Sometimes known as the “Red Mob” (krasnaia mafiia) or the “Brotherhood” (bratva), the Russian mafia (sometimes spelled “mafiya” in the Western press) has rapidly expanded its international presence since the collapse of Communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Organized crime in Russia is differentiated by its extremely close relationship with the government, particularly members of the siloviki>. There are several reasons for this historical development. The totalitarian structure of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) allowed for few criminal enterprises to exist without the complicity of officials. The proliferation of the black market under Leonid Brezhnev created expansive networks of procurers who needed protections that could be afforded through contacts with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Economic privations and the shortage economy of the late Gorbachev era gave further impetus to the developing criminal underworld.
   With the withering of the police state in the 1990s, many members of the KGB found themselves out of work, or existing on meager incomes. With their connections abroad and across the Russian Federation, some allied themselves with criminal gangs to engage in money laundering, extortion, illegal arms sales, narcotics trafficking, prostitution, and other illicit activities. Through immigration and the effects of Russia’s exposure to globalization, Russian mafiosi established links with the Japanese yakuza and the Italian Cosa Nostra, as well as Chinese and Latin American criminal syndicates. Corruption, which reached to the highest levels of government, allowed the situation to worsen over time, particularly during periods of economic crisis. Russia’s dangerous business climate during the early 1990s further compounded the problem, as local entrepreneurs and foreign investors became dependent on private security firms and alliances with disreputable figures to assure their own safety. Each major city saw the rise of its own criminal gang, while certain Chechens—displaced from their homeland and scorned across the country—established a widespread network of criminal activity known as the obshchina (Community).
   While railing against the growth of organized crime under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin made stamping out the mafia a major plank of his presidency. However, critics of the new regime regularly suggested that the state had simply co-opted organized crime rather than eradicating its control of important sectors of the country’s economy. In fact, contract killings—a common occurrence under Yeltsin—rose dramatically in 2008, sullying Putin’s “law and order” legacy.

Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation. . 2010.

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