The Russian Mafia In America: Immigration, Culture, and Crime

The Russian Mafia In America: Immigration, Culture, and Crime

by James O. Finckenauer

ISBN: 9781555535087

Publisher Northeastern

Published in Law/Criminal Law, Nonfiction/Politics, Biographies & Memoirs/True Crime, Nonfiction/Crime & Criminals, Nonfiction/Social Sciences, Professional & Technical/Law

Are you an AUTHOR? Click here to include your books on

Sample Chapter

Chapter One


This is a story of Russian crime and criminals. Most of it takes place in the contemporary United States, especially in the Brighton Beach area of Brooklyn and in parts of New Jersey and Philadelphia. Some of it takes place in California and Florida.

    To truly understand the Russians who have come to America—old and new, criminal and not, honest and not—we are compelled to look at who they are and where they have come from. Their roots are in czarist Russia, the Russia of the former Soviet Union, and the Russia of today. The most important lessons that immigrants learned were about survival under the novel and difficult conditions that marked Soviet life. For all Russians, being especially adaptive and innovative often meant putting aside morality and legality, and this outlook—characterized by rationalization, hypocrisy, and a double standard of morality—to varying degrees shapes the thinking and behavior of almost all Soviet Russians who have come to America. This is especially so for some of the most recent arrivals—those referred to as the new Russians—whose worldview was shaped in the declining years of a Soviet Union that was reaching its nadir of corruption and decadence.

    Our story has additional roots in the prisons of Russia, especially the notorious prison camp system known as the Soviet gulag. Those prisons were the birthplace for a class of ruthless professional criminals, a number of whom have since turned up in the United States. They too are a significant part of the story.

    Other roots reach into the neighborhoods where Russian immigrants have settled when they arrive in the United States, beginning with the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Russian Jewish immigrants who settled in New York City. A second wave arrived after World War I, and a third after World War II. More recently, a fourth wave of Russians came to the United States between roughly mid-1970 and 1991, and a fifth arrived after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Each of these immigrant groups has distinctive characteristics, yet they are linked by a common language and common origins. The economic experiences of Russian immigrants, and their dealings with crime and corruption, are part of that common origin.

    Why should anyone be interested in this story? After all, haven't enough books (fiction and nonfiction) and articles on crime and organized crime been published? For the serious student of the subject, there are a host of government reports to be digested, as well. But apart from works of fiction and textbooks written mostly for undergraduate students, only a handful of original, book-length studies of organized crime can be found. If one further excludes the works focused on Italian American organized crime, the list becomes considerably shorter. We know very little—and in some cases nothing—about the involvement of non-Italian groups that are becoming major perpetrators of organized crime in this country.

    Only a few works deal with crime and organized crime in Russia, even though Russian immigrant crime (generally referred to as the Russian mafia) has received considerable media coverage. In fact, only one other book examines crime among Soviet émigrés to the United States. Enormous changes have occurred since that book was published more than ten years ago, including the arrival of the fifth wave of Russian immigrants.

    For Americans, this is more than just another story of organized crime among yet another group of ethnic immigrants. The relationship between Russia and the United States, both before and after the demise of the USSR, is unique. For half a century the Soviet Union was viewed as an arch enemy and superpower rival of the United States. Its economic, political, and social systems were very different from those of the United States, and it alone rivaled the United States in the extent of its international spheres of influence, nuclear arsenal, and space program. Since 1991, though, supporting the struggle for democracy in Russia has become a principal American foreign policy goal, and that struggle is thwarted and threatened by rampant organized crime and corruption.

    Nowhere else in the world has organized crime so infiltrated the highest echelons of the state as in Russia today. Organized crime has power and control in Russia whose scope far exceeds the criminal control exercised by drug cartels in countries such as Colombia. Beyond its own borders, Russian organized crime is a global concern. Arms trafficking, alien smuggling, money laundering, trafficking in vital materials such as oil and timber, and (potentially) nuclear trafficking are among the Russian criminal enterprises on the international scene.

    Focusing on ethnic identity (in this case Russian but also Chinese, Irish, or Italian) means wrestling with the idea of ethnicity, which plays a major role in our story. This is complicated by the popular characterization as Russian of anyone from any of the regions that were part of imperial Russia, the former Soviet Union, or contemporary Russia. In reality, such immigrants come from many regional groups (including Ukrainian, Uzbek, Armenian, and Byelorussian) and religious groups (such as Jewish and Russian Orthodox). Despite this diversity, people who lived in the Soviet Union share certain defining characteristics, the most important of which are the experiences of having been a Soviet citizen and of speaking the Russian language. Based on our study of the relationship between ethnicity and crime, it is clear that no ethnic group is criminal and that indeed most members of any ethnic group (including Russians) are not criminals.

    Just what does being Russian mean? Our specific interest is in Soviet Russians, who are a somewhat special category. Are the Soviet Russians of the 1990s different from their Russian immigrant ancestors of a century ago, a half century ago, or a generation ago? Are these differences reflected in their experiences on our shores? Most important, do these differences have anything to do with Russians' involvement in crime?

    In spite of the notoriety of the Italian word mafia, it has no common, universally accepted meaning. Our principal purpose here is to understand how and why this term has come to be associated with Russian criminals, both here and in Russia itself. To do so, we look at mafias and mafiosi—and also the role of mafia myths—as these relate to organized crime and the organization of criminal activities among Russian immigrants.

    Whatever else it may invoke, mafia has connotations of organized crime, which leads us to consider the very idea of organized crime and how it differs from other crime. For example, one of the elements of organized crime is the conspiracy—that is, two or more people planning and carrying out criminal acts. Conspiracy also can be used in a broader sense of a fanciful explanation for otherwise unexplained phenomena that rely on the coming together of seemingly malevolent forces. Russians, mafias, and organized crime all seem to be attractive subjects for those who have a propensity for promulgating conspiracy theories.

    In addition to ethnicity, Russians, mafias, and organized crime, a fifth major idea that plays a prominent role in our discussion is that of networks. The word network is used by criminal investigators and the press to characterize criminal organizations said to be engaged in organized crime. As we use the term, network means connections between individuals, organizations, or other entities. These networks may engage in joint, reciprocal, preferential, and mutually supportive actions. They may be complex or relatively simple, large or small. Trust is usually an important element in the operation of criminal and other networks. The networks that we analyze are made up mostly of Russians in the New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania areas where our primary research took place. The network activities we are mainly interested in are criminal.

    We need to say a word about our research and its concentration in one particular geographical area. Organized crime is a difficult and even dangerous subject to study. One cannot approach it as one might approach juvenile delinquency or other types of crime. The typical tools of the criminologist—observation, surveys, interviews, samples, and questionnaires—are either extremely difficult or impossible to use when studying organized crime.

    In light of these obstacles, we were fortunate to be permitted to join with the Tri-state Joint Soviet Émigré Organized Crime Project—a joint intelligence, investigative, and prosecutorial effort by the New York State Organized Crime Task Force, the New York State Commission of Investigation, the New Jersey State Commission of Investigation, and the Pennsylvania Crime Commission. The goal of the Project was to identify the nature and extent of Russian émigré crime within the tristate region of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to assist area law enforcement officers in their efforts to combat organized crime. For four years (1992 to 1995) the Project gathered and analyzed intelligence information by researching crimes, investigating crimes, and creating an information database.

    Relying on teams of investigators, attorneys, and analysts from the collaborating agencies, the Tri-state Project employed all the tools traditionally used to investigate organized crime—including surveillance, informants, undercover investigation, intelligence reports, telephone records, and public information such as indictments and newspaper reports. Through our link with the Tri-state Project we were able to gain access to otherwise confidential information, which gave us a unique opportunity to learn about the organization of criminal activity among Russian immigrants in this region.

    As is true with any research that depends on secondary data sources, problems can arise concerning the reliability and validity of the data, and these are compounded when the data are obtained from raw intelligence files. We describe the steps we took to deal with these issues. In addition to the information obtained by the Project, we collected a considerable amount of primary data and information using interviews and surveys, some of which would have been impossible to amass without our affiliation with the Tri-state Project. This combination of sources has given us the best of both worlds. We believe the results justify the research risks we have taken, but our readers will have to judge our methods for themselves.

    To avoid being limited to the tristate region and the concerns of the Tri-state Project, we collected additional information through interviews with law enforcement officials, journalists, and other experts on Soviet crime, Soviet émigrés, and organized crime. We also surveyed prosecutors and law enforcement officials who are specialists in organized crime by simply asking respondents, "To your knowledge, has your agency ever investigated, prosecuted, or otherwise had contact with any criminals or suspected criminals who are from the former Soviet Union within the last five years?" Of course, an affirmative response could mean one or many contacts and one or many crimes. Nevertheless, this question was a useful starting point. Overall, about one-third of the respondents reported some contact with such criminals or suspects.

    The following propositions are either supported or refuted by our research:

* Russian Mafia is actually a misnomer and perhaps even an oxymoron. The Russian Mafia is neither Russian nor mafia. There is no Mafia—Russian or otherwise—in the United States, nor is there one in Russia itself.

* The idea of an American-based Russian Mafia is largely a creation of the media and law enforcement. The symbolism and romance attached to the term mafia—and the level of law enforcement response it seems to call for—have given this idea a receptive audience in the United States; but it has little basis in fact.

* Although individual crimes that are highly organized are committed by Russians, there is no Russian organized crime as such in the United States.

* In Russia, on the other hand, organized crime is so pervasive as to be unlike anything experienced in the United States.

* Organized crime may have provided a "crooked ladder of social mobility" for Russian Jewish immigrants clamoring to enter the middle class a century ago, but this is not so with Russian immigrants today.

* Crime—often of a highly organized and complex kind—is a matter of choice for the minority of Russian immigrants who engage in it. This choice is shaped by many factors, among which are attitudes shaped by their Soviet experience.

    This provocative set of statements provides the framework for the discussion in the chapters that follow. Because it is the overarching idea that each of the other major ideas of this work relates to, we begin our discussion in the next chapter with the idea of organized crime.

Chapter Two


Much effort—by governmental commissions, law enforcement experts, and academics—has been devoted to trying to define organized crime. Despite these efforts, no clear and simple definition is universally accepted, which tells us something about the ambiguity and complexity of the topic. The absence of a common understanding makes it difficult to know what police, journalists, and scholars mean when they use the term organized crime to describe a criminal network. The same can be said about the term mafia. We begin, therefore, by defining how we' use these terms in this work.

What Is Organized Crime?

As was pointed out by criminologist Thorsten Sellin more than thirty years ago, the difficulty in defining organized crime is not with the crime part but with the organized part. We mostly bypass an unnecessary diversion into the thorny theoretical question of what organized crime is and, instead, focus on the more practical issue of what organized crime does. This, we believe, will be more fruitful in understanding the Russian crime situation. We start by briefly considering what a criminal organization is.

Criminal Organizations

Crimes can be committed by individuals acting alone or together with others. Any time two or more persons come together to commit a crime, they make up a network. These networks are often small, informal, and short lived. In some cases, however, a criminal network resembles the kind of formal organizations with which we are all familiar—for example, a work group in a business, office, labor union, or military unit. The commonalities are a hierarchy of authority, a division of labor, and continuity. Criminal networks that have these characteristics are called criminal organizations.

    The nature of the crime, the characteristics of the situation, and the availability of crime partners determine whether individuals act alone or as members of a network in a particular instance. We can use a burglary to demonstrate the differences. A single individual acting alone can commit a burglary. But consider the following scenario. Three young, unemployed males hang out together. They are on the lookout for opportunities to get money. One of these young men gets a temporary job as a deliveryman. On one of his deliveries to the home of an elderly, frail couple, he observes their vulnerability as well as the fact that they have a number of valuable items in their home. The three arrange to break in and steal these items. At that moment they are acting as a criminal network exploiting a criminal opportunity, but they do not make up a criminal organization. They did not come together to create a professional burglary ring. They have not organized themselves to commit crimes and do not consider themselves to be members of a criminal organization. Their criminal network lacks the continuity over both time and crimes that would make it a criminal organization.

    The chief goal of most criminal organizations is money. But besides financial gain, such organizations may perform a number of related functions for their members. These can include sharing information about suitable criminal targets, new problems, and new techniques; providing contacts with like-minded others and what McIntosh refers to as "congenial sociability"; offering information about where to sell stolen or otherwise ill-gotten goods; providing protection from detection and law enforcement; and helping fellow members through hard times.

    Criminal organizations come in many shapes and sizes, including burglary and car theft rings, street gangs, outlaw motorcycle gangs, drug posses, international drug cartels, and the groups that make up what is known as La Cosa Nostra. We can array them across a spectrum according to the degree to which they share certain defining characteristics, including the following:

* Criminal sophistication Criminal sophistication is determined by the degree of planning required to carry out the crimes, how long the individual criminal ventures last, and the amount of knowledge or skill required to carry them out.

* Structure A division of labor, clearly defined lines of authority and leadership roles, and stability over time and over criminal ventures are the marks of a highly structured criminal organization. Division of labor refers to the assignment of different roles to different people in the organization, such as organizers or specialists in certain tasks, like driving or safe cracking. There is usually a pecking order of authority, with some members having more and others less. Stability means that the organization does not come together on one occasion for one crime and then dissipate but continues over time.

* Self-identification Self-identification means that participants see themselves as members of a defined organization. Criminal organizations often create bonds between the members and the organization by having members wear special colors or special clothing, such as is seen with motorcycle gangs and street gangs, or by performing ritualistic initiation rites.

* The authority of reputation The capacity to force others, whether criminals or not, to do what the organization wishes without resorting to actual physical violence can be obtained only over a period of time. Having a reputation that by itself generates fear and intimidation means that the organization can operate much more efficiently and effectively than it could if it had to resort to actual violence all the time.

    These characteristics are related to each other and appear in varying degrees in different networks. Some criminal networks, even ongoing ones, may have relatively low levels of these traits: that is, they have unsophisticated criminal operations, few participants, an amorphous or formless structure, and little or no reputation. The more sophisticated, larger networks are true criminal organizations that are involved in multiple criminal enterprises and have members who see themselves as an identifiable group having a reputation.

    Less formal and simpler criminal networks do not necessarily develop into more formal and more complex criminal organizations. As long as simpler organizational forms are able to get the job done, and the main activities do not diversify, then the simpler form is likely to remain intact.

    The specific character assumed by a criminal network at any time is governed by the social context in which it operates, which, in turn, is comprised of a number of elements. One element is consumer demand for particular goods or services, such as drugs or prostitution. An organization has to be able to deliver to people what they want, when they want it, at an acceptable price. Increased police activity, another element, may require laying low, shifting locales, changing products, or operating with greater caution. The ability to recruit new members and thus maintain the viability of the organization is a third element, and it depends on a ready supply of potential recruits who are street smart, tough, and willing to take risks. Attracting new members hinges on the reputation the criminal organization has in the community. Finally, what the organization looks like and how it functions also is shaped by competition from other criminal organizations.

Actual and Potential Harms Caused by Organized Crime

Crime committed by criminal organizations results in more harm than crime committed by individuals or momentary groups. This does not mean that there is not harm, even considerable harm, to the victims of individual or group crimes, but ire totality of the harm over time from the crimes of a criminal organization is much greater.

    Because criminal organizations differ in size, sophistication, structure, self-identification, continuity, and reputation, they have different capacities for harm. Thus, another characteristic—we contend it is a key characteristic—for classifying criminal organizations is their capacity for harm. This capacity is actually a function of the other characteristics outlined.

    Harm from crime occurs in a variety of forms, including economic, physical, psychological, and societal. Economic harm includes the monetary losses by victims, the illicit gains by criminals, and the detrimental effects that criminal organizations have on particular marketplaces. An example of the latter is the control of certain industries and unions (such as the construction industry, building trades unions, and trucking industry) by criminal organizations. Because of this control, normal business practices, such as bidding on building contracts, are distorted by being fixed, and customers then have to pay higher costs for construction, shipping, garbage removal, and other services.

    Physical violence is used to attain and retain monopoly control over criminal ventures. Targets of this violence may be extortion victims or persons who are assaulted or killed for other reasons. The reputation of a criminal organization comes, to a great extent, from a demonstrated willingness to use violence in this manner.

    The psychological harm caused by crime involves the creation of a climate of fear and intimidation and a perception that a criminal organization can avoid apprehension by law enforcement. This particularly insidious form of harm deters people from reporting crimes to the police, spurs them to avoid jury duty or otherwise cooperate with law enforcement, and creates a climate of cynicism about the legal and political systems that might then be used as a rationalization for their own violations of the law.

    Crime also undermines society's legal and political systems, compromises the political process, and corrupts law enforcement and other institutions. Some criminal organizations, with their enormous illicit wealth, can buy the services of police, prosecutors, judges, and elected officials through bribes and substantial campaign donations. In its most extreme form, these corrupt practices result in de facto control of the government by criminal organizations: the rule of law is replaced by the law of the jungle.

    The magnitude of actual or potential damage caused by each of these types of harm is determined by the characteristics of the criminal organization involved. The most sophisticated criminal organizations usually provide illegal goods and services, thereby both subverting the political system that outlawed them and feeding the addictions and habits of the consumers of these illegal products. Others provide legal goods and services but in an illegal fashion. The harm attendant in the latter is in the undermining of the licensing requirements, regulations, and tax policies that have been created by the government to control the supply and distribution of these particular goods and services.


Excerpted from "The Russian Mafia In America: Immigration, Culture, and Crime" by James O. Finckenauer. Copyright © 2001 by James O. Finckenauer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Thanks for reading!

Join BookDaily now and receive featured titles to sample for free by email.
Reading a book excerpt is the best way to evaluate it before you spend your time or money.

Just enter your email address and password below to get started:


Your email address is safe with us. Privacy policy
By clicking ”Get Started“ you agree to the Terms of Use. All fields are required

Instant Bonus: Get immediate access to a daily updated listing of free ebooks from Amazon when you confirm your account!

Author Profile

Amazon Reviews