Mafia State: Summary

“Each country has mafia; only in Russia mafia has the country,” goes a Russian saying. In the 1990s, Russian organized crime, law enforcement, secret services and government structures merged and created a criminal syndicate that abandoned the accepted rules of human conduct and morality. This syndicate, headed by Putin, currently rules Russia.

Why did it happen?

In the 1990s, the old system collapsed and a number of people lost not just their power, jobs and sources of income but the whole structure, the mode of existence, “the system.”

The cataclysm threw together unlikely bedfellows — former communist leaders, criminal bosses, thieves, murderers, military veterans, atheletes, KGB officers, policemen, Russian Orthodox priests and young Leninists. Desperate to survive, they established the mafia state–as a Noah’s Arc of sorts. 

On the smoking ruins of the Soviet empire and amidst the chaos of the budding new liberal democracy with its jungle rules of a newborn free market, this conglomerate created its own system, wrote its own law and installed their own “father.”

A Brief Note on Russian History and Culture

The “father of the people” is nothing new in Russia. Its history is a thousand years of interchangeable “fathers” — Tsars and Communists — and their never-changing imperial ambitions. Dictators always ruled Russia: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Lenin, Stalin, Putin, to name a few. Inevitably, they all strive to build “a Third Rome” and expand the territory. Pagan idolatry, Christian Orthodoxy, Communist ideology come and go but the faith in a “strict but just father” leading the “chosen people” to the “bright future” stays. The “father’s” image is built on “mystery, miracle and authority” principle of Dostoevsky’s Great Inquisitor. The figure on the throne becomes a mythical “father of the nation,” a national hero and savior. The power principle is always an iron fist and the cult of “the father of the people.”

As a result, the Russian society has many characteristics of a cult: unquestioning commitment to the leader, intolerance to deviations and extreme polarization of the society, practice of rituals, living by the “values” prescribed by the authority, dogmatism and isolation from the rest of the world.

Secret Services

The mafia state — Russia as we know it today — hatched out of the ruins of the USSR. It arrived with ambitions to get the empire back, “chosen people” sentiment and the old cult of a new “father,” Vladimir Putin, a former secret service agent.

The secret services date back to the 1560s and traditionally played a critical role in the governing of the Russian state. The methods are simple and effective if not ethical:

1. Police informants infiltrate all groups opposed to the government.

2. Secret police eliminate anyone slightly suspicious or openly rebellious.

3. The law enforcement structures cooperate with the criminal world.

This cooperation between the criminal and law enforcement structures is one of the elements at the foundation of the mafia state. 


Over the last thirty years, the mafia state seized all vertical structures of power and expanded horizontally — politically, economically, and ideologically.

Mafia is often compared to a spider web or a giant octopus paralyzing the country but it is not a good representation of the Russian mafia state. Rather, it is a cancer-like disease that strikes an organism: it takes over the blood circulation and nervous systems. It pumps poisoned nutrients and sends its signals throughout the vital organs.

Everything becomes an intrinsic part of the system. Oligarchs do not own their fortunes and businesses. Like the vassals of the past, the oligarchs and Putin’s allies must pay their dues — protection money called “krysha” — into the “obschak,” a communal fund of the “system.” In return, the “system” supports them and allows them to exist. Thus, the oligarchs and all businessmen are the parts of the system; they serve it and can’t function outside of it or without it. There is no escape as the “system” can find and eliminate them in any corner of the world.

The money, the assets or the property and the very concept of ownership do not have the same meaning in Putin’s Russia as in the West. At any moment, the “system” can expropriate the assets through a maneuver called “corporate raiding” or by imprisonment or physical extermination of the “owner.”

Money is only the tool of power, a lever. Power is the sole absolute value. All power is concentrated in the hands of the Kremlin, the brain of the system, Putin and his close circle dependent on him for survival.

Why does the West need to know about the mafia state operation?

Russian “businessmen” who made their fortunes in the 90s in the former USSR and still own business in Russia claim to have no ties to the Kremlin. They are exploiting the Western worldview and the lack of knowledge of the mafia system peculiar to Putin’s Russia.

Knowing this cultural difference is crucial to journalists covering politics and the general public because the “businessmen” in question donate millions of dollars to the Western politicians, political parties and campaigns. They invest in the Russian propaganda outlets broadcasting abroad and own Western mass media sources to form the public opinion and manipulate the political life. They do it in the capacity of Kremlin’s agents, not “private businessmen.” There is no such thing in the mafia state.

Therefore, the money pumped into the West and worldwide to buy influence and whitewash the criminals is coming from the mafia state. Here are just a few such projects:

In London, the Tate Modern gallery wing is named after a partner of Alfa Bank oligarchs and Oleg Deripaska, Len Blavatnik 

The Independent and Evening Standard newspapers are owned by the former KGB officer close to Putin, oligarch Alexander Lebedev and his son. 

So is the Blavatnik Government School in Oxford 

Alfa Group Fellowship offers young people from the West to study in Russia.

Yuri Milner and Alisher Usmanov invested Gazprom money in Facebook, Twitter, Uber, and more

The system is expanding.

The birth of mafia state

In the mid-1980s, the criminal structures started to accumulate assets. Gorbachev allowed private business (“cooperatives”) and put limitations on the liquor sales in a failed attempt to fight alcoholism thus opening the doors for illegal alcohol sales and money laundering through these newly created private businesses.

In the early 90s, Russia got struck by racketeering, assassination of business owners, corporate raids, registration of new businesses and corporations founded with the use of laundered and stolen money. The resulting violence and chaos is known as “bespredel” (literally translated as “no limits” and meaning “lawlessness.”) In spring 1993, Yelstin said that Russia became “an organized crime state” and he was sharing power with the organized crime.

In the late 90s, the property that used to be “collective” under the Communist regime or, in other words, belonged to the state — plants, factories, major businesses — became available to all citizens through “vouchers” or shares, at least in theory. In reality, the privatization of the Soviet state enterprises and natural resources provided an opportunity to legalize economic crime. Most former citizens of the USSR had no idea what to do with their vouchers and sold them for next to nothing to “businessmen” and bandits known as “brothers.” Thus, the organized crime groups accumulated industrial power and moved from banditism to economic crimes, adding the export of oil, timber, metals, import of weapons, gambling casinos, and banking to their spheres of activities. This process is known as the legalization of criminal capital.

For instance, the Tambov organized crime group kept its drugs trafficking, gambling and money laundering activities, but also started to operate legally. It acquired a major share of oil and gas market in St. Petersburg, owned the seaport and railroads and controlled the market. The gang enjoyed special tax and customs benefits. Soon, the first millions of dollars were sent to offshores in the Bahamas. Everyone in St. Petersburg knew that and so did the Mayor’s office and the government in Moscow but nothing was or could be done because the criminals and the law enforcement systems had already merged.

To give a visual, the bandit “brothers” were the left hand, the cops and courts were the right hand and the government/secret services were the head. Naturally, this structure could not punish itself unless there were “turf wars” and “peredel,” redistribution of power and assets. The arguments were solved through assassinations, kidnapping, poisoning, torture and other methods of physical execution. The rare court proceedings interpreted the law in favor of power or neglected it. 

Starting from the 2000s, the organized crime system and state fused completely. Whether it was a criminalization of the state or the governmentalization of the crime remains to be decided but the results were impressive. There were no more hands and heads or visible distinctions. Bandits turned into bankers and businessmen. In fact, Putin is known to be a part of the Tambov gang. Criminal bosses became politicians. Gangs transformed into the government. The secret services used criminal methods. The government officials did not just speak in prison jargon — they were, and are, literally criminals, with the history of convictions of fraud, theft and murder

In 2007, Swiss analytical group DAP, an affiliate of Swiss counterintelligence service, published a detailed report on the cooperation of the modern Russian secret services and organized crime groups under Putin

How does it work?

By 2018, the “systema” — the conglomerate of oligarchs, mobsters, criminals, law enforcement and government officials —controls all aspects of political, economic and cultural life of the Russian society. It aims to maintain the status quo and expand domestically and internationally.

In Putin’s Russia, laws exist but do not work because the mafia state took over the legislation, judicial and executive power. The regime issues executive orders, new laws, and changes the existing laws. Putin has been in power for 18 years. It was unconstitutional — he re-wrote the Constitution. Just like the Tsars and Communists before, Putin’s regime suppresses protests, resistance or any deviance from the Kremlin policy. It uses military force, intelligence services, police, and penal system to enforce its main rule: obedience to the regime. Public trials and clandestine arrests instill fear. Citizens risk incarceration at any time and for reasons such as liking or re-posting a joke about Putin on social media.

The government also silences mass media, independent publications and journalists and opposition leaders by threats, lawsuits or murder and controls the remaining mass media by funding and censorship. 

Prominent politicians do not represent people and are not elected for their merits. They are people loyal to the “father” and they are tied together by their crimes. This is another principal characteristic of the mafia state, called “krugovayaporuka.” In 2018, Putin’s relatives, classmates, friends, bodyguards, and people close to his circle from the “wild 90s” and “bandit St. Petersburg” are firmly installed in all the key positions of power in Russia. The disloyal ones are installed as firmly — at cemeteries or improvised graves around the world.

Knowledge is Power

Unchecked, the mafia state survives, expands and seeks to satisfy its imperial ambitions. The result is the endless assassinations such as Litvinenko and Skripal poisoning in the UK and mysterious deaths and falls of the tall buildings, attacks on sovereign states and annexation (Ukraine and Syria); fabrication of facts, distortion of reality and disrespect to all international laws and human rights as well as the unwritten accepted norms of human behavior. 

Crime–and Punishment

In 2009, a Russian accountant Sergei Magnitsky lost his freedom and life for speaking up about the corruption of the Russian police and tax authorities.  He was one of many victims of the mafia state. Named after him, the Magnitsky Act, passed by the US Congress in 2012, imposes financial sanctions on Russian officials responsible for corruption, abuse of power and human rights violation. These sanctions deliver a powerful blow to the “obschak” (communal fund) of the mafia state and the personal assets of its criminal government, estimated at 250 billion dollars. 

Removal of the sanctions is a number one goal of the Kremlin’s foreign policy. It has been at the center of the Trump–Russia investigation and propels the hybrid war against the West. 

The crimes of Putin’s mafia state and its campaign to evade the punishment define the global political situation today. One hopes that a clear understanding of the situation will help to ensure they will not define our future.

In the next article, I will cover the political history, economy and culture of the mafia state.