December 1, 1995 - Synapse: Crime in Russia: Bitter fruit of capitalism and democracy by Peace Corps Volunteer Tim Goodwin

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Crime in Russia: Bitter fruit of capitalism and democracy by Peace Corps Volunteer Tim Goodwin

Crime in Russia: Bitter fruit of capitalism and democracy by Peace Corps Volunteer Tim Goodwin

Crime in Russia: Bitter fruit of capitalism and democracy
by Tim Goodwin

"There were 43 crimes against far foreigners in Nizhny Novgorod last year," the militia spokesman told the monthly gathering of the international community. In a foreign community numbering at most a few hundred, this was not reassuring.

"We can say, however," he continued, "that there was not one crime by a foreigner against a Russian." His attempt at levity didn't leave us laughing.

Mostly the crimes are petty a pickpocketing, an office theft, but occasionally they're more assaultive, like one of our fellow Peace Corps volunteers, who was thrown to the ground by three men as he left a money exchange and forcefully relieved of his rubles in broad daylight.

And sometimes, they're even scarier. Consider our friend Carol, an American living and working here. As she entered her apartment one night after work, a man held a knife to her throat, forced her into her apartment and bound her as he ransacked her place of electronic goods and raided the cupboards of food. His accomplice was a young boy of about 12, whom he left in charge as he left with a load, vowing to return shortly for the rest. Carol convinced the boy to untie her so she could show him how to use her computer, in which he was keenly interested. Once free, she ran from the apartment yelling for neighbors, who came to her aid. The man didn't return, and the boy was later found hanging out in the train station, a popular residence for the homeless these days. The boy confessed and fingered the man, who turned out to be a tuberculosis patient on release from a sanitarium for the weekend. He was eventually apprehended, incarcerated and brought to trial.

But there is no happy, justice-serving ending. Carol was expected to pay for the prosecutor's time and for the accused's transportation to and from jail. Welcome to justice in the new Russia, where swift summary dispositions Soviet style are yesterday's lore, and jurisprudence in the western sense is still undergoing a slow and painful development.

And this is Nizhny Novgorod, Russia's third largest city about 400 kilo meters east of Moscow on the Volga River, and considered one of Russia's gems in the transition to democracy and a market economy.

Russia is not totally the lawless land that mainstream American media would have you believe, that wild west of nations languishing in a 1930s' Chicago dreamscape, but it's close. Still, I'd sooner walk the streets of this city of 1.5 million late at night than say Philadelphia or Detroit. You follow a few simple rules of personal safety, like you would in any large city.

Crime these days is no laughing matter in Russia. The transition from communism to capitalism has bred its own breed of criminal. It's the downside of capitalism, the familiar story of the haves and the have nots. With safety nets unraveling many folks are desperate. It's evidenced in polls, where communists promising law and order (sound familiar?) are making a definite impression in the minds of voters as they consider the ballot box this month to elect representa tives to their federal Duma, or legislature.

Communists are suddenly looking good. Crime under the Soviets was seldom acknowledged, with few statistics to indicate any problem. It just didn't officially exist. It wasn't reported in the state-owned and controlled media. After all, this was the new man, that new breed, Homo Sovieticus, ahead and apart from western man, free in his collectivist thoughts from the corrupting mindset of bourgeois, capitalist influences. Homo Sovieticus would no more likely steal from a stranger or his neighbor than his own mother. It just wasn't admitted, though the buildings in Russia without barred or grated windows on first floor and double steel doors on apartments are few indeed.

But now there are no such constraints on a free media. Crime is reported daily. Gruesome, bloody bodies litter the nightly news. There's enough to go around for everybody. And to most Russians, it appears to be a problem out of control. Why, in the old days there wasn't this problem. Of course not, it wasn't reported, unless there was ulterior reasons. The very openness of it all is a revelation to Russians, who in the past could only know what their state-owned media told them.

We're talking only the big crimes. Petty crime hardly rates a news mention. Gypsy hustlers and children's gangs are a common occurrence in Moscow these days. They'll crowd around you, hands everywhere, bumping, rustling, and when you emerge from this mini throng, you're a few rubles lighter, if you're lucky. Or you're on a metro, it' s rush hour and you're packed like wet spaghetti and before you know it your wallet has been appropriated by someone. There was a noticeable drop in those crimes during the Chechen threats of sabotage in Moscow earlier this year. Military personnel roamed the streets, the metros, hotels and train stations with their Kalishnakovs at the ready.

And even though there's an alarming rise in petty crime and crimes of economic destitution, it's the Mafia that concerns most folks these days. Not in the classical Sicilian sense, but organized crime in general. Mafia is the term Russians give to organized crime, no translation needed.

It's worse in some places than others. Yekatrinaburg, in the Ural Mountains, is a recognized hotbed of organized crime. Volgograd, a similar large city on the southern Volga is considered fairly Mafia free, credited to its conservative government. Nizhny Novgorod rings in on the lower end of the Mafia scale.

A Russian friend of ours in Saratov, a city of a million people on the Volga between Nizhny and Volgograd, knows all about the Mafia. One of them knocked on her door one night and told her to tell her brother-in-law to pay up the protection money he owed, and just so she'd remember, he threw in a black eye for free. She was lucky. Only last month in Saratov, 11 men were gunned down at point blank range as they played cards in a back room of a wine factory. A revenge killing, a turf war, said authorities, one Mafia group against another. Just more numbers to add to Russia's 22 murders per 100,000 people, more than twice the rate in the U.S.

Add one more incident this past weekend. A Russian businessman was killed as he ate dinner and five wounded, including a British businessmen caught in crossfire, in a Moscow restaurant on New Arbat Street, a popular tourist destination of smart shops. Just one of many suspected contract killings these days, an epidemic that has prompted a call for a special bureau to investigate the large number of contract killings.

There are some 8,000 independent mafia-style gangs operating in Russia according to a recent estimate in The Economist. A Newsweek article gave the figure of 5,700, seven times more than in 1991, compared to the United States, where there are some 220 organized crime gangs.

Most Russian gangs are small-time hoods in the protection rackets, shaking down small entrepreneurs, especially those with kiosks, for anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of their profits, which is still better than government, which asks for more than a 100 percent tax on profits, the end result of which is to force even those emerging entrepreneurs into becoming criminals in order to survive in business. This does nothing to change Russians' opinion that anyone who succeeds in business must be criminal anyway. It only reinforces what many were taught about capitalism in school before the advent of peristroika.

A few gangs are into bigger things, everything from "narcotics to nukes," reported the 2 October cover story in Newsweek, which concludes that someday the Russian Mafia could "make the Sicilian Cosa Nostra look like small-time hustlers by comparison." Their tentacles reach not only throughout Russia, but to the U.S., Europe and Latin America, where an organized Moscow crime ring known as Solntsevo is allegedly planning large scale drug smuggling from Latin America to Russia.

Such cross national ties are prompting closer international efforts to fight crime. Russian authorities claim that since 1994, there have been 70,000 crimes connected to drugs in Russia. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robert Gelbard, responsible for international narcotics and law enforcement, recently met with Russian Interior Minister Anatolii Kulikov to discuss the problem and work towards cooperation to crack down.

The CIA estimates that more than half of Russia's 25 largest banks have ties to Russian organized crime. You can't say the same for the media, but assassinations of members of both professions are running neck in neck. They're both dangerous jobs these days, often because of the investigations by one into the other.

A recent Reuters story quotes the acting prosecutor general as saying that at least 100 people with criminal records are running for parliament in the 17 December elections. The laws in Russia, which are still being developed, permit Duma deputies immunity from jail.

"The law cannot keep up with crime," wrote a commentator in the English language Moscow Times, "which is no doubt the biggest growth industry in Russia."

The Russians are hard pressed to keep up with crime. The transition to a market economy has not only created an opportunity for crime to flourish in the midst of the ensuing chaos, but deflated the best budget projections. The money's just not there. Of a requested 1.9 trillion rubles (about $420 million) in the federal budget, only half has been forthcoming. Police are poorly paid, creating opportunities for graft and corruption of officers on the take. Trained officers have left in droves for better paying jobs, often as private security. Out of 7,000 government investigators, half are young with less than two year's experience.

Still, there are 60,000 police officers in Moscow, and they're looking for more. Reports the Moscow Times, "The Moscow police force is looking for up to 8,000 new recruits, despite being seriously under financed and already having a ratio of officers to inhabitants twice that of London and about 50 percent higher than New York City ... Moscow, with a population of about nine million, has between 68 and 80 police officers for every 10,000 inhabitants. New York, with a population of 7.3 million, has a police force of 36,566..."

Occasionally they're effective. As I sat in a Moscow hotel room overlooking a bridge that crossed a canal to the Kremlin, a lone terrorist held a bus full of Korean tourists hostage on the bridge. Negotiations led to the release of most of the tourists, and after a 10-hour standoff, the militia approached the bus in a speeding dump truck. As they neared the bus, some officers rose from the bed of the truck and one of them put a bullet between the eyes of the terrorist. End of hostage situation.

Not that there's room in prisons anyway if criminals are apprehended. There are some one million inmates in Russian jails and prisons today, a number expected to rise 10 percent a year. Some 270,000 are awaiting trial, some for months and sometimes years for their day in court. In Moscow jails last year, activists claim, 144 people died of disease, malnutrition and lack of medical care. Conditions are said to be appalling, worse than in Stalin's gulags. Prison officials agree. "Absolutely," said Deputy Corrections Chief Anatoly Kamnev in a recent Associated Press story, "conditions in those prisons constitute a violation of human rights." But the money to correct the problem is just not there. Neither is the court system, yet. Jury trials, abolished by the Bolsheviks in 1918, only recently returned, and judges are only beginning to learn to listen to the constitution instead of party bosses. And lawyers are a rare breed indeed here, only 20,000 of them compared to 800,000 in America.

Maybe you don't keep up with it. That's the reasoning of Deputy Minister of Economics, Sergei Vasilev, in response to a comment recently on Radio Russia that criminal elements were buying up shares in privatized enterprises. He welcomed it as a " profoundly positive process," since it usually turns illegal money into legal tender. "For example, a former Mafiosi, who was used to dealing on the black market, starts to work with large amounts of capital and is obliged to enter into the system or normal, legal relations. . . Our security services, who are now sounding the alarm about the Mafia seizing our firms, have got everything upside down. From the social point of view, perhaps this process is not so good, we do not love these people, but the economy as a whole, it is positive."

Maybe he's right. There are some encouraging signs. While murders continue to rise, "assault causing bodily harm" and rape have leveled off, and aggravated assault has declined, and western business are even finding it safer to operate here.

In the process, Russia still bears a striking resemblance to gangland America of the 1930s, like it, born of the worst of economic times. It's a painful process, this transition, one I can't imagine our own country going through. And Russians, who are trying hard to learn the ways of democracy and capitalism, are tasting a bitter fruit that accompanies economic freedom. And on the whole, the milk and honey days still seem a long way off.

Tim Goodwin is a Peace Corps volunteer currently serving in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia as a business development advisor with the Russian-American Business and Information Center there.

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