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The Russian Mafia in America: Immigration, Culture, and Crime

The Russian Mafia in America: Immigration, Culture, and Crime

by James O. Finckenauer, Elin J. Waring

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Does a "Russian Mafia" really exist? This book seeks to answer that question by investigating in detail such topics as the characteristics of the Russian criminal tradition of Vory v Zakone ("thieves professing the code"), contemporary Russian mobs, criminal activity among Russian immigrants, claims of KGB involvement in American crime, and connections between crime


Does a "Russian Mafia" really exist? This book seeks to answer that question by investigating in detail such topics as the characteristics of the Russian criminal tradition of Vory v Zakone ("thieves professing the code"), contemporary Russian mobs, criminal activity among Russian immigrants, claims of KGB involvement in American crime, and connections between crime bosses and gangsters in both countries.

Drawing on research conducted in cooperation with the Tri-State Joint Soviet emigre Organized Crime Project as well as on privileged access to confidential information, James O. Finckenauer and Elin J. Waring particularly focus on criminal networks in the New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania area. They also report on a nationwide survey of law enforcement agencies and examine major criminal cases, notably Russian participation with Cosa Nostra families in bootleg gasoline schemes.

The Russian Mafia in America is the first in-depth study on Russian organized crime since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the arrival of the latest wave of immigrants to the United States. It is an eye-opening expose of major players in America's underworld and a significant contribution to the literature on organized crime.

New in paperback with a new epilogue by the authors.

Editorial Reviews

Gerald J. Russello
...[A] noteworthy attempt to analyze rigorously the available evidence concerning what some perceive is a growing crisis. Without proper analysis, it will be difficult to determine the legal and policy implications of different approaches to the problem of Russian organized crime. With the financial and social collapse of Russia continuing to be a problem no only for Russia but for other nations as well, this study is a necessary guide to an important consequence of that collapse.
Law and Politics Book Review

Product Details

Northeastern University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


This is a story of Russian crime and criminals. Most of it takes place in the contemporary United States, especially in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn and in parts of New Jersey and Philadelphia. Some of it takes place in California and Florida.

    To truly understand the Russians who have come to America--old and new, criminal and not, honest and not--we are compelled to look at who they are and where they have come from. Their roots are in czarist Russia, the Russia of the former Soviet Union, and the Russia of today. The most important lessons that immigrants learned were about survival under the novel and difficult conditions that marked Soviet life. For all Russians, being especially adaptive and innovative often meant putting aside morality and legality, and this outlook--characterized by rationalization, hypocrisy, and a double standard of morality--to varying degrees shapes the thinking and behavior of almost all Soviet Russians who have come to America. This is especially so for some of the most recent arrivals--those referred to as the new Russians--whose worldview was shaped in the declining years of a Soviet Union that was reaching its nadir of corruption and decadence.

    Our story has additional roots in the prisons of Russia, especially the notorious prison camp system known as the Soviet gulag. Those prisons were the birthplace for a class of ruthless professional criminals, a number of whom have since turned up in the United States. They too are a significant part of the story.

    Other roots reach into the neighborhoods where Russian immigrants have settled when they arrive in the United States, beginning with the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russian Jewish immigrants who settled in New York City. A second wave arrived after World War I, and a third after World War II. More recently, a fourth wave of Russians came to the United States between roughly mid-1970 and 1991, and a fifth arrived after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Each of these immigrant groups has distinctive characteristics, yet they are linked by a common language and common origins. The economic experiences of Russian immigrants, and their dealings with crime and corruption, are part of that common origin.

    Why should anyone be interested in this story? After all, haven't enough books (fiction and nonfiction) and articles on crime and organized crime been published? For the serious student of the subject, there are a host of government reports to be digested, as well. But apart from works of fiction and textbooks written mostly for undergraduate students, only a handful of original, book-length studies of organized crime can be found. If one further excludes the works focused on Italian American organized crime, the list becomes considerably shorter. We know very little--and in some cases nothing-about the involvement of non-Italian groups that are becoming major perpetrators of organized crime in this country.

    Only a few works deal with crime and organized crime in Russia, even though Russian immigrant crime (generally referred to as the Russian mafia) has received considerable media coverage. In fact, only one other book examines crime among Soviet emigres to the United States. Enormous changes have occurred since that book was published more than ten years ago, including the arrival of the fifth wave of Russian immigrants.

    For Americans, this is more than just another story of organized crime among yet another group of ethnic immigrants. The relationship between Russia and the United States, both before and after the demise of the USSR, is unique. For half a century the Soviet Union was viewed as an arch enemy and superpower rival of the United States. Its economic, political, and social systems were very different from those of the United States, and it alone rivaled the United States in the extent of its international spheres of influence, nuclear arsenal, and space program. Since 1991, though, supporting the struggle for democracy in Russia has become a principal American foreign policy goal, and that struggle is thwarted and threatened by rampant organized crime and corruption.

    Nowhere else in the world has organized crime so infiltrated the highest echelons of the state as in Russia today. Organized crime has power and control in Russia whose scope far exceeds the criminal control exercised by drug cartels in countries such as Colombia. Beyond its own borders, Russian organized crime is a global concern. Arms trafficking, alien smuggling, money laundering, trafficking in vital materials such as oil and timber, and (potentially) nuclear trafficking are among the Russian criminal enterprises on the international scene.

    Focusing on ethnic identity (in this case Russian but also Chinese, Irish, or Italian) means wrestling with the idea of ethnicity, which plays a major role in our story. This is complicated by the popular characterization as Russian of anyone from any of the regions that were part of imperial Russia, the former Soviet Union, or contemporary Russia. In reality, such immigrants come from many regional groups (including Ukrainian, Uzbek, Armenian, and Byelorussian) and religious groups (such as Jewish and Russian Orthodox). Despite this diversity, people who lived in the Soviet Union share certain defining characteristics, the most important of which are the experiences of having been a Soviet citizen and of speaking the Russian language. Based on our study of the relationship between ethnicity and crime, it is clear that no ethnic group is criminal and that indeed most members of any ethnic group (including Russians) are not criminals.

    Just what does being Russian mean? Our specific interest is in Soviet Russians, who are a somewhat special category. Are the Soviet Russians of the 1990s different from their Russian immigrant ancestors of a century ago, a half century ago, or a generation ago? Are these differences reflected in their experiences on our shores? Most important, do these differences have anything to do with Russians' involvement in crime?

    In spite of the notoriety of the Italian word mafia, it has no common, universally accepted meaning. Our principal purpose here is to understand how and why this term has come to be associated with Russian criminals, both here and in Russia itself. To do so, we look at mafias and mafiosi--and also the role of mafia myths--as these relate to organized crime and the organization of criminal activities among Russian immigrants.

    Whatever else it may invoke, mafia has connotations of organized crime, which leads us to consider the very idea of organized crime and how it differs from other crime. For example, one of the elements of organized crime is the conspiracy--that is, two or more people planning and carrying out criminal acts. Conspiracy also can be used in a broader sense of a fanciful explanation for otherwise unexplained phenomena that rely on the coming together of seemingly malevolent forces. Russians, mafias, and organized crime all seem to be attractive subjects for those who have a propensity for promulgating conspiracy theories.

    In addition to ethnicity, Russians, mafias, and organized crime, a fifth major idea that plays a prominent role in our discussion is that of networks. The word network is used by criminal investigators and the press to characterize criminal organizations said to be engaged in organized crime. As we use the term, network means connections between individuals, organizations, or other entities. These networks may engage in joint, reciprocal, preferential, and mutually supportive actions. They may be complex or relatively simple, large or small. Trust is usually an important element in the operation of criminal and other networks. The networks that we analyze are made up mostly of Russians in the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania areas where our primary research took place. The network activities we are mainly interested in are criminal.

    We need to say a word about our research and its concentration in one particular geographical area. Organized crime is a difficult and even dangerous subject to study. One cannot approach it as one might approach juvenile delinquency or other types of crime. The typical tools of the criminologist--observation, surveys, interviews, samples, and questionnaires--are either extremely difficult or impossible to use when studying organized crime.

    In light of these obstacles, we were fortunate to be permitted to join with the Tri-state Joint Soviet Emigre Organized Crime Project--a joint intelligence, investigative, and prosecutorial effort by the New York State Organized Crime Task Force, the New York State Commission of Investigation, the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation, and the Pennsylvania Crime Commission. The goal of the Project was to identify the nature and extent of Russian emigre crime within the tristate region of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to assist area law enforcement officers in their efforts to combat organized crime. For four years (1992 to 1995) the Project gathered and analyzed intelligence information by researching crimes, investigating crimes, and creating an information database.

    Relying on teams of investigators, attorneys, and analysts from the collaborating agencies, the Tri-state Project employed all the tools traditionally used to investigate organized crime--including surveillance, informants, undercover investigation, intelligence reports, telephone records, and public information such as indictments and newspaper reports. Through our link with the Tri-state Project we were able to gain access to otherwise confidential information, which gave us a unique opportunity to learn about the organization of criminal activity among Russian immigrants in this region.

    As is true with any research that depends on secondary data sources, problems can arise concerning the reliability and validity of the data, and these are compounded when the data are obtained from raw intelligence files. We describe the steps we took to deal with these issues. In addition to the information obtained by the Project, we collected a considerable amount of primary data and information using interviews and surveys, some of which would have been impossible to amass without our affiliation with the Tri-state Project. This combination of sources has given us the best of both worlds. We believe the results justify the research risks we have taken, but our readers will have to judge our methods for themselves.

    To avoid being limited to the tristate region and the concerns of the Tri-state Project, we collected additional information through interviews with law enforcement officials, journalists, and other experts on Soviet crime, Soviet emigres, and organized crime. We also surveyed prosecutors and law enforcement officials who are specialists in organized crime by simply asking respondents, "To your knowledge, has your agency ever investigated, prosecuted, or otherwise had contact with any criminals or suspected criminals who are from the former Soviet Union within the last five years?" Of course, an affirmative response could mean one or many contacts and one or many crimes. Nevertheless, this question was a useful starting point. Overall, about one-third of the respondents reported some contact with such criminals or suspects.

    The following propositions are either supported or refuted by our research:

* Russian Mafia is actually a misnomer and perhaps even an oxymoron. The Russian Mafia is neither Russian nor mafia. There is no Mafia--Russian or otherwise--in the United States, nor is there one in Russia itself.

* The idea of an American-based Russian Mafia is largely a creation of the media and law enforcement. The symbolism and romance attached to the term mafia--and the level of law enforcement response it seems to call for--have given this idea a receptive audience in the United States; but it has little basis in fact.

* Although individual crimes that are highly organized are committed by Russians, there is no Russian organized crime as such in the United States.

* In Russia, on the other hand, organized crime is so pervasive as to be unlike anything experienced in the United States.

* Organized crime may have provided a "crooked ladder of social mobility" for Russian Jewish immigrants clamoring to enter the middle class a century ago, but this is not so with Russian immigrants today.

* Crime---often of a highly organized and complex kind--is a matter of choice for the minority of Russian immigrants who engage in it. This choice is shaped by many factors, among which are attitudes shaped by their Soviet experience.

    This provocative set of statements provides the framework for the discussion in the chapters that follow. Because it is the overarching idea that each of the other major ideas of this work relates to, we begin our discussion in the next chapter with the idea of organized crime.

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