This is a gripping history of how the Russian state and criminal gangs became intertwined, says Simon Sebag Montefiore
This book could not be more relevant: it explains some aspects of the sinister events that have tainted the streets of London and Salisbury, and the politically inspired hackings in America and Europe, while illuminating the naivety of those who try to suggest such actions might be criminal rather than state operations.
It’s a history of the vory — Russia’s criminal potentates. Starting in the 18th century with Vanka Kain, the gangster who became a police chief of Empress Elizaveta, it continues up to today — Crimea, Ukraine and hacking — all enterprises in which the modern state uses criminals to do its work. “The modern Russian state is much stronger than in the 1990s,” writes Mark Galeotti, the pre-eminent expert on Russian mafia, but it functions as a “mobilisation state” in which the Kremlin demands services from the media, hackers, businessmen or criminals.
So similar are businessmen, state officials and sophisticated criminals that it is “extraordinarily difficult to distinguish between the genuine business person and the gangster-entrepreneur”. Furthermore “a particular ‘spook-gangster nexus’ has emerged” in which “the security services have long used the vory and criminal networks… for carrying out covert missions”. Only one rule applies: “That perennial truism — the state is the biggest gang in town.”
Galeotti has the cautious authority of a scholar. He defines the Russian criminal and political worlds, with their shared cult of authority, their constant threat of violence and their common vernacular such as “krysha” (the roof) that is the essential protection, whether in business or politics.
In the process we encounter at least one assassination per page, gobsmacking tales of criminal cruelty: flayings, beheadings and state corruption, fantastical graveyards of vulgar gangster tombs, colourfully inked art in the form of coded body tattoos and a delicious array of criminal “klychki” (nicknames): Alex the Bull, Ivan the Gypsy, Kolya Karate, The Deathless, Locomotive, Icecream-Seller, The Beheader, Superkiller, Roosevelt (who was in a wheelchair) and Stumpy Mishka, who specialised in The Fan: splaying his tied-up victims on the ground in an arc so he could brain them in a single axe swing.
Today’s structure really developed in the early 20th century when Lenin, an intellectual nobleman, commandeered “the brigands’ world” to provide the ruthless amorality and murderous force for his very moral revolution. He commissioned young Stalin to launch a spree of rackets, bank robberies and piracy to fund the Bolsheviks. Stalin used his own gang, led by a flamboyantly-depraved psychopath named Kamo. After 1917, when Lenin formed their secret police, the Cheka, later the NKVD, these organs consciously promoted ex-criminals.
Even though the KGB later fostered a cult of heroic spymasters and revolutionary knights, this always included a strong strain of extra-legal violence; the KGB adopted the gangland lingo known as “fenya”, such as using “mokroye delo” — (wet job) — for killing, and when the new premier, later President, Putin boasted of liquidating Chechen rebels, he proudly said: “We’ll whack them (in Russian “wet them”) on the toilet.”
There have always been vory, but the Bolsheviks promoted the brigands in power, Vory v Zakone, whom they placed in charge of the Gulag camps of political prisoners. This worked until the 1950s, when the criminal collaborators known as the “suki” (bitches) and the diehard thieves, led by traditional vory who despised serving the state, fought a savage conflict for power, the wonderfully-named Bitches War. The Bitches won!
I spent a lot of time with the star of this book, Jaba Ioseliani — bank robber, killer and mafia godfather — who later became a playwright and warlord of a private army in 1990s Georgia. He was a fascinating brigand, who died in his bed and inspired the gangster boss in my novel Red Sky at Noon.
The old vory became the more ruthless “avtoritet” (authority). There was never a single capo di tutti capi, nor a single mafia like the Sicilians, but many groups, particularly the “highlanders” — the Georgians and Chechens — now concentrated under Putin’s client leader, Kadryov, in autonomous Chechnya.
After 1999 Putin restored state control over the criminals. Moving off the streets, often indistinguishable from leading secret policemen, businessmen and politicians, the criminals are always at the cutting edge of technology, so that they now offer hacking and money laundering services as much as the old wet work and drug smuggling.
This brilliant, gripping, astonishingly rich, important book, filled with flamboyant gangsters, devious rackets, vicious hits, secret policemen, Kremlin leaders and criminal slang, is at once a true-crime chronicle, a work of scholarship, an anthropological study, a political history of the fused underworld and upper echelons of Russian power — and essential reading today.