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Book Review December 11, 2002
The Dictatorship of the Pumped
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 2 of 3
Volkov's approach to the uses of violence in making post-Soviet Russia is characteristically clear and cant-free. As he points out, if one wants to understand "the use of organized violence Russia in the 1990s," one cannot begin with the usual characters, such as a "the state" and "the Mafia." In the post-Soviet world, he says, "...the very existence of the 'state' as a unified entity...was called into question," and "the boundaries between public and private violence became blurred." By having the courage to recognize this essential fact about Russia in the 90s, Volkov makes it possible to study Yeltsin's Russia without resorting to ideologically-driven rationalizations of its obvious corruption. He can approach the situation honestly, facing the key fact that "the withering away of the state" once dreamed of by the Marxists became a fact in the Russia of the 90s -- though hardly in the way Marx had imagined.

Volkov locates the real vector for the spread of capitalism in Yeltsin's Russia where it belongs: in the chaos created by the regime's corruption and incompetence. This is one of the great ironies of recent Russian history, as read by Volkov: while Yeltsin, Gaidar and Chubais were deluding Western observers into believing that they were bringing conventional capitalism to Russia, capitalism of a different sort really was spreading.

By abandoning ordinary Russians so completely to pursue their own enrichment, Yeltsin's cronies made it essential for some other force to step in to provide merchants with some way of protecting their businesses. Into this "commercial opportunity" stepped several aspiring "violent entrepreneurs," not morally distinct from any other entrepreneurs in Yeltsin's Russia.

In filling this market niche, the bandits or Mafias were simply following good Capitalist principles. Competition was of the essence. Thus, "...the years between 1992 and 1997 saw ferocious competition between violence-managing agencies for the expanding commercial opportunities." For Volkov, the word "ferocious" means not just the many assassinations and bombings by which rival entrepreneurs tried to corner their markets, but more mundane commercial rivalry. In Volkov's view, the market in organized violence, initially crowded with small gangs of varying intelligence, came to be dominated by a few large concerns which had proved able to manage violence sensibly, invest their profits, and plan coherently.

When the Russian state began to reassert itself (a development Volkov marks as beginning in 1998), its reemergence was welcomed by the most successful "violent entrepreneurs," who had made so much money that they were now interested in becoming respectable captains of industry. They changed their clothes, swapping the Adidas trainers and gold chains for expensive dark suits, and cooperated with the reemerging state under Putin in trampling the less-successful bandits.

As this history makes clear, Volkov regards his subjects as rational actors pursuing reasonable ends in an effectual manner. In his theoretical preface, he makes it clear that he does not see the rise of the bandits as the product of post-Soviet "anomie," rejecting the theory "that all forms of organized crime are equally dysfunctional and disruptive." In Volkov 's history, the new market eventually worked as it was supposed to do. Over time, competition in extortion and protection benefitted those "entrepreneurs" who could manage violence and the threat of violence most effectively. These successful "violent entrepreneurs" are the very people implied in the 90s joke Volkov cites as something of a motto for his study: "If everything is so chaotic in post-Soviet Russia, why is crime so organized?"

There are also quite fascinating characters, whom Volkov came to know over the course of 26 interviews with "members of criminal groups, heads of private protection companies, acting and former police employees, experts and business people." These are people who rose to the top in a very ruthless, violent world. Interviewing them must have required raw courage to match the intellectual confidence Volkov clearly possesses. The risk paid off; in every chapter of this book one can see that Volkov knows his subjects far better than does the average Western academic pontificating about Russian "democracy" on the basis of Yeltsin-regime press releases.

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