Interview with Mark Galeotti, author of Pushkin Prize 2019 shortlisted book 'The Vory'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

What is your connection to Russia?

There is pretty much none in my family. But I’m by training a historian: it’s all about the stories and as far as I am concerned, Russia has all the best stories: the blood is more sanguine, the miseries darker, the heroism greater. As long as I can remember, I have found Russia fascinating.

Why your interest in the criminal world?

Let’s not pretend otherwise: it’s intrinsically cool. For someone at least partially morally bankrupt like me, gangsters, wars and spooks are all very appealing topics to study. When I first became interested in this field, at the end of the Soviet era, it was one that western scholarship had totally ignored, so this was a fascinating opportunity to be in on the ground-floor of something. Beyond that, the underworld is the dark shadow of the upper-world, and this was a time when Russia’s future was up for grabs, defined by those with the will and power to take it. It was thus a prism through which to look at the evolution of the country.

How would you compare the Vory with the Mafia?

I sometimes light-heartedly say Italians are Russian who have had a lot more luck – better climate, soil, food, not at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and invaded by every imperial power. One could point to similarities – the machismo, codes, brotherhood – but that reflects every organised crime group the world over. The real parallel is the way in which each society and state shape their own underworld: Russia and Italy for much of their recent history were dominated by one-party states, leading to a lack of legitimacy in the central government, so family, friends, clan and region were most important.

What were the Vory’s historical roots in Russia?

As society gets more organised, so too do its gangsters. One can see big gangs of brigands after the Napoleonic wars, but the beginnings of a coherent criminal culture were in the later 19th century, at the time of urbanisation and industrialisation, in the miserable slums of the cities. When I was doing my PhD on the Afghanistan veterans, I looked at their connection with criminals, and the Afgantsy gave me my initial contacts I could parlay upwards. They were characterised as a criminalised generation, but in reality their role was pretty minimal. Rather, it was the Gulag experience and the whole Stalinist terror state that was fundamental in shaping the 20th century underworld. It reshaped organised crime and brought it into contact with wider society. Those who spent 10-25 years in the gulags were never going to reintegrate fully or forget that contact. It’s fascinating today that in a Moscow that is worlds apart in many ways from those days, you still hear criminal slang in non-criminal contexts and people listen to Radio Shanson, which reflects that sub-culture.

What is the greatest insight in your book?

Amidst all the lovingly described gore, it is that extent to which the state and society define their own underworlds. Between the blunders made by governments and the aspirations of ordinary people, organised crime essentially fills the vacuum. I was surprised how, in the late 1980s when Soviet society came into contact with its gangsters because of various by-products of perestroika, just how positively they were regarded. They were seen not as predatory thugs, but as the people who would get you the goods and service the state was denying you. I’m fascinated by this dichotomy between the notion of the “good” and “bad” thieves: the Vory were honest about what they were; the bad thieves were those in the suits, judges’ robes and uniforms, who were meant to be on our side but were predatory.

What is their influence today?

In the 1990s, the worlds of business, crime and politics became dangerously overlapped in an unholy trinity. They have moved apart again now. The gangsters are strong, but the state is the strongest gang in town. It gets to set the rules. The day to day life of the vorovskoi mir, the “thieves’ world,” is receding and mythologised. The real issue today is this tacit alliance between underworld and upper-world, gangsters and the state: today’s social contract between the government and gangsters, which is in its own way a perverse legacy of the 1930s. But Russia is changing.

What will happen in the future?

I put my faith in very different kinds of people who want reform. On the one hand, anti-corruption campaigners, and many people in law enforcement who are chafing at the bit, held back by politics. On the other hand, there are the pragmatic kleptocrats who stole with both hands in the 1990s. Russia is now on the cusp of one of the largest inter-generational transfers of wealth the world has ever seen. Those who prospered then through the alliance with organised crime now want their kids to be secure, to have rule of law to protect their inheritances, and the capacity to travel abroad. The irony is the idealists and the most ruthless pragmatists agree.

What is Vladimir Putin’s position?

He wants this issue off his desk for as long as he can. He is clearly a man who doesn’t see an intrinsic problem in organised crime – he had to deal with it in St Petersburg and it is hard to imagine that after two decades of benign neglect he would launch state-wide campaign against them. Nor is he a gangster himself. For him, this is a war not worth fighting if he can avoid it. If the state turns against organised crime, as we’ve seen elsewhere such as in Italy, it will fight back. But we are seeing a pragmatic technocratic elite building up its arsenal for when it breaks with the gangsters who were once its allies. This is part of the preparations for a post-Putin era, as we have moved into the fin de siècle era.

Were you ever afraid during your interviews?

There were times when I thought maybe I shouldn’t have done things in this way, but I was younger and thus more intrinsically stupid. In the modern age of research ethics and risk assessment processes, it would have been rather different. At one point I was shot at, admittedly, but it later transpired that was meant to be a warning shot. Not that this was much of a consolation at the time! I was often in deeply dodgy late Soviet housing estates on the outskirts of Moscow and elsewhere, where I felt very exposed. But the people I was talking to had already self-selected – if they don’t want to talk to you, they won’t. I never just wandered into a mafia hangout to say hello, after all. I did have always to avoid a sense I was on anyone’s side: a different gang, the police, whomever. The real concerns were much more of being sucked into their world – some were ghastly creatures, but others were fascinating and charismatic. I was an impoverished British academic and someone once said “Do you have a car? Would you like a jeep?” It was more of a moral temptation than a physical one.

What is your next book?

I have several projects on the go, but the next big comparable book is provisionally called “Spook Country”. I’m trying to do the same thing as Vory for the intelligence and security community. Their impact on the rest of Russian society, politics and business is amazing and worrying: the terms, the sharp-end tactics, all has seeped into politics and business. Once upon a time we were worried about the colonisation of power structures by the so-called siloviki, these “men of force.” If anything, their density has diminished. But that’s not the point: we have instead seen a cultural colonisation by them of wider society.