Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 8

By Alena V. Ledeneva

Aside from the criminals themselves, only two kinds of people know much about organized crime: journalists and those charged with combating organized crime. In Russia and elsewhere, journalists are fond of writing headlines about the “Mafia.” Such labeling tells us little more than what some resentful “Mafiosi” want to tell the world or what the security services are prepared to allow to leak out. Journalistic investigations have been few in number and are fraught with danger. (1)

Those charged with combating organized crime in Russia say: “We wouldn’t call it the Mafia. We prefer to speak of criminal groups and associations. In Russia, they are not grounded in tradition and family as they are in, say, Italy. Organized — yes, but the control exercised by these organizations is not total, and they could easily be eliminated. We have all the information and it would be elementary in technical terms, were it not for their ‘roofs.'”

It is seen as axiomatic by these professionals that no organized crime could survive without a protective “roof” (krysha) or “umbrella.” That is, without penetration of state institutions, without corruption and without the active involvement of officials (including law enforcement officers) in criminal activities. It is probably too late to search for an antidote to phenomena on this scale and to apply a radical remedy to them. It is crucial, however, to get to know the “disease” we have to live with, to understand its origins and to pinpoint those aspects that could be treated.

There are two dominant explanations for organized crime: one explanation stresses the violence; the other, the corruption. The first, a rational choice theory elaborated by Diego Gambetta and Federico Varese, offers a “supply and demand” model of protection services. (2) The rise of organized crime is viewed as compensating for the loss of the state’s power to protect the citizenry. In circumstances where a weak state becomes incapable of wielding a monopoly of legitimate violence while the demand for protection is increasing (usually in connection with a change in property rights), private protection services appear on the market alongside other business activities. The emphasis in this line of argument is often put on violence, the private nature of the protection business, its criminal roots and its opposition to the state. For example, Varese argues that the Mafia can be seen as an alternative military structure — with its own initiation rituals — operating independently of the state and deriving from criminal roots.

The second interpretation accounts for the rise of organized crime by emphasizing the corrupt nature of state institutions and the interpenetration of state and criminal structures. Its main finding — that the state cannot combat organized crime because the latter has penetrated the state itself — may be illustrated by the many inconsistencies in the work of Russian state institutions: for example, the State Duma’s continuing failure to adopt an anti-corruption law, the inability to sort out nonpayments, the use of dirty money for election campaigns, corruption in local privatization committees in the period 1992-94, the rigged privatization auctions of 1995, and so on. According to this interpretation, there is often no legal way to deal with organized crime, since the criminals are well connected or even hold public office. Holding public office might not be a problem if it were clear “who controls whom.” Unfortunately, there is no clarity as to the interrelationship between the “fifth power,” as organized crime is sometimes called, and more traditional types of power: the legislature, the executive, the judiciary and the mass media (the “fourth estate”). (3)

These two interpretations are not mutually exclusive. Gangs derived from the criminal underworld coexist in Russia with ex-Afghan or ethnic gangs as well as ex-KGB and militia-based protection and security businesses. All belong to a territory covered by a “roof” normally connected to corrupt authorities. The “supply and demand” argument is, perhaps, more useful in explaining the inception of organized crime while, to proceed with the analysis of its development and evolution, one must take account of other important considerations.

Let us outline some of the dimensions indispensable to the analysis of organized crime in Russia. Organized crime should be considered in relation to the socio-economic processes of transition. Economic liberalization and marketization, privatization and restructuring of property rights must all be seen as factors fostering criminalization since they created a demand for protection services. The supply-side was based on the criminal legacy of the past but received additional impetus from the breakdown of Soviet value systems (loss of confidence in the future, undermining of notions of honesty, duty, respectability), social polarization (decline of mutual help, lack of trust and loss of social control) and the rise of nouveaux riches who think the law does not apply to them. As a result of these and other factors, the state’s monopoly of legitimate violence was broken.

With the stabilization of the economy and the formation of a new financial and political elite, however, conditions changed. From a situation in which everyone lived by his or her own laws, while the laws of the state either did not work or worked selectively, Russia had by 1997 moved to an order more or less consistently dominated by the so-called “empires” — big financial-industrial groups. As these grew larger, they became increasingly interested in a strong central government, economic and political stability, and a police force capable of combating crime. Already in 1996, data on crime and detection rates suggested that the police were becoming better able to control the situation. This is already true in Moscow and the pattern may be expected to be repeated elsewhere. Increasing efficiency on the part of the tax police has also contributed towards strengthening the state (according to businessmen, it is much better to pay the police than bandits).

Russian organized crime has also evolved. Some of the most conspicuous changes include: a) “economization” (entrepreneurial approach, interpenetration with business and state enterprises, investment of criminal money into legal businesses); b) “detraditionalization” (breakup of criminal “authorities,” wealth being seen as a substitute for status accrued through time in prison); c) “professionalization” (new types of crime such as electronic crime, manipulation of banking and other financial institutions, divisions of territories and principal spheres of activity); d) “globalization” (emphasis on import/export business, expansion of geographical arena to take on an international character; e) “legalization” (search for legal status in the public domain; spread of at least partly criminal capital to the mass media, charitable donations).

All these tendencies have weakened the outlaw community. The criminal world has lost many of its “thieves-in-law” (vory v zakone), a loss which has damaged the criminal community and made the order of things much more contingent. The appeal of life in the underworld has lost its specific “ideology.” Together with wealth comes the need for legitimacy, respect and security for those who will inherit that wealth. Partly, too, this is a generational phenomenon: those who started young have reached an age at which they want to secure their position. The logic is similar to the rise of any elite: at some point they repudiate their own values and become interested in maintaining the status quo. This general principle is consonant with the claim of former interior minister Anatoly Kulikov, that organized crime is “entering a new stage of development — that of liberalization and coming to power.” It is therefore important to speak about Russian organized crime in relation to its present stage of development.

Geography is an important, but extremely complex, aspect of Russian organized crime. The uneven level of development of organized crime in different regions (for example, the new tendencies described above would most likely be noticeable in Moscow, whereas in other regions organized crime may still retain the features of earlier stages), access to transport and possession of specially motorized vehicles, and the availability of advanced mobile-phone and radio communication systems, introduced a new element to criminal operations and contributed to the rise of regional crime. The analysis of organized crime should therefore be carefully related to its regional aspects. These include: ethnicity and territoriality as bonding mechanisms that often provide a basis for gangs and organizations, division of territories (borders and customs offices, for example), cooperation and conflict between regional criminal groups, and their representation in local government.

Another serious dimension of analysis is the extent of interpenetration of criminal authorities and political institutions. The official status of the organized crime leaders or “roofs” is often a matter of considerable concern to the professionals chasing them. Even if criminals are not in the posts themselves, they may belong to a network of control and back up (krugovaya poruka). This is the least eradicable legacy of the past, providing protection for people within a certain circle (the institution of “svoi lyudi”).

For example, certain deputies to the parliament will be backed up by the administrative authorities even if compromising information on them becomes available. Similarly, the administrative authorities will be backed up by the security and police forces. In practice, whenever allegations against high-up officials or criminals are raised, the cases are suspended or closed. Everyone within the “circle” backs up everyone else: one supports others in anticipation of potential protection for oneself when the day comes. Support and protection may also be viewed as an investment in the creation of new obligations. This practice has deep roots and is logical enough in a situation where legal rights and adequate law enforcement are lacking.

In general, one could say that old informal rules have outlived the formal ones and helped to shape post-Soviet realities. But they have not escaped a certain degree of detraditionalization under pressure from new market forces and social arrangements. Informal rules have not simply stretched over current contexts. Following economic necessity and market demands, they have undergone a certain “marketization” and even acquired some features in common with formal rules — an external enforcement (sanctions, violence, racket) by the structures opposed to the state. For example, pervasive and habitual practices of “blat” (the use of personal networks for obtaining goods and services in short supply) became “monetarized” and slipped into the domain of corruption. According to Kulikov, nearly half of all illegal profits are spent on bribing officials. Accounts are opened in foreign banks in the name of public servants, who are offered free trips to the best foreign resorts. What used to be a matter of morals and ethics based on the modest norms of Soviet society and notions of kinship, friendship and other social ties, came, in the transitional stage of “wild capitalism,” to involve material and financial capital.

The pervasiveness of blat and informal codes in the Soviet era helps to explain the scale of present-day corruption and organized crime. The informal legacy of the Soviet order provides an answer to the question: “When our society is so chaotic, how is it that our crime is so organized?” The idea of a society held together by its informal networks also provides a clue how to answer the question: “Why is the situation not more violent than it is?”


(1) Dmitri Kholodov, a journalist working for Moskovsky komsomolets, was killed in 1994 by a bomb hidden in a briefcase while he was investigating high-level military corruption. Another journalist, Andrei Konstantinov, frankly acknowledges in his writings his debts to “experts both dead and alive.”

(2) Diego Gambetta, The Sicilian Mafia, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993; and Federico Varese, “The Emergence of the Russian Mafia,” D.Phil. thesis, Oxford University, (forthcoming from Oxford University Press)

(3) The catchy phrase “fifth power” is becoming an everyday idiomatic expression. In this sense, post-Soviet neologisms such as “diskaunt” (bribe), “razborka” (negotiations with potential violent sanctions), “bratva” (fraternity), “racket,” “roof,” a “bought judge” (zakuplenny sud’ya), are reliable indicators of the processes spread in Russian society.

Alena V. Ledeneva is a Research Fellow at New Hall, University of Cambridge, England. Previously, she lectured in sociology and social theory at the University of Novosibirsk. She is the author of Russia’s Economy of Favors: Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange (Cambridge University Press, 1998). She is now coediting a second book with S. Lovell and A. Rogatchevsky: Bribery and Blat in Russia (Macmillan, forthcoming).