Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Although already overtaken by events since its publication in the early 1990s, Stephen Handelman’s Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya is an important book. Its central thesis, while not entirely original, involves the claim that the Communist Party was a form of criminal conspiracy, and inevitably gave birth to the new mafia (spelled mafiya in Russian) that dominate large parts of the Soviet economy today.
We know of course that the Old Bolsheviks were fascinated by crime, and perhaps rightly so: in an era when almost all forms of oppositional politics were outlawed, there wasn’t much of a difference between social revolutionaries and criminals. As Montefiore’s biography, Young Stalin, reminds us: key Bolsheviks led armed groups that functioned both as mafia clans and Communist agitators, with Stalin going so far as to pull off hugely successful bank heists in order to finance Lenin’s political platform. Handelman also points out that most leading Bolsheviks spent a lot of time in the gulag, where they would have become intimately familiar with ordinary criminal circles. And many, like Stalin, openly expressed admiration for the ethos of the tough, ruthless criminal underworld.
When the Bolsheviks took power, it was in some respects inevitable that they would carry some of their criminal tendencies (if that’s not too strong a word) to the Kremlin. And indeed the Central Committee and Politburo did begin to resemble a meeting of dons to settle larger disputes about the state’s wealth would be distributed. Like the Mafia, the Party was always extremely centralized and hierarchical. Decisions were always made at the very top, and nowhere else. More importantly, over time the Communist Party became a kind of cosa nostra. Its members formed a relatively small subset of the overall population, isolated themselves from that population through specific socialization rites and rituals of loyalty, intermarried, and enjoyed a large set of special privileges which they endeavored to pass on to family and friends. (The author recalls that this brand of nepotism existed at every level of the Party, with Brezhnev famously giving his son-in-law a key post in his government. )
In fact, to become a Communist Party member, one required Communist Party personal sponsors, not unlike a traditional rite of entry into the Russia mafia. To be a Party member meant access to special schools, stores, jobs, cars, retirement packages, the possibility of travelling across and national borders, state-sponsored dachas, and vacations in the Crimea. It also meant you had a chance to become a political official or government bureaucrat. If one sets aside the criminal class, the Communist political and bureaucratic class—called the nomenklatura-- became, notoriously, the only class that mattered in Russia and the Soviet State in general.
To get things done, you had to work through the Party elite. They, aside from the mafia, who continued to operate throughout the Soviet experiment notwithstanding Stalin’s repressions, were the only “fixers” in town: they decided who received housing, who got permission to move to other regions, what jobs became available, what justice would look like, and everything else that affected ordinary people.
The reality of the situation was only fully revealed with the collapse of communism.
Although it seems ironic to some, Handelman believes it was inevitable that former Communist officials would collaborate with the mafia (now dangerously split into dozens if not hundreds of groups or factions) in the vacuum on a broad spectrum of outrageously successful criminal ventures that robbed the Russian people of most of their patrimony. If there must be an irony about the rise of Comrade Criminal, the ex-Communist gangster, it is that Communist ideology had always denied the very existence of criminality in Russia. According to official Communist doctrine, organized crime was a byproduct of decadent, immoral capitalism, but could not exist in a socialist state.