- There has always been organized crime in Russia. In the last days of the tsars, criminal gangs flourished. In the first days of the 1917 Revolution, many of their members joined the Red Guards and the Cheka. After the civil war, they were dismissed or executed. Joseph Stalin’s efforts to break the back of organized crime failed. Even in the gulag, the gang leaders maintained their organizations. Known as vory v zakone (those who live under thieves’ law), they flourished in the Stalinist camps and built organizations that survive today.In the 1930s, criminals controlled the forced labor camps. Most of the politicals were no match for the underworld and suffered terribly at the hands of the criminals. Things changed with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of new prisoners from the Baltic states and the Ukraine in 1945–1946. In the late 1940s, gang war in the camps broke out between the vory (thieves) and political prisoners. Known as the “Bitches’War,” the battle left hundreds dead, as political prisoners, many fresh from the front, fought back and killed thieves they believed to be informers.In the 1960s, organized economic crime made a major comeback in the Caucasian republics, Central Asia, and the European republics. Nikita Khrushchev tried to crush the new economic criminal: the death penalty was liberally used against economic criminals, and the KGB received the mission of investigating “especially dangerous economic crimes.” Crime continued to flourish: the new criminals could provide the “deficit goods” the market failed to produce. By the 1980s, most Soviet citizens lived na levo—literally on the left— relying on the criminal sector for everything from certain foods and medicines to building supplies and theater tickets. By the 1980s, the vory v zakone had begun to establish an alliance with party bosses. Efforts by KGB Chair Yuri Andropov to disrupt this alliance failed. The execution of the manager of Moscow’s best-known food store in 1984 did nothing to slow the corruption of the system.Russian crime was the element in Soviet society best prepared to take advantage of the collapse of the system. With alliances with party bosses, the police, and even the KGB, crime bosses could legitimatize themselves as business people with the power to move money and to kill. In the 1990s, Russian organized crime went international, and Russian criminals were arrested in Miami, New York, Paris, London, and Brussels. In the United States, Russian organized crime has been engaged in a number of white-collar criminal scams. Crime was one of the communist system’s heritages. In creating a system that was both brutal and massively incompetent, the citizens found a need for suppliers of deficit items, just as Americans of the 1920s found a need for rum runners and bootleggers. The problem for fledgling Russian democracy is that organized crime is now deeply entrenched in the system.
Historical dictionary of Russian and Soviet Intelligence. Robert W. Pringle. 2014.
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