Violent Street Groups and Organized Crime in Russia

Svetlana Stephenson, International Comparative Sociology, London Metropolitan University

Research Grant, 2005, 2006

Youth violence remains a stark problem in many Russian cities, as does the presence of organized criminal gangs. Do violent practices serve to “embed” young people in criminality and facilitate their transition to membership in organized criminal groups, or are they just a feature of male street socialization? Can violence come to be regulated from below in the course of group transformation and change in the economic and political climate?

To answer these questions, I, together with my 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.

Do violent practices serve to "embed" young people in criminality and facilitate their transition to membership in organized criminal groups, or are they just a feature of male street socialization? 

This research revealed substantial differences in the social organization 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 organized criminal groups when they grow older. These groups have developed a sophisticated system of regulation of violence, which has allowed them to reap substantial economic benefits through racketeering and informal control of the local businesses. Their domination over nongang 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 representatives of the local police, which also acts to limit the violence. As the economic and political situation in Russia has stabilized, the gang members increasingly aspire to careers in mainstream society, combined with participation in organized 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 nongang 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 socialization. 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 organized crime. This is also true for some homeless young men, who form their own street groups. They aspire to join organized 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 ritualized, 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.

  1. 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.

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

  3. Two English-language papers are being written.

Welcome to the website of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation

Sign up here for Foundation news and updates on our programs and research.