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Russian Mafia: Criminal Subculture or Criminal Tradition?

According to the UN, the Russian Federation is ranked among the top five countries in regard to the number of murders...

by Sergej Engelmann
Russian criminal tradition is so intertwined with the public and political life that it is practically impossible to separate it and consider as a separate subculture.

There are numerous opinions about what in fact the Russian mafia actually is; experts — whether they be academics, investigators, policy makers, etc. — have not reached a single consensus.  Different perspectives have been developed by such experts as Federico Varese, James Finckenauer,  Gary Busch, Johan Leman, Stef Janssens,  Dina Siegel, and others, but there is no accepted comprehensive description and causal explanation for this phenomenon..

It is important to note, that this Russian mafia phenomenon is extremely significant not only from an academic point of view, but also from practical aspects.  With respect to the general crime situation, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Russian Federation is ranked among the top five countries in regard to the number of murders per 100,000 of population.  Not all these murders can be attributed to organized crime, but the suspicion is, and evidence suggests, that many of them are.  Beyond Russia, it is also the case that immigrants from Russia and other former USSR countries are criminally active in the US and in Western European countries. Thus, there seems little doubt that in order to effectively counteract this phenomenon, it is first necessary to determine exactly what it is that must be confronted.

This article is intended to familiarize readers with the scientific view and some research results from a Ukrainian scholar who looked into certain security issues surrounding high officials in the period from 1991 to 1997. By the same token, this scientist has developed a technology that is exploited by private security companies, and allowed to neutralize the threat of contract killings in 90’s Moscow.  It is hoped that this article will be of value for both scientists (criminologists, criminalists, sociologists) and experts in the field of law, judges, representatives of law enforcement agencies and correctional managers.

When one considers the phenomenon of “Russian mafia,” it must be understood that this is a conventionally used common label popular in the West to describe the representatives of criminal structures whose roots come from the post-Soviet area (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, etc.). Although the term “mafia” was sometimes used to refer to certain what were believed to be criminal manipulations, e.g., fish mafia or bread mafia, the label “Russian mafia” was never used on the territories of these countries. How then to better understand this phenomenon?  From the scientific point of view, in the works of Victor Pirozhkov and Oleg Starkov, for example, one encounters the notion of a criminal or delinquent subculture. With this subculture idea as the focus, the purpose of this article is to better understand with what are we dealing when we look at the ex-Soviet forms of organized crime.

Martial Arts masters Alexey Yavtushenko and Palmero Ramos training with knives with the guidance of Oleg Maltsev.

According to the Ukrainian scientist Ph.D. Oleg Maltsev, head of the research institute of “World martial art traditions study and criminalistic research of weapon handling”, the term “criminal subculture” does not describe comprehensively the criminal system that had been forming in the course of 11 historical periods and originates on the post-Soviet area. If one looks at the various definition variants of the concept “criminal subculture,” most oftenly one will be encountering the notion of minority that conflicts with a common to all mankind culture (1).  Dr. Gary Busch believes that the criminal subculture arises as a result of fusion of disparate, poorly organized criminal groups. There are also attempts to explain the criminal subculture as a primitive form of the regulation of social relations (2). In the opinion of Ukranian scientist an American sociologist Frederic Thrasher described the phenomenon more to the point, he wrote about a tradition that unites people with “command and moral spirit”, solidarity, group awareness and attachment to a certain territory.

If we look at the history of Kiev Rus, the Russian Empire, the USSR and a number of republics that were formed after the collapse of the USSR, we will see numerous examples of individuals who, being members of the criminal community, held executive positions in the government. The most outstanding personalities are certainly Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Felix Dzerzhinsky. Relevant example of our time would be the former president of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych. Certainly in each of these cases it has to be noted, that these people did not come to power by themselves. In their immediate circle there were ones who were representatives of criminal communities as well. Obviously, in these cases it is not relevant to speak of a “criminal subculture”. The criminal system is so intertwined with the public and political life that it is practically impossible to separate it and consider as a separate subculture. Unfortunately, there is no way but to admit this fact. Probably, in some countries the criminal subculture is insignificant and people do not even pay attention to it. However, in this case we are forced to consider another definition.

Then what are we really dealing with in fact: a criminal subculture or a criminal tradition?

If we consider the notion of “tradition”, the key parameters of it would be: beliefs, customs, passing knowledge from generation to generation and a relation to a specific territory. If we consider the concept of “Russian criminal tradition,” there is a definite starting point which is the publication of the first collection of legal norms “Russkaya Pravda” by Yaroslav the Wise. According to classical history this document is about 1000 years old. In the meantime, millions of prisoners passed through jails, prisons and other correctional institutions. Given the number of wars and local conflicts it is very difficult to name the nationality representatives of which did not serve sentences in Russian prisons. And this is another phenomenon of the Russian criminal tradition, which  had been forming and absorbing throughout this time the most effective models from around the world. As soon as legal norms appear in the society, there are two categories that representatives of the criminal community can be classified in. Category #1: “Professional criminals, in other words people for whom crime is a way to earn for a living, it is their way of life and a way of survival”. Category #2: “People for whom crime is not a way of life and a way of making money, and who were not going to lead a criminal way of life initially. However, either because of the struggle for power, or because of disagreement with the established laws of this or that state, disagreement with its policy, they started fighting against the state and as a result were convicted by a criminal court and recognized as criminals.” A vivid example of the second category criminal is the Sicilian “Robin Hood” Salvatore Giuliano. Originally, he did not choose the criminal life for himself as a way to earn money and a way of life, but because he did not agree with the state’s policy, he became ultimately a criminal. That is, he took the path of the crime because of certain circumstances and his own disagreement with the policies and laws of Italian state, but he himself did not choose the criminal craft as a way of life.

When we say “tradition” in the criminal world, it could be defined through common features, which will correspond in any country of the world:

• It is a way of life which is subjected to specific rules. Examples of these rules are: thieves’ law, thieves’ notions, omerta, vendetta, etc.;

• Criminal business. That is a criminal way to earn for living (theft, robbery, fraud, drug trafficking, etc.). In other words, there are traditional occupations in this structure. For instance, the traditional way of earning for a living of the Mexican mafia is criminal business – drug trafficking. If other ways of earning money are added in the process of activity, then a certain period of time is required for this method to turn into a traditional way of earning money (3);

• Language. Every criminal tradition has a special language that nobody understands. For example, language of the Russian criminal tradition is called “Fenya” one who does not know this language is unlikely to understand the meaning of what is being said (4), (5);

• Special ways of selection, training of personnel and their promotion in their own criminal hierarchy;

• Law which is passed from mouth to mouth. You will never find a written source of such law, it is not a constitution or a declaration of independence. The representative of this or that criminal tradition will never write a book about it. It can be done by certain researchers, but it is always going to be a view from outside;

• Own folklore, songs, poems;

• Certain types of tattoos on the body. For instance, Yakuza’s tattoos have certain meaning, Russian mafia tattoos other ones;

• Unified religious beliefs of an unconventional nature, different from public norms – their own faith;

• Special types of weapons, their own technique of handling these weapons and training methods with it. Weapons are created on their own in prison or at large. Special attention is always given to handling of improvised objects (zatochka, etc.) (6);

• A special and extremely effective type of hand-to-hand combat. In all traditional martial arts, everything used by the criminal tradition is strictly forbidden (blows with open hands, piercing the eyes with a thumb, dislodging tympanal membranes, special kicks). As a rule, all criminal traditions use a special defense against the blows they inflict, namely, they use elbow defense and not hand one. Each criminal tradition has special types of feet moves. For example, in the African criminal tradition, the movements are abrupt, and in the Russian criminal tradition movements are “smooth”, the enemy’s location change is practically not noticeable. In the African criminal tradition, one stubs an opponent and immediately escapes, in the Mexican criminal tradition knife is “inserted” into the victim and diagonally cut (7);

• Transmission from generation to generation. Criminal tradition always prepares next shift for itself and passes down the rights to the next generation, thus the tradition remains.  In Odessa, for example, there were training centers which existed for several decades, where pocket thieves were trained. From an external appearance it was a shelter for homeless children, people used to come to give them some food, to play with them, but in fact children were taught how to steal wallets, money and other belongings one carries around.

Reconstruction art of spiritual part of Russian criminal tradition: Images of Pantheon of Gods.

According to Ph.D. Oleg Maltsev  it is important to understand that representatives of the Russian criminal tradition even have their own religion. If we consider, for example, the crime of Italy, which includes Mafia, Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta, it is obvious that they also have their own criminal subculture, as well as their own religion. As in Italy, on the post-Soviet space and a number of other countries there were so-called dual belief system throughout history.  There is an official religion, and the second one – “own religion”. This “own religion”, of course, has its criminal connotation. These are people who are part of a special criminal caste. However, not only these people profess this doctrine. If you look at our society from outside, most experts attempt to withstand the Russian criminal tradition, without understanding what is they are trying to fight against. We see only external attributes, but have no understanding that we will have to struggle with the worldview, with practical religion, and also with a craft. One who has mastered this system is unlikely to refuse it, as long as it brings him income. So that all other religions are capable of competing with the thieves’ faith, they will have to substantially improve their effectiveness, which in turn has to improve the life quality of their followers.

“Unfortunately, it is formidable to create something better and more effective than thieves’ religion. The system is inimitable and non-compromising. This is not a promotion. I say this with a regret. It has a tremendous speed of learning new skills; it has everything that modern religions cannot provide. Accordingly, people will always choose a way that will allow them provide for their life and family, even if it is not quite legal. “

Even in our time, we had the opportunity to get reassured that this system is capable of leading one to power on the state level. Representatives of this tradition organize and lead revolutions (8). In comparison with this system, the state often looks as a shaky construction which is practically incapable of resisting the criminal tradition.


(1) Starkov, O.V. “Criminal subculture: a special course” – M: Volters Kluver, 2010

(2) Oleinik, A.E. “Prison Subculture in Russia” – M .: Infra-M, 2001

(3) Zaur Zugumov “Notes of the Pickpocket” – M.: Book World, 2015

(4) Baldaev, D.S. “Dictionary of thieves’ jargon. Two volumes”- M: Kampana, 1997

(5) Zaur Zugumov “Russian-speaking Jargon”- Moscow: Book World, 2014

(6) Volkov, V.P. “The basic methods of working with a short Finnish and Norwegian knife”, Textbook for NKVD schools, 1940

(7) Simkin, N.N. “The Melee” – M: Physical Culture and Sports, 1944

(8) Nechaev, S.G. “Catechism of a Revolutionary” – M .: Archeographic Center, 1997

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