Russian Mafia: The Challenge of Reform

By Half, Cameron | Harvard International Review, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Russian Mafia: The Challenge of Reform


Half, Cameron, Harvard International Review


Cameron Half is a Staff Writer for the Harvard International Review.

A discussion of the state of the Russian polity in the post-communist era--whether among academicians, journalists, politicians, business-persons, or anyone else is hardly complete without touching upon the issue of the mafia, or organized crime. The uninformed observer repeatedly hears stories comparing Russia to the "Wild West" in US history, in which shadowy figures control money, business, and even the government and the military. There are also comparisons to the "robber baron" era, in which business elites dominated politics. Some have gone so far as to justify the invasion of Chechnya as a means of suppressing the criminally-oriented Chechen nation, or even to depict it as an extension of gang wars, with Russian gangs attempting to end the influence of the Chechens in Russia. There appears to be real evidence that Russia may even be becoming a "criminal" state, with its economic, political, and even daily life permeated by ubiquitous corruption and other criminal activity.

Numerical analysis does little to dispel this proposition. From 1977 to 1993 reported crimes increased by over 339 percent; since the start of perestroika in 1985 to the end of 1993, the rate of increase was a staggering 200 percent. Vyacheslav Afanasyev reports that even more significantly, the number of "organized groups" engaging in criminal activity as defined by Article 39 of the (now superseded) USSR Constitution, has increased, from 775 in 1990 to 4,352 in 1992 and nearly 5,700 by the end of 1994, indicating that much of this increase in crime is not ordinary "street crime"--muggings, robberies, and so forth--but is instead is highly systematized. While all of these statistics, particularly those from the communist period, must be taken with some degree of incredulity, and the definition of "group" may be overly expansive, including associations of only two or three persons, the trend is unmistakable: crime in general has increased, in particular organized crime. This has not been replicated to such a degree in any of the other post-socialist economies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Furthermore, efforts to check this growth have met with little success. For many, this has been one of the more unexpected (and unpleasant) aspects of the transition process. While this explosion of criminal activity in Russia is complex and multifaceted, evidence does suggest a causal link between the transition process and the increased criminalization of the Russian society. This may be seen in the origins and impact of the mafia on Russian society, and therefore also inform potential remedies to the problem.

Russian Mafia Economics

Organized crime in Russia defies simple definition. At present, there is no definition of "organized crime" or an analogue in Russian law. The term mafia itself is popularly applied to nearly any form of societal power structure, particularly one which is viewed as corrupt. Taking this definition to its logical extremity, it is possible to make claims, as Anton Koslov has argued, that the Communist party itself was a form of mafia. As such, Leninism more broadly, in advocating a conspiratorial organization held together by force and loyalty to the collective, supports such an interpretation. From this viewpoint, it is not incorrect to speak of Russia as a "mafia country." The current phenomenon, then, is merely a continuation of the previous order of politics; the increasingly economic nature of mafia activity just reflects the fact that privatization and control of capital are the new routes to power in Russian society, just as the route to power was control over the state apparatus in the past.

This view, however, ties the present state inextricably to the past, and implies that the development of an extensive organized crime network in Russia was in some way inevitable. While perhaps appealing to unabashed critics of the communist system or subscribers to Michel Foucault's theories of the relationship between society and power structures, this view is overly broad for an effective analysis of the problems facing Russia. …

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