A Tangled Web: Organized Crime and Oligarchy in Putin’s Russia


Mark Galeotti, The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia. (Yale University Press, 2018).

The vory, the professional elite of Russian organized crime, have roots that go far back into the days of the tsars. While many historians trace the origins of organized crime to the emergence of the mafia in Sicily in the mid-19th century, a new book by Mark Galeotti suggests that professional criminals were an important component of Russian society as much as a century before that. Like the Sicilian mafia, they developed customs and rituals, codes of conduct, and even their own language and song.

The Russian criminal world, and the vory who presided over it, endured despite concerted efforts by the authoritarian tsarist state to wipe out the bandits. With these failures, professional criminals became entrenched in Russian life and society. As Galeotti points out, Joseph Stalin worked closely with professional criminals, both as a bank robber and a pirate, in the Caucasus region in the early 20th century — the final years of the Russian Empire. But Stalin was careful to cover up this past by physically eliminating his previous criminal associates. Notwithstanding the execution of Stalin’s fellow bandits, Russia’s professional criminals largely survived the Soviet revolution. Subsequently, however, many were rounded up and placed in labor camps, where many of them preyed on the political prisoners with whom they were often confined. Galeotti draws on the memoirs of survivors of long-term incarcerations, such as Varlam Shalamov, a great raconteur of the labor camp environment, who wrote after his release, “the criminals were not human.”

During the Soviet era, true vory refused to cooperate with the state, ensuring that their children did not attend school or serve in the military. But as Galeotti explains, the political calculus of the criminal world changed in the final days of the Soviet Union, setting organized criminals on a trajectory that would lead them to assume political influence and wealth at the end of the Soviet period and in the tumultuous transitional period that followed. The Vory provides a fine framework to understand the strong links between crime and politics that characterized the end of the Soviet era.

The book’s excellent historical analysis shines a light on Russian organized crime at the organizational and tactical level. It doesn’t tackle more contemporary strands of organized crime, such as the real-estate dealings linked to President Donald Trump or the links between Russian organized crime and the heights of Russian oligarchical power. However, the book effectively analyzes the vory in the protection business and the emerging economy of the early post-Soviet era, when state property was privatized. In this way, Galeotti lays the basis for understanding the shifting relationship between crime and politics in contemporary Russia, where wealth and power are highly concentrated around President Vladimir Putin and his inner circle.

The links between Russian state power and organized crime persist today, impacting global economics and politics. Galeotti does not trace these relationships to the highest levels of American power.  Two recent books by Seth Hettena and Craig Unger, on the other hand, explore in detail Trump’s ties with Russian professional criminals who have laundered their money into his properties and even conducted a high-level gambling operation out of Trump Tower. Between the two, Hettena more clearly documents these relationships and explores their important implications for democracy. Still, both books provide a useful supplement to Galeotti’s work, in many ways picking up where he leaves off to examine the more contemporary and transnational reverberations of modern Russian organized crime.

In his chapter “New Times, New Vory,” Galeotti takes us through the dramatic transformation of Russian organized crime after the collapse of the Soviet Union. After the regime’s demise, many new states emerged, but the crime links of the Soviet period continued. Organized criminals were key actors in the waning years of Soviet power, and they emerged with great visibility and potency after the old government had fallen. Soviet authorities had stamped out private enterprise, but the entrepreneurial character of many vory, combined with their willingness to use extraordinary violence, positioned them to assume a vital economic role in the early post-Soviet period — what Galeotti calls a “gangsterisation of business.” The criminal world benefited greatly from the privatization of state property, and organized criminals became arbiters of disputes in the absence of a functioning state.

The Vory accurately explains that post-Soviet organized crime was not based on the more common forms of transnational crime, but rather was much more a product of the privatization of former state property. Furthermore, these criminals were key sellers of security and protection services. But the purchase of these services was far from voluntary, as those who refused to pay for this “protection” found themselves driven out of business or exposed to brute and sometimes terrifying force.

However, as the Russian state began to reassert its authority under Putin, members of organized crime became less important than the oligarchs whom they had helped ascend to wealth and power. Today, Putin controls the oligarchs, and together they control and exploit the criminal world to their mutual advantage.

Galeotti’s work excels at providing an understanding of Russian criminality at its operational level. It focuses on the different types of personnel represented in the crime groups — the bosses, the lookouts, and the aspirants seeking to share in the excitement and the profit of the criminal world. In contrast to the greyness that characterized Soviet life, the world of the blatnye, as conveyed by Galeotti, was vibrant, not reined in by the constraints that dominated the Soviet era. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the criminal world was so often romanticized in the Russian and Soviet imagination. One need think no farther than the Odessa Tales of the great author Isaak Babel, who, as Galeotti recalls, brought to life the crime-dominated Moldavanka neighborhood in the colorful port city on the Black Sea.

A particular strength of the book is Galeotti’s ability to analyze the dynamics of the diverse criminal gangs that comprise the thieves’ world in different urban centers — such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Ekaterinburg. Many operated on a smaller scale in numerous other cities across Russia and Ukraine. Ethnic groups, particularly from the Caucasus, were key actors in the professional criminal world of the Soviet and post-Soviet era. The most prominent of these were the Chechens and the Georgians, both overrepresented in the highest ranks of the criminal world and both meriting their own chapter in The Vory.

Galeotti ably describes President Leonid Brezhnev’s son-in-law, “the grossly over-promoted” Yuri Churbanov, Russia’s deputy interior minister, who had strong ties to Central Asian organized crime in Uzbekistan. The Central Asian mafia’s role in the Russian criminal world may seem like an obscure subplot. In fact, it has extraordinary relevance to the contemporary period. Hettena’s book discusses Central Asian crime bosses and their associates that have connections to contemporary American politics. Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov (a.k.a. Taivanchik), the fixer of an Olympics also discussed in Galeotti’s book, was identified as a key criminal behind a large-scale gambling operation in Trump Tower. Both Hettena and Unger describe Tofik Arifov, a Kazakh business partner of Trump in Bayrock, a real-estate development firm, as having many Central Asian organized crime connections.

Several important and distinctive elements of Russian organized crime are curiously absent from the The Vory: human trafficking, corporate raiding, and environmental crime. This is a book that focuses on traditional conceptions of organized crime — focusing neither on its new dimensions nor on its transnational money laundering into real-estate,  elements that both Hettena and Unger document in their books.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian-speaking organized crime developed a market and global distribution system for “natashas,” Slavic women trafficked into prostitution. The growing interest in and awareness of human trafficking resulted from the rapid and precipitous increase in Russian-speaking women forced into prostitution at home and around the world.  Their fate, and the key role that criminal gangs played in this global trade, are almost totally ignored in The Vory, which pays more attention to individual gangs, arms trading, and contract killings. The highly negative impact of Russian organized crime on women is almost entirely absent.

Corporate raiding is a key element of the Russian economy, a significant deterrent to entrepreneurship, and a contributor to capital flight. Galeotti overlooks this phenomenon, even though organized crime has assumed a key role in the violence used to take over desirable properties owned by competitors or individuals with fewer political connections. Hundreds of thousands of Russian businessmen have been victims of corporate raids, and many have turned over their businesses to the predators after they and their families have been threatened or assaulted by organized crime. Others have sought to invest their gains in valuable properties abroad, hence the desire to purchase properties in Trump buildings. In this way, organized crime plays a key role in the consolidation of oligarchical fortunes and the predatory behavior of Putin’s powerful cronies.

Russian organized crime has also profited greatly from the looting of natural resources — fish, timber, and wildlife. This is a particularly important revenue source for organized crime in Siberia and the Far East, though deforestation has also occurred on a massive scale in Karelia and Ukraine, thanks to the collusion of organized criminals and corrupt government officials. Russian criminals have been key actors in the massive illicit fish trade, establishing important linkages with the professional criminals of Japan, the yakuza, who, like their Russian-speaking counterparts, assume key roles in the ports of their country. These Russian-Japanese crime connections are not limited to fish: The Aum Shinrikyu, a powerful and wealthy Japanese doomsday sect behind the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack, used their links with both corrupt officials and Russian criminals to seek nuclear materials for other acts of terrorism.

Cybercrime gets short shrift as well, although Galeotti devotes a few pages to the “Virtual vor.Technology may not be the strong suit of the traditional criminal world, but it is a key element of the next generation of organized crime in Russia, a tale that still needs to be told. This new form of organized crime, like its predecessors, is closely linked to the state and its political interests, as talented cyber-criminals are given an offer they cannot refuse — serve the state or go to jail.

The evolution of Russian organized crime is a fascinating subject. Galeotti’s readable text and careful historical analysis provides a framework for understanding the centrality of the vory to the Russian and Soviet state. However, while professional criminals have maintained their role in Russian life, the nature of that role has shifted, as the once-weak Russian state has grown stronger under Putin. Read the book and you will understand that their endurance is a more serious problem than that posed by Tony Soprano and his family. At the same time, Hettena’s book in particular is important for grasping the global reach and the contemporary political impact of Russian organized crime. In its various iterations over the years, the vory have provided a useful — indeed, crucial — lens through which to understand Russia. Today, that lens is even more important as the economic and political activities of Russian organized criminals reverberate across the globe, especially to London, Spain, and the tangled world of the American president.

Dr. Louise Shelley is the Omer L. and Nancy Hirst Endowed Chair and a University Professor at Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University. She founded and directs the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC). Her most recent books are: Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime and Terrorism (Cambridge University Press, 2014) and Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective (Cambridge 2010). Her latest book, Dark Commerce: How a New Illicit Economy is Threatening our Future (Princeton University Press), was written while an inaugural Andrew Carnegie fellow.

Image: Daniel Beilinson