Putin’s Trap

When I began working as a foreign correspondent in Moscow in 1995, the chaos of the place was, from a narrow professional point of view, one of its more attractive features. Nobody was absolutely sure of anything, which meant that your guesses about what was happening were as good as anybody else’s. Of the many theories hatched about the way the Russian state functioned (I use the verb loosely) in those days I can think of only one, by Thomas Graham and Lilia Shev-tsova, which proved to have any predictive value. It held that the members of Russia’s political and business elites had formed themselves into four or five warring “clans,” and that whenever one clan got too strong the others would unite to bring it down. This analysis both explained and predicted constant turmoil, and for that we commentators were grateful.1

It turned out that there were stabilizing processes at work deeper within the Russian state which would gradually make themselves visible. The most important was the advance from middle- to higher-ranking jobs of a younger generation of Soviet-educated officials, who were in their thirties when communism collapsed and in their forties when Yeltsinism collapsed and they inherited power. They had stayed with the bureaucracy or the secret services because they were too dull or too high-minded to defect into business or crime along the way. Their best-known representative is now President Vladimir Putin. He and other members of his age group are reconstructing the secretive, centralized, militarized political culture of their youth, reversing much that was good, and much that was bad, about the Yeltsin years.


If I could go back in time and visit the Moscow of 1995, one of the books I would want to take with me would be Vadim Volkov’s Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism. I see in it a hundred things I wish I had known in the mid-1990s as I tried to understand how business could survive at all in so lawless and corrupt an environment. Volkov supplies the missing link between almost everything else you may read about business in post-Communist Russia and almost everything else you can read about organized crime there. He treats the two activities, business and crime, with equal respect as fields of sociological inquiry, and so arrives at the first satisfying account of how they affect each other. If only he, or a similarly gifted analyst, were able to explain the interplay between politics and business in post-Communist Russia in a second volume, and between politics and crime in a third, we would come close to understanding how the new Russian state has been formed.

Violent Entrepreneurs is based on interviews with some professional criminals—Russians would call them “bandits”—as well as businessmen, policemen, and people who provide private security. Volkov describes how he won their confidence:

I had to learn speed writing because a tape recorder was out. I explained that, as a sociologist, I was…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.