Russian Organized Crime and its Trajectories

This month,  Dr. Serguei Chloukhine sits down with A CONTRARIO to discuss Russian organized crime and its impact on society. Professor Serguei Cheloukhine, is a Professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice at John Jay College in New York, USA. He is the author of many articles and books on Russian organized crime, including:  Russian Organized Corruption Networks and their International Trajectories (2011).

Professor, how are Russian organized crime groups different from other organized crime groups in terms of structure?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian organized crime has been referred to as “Russian mafia,” even if this term does not completely coincide with the standard portrayal of gangsters from the criminal world. The term “mafia” has a very specific meaning in the West, but Russians apply it loosely to all organized crime, or, indeed, to the government. In fact, there is nothing in Russia quite like the Cosa Nostra, with its deep roots in rural Sicily, its elaborate rituals, and its tradition of silence.

In reality, everything is different and more complex. The Russian criminal world – Organized Corrupt Network- (OCN)[1] is a strict hierarchy that represents a three-layer organization including government officials, business people, and gangsters.[2] It has penetrated into all layers of society and the economy; its leaders more often than not settle outside Russia, and from there control their criminal business inside the country. Modern criminal activity became transnational and conducted within the territories of several countries, hence the mechanisms of receiving criminal income turned into global.


Organized Corrupt Networks are defined by the activities of key family members in the mid- and upper hierarchy of law enforcements and the government and who engage in illicit activity. These individuals never consider themselves as being members of a criminal group, and may not be regarded as being a criminal group by outsiders, while will be regarded as corrupt web. They usually unite around top-ranking (FSB, Judge, MVD, or state officials) family member who is overseeing a network security. The individual characteristics and skills among those (low level) who make up the network heavily determine the nature and success of such networks. Networks usually consist of relatively manageable numbers of individuals, although in many cases different components of the network may not work closely with (or even know each other) but be connected through another individual or individuals. Personal loyalties and ties are essential to the maintenance of the network and are key determinants of relationships. However, various individuals within the network do not carry the same weight. Instead, the network is generally formed around a series of key individuals (or nodal points) through which most of the network connections run.[3]

org chart


What kind of connections between other groups do you see Russian organized crime making in the global world today?

They all are interconnected and one of the reasons is not to interfere in the competitor’s turf; different groups are out there, and in Russia there are tens of diverse ethnic groups with their well protected and supervised underground activities.

Are they connected to terrorist activities?

As for terrorist activities, terrorist financing or so, it’s rare, almost nonexistent.

What do you believe are the biggest areas of profit for this particular group?

Russian Mafiosi abroad do not bring themselves down to the level of shooting in the streets, robbing banks, or attacking police forces. Instead, they act legally, and many of them are cofounders of commercial banks. However, if we define the term mafia functionally, as some experts do, as a criminal group supplying private “protection” then there are, indeed, powerful mafias in Russia.

If at the beginning of the 1990s racketeering and extortions from small shops, kiosks, and restaurants prevailed, then by the end of the 1990s, a well-organized system of protection (kryshi) dominated the large enterprises and banks, contracts on security, marketing services, and even partnership. Privatization of the government functions was complete by a corrupt network of organized crime, officials, and law enforcement. Quite often, the organized crime leaders or its lieutenants are part of an enterprise’s board directors or of a bank. Hence, the legal and illegal structures in Russia are closely interconnected.


Some statistics:


What is the biggest challenge confronting law enforcement in dealing with Russian organized crime?

Ministry of the Interior OBR (operational investigation bureau) OCN infiltrated national economy. 10 % of law enforcements convinced that organized crime supervises all, legal and illegal economic activities nationwide. 65 % of them believe that OCN is one of the important factors, rendering negative influence on a criminal situation in the economy. 23 % recognize OCN as a second tier of the whole economy

Moreover, OCN keeps hiring legitimate employee who runs their business as if it totally legal and transparent (see chart):


OCNs have power over more than 40.000 enterprises with various ownerships including 1500 state enterprises, 4000 joint-stock companies, over 500 joint ventures, 550 banks, 700 wholesale and retail markets.

Do you think that societies embroiled in different phases of conflict such as Afghanistan and Syria have a harder time  dealing with organized crime then  countries at peace?

Organized crime (groups) are not interested much in civil or international conflicts, moreover it negatively affect their business and operations; Arms supply is too small and vulnerable for Organized crime to get fully involved, there are military and governments behind that. My belief is that OC, and especially Russian, has economic, black market background, it always had.

Do you think that the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime is effective in combatting the transnational criminal problem?

UN Convention on TOC makes recommendations to national governments only; it is therefore limited and it does not have legal power in enforcing statutes.  So national governments and law enforcement are acting along their jurisdictions and legal norms; however, the Convention played important role in battling TOC by helping and providing tools, training, equipment and information.

What are current variables that allow Russian criminal groups to flourish?

Historically, the professionalization of Russian criminal groups was as a result of strong patriarchal traditions, hostility toward the state, and an underdeveloped largely agrarian economy. Over time, as I explain my article,[4] different variables contributed to the existence of organized crime in Russia. Since the 1990’s the lack of legislation and the corruption of law enforcement and justice forced Russian society to fill the legal vacuum with the criminal methods of thieves’ arbitrations and decision implementation. Nowadays, one of the reasons for flourishing organized criminal groups and their illegal economic activity in contemporary Russia is the corruption network and misuse of financial resources.

[1] Organized Corruption Network: Defined by activities of key individuals, Prominence in network determined by position and contacts/skills, Personal loyalties more important than social identity, Network connections unite around one particular leader, Low public profile—seldom known by anyone

[2] OCN structure: commercial or financial branch (converts the received privileges into cash; coordinates activity of OC groups or merge with them) government officials (provide cover up at the decision-making level) law enforcement (provides information, destroys compromising files, or close criminal cases) OC – formed from below; OCN- most often, from above.

[3] To read and understand it all, one may want to read: Russian Organized Corruption Networks and their International Trajectories:

[4] The roots of Russian organized crime: from old-fashioned professionals to the organized criminal groups of today, Crime, Law and Social Change,  Volume 50, Issue 4-5 , pp 353-374 (2008).