The Uralmash Gang- A Case Study of Russian Organized Crime

The Uralmash gang is a good case study because it demonstrates how by adapting to the changing circumstances of the transition, Uralmash was able to overpower the Vory in one of their traditional strongholds and insert themselves into the political structure. Also, Uralmash provides a strong example of how all of the themes described in this paper interacted and happened in practice. During the 1990s, crime was prevalent throughout Russia, but the Ural Mountains area, and the city of Yekaterinburg, was considered the “gangster capital of Russia.”[1] During the Soviet era, the Urals area contained many prisons and convict labor camps, and due to rules restricting where ex-convicts could live, many of the residents were either ex-prisoners or active criminals.[2] By 1992, in Yekaterinburg, there were four major criminal groups active in the city that employed more than twelve-thousand people in a variety of roles, including as enforcers, accountants and business managers. The gangs had investments in businesses like sports stores, a casino, and especially in the Soviet era industrial plants in the region.[3] From 1992-1993, these criminal groups were involved in a brutal gang war that pitted the traditional Vory against the bandits, including Uralmash. After this war, Uralmash consolidated its control over the Urals, and amassed massive political and economic power. [4]

  1. a) Gang Warfare between Uralmash and the Vory

The Vory maintained unrivaled control of the Ural’s criminal underworld up to the 1980s, until a group of sportsmen formed the Uralmash gang to take advantage of local factories need to get around Soviet era red tape.[5] In the Soviet Union, if a factory needed certain parts or materials, they had to go through a bureaucratic process that could take months. Uralmash specialized in facilitating underground trade between businesses and factories, while taking a cut from each deal and becoming rich in a short period. The gang then used this wealth to start taking over the traditional crime markets from the Vory, until they became the most powerful crime syndicate in the Urals, and one of the most powerful criminal groups in all of Russia.[6]

The Vory did not give up their control of the Urals willingly and initially tried to push their ideology and thief’s code onto the new criminal groups. However, Uralmash refused to pay respect to the Vory’s traditions, and in 1992, gang warfare broke out that featured assassinations, torture, kidnapping and explosions. The balance of power quickly shifted after Uralmash formed a special hit squad made up of former Soviet Special Forces and military personnel to kill their rivals.[7] Uralmash, and other new style gangs, were more disciplined than the thieves were, had more resources, and were more willing and able to use force. As a result, the Vory lost their control of the city, and retreated back to their traditional criminal activities and control over the prison system.[8] Uralmash’s use of violence, and the creation of their highly trained hit squad, allowed them to take control of Yekaterinburg, and shortly after the conclusion of the war, most of the businesses in the city were paying protection money to them. By 1997, Uralmash’s estimated income exceeded that of the whole city of Yekaterinburg, which had a population of 1.5 million people.[9]

  1. b) Uralmash: Political-Criminal Nexus

The Uralmash group further consolidated its control over the Urals region by penetrating the political system. This control included a number of local government officials and a law office that the group used to exert influence on police. On a national level, the gang supported President Yeltsin, and Yeltsin even sent the gang a personal letter of thanks.[10] If the police did not cooperate with the gang, Uralmash would use force against them. For example, members of Uralmash threw grenades at the organized crime unit’s building on two occasions in 1993.[11] The gang became so confident in their power and control of the city that they formed a political movement in 1999, which they called the Uralmash Social Political Union, or OPS.[12] The OPS had the resources and connections to be successful in politics, but Uralmash’s reputation for brutality made it difficult for them to compete openly. In order to change their image, OPS turned to widespread charity activities like developing youth sports leagues and giving food and televisions to elderly residents.[13] Through these actions, as well as an anti-drug campaign that included using force against drug dealers in Yekaterinburg, the OPS managed to gain public support and in the 1999 election to the Duma, the OPS candidate lost by only 1%.[14]

Uralmash took advantage of the Ural region’ rich natural resources, such as timber, jewels and rare metals and their subsidized pricing during the Yeltsin administration to easily gain more wealth than the Vory, whose code prevented engaging in sustained trading.[15] Uralmash was also willing to take advantage of highly trained former soldiers, whereas the thieves stuck to their prohibition of accepting members who had worked for the state. Also, overtime as Uralmash consolidated their control over the Yekaterinburg economy, they relied less on violence and more on smart investments, and membership shifted from thugs to accountants and businessmen. Another important part of Uralmash’s success was its ability to create an international business and criminal network that extended to China, the United States, Germany, and beyond.[16] In order to protect these investments, Uralmash corrupted members of the local government and police force, and through creating the OPS political party came close to obtaining open political power.[17]

  1. c) Vertical Disintegration

Uralmash was one of the most successful Russian gangs to emerge from the transition to capitalism, but their story is a microcosm of the evolution of organized crime in Russia. The beginning the transition, in the early 1990s, was marked by the creation of new criminal groups and the waning of Vory power and traditions. During this period, Russian crime rates increased from the intense competition between the new groups, leading an elimination of weaker groups and a consolidation of organized criminal groups.[18] As these larger criminal groups consolidated power, they began relying less on violence and more on financial investments and legitimate business along with collecting taxes from entrepreneurs under their protection. After the groups have established a base of economic power, they attempt to further legitimize themselves and become regular business groups, and even in some cases politicians.[19]

Vadim Volkov defined this progression as vertical disintegration. The key difference between the Vory and the bandits is that the bandits did not view themselves primarily as criminals, but as businessmen who used violence. As the bandits eliminated competition, consolidated power, and became more enmeshed in the market and in power structures they had less need to resort to violence. Instead of developing an elaborate criminal code, the bandits increasingly followed the dictates of the market, and violence became seen as bad for business. As the former bandits started controlling more companies and assets, the makeup of the groups changed from thugs to accountants and lawyers, usually with a few former soldiers or KGB for when force was still necessary. The thugs are decommissioned, and many then go on to become common criminals or drug dealers, and contribute to disorganized crime with little or no political linkages. The leaders of the bandits, however, often managed to move up from working class backgrounds to the upper-middle class and elites of Russian society.[20]

[1] James O. Finckenauer and Yuri A.Voronin, “The Threat of Russian Organized Crime,” Issues in International Crime, National Institute of Justice, June 2001, 10.

[2] Ibid, 11.

[3] Handelman, 80.

[4] Volkov, 117.

[5] Ibid, 116.

[6] Handelman, 77-78, 86.

[7] Finckenauer and A.Voronin, 15.

[8] Volkov, 117.

[9] Satter, 241.

[10] Finckenauer and A.Voronin, 18, 21.

[11] Satter, 242.

[12] Yulia Solovyova, “No to Drugs, Yes to Uralmash?,” The Moscow Times, December 4, 1999. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/tmt/269202.html

[13] Satter, 244.

[14] Ibid, 247.

[15] Handelman,  77-78, 87.

[16] Finckenauer and A.Voronin, 18.

[17] Volkov, 118-120.

[18] Ibid, 76.

[19] Finckenauer and A.Voronin, 29.

[20] Volkov, 122-125.

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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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