Worldwide Media Relations

Russian Mafia Shakes Down the Country

by Steven R. Van Hook 
November 20, 1994
Santa Barbara News-Press

The row-upon-row of Russian faces stared at me, expectantly, anxiously, but furrowed with frustration. Frustrated Russian faces, just look! It excited me. It was a reason for celebration, I thought. I told them why:

When I first entered what was then still the stagnant Soviet Russia, I was forever disheartened by the omnipresent Russian shrug, a gesture that said, "This is the way things have always been, and will always be. No sense in getting upset." Such resignation was devastating in the face of so much work to be done. The work was not insurmountable; that lethargically passive attitude was.

Now, just four years later, the Russians are not only expecting that change is possible, but they are frustrated that it's not happening fast enough. Hallelujah!

I have traveled to Russia since 1990 as a journalist and businessman, covering the falls of Gorbachev and communism, and the rise of a new nation. I managed a Moscow television news bureau and a newspaper joint venture. I lived in a Russian apartment complex as a Russian would. I could feel -- as much as any foreigner with a pocket full of hard currency and an open exit visa -- the futile harshness of their lives.

This recent trip, I was traveling to three Russian cities in the north, east and south, across the vastness of the country, holding seminars in public and media relations for business and government leaders. Once we got passed their initial suspicions that public relations is simply a science to convince people that wrong is right, they were an eager audience. They could sense I care passionately about their lives. They warmed and opened up about their status and their state.

One Russian businessman said he was glad to see Boris Yeltsin portrayed as such a lush in the foreign media. He said this demonstrates to the world that successful reforms in Russia are not due to sound government, but to sound business.

Indeed, business is booming everywhere. You find privatized mini-malls, kiosks, convenience stores. But there are yet many forces holding business back: mercurial government decrees and stifling tax laws, poor infrastructure and even poorer citizens stunned by astronomical inflation.

And the Russian mafia.

I did not speak to a single person who had not been directly or indirectly terrorized or extorted by one of the so-called Russian mafias. I met energetic, clear-eyed, hopeful family people immobilized by fear, whispering of their ordeals in hushed tones.

One of the current mafia ploys in St. Petersburg is to stage a traffic accident against some middle-class citizen who has the hard-earned privilege of a car and home. The involved police warn the citizen to quickly settle an accident claim with the mafia. So the hapless victim, typically devoid of savings, must often sign over his/her family's apartment for sale on the lucrative real estate market, and move out to God-knows-where. Good people don't know where to turn, knowing too well that the underpaid police could be on the mafia take.

The mafiosi control most every aspect of the Russian marketplace -- who can open a business, stay in business, or must close a business. I was shocked to hear shopkeepers' reluctance to advertise their up-start stores out of fear they would attract mafia attention along with eager shoppers.

Mafia sharks prowl the airports seeking foreign patsies for spendy rides into the city. (The mafia taxi rate from the Moscow Domodedego Airport to a Western-style hotel popular with travelers is $140 -- I paid a gypsy cab driver $50, but he made sure that the money exchange took place well out of view along the side of the roadway.) The penalty for flaunting mafia authority is a brutal beating, or death. During my stay, a reporter for a Moscow newspaper was killed by a briefcase bomb after reporting on corruption and illegal arms dealing.

Perhaps the American and other Western mafiosi could hold a seminar for their Russian counterparts to teach them how to suck the life-force from a society, but without bleeding it dry. Russian entrepreneurs are afraid to promote themselves. Charitable contributions are dwindling, since no one wants to demonstrate they have money to spare. Many foreign investors are afraid to even visit Russian cities, let alone plant roots there.

The mafia may be brutally set in the major cities, but much of Russia operates at a different pace. In one city in the south of Russia, the mafia, though pervasive, is not using such strong-arm tactics. One well-placed business source in Saratov assured me that virtually every business in the city pays a tribute to the mafia bosses, yet he sounds almost defensive of it.

The mafia, he says, provides a code of conduct for business not yet provided by professional societies or government regulation. If a business has a problem with labor or another business, the business owner contacts a mafia representative and the problem is quickly, quietly, efficiently resolved.

The Russian economy is evolving rapidly. The Russian "black market" -- rampant in the 80s and early 90s -- is no longer a disparaging term, it has simply become legitimate business. Perhaps the same will be true of the mafia ... it may give way to guilds and unions and clubs enforcing their own rules of conduct.

Perhaps the Russian Orthodox Church will again provide moral leadership for a people stripped of any ethical belief system. Perhaps the pervasive fear now turning to anger will counter the mafia reign. Perhaps Russia's saving grace will once more be the babushki -- the grandmothers and old women -- who will remind their misguided children of their forgotten moral heritage.

The Russians are a remarkable people with a glorious past, and a glorious future yet to be. You can see the determination in their frustrated faces and fiery eyes that the forward momentum will not be reversed.

The question is no longer whether constructive change will happen, or even when.

The lingering question is, simply, will one be a part of the change or not.

Copyright © 1995 Steven R. Van Hook