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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mob: A Merchant's Best Buy

A woman I know called Susanna has just lost her store. She used to have a deli in north Moscow and she was doing very well. Her protection was efficient, pleasant and not greedy -- they only took 10 or 15 percent of her proceeds. She could buy nice clothes and take the occasional trip abroad. But then, not long ago, she had a crisis. Another gang had decided that they needed a retail outlet, and their eyes fixed on Susanna's little deli. There were threats. An attack was made. She called in her krysha -- her protection boss -- who had always proved so reliable in the past in matters of blackmail by rival rackets and what she calls "difficult" payments. The boss's gryadka, or soldiers, were put on full alert. This, though, was one crisis that would not go away. Susanna went through the usual procedure of giving the newcomers the telephone number of her krysha. In the past this had been enough. She was not exactly clear what had gone on after this information had changed hands. But she speculated that there had been a strelka -- a cross between a summit meeting and a shoot-out -- between the rival businessmen, at which everything had been ironed out satisfactorily. She was, as I said, very pleased with her protection boss. He was better than the state at solving her problems. And he clearly had authority in the city's criminal hierarchy. Unfortunately, this time something went wrong. She assumed that her protection boss had turned up for the strelka, because the no-show side at the showdown is the automatic loser. It is declared "illegal" and either demoted in rank or else put out of business. But whatever happened at the strelka this time did not do Susanna much good. Her krysha was somewhat crestfallen when he told her, but she would have to get out. "He'd lost," she said -- and this was a disaster. For more or less everything Susanna owned had been invested in the store, in stock, display cases and refrigeration equipment. She knew that there was little point in arguing the outcome of the meeting, but perhaps, she said to her krysha, the new owners would allow her to take out some of her assets when she went. At this point there was a pause. What happened now, Susanna knew as she waited, would depend on how much authority her krysha still commanded. It was possible that the two bosses and their gryadki had other matters to settle -- quite apart from the fate of her store -- and that her request had become part of some larger settlement. It was possible, too, that it would have to referred to the so-called "thieves-in-law's council" which was said to sort out problems of turf and competition in the city whenever it met. Whatever happened, though, in the end the news, when it finally came back, was good. Susanna, she was told, was allowed to take out of the store most of her equipment. So her forced eviction only cost her a few million rubles. And her krysha, who had obviously not lost all of his authority, despite the setback, was soon able to find her another outlet a bit further down the street. She has now moved and says business is, if anything, slightly better than it was before. There is, however, one difference from the old dispensation. For though Susanna remains -- and is quite pleased with -- her krysha, she is no longer taking any chances. Her prices have gone up. She's hedging against the day when the same thing happens again, and she finally has to get out of her shop, the neighborhood, perhaps even Moscow. The case of Susanna is not an isolated one. In fact, it is the norm. It does not cost much to put together a gryadka -- they say that between 10 and 20 million rubles ($5-10,000) will do the trick. And there are gryadki all over the city: some measured and reliable, like those of Susanna's krysha; others young, ambitious and gun-happy, with nothing to lose. The big company bosses have their own such soldiers in the form of company security departments. And even foreign businessmen have similar protection by other means, with bodyguards from agencies like Alex and Alpha Limited. It all makes for -- to say the least -- a volatile situation. It also makes life in the city even more expensive than it would otherwise be. For 20 percent of the price of virtually everything we buy goes somewhere else than merely to wholesale cost, overhead, staff payments and routine retail mark-up and so on. When you buy a kilo of salami or sausages, try putting aside 150 grams for your krysha and another 100 grams for your retirement fund. Susanna -- and everybody like her, everybody you face across a counter -- does.