SWJ Book Review – The Vory: The Russian Super Mafia
Marc Galeotti, The Vory: The Russian Super Mafia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018 [ISBN: 978-0300186826, Hardcover, 344 pages]
Dr. Mark Galeotti is a leading academic, security consultant and adviser to the UK government. His most recent works are We need to talk about Putin (Ebury Press, 2019) and A brief history of Russia (Hanover, 2022). He is well known for his expertise on Russia and its criminal networks and combines his knowledge of Russian history and Russian crime to provide seminal work on the confluence of the two. In The Vory: The Russian Super Mafia published a few years ago, it does just that by providing a fascinating history of Russian organized crime – the vory v zakone (vory)—and describing its modern existence and its consequences. The book has been so successful that it has been or is being translated into sixteen languages.
In less than 300 pages of well-written, easily digestible writing, Galeotti outlines the history of Russian crime. The book is structured in four parts entitled respectively Foundations, Emergence, Varieties and Futures. Foundations considers the beginning of Russian crime and Russian attitudes towards the police, and continues through the end of the Stalin era. He describes the formation of a criminal culture within the gulag system and the “bitch war”, between newer criminals willing to collaborate with the authorities and traditionalists who were not. The second part, Emergence, deals with the origin of the criminals in the Gulag system and their involvement in the economy. It also details the impact of Gorbachev’s leadership and the vast opportunities of his anti-alcohol ban and economic privatization. created for organized crime. The penultimate section, Varieties, deals with the structure of Russian gangs and the gangsters of post-Soviet states, such as Chechnya and Georgia, as well as the relations of Russian gangsters with their contemporaries in China and Japan. The last section, Futures, examines the vory in a more modern sense, and how the outer nature of the vory dissolved, society as a whole embracing criminality hitherto reserved for vory. The militarization of criminal organizations by the Kremlin during the annexation of Crimea and the Donbass region is also covered. Finally, the widespread adoption of crime and new ways of perpetrating crime are discussed, along with some ways to combat this form of crime.
The book as a whole does not offer an academic hypothesis, but is rather descriptive in nature given its mass market orientation. There are, however, a number of smaller arguments or themes that can be found in the text. Perhaps the most relevant of these is the criminalization of Russian society as a whole. In chapter 16, Galeotti lays out his argument around the nationalization of the underworld and the gangsterization of the formal sector. In this context, the criminal has often risen to the rank of a “legitimate” businessman or politician. This legitimate status, however, depends on their continued loyalty to the state or their illegitimate relationships will be used against them. When gangsters rise to powerful roles in the formal sector, gangsterization is inevitable. This manifests itself mainly in the Kremlin’s willingness to turn to tactics traditionally reserved for criminal organizations in order to pursue its objectives, such as contract killings or extortion. This framework, depicting an amalgamation of the autocratic, plutocratic and criminal elements of Russian society into a single joint force consolidating and exploiting the Russian people, contains relevance that transcends Russia.
Galeotti manages to fit a long and complicated story into a short, readable and enjoyable book. The book strikes a respectable balance between education and entertainment, containing stories of the exploits and stories of famous Russian mobsters, along with ample discussion of the conditions that made those exploits and stories possible. It is also an exceptionally relevant book for understanding not only Russian organized crime, but how the crime became integrated into Russian society and politics, which is essential for developing an understanding of the structure of Russia. contemporary. In a genre that can be overrun with sensationalism, Galeotti delivers a grounded and important view of Russian crime and society that has contemporary relevance and provides context for many of the actions of Russia and its oligarchs during the past year.
In his attempt to cover the totality of Russian crime, Galeotti sometimes loses detail, a loss that may leave the reader wanting more. He often falls into a pattern in which he introduces the beginning of an anecdote, but does not play it out satisfactorily. The most striking example of this is Chapter 10, “The Chechen”, in which Galeotti begins the chapter by describing his encounter with one of Moscow’s most notorious Chechen hitmen. Galeotti describes him as a natural storyteller who recounted feats that seemed almost unbelievable but divulged none of those seemingly compelling stories. Although this is largely due to the scope of the book, it can sometimes leave a reader unsatisfied. Nor is it the book to turn to for a reader looking for policy proposals to combat Russian crime. In Chapter 16, Galeotti briefly offers suggestions for dealing with Russian international crime, suggesting caution and a more critical eye for financial institutions that have previously accepted Russian money. Galeotti offers a description of Russian crime, not a manual for dealing with it, but the description provided is still a necessary prerequisite, maintaining the relevance of this book for those seeking to understand and combat Russian crime.
In The Vorys, Mark Galeotti combines information and reading pleasure, delivering a book that is both important and a page-turner. It is essential to understanding the current Russian political system, and the criminality, once reserved for the Gulags, which now runs through the veins of the Kremlin. The main shortcomings of the book are largely due to the breadth of information covered by a limited number of pages, although this does not detract from the overall value of the book. Galeotti paints an intriguing and disturbing picture of Russian power, and The Vorys is essential for anyone seeking to understand these power dynamics and to prevent these same power dynamics from taking hold elsewhere.