Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use Of Force In The Making Of Russian Capitalism
by Vadim Volkov
Cornell University Press, 2002
This is the best book on Yelstin's era to be published in English. If you only read one book on recent Russian history, read Violent Entrepreneurs. Cornell University Press deserves so much credit for publishing it that they can almost be forgiven for printing Michael McFaul's appalling book (reviewed last issue).
Perhaps the most surprising strength of Vadim Volkov's book is its lucid, elegant English prose. Volkov, a Russian academic, actually wrote this book in English. His English prose style, intellectually rigorous and entertaining at once, should be both a model and a cause for shame to American academics, few of whom can write this well in their native language.
Volkov's prose also demonstrates an intellectual confidence not often found in American academics. He manages to dismiss the typical Yeltsin-apologist Western analysts' excuse, the "legacy of communism" (aka "original Russian sin") approach, in a single paragraph:
"It is not difficult to see that the overdetermination of the Russian transition by various aspects of the legacy of 'communism' conveniently rescues the policy of 'shock therapy' and the underlying idea of liberal communism from some major failures in the reforms. It also caters to the post-Cold-War mentality and its inherent search for enemies and threats by constructing a 'new threat,' which, on closer look, is simply an old one, since [according to this model] the mafiya is communism unwilling to die." On the contrary: as Volkov makes very clear, the mafiyas were much more a case of Capitalism waiting to happen, pushed onward by hard ecomomic facts and by powerful cultural forces (including kung fu films and the Godfather saga!).
Volkov's approach is, ironically, a much more rigorous application of Capitalist theory to 90s Russian economic development. Rather than seeing the 'mafiya' as hangover of bad old Communism, he accepts it for what it so clearly was: the direct application of free-market notions of competition for business to a field that Yeltsin's abandonment of Russia created: extortion as a tax imposed on businesses for the promise of security which the government was no longer interested in providing.
As Volkov tells it, the new mafiya, and particularly the Sports mafiya, developed in classic free-market manner. The gym and the kiosk are the two key sites: in the gym were thousands of athletes who specialized in violence (boxers, martial artists, wrestlers). These men lost their funding when the Soviet sports culture vanished. On the streets were the new markets, the vast world of the kiosk economy, which took in vast amounts of money but was left unprotected by the apathetic or corrupt police. Into this market niche stepped the "kachki" (the "pumped," from "nakachivat'," to pump up one's muscles). They had the discipline, the network, the need. They became the protectors and the extortionists of the kiosk world. Over the course of the nineties, they met rivals for this role: ethnic gangs, cop gangs, and gangs ruled by the old "vor v zakone," the ruling criminals of the old days. The way in which this great "mobilization of racketeers" played out over the 90s is the central narrative of the book.
Unlike many sociologically-trained writers, Volkov can balance statistical and anecdotal evidence in an engrossing manner. Many of his graphs are followed by brief but memorable asides providing the reader with a hint of the wild stories accompanying the social changes he describes. For example, after an excellent discussion of age cohorts in Russian mafia groups of the 90s, he mentions two cases which lie outside the early-20s bulge (bandits born around 1970): "...one Efim Geller (born 1914), an antiques dealer and swindler...[and] Yakov Tolmachev (born 1982), a schoolboy who tried to extort money from his father...by means of a staged kidnapping." What amazing characters, this old swindler and pubescent self-kidnapper! And Volkov's book is filled with such characters, always introduced in context but always fascinating in themselves.