Dons of the Don

The Soviet Mafia

by Arkady Vaksberg, translated by John Roberts, translated by Elizabeth Roberts
St. Martin’s Press, 275 pp., $24.95

Gaidar Aliyev was humiliated. After two decades as the Communist Party boss of Azerbaijan, he had been dumped in 1989 from Gorbachev’s Politburo, vilified for corruption in the news columns of Pravda, and reduced to sharing the back seat of a dismal Volga sedan with an American journalist. The pressures of Aliyev’s decline wore on him. He had suffered mild heart attacks; his complexion turned the shade of a votive candle. He complained of poverty to all who would listen. But Aliyev was still possessed of a certain unctuous charm, a parody of William Powell’s parody of a regal smoothie. “You should feel quite honored,” he told me as we drove to Moscow from his posh dacha in the village of Uspenskoye. “It’s not often that I give an audience.”

When he was a young man in Azerbaijan, Aliyev’s ambitions were almost derailed when he was accused of sexual assault. He avoided being thrown out of the Party by a single vote. There were no further “legal” proceedings. The Party’s judgment was all. In 1969, as the republic’s KGB Chief, Aliyev launched a “crusade against corruption,” but his crusade had no more moral content than John Gotti’s assault on Paul Castellano. Aliyev intended only to purge his enemies and elevate himself and his clan. At this, he succeeded spectacularly. Once installed as chief of the Azerbaijan Communist Party, Aliyev ruled the republic as surely as the Gambino family ran the ports of New York. The Caspian Sea caviar mafia, the Sumgait oil mafia, the fruits and vegetables mafia, the cotton mafia, the customs and transport mafias—they all reported to him, enriched him, worshiped him. Aliyev even dominated the intellectual life of Azerbaijan. He appointed his relatives chairmen of various institutes and academic departments, enabling them, in turn, to charge tens of thousands of rubles to scholars in search of meaningful employment.

The state structure in Azerbaijan—and everywhere else in the Soviet Union—could itself be called a mafia. The Communist Party was never a party in the Western sense, but rather a ruling elite that used terror and intimidation to appropriate the entire economic mechanism of a vast empire. Its rulers paid no more mind to the principles of political legitimacy than the dons of western Sicily. The analogy is imperfect but the Party was far closer to La Cosa Nostra than Il Partito Comunista Italiano. The Party’s dispensation of power and property was unchallenged by election or by law. Administrators of “socialist justice” were duplicitous props intended by the Party only to lend the appearance of civil society.

There had been, of course, some honest men in the Party structure. In one famous incident in Azerbaijan, a prosecutor named Gamboi Mamedov tried to investigate corruption in the Communist Party leadership. Aliyev had him fired and denounced. Later, at a session of the republican legislature, the inflamed Mamedov managed to grab the microphone, shouting, “The state plan is a …

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