MOSCOW, January 18 (Alexey Eremenko, Alexandra Odynova, RIA Novosti) – Aslan “Gramps Khasan” Usoyan was leaving his favorite restaurant in central Moscow when a bullet from a silenced assault rifle hit him in the neck.
The portly 75-year-old’s private guards pushed him back inside, but more bullets sailed through the closed door, piercing the backside of a woman nearby, costing her 4½ liters of blood. Usoyan’s consorts sped him to the hospital in a Mercedes jeep, where doctors proclaimed him dead on arrival.
Wednesday’s assassination robbed the Russian underworld of one of its last legendary greats, and stirred up memories of the bloody turf wars that grabbed headlines in the country’s “turbulent 1990s.”
But experts do not foresee a revival of the all-mighty “Russkaya mafiya” of that time, with its glorified image and omnipresence in pop culture. On the contrary, they believe Russian organized crime has settled into a pattern similar to many other countries’, focusing on a few lucrative, mostly illegal domains, but outgunned and outmanned by government bodies, who have regained the upper hand over the past decade or so.
“Organized crime has been marginalized in Russia in recent years, returning to the niche it is supposed to occupy,” said sociology professor Vadim Volkov, an expert on Russian mafia at the European University at St. Petersburg.
Life After Gramps
In press reports, Usoyan had long been labeled Russia’s most influential “thief-in-law” – a title denoting a don of the underworld both in Soviet and post-Soviet criminal culture. His spheres of activity have been rumored to include drugs, guns and construction materials, including some lucrative deals involving next year’s Olympics in the southern Russian city of Sochi.
After his death, Russian media swelled with speculation, blaming the hit on Usoyan’s numerous rivals, who supposedly opted not to wait until his planned retirement later this year and the ascent of a nephew he had carefully groomed as successor.
The Investigative Committee, roughly comparable to Russia’s FBI, also said it was looking into a possible dispute among crime bosses as the cause of Usoyan’s shooting.
Logically, predictions of impending gang warfare followed.
But similar forecasts abounded after the 2009 assassination – possibly by the same killer, according to one tabloid – of thief-in-law Vyacheslav Ivankov, known as Yaponchik or “Little Japanese.” And those forecasts failed to materialize, at least in any high-profile way.
The Russian mafia has reached an era of stability, settling all its major disputes and dividing up territory, said Alexander Gurov, a former head of the State Duma Security Committee who made his name in the Soviet Interior Ministry fighting organized crime in the 1980s.
“It took the Sicilian mafia about two centuries, a few decades for the United States. It took the Russian mafia two decades,” Gurov said.
One obituary called Usoyan, before his death, “the last surviving mammoth” of a bygone age. Indeed, Gramps Khasan emerged from a criminal subculture believed to have started taking shape around the time of his birth, in the 1930s.
Soviet-era thieves-in-law, who earned their stripes in prison, had intricate codes of etiquette and behavior enforced with no less zeal than the Criminal Code. They eschewed the state and derived sustenance from a classic mix of robbery and fraud, but gradually also from a shadow economy that started taking root in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, despite – or, perhaps, because of – bans on private entrepreneurship.
And it was this very connection to business that came to play the pivotal role in the rise of Russian mafia in the 1990s, experts told RIA Novosti.
The Soviet Union’s demise wreaked chaos in established state institutions in Russia and other post-Soviet countries, leaving them crippled and unequipped to deal with a new capitalist reality, said Andrei Soldatov, editor-in-chief of Agentura.ru, a non-profit online think-tank studying Russian law enforcement services.
Old bastions of law enforcement like police and courts were incapable of helping newly emerging businessmen settle disputes or providing them with protection, Soldatov said.
And so the mafia stepped in to fill the void.
Protection became a service offered by ubiquitous and highly territorial racketeer gangs that settled conflicts through organized showdowns involving dozens of people and, as often as not, a lot of rapid machine gun fire. The country’s most prominent newspapers, like Kommersant and the now defunct Segodnya, devoted daily spreads to casualty reports and stories about thieves’-in-law activity.
The State Duma said in a report in 1998 that up to 40 percent of private companies and 85 percent of banks nationwide were controlled by organized crime.
A rare poll from 1998-1999, cited in a textbook by the Russian Criminological Association, showed that 30 percent of businessmen in Moscow were somehow involved with organized crime groups.
At the same time, the old-school Soviet criminal culture collided with a new crop of gangsters, unencumbered by such elaborate rules and balking at nothing to carve themselves a piece of someone else’s juicy turf.
These SUV-driving, gun-toting, crimson-jacket-wearing thugs, who constructed mammoth marble tombstones to their fallen brethren, permeated the nation’s life and sensibility.
Kitschy, sappy and primitive tunes about the mafia’s struggles, known as “chanson,” became a staple of Russia’s musical diet in the 1990s, even among those who’d never been near a gun or jail, and the first domestic films and television shows to rival Hollywood productions were gangster tales.
This was also when the Russian mafia became a global phenomenon, taking advantage of the newly opened opportunities for travel and tapping immigrant communities abroad to join global networks of drug, arms and human trafficking – and to popularize the notions of onion-dome tattoos, perpetual scowls and ridiculous accents that can now be found anywhere from a Grand Theft Auto video game to David Cronenberg’s filmography.
The Silovikis’ Revenge
The tide changed at the turn of the third millennium, when the Russian state started to restore its functions as arbiter and its coercive power.
Disputes could now be solved in arbitrage courts and protection obtained from private security companies, said Volkov of St. Petersburg’s European University.
Lower taxes in the early 2000s also delivered a blow to the shadow economy, he said.
Most crucially, the security and law enforcement services, or “siloviki,” resurgent under the presidency of ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin, could now provide high-level protection to entrepreneurs, who were quick to capitalize on it.
“When the law enforcement services got their strength back, the businessmen flocked to them,” said Soldatov of Agentura.ru.
The new system was very corruption-prone, with law enforcement officials charging money for protection and abusing the law when it suited them or businesses in their care, Soldatov said. By the late 2000s, the Russian business community realized it had been overwhelmed and taken over by those it originally hired to protect it, he added.
Corrupt officials, or “white-collar criminals,” pose a much greater danger to Russia today than the thieves-in-law, Gurov said.
But early in the game, the “siloviki” option looked much more attractive than the mafia, with its violent gunfights and other rough tactics. So the official-looking guys took away market share from the shadier-seeming ones, both experts said.
No More Songs
In 1998, Russian police estimated the number of known thieves-in-law across the world at 1,560. But by 2010, the last year for which statistics were available, they numbered about 150, according to Russia’s Interior Ministry.
Back in 2008, declaring the war on the Russian mafia victorious, the Kremlin disbanded police units combatting organized crime and created an anti-extremism department instead, which busied itself cracking down on political dissenters.
Russian organized crime has not disappeared, but its activity is now mostly limited to traditional domains such as arms trade, illegal drugs and prostitution, Volkov said.
“It is a part of the [society’s] eco-system, you could say, and nobody [in the law enforcement services] sees it as a serious threat anymore,” Soldatov said.
Many crime bosses have turned a new leaf, investing money earned in the 1990s in perfectly legitimate enterprises, said Kirill Kabanov, who heads the National Anti-Corruption Committee. The late Usoyan was reported to run several hotels in southern Russia in addition to his other pursuits.
A handful of minor gangs from the past “that attract the youth through a romanticized vision of crime” have survived, but only in remote backwaters, Kabanov said.
“New ethnic Asian groups from Tajikistan and others” have emerged, but “they are not yet rich and don’t wield much power,” he added.
Most importantly, the legend of the Russian mafia itself is fading from the nation’s mind. There are no more daily briefs on goings-on in the gangster world in the media, and a criminal career is not attracting the young: According to a nationwide poll by state-run VTsIOM in 2009, the list of young Russians’ dream jobs is topped by posts at national gas giant Gazprom and the Kremlin administration. By contrast, media in the 1990s often cited anonymous polls of high school students who named “mafia hitman” and “prostitute” as their highest job aspirations.
Glorious mafiosi have been sidelined by college students and medical interns on primetime television, and “chanson” performers are outsold by a new breed of artists who, music reviewers say, sing essentially the same songs, but with lyrics about love and life instead of gang shootings and doin’ time.
“The Russian mafia is sticking to its old violent ways,” Volkov said. “It’s just that the public isn’t paying much attention to it anymore.”