Robert Friedman’s book is the first to describe in detail the Russian mobsters who have established criminal enterprises throughout the world. His prose sometimes makes it sound like a sequel to Pulp Fiction. A Russian killer in Brooklyn murders a boy, he writes, “by picking him up like a ragdoll with one hand and plunging a knife into his heart with the other.” But more than any other reporter he reveals how sophisticated, ruthless, rich, and multinational Russian criminals have become.
Among other things, he writes, they have arranged the sale of military helicopters and a submarine for the Colombia drug barons, and they have acquired influence over the American National Hockey League by threatening players from Eastern Europe and Russia and extorting money from them. They have infiltrated the international financial system, rigging share prices and buying banks in Hungary, Israel, and California. Now they are expanding into Nigeria, South Africa, and Australia.
The “Russian mafia,” as Friedman describes it, is not a single organization, but rather a catchall phrase for mobsters who come from the former Soviet Union. The term mafiya appeared in the 1970s to refer to corrupt Communist Party officials; since the Soviet Union collapsed it has been used to refer not only to officials but to organized criminals and prominent business leaders, including some of the “oligarchs” who have acquired power and vast fortunes inside Russia. Some Russians object to the phrase “‘Russian’ mafia,” arguing that many of the gangsters are from other nationalities—Ukrainian, Georgian, Latvian, for example. For this reason, FBI reports sometimes refer to “Eurasian” organized crime syndicates, which include those run by Russian nationals; this only creates more confusion since many of the syndicates have nothing to do with Asia. In fact, wherever they were born, most are now Russian citizens, and use Russia or Israel as their base.
It is often said that Russian mobsters started to become active internationally when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union disintegrated. But Friedman traces their beginnings back to the 1970s, when the Soviet Union, under pressure from Washington, permitted Jews to emigrate. The Communist leaders, Friedman writes, “took this opportunity to empty its jails of thousands of hard-core criminals, dumping vast numbers of undesirables…on an unsuspecting America, as well as on Israel and other Western nations.”
Since tens of thousands of people jailed by the Communists were not criminals, when questions were raised about a mobster’s time in prison they tended to be dismissed, and they still are. But many were jailed because they were in fact criminals—pick-pockets, extortionists, and murderers. Some of the toughest of them formed loosely organized associations while in prison, and maintained their connections with one another after they were released. For example, Friedman writes, gangsters who call themselves “thieves-in-law” (vor v zakonye) take vows never to hold a job, or pay taxes, or cooperate with the police or the state, except to trick them. Some of them, he was told …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.