Organized crime in western Siberia (Part 1)

Posted: March 9, 2012 at 5:57 pm, Last Updated: September 7, 2012 at 1:54 am

Author: Aaron Beitman, PhD Student,  University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, Department of Political Science 


According to recent research by Anna Repetskaya, a widely published scholar and TraCCC grants competition winner based in Irkutsk, Russia, western Siberia is home to roughly 700-800 organized crime groups.  Repetskaya indicates that a majority of these groups have a similar structure, reflective of Russia’s long tradition of organized crime.

At the head of each group sits the “polozhenetz” or “smotrayshchi,” which according to Russian prison slang means that such an individual has a mandate from his higher-ups in the prison world to lead the group.  Generally speaking, active participants in the criminal group who are at or near the top of the hierarchy are called “avtoritety,” which translates as “authorities.”  Next is the rank and file of the criminal group, called “torpedy” or “torpedoes.”  Criminal groups also include “specialists,” to be understood as individuals contracted for specific operations requiring expertise beyond the capacity of the criminal group.  “Specialists” are hired for financial, business, information technological, and combat operations, among others.  The need to make organizational improvements has led to the addition of intelligence and counter-intelligence divisions as well as the establishment of idiosyncratic “headquarters” for planning of criminal operations.

Map of Irkutsk oblast’(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Criminal Groups in Western Siberia

Repetskaya’s research demonstrates that the most active criminal group in western Siberia is the Bratsk criminal society, which controls the so-called “Siberian obshchak.”  In general terms, “obshchak” refers to a repository of funds for the criminal world.  Repetskaya indicates that there are likely four major criminal organizations in the Irkutsk oblast’ which participate in the obshchak.  These four major groups are further divided into smaller groups based on the character of their criminal activities.  According to sociological research collected by Repetskaya, criminal groups in western Siberia are largely made up of ethnic Russians.  However, the region’s proximity to China, Central Asia, and Mongolia, has meant that ethnic Chinese, Tajik, and Uzbek groups are active.  Roma, Ingush, Chechen, Georgian, Azeri, and Armenian groups have also made their presences known in the region. Historically, A majority of these groups, with the exception of Ingush and Chechen organizations, make financial “contributions” to the Bratsk criminal society-dominated “Siberian obshchak.”

As a rule, criminal groups in western Siberia are largely made up of individuals from the same ethnic group.  The only mixed groups are made up of either Russians and Armenians or Russians and Georgians.  Repetskaya suggests that this is due to the fact that Russians, Armenians, and Georgians all share the same religion, which contributes to common worldviews and ideology.

It is worth noting that criminal groups acting outside the control of the Bratsk criminal society do exist.  However, these groups usually emerge only for a short period of time.  Nevertheless, it has been observed that the number of these “unaffiliated” groups has grown in recent years.  At the same time, the Bratsk criminal society has remained the most powerful criminal group in western Siberia and retains the ability to exert influence on economic and political life in the region.


The Bratsk criminal society 

The base of operations for the Bratsk criminal society is the city of Bratsk, located in northern Irkutsk oblast.’  The group’s influence is not limited to western Siberia, as the group maintains contacts in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yakutsk, the Zabaikal krai, and the Republic of Buryatya.  The group formed initially in the early 1990s and now includes more than 300 members. Western Siberia’s natural resources, including forests, petroleum, precious minerals, and wildlife continue to be major targets for regional organized crime.  In addition to illegal logging, mining, and poaching operations, the Bratsk criminal society and its affiliates control legitimate companies in the local wood and paper sector, oil and gas sector, mining and ore processing industry as well as wine and alcohol production facilities.

The Bratsk criminal society is also significantly involved in prostitution and relatedly, human trafficking.  In addition to overseeing the provision of women to clients, elements of the Bratsk criminal society kidnap and force young women, including minors, from far-flung areas of western Siberia to work as prostitutes.  Once under criminal control, the women face rape or beatings if they try to resist or escape.  Criminal penetration of law enforcement and corrupt dealings between organized crime and businesses present significant barriers for countering this serious problem.


Bratsk “thief-in-law”

“T,” an individual with “thief-in-law” status, leads the Bratsk criminal society.  Thieves-in-law are the elite of the Russian criminal underworld and embody traditions and practices that can be traced back to early Soviet prison culture.  More generally, thieves-in-law can be thought of as the “Godfathers” of the Russian criminal underworld.

At the moment, “T” permanently lives outside of the Irkutsk oblast,’ in Moscow or Spain, where he maintains property.  “T” has wide-ranging connections throughout the criminal world in Russia and abroad, while maintaining control over the “Siberian obshchak” through his “smotrayshchi.”  In addition to his legal business activities, “T” is involved in many traditional criminal activities, focusing particularly on economic crimes in an effort to establish himself as powerful businessman.  Personally and through his subordinates, “T” has captured aluminum production, lumber, oil and gas, and cellulose production firms.  “T” is also active in foreign currency schemes and other financial operations.

Given his “authority” within the criminal world, “T” acts an as arbiter of disputes among criminals in western Siberia and works to impose the norms and “understandings” of the criminal world upon relevant parties.


Concluding thoughts 

Although the Bratsk criminal society may be seen as a regional hegemon in the criminal underworld of western Siberia, the story gets more complicated upon closer inspection.

In my next blog post, I use Repetskaya’s excellent research to delve further into the fabric of organized crime in western Siberia, focusing specifically on the characteristics of different ethnic-based groups active in the region.

For more information on organized crime in Russia, please visit TraCCC’s publications page here.    

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