Thursday, 14 August 2008

Review – Comrade Criminal by Stephen Handelman (1994)

This is a useful book written by a western journalist who was based in Russia in the years either side of the collapse of Stalinism. The books main focus is on the spiralling crime that engulfed Russia and the rest of the CIS with the restoration of capitalism.

Handelman begins by tracing two main criminal groups in the Soviet Union. Firstly there were the bureaucrats who engaged in corruption and were subject to regular purges by other bureaucrats eager to maintain their positions. Secondly there was the Vor, the Theives Guild in effect the Russian Mafia to be, who at this time were concentrated in more small scale crime.

But it is the collapse of Stalinism that led to the creation of the ‘Comrade Criminals’ that the book is named after. He uses this to describe the former party and state bureaucrats who used their connections to plunder Russia’s resources and then maintain their position. He also describes how the Vor expanded their influence into smuggling all sorts of items, from people, to stolen raw materials and ancient artefacts. Indeed as Handelman goes on to note there becomes a convergence of the two as time goes on.

Handelman also discusses how investigations into organised crime are both commenced and curtailed as part of the battle between rival bureaucrats. He discusses how this frustration feeded into support for the political right for more draconian measures to tackle crime. Of course, the political right were led by just another set of ex-bureaucrats too, which Handleman picks up on when he discusses how the organised criminals saw themselves as the defenders of law and order.

One thread that runs though Handelman’s book, however, is that capitalist restoration was ‘derailed’ from the course it was supposed to take. If only the West had stepped in or the economic ‘entrepreneurs’ had seen the danger from the former state bureaucrats, he laments. Of course, despite the economic problems of the Soviet Union, it needed a section of the bureaucracy to lead it back to capitalism which had a stake in that capitalist future – hence China’s slow authoritarian march to capitalism and why sections of the Cuban bureaucracy are struggling in that direction given the existence of exiles who wish to stake their claim to such positions. Although his exposition of recent times in the Soviet Union is quite good, historically it is appalling equating Stalin with Lenin for example. It is to these mystic roots that he equates many of the problems, which I think is the fundamental weakness of this book which provides a lot of information about organised crime in the present.

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