Title: Violent Street Groups and Organized Crime in Russia
Name: Svetlana Stephenson
Department of Applied Social Sciences
London Metropolitan University
Ladbroke House
62-66 Highbury Grove
London N5 2AD
UK
Year: 2005, 2006
Type: Research Grant
Summary: Youth violence remains a stark problem in many of Russian cities, as does the presence of organised criminal gangs. Do violent practices serve to ‘embed’ young people in criminality and facilitate their transition to membership in organised criminal groups, or are they just a feature of male street socialisation? Can violence come to be regulated “from below” in the course of the group transformation and change in the economic and political climate?

To answer these questions, I, together with the Russian collaborators, conducted in-depth interviews and focus groups with young people who were members of violent territorial street groups in two major Russian cities, Kazan and Moscow, as well as with representatives of the local police, youth workers, teachers and parents.

This research revealed substantial differences in the social organisation of street youth in these cities and the aspirations of their members. Most of the Kazan gangs are entrepreneurial gangs, whose members tend to graduate into organised criminal groups when they grow older. These groups have developed a sophisticated system of regulation of violence, which has allowed them to rip substantial economic benefits through racketeering and informal control of the local businesses. Their domination over ‘non-gang’ young people and small businessmen, who are forced to pay their “dues”, is based upon the use of verbal and physical violence and effective construction of their groups as the street elite. The violent practices have changed over time. At the end of the 1980s the gangs battled for the local supremacy, and this created high levels of violence. But, as they have demarcated their borders and created stable structures of authority and command, levels of violence have subsided. Eruptions of uncontrolled violence are now an obstacle to the gangs’ business aims, and the gangs try to limit fights and conflict on their territory. They have also developed “mutually beneficial” connections with the representatives of the local police, which also acts to limit the violence. As the economic and political situation in Russia has stabilised, the gang members increasingly aspire to careers in the mainstream society, combined with participation in organised crime networks.

The situation in Moscow is different. In this economically prosperous and socially diverse city, more or less stable territorial groups emerge only at the outskirts of the city. As in Kazan, young people have also developed their strategies of territorial domination, which include the harassment of non-gang young people and representatives of ethnic and sexual minorities. But they tend not to engage in racketeering and other violent entrepreneurial activities to the same extent. The majority of the members of street groups see their membership as a necessary stage in their masculine socialisation. They learn to create a powerful physical presence on the street, develop the skills of verbal domination and accumulate the knowledge of norms and rituals, associated with cultural perceptions of dominant masculinity. For only a minority of them are street violence and crime steps towards affiliation into the structures of organised crime. This is also true for some homeless young men, who form their own street groups. They aspire to join organised crime, which they see as the only realistic way out of homelessness, and which can guarantee them some stability and social membership. Violence at the outskirts of Moscow is highly ritualised, and it bears the traditions of the Russian “village fights”, with their prohibitions of attacks against women and children and a specific street “code” of fighting.
Bibliography: Stephenson, S. "Kazanskii Leviathan: Molodyozhnie Territorialnie Gruppirovki i Problema Sotsialnogo Poriadka" [The Kazan Leviathan: Youth Territorial Gangs and the Problem of Social Order]. Otechestvennie Zapiski 30.3 (2006): 97-110.

Stephenson, S. "Rebiata s Nashego Dvora. Podrostkovo-molodyozhnie gruppirovki v Moskve" [The guys from our courtyard. Youth groups in Moscow]. Ethnograficheskie Obozrenie. (Forthcoming)

Two English-language papers are being written.