The long read: Under Vladmir Putin, gangsterism on the streets has given style to kleptocracy in the state
I was in Moscow in 1988, during the course of its final years of the Soviet Union. The system was sliding towards shabby oblivion, even if no one knew at the time how soon the end would come. While carrying out research for my doctorate on the impact of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, I was interviewing Russian veterans of that brutal conflict. When I could, I would fulfill these afgantsy shortly after they got home, and then again a year into civilian life, to see how they were adjusting. Most came back raw, shocked and angry, either burst with tales of horror and blunder, or spikily or numbly withdrawn. A year later, though, most had done what people usually do in such circumstances: they had adapted, they had coped. The nightmares were less frequent, the memories less vivid. But then there were those who could not or would not move on. Some of these young men collaterally damaged by the war had become adrenaline junkies, or simply intolerant of the conventions of everyday life.
One of the men I got to know during this time was named Volodya. Wiry, intense and morose, he had a brittle and dangerous quality that, on the whole, I would have crossed the road to avoid. He had been a marksman in the war. The other afgantsy I knew tolerated Volodya, but never seemed comfy with him , nor with speaking about him. He always had money to burn, at a time when most were eking out the most marginal of lives, often living with their parents and juggling multiple jobs. It all made sense, though, when I later learned that he had become what was known in Russian crime circles as a “torpedo” – a hitman.
As the values and structures of Soviet life crumbled and fell, organised crime was emerging from the ruins , no longer subservient to the corrupt Communist party bosses and the black-market millionaires. As it rose, it was gathering a new generation of recruits, including damaged and disillusioned veterans of the USSR's last war. Some were bodyguards, some were athletes, some were leg-breakers and some- such as Volodya- were killers.
I never found out what happened to Volodya. He probably ended up as a casualty of the gang wars of the 1990 s, opposed out with car bombs, drive-by shootings and knives in the night. That decade ensure the emergence of a tradition of monumental memorialisation, as fallen gangsters were interred with full Godfather-style pomp, with black limousines threading through tracks lined with white carnations and mausoleums marked with huge headstones. Vastly expensive( the largest cost upwards of $ 250,000, at a time when the average wage was close to a dollar per day) and stupendously tacky, these monuments showed the dead with the spoils of their criminal lives: the Mercedes, the designer suit, the heavy gold chain. I still wonder if some day I'll be walking through one of the cemeteries favoured by Moscow's gangsters and will come across Volodya's grave.
Nonetheless, it was thanks to Volodya and those like him that I became one of the first western intellectuals to raise the alarm about the rise and consequences of Russian organised crime, the presence of which had, with a few honorable exceptions, been previously dismissed. The 1990 s were the glory days of the Russian gangsters, though, and since then, under Putin, gangsterism on the street has given route to kleptocracy in the country. The mob wars objective, the economy determined, and despite the current sanctions regime in the post-Crimea cool war, Moscow is now as festooned as any European capital with Starbucks and other such icons of globalisation.
In the years since meeting Volodya, I have studied the Russian underworld as a scholar, a government adviser( including a stint with the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office ), a business consultant and sometimes as a police resource. I have watched it rise and, if not fall, then certainly change; I have assured it become increasingly tamed by a political elite that is far more ruthless, in its own way, than the old felon bosses. All the same, I am still left with the image of that particular war-scarred gunman, at once victim and perpetrator of the new wave of Russian gangsterism, a metaphor for a society that would be plunged into a maelstrom of nearly unrestrained corruption, violence and criminality.
In 1974, a naked body washed up on the coast at Strelna, to the south-west of Leningrad( as St Petersburg was then known ). It had been floating in the Gulf of Finland for a couple of weeks, and was not a pretty sight. A series of deep knife meanders in the man's abdomen gave a fairly good indication of the cause of death. And yet, with no fingerprints and no dres, and with his face bloated, battered and partly eaten away, there were none of the conventional clues for identifying him. There had been no missing-persons notification filed for him. Nonetheless, he was identified within two days. The reason: his body was liberally adorned with tattoos. The tattoos were the mark of a vor – the Russian word for “thief”, but also a general word for a career member of the Soviet underworld. Most of the tattoos were still recognisable, and an expert on read them was summoned.
Within an hour, they had been deciphered. The leaping stag on his breast? That symbolised a word spent in one of the northern labour camps. The knife wrapped in chains on his right forearm? The man had committed a violent assault( though not a murder) while behind bars. Traverses on three of his knuckles? Three separate prison term served. Perhaps the most telling was the polluted anchor on his upper arm, to which a barbed wire surround had clearly been added later: the wearer was a navy veteran, who had been sentenced to prison for a crime committed while in service.
Equipped with these details, it was a relatively quick matter to identify the dead man as Matvei Lodochnik, or” Matvei the Boatman”, a former naval warrant officer who, 20 years earlier, had beaten a navy draftee virtually to demise. Later, Matvei had gone on to become a fixture of the underworld in the city of Vologda. The police never found out quite why Matvei was in Leningrad, or why he died. But the velocity with which he could be identified attests not just to the particular visual language of the Soviet underworld, but also to its universality. His tattoos were at once his commitment to the criminal life, and also his CV.
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