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Like so much good research the idea for Violent entrepreneurs departs from a simple real-life observation that sociologist Vadim Volkov made on his way to work in 1997, while passing by the headquarters of the regional Saint Petersburg Anti-Organised Crime Directorate (RUBOP). What struck him was the physical and behavioural likeness of the law enforcement operatives with the members of the organised crime networks they were supposed to be combating. The stockiness of the men coming in an out of the RUBOP building or mounting strelki across the city, their dress code, hair cuts, verbal and non-verbal communication, the type of vehicle they used - all these attributes suggested communalities or at least pathways between the two groups which went beyond mere coincidence. Surely, conventional, state-biased paradigms such as "organised crime" or "mafia" could not account for this phenomenon. The paradox, pointing to a situation where the usual dichotomy between legal and illegal no longer holds, has also not escaped many puzzled Westerners, only that few have been able to draw conclusions as apt as those formulated by Volkov. In this the author has the combined advantage of being both a Russian and a well-trained social science scholar. Thus Volkov matches "local insight" (in its very broadest sense) with the academic rigour necessary to bring out the essential features of this subject. It is no coincidence that he teaches at the European University in Saint Petersburg, an academic institution considered to be among the vanguard of the renewal of the social sciences in post-Soviet Russia. This grounding permeates Volkov's elegant, relatively jargon-free and very readable English prose, his theoretical premises and his interdisciplinary orientation.
With the benefit of hindsight it is not difficult to see that the Soviet state - as its Tsarist predecessor - was essentially a weak state, despite all the trappings of military and political might. Held together by an ailing party-state, the vested interests of a small elite, the spectre of an external threat and a formidable repressive apparatus, the edifice disintegrated when the Pandora's box of reform was opened and the genie of enterprise freedom let loose by Gorbachev in the mid-1980s. Anticommunism and the embrace of ultra-liberalism by Yeltsin's team did little to resurrect state power in early 1990s post-Soviet Russia, quite to the contrary. While this was clearly intentional and policy-driven, Volkov contends that the rest was a "story of unintended consequences". For the massive downsizing of the state created an institutional vacuum, the effects of which were ultimately unpredictable. Following from the state's effective renunciation on its monopoly of violence and a return to the "natural state", the institutional shortcomings were now counteracted by the emergence of private protection agencies - many of them criminal, others originating in the former law enforcement, police and security services. Based on a public-private and legal-illegal matrix, Volkov develops four classifications for violence-managing agencies: private and illegal (organised crime), private and legal (private protection companies), state and illegal (units of state police and security forces acting as private entrepreneurs) and public and legal (the state).
Considering their phenomenological and analytical shortcomings, Volkov rejects the terms "mafia" and "organised crime" to come to terms with this new "industry", opting instead for "organised violence", "violence-managing agencies" or "violent entrepreneurship". These terms are used interchangeably. By doing so, Volkov eschews narratives of "deviance" and "communist legacy" to account for Russian anomie, espousing instead an economic-institutional approach, and replacing the framework of the ubiquitous "economic man" with that of the return of the "predatory man", a concept he borrows from Thorstein Veblen.
State building may not be the first thing that springs to one's mind when thinking about the subject - quite the opposite. And yet this is the dominant theme in Volkov's study. In far too many Western eyes the context of the 1990s was seen as a straight, one-way road to perdition. Therefore particular credit should go to Volkov for expanding on the dialectic between the management of violence, on the one hand, and market and state building, on the other.
At the lowest level, racketeering does not take place in a vacuum. It is itself subject to a market of rival offerings. Whereas economic subjects can make no choice of providers, the market is nevertheless contingent on the competitive relations between wielders of force with regard to efficiency and levels of taxation. Naturally, the racketeer would prefer continuing with mere extortion, but he finds himself in an "extortion-protection" dilemma (Charles Tilly), where he is "compelled" to offer protection. Over the long run this changing relationship leads to the creation of enforcement partnerships: violent entrepreneurs become "fixers" of problems such as non-payment or tax and they diversify into risk-control, the supervision of contracts, and the creation of competitive advantage for their clients. This first dialectic thus mirrors a second, between extortion and contract enforcement, and, ultimately, market building. In the ensuing elimination contests between competing groups in the protection market, those capable of adding value in terms of providing not only physical and informational security, but also expertise in business transactions and civic property relations prevail. Here the non-criminal groups, lacking connections with official bodies, become increasingly fragile. In a form of "competition for the taxpayer", the higher cost of transacting with criminal groups as well as the higher quality of services provided by private protection companies, manifest in the "special access to the state's coercive capacity" and the possibility to negotiate taxation slowly relegates the "unreformed breed" of criminal groups back into the illegal part of the economy. However, the majority of the criminal groups, having meanwhile become stakeholders in an efficient property regime - and thus amenable to a change in their (il)legal status - increase their economic involvement, including involvement in local politics. The turns taken by various racketeering gangs to become respectable financial-industrial groups are characteristic for this "consolidation of violence-managing agencies, the capitalisation of their incomes, and a partial delegation of their enforcement capacity to state agencies". A new social contract between state and former criminal enterprises emerges, combining an amnesty with the setting of a "zero point". Here Volkov cites both the trajectories of the Uralmashevskaya (Yekaterinburg) and the Tambovskaya (St Petersburg) gangs as examples. According to Volkov, ultimately, even the powers devolved (or outsourced) to the legal private protection industry should be wrested back by the Russian state. A first movement in this direction, i.e. toward the reinforcement of the state structures, can be seen in the abandonment of adjudication by private security companies. Increasingly, the latter were venturing into consulting services, in the form of providing legal advice to clients and acting as relays to ensure efficient treatment by the state judiciary. A second market niche is to focus on security and business intelligence. The third option is similar to that taken by the large criminal groups: divestment and the shift of resources to conventional businesses. Finally, the fourth option is simply to return back into state service, thus marking the end of the privatisation of the state.
Beyond its theoretical and practical implications, the book is also useful in dispelling some popular myths. One typical form of Western bias is the contention that the thousands of army, militia and security service personnel made redundant (or semi-redundant) in the 1990s went to work for organised crime. This is a typical example of a negative representation straight out of a Cold War script, for there is also a more benign version, namely the fact that most of these men were absorbed by the official (or semi-official) branch of the protection industry which in turn replaced the domination of the nascent transition economy by criminal structures, a process materialising from the mid-1990s. Volkov shows how most of these men would not have been interested in working for organised crime, which had its distinct sociological roots in the Soviet gym and sports club culture of the kachki (pumped) as well as among Afghan war veterans, and to a lesser degree in the criminal milieu of the vory v zakone (thieves-in-law).
Equally instructive is the contextualisation of corruption in Russia. After all, corruption is relativised in a situation where, due to the inability of the state to enforce its monopoly of violence, business pays state and security services for 'protection' or 'roofing'. This is a sort of corruption that would not exist, were it not for the shortcomings of the state. It is an altogether different question how long the "shelf-life" of these structures of corruption actually is.
Finally, Volkov also introduces a number of useful qualifications as to the size, time frame and relationships determing whether a business ended up under a criminal or noncriminal "roof". For one thing street markets, kiosks and SMEs, i.e. businesses characterised by fast cash turnover, low investment and simple technology, first fell prey to racketeering gangs. The oligarchs with their financial-industrial groups and banks relied on in-house private security services or autonomous private protection companies, often drawn from the ranks of former KGB, GRU or MVD. Also, the later a business emerged, the less it was likely to become dependent on adjudication and enforcement by criminal groups. As a consequence, Volkov dates the most criminal times in Russia between 1989 and 1995 (with a peak in 1992), followed by a short period of stagnation and with the state reaffirming itself from 1998 onwards.
Volkov's brilliantly sourced and documented study is so iconoclastic that points of disagreement will be few and far between. One may, however, beg to differ with regard to his optimism as well as the slightly teleological picture he paints of the consolidation achievements of the Putin period. Certainly the evidence seems to suggest that the renewal of the Russian state under Putin has effectively moved in the direction of eliminating private business dependency on criminal groups, while drastically decreasing the outsourcing of the state prerogative of violence to the private protection industry in general. Whether one wants to follow Volkov all the way in his assertion of the "weak reproductive capacity" of Russian organised crime, as compared to, for example, the Sicilian mafia, is perhaps a different matter. Volkov also has no answer to the long-term moral cost deriving from the cooptation by the highest state echelons of former criminals willing to play by the new rules of the game and the murky connections between former criminal groups and state institutions. This is not to suggest that former criminal groups cannot be tamed, 'civilised' and brought into the mainstream of society. Apart from these minor critiques, Volkov's study provides a healthy antidote to the common "Russian mafia" or "Red mafia" paradigms one can still find in the West. Among the sound of fury of many Russia-related studies that still owe a clear debt to Cold War path dependencies or provide mere variations of Orientalist discourse, this contribution stands out like a gazelle among elephants. Reflecting on the peculiarities of Russia's situation, Volkov is able to offer a more compelling analysis of how Russia actually could emerge from the morass of the 1990s than what can be found in the simplistic state and market building models en vogue in many international organisations.