Courtesy Reuters


Organized crime is the most explosive force to emerge from the wreckage of Soviet communism. The so-called Russian mafiya has undermined reform, spawned extraordinary levels of violence in major cities, and helped fuel a growing ultranationalist backlash. Although it is considerably less organized than its Western counterparts, and for that reason often misunderstood or underestimated in the West, Russia's crime syndicate constitutes a serious threat to post-Soviet democracy.

The "mafiya," Russian-style, is a hydra-headed phenomenon that feeds on the emerging market economy. Between 3,000 and 4,000 gangs operate in Russia, including several hundred whose activities span the territory of the Commonwealth of Independent States and cross the old Soviet borders into Central Europe and the West.

The definition of Russian organized crime is sometimes stretched for domestic political purposes. Police and politicians still fall into the Soviet habit of ascribing mafiya connections to anyone who possesses what seems

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  • Stephen Handelman, a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, was Moscow Bureau Chief of The Toronto Star from 1987 to 1992. He is completing a book on Russian crime.
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