Bandits: Understanding the Post-Soviet Russian Criminal Class

Unlike the traditional mafia in Italy, or crime groups in Columbia or Mexico, criminal organizations in Russia were not based on ethnic ties, but built from groups of people with similar backgrounds.[1] Many of the bandits had ties to the Soviet state, and unlike the prison-hardened Vory, they tended to take a more practical approach to criminality and profit making.  The three most common backgrounds of the bandits were sports, the military, and the police and intelligence agencies.  These three sources were ideal because they all had suitable experience for violent enterprise, and had developed strong bonds amongst their members. Another reason was that each of these groups lost much of their funding and societal privilege after the collapse of the Soviet Union, creating a large pool of unemployed men. This section will explain more about each recruitment source, and the different roles they played in the underworld during the transition period.

In the Soviet Union, there were no professional sports leagues, so all athletic organizations depended completely on the state for support. In addition, Soviet values considered sports prestigious, so success in sports was an avenue to social advancement. The transition to the Russian Federation and the decay of the Soviet values left most sportsmen without their previous sources of funding and respect.[2]  Many popular sports in Russia had already trained members in the art of violence, including boxing and martial arts, and by training and competing together the sports groups had already developed the strong bonds of trust necessary for organized criminal groups. These sports groups were among the first of the new criminal groups in Russia, and started out as racketeers during the perestroika period under Gorbachev that first allowed limited private enterprise. So many athletes filled the ranks of the new criminal groups that the Vory called them “sportsmensy”, or sportsmen, as a form of derision to mock their reliance on brawn instead of intelligence.[3]

The Army, especially soldiers who fought in the Afghanistan War, was another major source of organized criminals in the 1990s. After the Afghanistan War, and the establishment of the Russian Federation, the military demobilized about two million men.[4]  Many of the young soldiers who fought in Afghanistan found they had little chance to be successful in the new Russian society, and found it hard to adjust to civilian life. They had gained transferable skills in the application of violence, and had developed tight bonds with other soldiers, making it easy to find recruits to form criminal groups. Many racketeering and protection agencies in the 1990s had names such as the Herat Association, Afgantsy, and Afganvent to reference the members shared experiences.[5] Even within the military, soldiers were often poorly paid, and even many officers lacked the apartments that the military was obligated to provide. Active-duty military involvement in organized crime ranged from using military vehicles to transport illicit items across borders to black-market weapons sells. In 1996, the military committed approximately 6,000 crimes and over 100 generals and other top defense officials were investigated for corruption.[6]

Just like sportsmen and Afghan veterans, many police and security officials lost their jobs in the transition time-period. From 1987-1989, 55,000 police were discharged, and in 1992, 63,000 security professionals left the service. During a 1992 conference on organized crime, then Russian Interior Minister Viktor Erin estimated that one in five became involved in organized crime.[7] Many of the most-talented security professionals left police and intelligence agencies to join private protection agencies that paid up to fifteen times higher than the state. Due to the cutbacks and desertions, the state security organizations lacked the talent or manpower to deter organized criminals, or solve most crimes after they had been committed. In addition, many of the police that remained were more interested in turning to crime to subsidize their meager pay than in fighting it. [8] In the 1990s, gangs formed within police units took on roles such as protecting mob bosses as bodyguards, facilitating drug smuggling, and racketeering.[9] The role of the security service in organized crime is particularly destabilizing, because it rightly makes citizens unwilling to turn to the police for help, and necessitates the need for alternate private sources of protection.

When forming the Russian Federation, the Yeltsin administration disenfranchised large portions of the population that had experience in the application of violence and had enjoyed positions of privilege in Soviet society. This disenfranchisement was logical in many ways, the Russian Federation did not need the three million man army of the Soviet Union, could not afford it, and the army and state security services all had the potential to threaten the new state. However, these reforms and demobilizations had unintended consequences that should have been foreseen. If you take away legitimate opportunity from those whose only marketable skill is the application of violence, especially from groups who are already well organized and disciplined, it will result in organized violence. In the case of Russia, these groups were able to thrive because of the lack of state ability to enforce, or even administer, the laws necessary for the new capitalist system. In the case of the formation of the Russian Federation, the transition created both the supply and demand for this new form of violent entrepreneurship.

[1] Christina Wenngren and Walter Kegö, “Sweden,” in Russian Organized Crime: Recent Trends in the Baltic Sea Region, ed. Walter Kegö & Alexandru Molcean (Stockholm, Sweden: Institute for Security and Development Policy, 2012), 37.

[2] Varese, Federico, The Russian Mafia: Protection in a New Market Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 57-58.

[3] Volkov, Vadim, Violent Entrepreneurs: The use of force in the making of Russian Capitalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 61.

[4] Mark Galeotti, “The Criminalisation of Russian State Security,” Global Crime 7, no. 3-4 (August-November 2006), 478-479.

[5] Volkov, Vadim, Violent Entrepreneurs: The use of force in the making of Russian Capitalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 12.

[6] William H. Webster, Arnaud de Borchgrave, and et. al, Russian Organized Crime: Global Organized Crime Project (Washington D.C.; CSIS, 1997), 1.

[7] Varese, Federico, The Russian Mafia: Protection in a New Market Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 56-57.

[8] Satter, David, Darkness at Dawn: The rise of the Russian Criminal State,” (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 113.

[9] Mark Galeotti, “The Criminalisation of Russian State Security,” Global Crime 7, no. 3-4 (August-November 2006), 478.


About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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