Last Updated 07 Jul 2020

A Review of Vadim Volkov’s Violent Entrepreneurs

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Between 1989 and 1992, organized crime, or “violence managers,” (cf. 120-3) grew to monstrous proportions in the former Soviet Union. There are two methods of dealing with this theoretically: the first is to see this phenomenon as part and parcel of the decay of the Soviet Union and the amoral and tyrannical nature of the Soviet Union. In fact, this has been an important element of the substantial research in Russian organized crime.

But the approach Volkov takes is very different: the rise of Russian “violence managers” is the result of the decay of the Russian/Soviet state: criminal gangs came into existence, in other words, to do what the state could not do, protect its businessmen. Ultimately, the thesis of this work is that the criminal “managers of violence” came into existence to enforce contracts and protect property, to do what the state could not do (40-41 and 175-6).

While Volkov’s thesis is interesting and must be taken seriously it is also disturbing. The Russian mafia is violent and arbitrary, they are a massive force in drug running and white slave traffic between Russia and Israel, their favorite destination. But Volkov seeks to reduce this to merely providing a “service,” a service that is needed in a society where the state had collapsed, and most of its services “privatized” by underground groups (43-46).

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The “crime” element is removed, and the “service” element is put in its place, effectively covering over the true nature of these groups. These groups, murders, slavers and drug runners, become “quantified” in the language of social science, developing in spite of themselves, not subject to normal moral evaluation, “providing services to the business community. ” While this remains a startling weakness of the book, the book has many strengths. It is an attempt to dispassionately understand the rise of organized crime in Russia.

There are four specific groupings, a typology, that tries to make sense out of Russia in the early 1990s. These categories are based around the groups legal/illegal status and its public/private structure. The state was both active in “legal” and “illegal” activity. This review puts those words in quotes because, in the early 1990s in Russia. , those words had little meaning: Russia was a decaying society with a barely functioning state, with no ideology or sense of purpose, no unifying structures or ideas.

Russia was in crisis. Nevertheless, the state served in a limited capacity, as a policing entity (167-169), but, given the opportunities that “violence managers” provided a state that could no longer pay its troops or policemen, the state also used its resources (especially in training and logistics) to moonlight as “security providers” (52ff). Hence the state itself skirted the grey line between legal and illegal activity. At the same time, the “private sector” also engaged in both legal and illegal activity.

The gangs themselves are placed under the “private and illegal” category, but, when they became a regular “security service,” placing their money in legitimate enterprises or even becoming part of the state as the 1990s wore on, they came over the border and became private organizations operating in a legal environment (139-142). The basic structure of the work begins from the theoretical premise that private and state structures need one another to function.

The private sector needs debts collected and contracts enforced, while the state needs the economic activity to tax and hence fund itself. But in Russia, starting with Gorbachev’s ill-fated reforms beginning in 1988, the state slowly withered away, leaving a “private sector” that was forced to both make profits and enforce contracts. Hence, the only real difference between organized crime and the state is that the one calls itself legal. From a moral point of view, the book holds that there is no such distinction here–the violence managing agency is merely the state in miniature (120-121).

It serves the same function, and, in an environment of competition, it cannot function as an arbitrary gang, but as an organization that can protect businesses from itself, the state and, importantly, other gangs, the gang becomes almost “legitimate” in this function, since the state could not serve in this capacity (27ff). In other words, the gangs themselves created their own market and behaved in predictable ways given the anarchy of the situation (43-46). In the later Yeltsin and early Putin years, the tide began to change. Putin himself comes from the security services, and was able to rebuild state power.

Putin asserted federal authority over the army and militia, over the MVD and FSB, increased tax collection and took advantage of the spike in oil prices to finance all this. Hence, the “violence managing agencies” no longer had a role, and Putin’s control over the regions eliminated their local power base. These gangs then either became legal security firms, became a part of the state (since their membership was largely state based on the first place, either as soldiers or policemen) or shifted their ill-gotten gains to legitimate business.

Of course, the implications here is that nearly all successful businessmen were either criminals at one time, or implicated in criminal enterprises during the early Yeltsin era. This remains a problem and might keep Russia from building her market institutions. This mentality, in other words, might not go away so quickly. Ultimately, the book fails: this is because it reads as a whitewash of organized crime, providing it with a convenient, abstract rationalization rarely given to other criminal gangs effectively covering over their enormous and egregious crimes.

The motive for eliminating any “moral evaluation” of these groups is an important question for any review to take seriously, but, without interviewing the author, this is largely impossible. Nevertheless, this is a case where social science ideology fails to make sense out of a phenomenon: the collapse of Russian state power permitted these gangs to flourish, but to merely call them “managers of violence” is a cover, not an explanation.

Their violence according to the author, exists solely as a compensation for the disappearance of the state as a rational or powerful entity. Neither the state, nor criminal gangs who can replace it, are part of any moral evaluation, they merely exist to provide “services,” which, in Volkov’s case are reducible to the “limitation and managing of force. ” (120) Crime is not crime where the state does not exist: that is the true thesis here, and ultimately, tells us more about the social sciences than it does about Russia.

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