On the trail of the dark and dangerous criminal monster that is lurking below the surface of Russian life
The sort of news I read tends to be depressing. Drug seizures in Moscow. Another contract killing in Vladivostok. Suggestions that Russian organised crime sold weapons to Osama bin Laden. Still, where would many academics be without some monster to dissect and understand? In my case, it is Russian and post-Soviet organised crime.
I became interested in my research area by accident. I had researched my doctorate on the impact of the Afghan war on the USSR, a deliberately broad topic that allowed me to look at everything from military doctrine to the experiences of veterans. It was while working with the latter in the late 1980s that I began to become aware that something dark and dangerous was moving towards the surface of Soviet life.
In 1991, I went to Keele University, to a history department that, having established a new degree programme in international history, was looking for a modernist. I was just in time for the collapse of the USSR to liberate this new criminal phenomenon. This mafiya has proved distinctively entrepreneurial, flexible and dynamic. Where the great old global criminal concerns such as the Sicilian Mafia - still the world's number one - can be likened to Great White Sharks, the mafiya is more like a school of piranhas: more diffuse, but every bit as dangerous. The past decade has seen post-Soviet organised crime grow and spread.
I like to link my academic work with policy discussions and practical outcomes. In 1997, for example, I was seconded to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and worked among its research analysts, covering post-Soviet organised crime. This proved a fascinating interlude, because of the experience of working as an "insider" and also the expertise and professionalism of the other analysts. On my return to Keele, I established the Organised Russian and Eurasian Crime Research Unit.
The problem has always been one of reconciling three fundamental roles. The first is that of academic historian. There are often serious difficulties in obtaining useful information about organised crime in Russia before the glasnost era. We know it existed from snippets in official accounts and reports and first-hand accounts. Yet there has been, if anything, a retreat from glasnost in the past five years, and most of the interior ministry and similar archives refuse or at least limit access to outsiders. But it is important not to stop trying. My long-term project is a history of Russian crime on a centuries-long timeline, not least to explain how today's mafiya is the product of a long evolutionary process.
The second role is as teacher, something I enjoy. I am proud of the students who took my Criminal Russia final-year special subject or our MPhil in post-Soviet organised crime and have found jobs in different arms of government and law enforcement.
Finally, there is the indefinable role as "expert". It is important to ensure people are well informed and I am always keen to talk to as many different groups as possible, whether the National Criminal Intelligence Service or the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. But this is a two-way street, as I often get invaluable research leads, data or funding for projects this way.
Mark Galeotti is director, Organised Russian and Eurasian Crime Research Unit, Keele University.