THE   NEW  EVIL  EMPIRE


                                                                                           The  Mafiya  in  Russia

                                                                                                            7 pgs

 

                                                                                                              by  Michael Hammerschlag

                                                                                                                            DO NOT LINK THIS ARTICLE

                                                                                                                           hammerschlag@bigfoot.com

 

 

     <<< Dec 91--- If the car stopped as it went through Vostania Sq., I decided I was going to jump out.  These guys must think that I was a stupid tourist: Lenin Sq.  was to the east over the islands in the Neva River that made up Leningrad, we were going through downtown on Nevsky Prospect to the southeast. The car never slowed-there wasn't any traffic at midnight.  Oh, it was O.K..  Pathologically secretive, Russians never tell you where and why they are taking you, lest you demur.  They're also fond of 50% longer shortcuts. Besides the leader, who was a dead ringer for German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer (Out of Africa), was chatting up a storm--what do you call that?, have you ever done this?- -and I was babbling on in my newly mastered BPR (Butchered Pigeon Russian).  Russians were the most hospitable people on earth--everyone you met on the street insisted on dragging you home and forcing food, drink, and fellowship on you...  and they loved  Americans. Russians made, on average, $8 a month (then), and we were royalty: economic gods whose presence bestowed prestige and good fortune  (as well as superpower brethren). >>>

 

          Crime in Russia didn't appear from nowhere, it just shifted from government to private enterprise in the most successful privatization of all. Only 12 years before, people were still being executed for the crime of capitalism, and the killing fields of Moscow- 22,000 here, 13,000 there, were being unearthed just outside the city limits 7 miles south of my apartment. What the Nazi's did for 5 years, the Soviets did for 35, and the total of people murdered in purges, prisons, forced famines is generally accepted to be at least 20,000,000. Add to that the 28 million (up from 20; the victory at Stalingrad cost the Soviets 2 million dead, not 1) slaughtered by the Germans in WW II, the losses from WW I, the revolution, and the Civil War and the USSR had 60-70 million people killed in this century.  Everything about Russia must be viewed through this prism of horror, because it is a nation beset by collective delayed stress syndrome. The way they think, act, react, plan, and dream for 70 years was regulated by fear. For most of a century the Soviets killed or crushed their best and brightest, leading to a poverty of wisdom and intelligence that was amplified by the regimented mediocrity of the Communists. Even well educated Russians often have problem grasping simple concepts, and it's not just due to cultural differences.  When the government stopped practicing wholesale criminality in the 80's + 90's, the Mafiya moved right in, and the people, used to being victimized by a tyrannical government, accustomed themselves to the new despots.

 

  <<< We cruised on down highways leading out of St. Petersburg (mentally still Leningrad), 4 days after the break-up of the Soviet Union, towards the hotel bar that they promised was still open. Except for oppressive Soviet hotel restaurants and bars, which were almost impossible to get into (4 layers of matre'ds intoning "no space"), there was no place to go in Russia after 10 pm- everything was closed (self-serve cafeterias closed at 7).  I had just seen a Music Hall show: a tremendous Vegas-like conglomeration of 50 dancing girls, high wire and high bar acrobatics, a girl who operated 50 hula hoops at once, hokey singers (New York, New York--"I'm leaving today"); and I was psyched to finally go OUT after 5 weeks of a dark dismal Russian winter.  A restaurant/club on a boat was near but it was deserted and closed after one drink. My new friends were talking on the phone on the landing like they owned the place- taxi drivers, I thought. "We know a great place that's open till 3am," Klaus said, "with a band. Come on, let's go."

                          They were eager and friendly and probably cool, though his Moslem sidekick looked a little slippery. Reluctantly I went along, but when the car door opened and I saw 3 guys, 'Klaus' not turning around in a parody of the KGB pickup... I almost bailed out. Poverty made every car a potential taxi, so one quickly got used to getting into strangers’ cars. >>>

 

      Like almost everything in the communist world, crime is a group activity: there are almost no individual stick-up men, and Mafiyas  predate the onset of Lenin. They were called the Thieves Society, with  their own extensive tattoos, codes, and rituals; but the Communist  overlords sent most of them to the gulags and towns of Siberia. In a  twisted way, they were sometimes the only defenders of liberty during the darkest days.  In its brutality, corruption, secrecy, and absolute  supremacy the Communist leadership emulated a criminal organization (in fact the Bolsheviks were modeled after Chechen gangs) --in the Brezhnev years it began stealing from the state on a public, widespread, and brazen level; along with much of the populace.

 

      <<< "I've got to stop at my place," said 'Klaus' as we cruised on, probably to get some vodka, which the Russians drink like water--neat in one slug, anytime and anywhere. At any one time, it seems 1/5 of the country is plastered; when workers doing dangerous industrial repairs in the subway start drinking, they aren't disciplined... the boss sits down and drinks with them. At the exit of a metro station 2 businessmen in nice suits and attache cases were going up the stairs, arms linked, when they tottered and ever so slowly fell backwards and rolled down the stairs (still linked), ripping their clothes up and smashing their cases open.  That's how they celebrate. I wasn't concerned--in a country of perennial shortages, carrying liquor and food into a restaurant + club is normal, even mandatory. >>>

 

 Like in the U.S, the Mafiya is divided into ethnic and regional groups: the Tambov mob, from a city 250 miles SE of Moscow; the Solntsevo and the Lyubertsy mobs, from Moscow suburbs; the Tartar mob, from Kazan (800 mi E of Moscow), the Moslem remnants of Ghengis Khan's hoards; the Chechens, a vicious + psychotic group from the breakaway Caucus Mtn province of Chechnya, where entire towns turn out to hijack trains-- stripping them to the metal.. and then taking the metal; the Azerbaijani's, hiding from their interminable war with Armenia, they've brought it to Moscow, where they run drugs and, with the Chechens*, control the food markets; the Georgians, tall and handsome, they look more like playboys than mobsters- a former relative paradise, their country has been trashed by 3 civil wars, blockade, and economic collapse. The 5000- odd crime groups are loosely linked, but relatively decentralized, and membership (including co-conspirators and employees) and is said to be some 3 million.

  * The Chechens hijacked buses 4 times (some with children) and held them for millions in ransom, hijacked 120 trains in '94, counterfeited  billions in 50,000 R and US $100 bills, and stole 160 billion R from the Russian Central Bank through fraudulent transfers-- most of the untold reasons behind the Russian invasions.

 

      <<< We were getting farther and farther out, but I still wasn't too worried, insulated by a layer of American, journalistic, and hard currency invulnerability. They were slick, acting no different from the eager friendly talkative Russians I had met, hot to display their American to their friends and family. Finally when we turned down a little unlit dirt road under a canopy of trees, I yelled "Where the hell are we going." The cabbie? started to turn around, but they said no, go on. 'Klaus' shook his head disapprovingly, 'we can't have this', he seemed to say....  Then the gun came out. >>>

 

      As the communist Mafiya collapsed from its own internal rot during Gorbachev's time, the private enterprise mob grew stronger, but it wasn't until after the '91 putsch and freeing of prices, when the KGB and militsia, bowdlerized and demoralized, virtually ceased operating; that the mobs exploded their influence into every facet of Russian life through ruthless extortion.  Crippled by 1000-fold inflation (100 fold in dollars and 4-8 fold relative to increased salaries) and repeated reorganizations, resentful at their loss of power, the security forces threw up their hands against the deluge of crime.  Trained to persecute businessmen, they had tremendous problems making the psychological transition to protecting them.  The attitude was that they've brought these problems on themselves by making money --if they just desisted from that they'd be OK. The police routinely blamed the victims, calling multiple murders "a typical settlement of accounts between criminal groups".  Trained in terror and bullying, tens of thousands of unemployed KGB and other secret police were hired by or became mobsters. And the vicious 10 year Afghan War produced a ready pool of Mob soldiers, experienced in routine atrocities, and more discarded on their return than American Vietnam veterans.

                    The result was that major cities became totally criminalized, with 95-99 % of businesses from the smallest kiosk to the largest bank paying 20-40% of the profits to mobsters. They didn't rob banks, they just took them over. After 10 bank directors were blown away in '93, 5 bank leaders sent an open letter to Yeltsin begging for help... Nothing was done. The statistics are grim: Moscow murders are running 1500/year, 4/day (a 7-fold increase from 6 years ago), with a major shoot-out every day; nationwide 35,000 murders/year- triple the per-capita rate of America.

 

  <<< My heart sunk through my shoes, I had made a big, big mistake.  I was alone in isolated woods in a brutal alien country, with 3 thugs and a gun.  Resisting was out of the question and running into an unknown snowy woods likewise dubious.  But they had little motivation to keep me alive.  "Give me your wallet and backpack (with a nice reflex Pentax)," 'Klaus' said.  Then I had to get out, where they searched me, took my watch and beautiful suede coat (I knew it was too ostentatious for Russia), and the Moslem guy landed a couple of damaging punches in the mouth.  Then I backed away in the 12" snow as 'Klaus' fixed me with a cold hard stare, his eyes slits, the gun trained on my chest. "Nyet, pozhalsta" (No, please) I yelled...  as a command rather than a plea. Alarmingly the Moslem was grabbing his gun arm, pleading "Nyet, nyet", presumably 'don't kill this one like you did the last one'. I kept my eyes locked onto his, convinced if I broke contact for a second, he'd fire. Backing constantly and praying I wouldn't stumble, I kept yelling "No" as forcefully as I could while trying to move to one side so the gun was off me and I could bolt at the first shot.  15 ft, 20 ft., 30 ft. Coolly, he kept the gun pointed dead center at my chest, and the thought flashed incongruously through my head:  "Gee, there are not many people who really know how to use a handgun properly." 50 ft., 60 ft..  Then he turned, dove in the 'cab' and they roared off. >>>

 

       In July '93 a full scale gang war erupted after a Tatar mob leader was hit (then mourned with a 100 car funeral cortege and citywide observances). The Russian Mafiya had tired of the ethnic competition and decided to drive them out or completely subjugate them. Virulently racist, Russians contemptuously call the browner skinned peoples of the Caucuses (near Turkey +Iran) "blacks".  Real blacks aren't even regarded as human. [After the October revolt, Democratic Mayor Luzhkov "cleaned up" Moscow by rounding up and deporting anyone who wasn't white: 12- 18,000, with 30- 50,000 more fleeing the city.  Doctors with families and cars were dragged off the streets, thrown in camps, and sent south without appeal.] The streets were made safe for the Russian mob.

                    Daily for 2-3 weeks, a group of goons with machine guns invaded an office or business and blew away 3-5 people, starting spectacularly at the Alliance car dealership: 7 killers, 4 defenders: 4 dead, 4 wounded. Outrageously profitable (a $12,000 GM car would go for $25K), the booming auto dealerships were particular targets, doing most of their business in cash. Banks couldn't be trusted; they tend to lose, steal, or put holds on funds.  And 3 times in the last 4 years the government has simply invalidated "old" currency, stealing billions from the distraught populace (again that July), so Rubles can't be kept too long.  "I reflected that once again we'd done something stupid," rued Yeltsin after his wife exploded at him over that currency "reform".

                        The solution was to spend it as fast as it came in. Grizzled Mongolian Siberians would saunter into a dealership with $380,000 in cash in a suitcase and leave with 7 Lincoln-Continentals. Top of the line Mercedes' sold more in Moscow than the rest of Europe.

                        As the gang-war heated up it was hard to avoid. Changing traveler's checks at the Belgrad Hotel (where the thugs would lurk in line at the bank and peer into your wallet) with visiting Seattle friends, we missed a car bombing by 15 minutes (maybe the wrong guy-he was using a friend's car). The Russian manager of the Tren-Mos (Trenton-Moscow) bar-restaurant, popular with foreigners and an occasional hangout, was assassinated in his garage. 3 blocks from the newspapers I wrote at in Pushkinskaya Pl., 2 killers machine-gunned the Azeri manager, lobbed a grenade into the cafe (a dud), and blew away 2 kiosk workers for good measure (they'd been rude).   Maybe the Mob would improve notoriously attrocious Russian manners.

     

<<< As the car roared off, I stood stunned. But then it came back, and panic inundated me as I flailed away into the woods. They'd changed their mind and come back to finish me off: I'd seen enough TV movies. No, they missed their turnoff, and then they were really gone. It was 0-5 degrees, and I was perhaps miles from anyone..  in shirtsleeves. Luckily a single house was only 200 yards away, and the guy called the regional militsia, whom I regaled with the story for 4 hours as they summoned bigger wigs to hear my amusing tale. "You were lucky," said Alexei Sinjagin, head of crime against foreigners, "we're still looking for several Germans." They find them in the spring...  when the snow melts.  On the long ride home, Vadim, my summoned US citizen/Russian friend was irate, "You never get in a car with more than 1 person!!  Don't you know what's going on here??  The Soviet Union is GONE: the new Union is called SNG (Russia, Ukraine,+ Belarus) and its capital is in Minsk!!" "MINSK!, the capital is MINSK???", I said dumbfounded.  It was the first I'd heard of it.  Minsk?  Yeltsin, Kravchuk, and Shushkevich had met in a cabin in the woods and secretly and unilaterally dissolved the empire won by 1000 years of Russian blood and imperialism.  Leningrad had no English papers, radio, or TV; if you weren't staying at a big hotel, it was like being on the moon.  On Christmas Day, Yeltsin summarily threw out Gorbachev and commandeered his Kremlin office.  A world had ended.>>>

 

      The Mafiya is the wealthiest and most powerful faction in the country now, wielding veto power over many economic and political decisions.  Although a plague, they're also sometimes invaluable in providing seed money and dealing with an impossibly corrupt and inconsistent government bureaucracy.  "You have to work with a good Mafiya", says Eddy Favinsky, manager of the Armadillo Bar, a popular Western club near Red Sq.,in what to Russians sounds like clear logic. You have to.  The hoods are dependable, consistent, and most importantly efficient, more efficient than anything seen in this country in ages. Simply refusing to pay debts is so common here that normal businesses are forced to turn to Mafiya muscle for resolution (who keep up to half the proceeds). Some bosses actually are mutating into proto-robber-barons: flying around the country on private jets planning housing developments and forming conglomerates.

 

               <<< Unfortunately, the goons had my notebook and wallet with my address and phone #, even an X'd map displaying my apt, along with an itemized list of $5000 of video gear (50 years income), so for the next 6 weeks I expected to be ambushed coming into my apartment. 5 days later a skinhead thug plopped down on the metro bench next to me and my girlfriend, and followed us home on the last train (1:22am). We lost him coming out of the metro + hopped a taxi, but like something out of the "Hitcher", it slowed down and, unbelievably... he got on. We got off and remained on the main st. while the cab pulled up 100 ft farther, waited 5 minutes, and then roared off in a U-turn. He wasn't even going in that direction, but he had raced 500 ft. down my st. (out of 4), as if he knew where I lived.  There had been 7 good picture ID's in my wallet and my world got smaller and colder.  I started wearing only a ratty "fisherman's jacket", carrying tear gas and a razor knife, stopped talking to strangers or speaking English, and studied everyone for a threat. When I left Petersburg 6 weeks later, I was just glad to be alive, but the whole time in Russia (2 years) the sense of menace was always there, erupting into serious danger about 10 times. >>>

 

      But because Westerners were so popular and because hassling us often brought actual police retaliation, we, especially Americans, were largely immune from mob terror. In general the hoods wanted to emulate and hang out with us more than they wanted to rob us (so my blitheness wasn't unfounded).  And by the end of '92, there were filthy rich Russians for them to prey on.  There were exceptions, like when goons badly beat and robbed one of the private US Embassy security employees outside his residence in the Belgrad Hotel in Oct 92. But the murder of Michael Dasaro in his bathtub in Nov. 93 by thugs who broke down his door and ransacked the apartment sent shudders throughout the 100,000 foreign community in Moscow. "Do you know what happened?" pleaded my photographer friend who had relationships with Mafiya guys. A wall had been breached. Dasaro was a longtime US embassy employee who then worked for Ernst and Young, an extremely influential and powerful accounting firm whose evaluations and audits controlled billions in American investments. He had a heart condition that could have killed him anytime, reported the Moscow Times dutifully from highly suspect claims of the Moscow coroner. He'd also been about to buy a car with thousands in cash, the only way business is conducted in Russia. Then in Sept 94, Anthony Riccio, a Brown U.  student, was thrown from his 16th fl. dormitory, presumably by non-student resident thugs renting rooms from the financially desperate universities (the nastiest of which were Chechens).

                     The recent opening of a Moscow FBI office is good, but they may be hamstrung by endemic police corruption, or targeted for terrorist reprisals--their anonymity and safety are impossible to guarantee in Moscow's lawless jungle (They've been housed in the basement of the Lubyanka- some symbolism!!).  After 70 years of random government terror, Russians have a casualness and blindness towards violence that's chilling. When you tell Russians these stories they don't commiserate, they laugh lustily, "Ha,ha, now you know how our country is."

 

      <<< Dec 92, 12:30am, Met. Shelkovskaya- After a 15 minute walk in -10 F cold, a girl and I reached a pub on the outskirts of Moscow and took the only table.  "No, no", said a good looking hood with about 10 pals, "that's the Yaroslav table".  I leaned back and looked at him- with no intention of relinquishing it. "They say they waited an hour, and want to switch tables," explained my friend with a dangerous delay. After a half hour of drinks, snacks, and talk, a soldier? walked in and was instantly punched by the same punk, dragged outside, and beaten, maybe to death, by the gang.  "I don't like guys from Yaroslav", sniffed my gentle friend Sergei-13 once, "they like to fight."  The girl smiled, arched her eyebrows, said "I don't know", then went to blithely chat with old school chums.  Meanwhile the toughs had returned and started hacking holes in the tables with huge Bowie knives while casting me searching looks (we'd been speaking in English).  Later, she couldn't even fathom why I was upset, though they had followed us out and loudly speculated about my origins (I'd claimed to be Polish at the bar- that or the Baltics were safer than being Western). As we hustled back through the pitch darkness,I was sure they’d come after us.>>>

 

I've seen 3 people beaten to a pulp, been mugged 3 times (unsuccessfully), and even apparent (drunken) friends routinely grab and shake each other like thugs robbing someone. When a pedestrian is killed on the road, police leave the body there for hours uncovered... like a deer.

      In Irkutsk 4 teenagers stopped me on a street at 6pm and demanded money.  I used the tear gas before their persuasion became physical and took off with them in temporary pursuit.  Unfortunately it happened 5 minutes from my apartment, and I left Irkutsk soon after.  After the kidnapping, where I'd almost gone like a willing sheep to slaughter, I'd resolved to fight, no matter what.

 

<<<June 93, Midnight, Pushkinskaya Pl.- Walking along the garden ring in Moscow near McDonald's at midnight, I was stalked by 3 Georgians (or Armenians).  The Garden ring was known for muggings, but it was a beautiful summer (non-winter) night. I had heard them behind me and diverted over to the lighted street twice waiting for them to pass-- when the big guy finally came at me, I was only 100 yards from relative safety. The razor knife was out but I couldn't bring myself to use it-except on my own pack; I tried running, was tripped and fell heavily....  and they were on me, pawing at my pockets.  Incredibly, bellowing "help me" in Russian and English at 120 decibels drove them off without any spoils or damage, but my voice was blown out for a week.  The police, as usual, were useless clowns: none were on the street, the officer in the metro was "only responsible for inside the metro", and when I telephoned them...  they just hungup on me- a normal Russian phone practice.  I went home.>>>

 

 Not only are they unhelpful,  the police themselves are dangerous and unpredictable.  A plainclothes goon with a literal pig face grabbed my arm (after hearing English on a bus),  demanded documents, and tried to drag me into the darkness my first seconds in Leningrad. I stood my ground, almost came to blows,  demanded his documents, and called a soldier over for help (most soldiers are pretty nice); whereupon we showed ID's and he disappeared in a flash.  He was some kind of official,  but that doesn't mean he wasn't going to rob or extort money from me.  After a Seattle talk show in which I trashed the parliament leaders,  5 militsia (some with Kalashnikovs) banged on my door and took me to the station for 4 hours.[see The Knock on the Door].  I had failed to register-a meaningless formality that basically means you've entered the country, which they already know, since they rip a copy of your visa off when you do.  Telling the police (and perhaps Mafiya) where I lived in a country that had killed 20 million of it's own people didn't seem wise, especially for a journalist.  The local lieutenant hated foreigners and shoved me when I tried to register,  then told the embassy officer who complained,  "we'll throw him in the street like a dog if we go back there".  "I suggest you don't return to that individual," said my embassy friend dryly.  The company that had done my visa had been pressured and refused to renew it 6 days later,  so for 6 tortuous weeks I tried 20 different ways to extend it,  subject to arrest and deportation at any point.  Finally the government itself, the Press Dept. of the Foreign Ministry gave me the damn thing, along with a foreign press badge, which almost no one writing for Moscow papers had- roughly equivalent in Russia ,where the press had been a branch of government, to a FBI ID..

 

   One night, as I was running 3/4 speed to catch the very last metro I felt, incredibly, a kick in the rear. Spinning around, a frenzied militsia guy grabbed my shirt, had his baton raised to beat me, and didn't lower it even when I waved my press badge and screamed "what are you doing"?  "You were smoking", he barked inexplicably.  I don't smoke. Luckily he calmed down and the train did come then, or literally my life or his would have been radically alterred. Traffic police are walking toll booths, stopping anyone with a wave of their baton and extorting money,  $5 in 4 stops in a 1/2 mile downtown trip in summer ‘93 (equal then to $100 in the West).  You are always guilty: there are offenses like having a dirty car, and if you don't stop when they say, they might pull out guns and shoot out the tires (they love this) or sometimes the driver. An American, confused and thinking he was being robbed, tried to drive off-- his woman passenger was shot in the back. Foreigners have to have specially colored license plates-(with a picture of a sheep) which makes them a target to everyone.  I didn't drive in Russia.

 

   No one is safe in the modern Russia. Kidnapping of the new rich became a major sport, forcing everyone of substance to invest vast sums in bodyguards, security systems, and impregnable housing. Partly because the police + KGB practiced it routinely for 70 years, kidnapping carried negligible penalties- 6 months in jail- making it even more attractive.  The truly rich like Vladimir Gusinsky of Most conglomerate maintain private armies.  But nothing is enough when the Mafiya comes calling, asking for their cut or favor. 10 bank directors were blown away-usually at home- in '93, about 35 bank officials in '94.  The new directors are inclined to be more compliant.  After 2 members of Parliament were killed in muggings or assassinations, an MP shot 2 hoods near his home, killing one, claiming they were threatening him .  Finally, someone had stood up to the thugs.  Maybe it could be done. He became a darling of the media. A half year later he was taken from a popular press bar- The News Bar- by fake police and murdered with a gratuitous amount of bullets. The News Bar was originally run and populated by Westerners, oriented towards journalists. One day, reacting to some imagined slight, the hoods came in, beat the hell out of the bartenders, smashed the place up, and soon took it over. Now it's predominated by sleazy leather clad noveau riche and their women. It was a pattern repeated in many bars. Danger can come from anywhere without warning

 

<<<May 93, Kuznetsky Most Metro:  Outside waiting for a friend, a drunk businessman in a suit and carrying an attache case and open umbrella approached with 2 friends. As he passed, the unprotected sharp umbrella edge clipped me just below my eye, drawing blood. "Hey", I complained slapping him lightly on the shoulder. Without missing a beat, he turned and tried to kick me in the crotch. I caught his foot in both hands at my waist and held it for a couple of seconds, dearly loving to dislocate it, while we stared at each other. But a girl was due to meet me there in 2 minutes and he did have 2 large friends, not wearing suits (who probably would have laughed at his humiliation). I let him go.>>>

 

      At the pricy nightclubs ($20-60 cover), businessmen check their guns almost as commonly as their coats, as their muscular bodyguards stand with crossed arms, cellular phone antennas poking ostentatiously from their jackets. "Take the metro's- they're the safest places in Russia", warned fat Andre initially. There were almost no thievery or muggings there, but my craziest experiences seem to take place in the vast cool subterranean city of the metro.

      In an act that deeply shocked Russians and caused nationwide mourning and reassessment, Vladislav Listyev, the new head of Russian television was murdered near his home in March 95. He was Russia's Phil Donahue and Ted Koppel, the father of the modern Russian talk show, and widely popular and beloved. Ostankino had become incredibly profitable in only 2 years, generating advertising profits of $14 million/month from the pennies of before. Some account managers were reaping staggering profits and the Mafiya had come calling- to demand their cut. Listyev panicked, shutting down all TV advertising for a month. He was duly punished, and presumably his successors have no illusions about who really runs the country. No amount of fame, money, or power grants one immunity. The president of the Business Round Table, the Russian Chamber of Commerce, was just murdered- the 9th member of the Round Table killed. In a 5 day period in Aug '95, there were 17 gangland killings.

 

 

<<<Oct '93 1am, Varshavskaya, Moscow:   Walking the 9 minutes home from the metro in a quiet secluded residential area, my worst nightmare became reality.  A BMW slowed as it passed me, then continued.  Directions,  I thought, my brain having returned to it's normal complaisance. Fool. BMW's were the company cars of the Mafiya. 100 ft. from my building door, 4 huge guys appeared on an intersecting course, just as I had known it would happen.  This was it- I'd never seen anyone near my building after midnight before. One of them didn't want to do it, though, and angled off from the others.  "Where are you going, come on", they exorted. Speed walking to the door, I sprinted to the 4th floor,  caught the elevator to 8,  and sent it to 6 to confuse them..  but within 30 seconds they were camped on my landing, loudly chatting for 5 minutes. It was a message. They could have been sent by Mafiya, Communist, or Government bosses enraged at my articles, a girlfriend's Mafiya brother or her Georgian boyfriend, or maybe it was just a random target of opportunity.  I never knew.  Like so many things there it was lost in a miasmic cloud of fear and ignorance.  For the next week I circled around, crossing the mud and hills of the train tracks to approach from the other side, where I studied the building carefully. Once a car idled at the entrance (also unprecedented) + I crouched for an hour in the cold, debating alternatives.  Complaining to local militsia just could lead to other future risks: for foreigners safety lay in anonymity.>>>

 

       More than the devastating inflation and impoverization, crime is the issue that will bring the totalitarians to power. The Chechen invasion was Yeltsin's attempt to inoculate against that, so he was shocked at the public's virulent reaction against it.  In Belarus, the head of the organized crime commission, an unstable populist communist who wants to ban private property and admires Russia's first secret police chief, won the presidency with 80% of the vote.  People have watched most parts of their lives-restaurants, taxis, foods, hotels, laundries, plane + train tickets; priced out of reach ($100/mo income).    Worse, they've watched these things become the exclusive province of flashy thugs, rich biznismeni, and foreigners who use $100 bills like tissue paper.  Russia has restratified with a vengeance: <1% rich and the rest poor.  Virtually nothing is made in Russia anymore- even most food is now imported. Now with less people than Brazil or Indonesia, few new births, and a collapsing medical establishment; Russia is dying off by 800,000/year: the average male lifespan has fallen to 57 years.  Even liberals, students, and intellectuals rail against Yeltsin's government for letting this happen. Others go farther-"Yeltsin is the biggest Mafiya boss of them all", confided people to me 3 times in whispers.  The Tatar Moscow godfather who was assassinated in April had been granted a 3 year exemption from import/export taxes by Yeltsin. He has done almost nothing to control crime, but truthfully, neither would anyone else- Putin, Lebed (general), Zyuganov (Communist), or Zhirinovsky would all come to terms with the mob bosses: they're too powerful and too rich. Putin talks a good line but isn’t likely to really move against the major crime bosses- they control the country more than the government, unless Putin wants to return to the full strictures of the police state (which is possible, in stages).  Dealing with the Devil has a long history in Russia. The time to stop them was '91-2; now it's too late: they will be a power for generations.

                    

      In a way, this new scourge is just the same old evil-- endlessly recycled: from Mongol annihilation, to Tsarist terror, to Cossack pogroms, to Communist butchery, to German genocide, now Mafiya savagery.  Raised on irrational brutality Russians are extraordinarily susceptible to extortion and victimization. And now, stripped of any moral compass as well as all constants, pummelled by 100 fold real inflation, watching the collapse of their empire, union, army, industries, health, security, and self-respect; they wait like sheep for the hammer to fall,... and some try to help it along.

 

                             Copyright  (c) 1997-2000  Michael Hammerschlag

 

 

 

        Michael Hammerschlag wrote commentary for Moscow News, Guardian, Tribune, and Times; + We/Mui and did radio reports for Radio South Africa and KING- AM, Seattle in the 2 years he spent in Russia and the Soviet Union. He's writing a book on his experiences, of which this is a partial chapter.