Stephen Handelman, Comrade Criminal. Russia's New Mafiya. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995. 398 pp. Hardback. $27.50.
The reader's first impression of this first-person account of interviews with and anecdotes about Russia's new gangsters may be, why is Yale publishing this? Well, first impressions can mislead. Handelman has a firm grasp on Russian history and culture. He just doesn't write like an academic. Thank goodness. The nuances would have been lost and, given the lack of reliable statistics and hard facts in today's Russian, the best approach may be that of describing conversations. There are problems, of course, in trying to reproduce criminal argot in any language, and Handelman is doing it in translation. But these guys really wanted to talk--and they go on and on, much like Oprah's guests would do if they knew that one misstep could make them dead. As a result, there are more nuances than we are accused to getting in a scholarly book.
The second impression may be that the book is three years too late. After all, crime in the Post-Soviet Union is not news. This, too, would be wrong. The Chechens are (or were) everywhere; and for good reason--Soviet policies over many decades gave them two choices, either complete assimilation into Soviet society (without any likelihood that officials or the public would forget their origins) or criminal activities. Readers will better understand Yeltsin's actions (or reactions) in the Chechnya debacle, and also understand why the military performed so miserably in the capture of Grozny: the temptation to destroy Russia's leading criminal syndicate and blunt the secessionist tendencies of the non-Russian republics was too strong for a weakening leader to resist, and the generals were better at lining their pockets than in equipping and training troops for combat.
Organized crime has deep roots in Russia. There was an ancient subculture that was almost a parody of the Beggars' Opera, with Mack the Knife being protected by his army buddy, the police commissioner--with the Russian criminals taking on even less of the protective coloring of apparent conformation with the dominant society. Despite their open flouting of the rules and customs, even their evasion of the military draft, these criminal organizations (the vory v zakonye) outlasted tsarist and communist efforts to suppress them. They survived by becoming essential to the system. They supplied everything that scientific socialism could not--prostitution, tomatoes, computers. To do this effectively, they had to have official support; unofficially, of course. This symbiotic relationship of the bureaucrat (the new class, the nomenklatura) and the criminal would have far-reaching consequences.
As Communism began to self-destruct from the combination of corruption and incompetence, the old bosses began to loose control of their syndicates. Bureaucrats, sensing the end approaching and realizing the huge profits to be made from illegal or semi-legal activities, began to set up their own operations. There were schisms in the syndicates themselves: in the prisons between those members who had compromised with the system and the traditionalists; outside between those who wanted to pursue the profits of the drug trade and those who objected to it on moral grounds. When Communism collapsed, these groups obtained weapons. As gang warfare and assassination became common, ethnic gangsters rose to the top--their councils were almost impervious to penetration by informers, turncoats had no chance to disappear into the general population, and they had no compunction about using violence.
Soon the economic system was utterly dependent on these new criminal syndicates. Given an overabundance of outmoded and contradictory rules, no businessman could operate without friendly officials; given the collapse of the ruble, no policeman or bureaucrat could survive on his salary. Bribery, kickbacks, gifts became almost universal. Given that the line between legal and illegal was hard to discern, even the most honest businessmen found themselves in murky areas; those who were willing to take in criminal syndicates as partners found themselves in a combination capitalists' paradise and nightmare.
The new democracy, of course, was undermined by all this at every turn: the criminals and their business associates paid no taxes or very little, officials became corrupt, the public became disillusioned, cynical, and ever more willing to believe racist demagogues. The very word democracy began to fall out of use, replaced by the term bespredel (no boundaries, or disorder). The prospects for the future are not good. Too many people believe that the only way to bring crime under control is by reinstituting an authoritarian state and "dealing with" the minorities.
Handelman is not as pessimistic as readers might expect. There are signs that the worse is over. Even the mafiyas are tiring of the disorder. If the western nations help in closing down the money laundering and smuggling, insist on economic reforms which stabilize the ruble and balance the budget, emphasize legal reforms which make honest business possible, and vigorously prosecute the emigrating criminals who are trying to establish themselves in the West, Yeltsin or his successors might yet make a success of democracy and capitalism But meanwhile, the criminals are everywhere and we must deal with a system that has been subverted and perverted in every way.
This is where the Baltic States come in. Nobody is exploiting the situation today better than the Balts. In fact, Handelman suggests repeatedly that the present prosperity of Estonia is based on the sale of goods smuggled out of Russia and sold abroad; and on services which remain dominated by criminal syndicates, especially prostitution. Handelman gives an entire chapter to the Baltic States; and his warning about the effects of the corruption inherent in the current system is sobering reading.