How Putin's Russia Became Mafia Heaven
Inside the long, strange story of organised crime taking over the former Soviet Union – and how Russia tamed it only to unleash it on the West.
Mark Galeotti has been interested in all things Russia as far back as he can remember. The British-born author and expert on international crime, who writes regularly for the Moscow Times and is currently based in Prague, is a historian by training. His interest in the underworld dates back to 1988—the stretch preceding the Iron Curtain’s fall—when he was working on his doctorate in the Soviet Union.
Galoetti's research consisted in part of meeting with veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan soon after they came back from the front—before visiting them again a year later to see if they had acclimated back to normal life. While some adapted, he noticed an alarming number seemed to be hanging around in the shadows, working for dubious businessmen pilfering state assets. The idea that organized crime might proliferate in what, at that time, remained a police state fascinated Galeotti. It drove home a truism that applies as much in New Jersey as Moscow: Just because you can't see the mob on the street doesn't mean it's not there.
Thanks to insider contacts on the ground in Russia, Galeotti—who has written for VICE in the past—embarked on a project 30 years in the making. The Vory: Russia's Super Mafia, out Tuesday from Yale University Press, is the result. Galeotti digs into the origins of Russia's notorious vor-v-zakone (thief-in-laws), explores their rise in concert with the collapse of the USSR, investigates how their values and practices have influenced modern-day Russia, probes how Putin has kept them in check, and touches on what ties, if any, President Trump might have to this vast underworld.
I called him up for a chat about a story that, even for an ex-con obsessed with La Cosa Nostra like me, had its share of bizarre and surprising episodes.
VICE: One thing that fascinated me was the long arc of the history here. Can you talk about how Stalin's Gulags shaped the men that became the thief-in-laws, and laid the structure for what would become the Russian Mafia?
Mark Galeotti: There had been an underworld culture beforehand, the so called Vorovskoy Mir, the Thieves' World. They had tattoo[s] and slang of their own, but it was the experience of being swept up in this whirlwind of horror that was the Gulag labor camp system [that set this in motion]. Stalin wanted to run these camps cheap and offered the Vory a deal: those willing to collaborate with the state would get a much easier life [in the brutal gulags].
Stalin had worked with gangsters before the revolution, organizing bank raids and even piracy to raise money for the Bolshevik revolutionaries. [He got them] to basically become the security guards and foremen to keep the bulk of the prison population—the political prisoners—hard at work. Now that meant going against one of the fundamental elements of the old code of the Vory, which was you never, ever, ever cooperate with the authorities.
But there were enough of them who actually thought it was a good deal and they became the so-called "sukas" [or] "bitches" in the eyes of the traditionalists. Through the 1930s and the first half of the 40s, these two kind of different criminal groups didn't really interact much. The collaborators knew better then to try and to mess with the traditionalists, and the traditionalists knew if they messed with the collaborators the state would come down hard on them.
I've been in prison and that sounds like a situation ready to explode. Which is exactly what happened, right?
After the Second World War you suddenly had a change in the balance of power. You had more prisoners coming in, and essentially this cold war that had existed between the two groups couldn't last. You had this explosion of violence, basically a civil war that was fought out within the Vory inside the Gulag system in the late 1940s and early 50s—a bloody war fought with lynchings and people turning whatever sharp implements they could find at their disposal [into weapons]. When it came down to it, ultimately, the collaborators won, not least because the state backed them and gave them opportunities to win.
Stalin died in 1953 and the Gulags opened up. All these criminals come out—these new collaborator-criminals—and basically colonized the rest of the Soviet underworld. It was a whole new culture of Vorovskoy Mir. Which was basically: We're gangsters, we're hard men, we have our own culture, our code and things. We see that because the state is so powerful, it's worth collaborating—when it's in our interests.
They were the judges, the community leaders, the high priests of the criminal world. Not necessarily gang leaders, but the kind of people who could resolve disputes and lay down the law, quite literally. That was essential, because all underworlds work out ways in which they resolve disputes. Whether it's La Cosa Nostra sit-downs or whatever. The way the Russians did it was to have this cast of highly respected criminals who [are] able to be a judge.
Why did the collapse of the USSR feed the growth here so astronomically?
Suddenly you had a new country, just created at the stroke of a pen. This had been a country dominated by the Communist Party, it's economy was planned centrally, and suddenly it’s a democracy—a capitalist free-market system. All the old rules no longer seemed to apply. The old power structures were in crisis. It was a period of total chaos. From the point of view of organized crime, this was a massive opportunity.
The various gangs that had existed largely in the shadows, when they were still worried about the state and KGB, suddenly could rise up. Everything was there for the taking: industries, assets, property, control over territory. There was no sense of turf lines or who's more powerful than who, and there was a massive explosion of violence. All the gangs were trying to grab everything they could with both hands before someone else got it. It was sort of a war of all against all.
From this kind of Darwinian mess, what emerged were about a dozen or so major alliances. They were not like formal gangs—not like a New York crime family with a single Godfather—but alliances with lots of smaller gangs. It was Moscow's gangs against everyone else. They regarded themselves as being the elite and had a lot more money and power. By the late 1990s, we were beginning to see turf lines being drawn. The pecking order had been established and the violence was beginning to go down, even before Putin came into power.
A key difference, it seems, between the Vory and the mob in the United States—besides their relative strength in this current moment—is their influence over the rest of the country. Americans love mob movies and The Sopranos, but Russia seems like a whole other level, where organized crime values, codes, and practices essentially mafia-ized the country. How do you explain that?
The Vory were amongst the people at the forefront of creating the new political and economic system in the 1990s. Let's be honest: Russia is run by people who are stealing left, right, and center. Its a kleptocracy. They're not doing it in usual mob ways, like shaking people down on the street corner. They’re doing it through government contracts and corrupt sweetheart deals. There’s a considerable overlap between how the gangsters operate and how the elite operate. The boundaries between the two are pretty permeable.
Capitalism emerged in the midst of mob wars in Russia and the idea was: it's just about making money. We know that working capitalism relies on institutions, rule of law, property rights, and trust in the system. But that's not how the Russians saw it. They only cared about money, and if that's all you're interested in, a lot of criminal methods seem quite appealing. I'm amazed at the extent to which one sees things like blackmail and extortion being used as business tactics within Russia.
What is normal and acceptable behavior within the business and political class is clearly heavily influenced by tactics that say laws don't matter—what matters is actually getting the job done. I'd almost say that every Russian businessman is a crook. The Vory were part of and amongst the stakeholders—the founding fathers of the New Russia. We shouldn't be surprised to find their values enshrined in this country.
He's often described as being in bed with financial criminals of all stripes, but Vladimir Putin, despite his history with gangsters, has kept the Vory in check. Why is that?
When Vladimir Putin was a deputy of the mayor in Saint Petersburg in the mid 1990s, his job was to be the liaison with everyone who needed to be talked to, whether it was foreigners, businessmen or organized crime. He was in charge of making sure the city ran smoothly. There was some kind of interaction with Vladimir S. Barsukov, who was known as the Night Governor. The idea was that by day the official authorities were in charge, but by night Barsukov ran Saint Petersburg. Then Putin's career took off, he went to Moscow, became Prime Minister, and then president.
That's not necessarily a problem as long as Barsukov knows the limits, knows the rules of the game. The problem was that after a certain point, he was just too visible and it began to be a bit embarrassing to Putin. He was a sort of walking skeleton in Putin's closet. In 2007, they decided to take him down. They airlifted in police commandos from Moscow. It was basically a full military operation to grab Barsukov, then they airlifted him straight back out back to Moscow. What they were doing was simply wanting to show it doesn't matter how big you are, the state is back and we can reach out and take down anyone.
You describe Russia as a kleptocracy, where there's no distinction between crime, politics, and law enforcement. What does this mean for America and the world going forward?
It's a problem because Russia is a serious player in world politics and global economics. The trouble is that Russian kleptocracy and the close ties between the Kremlin, business, and organized crime means that Russia can infect other countries with it's own practices. Putin is engaged in this kind of political war with the West—he’s effectively trying to weaponize Russian organized crime against the west.
We have seen Russian-based organized crime groups being used to kill enemies of his, to gather intelligence, to move spies across boarders, and raise money for Putin by supporting particular groups or media outlets that he likes and are good at spreading disinformation.
These are all serious problems, but there’s a bit of hope. I think there’s this slow build up of pressures for some kind of change inside Russia. I think you're getting a population that is tired of corruption and an elite that has outgrown the gangsters and finds them a bit of an embarrassment. I don't think were going to see it while Putin is still in the Kremlin, but after Putin goes, which might be two years or six years, or longer, it's going to happen. There’s a decent chance that we're going to start seeing a kind of a slow fight back against organized crime in Russia. But for now, this is clearly a problem for us all.
What do you think the Mueller investigations into President Trump's alleged ties to Russia will uncover in regards to the Vory, if anything? Trump has a history of Italian mob ties in the US and some of his lackeys like consigliere Michael Cohen have even claimed to be tight with Russian mobsters.
From Donald Trump down, through Michael Cohen, for me what I see unfolding in the States is not so much a story about everyday Russian organized crime so much as a story of unusual American greed, of a lack of morals and a depressing belief that any business is good business, regardless with whom it is conducted. I have seen no serious evidence of any explicit link between Trump and Russian mobsters. Rather, what I have seen is evidence of the extent to which the Trump Organization seems to have been willing to engage with dubious investors and buyers—some Russian, many not—whom more reputable corporations would not have touched. In the process, it is likely it laundered money from all kinds of questionable sources, but that is not the same as a direct link to gangsters. Above all, this is a story about corruption, framed in both legal and moral terms, and about a horrifying absence of ethics and transparency.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. Learn more about Galeotti's book here.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.