Handelman began this book while a Toronto Star correspondent in Moscow from 1987 to 1992, before crime became a mainstream political issue. Handelman profited from the chance to wander around in this netherworld, meeting crime bosses, petty racketeers, musclemen who delivered the violence, new people in business with one foot in both worlds, bureaucrats on the take, and police investigators struggling to make a dent.
Handelman's project grew with the topic, evolving from a study of primarily organized crime as a facet of society to crime as the essence of the new society. To organized crime was added the criminalization of the state. Not that this process began with the collapse of the old order. On the contrary, Handelman stresses how the new scourge has grown out of the old system, from the effects of Gorbachev's misconceived perestroika to the perverse consequences of legalizing the shadow economy. One of the most elaborate tales describes what happened as the professional criminal bosses were overrun by high-flying, and decidedly more violent, moguls. Another is the easy transition for partially corrupt Soviet officials to the real thing. The book permits one to peer into this world, meet its people, and see how it works.