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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Roots of Russia's Mafia

First of two parts.

It is always a treat to talk to my Western journalist colleagues about the Russian mafia. They start drawing little squares, with connecting lines between them. "This is the 'Big Boss', this is the 'boss', and this is the 'captain'". Looking at this vertical diagram from the bottom up I ask in surprise: "What are you talking about? The Communist Party? "

Or they ask: "Is there a mafia head who rules from Vladivostok to Brest? " Glancing at the map on the wall, remembering the last time I had to fly on three separate airplanes to get from Moscow to Kamchatka, I answer carelessly: "You can't even always make a telephone call from Moscow to Kaluga. How could one person rule the mafia in this country? "

Of course I am joking. Or almost. Many of my foreign colleagues know quite a bit about the Russian mafia. But they are the ones who know our history, who have lived here for a long time and understand that the differences in our political systems are not, just something politicians dreamed up in their spare time.

About seven years ago I published an article in Literaturnaya Gazeta with Alexander Gurov, at that time an almost unknown employee in a militia institute, who then became the head of the Interior Ministry department charged with fighting the mafia. Our article, which introduced the concept of "mafia" into the virginal picture of Soviet propaganda, provoked a flood of letters to the editor. The idea of the mafia had been around for a long time, and, as if light had been turned on after a period of darkness, people started seeing it everywhere.

"The director of our institute is the mafia". "The local police are all mafia". "Everyone who lives in the next building is in the mafia" -- these were the kinds of letters we were getting then.

I just could not understand. It was impossible that thousands of people had gone out of their minds over an article in the newspaper.

The reason finally dawned on me, after a chance encounter at Domodedovo airport. My plane had been delayed. I was wandering around, feeling that someone was watching me. I went out onto the street, and a man followed. "I recognize you from television", he stammered. "You are not looking in the right places. The mafia is in the raikomy (local Party committees). and the heads are in the Kremlin".

I finally understood why so many letters had been addressed to our editorial offices. It wasn't that people were imagining the mafia everywhere. They just didn't know what else to call what they were seeing around them: a harsh system that crushed human feelings, in which you could not dispose of your property as you wished, or have control over your choice of lifestyle, or even over your own thoughts, and in which injustice had become the norm. Just like in those Italian films where the laws of the criminal family superceded human laws.

It was a criminal gang that seized power in 1917, and then perfected the system. Who could imagine a better "godfather" than Stalin, who bound his cohorts to him with blood? and wasn't the NKVD a band of gangsters, causing terror in the whole country, like bandits somewhere in Palermo?

Specialists date the appearance of the first organized criminal clans from the end of the 1960s, when, in the wake of Khrushchev's thaw, the fingers of the system unclenched just a bit, when bureaucrats became a bit braver, convinced that the Big Boss would not return.

That is when that three-tiered edifice known as our own Russian mafia began to take shape. The second tier was filled with the underground businessmen who wanted to make money. On the third level were the gangsters who ran the rackets. But the first floor was reserved for the bureaucrats. The underground "businessmen" had to spend two-thirds of their income to pay off the bureaucrats, who were protected by the system.

The dawn of a new age, the collapse of the old system, of course, changed all of that.

Things are different now than they were a few years ago. Now we have more knowledge, more experience, and we live in a different country. But have the players really changed?

Yury Shchekochikhin is head of the investigation department at Literaturnaya Gazeta.