I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Business is Always Expanding: The Russian Mafia

by Joe DeMartino
Sept. 24, 2012

During a discussion on nuclear weapons that did not originally start out as a discussion on nuclear weapons, a friend of mine asked me how many nukes the United States currently possessed. Was it one? Five? Ten?

The answer, including warheads not currently mounted to intercontinental ballistic missiles, is something along the lines of 8,000. Slightly more than ten. It’s something of a testament to how much the Cold War has flown from our minds that our self-destructive capability is something of an afterthought. Knowing that, I intentionally left out the fact that the Russians actually have more than we do -- about 10,000 in total. No need to ruin my friend’s night, you know?

Now, the funny thing about mafias -- Sicilian, Russian, ancient Egyptian, whatever -- is that they absolutely love it when formerly unavailable markets open up to them. Take Prohibition, right? Alcohol was made and distributed illegally before it was outlawed, of course, but with the banning of liquor came an opportunity for organized crime syndicates to really pick up the slack. This isn’t limited to liquor -- the fall of the Soviet Union meant that everything from land to weapons to political appointments were suddenly up for grabs, able to be exploited by an active and competent mafia.

Really, the collapse of the USSR was something of a perfect storm for organized crime. You had the aforementioned injection of goods and property into the system, but just as importantly, you had a big group of people with combat skills and no jobs. At its height, the Red Army was a mammoth combat machine, but due to the USSR’s economic collapse, paying its soldiers on time started to become something of a rarity. Patriotism can be a great motivator, but when the checks stop coming and the bills start piling up, it’s tough to blame your average conscript for looking elsewhere for employment. Soldiers (and, to a lesser extent, members of athletic clubs, which the USSR had in abundance) make perfect mafioso -- they’re competent with firearms (a much rarer skill than you would imagine among the criminal class), trained in close combat, used to taking (and giving) orders, and theoretically much more comfortable with violence and killing than the average member of society. Put men like that on the streets, breaking legs and smashing windows, and suddenly your local mob becomes something truly scary.

You’re going to have to watch out for the ex-cops, too, because any breakdown in an economy will eventually lead to a breakdown in law and order. That’s another perfect opportunity for a mob -- not just as recruitment, but in terms of pure business. Take, for example, that scene in every mob movie where two toughs walk into a local shop and say “Awful nice business you got here. Shame if anything were to happen to it,” implying of course that what will happen to it is: the two toughs come back and burn the shop down, at least if the owner refuses to pay. This is actually quite often a mafia’s main form of business -- not drugs, or guns, or liquor, but protection. It’s a bit like a forcible expansion of territory, a tax levied on one’s subjects with the threat of unregulated violence to back it up. Mostly the protection being offered is protection from those you’re paying, but of course, occasionally a rival mob will move in and offer their own form of “protection”, in which case you’re just going to have to make good on the whole thing, yeah? Mob bosses hate having to do that. It’s a waste of time, money, and resources, and it might just start a war. Nobody likes wars in the mob. They’re bad for business. But at least if you’ve got a bunch of legitimate soldiers on your side, you’re in better shape than the other guy.

Here’s where those ten thousand nuclear weapons start becoming an issue, even if they’re not primed and ready to wipe out the Eastern and Western seaboards anymore. It is actually surprisingly easy, in very large organizations, to lose inventory -- the bigger the organization, the more opportunities for graft. It gets easier when the organization, say, collapses into a ruin. Former conventional inventory goes missing all the time, which is a problem in and of itself, but could you imagine the chaos that would ensue if a legitimate nuke just up and disappeared from the books? No Russian nuclear weapons have been stolen yet, but there is evidence that some plutonium and other devices have gone walkabout. if you were the boss of a particularly powerful syndicate, with a disillusioned general in your pocket, you might start looking at Russia’s dormant nuclear arsenal as less of an existential problem and more of a business opportunity.

Of course, you might also decide that drugs and small arms are a safer bet. At least they’ll keep you off the really scary lists, right? Well, at least off the really really scary ones.

Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at jddemartino@gmail.com and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.