Haute Gangsterism

Mark Galeotti, a professor at NYU and the author of a great book on security in Russia, has an interesting new post discussing some of the topics raised in a podcast put out by the RFE/RL’s Power Vertical website.  In taking a look at Putin’s role as as essential arbiter and the partial myth of the power vertical, Galeotti raises an interesting comparison with Russia’s former criminal class, known as the vory v zakone (‘thieves within law’ or ‘thieves within the code’), who used to act as the arbiters of disputes among rival gangs.  Galeotti writes:

As authority figures within the underworld, the vory v zakone were often called on to resolve disputes between individuals and gangs and broker deals, sometimes between gangs and at other times between gangs and corrupt elements of the Soviet state. They could do so precisely because:

(1) they were personally trusted and respected to do the right thing,

(2) they took that responsibility seriously, knowing that if they became regarded as abusing it then they faced losing their status and brutal and bloody retaliation, and

(3) they represented something greater, a common understanding that sticking to the thieves’ code was in the criminal elite’s best interests, as it minimized internecine conflicts and the kind of divisions which would make it easier for them to be destroyed by the state or hungry younger criminals.

Without wanting to push the analogy too far (it’s not useful to use ‘mafia state‘ as an analytic tool to understand modern Russia), Putin’s role as ‘the decider’ is strikingly similar. His authority is personal, not institutional (if it was simply vested in the position of the presidency, just think what Medvedev could have done), but nor is it unconditional or vested in some divine right.

It is interesting to see how various developments allowed Putin to step into the role formerly held by vory v zakone, which has been facilitated in no small part by the emergence of a more sophisticated criminal class among the elite – those who prefer Armani suits and degrees from Harvard over tattoos and uzis.  Call it haute gangsterism compared to the unsophisticated common criminality that was overseen by the vory over the Soviet and early post-Soviet period.  But what binds the two systems together is the same absence of formalized rules granting legitimacy to Putin’s settling of disputes, so in many ways, power is only defined by expediency – making it in everyone’s interests to keep him at center of formal institutions.  As a good friend of mine in Moscow said after the “deal” between Putin and Medvedev was made public – “do you think he could have really avoided a third term even if he wanted to retire?”