The Tragedy of the Age-Old Kremlin-Vor Alliance (Op-ed)
The current geopolitical tussle between Russia and the West has impoverished our debate. Too often, it replaces nuanced understanding with snappy and snarky sound bites.
One example is the description of Russia as a “mafia state.” As if that can encapsulate the complex, sometimes hostile or cooperative relationship between Russia’s rulers, spooks, population and gangsters. Nonetheless, since 2014, the ties between mafia and state have certainly become closer.
For generations, there has been an unusually close connection between the underworld and "upperworld" powers. Stalin carried out bank robberies and piracy with mobsters such as the infamous Simon Ter-Petrossian — or “Kamo,” as he went by in criminal and revolutionary circles — in part to raise funds for the Bolshevik revolution.
The Cheka political police recruited bandits, and later Stalin would coopt vory — “thieves,” members of the professional criminal subculture — to be the enforcers, foremen and even guards of the Gulag slave-labour camps.
In the twilight years of the Soviet Union, organized crime was part of the connective tissue holding corrupt Party officials and the barons of the black market together. And in the anarchy of the 1990s, the distinctions between mobsters, entrepreneurs and officials were often more theoretical than real.
Of course, when the little-known Vladimir Putin was campaigning for the presidency in 1999-2000, he promised law and order, and many believed him. I spoke to one vor who took to keeping a packed suitcase under his bed in case he had suddenly to head to the airport ahead of an arrest warrant.
But he never had to.
In hindsight, given Putin’s crucial role in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office as its ambassador to the city’s underworld, and the powerful Tambovskaya crime group in particular, we should not have expected him necessarily to take on the gangsters.
Instead, he domesticated them. The word went out, routinely communicated through earnest conversations between criminals and the police officers meant to arrest them, that there was a new social contract.
Criminals could continue to be criminals; the police would continue to police them. But if at any point the vory looked as if they were posing any challenge to the state, then they would be treated as enemies, and life would get very hard. The criminals adjusted very quickly to this new world, one in which the state had reaffirmed its status as the biggest gang in town.
During the Second Chechen War, the Chechen gangs across Russia largely abandoned Chechnya to its fate. And more generally, the indiscriminate car bombings and drive-by shootings, such a feature of the wild 90s, and symbols of a state unable to control its streets, ended....MORE