Gangs of Russia: From the Streets to the Corridors of Power, by Svetlana Stephenson

Book of the week: Tim Hall on post-Soviet criminal clans, diverse and complex groups to whom lawlessness is anathema

January 14, 2016
Man holding baseball bat in tunnel
Source: Alamy

When I was growing up in England in the 1970s and 1980s, Russia felt like an oppressive presence beyond the horizon: an unknowable, threatening land of spies, nuclear warheads and monolithic political and military systems. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been made scarcely more knowable through the well-worn stereotypes drawn on by any journalist or film-maker tasked with bringing an immense and complex country to life. Although the emotionless state bureaucrats, nuclear warheads and the KGB have been replaced by a tiger-wrestling president and predatory oligarchs who own mansions in Kensington and fading football empires, the mythical facade that envelops Russia has proven rather more resilient than Chelsea’s defensive line of late. At a time when anxieties about the nation’s place on the world stage are once again on the rise, Svetlana Stephenson’s fascinating study of the world of the Russian gang – a “collective, predominantly male, violent endeavor; a militant alliance or clan that exists in the midst of modern society” – is particularly welcome.

Stephenson carried out the research that informs this book in Kazan, a city on the Volga some 800km east of Moscow, where gangs have long been part of urban life. Lengthy quotes taken from numerous semi-structured interviews with gang members, former gang members, young people beyond the gang, educational psychologists and law enforcement agents are particularly effective in conveying the day-to-day realities of gang life – the meet-ups, the fights, the vodka drinking, the bodybuilding sessions, the negotiations with other gangs, the “kryshy” protection rackets and other schemes of varying degrees of illegality and attendant violence – as well as their broader concerns.

However, this is no mere parochial case study, as Stephenson’s close focus on the teenage boys and men known universally as “the lads” (“patsany”) informs a wider exploration of the transformation of the Russian gang-scape in the course of the turbulent transition from communism. The “violent entrepreneurs” whose numbers swelled in the 1990s, she observes, “had many similarities with the strategies of others who were managing to find their way in the devastation brought by the collapse of the Soviet system”. Although Gangs of Russia discusses gang organisation, economies and the roles of violence, ritual and tradition, it also, crucially, situates gangs in their wider social context. These are not groups of marginalised outcasts; rather than being “alien to society”, they are “firmly embedded in it”, and integrated in multiple ways into the social and economic mainstream.

Gangs of Russia’s most substantial contribution, however, is adding considerable depth and complexity to our view of the gang as a social and geographical entity. Stephenson shows that the discourse of exclusion, criminality and marginality is at best not universally true, and at worst a severely distorting reduction. She talks, for example, of Russian gangs’ diversity and complexity, and their considerable middle class and professional membership – indeed, the “lads” she interviews include university students, lawyers, engineers and doctors.

What will be particularly striking to a British reader are the ways in which Russian gangs, while motivated by collective self-interest, are shown to act as – and indeed are often popularly seen as – agents of social order. The gang code of “poniatiia” encompasses honour, respect for hierarchy and mutual support within gangs, prohibitions around certain behaviours and trades, as well as limits on members’ more hedonistic and materialistic impulses. Violence can be recreational as well as tactical, but to the lads the notion of “bespredel” – lawlessness or anarchy – is anathema. Spreading bespredel attracts attention, is bad for business and is seen as a sign of weakness, and gang members often foster good relations with authority – including younger members behaving courteously towards teachers – to avoid bespredel. It is a striking contrast to the typical Western view of gangs as sources of only violence and disorder.

All too frequently, discussion of organised crime becomes embedded in disembodied, transnational renditions that paint it as an almost organic force spreading from a few corrupt hotspots. Stephenson is one of relatively few researchers to engage with the more plural yet mundane realities of criminal life. In doing so, her work follows in the tradition of Dick Hobbs in exposing the local worlds of criminal organisations. Another of her book’s strengths is that it teases out connections between the literatures on gangs and those on organised crime, which traditionally have been too readily disassociated. Drawing on the words of her interviewees, she deftly maps not only the relationships between street gangs and organised criminal groups, but also their links to the appropriators of state assets and political power.

Stephenson’s articulation of the Russian underworld is a subtle one. Particularly revealing are the ways her narrative embeds the stories of the lads of the street gangs, the “bandits”, in the context of the wider transformation of Russian criminal organisations in recent decades. She talks of the ways in which the street bandits’ organisation, culture and ethos are influenced by but distinct from those of the traditional Russian prison gangs, the vory. Vory were formed in the closed contexts of the Soviet prison system, which created allegiances based around rigid, unbending, hierarchical associations and a code that deliberately cut members off from mainstream society. While this gained the vory considerable cultural capital, it left them vulnerable within a market system that values flexibility and connections to the mainstream. Although street gangs often find it tough in the capitalist context, they are not the creaking relics that the vory have become.

The myth of the power of organised criminal groups has long had significant purchase, particularly in political and policing circles, but Stephenson here shows Russian gangs’ vulnerability as they negotiate the challenges of the early 21st century. The great gold rushes in the Russian grey economy are over. There are few, if any, state assets or lucrative economic turfs that have not already been taken over or divided up, and under Vladimir Putin, the state has become a more powerful agent. Many younger gang members bemoan having to graft on the street even as previous generations move into the higher echelons of business and politics. Stephenson also discusses the challenge of growing gang involvement in the illicit drugs economy, which has the potential to be a game changer.

Gangs of Russia is steeped in its extensive empirical source material. Stephenson also incorporates domestic criminological sources that add range to her narrative, and her use of classical criminological and sociological theory is sparing but effective. This is a book that lets the Russian gang speak with a clarity that is hard to imagine in the UK or US context, given the simplified and demonised renditions that dominate public discussion of the gang question in those countries. Arguably, however, the book could be leaner, as repetition of its central points reinforces key arguments but also dissipates the narrative drive somewhat.

The final substantive chapter, “Gang culture and the wider Russian society”, makes the case that even as gangs’ economic powers erode in the early 21st century, their cultural influence across swathes of Russian society remains robust. It draws convincing parallels between the “lads’ logic” of the streets and the posturing of Russia’s post-Soviet economic, cultural and political elites, including Putin’s use of identifiably gang-inflected language. At the same time, its reliance on secondary sources and observations of Russian media means that it feels less certain than the chapters preceding it, and perhaps is more the working-through of a thesis for a future volume. Understanding the behaviour of Russian elites in their own cultural context would be a worthy endeavour that would add nuance to the extant thinly drawn stereotypes. On the strength of Gangs of Russia, Stephenson would seem to be ideally placed to turn her critical gaze on this area in future projects.

This is an important book about contemporary Russia and about a significant global social formation. While the existing scholarly work on these subjects is extensive, both are given fresh clarity in this assured analysis. The world of the gang, as Stephenson shows, tells us about much more than just what teenagers get up to in the evening.

Tim Hall is professor of interdisciplinary social studies and head of the department of applied social studies at the University of Winchester.

Gangs of Russia: From the Streets to the Corridors of Power
By Svetlana Stephenson
Cornell University Press, 288pp, £53.50 and £15.50
ISBN 9780801453878 and 9781501700248
Published 12 November 2015

The author

Svetlana Stephenson, reader in sociology at London Metropolitan University, lives in London with her husband Bob. “We met in Moscow in 1992, where he had come to work with the Russian government on technical assistance projects, and we were married there in 1995. I also have a grown-up son, Alexei, who is a professional Russian-English translator and interpreter.”

She was born and raised in Moscow to historian parents who worked for the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia. “They truly had an encyclopaedic knowledge of history,” she observes. “They encouraged me to study and learn foreign languages, even though there was little prospect for me of ever going abroad – as we thought at the time!

“They belonged to a generation of intelligentsia who lived their whole lives in an oppressive system, but firmly believed in the emancipatory power of education and culture. My mother’s favourite writer was Chekhov, and she used to say that for her Chekhov expressed a ‘longing for a civilised life’.”

Stephenson recalls “a formative moment at the age of 10, when I first heard from a friend about Stalin’s purges – something our schoolteachers never mentioned. From then on I questioned everything I heard, and never believed official propaganda. Living under Brezhnev, I grew up in a period when humour at the expense of the authorities was pervasive. As the Soviet writer and dissident Andrei Sinyavsky said, in the 20th century Russian culture invented two new genres – the political joke and the prison song. In different ways, both expressed a spirit of resistance.”

Her parents encouraged and inspired her to study, Stephenson says, as did “many wonderful teachers over the years. I followed my parents’ path and took history at university. At the time, this subject was considered to be an instrument for promoting Communist ideology, and we had some lecturers whose main expertise was in interpreting the latest party dogma.

“However, I also encountered teachers who had amazing depth and breadth of knowledge, and for whom education and scholarship were a true vocation. These were spartan times, and educated people were not distracted by consumerism (however much they would have liked to have been), nor were they seduced by the lure of better money to be made in private business (as none existed).

“For many members of the intelligentsia, a life spent among books was the height of their aspirations, and if they were paid to do this by the state, this seemed like a great fortune. I still feel the same, lucky to be doing what I do, learning and teaching, and in my own modest way helping to develop in others the same attitude to education and culture that my parents’ generation gave me.”

As an undergraduate at Moscow State Pedagogical University, she recalls, she was “a normal student. The key to success in the Soviet higher education system was passing exams, of which there were many each term, and I very quickly learned the necessary skills to pass these exams so that I could concentrate on reading what was really interesting to me, and having fun with my friends.”

She completed her first degree, in history, in 1984.“This was still a year before Mikhail Gorbachev’s appointment as General Secretary, and although there were inevitably some generational differences between students and teachers – a few of whom were real Stalinists! – it was only later that that the generation gap became much wider. At this time I was reading ‘samizdat’ – banned literature, illegally printed and distributed, for example Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the British historian Robert Conquest – but I never discussed it in class.”

Over the course of her five-year first degree, she “received a comprehensive education, studying world and Russian history, as well as other subjects such as philosophy and principles of law. Sociology was not in the curriculum, but my father gave me a book called American Sociology, which, unlike many Soviet textbooks, included translations of original English texts. I found it fascinating.”

“After graduation I worked as a teacher of history at a secondary school in Moscow, in my spare time doing reviews and translations of Western sociological texts for INION, the Institute of Scientific Information of Social Sciences of the Russian Academy of Science. And then a wonderful thing happened. Gorbachev became the General Secretary, and perestroika began. This was a time of enormous hope for many people and led to a real change of direction in my own life.

“Gorbachev founded the first Soviet Centre for Public Opinion Research (VCIOM). I started working there as a translator and soon moved into research. While working at VCIOM I also studied for my doctorate at the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences.”

Her doctoral research focused on homelessness in Moscow, and this work informed her first English language book, Crossing the Line: Vagrancy, Homelessness and Social Displacement in Russia, published in 2006.

“The move from history into sociology came naturally,” Stephenson says. “My background in history helps me enormously in my sociological research, enabling me to look at social issues through both a close-up and long distance lens.”

Her first opportunity to visit the UK came in 1990, when she attended a summer school for young Soviet sociologists at the University of Kent

“In 1996 I won a Leverhulme visiting research fellowship at the University of Essex, and by the time that finished, my husband’s work in Moscow had also come to an end and he returned home. I started to look for research jobs in the UK, and after working as a researcher at the universities of Essex and Luton, I was offered a full-time lectureship in comparative sociology and social policy at the University of North London, now London Metropolitan University

She adds: “I am very happy living in London. As a foreigner and a Muscovite, I feel most at home in large, cosmopolitan cities. London is also a great place to work, with many academic events and, of course, the British Library.”

Is there anything about the Russian university system, as she remembers it, that the UK academy should emulate?

“The Russian university system as I remember it (and from what I can see, these traditions still continue to an extent) is quite old-fashioned. By and large teachers are held in high esteem by their students. Good teachers (and there are still many of them) continue to see their primary role as sharing their knowledge and values with the next generation, rather than the provision of a ‘service’. But the system is far from perfect, and still places too high a priority on learning ‘facts’ over fostering critical thinking. Russian students also have very little say in how their university operates.”

Over the course of the research for Gangs of Russia, Stephenson says, one of the most surprising discoveries she made was “the level of interaction between the gangs and the police, which went beyond bribery and corruption, and extended to close neighbourly and friendship ties. Another surprise was the very diverse composition of the gangs. Although the bulk of the members were working class youngsters, there were also university students, office workers and professionals among them. One of the gang members, for example, was a paediatrician. Doctors are not a highly paid profession in Russia, so he did some racketeering on the side! Some of the members tried to make connections in pro-Putin political parties and youth movements, and wanted to become civil servants and politicians. I call this a ‘double helix’ of social mobility, which could only have developed in a situation of assimilation between organised crime and the state.

“Although street territorial groups were endemic in the Soviet Union, with young men traditionally spending their out-of-school time in public places, protecting ‘their’ piece of turf and fighting for respect, these tended to be social cliques rather than criminal gangs,” Stephenson observes.

“In many other countries we see organised crime groups and mafias grounded in extended families (for example, in Sicily or Calabria) or coming from backgrounds of ethnic and racial exclusion (as in the US and UK). But Russian entrepreneurial gangs emerged in ethnically and socially mixed urban areas, and their members were united not by family ties or their ethnic backgrounds, but by their joint upbringing on the streets or friendships forged during army service or through athletic sports. 

“When the Soviet economy crumbled and stable structures of social life disappeared, they converted their organised force into economic capital. Eventually many of their leaders managed to legalise themselves and became businessmen, politicians and even university rectors, while the rank-and file became increasingly involved in the street-level drug economy.” 

As to why she believes these gang members were willing to talk to an academic, Stephenson says, “Some people wanted to talk about the causes of crime, which they saw in the injustices that they have experienced. Others were proud of being gang members and believed that the gang’s code of behaviour, to which they subscribed, made them morally superior to the rest of society. They felt they had something to be proud of, and wanted to share their romantic vision of the gang and its values. And some gang members, particularly the younger ones, were simply happy to talk to somebody who was prepared to listen and not judge.”

She adds, “There is also still a lingering culture of respect for academics in Russia (even among the criminal classes), and people believe, perhaps erroneously, that academics have an influence that can help make Russia a better place. And being a woman in some respects made things easier. For a gang member, all men are divided into ‘us’ (street warriors) and ‘them’ (disorganised, weak and generally ‘unmanly’ civilians). A woman is naturally outside this dichotomy, and does not have to show ‘character’, project strength or show competence in the things that ‘every man should know’.” 

What gives Stephenson hope? “There is hope as long as there is humour, and people retain the ability to stand back and see the absurd for what it is.” 

Karen Shook


Print headline: The outlaws with mainstream roles

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