Book of the week: the rise of the Russian mob

Cover of The Vory: Russia’s Super MafiaThe Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia
by Mark Galeotti
Yale University Press, £20
(Buy at Amazon)

Some apologists for the Russian government have claimed that the recent chemical attack on a former spy in Salisbury might have been carried out by a mobster looking to curry favour with President Vladimir Putin, rather than directly by Russian agents. Even in the unlikely event that this is true, this new book by Mark Galeotti makes a convincing case that the two are so closely intertwined that it doesn’t make much difference.

For hundreds of years, the Russian government viewed organised crime as something between a minor irritant and a useful partner, rather than something to destroy. During the age of the Tsars, the low levels of police spending meant the police were focused on maintaining public order, rather than catching criminals, allowing gangs to flourish. By the time the Russian revolution came around, the underworld was so powerful that leading Bolsheviks, most notably Stalin, partnered with them to raise funds for the struggle. Later, when Stalin started sending millions of people to labour camps, the sheer number of people imprisoned meant that effective control of many gulags was delegated to those criminals willing to collaborate, even though some crooks saw this as breaking the “thieves’ code”.

The power of the Russian mob reached its peak during the 1990s. Having controlled the emerging black market during the waning communist years, they were ready to step into the vacuum created by the end of the Soviet Union. The result was a decade of murders, turf wars and near anarchy. While Putin’s accession restored an element of control, his focus was on those criminals whose behaviour directly challenged the state.

This is an academic work, primarily aimed at those studying Russian history and politics. Those after a McMafiastyle page turner, or salacious accounts of the goings-on at the Kremlin, will be disappointed. You could say that at certain points Galeotti provides too much detail, and the stories about the rise of various Russian gangsters tend to get a little repetitive. The material dealing with the current relationship between the Russian state and organised crime, which will be what most people are interested in, accounts for only around a fifth of the book.

Still, those who want to learn about the origins of organised crime in Russia, and how it has affected the country’s politics and economic development, will find a wealth of material. With the West reassessing its decisions to allow Russian oligarchs – many of whom made money by less than honest means – free rein in its capital cities, this book could not be timelier.