Experts’ Think Tank
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. 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
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. 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. The “world of thieves became a powerful
informal organization that survived until the end of the Soviet system.” 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. They undertook violent activity to secure
money, threatening, cajoling, and fighting whenever necessary. Ordinary citizens came under bandit
protection rackets, 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. 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. 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. 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. Here the traditionally powerful ruled with
iron fists. Uzbekistan was notorious for the
corruption and amount of government theft,
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. 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
Statistics for murder, rape, and assault in Russia
Statistics for registered crimes in Russia,
1, 619, 200
1, 839, 500
2, 173, 100
2, 760, 700
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.” 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. 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
and sold abroad for personal gain at the expense of the state and people. It was estimated that over $40 billion was
smuggled out of the country in the year 1992 alone. 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
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. 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.” 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
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.” 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. 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. Some figures place 70-80% of legal business
under the control of organized crime, each business losing almost half of their
profits to these groups. Approximately two-thirds of the Russian
economy is somehow under the sway of criminal groups, a proportion that is
unthinkable. 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.” 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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
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. 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.” 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.” 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.
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. 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. Following the collapse of the USSR, the west
did not help ensure that stability and security for the Russian people was a
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.
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. 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. 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. 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
must be curbed, or it could destroy the state.
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