Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya
Have you ever wondered, sitting back on the other side of the ocean and most of a continent, and getting your news from sources that don’t actually know what they’re talking about, why Russia is the way it is today? Why corruption flourishes and Putin is so popular? A good place to start answering that question is Stephen Handleman’s “Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya.”
Released in 1995, Handleman’s book might seem like it should be dated, but it’s not. Events have moved on since then, but the underlying problems have only been built on top of the issues that Handleman diagnoses and discusses.
Handleman was a journalist in Russia during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and he scored an impressive number of interviews with people on both side of the explosion of crime that rocked the country: police officers and officials, but also criminals of various stripes, ranging from hardcore godfathers to more or less ordinary business people who are forced to engage in illegal activity or team up with the local mafiya in order to survive. It’s an engaging read, and a window into a world that most Westerners like to imagine–we always knew Russia was bad!–but fail to understand.
The key point in “Comrade Criminal,” and the thing that explains so much of post-Soviet (and pre-Soviet, for that matter) Russia, is the strange dance between crime and government there. Handleman delves into the Vorovskoi mir, the “Thieves’ world,” and its culture of “Vory v zakonye,” or “Thieves in the law,” a kind of ascetic mafia in which members eschewed ties to mainstream culture and considered it a mark of honor not to engage in any kind of government service. This left these thieves peculiarly untouched by Soviet moral and practical corruption, while they had a tightly-knit society that maintained internal order and took care of its own. In the chaos of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, this was seen by many to be a good thing, with the Vory v zakonye operating as a kind of shadow government that was often more effective than the actual government.
On the other side Handleman describes the Avtoritety, the “Authorities,” who were part of the Soviet and then post-Soviet government, carrying out criminal operations on a massive scale. The problem was that the Soviet system couldn’t operate according to its own laws, so a certain amount of criminality was essential to keep things functioning at all, leading to an inextricable relationship between government, crime, and business.
The result, as Handleman discusses, is a country that was drowning in criminality but needed that criminality in order to keep going, even as people placed law and order and security above more abstract considerations such as freedom of expression. We see the result today in an increasingly authoritarian Russian government that nonetheless is popular with the people, who look to it to try to keep some kind of a lid on crime and corruption, which they see as the result of freedom and democracy. “Comrade Criminal” is more than 20 years old, but it is an enlightening read for anyone who wants to understand current events in the largest country on the globe.