stooges.
An American who lives in Italy, Sterling has made crime the focus of her writing; Russia’s appearance on the international crime scene is the major theme of Crime Without Frontiers – a rapid-fire book, which never achieves the substance or texture of Handelman’s work. But it is provocative and appears well sourced. Like those Italian magistrates and policemen who have taken on their own organised crime establishment, Sterling believes in a global pax mafiosa. At the centre of her book is an account of a massive confidence trick, known as the Great Rouble Scam, which she takes to epitomise the ease with which criminals and confidence men could subvert a country where effective statehood had disappeared – the Soviet Union in its dying days, before Russia had become an entity in international law. In that period a group of British, German and American businessmen, helped by Gennady Filshin, then Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, attempted to buy 140 billion roubles for $7.8 billion. At the time, that sum in roubles constituted much of the monetary stock of the USSR. Filshin held a senior government post in a country which did not yet exist; he needed hard currency and had no experience of foreigners. The businessmen wanted to acquire roubles as cheaply as possible for clients who would then use them to buy into the suddenly open riches of the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Prime Minister, Valentin Pavlov, proclaimed it an imperialist plot, he was met with much scoffing (from me among others). Sterling argues that ‘he was not far wrong.’ Her rehearsal of the deal is necessarily incomplete – it is not possible yet to know the whole story – but it is the only detailed account I know of.
It is clear enough, from the Great Rouble Scam among many others, that there is a vacuum where the effective organs of the Russian state should be. But a vacuum is not the same as control by the mafia – the situation which Handelman and Sterling believe obtains in Russia now. Yeltsin, a primitive man in many ways, dominates this space. Often violent in his actions – destroying the Soviet Union, shelling his own parliament, waging large-scale war on a dissident region in his own country – he presides over a field of forces, of which the mafia is one. Only when Russian society takes stock of what has befallen it in the past decade and reasserts itself will we know what stuff the criminals – and the society – are made of.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.