Joseph Serio's recently released book "Investigating the Russian Mafia" (Carolina Academic Press, Durham, North Carolina, 2008) is a detailed accounting of his study and personal experience on "Russian Mafia" related issues. He notes that the term "Russian Mafia" comprises elements of several ethnic groups in Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union.
Serio's work in Russia includes a research position in the then Organized Crime Control Department of the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs. Afterwards, he worked for the international security consulting firm Kroll Associates, as director of its Moscow office, overseeing investigations across the former Soviet Union. Serio also served as an adviser to The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, BBC, Chicago Tribune and a few other news organizations. That work included television documentaries dealing with organized crime in Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union and former Soviet Union. Serio is currently a criminal justice doctoral student at Sam Houston State University's College of Criminal Justice.
His book is a hybrid pop culture and academic read. As per the book's preface, its intent is to provoke more questions than provide answers; and challenge what is said in mass media. These points partly relate to much remaining unknown about the involved subject matter, which does not appear to be as greatly studied, like some other Imperial Russian, Soviet and former Soviet topics.
The time period primarily focussed is from the late 1980s thru 1990s, during Serio's stay in the Soviet Union/former Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin's name is mentioned once in the book, whereas Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin are referenced in several instances. Whether in the form of a revised edition, or a completely new book, a follow-up from Serio will be greatly appreciated. A good portion of his book deals with what foreign businesses face in Russia. The last few years have seen more of them in Russia. The book leaves open this question: in comparison to the last decade, how much has changed for foreign businesses in Russia?
The book's introduction has a highlighted "Reader Beware!" segment, which proceeds to list some alarming statistics involving government related criminal activity. After listing these figures, Serio wryly adds: "As you may have well guessed, I am referring to the United States." He proceeds to essentially say that his study of Imperial Russian, Soviet and former Soviet organized crime is not meant as a propaganda swipe. In comparison to the West, Serio says that the "intensity and scope" of organized crime in the former Soviet Union correlates to the Soviet Union's traumatic breakdown, that paved the way for the current status quo. One which had a track record (in one degree or another) going back centuries. This is followed by Serio's comment and question that "it is useful to reserve an ounce of humility and ask ourselves from time to time, what we would do if we were in their shoes?"
Serio's commentary on Georgia expresses the view of a flawed situation having practical aspects, in terms of what is the best available option. In the early 1970s, Eduard Shevardnadze succeeded Vasily Mzhavandze as head of the Georgian Communist Party. Mzhavandze developed the reputation of running a corrupt government, with Shevardnadze generally viewed as a strong anti-corruption replacement. Georgia's first post-Soviet leader, the late Zviad Gamsakhurdia is quoted as believing Shevardnadze's government to be corrupt. While not disputing Gamsakhurdia's view, Serio describes him as "roguish." When Shevardnadze returned to Georgian politics as Gamsakhurdia's successor, the general perception in the West and Russia was that this marked an improvement. An opinion which does not seem to have changed much, despite an ample amount of critical commentary about Shevardnadze's post-Soviet Georgian presidency.
A few chapters provide a general background of Russian and Soviet history. Some additional points can be added to what was said on these matters.
Further elaboration can be given on the characterization of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) being top heavy with Russians. In 1922, Russian CPSU membership exceeded its proportion of the population by 19%. By the late 1970s onwards, Russian CPSU membership was proportionately 8% higher than its share of the population. During this period, Byelorussians, Georgians and Jews were other nationalities showing a greater proportional representation in the CPSU. At the time, Ukrainians and Armenians had an equal per capita share in the CPSU. The Jewish proportional figure of CPSU membership was twice its percentage of the Soviet population. This did not prevent discrimination against Jews in the Soviet Union. Likewise, it is inaccurate to believe that the Soviet Union was created and maintained for the benefit of Russians at the expense of others. Stalin (a non-Russian) and other Soviet brass would readily persecute an independently minded patriotic Russian over a perceived loyal non-Russian Communist.
Serio's cited comments about the "backwards" aspects of Imperial Russia are broad. Imperial Russia led the defeat of Napoleon into Paris. Pre-1917 Russian artistic and scientific achievements are impressive. In its last decades of existence, Imperial Russia experienced a large scale economic growth. Russo-Japanese War? America had its debacle on the Asian continent. Pogroms? Unquestionably reprehensible, as were the Spanish Inquisition, treatment of Blacks in the United States and Armenian Genocide (which Turkey refuses to formally acknowledge). Subjugation of other nations? The Russian Empire existed in an era of a more blatant kind of imperialism.
Prior to World War I, Russia showed signs that its form of government would eventually change. The trauma caused by that war likely affected the manner of the change which took place.
Serio's referenced point about anti-Russian hostility among non-Russian former Soviets can be further elaborated on. That animosity is not as great as some others like the one evident between a good number of Azerbaijanis and Armenians. Throughout history, Russia has been able to attract many non-Russians into a Russian persona. Granted, there are the opposite experiences (a view especially eminent with the Baltic peoples). At present, some territories outside of Russia have openly expressed the desire to join it. Pridnestrovie (Trans-Dniester) and South Ossetia had referendums supporting independence and a proposed future reunification with Russia. If given the choice, some other former Soviet parts outside of Russia would probably express the same desire. Separatist tendencies within Russia are essentially non-existent (Chechnya of the last decade was the exception).
Serio's description of corruption in Imperial Russia keeps in mind his "Reader Beware!" segment in the book's introduction (described in paragraph five of this review). He notes how major American cities of this period had plenty of government corruption.
His depiction of Imperial Russian, Soviet and former Soviet law enforcement bears some resemblance to the situation in the United States. Within this context, Frank Serpico's testimony revealed widespread New York Police Department (NYPD) corruption in the 1960s to early 1970s. In more recent times, the NYPD (which refers to the police department situated in the five New York City boroughs, as opposed to the rest of New York) has experienced periodic bouts of corruption. A good number of relatively low salaried and job stressed NYPD officers have either opted for different careers, or chosen entry level police jobs in the higher paying and less stressful situations in suburban Long Island.
When comparing the contemporary crime situation in the larger of American and Russian cities, Serio finds the latter grouping to be safer in terms of the "low level crimes" (for lack of a better term) as rapes and stickups. Over the past several years, there has been an increase in reported bias crimes against darker complexioned people in Russia. On matters concerning police corruption (links to organized crime), Serio seems to be of the reasonable impression that Russian law enforcement is more corrupt than America's.
As a related aside to his observations, bias crimes and police corruption were raised in the coverage of the widely reported ethnic violence in Kondopoga, Karelia (in northwestern Russia) in 2006. The specific issue involves low paid Russian police personnel accepting bribes from criminal organizations. Some of these groups have a noticeably non-ethnic Russian makeup, with roots in the Caucasus and Central Asia. When such groups threaten the public in predominately Slavic inhabited areas, the seeming lack of police action (in some instances) encourages a backlash of ethnic intolerance. Of course, there are other reasons for the level of ethnic intolerance. It is by no means an exclusively Russian problem. Reference America's history as an ethnic melting pot, having its share of violent discriminatory acts.
Although using the term "Russian Mafia", Serio is not comfortable with its usage. Unlike the Western version, the Russian Mafia lacks the organizational structure of mass cooperation among numerous crime factions. With seeming frustration, Serio notes how an American peer of his assumed the Russian Mafia to be insignificant because of its lack of structure. Such criminal activity is not as easy to identify when compared to American organized crime. Serio goes into considerable detail in explaining the different types of criminal activity in Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union and former Soviet Union. The transition period from Soviet to post-Soviet is of particular interest. Serio brings up the cogent point about how the "underground" Soviet economy served as a primer of sorts for Soviet citizens to understand the market economy.
The use of the term "Russian Mafia" is twofold. It is much shorter than saying "former Soviet organized crime." From a media standpoint, the "Mafia" part is viewed as a good sell. This leads Serio to a lengthy critique of the media coverage. In the Soviet Union/former Soviet Union, he found Glasnost era media to be sensationalistic for the same reasons as Western reporting. The late Paul Klebnikov's book on Boris Berezovsky (entitled "Godfather of the Kremlin") is mentioned as an overkill. Some of Berezovsky's alleged dubious activity has been reasonably challenged. At the same time, Berezovsky has not been low key, while being heavily involved with political activity; unlike some of the wealthier Russian tycoons. For these reasons, Klebnikov was not off base in writing about Berezovsky.
This review was originally published in the American Chronicle.