Gangster’s paradise: how organised crime took over Russia
A number of commentators have dubbed Russia a “mafia state”. It is certainly a catchy epithet, but what does it actually mean?
The Kremlin does not control organised crime in Russia, nor is it controlled by it. Rather, organised crime prospers under Putin, because it can go with the grain of his system.
There is a very high level of corruption in Russia, which provides a conducive environment for organised crime. It is not just professional criminals who are exploiting the opportunities provided by Russia’s cannibalistic capitalism – state agents, too, are exploiting their own criminal opportunities in an increasingly organised way. In 2016, the police raided the apartment of Col Dmitry Zakharchenko, the acting head of a department within the police force’s anti-corruption division. There they found $123m (£87m) in cash
The connection between the elite and the gangsters usually revolves around mutually profitable relationships – but these relationships can also fall apart in spectacular ways.
The modern Russian state is a much stronger force than it was in the 1990s, and jealous of its political authority. The gangs that prosper in modern Russia tend to do so by working with rather than against the state. In other words: do well by the Kremlin, and the Kremlin will turn a blind eye. If not, you will be reminded that the state is the biggest gang in town.
Just as the Russian language has become colonised by many borrowings from criminal slang, so too have regular Russian business practices become suffused with underworld habits and methods. Corporate espionage, bribery, and the use of political influence to swing contracts and stymie rivals remain commonplace, and continue to connect the worlds of crime and business. Likewise, the new generation of crime bosses are more likely than ever also to be active within the realms of legitimate and “grey” business.
The increasing sophistication of criminal operations, especially their shift towards white-collar crime, has created a need for financial specialists, to manage their own funds and also their economic crimes.
A vor I once spoke to bitterly complained that “we have been infected by the rest of you and we are dying”, but the infection has passed both ways. Many of the organising and operating principles of modern Russia follow the lead of the underworld. Maybe it is not that the vory have disappeared so much as that everyone is now a vor, and that the vorovskoi mir – the world of the thieves – ultimately won.