VoA Ukraine service interview on Russian organised crime

Below are clips of an interview I recorded last week for Voice of America’s Ukraine service (in English, subtitled) on Russian organised crime’s international reach and activity, and its relationship with the state, as part of my launch tour for The Vory (of which more shortly)

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Launch events in London for ‘The Vory’

Screen Shot 2018-03-10 at 14.09So, although alas it will be be weeks before I get to see the final version myself, the advance copies of my new book, The Vory: Russia’s super mafia (Yale University Press) are here, and the count-down to its release begins. It will be published on 10 April in the UK, and 22 May in the US. Meanwhile, I just wanted to flag up some launch events in London next month.

The actual launch will be at Pushkin House at 7pm on Monday 16 April, at which I’ll be talking about the writing of the book and, especially, the historical and cultural evolution of this organised crime subculture, and how far it has come to permeate Russia today.

Then, at Waterstones Gower Street on 6:30pm on Tuesday 17 April I’ll be in conversation with Matt Potter, author of the excellent Outlaws, Inc. (on Russian arms-and-everything-else air smugglers) on gangsters, Russia, and writing about these shadowy topics. Note that the price of a ticket includes a copy of The Vory and a drink – a bargain!

There will then be a closed session at Chatham House on Wednesday 18 April, which will soon be up on their events schedule, discussing the current Russian organised crime situation. I’ll update with a link when it is available.

***PLEASE NOTE – MY US TRIP HAS ALAS HAD TO BE CANCELLED, AND THESE EVENTS WITH THEM. For those of you in the States, I would also parenthetically mention that I’ll be giving a book talk at the NYU Jordan Centre on the Advanced Study of Russia at 12:30 on 4 April, and another talk on Russian organised crime at Colgate University on 2 April at 4:30pm.***

Beyond that, there are one or two other possibilities still under discussion, and again I will update this post if, as, and when they firm up. You can also keep up to date by following me on twitter (@MarkGaleotti) or on my Facebook page Mark Galeotti on Russia.

From the ‘Brothers’ Circle’ to ‘Thieves-in-Law’: one myth succeeds another for the US Treasury

Vory(Of course I can’t not start with a plug: my book The Vory, on Russian organised crime yesterday, today, and tomorrow, comes out from Yale University Press in April for the UK, May for the USA. Now available for pre-order…)

So, on 22 December, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated as one of its Big Bad Global Criminal Targets, “the Eurasian criminal entity, the Thieves-in-Law.” Criminals such as Zakhary Kalashov and Lasha Shushanashvili are targeted as part of “a Eurasian crime syndicate,” a “vast criminal organization which has spread throughout the former Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States.” Sounds scary. And also faintly familiar.

Hang on, weren’t criminals such as, say, Zakhary Kalashov and Lasha Shushanashvili not already sanctioned? Why yes, come to think of it, they were: back in 2012, as members of “the Eurasian crime syndicate, the Brothers’ Circle,” which was described as “a criminal group composed of leaders and senior members of several Eurasian criminal groups that are largely based in countries of the former Soviet Union, but also operate in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.”

At the time, I expressed deep skepticism about the existence of any such “Brothers’ Circle,” not a term one ever finds in this context in Russian sources, and suggested that given the essentially fluid nature of Russian organised crime, and the need for bureaucracies to have terms more substantive than “assorted Russian and Eurasian bad guys,” that it was simply invented, as “a convenient catch-all term, a way of making sure that Russian OC is included in the Order.” (I then returned to this theme here.)

That the “Brothers’ Circle” has apparently quietly morphed into the ‘Thieves-in-Law” seems to prove the point. Frankly, this is, I suggest, if anything worse. The Circle had the advantage of being essentially made up, but the Thieves exist…just not in the way Treasury suggests. First of all, it’s not an organisation, but a subculture and a social rank. It’s not even like using “Made Men” as a substitute for the Cosa Nostra, because the Thieves – the vory v zakone – represent a small and often not dominant fraction of some of the gangs in question. Secondly, that whole culture is dying, if not dead, the old titles losing their relevance and increasingly simply being bought. Thirdly, it is disproportionately a Georgian and to a lesser extent Russian fascination, which does not touch the Chechens, for a start.

I get it, OFAC needs a title, a label. But I never thought I’d actually be missing the old fantasy of a “Brother’s Circle.”

 

The ‘Prophylactic Conversation’ and the management of Russian organised crime: the Ekaterinburg example

gangstersgrave

Ekaterinburg still seems to have the best crop of gangster gravestones

Back when Yuri Andropov headed the KGB, the Soviet political police replaced, or at least supplemented the blunter instruments of earlier times with more subtle and insidious ones. One such was the profilakticheskii razgovor, the ‘prophylactic conversation.’ Someone identified as a possible problem – talking too openly critically about the Party, say, or trying to get the trade union actually to represent workers’ interests – would be invited to the local KGB office, just for a chat.

Depending on the quality and delicacy of the interlocutor, often no threats would be made, no accusations advanced. It would be just that, a chat. How’s the job? I hear your kid is applying to university next year, that must be exciting. I hope your grandmother’s illness clears up soon. But of course, in a system when a severe and spiteful state controls everything, both sides knew that every word was a threat. A good job could be replaced with a bad one; a child could get rejected from university; medical care could be withheld. Few people have the ruthlessness with themselves or others to be heroes in such circumstances. Andropov’s dictum was, after all, maximum effect for minimal force.

Increasingly, this has become a tool also used with organised crime. The state does not control organised crime (let alone vice versa), but the relationship is complicated. Much of the time, it genuinely fights it, but at other times it recognises a degree of symbiosis. This is not just about the many interconnections, especially at the local level, between political, business and underworld elites. It is also because, like post-war Japan for most of its history, there is something of a sense that organised crime is better that its disorganised counterpart.

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The “Shulaya Enterprise” organised crime bust in New York

FBIA big case opened yesterday in New York, with 33 people being charged with membership of a Eurasian organised crime group (the “Shulaya Enterprise”) and a wide range of charges, from murder-for-hire and gambling fraud to, intriguingly enough, stealing 10,000 pounds of chocolates (gangsters after my own heart). I duplicate the press release below and look forward to following the case, but a few points leapt out at once:

Razhden Shulaya, also known as “Roma” and “Brother,” the vor v zakone (not “zakonei”) considered to be the boss of the outfit, was arrested in Lithuania as part of a major crack-down on Georgian gangsters in 2013. I note now that he has been living in Edgewater, NJ. I’ll be curious to hear how a guy not only arrested in Europe but well known previously in St Petersburg as a protégé of major crime figure Zakhary Kalashov and his smotryashchyi or “watcher” in that city, got from a Lithuanian holding cell to the States…

The not-so-Russian-“Russians”: This is called a “Russian Crime Syndicate” but the boss is Georgian, and a quick glance through the names of the accused shows a mix of Georgian, Russian, Armenian and even Central Asian names, with Georgians very much predominating. This is characteristic of modern Eurasian organised crime groups in the States, in particular, but it is worth stepping beyond the ROC cliché. I appreciate this is just a press release, but still there’s no harm in a press release being accurate. (And don’t get me started on the mythical “Brothers’ Circle”…)

Imagination is one of these gangs’ hallmarks; as I told Ben Weiser of the NYT, I was not taken aback by the more outré gambits such as “a scheme to defraud casinos with a hacking device that predicted the behaviour of particular models of electronic slot machines.” Rather, “what surprises me actually is they were still involved in the traditional types of crime.” Instead of trying to compete in crowded and fiercely-defended markets such as drug-dealing on the streets, these gangs often seek to identify new criminal opportunities, especially involving fraud and technology.

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Crimintern: How the Kremlin uses Russia’s criminal networks in Europe

C9s92ljW0AAhnPtMy latest report for the ECFR is out. While I am waiting for the bidding war for the film rights, I’ll settle for pointing people in its direction – you can download it free here – and offer up the summary:

  • Over the past 20 years, the role of Russian organised crime in Europe has shifted considerably. Today, Russian criminals operate less on the street and more in the shadows: as allies, facilitators and suppliers for local European gangs and continent-wide criminal networks.
  • The Russian state is highly criminalised, and the interpenetration of the criminal ‘underworld’ and the political ‘upperworld’ has led the regime to use criminals from time to time as instruments of its rule.
  • Russian-based organised crime groups in Europe have been used for a variety of purposes, including as sources of ‘black cash’, to launch cyber attacks, to wield political influence, to traffic people and goods, and even to carry out targeted assassinations on behalf of the Kremlin.
  • European states and institutions need to consider RBOC a security as much as a criminal problem, and adopt measures to combat it, including concentrating on targeting their assets, sharing information between security and law-enforcement agencies, and accepting the need to devote political and economic capital to the challenge.

I confess I am pleased with the ‘Russian-based organised crime‘ notion, that I think fills an ontological niche, in that it is clear that there is a difference between those gangs which still have strong connections to Russia — who could as easily be Georgians, or Dagestanis, or whoever — and those who have essentially moved out of the country. It is the former who are especially susceptible to use by the Russian security apparatus, and who genuinely worry me. (And yes, I’m also pleased with the title…)

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