A brush with the mafia

Issue 

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — Even in a city which now has a reputation as one of the world's crime capitals, it can be easy at times to forget that crime exists. Newspapers might carry lists of the week's murder victims, but a reassuring piece of folklore has it that people who are beaten or shot have mostly brought it on themselves, through being greedy or stupid enough to get mixed up in shady dealings.

Muscovites do not, in most cases, walk the streets with their stomachs in a knot of anxiety; street crime is less common than in many Western cities, partly for the reason that for much of the year it is simply too cold to hang out waiting for victims.

Nevertheless, it is easy enough to become a crime victim, even while leading the most unadventurous of lives. And it is not much harder to encounter organised crime — "the mafia", as Russians have taken to calling it. In fact, paying off protection racketeers is a near-universal precondition of running a business, even for the humblest of subway stall-holders. Debts to the mafia have to be taken far more seriously than those owed to commercial creditors or the tax authorities. Failure to pay mafia debts, however incurred, can easily cost you your life.

This was all familiar to me, but until one Monday evening a few weeks back it was all quite remote. Then my wife's friend Sasha, with whom she had toured schools in a children's theatre troupe, phoned up in an agitated mood. Could we, he asked, come up with a $3000 loan fast? It would be for only two weeks, and we wouldn't be risking anything: he'd put his family's apartment up as security.

Indeed we couldn't, I replied. There was no more than about $300 in our particular till. The fact that we were talking in terms of US currency did not seem strange; Russians long ago ceased trusting the rouble as a store of value. "Then is there anyone you can borrow it from?", Sasha continued. It didn't matter what interest had to be paid, even 10% a month.

Then he explained. One of his oldest friends, an actor turned businessman named Sergei, had become involved in some "unpleasantness" with a gang of criminals. A debt of thousands of dollars had needed to be paid. Sergei had gone with the money to the appointed place, and there, he had been jumped and the money had been stolen. In Sasha's view, the criminals who were owed the money had set the robbery up themselves, since the place they had nominated was secluded and ill lit.

Sergei had welched on a debt; he deserved to be punished. But the criminals gave Sergei time to round up the sum again, provided he paid interest of 10% a day. There were limits, however, to the creditors' forbearance. If the debt were not paid in full by Friday, Sergei would be killed.

Sergei had fled his apartment and was hiding with Sasha. There were people who owed Sergei money and favours, but they couldn't deliver immediately. As a result, Sasha had spent several days desperately phoning friends. So far, he had lined up about a thousand dollars. My wife and I, he said, were almost the last hope.

What were Sergei's alternatives if he couldn't pay up? He could flee, and make a new life on the Kamchatka Peninsula or Sakhalin Island. But even in these remotest parts of Russia, his safety was by no means guaranteed. If he decided to take his chances in Moscow, the risks would not even bear speaking about. I recalled a Moscow News article a few months earlier, in which it had been reported that 700 entrepreneurs had fallen victim to gangland murders in Russia during the previous year and a half.

I began phoning, and Sergei's luck finally turned. My third or fourth call was to Maurice, a French journalist and another long-time Moscow resident, who with his wife was trying to buy a larger apartment. I had hesitated to phone them, since lending money out might well cost them the chance to make a much-desired purchase. Nevertheless, they called back and agreed. They didn't ask for any interest.

Knowing Maurice and his wife, I think there was more to their decision than compassion. Saving Sergei, it struck me, was something they relished as a private revolt against Yeltsinism. At least symbolically, they were bidding to rip the confident smirk off the faces of a generation of liberal amoralists, the people who for years had been assuring Russians that human beings could be seriously motivated only if they were offered the chance of profit.

I met Sergei for the first time the following morning. An imposing man with a rumbling actor's voice, he was waiting with Sasha — the latter more gaunt and nervous looking than usual — in the frost at the end of my apartment block. Before long, Maurice arrived from the bank with the money. Sergei stuffed it inside his clothing, and took it to a distant metro station to make the payment.

But Sergei's ordeal was not over. Late next day Sasha admitted to me that what Sergei had paid that Tuesday morning was only the principal of the debt; the interest was still to come. Meanwhile, it had emerged that one of Sergei's debtors who had agreed to bring forward his date of payment could not do so. I asked how much more it would cost to save Sergei from the mafia. The sum was $4000. Maurice promised to lend the money, though this time, I thought I heard him swallow hard before agreeing. Next morning Sergei was free at last, with a day to spare.

Maurice's loan has now been paid back, the cash counted out in $100 notes on the table of my family's tenement room. Later, Maurice inquired what type of business Sergei was in. I asked Sasha, and was astonished to find that he didn't know. He hadn't asked, and Sergei hadn't volunteered the information. Sasha didn't regard the question as important; the key thing was that Sergei was a close friend, a warm-hearted man who'd always been unstintingly generous. I hope Sergei is making his money more honestly than the people who were threatening to kill him, but I can't be sure.

Since those days I've had a keener sense of several peculiarities of the society I live in. Capitalism has failed to sink strong roots in Russia for a host of reasons, but one is especially crucial: there is no such thing as a Russian entrepreneur who at a certain level is not scared out of his or her wits. Even petty commerce here is only for people able to endure nerve-racking levels of stress.

A second discovery is the mechanism that allows Russians, at least in most cases, to survive the barbarities of "feral capitalism". Basically, this mechanism is simply friendship, but of an intensity and loyalty that Westerners rarely experience.

Treasured during past decades when life was relatively secure and predictable, these friendships have become far more vital in recent times. They are the reason Russians usually do not starve when wages fail to arrive for months on end. When an illness requires imported medicine costing a month of the average wage, it is friends who sacrifice in order to allow it to be bought.

I would like to think that these personal ties could form the basis of a social solidarity able to actively resist the thuggery of small and large exploiters, instead of merely struggling to cope with the damage. But can a people who have had so many of their social institutions turn to dust save and develop this one? Besieged by Snickers bars and Marlboro cigarettes, will Russians resist the colonisation of their value systems? I would not care for the chances of a future Sergei in a Russia of disposable friendships and untrammelled individualism.

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