Youth Organized Crime in Russia

Posted: August 27, 2013 at 6:05 pm, Last Updated: August 27, 2013 at 6:17 pm

By Aaron Beitman

Like many dimensions of the criminal world, youth criminal groups have often been given romantic treatment in popular media depictions. American movies such as “The Outsiders,” “The Warriors,” and “Rebel Without a Cause” exemplify this romanticism. Of course, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, “A Clockwork Orange,” does exactly the opposite, showing scenes of grotesque, random violence committed by teenagers. Recent research on youth criminal gangs in Russia has shed light on a serious, yet understudied problem. According to a study by the World Health Organization (WHO), Russia has the highest rate of youth crime in Europe. A recent report by Nikita Gordeev, an advanced student at the Saratov State Academy of Law and a TraCCC grantee, explores the issue of youth organized crime groups in Russia.

The youth gang problem began to enter Soviet popular consciousness at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s. For many, the point of departure can be traced to what is referred to as the “Kazan phenomenon” by journalists and academics. Starting in the early 1970s, the Soviet city of Kazan, located in the Muslim majority republic of Tatarstan, had acquired a particularly bad reputation for juvenile delinquency. While the Soviet government was modestly successful in suppressing the gangs, by 1988 youth criminal gangs had appeared in what seemed to be every city in the country. Disturbingly, a number of members in youth criminal gangs were found to be former participants in the Young Pioneer Organization of the Soviet Union, a somewhat analogous group to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the U.S.

In Gordeev’s view, young people join criminal groups first and foremost for psychological reasons. Perhaps out of a sense of feeling marginalized, young people join criminal groups for social relationships that give them a sense of identity and/or purpose. For some, membership in a criminal group provides a way of solving social adjustment problems. Of course, socio-economic factors cannot be overlooked either. Being a member of a gang can provide significant material benefits otherwise unobtainable in global crisis conditions of high unemployment and relatively low salaries. Finally, Gordeev notes that a decline in societal morals also plays a role in youth gang formation. To this last point, political writer Svetlana Babayeva, among others, suggests that Russia’s social system is experiencing a severe crisis. In particular, Babayeva argues that the overt use of brute force, lavish money, and clout cannot uphold the social system forever. In the absence of moral guidelines from the top, where Russian society has traditionally taken its behavioral cues, Russian youth may continue to be adversely affected.

As compared to youth gangs in the U.S. and Europe, it is postulated that Russian youth gangs engage in a higher level of criminal activity in a particularly defined territory. While initially drawn from the nomenklatura, youth gangs in Russia today are not explicitly divided by class origin. Territorial gang fights largely wiped out substantial class divisions, which remain very complicated in post-communist Russia. Moreover, Gordeev indicates that youth gangs in Russia have a strong culture rooted in prison norms and values. According to Russian ethnographers Alexander Salagaev and Alexander Shashkin, gang culture includes such aspects as pragmatic individualism, intolerance of others, disrespect for formal social institutions, as well as mutual trust and support inside the criminal networks. The influence of criminal culture has also embedded a strict hierarchy in youth gangs, with leaders at the top working through subordinates down to the street level in order to ensure appropriate and timely payments into a communal criminal fund, known as the obshchak. Unsurprisingly, Gordeev points out that concrete relationships exist between youth organized crime groups and the wider criminal world. Without the support of more “senior” criminal leaders, youth gangs would likely face serious barriers to development.

Gordeev relates a number of interesting examples of youth gangs in Russia. One of these is Simbirsk White Power, an affiliate of the virulently xenophobic Russian National Unity. In early 2008, then twenty four-year old Dmitry Nikitin founded Simbirsk White Power in the central Russian city of Ulyanovsk. Following a quiet recruiting period, Nikitin managed to enlist eight local youths, with whom he carried out attacks on non-Russians, committed robberies, and disseminated racist, anti-immigrant materials. In one particularly brutal instance, the group viciously beat a Cameroonian immigrant and then recorded the attack for dissemination on the Internet. Aided by materials that the group itself uploaded to various social networking sites, law enforcement officials successfully brought the group’s members to justice in 2010 and 2013.

Rising ethno-nationalism and anti-immigrant prejudice may be also noted as contributing factors to the growth of youth organized crime. As intolerance continues to grow among the wider Russian population, the ground will become increasingly fertile for ideologically extreme youth organized crime groups. The SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, a Moscow-based think tank, suggests that the ongoing violent radicalization of Russian youth has yet to receive the attention it deserves. Moreover, that nationalist groups continue to violently attack immigrants, non-ethnic Russians, and others with relative impunity only worsens an already disturbing situation regarding youth crime.

In Gordeev’s view, the problem of youth gangs in Russia will not only take coordinated action among law enforcement agencies, but also improvements in legislation and relevant social programming. Specifically, Gordeev argues for additionally anti-crime programming for school children as well as increased government outlays for after-school activities and other social services for youth. Hopefully, improved economic conditions and needed attention from the Russian government will aid in resolving this significant issue.

Write to traccc at traccc@gmu.edu