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The Sexy Russian Mafia

by Lydia S. Rosner


This article deals with the perceptions inherent in that phenomenon called the Russian Mafia. It examines a theoretical problem which lies at the juncture of criminology, sociology of knowledge, and cultural or cross-cultural studies, and asks whether significances other than those apparent on the surface govern perceptions as they concern organized crime and immigrant illegality. It describes the fascination of the American press with all newly-emerging criminal enterprises and asks several functionalist questions concerning the possible ramifications of this interest.

Sociologists think of society as denoting a large complex of human relationships, or to put it in more technical language, as referring to a system of interaction. Garfinkel emphasizes that in order to understand behavior, we must train ourselves to see beyond the expected and to resist normalizing behavior or seeing it as rule-governed just because our common sense tells us that it must be so. Further, Garfinkel, in his studies of assumptions and ordinary behavior, cautions that the researcher must look beyond the obviousness of specific viewable circumstances and instead study why specific circumstances occur.

In a study of clinic records, Garfinkel attempted to categorize the collected data. He discovered that a large proportion of the records was incomplete. In the course of his research, he noted that records are given the property of completeness. This expectation of completeness creates the perception that lines and items not filled out on clinic records somehow hampered their analysis. After examining large numbers of clinic records, Garfinkel concluded that in fact clinic records have the property of incompleteness. In fact, when examining clinic folder documents, it became apparent to him that a "prominent and consistent feature" of the records is their poor record-keeping quality. However, it was the reason for such "poor" records which interested him. He concluded that the reason for incomplete or "poor" record keeping was to further the unstated goals of the organization keeping the records, in this case a psychiatric clinic. And not "putting everything down" allowed the various personnel who dealt with the records to use them in different fashions, thus furthering the particular tasks of the various departments within the clinic. Garfinkle's study demonstrated that records have properties beyond those initially imagined, in this case that of recording specific visits to the clinic by various patients.

The crime perception phenomena

As a sociologist, I've begun to examine a theoretical problem which lies at the juncture of criminology, sociology of knowledge, and cultural or cross cultural studies. As with Garfinkel's study, it is worth examining whether significances other than those apparent on the surface govern our perceptions as they concern organized crime, international cartels and immigrant illegality. What I attempt here is to summarize a fifteen-year process and to examine honestly, and without adapting or normalizing the dissemination into the American public consciousness of that phenomenon called the Russian Mafia.

A parallel academic creation of conceptual images existed during the height of the 1950 New York gang explosion that prompted the creation of the Youth Board. Youth Board workers had as their primary responsibility the alleviation of gang violence. This was to be achieved by diverting fighting gangs from their turf during periods of scheduled violence. To accomplish this, Youth Board workers infiltrated the gangs through a variety of methods in order to achieve sufficient rapport with the gang leadership to enable the workers to seduce the gang to leave their own turf rather than to succumb to scheduled violence. This was accomplished by taking the gang "downtown" to movies or other activities that were not part of their life style. Quite often, gang members accepted this seduction as a way of "saving face."

The Youth Board workers became America's experts on youth gangs. They described their gangs to the press, to various funding agencies, and to others whose access to these delinquent youths was limited. During this period, the press, in love with gang stories, prominently featured interviews with gang members who boasted of vast numbers of affiliated youths, a phantom membership reported as accurate because the working press normalized their interview reports. Youth Board workers memorialized various roles of gang leadership, presidents, ministers of war, when in fact they observed gang life through a middle-class-college, educated lens. They, too, normalized the gang into a somewhat abhorrent fraternity, with structured leadership, a clearly defined hierarchy of roles, and a task-oriented and goal-oriented table of organization rather than the pick up-whoever-is-around-structure subsequently defined by Yablonsky as the near group.

Garfinkel would point out that the gang was much more tidy as a group and thus was normalized to fit into the accepted definition of such. The press and the public, the workers and the young gang members themselves found it more convenient to create a rule-governed system, operating on the assumption that if the gang needs definition, the closest definition to reality will suffice. Common sense understandings allow the actor to substitute the understandable when insufficient information is available for other definitions.

Is there a Russian Mafia?

Before returning to the subject of the Russian Mafia I will review some history and then take a chronological look at crime phenomena. By 1984 there were 30,000 new Russian immigrants living in the Brighton Beach area of New York, part of a total population of 75,000 in the United States. In The Soviet Way of Crime (Rosner, 1986) I detailed how this population arrived on these shores schooled in crime, an essential ingredient of the way of life of virtually all Soviet citizens. In the former Soviet Union, personal wealth, privilege, dachas, and diamonds rested on control of goods and services illegally diverted from the State and exchanged for other illegally-diverted goods and services in vast and complex patterns of bribery, corruption and blackmail. Immigrants came to America well schooled in bureaucratic circumvention and in the ability to adapt governmental services for private gain.

Unlike previous immigrations, primarily agrarian in nature, this migration was industrial and technological. These new immigrants came with translatable skills. Even without knowledge of the English language, they were employable. A painter could paint, and sheet metal workers and tool and die makers brought needed skills to the American labor market. This was not the marginal migration depicted in the literature of crime and migration, whose members were depicted as using crime as a way to move "up the ladder" because they had no other way of gaining access to the system.

The immigration from the Soviet Union brought to America's shores many people for whom crime was but ordinary behavior. There, the closer one was to actual product control the more there was to steal. Whereas a doctor could receive "gifts" for quicker appointment privileges, a painter could water down his paint and take some home to sell to friends. A director of a car factory was able to sell preferences to those who were willing to pay for the limited number of cars produced. Control of the rationed gasoline supplies and distribution to favored drivers provided an even better income. Socialized in a milieu where one chose hunger as an alternative to necessary criminality, Soviet migrants came with specific understandings about such behavior.

Émigrés to Brighton Beach brought with them the social and psychological patterns of behavior and expectations learned in their crime-ridden society. They acted out their homeland psychology through behavior that was gratuitous to Brighton Beach. Schooled in bureaucratic circumvention, these urbanites brought sophisticated skills of system beating with them. Some, because of the availability of goods and services in their host country dropped the behavior of their youth. Others, who in their homeland connived to find scarce items by pilferage or payoff had no labor market specialty to sell. They were called the shabaskniki. (The term comes from the work shabashnichestvo, meaning "self-employed."). They were hard working and provided services as needed. Those who looked upon their activities with disfavor also called them the Mafia.

My early research (1976 through 1980) into the activities of émigrés prior to their departure indicated that there were two types of criminals in the former USSR. One group of criminals was the Survivors. This group manipulated the system in order to feed themselves, to clothe their children and to survive the non-productive, total institution that was the Soviet Union. The second group, the Connivers, operated completely outside the system, creating networks which stole and delivered goods and services to party faithful and to commissars and deputies upon demand. This second group, using private enforcement methods and prison contacts, was the Connivers.

In 1986 I published the results of my study of Soviet crime and its transference to America. In addition to my book, a variety of articles depicting Soviet crime in America began to appear in the urban daily press. Mike Mallow, in The Philadelphia Inquirer, sparked further interest in the new phenomena of Soviet crime by a sensational article about a criminal network that he christened the "molina" (the Russian word for both an olive and a not-too-flattering hand gesture), and a variety of police departments began to examine Soviet crime. The New York Police Department assigned a team of detectives to man a Russian desk as part of their Organized Crime Task Force. Thus was the Russian Mafia added to the legends and literature of crime in America.

Daniel Bell described crime as a Coney Island mirror caricaturing the morals and manners of American society. He was describing that dark side of business which provides illicit, illegal goods in a carbon copy of American legal business enterprises. Consumer demand, product distribution, payment and accounting services, and profit redemption are all parallel to those in the legitimate business sector. He recognized that Americans have always found crime "sexy." From Jesse James to Joey Bottufuco, America and the American press have been fascinated by crime and criminals. Thus, word that there was the Russian Mafia provided the press with a new criminal enterprise to discover, elaborate on and sensationalize.

Information dissemination

After publication of my research, I was a featured speaker at conferences about Russian crime, both in this country and in Russia. Even literary groups such as an organization of mystery writers wanted background for their novels about this new crime phenomena. The press, interested in any new immigrant neighborhood, described Brighton Beach as a little piece of Russia, with restaurants and stores unlike any other in America. They looked to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles in order to discover whether criminal enterprises organized by Russian émigrés existed there as well.

By this point, the New York City Police Department had disbanded its Russian desk at the Vesey Street headquarters of their Organized Crime Unit. They felt that there was no significant interest in Russian Organized Crime. A detective who had manned this desk, and who was probably the most knowledgeable person in law enforcement on the subject of Russian Crime, left the department. There was no question in his mind that there was connected crime within the Russian community. He knew of contacts made by Brighton Beach Russians with other émigrés from the former Soviet Union. But it was still questionable as to whether these activities followed the classic organized crime model, or whether this was a network of criminals using prior contacts and imported skills to conduct illegal business.

The press merry-go-round

The press maintained that there was indeed a "Mafia." A count of press phone calls to my office during 1989 alone indicated that over fifteen reporters from a variety of national and international newspapers and press agencies were doing stories on this new Mafia threat. Articles began to appear in The New York Times, The Nation, Vanity Fair and even The Institutional Investor. Christine Bohlen, on her way to her assignment covering life in Russia, visited my office. Nathan Adams arrived with a former military man in tow, a man who had been the pilot for Brezhnev during his United States visits, to debrief me about my knowledge of these crime phenomena. He later wrote a long polemic article on Russian crime for The Readers Digest that was fortunately later reduced to a few short pages. Reporters from Japan, Holland, several from the United Kingdom, France, and Italy called to ask for background information for stories they were writing for their home newspapers. In 1990, when I began charting the amount of calls received about Russian Mafia crime, I counted approximately twenty-five, some from the working press, others on assignment from the Columbia School of Journalism. Nineteen ninety-one brought thirty-five and over thirty again in 1992.

The networks also came to my door. "Expose" presented a half-hour program on a major gas scam, a solid investigative piece of journalism about a group of connected criminals. ABC took me through the jewelry district in an attempt to identify illegalities, and NBC and CBS all contacted me at one point or another. Even the FBI called requesting information. Certain names kept appearing. Certain individuals, who were running major criminal enterprises were identified; Agron and Belogusa were among them.

In 1992 Craig Copetas published Bear Hunting with the Politburo, a well-documented book describing crime as an indigenous factor of life both in the old Soviet State and its new free market economic clone. When he contacted me for background information for his two-part weekend series about specific people and specific criminal enterprises within the US Russian community, we discovered that we were both party to the chain of contacts. Round and round they went. The same reporters, speaking to the same sources, validated the other's conceptual framework of Russian crime and its "Mafia" connections.

Happenings in the CIS

Prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union, private entrepreneurship was illegal. People were sent to prison for what were, and still are, called economic crimes. Due to absolute State ownership of all available goods and services, there was no legitimate open economy in the U.S.S.R. All private enterprise began with the theft of State goods. This was because all goods were State-owned, and the only way to acquire scarce consumer items was to either pilfer them from the source of production or to steal them from the point of distribution.

Shortages created a black market in all goods and services. Thus a State employee (and all were employees of the State) could find work doing private repair jobs for those who could pay him with meat or clothing stolen from their jobs. The employee obtained his supplies from a network of friends whose favors he rewarded with favors of his own. A cement truck driver would exchange some cement, delivered to a private, non-State illicit job for some coats for his children, stolen from a coat factory. A clerk in an automobile licensing agency would barter a driver's license for scarce gasoline for his own use or sale.

Thousands of people got rich at the expense of the central U.S.S.R. budget. Reinforcing the alienation from the central government were the totally corrupt national organizations in the republics. These organizations, which dealt with the central Soviet Government, developed a system in which they were able to expand power politically and economically. People in charge stayed in charge through a combination of power, employment of private procurers for all sorts of goods and services, and acceptance of a totally corrupt system that rewarded this corruption.

Since the ability to gain personal wealth, privilege, dachas and diamonds rested on the control of goods and services that were illegally diverted from the state in exchange for other illegally diverted goods and services, a vast and complex pattern of bribery and corruption existed. Crime was so great that entirely illegal private industries were created outside the system. As with all illegal enterprise, coercion and violence were part of the cost of doing business. This vast network of industries and distributorships resembled those of the capitalist world in everything except their legality, their supply channels and their efficiency. Since the members of the ruling elite were often put in a position of playing hand-in-hand with underground businessmen, they were unable to resist corrupt pressure. Underground millionaires always existed. In Georgia, one such "businessman" was able to get himself appointed as Minster of Light Industry. This millionaire was in the fabric business. His desire to top his career with a public post was aided by the fact that he bribed public figures in the daily operation of his business and thus was able to use blackmail in pressing for his desires. Today these illegal businessmen are part of the newly-rich entrepreneurial class.

This pattern of illegal behavior in a society that did not acknowledge ordinary business was not confined to the elite. At every level, those who could steal or divert official supplies did so. It is hardly surprising then, that with movement toward a market economy, everyone who had watched or been part of the corruption joined in. Believing that the move toward a cooperative movement was legitimate, young entrepreneurs, usually those under the age of 40, tried their hand at "business." At first the old-line Communist bureaucrats did not believe that these entrepreneurs would be successful. Unable to relinquish both ideology and control, the party faithful ignored the moves toward private enterprise and called them black market or illegal. When they finally understood that change was successfully occurring, they tried to regain control. A tug of war ensued between new, young entrepreneurs, who believed that they could become "businessmen," and the old-line Communist bureaucrats and managers of state-operated industries, who had never had to work for their perks.

This fight for control of scarce resources and even scarcer manufacturing capabilities between those who were in power and those former procurers for government officials who were always engaged in thievery and its violent enforcement is what we are now watching. The old-line bureaucrats never believed that capitalism of any sort could be successful in their world. They initially licensed businesses and permitted small enterprises to function. Later they watched the confusion in the market. Often supplies were unavailable because the hobbled and inefficient distribution channels of the prior system were catering to both private and public enterprises. For example, a privately licensed coat manufacturer was unable to get thread from a publicly held thread mill. Such upheavals are still part of the fact of Russian business.

Russian enforcement agencies, not understanding the difference between entrepreneurship and crime, arrested and imprisoned entrepreneurs for a variety of "crimes." When they discovered that the business system was profitable, they pushed out the struggling young entrepreneurs and took over. Managers entrenched in the Soviet system became "owners." Caretakers acquired their public agencies. Police officials turned to private security. The young entrepreneurs who believed that change had come about were displaced when their success was evident. Everything from nuclear materials to military belt buckles is now for sale. Privatization, although ramshackle, is the ultimate shake-out of this bureaucratically corrupt system.

In the past, attempts to control the kind of behavior now labeled Mafia failed. In large part this was because the very institutions presumed to be upholding the system were engaged in, or had a large percentage of its members engaged in, the very violations they were publicly trying to eradicate. The enforcers were corrupt and paid of to remain so. Force, extortion, imprisonment and banishment were all methods used by poorly-equipped agents of the law enforcement establishment as a way to keep those outside the political chain from participating too largely in the spoils. "Crime" was used as a subjective description indicative of power positions.

Since the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., a society brought up to think that private enterprise was somehow beyond the pale, is trying to adjust to private enterprise. In 1993 the very same Moscow police chief who filled prisons with economic criminals, even after the breakup of the Soviet Union, started his own security business-this while the trials of those he imprisoned had not yet been held.

What is crime and what is free enterprise?

It is thus important to understand the following two points: One, in a bureaucratic society with market shortages, everything has its price. And two, only those who had previously been involved in supposed criminality, both the Survivors for whom beating the system was a way of life and the Connivers, economic criminals known as the Mafia, know anything about business in a country where making money was contrary to Communist ideology. Contract law is in its infancy, and legal recourse for contract violation is non-existent. Thus, since business was considered illegal, we find that as with any corrupt enterprise, enforcement is provided by hired strong men who operate to enforce what a limited and unclear legal system cannot.

Politically-motivated Russians have always labeled some people as Mafia connected. Now both the corrupt former officials engaged in illicit enterprises and those who are participating in the beginnings of a free enterprise structure are labeled Mafia members. Hoarding of goods, distribution of scarce consumer items in exchange for hard currency, movement of scarce items from one republic to another, or selling of privately-acquired imported items on the street, all come under their classification of Mafia activity. Anyone with a Western automobile or the ability to travel internationally also might be called Mafia by a jealous and increasingly-poor pensioned population.

Crime statistics cited by the Interior Ministry, (i.e., KGB) and local police departments throughout the former Soviet Union are inaccurate in a country without computers and with minimum reporting capabilities. Neither a standardized body of laws nor a reporting structure such as the Uniform Crime Reports accurately details criminal activity. Additionally, in the CIS, the very instability of authority structures fosters constant redefinition of what is and what is not criminal. How else can the imprisonment of over tens of thousands of entrepreneurs be explained?

Why is the Russian Mafia sexy?

Accepting the fact that there was a corrupt society in place in the former Soviet Union, and that there are criminals among the immigrant population from there, two questions must be answered in order to understand the phenomenon of interest in the Russian Mafia, as imagined and described. First, is there a function to the Mafia image in the former Soviet Union? And second, is there a function of the Russian Mafia image in this country?

In answer to the first question, there is indeed a function to the Mafia image in the former Soviet Union. The function of defining newly-permitted business activities in the former Soviet Union as Mafia organized crime and lawlessness, while continuing to participate in such activities, determines the social standard of acceptable and unacceptable behavior in a country where beating the system was part of the system. Durkheim stated that the punishment of criminals plays a role in the maintenance of social solidarity and defines boundaries. The criminal, and society's focus on him, sets social guidelines that exert pressures for conformity. For the newly-formed democratic order in the former Soviet Union to begin to examine and set boundaries in a free enterprise system it must define not only legalities in terms of social and business acceptability but also determine who is conducting himself and a business in a socially-acceptable fashion and what is normative behavior.

For over seventy years business was regarded as a Western concept, against the interests of the socialist State. A Soviet businessman had to be doing illegal business and was referred to as being part of the Mafia-a word borrowed from American films. An edict defining the acceptability of free enterprise cannot replace the socialization of three-quarters of a century. Now the term Mafia has became a pejorative term describing anyone making money, having hard currency, or traveling in and out of the country. It serves the purpose of defining the new society's boundaries, however slowly.

In the rapidly-changing social structure of the former Soviet Union, there is still a battle to be played out between the young who desire a business economy with a free enterprise overlay and the old who still maintain their image, enhanced over seventy years, of crime and money as being two faces of the demonic West and part of the corruption of the previously-held ethic.

In answer to the second question, what is the social function of the interest in the Russian Mafia in this country, I suggest that there are many complicated answers. For one, Americans have always been fascinated with crime and criminals. And the Mafia, its godfathers and rituals, have long been myth and reality for the American public. With the fading of the Italian Mafia mythology, the assimilation of the sons and daughters of "made members" into the ranks of lawyers and doctors and stockbrokers, there is a search for a substitute.

The "evil empire" image historically mythologized in novels, movies, and true life spy stories through the decades of the cold war does not die a quiet death with glasnost and peristroika. We have been socialized not to trust the people who swore that they would bury us. We find it sexy to read about immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are involved in criminal activities on a grand scale. Then there is the reality of immigrants from bureaucratically-developed countries expanding their criminal skills by challenging through skillful manipulation the tax structures and other bureaucratic institutions in America.

In this country, scams, forgeries, and other skills acquired under a bureaucratic government flourish as we, too, move to more State-run and organized enterprises. World criminals move freely among venues and take up residences outside the enforcement zones of their activities. They connive to sell the resources of their countries on an open global market. They store their profits in safe havens and create residences far from the criminal enterprise zones. This kind of criminality, previously limited to drug lords and arms dealers, is now available for the price of a discount airline ticket. The global village has legal as well as illegal citizens.

Lastly, the sexy Russian Mafia provides journalists and their readers with a relatively unthreatening, European model of crime-a revisited Marlon Brando world of consigliere, caporegima and soldiers. At least that is the model which is appealingly seductive, although quite inaccurate.

Bell, Daniel. (1953). Crime as an American Way of Life. Antioch Review 13, 131-154.

Copetas, A. D. (1991). Bear Hunting with the Politburo. New York: Simon & Shuster.

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology: Prentice Hall.

Rosner, L. S. (1986). Crime or Free Enterprise. Odessa Law Herald (Ukraine), 3:94 (189), 39-43.

Rosner, L. S. (1986). The Soviet Way of Crime: Bergin & Garvey.

Yablonsky, L. (1966). The Violent Gang. Baltimore: Penguin.

Lydia S. Rosner is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. She has written extensively about Russian migration and Russian crime. Her book, The Soviet Way of Crime, was published in 1986 by Bergin and Garvey.

Lydia S. Rosner
John Jay College
445 West 59 Street
New York, New York 10019

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