Competition and Confusion in the Discourse on Organized Crime in Russia

By Favarel-Garrigues, Gilles | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, August-October 2003 | Go to article overview

Competition and Confusion in the Discourse on Organized Crime in Russia


Favarel-Garrigues, Gilles, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


Throughout the 1990s, organized crime was a familiar topic in Russian, Western, and international political and economic forums. The reasons for this are partially known. Not only had the end of the bipolar context undermined a vision of the world based on a stable form of international order, but it had also prompted the emergence of new concerns linked to the opening of borders and the internal disintegration of numerous post-Communist states, particularly Russia. The loss of its familiar foe and the appearance of new threats connected with the post-Communist space helped to integrate the expressions Russian mafia or red mafia into U.S. rhetoric about national security. (1)

Rather than deconstruct Western discourse regarding the red mafia threat, the aim of this article is to understand how such a topic emerged in the Soviet and post-Soviet contexts before spreading to the Western world. This article will examine how the problem related to organized crime in Russia was constituted and how it has contributed to shaping Western beliefs. Particular attention is paid to how knowledge about crime accumulated in Russia, which sources were used, and, more precisely, how so-called scientific knowledge could feed, confirm, or invalidate discourse on this topic by political actors.

Research on Russian organized crime has been carried out since the late 1980s: numerous publications, doctoral dissertations, journal articles, and symposiums have been devoted to the topic. The aim of the assessment of such material is not to judge the research conducted, but to understand how specialized knowledge related to organized crime has come about.

The term problem is used here in reference to Murray Edelman's work. It implies a distressing situation that constitutes a political issue owing to the "differences among its definitions," "the diversity of meanings ... stemming from the range of concerns of different groups, each eager to pursue courses of action and call them solutions." (2) A problem "focuses upon a name for an undesirable condition or a threat to well-being. The governmental activities such a focus rationalizes comprise a sequence of ambiguous claims and actions that change and are frequently inconsistent with one another because they are responses to different group interests." (3) Edelman, in the introduction to the French-language edition of one of his works published in 1991, suggests that his positions, which initially applied to the "industrially advanced democratic countries," are likely to be heuristically relevant for the study of post-Communist countries insofar as the construction of social problems relies principally on the development of the media and greater public access to political information. (4)

The approach that I wish to apply to discourse on organized crime as an objective social fact should not lead to excessive relativism. The wish to understand the way the political discourses and actions related to this form of delinquency are produced cannot entail the denial of the existence or seriousness of the heterogeneous practices involved in the different definitions given to "organized crime." (5) Yet, from my point of view, to use the expression organized crime is not to validate it or suggest that it refers to an indisputably constituted social phenomenon, (6) but merely recognizes that literature, discourse, budgets, and specialized law-enforcement agencies are explicitly associated with it. Moreover, the importance granted to the analysis of discourse in an article devoted to knowledge about Russian organized crime does not imply a lack of interest in their possible expression as practices. (7)

In Russia, organized crime is a recently constituted issue, using scarce sources. It is based on cognitive references that were confused by the competing and confused meanings of the term mafia in the Soviet context. In the late 1980s, the organized crime or mafia problem had already become a significant political stake in the struggle that opposed "hard-liners" to "reformers. …

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