Russia: The Power of the Mob

Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya

by Stephen Handelman
Yale University Press, 398 pp., $27.50

Early Thursday morning, June 8, 1995, FBI agents burst into an apartment in Brighton Beach and placed a burly, balding Russian under arrest. Subsequently, when he was taken to the Federal District Court in Brooklyn for a preliminary hearing on charges of extortion, the FBI identified him as Vyacheslav Ivankov, a man known as “Yaponets” (The Japanese), who has long been considered one of the kingpins in the shadowy but increasingly active Russian underworld. The arrest was the most tangible evidence to date that Russian syndicates had spread into North America.

It should have come as no surprise that Russian gangsters are active in the United States. In his timely book describing the crime scene in post-Communist Russia, Comrade Criminal, Stephen Handelman reports that at a meeting of Russian crime lords, held as the Soviet Union was collapsing, in December 1991, Ivankov had been delegated to come to the United States to investigate “commercial opportunities.” Presumably, the public will learn more about the opportunities he identified when Ivankov and his eight codefendants are brought to trial.

The threat of Russian criminals operating in the United States is not trivial, but there seems no reason to doubt that American police can prevent a large-scale entrenchment here if they give the problem adequate attention. And they seem to be doing so. Zachary W. Carter, the US attorney in the eastern district of New York, told The New York Times following Ivankov’s arrest that federal authorities are determined “not to permit Russian organized-crime groups to mature the way domestic crime groups have.”

The growing crime in Russia should be of great concern because we cannot be confident that Russian police, prosecutors, and courts are capable of coping with it. If Russia does not develop effective means to control the spread of organized crime, the results can have a deeper impact on our lives than the activities of a few criminals in our own midst. Rampant criminality is now the most formidable barrier to a democratic free-market society in Russia. It creates conditions that could bring a dictator to power or—perhaps even worse—begin a process of fragmentation that would destroy any effective central government in the country.

The US Congress rarely summons State Department officials to testify on foreign criminal activity, but concern about conditions in Russia caused the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence to invite James F. Collins, the department’s senior coordinator for Russia and other ex-Soviet states, to testify on the subject on March 15 of this year. Before outlining the US policies designed to protect American citizens and to assist the Russian government in coping with the problem, Collins pointed out that

crime now poses—some three-plus years after the end of the Soviet Union—a major challenge to the governments and the citizens of the NIS [New Independent States] as they pursue the uncharted road from communist totalitarian authority to democracy and market economies.

He pointed out that the number of economic crimes in Russia …

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