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Book Review

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Investigating the Russian Mafia

by Joseph D. Serio

After eschewing the term “mafia” to label Russian organized crime activity:

My preference is to avoid using the word ‘mafia’ altogether because it simply failed to do what language is meant to do: communicate specific meanings through words… the word ‘mafia’ in the former Soviet Union represented a phenomenon far broader and more diverse than that understood in the West, and, ultimately, is meaningless.

…Serio must relent. The book title employs the term, and he throws the word about throughout the book, repeatedly bemoaning its inaccuracy. It’s kind of like that old knife in the kitchen drawer you have been meaning to throw away for years, because it’s so ugly. But you can’t bring yourself to do it, because no other knife in your arsenal cuts a tomato as well.

The fact is, as Serio points out, Russia does not have, nor has it ever had a mafia, in the sense of a monolithic, centralized clan structure that pulls the levers of society. It has had many criminal groups, many of which could be labeled mafia-esque, be it in their modus operandi, attire or affectation; it has had a mafia-like government; it has had a legal and societal structure that encourages nothing so much as thievery and duplicity. But using the word and the idea we associate with mafia clouds the real picture, and that is that modern Russian crime “sprang forth from the fabric of Russian society and culture, the environment of survival.” As Serio quotes the Russian head of Interpol, Yuri Melnikov: “I don’t know what the fuss in the West is about the Russian ‘mafia.’ We’ve always been this way. It’s just that you’re finally fining out.”

Serio was present at the creation, embedded in the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs in the early 1990s as a liaison with U.S. law enforcement bodies. And this book, meant to be an introduction for businessmen and criminal justice types, bears the fruit of that experience, peppered as it is with fascinating first-hand anecdotes from the undersides of countless Russian rocks. This book should be required reading for anyone spending any time in Russia – certainly journalists and business people posted there, and students as well. Aside from the well-documented account of the lawless 1990s, it offers a rich history of Russian criminal life, from the times of Ivan the Terrible through to the Vory v zakone.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2008