Steve Handelman (New York: Yale University Press, 1995) 379pp. Reviewed by David Jones
The collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to promise a new age for Russia. With much fanfare in the Western press, privatization plans were unveiled and Russian stores were flooded with previously unavailable western goods. There was a genuine sense of euphoria throughout Russia that, at long last, Russians would finally join the rest of Europe in prosperity and freedom. Four years later, the vast majority of Russians have neither, and their hopes have been replaced by the age-old cynicism that has permeated this land throughout history.
The old communist apparatchiki still wield indiscrimiate power despite the death and repudiation of the Communist party. Organized crime has taken over vast swathes of the Russian economy and entire cities have become battlegrounds for competing crime families. Now, instead of printing ebullient stories of Russians attaining new freedoms, the western press is filled with horror stories of immense corruption, drugs and stolen military hardware. What happened to "the Second Russian Revolution" How have crime and corruption become so entrenched in the new Russia?
Stephen Handelman's new book, Comrade Criminal, gives an insider's view into Russia's tainted new order. The book is based on interviews conducted with representatives of every aspect of Russian society, from ordinary citizens and bitter police chiefs to new millionaires and gangsters. Starting with a brief overview of Russia's criminal history, Comrade Criminal develops into a poignant account of a fizzled revolution. Mr. Handelman's interviews are written in an engaging, very readable style which alternately amuse and disgust the reader, but they each provide insight into Russia's dire condition.
Organized criminal life is not a new phenomena in Russia. The vorovskoi mir, or "the thieves' world," has a tradition that dates back the tsarist era of crime and intimidation. In many ways these criminals are similar to the Sicilian mafia in their strict social codes, their aversion to any cooperation with the government and their rule of silence. These unlawful clans flourished even under the harsh conditions of Stalin's terror, becoming the lords of the gulag that Alexander Solzhinytsen described in The Gulag Archi pelago. Yet even these battle-hardened gangs are suffering from the new type of mafia. Devoid of ritual and honor, the new gangsters are slowly edging their...