While many refer to Russian organized crime syndicates as mafiya, it is important to understand the differences between them and their Italian counterparts. Russian gangs are not always linked by familial or ethnic ties. Instead, they are often “amorphous gangs that act autonomously or have loose ties to regional, national, or international networks. The decentralized structure of Russian organized crime makes it difficult for law enforcement to develop strategies to halt criminal behavior.
Russia’s mafiya does have one stable element. All organized criminal gangs are led by “thieves-in-law.” Thieves-in-law can be traced back to the pre-revolutionary thieves’ guilds whose code ordered members not to cooperate with authorities and to the criminal gangs emerging from Soviet gulags. Russian criminals organized under the thieves-in-law settle disputes within their own ranks, without the law, which contributes to the rise in assaults and murders in Russia.
Organized crime is involved in every Russian business sector. Criminal control of the country’s economy was established during privatization. Russia’s godfathers gathered just before privatization and divided the country into spheres of influence and began bidding for businesses in privatization auctions. A World Bank analyst explains:
Russia's criminals secured a massive transfer of state property because the privatization occurred rapidly, on a huge scale, without legal safeguards, and without transparency. Using financial and political influence, Russian organized crime gained control of over 40% of the total economy. In consumer markets, real estate and banking, the mafiya has even more control
Organized crime controls smuggling, prostitution, the drug trade, protection rackets and murder for hire. The mafiya’s increased role in the drug trade after transition is easily explained. Hashish, cannabis and poppies grow naturally in the former Soviet states. The mafiya suddenly began taking advantage of the heroin addicts returning from Afghanistan and flourishing under Russia’s political and social instability. Alexander Sergeev, the Interior’s anti-narcotics unit’s head, reports that the Russian mafiya has been trafficking narcotics with Western organized crime groups for nearly fifteen years. Since transition, the mafiya has expanded its drug activities to include manufacturing designer drugs like the highly addictive “Krokodil” and “Chert”.
It is evident that organized crime is responsible for large-scale capital flight and the undermining of Russia’s democratic consolidation. With such eye-opening consequences, why has Russia’s government and law enforcement been ineffective in loosening organized crime’s hold on the country?
The answer lies in the nature of the Russian Mafiya’s structure and the limitations of the government infrastructure. Russia’s legal system was left in shambles after the fall of the Soviet Union, and few changes have been made to prepare it for battle against organized crime. To compound matters, criminal groups have been filled with professionals seeking the higher financial gains of criminal activity. Finally, the mafiya is exerting influence on the political system through violence, corruption and infiltration.