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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 swindle, likewise the budget—also, of course, those reports of economic success are a pack of lies, and…” Police hustled Mamedov off the speaker’s platform and into a back alley of obscurity. Seventeen loyal legislators quickly lined up to defend Aliyev. “Who are you fighting against, Gamboi?” Suleiman Ragimov, a hack writer and deputy, cried out. “God sent us his Son in the form of Gaidar Aliyev. Are you then opposing God?” The legislature rose as one in a standing ovation.

When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he became the boss of bosses, the leader of a Communist Party Politburo in which most of the members were unabashed sultans, men like Aliyev of Azerbaijan, Viktor Grishin of Moscow, Grigori Romanov of Leningrad, Dinmukhamed Kunayev of Kazakhstan, Vladimir Shcherbitsky of Ukraine. The Central Committee, too, was filled with “dead souls,” hacks whose principal mission was the protection of the Party as a privileged caste. They had all long ago turned the poverty of Leninist ideology to their own advantage. In a state in which property belonged to all—in other words, to no one—the Communist Party owned everything, from the docks of Odessa to the orange trees of Georgia.

Aliyev, like the others, knew that the only imperative of stability under Brezhnev had been to grease the Don. Leonid Ilyich did not require the real prosperity or happiness of his people to please him. He needed only reports of same. So long as the official-looking documents that crossed his desk informed him of record successes and overfulfilled plans, he was well pleased.

Of course, the traditions of tribute pleased him even more. When Brezhnev came to the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, in 1978, Aliyev gave him a gold ring with a huge solitaire diamond, a hand-woven carpet so large it took up the train’s dining salon, and a portrait of the general secretary onto which rare gems had been pasted as “decoration.” For an official visit in 1982, Aliyev built a palace solely for Brezhnev’s use, a gaudy pile with all the kitsch grandeur of the Kennedy Center in Washington. The great man slept there for a couple of nights and then the palace closed. To commemorate the same visit, Aliyev gave Brezhnev a ring that symbolized the world view of the Kremlin better than any map. One huge jewel, representing Brezhnev the Sun King, was surrounded by fifteen smaller stones representing the fifteen union republics. “Like planets orbiting their sun,” as Aliyev explained. This masterpiece of the jeweler’s art was given the title “The Unbreakable Union of Republics of the Free.” When he received the ring and listened to Aliyev’s careful explication, Brezhnev, in full view of the television cameras, burst into tears of gratitude.

This system of shadows and gilt served the Party well while it lasted. But now Aliyev, who had grown accustomed to long Zil limousines while he was in power, found himself with his knees jammed into the seat ahead of him.

Ach, I live badly,” he said as we sped along the highway. “My pension is tiny. Believe me, you would never work for such a sum. The driver? The car? Not mine. I just have the right to order them up once in a while.”

In office, Aliyev had grown used to ordering suits from the Kremlin tailor, to regular deliveries of Japanese electronics, American cigarettes, and delicacies from the “special farms” of the KGB. Now, in 1989, his world was confused and threatening. “Gorbachev says he is for the renovation of socialism and against capitalism,” Aliyev said. “Fine. But what sort of renovation? What does it mean? Is it social democracy? That’s not socialism. What exactly is his socialism? No one knows. They don’t know what socialism is anymore and they are all living in a fog. You Americans want everyone to follow your way, and the more things here are to the liking of George Bush, the better. But is Bush Jesus Christ or something?”

I assured him that Bush was less than that and we rode on a while in an agreeable silence toward Pushkin Square. Then, suddenly, through the evening fog, the gleaming apparition of the future: a pair of yellow arches, a winding line of hungry Russians. Aliyev sneered.

McDonald’s!” he said. “There’s the perestroika you all love so much.”


Although the new breed of private businessmen in Russia is rich with hustlers, thieves, racketeers, and confidence men, the collapse of the Communist Party apparatus was the dying day of the most gigantic mafia the world has ever known. From émigrés such as Konstantin Simis and Michael Voslensky, as well as from the Yugoslav Party dissident Milovan Djilas, we already understood something of the wholesale corruption and grotesque entitlements of the Communist Party.1 But now the best legal journalist in Russia, Arkady Vaksberg of the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta, has produced a brilliant account of the salad days of the Mob state.

Vaksberg is a prominent figure in the Moscow liberal intelligentsia, but also well-connected, a lawyer and journalist skillful enough to have gained access to some of the most notorious figures in the leadership. Throughout the Brezhnev era, Vaksberg collected information on corruption, a subject as prohibited as any taken up by the dissidents. Although The Soviet Mafia is not supported by the level of notes and attribution to satisfy most scholarly or journalistic standards, Vaksberg’s portrait of the Party as an all-pervasive syndicate in what was once the Soviet Union rings absolutely true. His chapters on the Party’s criminal operations in Krasnodar, Sochi, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan describe the looting of a country, acts as cynical as Mobuto’s transfer of Zairian wealth into his personal Swiss accounts. After the August coup and the collapse of the Communist Party, events and the new evidence brought to light did nothing to contradict what Vaksberg had been writing in Literaturnaya Gazeta for years. The Party had so obviously socked away money abroad and sold off national resources—including the country’s vast gold reserves—that just after the coup collapsed and the Russian government sealed the Central Committee, the Party’s leading financial officer took a look into the future and threw himself off a high balcony to his death.

Above all, Vaksberg is at pains to make sure his foreign readers understand that Soviet corruption under Brezhnev was not a matter of exceptions, of rotten apples fouling the utopian barrel. No thorough prosecution of the Party’s corruption could stop with a single indictment. “If it were a question of just one of the former leaders, the new government could easily give him up to be destroyed, presenting him as the black sheep—a sad exception to the general rule,” Vaksberg writes. “But since it is a question precisely of all (or nearly all) of the members of the previous administration of autocratic old men, their exposure would lead to only one possible and inescapable conclusion from a historical perspective, that is, of the criminal character of the Party and the whole political system which enables criminals to make their way into positions of power and fanatically protects them from exposure.”

The Russian leadership is now faced with the political and moral dilemma of whether to issue indictments against Party leaders for corruption and plunder. Prosecutors want to know what happened to the gold reserves and foreign governments want badly to know what happened to billions of dollars in aid and loan guarantees that have simply “disappeared into a hole,” according to Gorbachev’s closest adviser, Alexander Yakovlev. But everyone is wary of criminal proceedings. There is no telling where it all would stop. Gorbachev himself anticipated this problem when, in the last days before his resignation, he asked Yeltsin privately to protect him from any future prosecution. Yeltsin first made his name as a Party rebel, but he, too, is reluctant to endorse a crusade that could easily widen into a witch hunt.

  1. 1

    Cf. The Corrupt Society, by Konstantin Simis (Simon and Schuster, 1982); Nomenklatura, by Michael Voslensky (Doubleday, 1984); The New Class, by Milovan Djilas (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982).

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