From blue-tattooed psychopaths to “businessmen” with a twist, Russia’s vory developed a code all their own – if you can call it that. Mark Galeotti takes us through the history of Russia’s mafia and how that history helped to shape Vladimir Putin’s state. For a more detailed look, check out his book “The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia.”
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Hello and welcome to war college. I’m Jason Fields and I’m Matthew Gault who runs Russia. Is it Vladimir Putin’s government. Is it the oligarchs. Is it the FSB. Is it the criminal gangs. Well what if the answer is yes friend of the show. Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague. He’s a Russia expert and he’s here to talk with us today about his new book The Story Russia’s super mafia explores Russia’s rich criminal traditions and they are rich. Mark thanks so much for joining us. Always a pleasure. So let’s just start off with what is the very short answer is the very it simply means the thieves in Russian is the names of the overall portmanteau name for the kind of professional criminal subculture that emerged particularly in the 20th century and still survives today. But in rather different form but essentially in a way these are these are the tattoo’d hard men we know and love from film and TV people who had actually sort of moved into a kind of professional existence as criminals but also had made a cultural choice. These were Welsh Hosain were also made men of the Russian underworld.
[00:02:09] The people who really had submerged themselves in the realms of organised crime so systematized as it are the rules the code of ethics kind of thing. Yeah I mean what what it was is and again this has changed in the heyday in the Vallie were very much marked by a kind of code of ethics. I mean a singularly unpleasant one at that. That you you absolutely always had to follow through on promises made to other Vaudrey. You boys had to make good on debts to other Avari but basically everyone outside that realm was considered to be to be nothing. They were just prey. And it’s interesting actually that in in the language there’s a jargon of the Vaudrey the Russian word Udy people is only used for other Vaudrey. So in other words if you’re not a criminal you’re not even a person. And then also this is situation what I mention the tattoos. This is a subculture that was very much also determined by this this visual visual language of tattoos and the phenomenally intricate often encoding on the body of their their preferences where they’ve been to prison what crimes they committed what their attitudes were. And this is something that really came out of in the late 19th century the so-called Voskuhl you mean the thieves world which is this criminal cult that had emerged really in the slums of rapidly emerging and industrializing urban Czarist Russia. And they actively sought to turn their back on mainstream society.
[00:03:55] I mean one of the reasons why if you compare it to say the Japanese Yakuza that have their own sort of tattoo language but they’re always on the body and on the upper arms so that basically you can wear a shirt or even a tennis shirt and conceal the fact that you’re a Yakuza the vault tattoos were very very clearly meant to be visible. You know you said sometimes that extraordinary things like a tattooing barbed wire across the full head or different sort of tattoos on the hands and on the knuckles. And in part that’s because that’s your kind of criminal resumé but also in part it’s an indelible because this is the age before laser removal an indelible mark. But basically I turned my back on mainstream society you know who I am fear me. So this was this very distinct encapsulated society that became vastly more powerful and integrated during the era of Stalinism as we had millions of Soviet citizens being thrown into the labor camps went where they were dominant and over time and then there’s only one can talk about later. They sort of had a split and what became a dominant faction decided that it could at least work with corrupt officials and so forth. But even so there is still this sense that they were and still are to an it to a degree a caste a subculture a society apart from the mainstream that is one of the fascinating things about in your book you talk about the Gulags and how these people the Vodi were brought together and from all over Russia into these camps where they were isolated and distilled and you sort of talk a little bit about the process when that was happening and what you ended up with surely.
[00:05:45] Well I mean what happened was the story had often been inside prisons and prison camps that in fact that was almost a mark of pride. I mean again as I mentioned some of the tattoos would actually say which labour camp or similar you had been to particularly if it was one of the the northern ones which are much more dangerous than they thought was a mark of your hardness to show that you’d been through one but they felt almost like that their real life was when they were behind bars. But then with Stalin and you have literally millions of Soviet citizens being so swept up in this sort of whirlwind of of terror and brutality the overwhelming majority of whom were not criminal in any meaningful sense of the word. They laughed at the wrong joke. They didn’t laugh at the right joke. Someone happened to denounce them just because they have a grudge or just simply there was a need for more slave labourers and secret policemen with quotas just went out and just swept people up. Now what this meant was the Vallie were a minority within the labor camp system and that very much contributed to this sense of a sort of a common identity. And particularly we also think of the Gulag system as somewhere where you’re condemned. You go there you work. You couldn’t have trees digging coal whatever until either you’re freed or you die. Well that’s actually not the way it works. This was a this was a much more dynamic system. Prisoners were constantly being moved around because there was overcrowding at this camp because that camp had just had a cholera epidemic and needed more workers because the coal seam there had been tapped out.
[00:07:24] But there was now the need to mine radium over there for whatever reason people are constantly being moved around within the camp system. And what this means is actually you get is genuinely global within Russian context or Soviet context global criminal identity. It’s not just I’m a thug a gangster from the Moscow region or from your character Amberg or whatever because these people are constantly moved around and therefore you get this homogenization and then the second key factor is Stalin has millions of people behind barbed wire. He wants to use them as in effect slave laborers the most efficiently possible. Now the best way of doing that is not to hire lots and lots of camp guards who need to be paid and everything else but to co-opt people within the prison system. And so what in effect happens is you have a tacit alliance between the Stalinist state and a fraction of the voters who are willing to collaborate. And these become sort of the foreman even the guards. And in due course and sometimes even people running camps for the state in order to keep the political prisoners in line. If you’re going to hire people do you hire the bespectacled 50 year old academic who is in there because he taught the wrong thing at university to be your enforcer. Or do you hire the hard 30 year old career murderer. Probably the latter. So turn away they became the shock troops of Stalinism within the Gulag system and in the process they.
[00:08:55] They broke part of the code of the Vallie which had always said that you could never ever collaborate with the authorities in any way and this is in due course that will lead to violence within the criminal world. But these collaborators which you gain in the charming parlance of war himself were called Sukey bitches would actually become crucial to the whole gulag system. And then when after Stalin’s death gulags were opened up they essentially reshaped the entire Soviet underworld in their image. So you have on the one hand a really coherent criminal culture. But on the other hand one little is already low but in fact there’s real advantages in working with the state and already have their first networks of connections in order to do that on the outside. Are it ever a few questions based on that first. What exactly were those advantages when they were in the Gulag system. What were they getting in return and what did the you guessed that the gang conflict look like. Did the bitch’s go to war with anybody. Well I mean on the first point what do they get. Well a better chance to get out of the Gulag system alive is the first and simplest answer and leave. This is a time in which actually the state was not totally uncaring about the gulag prisoners simply because they were after all raw material in some ways. But nonetheless I mean this is a time in which malnutrition all kinds of other diseases and so forth were rife and therefore just that even just simply getting the fact that you know you will be work less hard or not at all and you will have a better chance of getting food. Could well be the difference between life and death. But more broadly you got that power.
[00:10:41] I mean unfortunately that’s one of the drivers for so many human beings. Even if you’re in a small social world constrained by barbed wire in the Siberian wilderness beyond it nonetheless the chance to be a big man in your small camp should not be underestimated. So they got power they got minor perks and they got survival. Now that the conflict between them and the traditionalist criminals generally known as the Blust me you try not to throw too many Russian terms in didn’t really happen much before the end of the Second World War. There were there were more traditionalists than there were collaborators. And so basically the collaborators preyed on and pushed the ordinary criminals of political prisoners to work. And they as far as possible ignored the traditionalists the traditionalists despised the collaborators. But they knew that if they went after them the state would back them and state had all kinds of nasty ways of killing you if need be. I was reading actually one in which in parts of Siberia where by summer the through the huge clouds of mosquitoes would arise I mean one of the things they could do the guards could do is literally to stake you out. And in the course of a day he would be killed by a mosquito bite anyway. So there’s all kinds of ways in which the state can make sure that you don’t go after its collaborators. However during World War Two a lot of criminals either volunteered or were forced to go and fight in the course of which by basically taking up arms for the state.
[00:12:18] They were considered to be collaborators and so well at the end of the war they were thrown back into the gulags they found themselves being isolated in some ways being forced into the ranks of the collaborators by the traditionalists. You also had the awful spectacle of the fact that Stalin had thought that basically no Soviet soldiers should be willing to let themselves be taken prisoner. And what that meant is you have the ridiculous and horrifying spectacle of many Soviet prisoners of war being freed from the Nazi concentration camps and essentially at gunpoint being loaded onto trains and being driven to Stalinist concentration camps. But again these soldiers because they had fought for the state because they’d worn uniforms were considered by the traditionalists to be outsiders they actually had this strange alliance of collaborators and ex soldiers. And suddenly there were just too many of these collaborators to be ignored. The long vicious cold war broke. And so at the end of World War Two you had the start of this sort of rolling wars within the camps and often that was fought in ones and twos. An individual collaborator has his head beaten in by a shovel an individual traditionalist has three collaborators burst into his cell and hold him down strangle him. But increasingly it becomes something that is larger scale and erupts into central riots and through pogroms within the gulags and the state didn’t modernise the state was worried that it was losing control over the camps. But on the other hand if there is going to be a war it wants the collaborators to win. So it basically put its thumb on the scale. It did what it could to support them.
[00:14:04] So for example you have a lot of collaborators suddenly being given jobs as cooks and barbers inside the gulag. You might think well what about that. Well what that means is they have access to sharp metal things. So all of a sudden they are armed or you have the authorities deliberately sort of basically forming contingents of collaborators sending them all to one particular camp where they basically beat humiliate or kill the traditionalists and then moving them on to the next as a sort of shock forces. So one way or the other you know you have this is extraordinarily vicious individual and collective war being fought within the Gulag system that frankly makes it almost ungovernable and productivity declines dramatically. All right before we move out of the Gulag system and I’ve got a question about a specific Russian term that that comes from a is a little bit to do with the story. So are these things that I’ve always heard and always assumed was was not true. But as we’re hearing we’re talking about it I mean I ask you are you familiar with the Russian term Koruma or like Mankell. Is this a real thing. Can you tell the audience what it means. I suppose the key thing is look we we need to make absolutely sure that we realize that the very was strong and they make great characters to film and TV but their culture was absolutely horrendous. You know it’s hard to think of a group that was more vicious often towards themselves but certainly towards everyone else. And therefore you have a whole series of particular sort of uses of outsiders.
[00:15:55] I mean sometimes what we’re talking about basically rape being a way of both demonstrating your your power over someone else and just sort of you know basically formally breaking people the most I think horrendous one is the notion that this is clearly sort of something that did happen how much it got so embroidered. Sometimes when good I think where it went went when prisoners wanted to escape from the gulags particularly the ones that were way up in the far north or in the deeps of Siberia where in many ways the security was not just the barbed wire around the camp. The real security was the fact that there was nowhere to go and that soon enough you’d have guards with dogs on on your track and no no food no to show find shelter or whatever. So one of the things that was sometimes done is that some Vaudrey would befriend a non for and remember in Vallie culture. Nonvote is not even a person. And say oh we we’re going to escape we can’t go over the wire why don’t you come with us and whatever. Not realizing that his role was essentially to be walking provisions. I mean another word is enough for these people it is massive literally means meat. So the point is that when when the food that they can find steal and scavenge runs out they will just turn kill this person and eat him he said. And it seems hard to credit but nonetheless it clearly did happen and it happened often enough. There was actually a specific term or terms within the gulag vocabulary for these people.
[00:17:38] Again I mean I think illustrates the extent to which this is not only kind of a horrifically violent and vicious subculture but it’s one that really clearly considered outsiders to be of having no rights no value or anything else. So let’s take it out of the Goulard and as it happens what happened once people were being set up once after silane was dead the gulag started to shrink. And how did it how did the very continue to evolve. Well yes you and you have. I mean let’s be honest the gulag shrank not because specifically because Stalin died. No one added any kind of humanitarian impulse but just because it was no longer cost effective. And it’s striking that you met the first person who actually advocated running down the Gulag system was LaBranche Beriah who was Stalin’s last and most unpleasant choices and that’s quite a high bar to vault most unpleasant secret police chief. And again it says something about the Soviet state. In fact they let the professional criminals the murderers the thugs the burglars out first on the whole before they sent out the political prisoners anyway. So what you had is well first of all I mean terrifying experiences for all the towns and cities closest to the gulags that were suddenly being overrun by what they call these blue gangs bloom because they were covered in these guys were covered in tattoos. And for a while you know actually filmed in Siberia you almost had this kind of almost wild west environment prevailing. But that was as largely a temporary sort of the initial flood. What happened was you know the gangsters went out they went back into the underworld. There they encountered off a lot of traditionalists who hadn’t actually experienced the war that had taken place in the Gulags.
[00:19:37] And so you had an in where you have another running little low level civil war taking place within the underworld all across the Soviet Union but in a way the collaborators win they reshaped the code in their interests. They still use the same words they still call themselves Vawter and suchlike. But they have a very different world and they have to adapt to the fact that what you can get away with in gulags you cannot get away with in ordinary society. I mean here the state is powerful vigilant and jealous of its power. The police and the KGB are not going to let you get away with with being the kind of blatant gangster that you could before. And so what happens is that over time and this is something that takes place really throughout through the 60s and the 70s is that they adapt to operating out of sight beneath the surface in some way. At this point you have three main sources of criminality organised criminality within the Soviet Union. You’ve got the Vory the as it were the proper traditional gangsters you have the black marketeers the people who are actually responsible for let’s be honest the Nebris and an underground economy and a second economy that really becomes increasingly essential to actually keeping the Soviet Union functioning. And then the most powerful of all are the corrupt party bosses. And this is a period in which actually the Soviet Communist Party becomes increasingly corrupt until more corruption becomes its closest thing to an ideology. Now the black market entrepreneurs they have money but they don’t know how to spend it.
[00:21:19] They have access to all kinds of goods some of it may domestically some of it’s smuggled from the West and so forth that everyone wants. But on the other hand they’re also insecure because they’re ultimately the biggest gangster businessmen who have no real legal power. The officials they want the money they want the goodies but they can’t be seen to be getting in bed on the whole with the black marketeers. So what happens is organized crime emerges in some ways as the connective tissue the body become the connective tissue between these two realms. At first they basically bully and predate and extort from the black marketeers until they realize that actually it’s better just to make a deal with them and be paid off to provide protection and so forth. And they also can be the people who can actually mediate between the black marketeers and officials. And so this is one of the reasons why we didn’t really think about there being organized crime in the Soviet Union. And I think this is one of the areas that the scholarship was lacking. But there was so emigre writers and people called Charlie Dent who wrote about it and this was seen as an interesting little curio. But you know pat on the head let’s move on. We had basically assumed that there could not be organized crime within a police state. And because it wasn’t visible it seemed it wasn’t there until the 1980s when the Soviet system began to collapse. And that’s when they began to emerge from the from the rubble and that’s when I began to be interested in them.
[00:22:43] But in that period through you know particularly through the period of general secretary Leonid Brezhnev when the emphasis was on just keeping everything quiet letting the elite live you know a nice feather bedded life letting the black market is do their business keep the population happy and keep the elite in Nice France imported goods. Organized crime was able to to operate in that world but very much as the weakest of the three the other two. No one had power. One had money organized crime just simply fit it in between. How did organized crime fit in with the security state as in KGB. And I guess well we’ll talk in a little while about the successor. Well look the KGB which was ironically probably about the least corrupt institution within the Soviet Union. No that is not to say uncorrupt but at least corrupt. But also I mean it was exceedingly pragmatic and therefore you had a situation in which sometimes you had people within the KGB who are just simply in cahoots with the gangsters but they usually did that in the context of a wider alliances. I mean in places like Georgia and was Becky Starn for example with all these massive and extraordinary criminal ventures which stretch from Abdinur gangsters all the way to the Republican Party bosses all busy sort of scamming literally millions upon millions of rubles and giving very good lives. But also you are you often have cases in which actually that the KGB would return a buyer will be willing to turn a blind eye to gangsters so long as they were useful.
[00:24:25] And we particularly saw this in Moscow and in what was then still Leningrad Mt. Petersburg where you had a whole bunch of sort of both black marketeers and gangsters who were involved in things like changing money on basically trying to buy hard currency from foreigners in return for way above the artificial sort of official rate. I mean the official rate was always pegged that one ruble equals one dollar. Now in reality ruble would worth vastly less than a dollar. So they will come along and they would say well we’ll give you 10 rubles to the dollar or whatever or else they will come along and they will try and buy the jeans off you. I mean one of the most surreal experiences I had. It also says something about the fact that the Russians are a nation of people once being in the left. This is my main man might be even my very first time in Soviet Union when I was actually still skulking in the left and Russian approach me with a sort of twinkling design. You have Agatha Christie because Agatha Christie books were apparently incredibly popular. So even Agatha Christie whodunits there was a black market for. So what you had is a bunch of criminals who had routine regular contact with foreigners and who also let’s be honest were trying to encourage foreigners to do something that was against the law. So this is exactly the kind of person that the KGB turned to basically said well you know tell us what you can pick up. We will let you continue your activities as long as you act as an asset for us. Tell us what’s going on. Occasionally we might actually want you to to go even further maybe sort of see if you can encourage certain sort of targeting foreigners.
[00:26:08] You know you want women or whatever that actually put them into compromising positions that the KGB can then capitalize on. So even from that first point you actually have the secret police that is meant to be there stanching crime actually sitting there thinking well fight crime sometime but at other times when they use it if it’s part of our wider political mission. I mean in some cases it’s through sort of family and so forth. But this is not basically an organized crime like say the Italians or whatever which is you know clearly linked around family and kin and so forth. Essentially you join by by growing up with the people who have joined you join by showing that your interest in it and you’re almost kind of hunting out the gangsters and making your your your pitch. There is this this term as schist Yorka which basically means a kind of a gopher and a wannabe. You know you have to put in your time you have to show that actually that your trustworthy. You have to show that you’re willing to learn criminal slang. You have to show that if need be your tough and then maybe if you impress the people enough they will induct you and you will become a fully fledged member of the world of academia. But this is it is it theoretically open to anyone but the point is you clearly have to show that you’re interested and that you’re useful and you have to kind of work your way through to it. You don’t just simply turn up and say hey Mike my uncles one of you guys can I come in and join. No no no. You know you have to demonstrate your credentials.
[00:27:50] So we’ve now move on to is probably I mean the contemporary relevance of this book and of the Vodi is really really striking. After the Soviet Union fell in 1991 things started to change. The role of the 40s started to change. Can you talk a little bit about that evolution and where we’ve ended up now. Sure. Well this is interesting that me in some ways the evolution has started before the Soviet Union collapsed. I mean during this rally the Gorbachev reform era I feel so so sorry for Gorbachev on so many bases. But one of them was actually all his essentially well-meant reforms turned out to be perfect for organized crime galvanize them gave them economic muscle. So that by the time Soviet Union collapsed these gangsters were already coming out of the shadows and instead of being the weakest element for a brief period they were the strongest when the ceiling collapsed suddenly corrupt officials who had power because they were Communist Party officials so they needed to scramble for position in a new world whether it was setting up companies whether it was winning elections or whatever. But the point is they didn’t. They suddenly lacked the power that they had once had. And likewise this is a period in which law enforcement was pretty much in collapse. So the underground entrepreneurs the black marketeers they likewise they didn’t have any protectors. So all of a sudden organized crime comes along and basically it says we have a muscle in the in the early 1990s right after the Soviet Union collapsed. Basically it was a period in which there was no law.
[00:29:33] Everyone needed protection and organized crime could provide you with protection. So for a while they were dominant and what we were see at this point is the rise of a new kind of war not the tattooed thug from the camps but a gangster businessman so-called top ticket authority. So who basically is just looking for for money and power and is happy to do crime if crime will get it safely. But it is also very happy to do legitimate business in operates right across that spectrum. And it’s this new gangster businessman who becomes frankly dominant through the course of the 1990s it doesn’t happen overnight. There’s going to be all kinds of jostling between the old generation and the new. And as is always the case the older generation just think oh well the new in the new comers they don’t know what it was like. They. They’re not as hard as we were and so forth. And the and the younger generation saying look we don’t care you know we can hire hard men because we’ve got enough money and power. So through the 1990s when Russia is going through this extraordinary elongated period of almost a collapse in which actually the government can scarcely govern in which local government is often penetrated by all kinds of different criminal interests in which soldiers and policemen and even secret policemen are scarcely being paid their wages and therefore everyone is involved in all kinds of corrupt scams. This is a period in which organised crime suddenly changes from being parochial hidden to being a truly dynamic global force.
[00:31:10] And I think the global thing is worth mentioning because no one knew what was going to happen in Russia no one knew if the thing’s going to stabilise if the country was going to break apart. What if communists or ultra nationalists were going to come into power which meant that basically everyone wanted to get a certain amount of their money at least out of the country. And so for the gangsters point of view they very very quickly also internationalized. So that if things went bad in Russia they would have money and friends and a bolthole outside the country. So the 1990s absolutely crucial in essentially reshaping Russian organized crime. Were they still tattooed at that point or their entire look changed besides the suits. I mean did they become like the Yakuza were the tatties were hidden or did they just abandon that whole part of the culture and bit by bit. It was a ban. I mean you still see people with tattoos just as you still see people calling themselves Vallie all the voiceovers are Kornya the thief within the code which is the kind of the authority figure a sort of combination of sort of judge and high priest of the Berlusconi. You still see people using this but very very much adds to its decline. Back in the day you wanted to use your tattoos to make yourself look distinctive make yourself look separate from mainstream society. Now you don’t want that. You want to be able to operate in every single world. You want to be able to operate in the crime world. But at the same time be invited to the ambassadors reception to be going there in your speech shows at Central Pay and not look like a freak.
[00:32:46] So actually that that the tattoos are very much disappearing particularly as a code nowadays you know if you want a tattoo you get yourself tattoo back in the day because each tattoo had had a very very specific meaning. You had to show that you were entitled to it you know that let’s say a camp you know that you had a relook there this one was for example showing a sleeping stag which showed you’ve been to a particularly hard labor Northern camp. In other words that you survived that that means you were tough if it ever came out that in fact you hadn’t deserved to have that tattoo that you’ve not been to back that camp. If you were lucky Humilis men would be presenting you with a knife so that you could actually scrape that tattoo off your skin. That’s if you lucky. You know those days where whether it’s a tattoo language really mattered then was enforced. They’re gone now. I mean it’s funny you go to this sort of the hipster bars of Moscow which let’s be honest has actually become extraordinarily hipster place you know and and you’ll see guys who were wearing once upon a time would have been considered VAW tattoos and they clearly are not very they just thought they were cool tattoos. What’s the role of them in popular culture. You know we’ve kind of teased this idea that there they’re tough guys and they’re in movies and TV and I’m kind of like especially in Russia. I’m curious how does the culture talk about them. It’s interesting. This is a massive true crime genre.
[00:34:20] You go go to bookshops and then there’s loads of sort of things about how all the various sort of gangster activities I would say. I mean there’s this two particular connected strands. One of them is the gangsters clearly gangsters. They’re not nice people but at least they are honest crooks and heard this term. Honest criminals some many times. What is an honest criminal you know it’s a crook who knows who’s a crook who doesn’t pretend he’s anything else. And that’s contrasted with the dishonest crooks who are the guys in suits in the mayors office and in Parliament or in uniforms at the police headquarters or the secret police or whatever who claim to be working for the people while they’re actually ripping the people off everyday. So it’s quite interesting that there’s almost like they at least think that there are at least a third of the morally correct gangsters and they’re not Robin Hoods. I mean it’s interesting you know there isn’t that same sense of gangsters being good people but on the other hand at least they’re honest about who they are and compared with all the other gangsters around it says something about a very frankly nihilistic and downbeat perspective of modern politics which should probably not inaccurate at a certain point I think what’s really fascinating that’s really illustrated by is that there were two blockbuster films Barack and Barack Obama brother and brother to first one and the protagonist is basically a kind of vigilante who takes on gangsters from the North Caucasus at the time we got to the second one though. He’s essentially an organized crime figure a kind of hit man.
[00:36:03] And he goes to the United States because I won’t go into the plot but one of the key themes is yeah okay we’re Russians we know that we know we have gangsters but at least our gangsters are the toughest Sorbs around. Because you know when when when our Russians go to America they basically show the American Mafia what’s for Ukrainians and others and so forth. So there is this kind of weird perverse pride in claiming there’s pride. If we’re going to be a mafia state if we’re going to be a state run by gangsters at least let us be run by the smartest nasty toughest gangsters around in these places that I guess I would call the fringes of empire. If I can if I can use that term if that’s not an accurate kind of what places like Georgia in Chechnya what does this stuff look like. Does it change at all. Is it the same. Yeah I mean it’s really interesting that for example nowadays the majority of people in Russia who are classed as Valdivieso Kornya these are in the cold. These authority figures within the underworld are actually ethnically Georgian and yet in part that’s because Georgia itself had a very efficient and effective campaign to drive criminals and organized crime figures out of their own country. And a lot of them went to Russia. But it is also because actually the old traditions the old language actually has has lasted a lot longer on the southern fringes of of Russia because there I think organized crime. Certainly it fits in with a certain kind of clannish macho culture.
[00:37:45] But secondly it was also a way back in the day in which you could also kind of strike a blow against Moscow strike a blow exactly against the Soviet empire that controlled it by ripping it off. So corruption and gangsterism are hand in hand. Had this kind of almost nationalist legitimation that basically this is how we fight back against the Russians who controlled us. So it is still quite quite strong there still quite clannish and so forth. The Georgians are one thing but the Chechens I think are really fascinating with all the reasons why there is a check to the right to vote to them. In my book starting with this conversation I had with a Chechen hitman who is quite the loveliest Chechen hitman that you could ever choose to make but nonetheless you know obviously exceedingly scary figure at the same time. And what’s happened is that the Chechens have basically capitalized on what we could call their brand name. Everyone knows the Chechens are as hard as nails not least because of the two Chechen wars that Russia had to fight trying to keep men post Soviet Russian Federation. And it’s generally assumed the Chechens are are crazy. But if you take the Chechens on they will keep coming at you and there will be someone there their brothers and their cousins and keep on coming until they’ve ripped you down. Whatever the cost to them. So for that reason most people will not take the Chechens on the kind of person kind of business let’s say that you know comes up with someone demands some money from them know. Lovely shop you got here. Shame that burned down. They might be sitting there thinking well okay so here’s a gangster.
[00:39:29] But on the other hand my brother in law is the local chief of police so I’ll turn to him instead. Chechens come along and game over. You’ve got to make a deal. So much so that they’ve even actually thought of basically franchised out their brand name. You actually have gangs that you basically pay to be able to allowed to use the term. We work with the Chechens. So in the case of the Chechens the Georgians you have different patterns but in each case what it is is because they’re are outsiders because they’re people who in a way for whom crime was also a way of fighting a covert rebellion against foreign occupation. It’s still much more central to the sort of the cultural response to teach to the Russians. I wanted to get to one more thing before we leave it it’s not necessarily a small thing but how the Russian state works now along with criminals. This is something that you know I think you write about very eloquently. But Vladimir Putin and his state they’re not really separate from the criminals who they use or where. What’s your phrase for how they utilize criminals. I mean yeah I mean one of the terms we sometimes hear about about Russia is it’s a mafia state which is not to my like because it implies either the state absolutely controls the underworld or the gangsters control the state. What I’ve suggested in some ways is instead under Putin we have a state that is trying to nationalize the underworld because it’s really very striking how Putin in particular has totally refashioned the relationship of state to organized crime. I mean inway just had back in Soviet times there were kind of three sources of criminality.
[00:41:28] There were the gangsters there the black market is known as a corrupt party bosses. Now still we have the mainstream underworld. We have the embezzling kleptocrats and oligarchs in the business sector and we have also embezzling kleptocrats within officialdom unless there’s a lot of overlap between these three worlds. But but they law they different now. Putin when it came to power when he was first standing for election 1999 2000 he spoke very tough about law and order and a lot of people believed him after all ex KGB and so forth. So I’m talking to one of Aughrim who literally had a packed suitcase underneath his bed so that if one of his informants and the local police or property Crecy heard that he was going to be picked up he just grabbed that suitcase. Zoom for the airport and get the hell out. Well he never had to use that suitcase because what happened was in effect Putin instead offered organised crime a social contract. And literally this was actually what happened I mean we’re talking to one cop who was working in mood which is the Moscow Krylon intelligence division. And you know he was meant to be one of the people to try and try to catch gangsters and it said he was actually able to go down and have sit down and have meetings with various gangster bosses and basically sketch out the new the new rules of the game which is basically this organized crime will continue to do crime and the cops will continue to try and catch them. That’s fine.
[00:42:56] However if the gangsters did anything which looks like a challenge to the state or which embarrasses the state then they’ll be treated as enemies of the state which is obviously a much much more serious kind kind of response. And on the whole you might say after 10 years of the 1990s of turf wars and absolute anarchy you know that the new generation of gangster bosses who had risen who are now really wanting to kind of consolidate what they had thought. Yeah OK so the state is back. The state is the biggest gang in town. That’s okay we can work with that and therefore willing to accept that social contract. And it’s always in hindsight we shouldn’t be surprised. This is exactly what Putin did when he was deputy mayor in St. Petersburg in the 1990s. His job was to be liaison with whoever needed to be talked to including the local organized crime grouping to Moscow and in order to keep the city running and and also for him and others to benefit. You know he he made deals and he just simply took that onto the national stage. What’s happened over time is that you might say at first this was a social contract that was defined by negatives. You don’t do certain things. And every now and then an organized crime figure who seemed to have gone too far was getting a bit too embarrassing whatever would be arrested in what you know in a large showy display of state force. Doesn’t it remind people that that the state there is as I said the biggest gang in town. But what we’ve seen since 2014 as this whole geopolitical conflict.
[00:44:30] Cold War hot peace call it what you will really steps up and as far away as Putin on the basis of relatively little resources basically tries to take on the entire West. He clearly has adopted a strategy of creating a mobilisations state where it doesn’t matter who you are. The state can call on you to do something and that includes organized crime. So whereas once upon a time the social contract was just don’t do X Y or Z. Now increasingly we’re seeing a thing which work if you will continue. The state wants you to do a b or c and particularly in Europe. We’ve begun to see organized crime being used as in a way and an additional asset for intelligence and subversion operations in a variety of different ways. But particularly in terms of raising so-called black cash untraceable money that has no kind of Kremlin fingerprints on it that can then be used to support convenient political movements and so forth. So increasingly what we’re seeing is Putin considering organized crime to be yet one more potential asset for his political war on the West in a make sense. You know that’s if it’s a problem that’s not going to go away or be solved you may as well make the best of it. I think actually from Putin’s point of view I mean this is this is one of the many many tragedies of contemporary Russia. And I say this as someone who who likes Russia and likes Russians and I think we should always remember that you know Russians have been Putin’s first victims and many other people have been added to the list. But I think from his point of view doesn’t really see this as a major problem.
[00:46:04] You know I think organized crime like corruption he every now and then pays lip service to it is a problem but in practice he has his track record is it’s only a problem when it in when it actually gets in the way of particular things that need to be done. Putin almost seems like a world in which everyone has a skeleton in their closet because he gets to decide who’s closet to look in and say I’m shocked shocked to discover that you’ve been doing something wrong. This gives him leverage. This gives him power and this gives him a way of to have it also converted deniable instruments as well as his overt and obvious ones. If it’s a criminal gang that just actual election rather than in actual Kremlin backed and cyber security presence then I guess several are the deniability in the world. Yeah absolutely. I mean that there’s a case for example of some protection Wertham Chechen pro rebel fundraises in Turkey who were assassinated earlier. There have been assassinations which are likely to have been in the hands of a card carrying Russian intelligence officers. These are a bunch which the Turkish police with what was actually some some very good police work. I don’t mean to identify who the killers were. They had already long since fled the country. But basically they were members of a neo nazi Moscow car crime gang. Now it’s hard to think why a bunch of guesses in Moscow should suddenly think I’ll tell you what let’s go Istanbul and waxe and Chechens you know it’s pretty clear that they are employed and given basic training by the security apparatus to go and kill some inconvenient people.
[00:47:51] But again in such a way that could be entirely deniable. We can say look it seems fairly clear that that can this be proven in a court of law what of course not. So in this respect it’s great from the Russians point of view although his crime is terrible if you’re a Russian businessman it’s not much fun if you’re an ordinary Russian citizen but from a state’s point of view it’s great because it means you’ve got this great pool everyone from from killers and hackers through to smugglers and people traffickers who from time to time you can use metal bark. Thanks so much for once again coming on and scaring the crap out of us. That’s perfectly fine. It’s what I do. And thanks for the chance to pick up my book after all. Yeah I actually can’t recommend the book highly enough. If you really want to understand what’s going on in the world right now I think you can’t do better than look back to a group of people who started as horse thieves. Thanks for listening to this week’s show. If you enjoyed it tell two friends and they’ll tell two friends and they’ll tell two friends and so on and so on. More realistically please leave us a review on iTunes or wherever you got this podcast it helps other people find the show. You can also reach out to us on Facebook. We are Facebook dot com slash war college podcast and also you can follow us on Twitter at war underscore. College. We’ll be back next week.