CRIME

Outlaws in a Red zone

New openings for the Soviet underworld

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 7 1988
CRIME

Outlaws in a Red zone

New openings for the Soviet underworld

Anthony Wilson-Smith November 7 1988

Outlaws in a Red zone

CRIME

New openings for the Soviet underworld

For residents of central Moscow, it was the first indication that organized crime had come to their city. Early one morning last month, they awoke to the sounds of speeding cars, followed by the crackle of gunfire. After a small Zhigouli sedan crashed into a tree, several men from three pursuing limousines jumped out and began beating the car’s two passengers with iron bars. Moscow police, alerted by a passing bus driver, finally arrived and arrested the participants. But the victims, despite being beaten so severely that one lost an eye, refused to press charges. Frustrated officers eventually released the attackers. Later, police told reporters that the men were members of rival gangs battling for control of Moscow’s lucrative extortion, prostitution and gambling markets.

State officials had long regarded organized crime as nonexistent in the Soviet Union. But now, its presence is increasingly obvious as a result of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s twin policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic reform). The Soviet media, which sometimes use the word “Mafia” to describe homegrown crime rings, now regularly reports on underworld activities that have flourished for decades. And despite Gorbachev’s avowed intention of ridding Soviet society of corruption, his policy of encouraging private economic initiative has created new opportunities for corrupt practices by unscrupulous entrepreneurs.

In the Soviet Union, wealthy gangsters now often attract the same mix of fear and fascination accorded their counterparts in some parts of the West. The Moscow magazine Smena recently complained that in Sochi, a popular resort in the Black Sea area, “a few types of con men are lovingly welcomed, including card sharks, black marketeers, swindlers and prostitutes.”

In fact, Sochi is regarded as the birthplace of the new era of Soviet crime. For years, black marketeers, known as fartsovshchik, flourished by selling items to Soviet citizens, including American cigarettes for $80 per pack and shoes for $400, that were only available in stores accepting Western currencies.

Shortly after Gorbachev took power in 1985, detectives in the city reported a major gathering of crime leaders. The subject of discussion was perestroika and how they could take advantage of Gorbachev’s reform policies. Since then, newly created co-operative restaurants, which are jointly owned by private individuals and the state, have become a favorite underworld target. Earlier this month, the literary newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta reported that gangs were ordering co-operative restaurant operators to pay up to 2,000 rubles ($4,000) in protection monthly.

At the same time, some co-operatives have become popular investments for underworld figures. They also provide convenient gathering places for criminals, who use a variety of methods, including false bookkeeping, to inflate their share of profits and to launder their money. Declared the Moscow-based Communist party newspaper Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya: “Some co-operative cafés are frequented by criminals and rogues spending their ill-gotten money, and by prostitutes, hard-currency speculators and black marketeers.”

Some elements of the Moscow underworld operate publicly with relative impunity. At Moscow’s sprawling Rizhsky market, prostitutes readily make themselves available for prices beginning at $40. Outside downtown hotels, Western tourists are besieged by foreign-currency traders illegally offering up to five rubles for one Canadian dollar. The official rate was pegged last week at one ruble to $1.95 Canadian.

On the trendy Arbat pedestrian mall, several painters have been beaten in the past month by gang members for refusing to pay protection money. And in Moscow’s popular Sandunov bathhouse, gamblers play cards with stakes up to several thousand rubles a hand.

Outside Moscow, the influence of organized crime groups is sometimes even more blatant. In an interview with Literaturnaya Gazeta last August, Lt.-Col. Alexander Gurov, a senior criminal investigator with the internal affairs ministry, said that drug dealers in areas of the south and of Central Asia sometimes offer bribes of more than $500,000 for policemen to look the other way when drug shipments arrive. Underworld influence is now so strong in one neighborhood of Orenburg, in the Ural Mountains, that policemen do not dare enter it, said Gurov.

There are other signs of the growing power and influence of organized crime. In March, the Communist party newspaper Pravda reported on a mob funeral held in the Central Asian Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. After “a wellknown underworld figure died in a traffic accident,” Pravda said, “400 criminals came to his funeral from different cities.” Many mourners were said to have arrived in foreign-made automobiles, wearing fur coats and carrying gold cigarette lighters.

A crackdown on offenders does not appear to be likely soon. For one thing, Soviet police complain that their crime-fighting efforts are hampered by poor equipment. A shortage of space in police stations means that detectives must often line up to use an interrogation room. Said Alexei Doronkin, a Moscow investigator: “I sometimes spend half a day to do an interrogation that lasts just half an hour.”

As well, said Doronkin, senior officers place an undue emphasis on the percentage of cases each detective solves. The result is that investigators are often unwilling to take on cases that they know will be difficult or time-consuming to crack.

As a result, when an out-of-town woman was robbed last summer of about $20 by a stranger while in Moscow, Doronkin did not file her complaint. Instead, he convinced a train conductor to allow her to travel home free and gave her $10 of his own.

He also pleaded with her not to tell his superior because, under the existing law, he “could be tried for preventing the registration of a crime.”

Those are only some of the problems. Even in such major cities as Moscow and Leningrad, the police drive underpowered Soviet-made Ladas and are allotted only 80 gallons of gas a month. Many police stations often do not have cars available for regular patrols. By contrast, Soviet gang leaders often drive large imported cars, sometimes equipped with police-band radios.

Those cars are nearly impossible for average citizens to obtain because they cannot convert rubles into foreign currencies. Declared Sergei Kozghanov, a senior criminal investigator with a special anticrime unit in the ministry of internal affairs: “What sort of serious fight can we be leading if the Mafiosi are even better equipped than we are ?”

As well, the police echo complaints that are familiar to many of their counterparts in the West. They say that Soviet law leaves them almost powerless to deal with a fastrising crime rate among youthful offenders. Said one Moscow detective: “We cannot put our little fingers on them before they are 18.” Police also say that they want tougher punishment for offenders. The Moscow criminal investigation department says that only 20 per cent of convicted felons ever go to prison.

But those figures are unlikely to improve unless public co-operation in crime-fighting also changes. A public opinion poll conducted last year in the republic of Turkmen, in southwest Central Asia, by the local newspaper Turkmenskaya Iskra showed that more than 38 per cent of respondents had been threatened by extortion attempts at least once.

More than 80 per cent said that they had used the services of black marketeers. And in Moscow last month, when Literaturnaya Gazeta reported the increase in extortion attempts at co-operative restaurants, it added that it could not be more specific because the threatened owners refused to have their names published. Said the newspaper, in an appeal to the owners: “Is there anybody who is not afraid?” The paper received no replies, suggesting that in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, organized crime is just as fearsome a presence as it is in some Western nations.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Moscow