On October 31, 2007, In the Russian province of Togliatti, a bus carrying several passengers including women and children exploded, killing eight people and leaving approximately horribly wounded. Local authorities attributed the bombing as an act of terrorism perpetrated by Russian organized crime. Unfortunately, these horrific acts of violence have become commonplace in Russia and a regular part of daily life. Not only does the mob hold a tight grip on their homeland, but they also maintain a significant influence on worldwide criminal activity.
Despite this, much about the Russian Mafia remains unknown, with little understanding of its history, organization, extent of criminal activity and its global presence. The history of Russian organized crime dates back to the early 1700s, in the time of the Russian Imperial era. Criminal activity was rooted among loose gangs of thieves formed from the common people. These rebellious bands would come to be known as the “Vory”, who upheld a specific code of honor and believed in an anti-government philosophy.
In order to join the Vory, a prospect had to be a professional thief and voted in by the other members. Numbering in the millions, the Vory began entrenching themselves in Russian society, fueled by resentment of the government and class divisions of the time. At the start of the twentieth century, Russia was changing, and so was organized crime. In 1917, Russia exploded with the advent of Communism. The Bolshevik revolution ushered in a new era of organized crime. With the Vory in support of the new regime, an uneasy alliance was formed between the criminal organizations and the fledgling government.
Through bribery, blackmail, and extortion, the corruption of government officials provided organized crime with protection and immunity from prosecution, forming mutually beneficial relationships that have existed to this day. Some scholars believe that “During the Communist years… , Communist Party members existed above the law and that they were the real organized crime figures during that time” (Lanka).
By the 60s and 70s, irregular methods of acquiring money (extortion, laundering, bribery) had not only become commonplace, but was required due to the nature of the Soviet system. The ailings of a government in a classless society enabled organized crime to flourish during the Soviet era because it was seen as a means to attain a higher standard of living. Yuri Maltsev, then senior advisor to former Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, believed that “… essentially prohibited any form of social or economic activity that didn’t advance the interest of the state. In short, they criminalized everything” (Grigg). By this time, organized crime in Russia had evolved from honor-bound gangs of petty thieves to ruthless, violent and independent minded “businessmen” bent on attaining wealth and power through any means available.
Although the mob’s activities were still mainly limited to the homeland, the stage was set for expansion and growth after the fall of the Soviet Union. Rather than stimulate legitimate businesses in striving to create more opportunity and to expand, the demise of the Soviet Union enabled Russian organized crime to further tighten its grip on the country and expand outside of mother Russia itself. This new government created free markets which allowed the mob to wield huge economic influence. According to official government reports of the time, “… t is estimated that there are some 50,000 companies in Russia that are controlled by organized crime groups and that these groups control 40% of Russia’s gross national product” (Anderson). Authorities were already dependent on organized crime to promote their own agendas and enhance their own personal fortune. As far as the mob was concerned, the change in government was merely superficial, and allowed them to expand their criminal enterprises as never before. This period of time also saw a dramatic increase in the sheer number of gangster associates.
Reports from Russia estimate that “… approximately 8,200 criminal organizations exist in Russia with their members numbering some 32,000 people… ” (Lanka). Opposed only by an impotent Russian government, the mob is unchallenged and free to roam at will. The structure of Russian organized crime groups differ from the archetypal “La Cosa Nostra” structure most people generally think of today. When we think of a “mafia”, we naturally think of something associated with the Italian Mob and it’s close-knit, exclusive “families” that are very traditional and hierarchal.
This style of organization has its advantages, resulting in no shortages of “wannabes”. The mob “… has proven capable of finding new soldiers. Even after imprisonment of senior leadership, it survives, and in some places thrives… ” (Devlin Barrett and Sheen Gardiner). The Italian Mafia is widely known because of the attention given to them by the media and popular culture. In Russian organized crime, however, the structure and organization differs drastically from that of the Italians.
The Russian Mafia is not one “family” per se, but comprised of people from many different ethnic backgrounds, forming loosely structured gangs, each possessing varying levels of power. “Although Russian authorities have currently identified over 5,000 criminal groups in that country, Russian officials believe that only approximately 300 of those have some identifiable structure” (Pike). Many of the established criminal organizations, such as the Solntsevskaya Bratva, use the smaller street gangs as enforcement and as a means of controlling the streets as well.
The class system used by some of the more powerful and established groups is designed with the sole purpose of minimizing the risk of detection of the whole, and that “A similar structure places an elite leadership on top which is buffered by support and security personnel from the street operators who are committing the crimes. Street operators are not privy to the identity of their leadership. Strategy and planning is done only at the top echelon in order to minimize the risk of detection” (Pike).
This is partially the reason why the Russian Mafia is not as notorious as it should be, because of their extreme care in the secrecy and confidentiality of their activities. With hundreds of groups in existence, varying in power, strength, and organization, the one goal shared by all is the attainment of power and wealth. Russian organized crime deals in almost every single type of crime imaginable and is not limited to any particular field of illegal activity. Not surprisingly, the Russian Mafia is heavily involved in blue collar or violent crime. ROC groups are involved in murder, money laundering, extortion, auto theft, weapons smuggling, narcotics trafficking, prostitution, counterfeiting currency, and a multitude of complex fraud schemes” (Pike). Although these types of crimes are commonplace in the homeland, they are not unique to Russia. Consider reports of a mob group operating within California: A Northern California auto theft group came to the attention of law enforcement personnel in Sacramento and other parts of Northern California, Oregon, and Washington State in early 1993.
This group is primarily made up of blue collar type workers from the Ukraine and Western Russia. Specializing in auto theft and VIN switching, younger members of this group steal vehicles while the older members operate body shops. This group utilizes Interstate 5 to travel to Oregon and Washington to sell the stolen vehicle parts to other Ukrainian and Russian criminals. Additionally, this group is becoming involved in extortion, cellular telephone fraud, prostitution, and trafficking small amounts of narcotics.
Group members have been known to carry weapons and are becoming increasingly violent. ” (Pike). The Russian mob is not, of course, limited to the usual blue collar crime that is prevalent in all criminal organizations. Until recently, the mafia has begun to make a reputation for itself in white collar crime as well. Throughout the world, various Russian criminal groups have infiltrated foreign economies in a number of different ways, including fraud and counterfeiting. A noteworthy example is the 1997 case of Vyacheslav Ivankov: …
When the Russian mafia began to move into the United States it chose Vyacheslav Ivankov, known as Yaponchik or “Little Japanese”, to head its New York operation. He was convicted in November 1997 in a ?3. 5m ($5. 9m) extortion case. Louis Freeh, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), said: “In 10 or 20 years Ivankov would have been a very, very dangerous criminal leader, not just in the United States but worldwide… ” (news. bbc. co. uk). Another common white collar crime on the rise is fraud, and is a mob favorite.
Billions have been made in this way, pursuing any opportunity for money. A variety of different schemes have been used, including medical, tax, business, and identification fraud. An infamous California case in 1991 shows the sophistication with which gangsters have been able to bilk millions, if not billions, of taxpayer dollars: Russian organized crime figures have been involved in various frauds that run the gamut from staged auto accidents to false billing schemes.
In 1991, in a case considered the largest of its kind, the U. S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles charged 13 defendants in a $1 billion false medical billing scheme that was headed by two Russian emigre brothers, Michael and David Smushkevich. The Smushkevich brothers have long been suspected of being part of a loosely organized Soviet crime syndicate operating in the Los Angeles area during the late 1980s and early 1990S. The 175 count indictment capped a six-year investigation by federal, state, and local agencies. (Pike).
It is evident that Russian organized crime has been involved in criminal activities worldwide. Activity has become increasingly prevalent in the United States as well, with many mob groups establishing themselves in various areas of the country. Not only has the U. S. been touched, but relationships have been forged with other international crime organizations (i. e. The Mexican and Colombian drug cartels). Although Russian organized crime has firmly entrenched itself in the western hemisphere, it is not the only region at risk.
A recent article written by the Center for Strategic and International Studies depicts the current state of the mob in detail: Worldwide money laundering activity from Cyprus to the Cayman Islands and from Vanuatu in the Pacific to Venezuela; the assassination of American businessman Paul Tatum in Moscow; financial scams in New York; car theft rings in Europe; narcotics trafficking and money laundering alliances with Colombian and Nigerian drug lords and the Italian mafia represent but a few of the tentacles extended by Russian organized crime networks throughout the world. www. csis. org). Russian organized crime is here to stay and likely impossible to ever eradicate. Within their 400 years of existence, they have perfected the art of intimidation and coercion, to be sure. But what separates them from other criminal groups is their ability to adapt to an ever changing world. The ingenuity, sophistication, and creativity with which they have approached criminal activities is astonishing. Yet, so little is known about them.
For all of their accomplishments, they’ve managed to remain the secretive, mysterious organization from which they began. When the highest levels of a nation’s government are infiltrated and corrupted, the mob is free to flourish with increasing strength and power. It continues to pose a serious threat to Russia, the United States, and world security at large. Combating Russian organized crime will require cooperation among nations, governments and law enforcement.
The mob is surely betting on our inability to do so, since the stakes have never been higher. Works Cited Anderson, Annelise. “The Red Mafia: A Legacy Of Communism. ” Stanford. edu. Web. 25 Oct. 2012. <http://andrsn. stanford. edu/Other/redmaf. html>. Barrett, Devlin, and Sean Gardiner. “Structure Keeps Mafia Atop Crime Heap. ” The Wall Street Journal, 22 Jan. 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2012.