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Feature Articles


July 2013
Politicians and Mobsters: Russia

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus


Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

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“Organized crime refers to a group generally operating under some form of concealment with a structure reflective of the cultural and social stipulations of the societies that generate it; and which has the primary objective to obtain access to wealth and power, through the participation in economic activities prohibited by the law as well as through the corruption of those engaged in enforcing it. Organized crime is a form of crude accumulation because it is based on the use of threat of physical violence which emerges—and has emerged—in different socioeconomic formations across time and place, and is generated by the specific conditions of that time and place.” (Alfredo Schulte-Bockhard, The Politics of Organized Crime and the Organized Crime of Politics, 2006)

“Organized crime is an ideological chameleon that changes its colors in accordance with the environment.”

“There is no Mafia in the Soviet Union.” (Literaturnaya Gazeta, 1980)

    The Russian Mafiya did not emerge as a result of the 1991 collapse of the communist state. It was present, as were other Russian mobs. They existed before and were a consequence of the unique characteristics of the Soviet system.

    The existence of organized crime was not officially acknowledged. Even juvenile delinquency was “nonexistent,” at least by an American sociologist, who in the 1960s with a USA government grant found no Soviet statistics on the subject. By the 1980s, with the policy of Glasnost, or openness, such data emerged. In 1994, Russian officials acknowledged some 5700 criminal gangs in the Russian Federation and another thousand gangs in the other Soviet Republics. It was claimed that these mafias had a tight grasp on large sections of the Russian economy.

    There was an energetic trafficking in arms by members of the former Soviet army. Also, the illegal sale of raw materials, art treasures and drug trafficking. Military weapons, after 1991, flooded the international arms markets. Russian military became involved in narcotic peddling. Military aircraft flew narcotics to the former German Democratic Republic. In 1994, it was reported that the military was taking advantage of the political vacuum and “descending into the world of organized crime.” A “whole army of mafia” was abroad in the land.

    A raw materials black market flourished. Millions of tons of nonferrous metals were shipped westward through the Baltic States. Small Estonia with no metal deposits in its territory suddenly became a major exporter of copper. Russian border police were kept busy intercepting vast loads of metals, timber and industrial chemical products worth billions of rubles.

    Recreational drugs mixed in with the spreading corruption. The number of addicts would swell by 70 percent between 1985 and 1990. Self-abuse took hold among the youth as they transitioned from the traditional high alcohol consumption to opium and hashish. Drugs for the Central Asian republics accounted for much of the narcotics consumed in Russia and other European nations. Columbian traffickers used the former USSR as a transit route into Western Europe. The local mafias formed cartels to ensure the smooth flow of their product to eager customers.

    Alliances between organized crime and the Establishment became forged throughout post-Soviet Russia. A money laundering industry took advantage of lax banking legislation to the extent of allowing mafias to establish their own financial businesses. Studies documented that by 1997 five hundred banks were controlled by crime bosses. Like all failed states, Russia became an extreme and classic example of mobs seeing the opportunity to emerge from the underworld to become “intimately linked to political structures and economic infrastructures.” The lines between the elites and the racketeers became blurred.

    Every nation has its organized crime and in each the phenomenon evolves in accordance with the unique conditions of time and place. In the Soviet Union, the traditional “thieves’ world” was strongly anti-state, meaning no collaboration of any kind with agents of the state. Deviance from the code of silence meant certain expulsion or worse. With the advent of the Stalin era, after the First World War, the thieves did an about face by entering into mutually advantageous ventures with state officials. Despite instances of severe repression of the thieves’ world by the USSR, the mafia mentality was not destroyed, but continued to exist within the prisons and work camps. The thieves were assigned the task of oppressing and eliminating anti-Soviet Russians.

    The Soviet example is a telling case study of the interplay between the underworld and the overworld when certain environments exist. From an anti-state posture, the former became an “informal instrument of the state that played a role in the persecution of the regime’s political enemies and even fought on its behalf.” With growing corruption the tables were turned. There emerged the “thieves in authority,” a cozy arrangement where the thieves and the elite prospered often to the disadvantage of the general population.


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