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Dissecting Russian Organized Crime and the State

The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia

by Mark Galeotti

Yale University Press, 2018

The discovery of more than 850 pounds of cocaine on the grounds of the Russian Embassy in Buenos Aires and the 2018 arrests of multiple people involved in the trafficking organization that operated from Argentina to Germany to Russia made headlines around the world. How could that much cocaine be hidden in a diplomatic facility and subsequently smuggled—Argentine authorities secretly replaced the drugs with flour—to Russia on a government plane? The murky criminal, state, and even business elements of the event are a perfect encapsulation of the current state of Russian organized crime as pictured in Mark Galeotti’s The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia, a comprehensive and engrossing history and current analysis of crime in a country that is frequently misunderstood.

Courtesy Image of Flickr, © 2010.

That government assets and former state employees are implicated in the drug smuggling should perhaps be of no surprise. As Galeotti details, Russian organized crime and the state are inextricably linked. Starting with the late-tsarist era, he traces the development of the vory v zakone (often translated to “thieves within the law”) as the criminal culture developed and consolidated, notably in Stalin’s gulags. In the camps, a particular code, language, and distinctive tattoos all characterized the criminal world and delineated those who were a part of it and those who were outside. As the criminal world spread to the outside following Stalin’s death, we follow as the vory first take advantage of the black market during the 60s and 70s, then infiltrate and exploit Gorbachev’s reforms in the 80s, before finally exploding onto the scene during the crony capitalism-era following the fall of the Soviet Union.

The 1990s were the heyday of the Russian gangster, and the violent period remains the primary image of organized crime in popular culture. Galeotti excels in dispelling this image. Russian organized crime never truly matched any Godfather-esque picture. Though packed with tales of contract killings resembling any true crime book, Galeotti retains the analytical rigor of an academic, defining and categorizing the organizations identified. Notably, most Russian criminal organizations fail to fall into a strictly hierarchical model, with a “godfather” ruling at the top. More often, these group are horizontal in nature with leaders working with members and other groups as circumstances and profits dictate. Galeotti highlights that the one instance where a crime leader did attempt to assert himself as a Sicilian Mafia-style “boss of bosses” quickly led to his assassination.

And as these groups followed Russia into the Putin-era, the amorphous nature of Russian organized crime became even more difficult to capture. The lawlessness of the 1990s succumbed to a strengthened central state, unwilling to allow criminals to openly challenge order. Old-style vory have given way to a more low-profile crime boss who operates between the legitimate and illegitimate, among the criminal, state, and private sectors. Galeotti quotes former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey:

“If you should chance to strike up a conversation with an articulate, English-speaking Russian…wearing a $3,000 suit and a pair of Gucci loafers, and he tells you that he is an executive of a Russian trading company…there are four possibilities.” These were that he was a businessman, a spy, a gangster, or “he may be all three and that none of those three institutions have any problem with the arrangement.”

It is views like this that lead Galeotti to point out the widespread notion that Russia is a “mafia state.” This characterization is by no means his own, with it being a common view among Russia watchers. The main challenge is that phrase is often used to describe multiple facets of crime in Russia. It is both used to describe the political elite, up to and including Putin himself, using their position to enrich themselves, as well as the infiltration of the state by those fully within the criminal world.

Galeotti argues that the criminalization of the state runs in both directions. Government officials are comfortable using criminals to achieve both personal and state goals. The patriotic mission of Putin and his ilk is real and that criminals who stray too far out of line are dealt with, lest they disrupt the image of Putin as a ruler of order. Organized crime in Russia is both a foe of the state and a tool used when necessary to achieve political ends.

Criminals themselves are happy to work with officials to ensure their own safety, a tradition, as Galeotti notes, reaching back to the gulag times when the suki, or “bitches,” broke from the traditional criminal ranks to work with the guards. Despite the demeaning name, the suki emerged from the gulags as the dominant class of criminal whose willingness to shift among worlds is a hallmark of Russian organized crime today.

For the general public, who mostly learn of organized crime through television and movies, The Vory helps to truly define and explain organized crime in Russia today. Perhaps the weakest element of the book is the subtitle, “Russia’s Super Mafia,” giving the impression of some type of hierarchical, all-powerful criminal cabal that the author himself works to dispel. Nevertheless, from street-level thug to the highest levels of government, Galeotti succeeds in guiding the reader through a world that is, for obvious reasons, opaque and shrouded in mystery.


Michael Dworman

Michael is an international affairs/national security professional working in Washington, D.C. He focuses on international conflict, terrorism, and crime, along with a regional focus on Russian affairs, where he has spent time living and working. Michael graduated with an MA in Security Studies from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a BA in Political Science from the University of Washington. You can connect with him on Twitter @mikedworman.
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