YETT  Young Experts’ Think Tank


Hovan Baghdassarian


Criminal takeover! What happened?



Crime is a problem that crosses culture, religion, ethnicity, and most importantly state ideologies.  It does not matter the time period, traditional beliefs, or stringency of state laws and regulations, crime will always exist.  In post-Soviet Russia, there has been a fundamental increase in the number of crimes, both random and organized.  The rate of criminal activity has been rising since the end of communism, but it is also receiving far more public attention.  To claim that large-scale crime did not exist in the USSR would be outlandish, so would the claim that it was of a vastly different nature before and after communism.  The government covered up crimes of any nature, including murder, theft, and prostitution, and it is the free media age of 1991 that the “explosion” of crime in Russia can be seen.[1]  It is impossible to deny that crime has not been steadily rising in Russia since the Soviet collapse.  This is due largely to the open nature and lack of experience under the new democratic reforms.  State reforms have been haphazard and the result has created weaknesses that criminals are capable of exploiting.  Organized crime is growing and infiltrating new fields in many “entrepreneurial” fashions, and their involvement in politics is rapidly shifting.  The destruction of the Soviet system has created the opportunity for multi-faceted criminal expansion, and this is happening.


Crime in the Soviet Union


   There is a somewhat widely purported myth that crime did not really exist in the Soviet Union, and that with the institution of capitalism the door was opened for the moral decay of society.  The media enjoys using this sad story as a way of drawing sympathy for the poor Russian people now exposed to the horrors of common criminality.  Unfortunately, common sense and evidence do not support the crime free panacea of the USSR.  All of the traditional crimes are evident in every society, no matter how strictly regulated, even in a police state like the Soviet Union.[2]  Gambling, prostitution, theft, murder, all of these are problems that have plagued mankind, and will continue to do so.  Vices, such as drugs, alcohol, and so on are endemic problems, and even Stalin’s terror could not eliminate them.  This myth of a crime free Soviet society does not hold weight and should be dispelled outright.

Apart from common crimes, the Soviet Union had two very large groups of criminals that followed very different paths from one another.  Thieves constructed a very organized society that had rules, codes, and adhered to a very strict path.[3]  The “world of thieves became a powerful informal organization that survived until the end of the Soviet system.”[4]  They never committed violent acts, and always looked out for one another, establishing a brotherhood.  In opposition to this were bandits who used violence as a means to an end.[5]  They undertook violent activity to secure money, threatening, cajoling, and fighting whenever necessary.   Ordinary citizens came under bandit protection rackets,[6] and if another group tried to take money from them, the two bandit groups would sort things out.  Both thieves and bandits were well-established groups that functioned in different ways, and each thrived under Soviet rule.

Crime syndicates also played a significant and growing role under the communist state structure.  There was a gradual shift as organized crime became more institutionalized and entrenched in the state.  It may have started as clubs and groups, but rapidly expanded to enter into all aspects of the illegal economy.  They maintained their secrecy and were a quiet figure in the shadows that everyone knew existed but were not public like in the west.  In order to give an appearance that there was no real crime in the Soviet Union, no media covered their actions.[7]  There were no major news stories, no personal tales, no interviews about trials and other activities.  The government controlled all the sources of media, and forbade any coverage of crimes in the USSR.  This promoted the image that the state was no only in control, but was functioning much better than the west in crime prevention.  The ideal soviet citizen does not commit crimes, and this was the image put forth.

   In fact, in the Soviet Union crime thrived in several ways that would be unthinkable in western affluent societies.  Due to the severe shortages that the USSR was constantly facing, a well-established Black Market structure was created.  Everything was available to those who had the money to pay for it, encouraging crime in order to purchase a good or even decent life.  This Black Market structure was set up and run by criminals, but it was supported tacitly by the entire state.[8]  Goods to supply the stores were delivered from individuals who stole from their factories and workplaces.  This created almost a robber society, where in the early years it was common to “borrow” from the bosses to barter for food and clothing.  This situation was so well understood, that it was virtually ignored because it had infiltrated society to such a degree.[9]  It is also possible that the government allowed illegal smuggling and the Black Market in order to keep the peace.  If the government was unable to provide goods for the people, then they must be made available elsewhere.

   The involvement of political figures during the Soviet Union is also not a well-kept secret, bribery almost the watchword of the day.  Individuals could bribe party officials in order to secure apartments, vehicles, travel allowances, jobs, everything.  A system of bribery was established that went to the highest levels.  The problem grew worse the further one travelled from Moscow, especially in the outlying regions.[10]  Here the traditionally powerful ruled with iron fists.  Uzbekistan was notorious for the corruption and amount of government theft,[11] for example, purchases of grain for billions of roubles were made, but the grain was only transferred on paper.  During the Brezhnev years, the problems only grew worse.[12]  Cronyism and gluttony of the higher ups was fuelled by an illegal system of gifts.  Brezhnev was notorious for his love of fast cars and jewellery.  The example set by the political elite creates a woefully tragic precedent for the entire nation.


Crime in post-Soviet Russia


   The incredible diversity and extent that crime was carried out in the USSR makes mockery of the claim that no crime existed.  Every crime that could be found in the west was to be seen in the Soviet Union, and to some extents much further.  Attempts were made to clean up corruption, both criminal and political.  These measures were often weak and ineffective, allowing the criminal and the bureaucrat to escape punishment.  It is into this world of strong criminal elements that democracy entered in 1991.  The fundamental shift in state ideology created a problem for Russia, opening herself up to the influences of the west.  Russia proved a fertile ground for further criminal action, the likes of which cannot be measured in the rest of Europe or North America.  While it is important to note that crime took place in many facets during communism, an explosion of activity occurred alongside democratic freedoms.  Two charts accurately show the incredible and steady rise of crime following emancipation:


Statistics for murder, rape, and assault in Russia[13]













11, 800


23, 006

29, 123




13, 663

14, 440

Serious Assault


53, 873


66, 902


Statistics for registered crimes in Russia, 1989-1992[14]













1, 619, 200

1, 839, 500

2, 173, 100

2, 760, 700






Percentage Increase

+ 32.7%

+ 13.6%

+ 18.1%

+ 27%


   The nature of common crime never changes, and the shift over to a democratic state had no real effect on gambling, prostitution, etc., they all carried on with business as usual.  However, the gloves were off for the media, able to show and tell any stories that they deemed newsworthy.  This had a negative effect of creating a double whammy for the people; knowing about the crime and seeing it on the news were very different.  The news also began reaching the west, where coverage showed the “stunning” rise of criminal activity.  The constant negative effect of the news can often be trying, and in the case of the Russian people, it does not improve their situation.  “The legal vacuum which appeared as a result of the disintegration of the previous Soviet legal system and the rapid redistribution of wealth in Russia also created basic preconditions for primitive accumulation of a criminal kind.”[15]  The opportunities were available under the USSR, but the new situation left ambiguity that criminals could attach to.

   It is true that crime did increase by significant proportions following the new political system and all the opportunities that it presented.  Smuggling rose by large amounts, trading in goods, refugees, raw materials and weapons.  The opening of borders allows smugglers to more freely transport goods back and forth, “tourists” acting as their mules.  In Sweden, 30 passengers were seized from one Russian flight with a combined total of 600, 000 cigarettes in their personal luggage.[16]  People are often smuggled into the country for only a few thousand dollars, coming from repressive states like Iraq.  From there, these illegal immigrants can easily gain access to the rest of Europe, especially through Poland.  Other natural resources are also drained from Russia and sold abroad for personal gain at the expense of the state and people.[17]  It was estimated that over $40 billion was smuggled out of the country in the year 1992 alone.[18]  The intense fear of the west is that the nuclear arsenal of the former USSR would be up for sale in the turmoil of changes.  Nuclear smuggling has been going on since the collapse of the state, and this problem is a major threat to international security.  Smuggling did exist in the Soviet Union, and thrived on a very large scale.  However, the end of communism opened the doors, and new “businessmen” have been quick to take advantage of their freedoms.

   Another area that has seen a dramatic rise in the rate of crime was car theft and its resale to illegal markets.  The open border policy allows thieves to travel to the rest of Europe and steal vehicles and luxury cars, then drive them to Russia and sell them.  This would have been difficult under communism because of the limited number of luxury vehicles in the country.  The door was opened to own these cars on a much broader scale, creating a market, and decreasing detection.  One example is the increase in vehicle theft from Poland during and after communism.  In 1988 only 4, 173 vehicles were stolen, in 1992 over 61, 000.  This is a dramatic increase, and a major problem.  The numbers are far worse domestically, estimates range from 100, 000 to 150, 000 vehicle thefts every year, a staggering number.[19]  Clearly this is a problem that was not nearly as widespread under the USSR, and the shift to an open market system has allowed for its expansion.

   Prostitution has always been seen as a major crime, but has also been one of the most prevalent and widespread.  Though the Soviet Union condemned it as deviant and criminal behaviour, it was very much a part of the culture.  The opening up of the political system has had very little effect on this business; it remains brisk as always.  However, today it is seen less as a political taboo, but still considered a crime like in most other states.  One fundamental change that did occur was the number of girls brought in from the East to serve as prostitutes in Russia.  Groups have embraced the ‘skin trade’, and it has proven lucrative.  “Using intermediary organisations and marriage agencies as their cover, various firms are offering … girls “with good physical qualities” highly paid work abroad and the opportunity to find a foreign husband or become a photographers model.”[20]  Kidnapping and forcing women into the sex trade is also one aspect that is on the rise in Russia.  Though prostitution always has and always will exist, new freedoms have opened the door for Russian expansion in this area.

   Though most crimes have remained the same before and after communism, there has been a huge shift and meteoric rise.  “Organized crime in Russia is becoming more sophisticated.  The newly emerged Russian and other ethnic crime syndicates combine illegal and legal activities.”[21]  The syndicate was a significant force in the Soviet Union, and it continues to play an even greater role in Russia.  It has reached into the highest levels of government and infiltrated every aspect of the economy, not just those traditionally associated with organized crime.  Money laundering through organisations and banks is one of the gems for the established criminal groups.  The International Monetary Fund believes that anywhere from $500 billion to $1.5 trillion flows through Russia per year and is laundered.[22]  This is a staggering sum of money, larger than many states Gross Domestic Product.  Money laundering is a traditional aspect of crime syndicates, however, the extent that the Russian families take it is well beyond traditional norms.  They are able to do so through their connections with legal enterprises, such as banks and other companies.  Bankers are known to have the shortest life expectancy of anyone in the business profession.

   Organized crime is affluent, widespread, and powerful, playing a major role in many of the crimes committed in Russia.  It is said that possibly between 10-12 million crimes are committed every year in the nation.  In the first four years of Russian democracy, over 352, 000 people have been killed or maimed, largely due to crime syndicate activity.[23]  Some figures place 70-80% of legal business in Russia under the control of organized crime, each business losing almost half of their profits to these groups.[24]  Approximately two-thirds of the Russian economy is somehow under the sway of criminal groups, a proportion that is unthinkable.[25]  The mix of illegal and legal activity in the open space created by the new freedoms has allowed this rapid expansion, making these groups a strong threat to the survival of the state.  “An ‘organized criminal group’ can be seen as an illegal violent entrepreneurial agency.”[26]  This affects not only the economic aspect, but also the political.

   Naturally, with such an interest in business, these crime syndicates are also very interested in domestic and foreign politics.  Policy affects them directly, and every government decision has a direct impact on their business.  This creates a dangerous situation of criminal control over influential figures of government.  It is arguable that the Communist Party elite were criminals and controlled all of the economy for their own gain, but they had some legitimating authority.  Now, outside criminal groups who have no concern for the state welfare are trying to influence policy.  These groups send their money out of the country, creating the crisis of capital flow and stunting investment in building up the state.[27]  This fundamental difference should encourage state officials to fight against organized crime, and prevent the rape of their nation.  The more time that passes the further entrenched the groups become, controlling more and more of the legitimate range within the state.

   This clean business face to organized crime should not whitewash the fact that these are dangerous and violent men.  They are deeply involved in traditional aspects, such as drugs and other illicit trades.  Turf wars have developed, especially among the different ethnic gangs, and this leads to battles in the streets.[28]  Contract killers are hired, and as was pointed out in the murder rates in Russia, a Wild West scenario is playing out in the East.  These criminals play for blood and do not have any concerns for the sanctity of innocent life, making them a huge problem.  A mix of people who hold incredible power, but exercise little responsibility is dangerous.  In spite of this, there does seem to be an understanding developing that wars are expensive, and more cross syndicate co-ordination is taking place.[29]  It is also important for some organized crime members that they have managed to outlast the communist state.  This is a source of pride for those who saw themselves as dissidents within the Soviet Union.[30]

   One last aspect that the collapse of the USSR had on the people was the loss of their protection from complete poverty.  Though the state took very poor care of the people, it did provide for their very basic minimal needs.  The new structures are not taking this same role on, and with skyrocketing unemployment, have pushed more people into the criminal world.[31]  The cycle of growing up in violence and then desiring Western products and lifestyle push many people into organized and other forms of crime.  This is particularly telling for women and children, a growing proportion of criminals in Russia.[32]  Forcing these groups to struggle for survival has increased the role they play in the illegal activities of the new society.  It is unfortunate that the freedom that was brought to Russia did not bring the structures that are needed in order to make it function properly, and a steady rise in the crime rate each year is the result of this poor planning.

   Another major aspect of crime that has not changed, except to advance to unprecedented levels is political corruption.  Petty bureaucrats and police officers are paid so little; those who are not drawn to crime themselves are often very easily bribed.  It is also not uncommon to bribe the higher officials, creating an epidemic of political disease.[33]  The problem of pursuit for western lifestyles of luxury goods and comfort has increased the economic greed of both bureaucrats and political figures.  A national threat was described by a government agency: a “merging of the criminal community with the corrupted officials of the organs of power including law enforcement organs.”[34]  It has become so widespread that President Yeltsin frequently decried corruption, but placed blame on opposition leaders and parties, which was not productive.  Due to the relative proximity of organized crime and institutionalized political corruption, Russia runs the risk of becoming a ‘criminal state’.  One quote declares: “Corruption is like the air we breathe … It’s not worse than it was before, but reforms have allowed more people to take part.  Corruption has become more democratic.”[35]  This is a very telling statement, showing how democracy has not brought about the best change for the Russian people.  Ironically, it is often members of the old Communist Party elite that hold very strong position in crime, with ex-KGB individuals also playing a significant role.[36] 

It is important to remember that the Russian system was not designed for democracy, and when the Americans were helping with its establishment, focus went into the economy.  The new Russian government was not properly prepared to deal with the change.[37]  The western leaders downplayed the necessary political reforms, focussing instead on the financial issues.  The structures necessary for a properly functioning state were ignored, and the cost is proving great.[38]  Following the collapse of the USSR, the west did not help ensure that stability and security for the Russian people was a priority. 


To some extent corruption in many countries can serve as a mechanism for economic progress.  Without it many nations under totalitarian oppression could simply degenerate and die from hunger as a result of stupid restrictions upon people’s movements, trade, and private property.  As a rule in such countries after the collapse of repressive political regimes most of the population is quite tolerant of corruption.[39]

This statement unfortunately reflects the acceptance of crime and all of its nasty and harsh effects in Russia.  Thomas Hobbes points out that life can be ‘nasty, brutish and short’ in the state of nature, and it would appear that crime and corruption in Russia is reducing the nation close to the state of nature.

   Though the situation is grim, the Russians are attempting to solve the problem, but it may be too out of control for huge effects to be seen immediately.[40]  It will take gradual change and a fundamental attitude shift of the powerful and influential.  Currently, three bodies are established to deal with criminal activity, and their lack of co-ordination has negative effects for the state.  The Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, and the Ministry of Defence all play roles in crime prevention.  Unfortunately the FCIS is the former KGB, and they have a long tradition of hatred and competition with the Ministry of Internal Affairs.  These agencies are under funded, staffed, and equipped to deal with the large and powerful problem of the spread of crime.  Legislation is somewhat ambiguous and corruption allows criminals to walk free.  These frustrations open the door to disillusionment and create opportunities for criminals to bribe the poorly paid officers. One example of the wage disparity can be seen in the elite KGB “Vympel” unit.  When it was moved to the Ministry of the Interior, wages for commanders was $250 a month, measured against the $1500 a month they were offered by the private sector.[41]  This is the type of situation that enforcement officials are forced to face, and it is not surprising that they lack initiative in their work.

   Crime always has been and always will be a major problem for every society, and Russia is no exception.  There were high levels of crime before the destruction of the communist state and there are much higher levels following democratization.  It is folly to see that crime exploded onto the scene in 1991, but it is clear from the numbers, that crime has been steadily increasing every year since the USSR dissolved.[42]  One area of major concern is that of organized crime, and just how organized they are.  Crime syndicates have infiltrated every aspect of life, and are skimming huge profits off of fundamental economic transactions.  The extent to which they have infiltrated legitimate business should cause major concern for Russia and other states.  The lifestyle of the west has also caused increased crime as everyone seeks a piece of the good life.  The lack of state care has led to higher rates of female and child crime, especially among homeless youth.  While the western powers dismantled the old communist regime, they have abandoned the Russians to stumble blindly in the dark to find a way to create a functioning capitalist state, and this is the result.  Traditional crimes have remained the same, and this is largely to be expected, gambling, prostitution, drugs, and alcohol are all common parts of society, and whether the nation is communist or capitalist, the trends are the same.  The Russian situation is a tragedy; corruption and police weakness prevent positive change.  The problem is not unsolvable, but measures must be taken, and they must be taken soon.  The Russian people knew hardship under the Tsars, often worse difficulties under the communists, and now in democracy they suffer under crime.  It is time that the Russian people were given a break, and the world has failed to provide it.  Crime will always remain, but the wild excess in Russia must be curbed, or it could destroy the state.










Brokhin, Yuri. Hustling on Gorky Street: Sex and Crime in Russia Today. New York: The Dial Press, 1975.


Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Commentary: Organized Crime in Post-Communist Russia. Ottawa: CSIS Publication, 1994.


Frisby, Tanya. “The rise of organized crime in Russia, its roots and social significance.” Europe-Asia Studies 50 (January 1998), 27-49.


Fedotova, Valentina. “The criminalization of Russia: autochthonous capitalism as a reaction to right wing radicalism.” Russian Politics and Law 39 (January 2001), 17-42.


Galeotti, Mark. “Crime Pays.” The World Today 58 (August 2002), 37-38.


Handelman, Stephen. Comrade Criminals: The Theft of the Second Russian Revolution. London: Penguin Group, 1994.


Kneen, Peter. “Political corruption in Russia and the Soviet Legacy.” Crime, Law and Social Change 34 (December 2000), 349-367.


O’Neil, Scott. “Russian Organized Crime.” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 69 (May 2000), 1-5.


Ryvkina, R. and O. Kelennikova. “Dysfunctions of the state and the weakened public safety of the Russian population.” Problems of Economic Transition 44 (May 2001), 57-71.


Ulrich, Christopher. The Price of Freedom: The Criminal Threat of Russia, Eastern Europe and the Baltic Region. United Kingdom: Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism, 1994.


Volkov, Vadim. “Violent Entrepreneurship in post-communist Russia.”  Europe-Asia Studies 51 (July 1999), 741-754.


“Russian organized crime: crime without punishment.”  The Economist 352 (August 1999), 17-19.


“The Russian mafia means business.”  The Economist 348 (July 1998), 60.






[1] “Russian organized crime: crime without punishment,” The Economist 352 (August 1999), 18.

[2] Mark Galeotti,  “Crime Pays,” The World Today 58 (August 2002), 12.

[3] Yuri Brokhin, Hustling on Gorky Street: Sex and Crime in Russia Today (New York: The Dial Press, 1975), 111.

[4] Vadim Volkov, “Violent Entrepreneurship in post-communist Russia,” Europe-Asia Studies 51 (July 1999), 744.

[5] Volkov, “Violent Entrepreneurship,” 744.

[6] The Economist, “Russian organized crime,” 18.

[7] The Economist, “Russian organized crime,” 18.

[8] Scott O’Neil, “Russian Organized Crime,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 69 (May 2000), 1-5

[9] O’Neill, “Russian Organized Crime,” 1-5.

[10] The Economist, “Russian organized crime,” 19.

[11] Galeotti, Crime Pays, 14.

[12] Galeotti, Crime Pays, 14.

[13] Christopher Ulrich, The Price of Freedom: The Criminal Threat of Russia, Eastern Europe and the Baltic Region, (United Kingdom: Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism, 1994), 19.

[14] Ulrich, The Price of Freedom, 19.

[15] Tanya Frisby, “The rise of organized crime in Russia, its roots and social significance,” Europe-Asia Studies 50 (January 1998), 41.

[16] Ulrich, The Price of Freedom, 6.

[17] Frisby, “The rise of organized crime,” 37.

[18] Ulrich, The Price of Freedom, 7.

[19] Ulrich, The Price of Freedom, 10.

[20] Ulrich, The Price of Freedom, 10.

[21] Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Commentary: Organized Crime in Post-Communist Russia (Ottawa: CSIS Publication, 1994), 6.

[22] The Economist, “Russian organized crime,” 17.

[23] CSIS, Commentary, 7.

[24] CSIS, Commentary, 7.

[25] Volkov, “Violent Entrepreneurship,” 748.

[26] Volkov, “Violent Entrepreneurship,” 745

[27] Frisby, “The rise of organized crime,” 37.

[28] O’Neil, “Russian Organized Crime,” 1-5.

[29] Stephen Handelman, Comrade Criminals: The Theft of the Second Russian Revolution (London: Penguin Group, 1994), 8.

[30] Handelman, Comrade Criminals, 8.

[31] Frisby, “The rise of organized crime,” 31.

[32] Frisby, “The rise of organized crime,” 31.

[33] Frisby, “The rise of organized crime,” 35.

[34] Ulrich, The Price of Freedom, 13.

[35] Ulrich, The Price of Freedom, 13.

[36] Frisby, “The rise of organized crime,” 29.

[37] Peter Kneen, “Political corruption in Russia and the Soviet Legacy,” Crime, Law and Social Change 34 (December 2000), 363.

[38] Kneen, “Political corruption,” 362.

[39] Frisby, “The rise of organized crime,” 36.

[40] Frisby, “The rise of organized crime,” 37.

[41] CSIS, Commentary, 12.

[42] Frisby, “The rise of organized crime,” 29.