Mark Twain said, “there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” Russia by contrast may have several criminal classes. Russia’s congress, however, is surely one of them.

A case in point is Duma Deputy Bashir Kodzoev. Kodzoev is originally from Ingushetia in the northern Caucasus. In the mid-1980s he and his brother Magomed went to Irkutsk, where they began trading sugar, oil, gold and other commodities. Magomed was convicted of embezzlement (a crime that can include default on certain obligations to the state), but the business thrived. In late 1999 Irkutsk police charged Bashir and a third Kodzoev brother with fraud and embezzlement relating to: (a) a failure to repay a loan from a state-owned bank, and (b) fifty-three boxcars of stolen sugar.

What to do? Members of the Duma are constitutionally immune from prosecution, and the December 1999 elections were imminent. Kodzoev used his money and influence to secure a fairly high place on the party list of Unity, the new political movement created by and for supporters of Vladimir Putin. It was a good career move. Unity won enough votes to take sixty-four party-list seats. Kodzoev had position number 50.

Once sworn in, Deputy Kodzoev could put the Irkutsk indictment behind him and get on with his life. But his past caught up with him in the form of a person or persons unknown, who at two o’clock on a Moscow afternoon opened fire, severely wounding the deputy and killing his bodyguard. Police called the attack a classic murder-for-hire and estimated the price of the contract at $100,000-$200,000.

Kodzoev’s case is hardly unique. In 1993-1998, six Duma deputies were murdered, five in “business disputes” and one (Galina Starovoitova, the St. Petersburg democrat whose assassination remains unsolved) for political motives.

Famous criminals who have served in the Duma include Nadyr Khachilaev, head of the Union of Muslims of Russia and perhaps the most powerful crime boss in Dagestan, and Iosif Kobzon, a popular singer who has been called “one of the most influential criminals in Russia.” Both have left office and both are still alive, though Khachilaev’s two brothers have been murdered.

Public officials killed or wounded in recent gangland attacks–just in Moscow–include Yury Vlasov, head of the Moscow regional department of justice, stabbed to death with his driver on March 11; Anatoly Tikhenko, head of the federal notary bureau, shot to death February 28; and Iosif Ordzhonikidze, deputy prime minister of the Moscow city government, December 2000, wounded by gunfire; Ordzhonikidze’s driver was killed.