The Russians Are Coming

John Lloyd

  • Comrade Criminal: The Theft of the Second Russian Revolution by Stephen Handelman
    Joseph, 360 pp, £16.99, September 1994, ISBN 0 7181 0015 8
  • Crime Without Frontiers: The Worldwide Expansion of Organised Crime and the Pax Mafiosa by Clare Sterling
    Little, Brown, 274 pp, £17.50, June 1994, ISBN 0 316 91121 6
  • Inside Yeltsin’s Russia by John Kampfner
    Cassell, 256 pp, £17.99, October 1994, ISBN 0 304 34463 X
  • A Dishonoured Society by John Follain
    Little, Brown, 356 pp, £16.99, February 1995, ISBN 0 316 90982 3

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.

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