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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Pipe Dream of 'Mob' Rule

Stop the presses. After a policeman was killed in a shoot-out last Thursday, two smartly dressed members of Moscow's Long Ponds gang gave themselves up at Ulitsa Petrovka police headquarters the following day. Newspaper reports announced that they wept as they apologized for their mistake.

On Saturday -- the following day -- yet another member of the Long Ponds fraternity showed up at Ulitsa Petrovka to turn himself in. He confessed to having killed a member of the rival Solntsevo gang, and having set off the vendetta that resulted in the policeman's death. (He'd been mistaken for a Solntsevo member, while watching Long Pond headquarters). In a statement made the same day, the gang's leaders announced that they'd expelled a dozen other members involved in the killing.

It was yet another example of the extraordinary cooperation which has developed recently between the Moscow police and the various gang mafias. Prostitution, gambling and low-level extortion seem now to be within what might be called "the limits of tolerance." Murder, however, especially of a policeman, is out. It isn't part of the secret arrangement.

If only, if only ... For none of this happened, of course -- at least not in Moscow. Instead, it's the way things are ordered in Japan. There, the Yamaguchi-gumi gang -- which was the one which recently surrendered its members to the cops in Kyoto after a policeman was killed -- has 27,000 initiates across the country, as well as a large headquarters in the city of Kobe. It has major investments in gambling and prostitution -- and a nice little line in corporate extortion on the side. It has listed telephone numbers and its own press representative. And after the earthquake in Kobe last year, it got a lot of extremely favorable media coverage by publicly distributing food to the homeless.

This is the way many would like things to be in Moscow. They argue that the Russian "thieves-in-law" are much closer (in spirit and history -- not to mention tattoos) to the Japanese yakuza than they are to any Western mafia; and that they have a similar code of honor (so they would keep their side of any bargain). So the call has gone out from journalists and retired policemen -- even from members of the Duma -- to legitimize them. And moves have been made to open negotiations.

Last year, for example, shortly before a senior mafia chieftain was arrested in New York for conspiracy and extortion, a group of business leaders went to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's office to plead for the chieftain's return. They argued that the number of murders in the city (especially of bankers and businessmen) was unacceptably high. The police were obviously unable to cope. Only the return of someone like Vyacheslav Ivanov, they said, a man with a reputation for both cleverness and brutality -- and otherwise known (appropriately enough) as "the Japanese" -- could possibly hope to solve the situation. Well, the FBI soon put an end to that notion. (Ivanov is still awaiting trial in New York.) But making a deal with Moscow's mobsters remains an extremely popular idea. The problem, of course, is that the people who push it are either (wittingly or unwittingly) promoting what would be in the gangs' own best interests, or else they're simply behind the times.

At the very least, they're woefully ignorant of Japanese history. For the truth is that there's no similarity at all between the yakuza and the "thieves-in-law" (part of whose code is never to cooperate with the authorities); nor is there any between Japan and Russia today. Japan is, for the most part, an ordered and traditional society, and gangs like the Yamaguchi-gumi have had loose contracts with the powers-that-be since the Edo period in the 17th century.

Besides, the more unstable Japan becomes, the less reason there is for the secret agreement with the yakuza to continue even there. Gun trafficking is now rampant in Japan. Guns are in the hands of non-yakuza criminals who are moving into drug dealing and into the areas traditionally under the yakuza's control.

The other thing to be said is that it's now too late here for the making of any deals. The traditional "thieves-in-law" are no longer the power they were in Brezhnev's time; the hoods and hooligans have already taken over. And in any case, the old "thieves-in-law" were never the real mafia. The real mafia was the nomenklatura of the Communist Party, which grew fat on the distribution and manipulation of public money. In the last 4 1/2 years, they've done very nicely out of the theft of the country known as "privatization." And now they're poised to take political power. Their deals, it has to be said, were already in place years ago.