The Causes of Crime in Russia Today

Posted: October 8, 2013 at 5:19 pm, Last Updated: October 10, 2013 at 4:04 pm

By Aaron Beitman

In a recent article, Vitaly Nomokonov, a valued TraCCC partner and head of the Vladivostok Center for Research on Organized Crime, examines the question of why crime is so pervasive in contemporary Russia.  Broadly speaking, Nomokonov argues that high levels of criminality in Russia are closely tied to what may be referred to as a series of fundamental “devolutions” of Russian society.  There are four components to this view:  severe societal fluctuations, weak social cohesion, the development of the shadow economy and attendant income inequality, as well as the lingering psychological effects of Soviet totalitarianism. 

Extreme changes and the emergence of the shadow economy

For Nomokonov, fluctuations refer to the external changes that have engendered outrageous opportunities, both financial and political, for a few citizens, but have resulted in barriers to growth or significant status reductions for others.  Indeed, Russia’s official “National Security Concept” from the year 2000, recognized this problem and appropriately notes the need to balance the interests of individuals, society, and the state.  For a number of Russian criminologists, contemporary imbalances are in part a product of Russian citizens needing to largely fend for themselves in the market economy.  These analysts suggest, then, that the growth of crime is “payment” for the “freedoms” obtained under Russia’s transition from communism. 

One of the major shortcomings of the Soviet economic system, especially in light of Russia’s transition to a market economy, was the destruction of property rights and restrictions on economic freedom.  As is known, the command economy and its foreign trade constraints gradually led to economic stagnation and fostered the emergence of the shadow economy.  The level of the shadow economy, though, grew tremendously in the post-Soviet period and has played a significant role in growth of crime.  A recent estimate by top Russian officials suggests that the shadow economy represents about 20% of GDP.  Weak governance, a lack of political will, and citizen concerns about the future capacity of Russia’s welfare state are major contributing factors to the durability of the shadow economy.    


Weak social cohesion


The strength of a given society can be traced to its ability to achieve the best possible balance of social interests, where economic efforts are rewarded appropriately, crimes are punished appropriately, and service to society is rewarded appropriately.  Social solidarity and cohesion contribute greatly to this balance, while societal injustice destroys social ties and rewards crime.  As is well-known, Soviet society was distinguished by a relatively high level of social cohesion.  Of course, this came at the price of a heavy-handed state and limited individual freedom.  While Russian society has survived massive human rights violations by the totalitarian Soviet regime, today the country has arguably performed a 180 degree turn.  Put simply, a small group of people has so succeeded in protecting their property rights from state expropriation that they have captured the government for themselves.  The establishment of a criminal-oligarch regime, justified under the banner of economic liberalism, is also tied to the degradation of political authority in the late Soviet period.  After 1991, the significant criminogenic potential of society was assisted by over-bureaucratization, a lack of transparency, poor control of state agencies, the subversion of democratic institutions, and the nearly wholesale absence of civil society.  Taken together, the above factors contributed to a decline in interpersonal trust, as well as a progressive alienation of citizens from the state, which has been exacerbated by rampant corruption at all levels of state.  Moreover, the absence of trust between the state and society, the iconic Russian problem, has been impossible to solve.  


Growing income inequality


The seeds of social conflict in Russia had developed already in the Soviet years with the emergence of that rarified stratum of the population:  the nomenklatura.  This group can be characterized as the ruling, privileged, and by definition, exploitative class.  Russian sociologist N.F. Kuznetsova suggests that the growth of crime in modern Russia can be traced in part to class antagonism between the “new rich” (many of whom acquired their wealth nefariously) and the “new poor.”  Unsurprisingly, a number of analysts have argued that class and social divisions have a significant impact on crime.  Following a Marxist approach, it can be seen how consistent exploitation of lower classes by a small group at the top helps to facilitate the growth of crime in a society.  The exacerbation of class antagonisms can be traced to the privatization process in early post-Soviet Russia:  more than 70% of formerly state companies with market value of at least 400 million dollars were sold at 20% of their actual value.  According to Russian scholar M.I Piskotin, the country’s privatization process was “the biggest crime in history perpetrated by a state against the interests of its country and people.”  It comes as no surprise, then that post-Soviet Russia has produced more billionaires than all of Europe.  In terms of millionaires cross-nationally, Russia ranks near the top, while according to the Human Development Index, Russia ranks at 55, just ahead of Romania, Bulgaria, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba.  The divide between the haves and the have nots is unlikely to ease without significant structural changes.


The lingering Homo Sovieticus


In a number of analyses, including that of the Economist, it is argued that the legacy of the Homo Sovieticus, an artificial construct of doublethink, paternalism, suspicion, and isolationism, has persisted significantly longer than expected.  The difference, now, is that the Communist ideology has been replaced by the guiding values of free market capitalism, which has rewarded few and harmed many in Russia.  Psychological collectivism and solidarity, which partially characterized the Soviet mentality, are transforming into greater individualism and alienation.  This alienation has manifested itself in a serious divide between official and “shadow” societies.  In addition to the shadow economy, there is shadow legal system, shadow social powers, and shadow ideologies.


What is to be done?


In Nomokonov’s view, the tasks of creating optimal legal policies and the decriminalization of society can be achieved only by way of a careful systematic approach.  Instead of a top-down  solution, Nomokonov argues that these issues must be addressed by all healthy societal forces, on the basis of movement toward democratization.  The final goal, in this analysis, is to guarantee a high level and quality of life for citizens, sustained and balanced socio-economic development, and greater social cohesion.  The structural changes Nomokonov has in mind will undoubtedly be challenging to achieve, if not necessary for Russia’s decriminalization and long-term development.  Cultural shifts, in particular, will be difficult to realize.  Nevertheless, these are worthy considerations for addressing persistently negative features of post-Soviet Russian society.   


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