McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld

Misha Glenny writes in 2008: “When the Russians came, they forced the new Bulgarian mafia out of Hungary and into Czechoslovakia,” explained Yovo Nikolov, Sofia’s leading expert on Bulgarian organized crime. “It started off with car smuggling but then the
guys noticed something else.”

That something else was the silnice hanby, or Highway of Shame—the highway that linked Dresden and Prague via the heart of Czechoslovakia’s heavy industry complex, northern Bohemia. In a depressed and chaotic economic climate, young Czech women began selling themselves on the E55 for pocket money. For the price of a modest meal, the teenagers would satisfy the desires of the ceaseless column of sweaty BMW drivers and overweight truckers cruising between Bohemia and Saxony. “People are coming from all over Eastern Europe to the ‘affluence border’ in order to offer young prostitutes to aging German men,” noted Der Spiegel at the time. The national aspect to this sexual Drang nach Osten gave the sordid trade an added frisson, as many punters were East German (so there were a few sweaty Trabant drivers among the BMWs). Women working on the Highway of Shame were, on the whole, exercising choice—to be sure, their economic circumstances compelled them to work as prostitutes, but they were not physically coerced. A minority was forced into the trade by individual pimps, but a majority worked voluntarily in order to earn a living in this way. A large percentage was made up of young Gypsy or Roma women who faced a double dose of prejudice as prostitutes and as Roma.

The Bulgarian heavies milling around Prague and northern Bohemia noticed the virtual absence of any effective policing of this spontaneous sex trade. The potential market was huge—it was well known how thousands of German men traveled every year to Southeast Asia and the Caribbean to indulge in sex tourism. Why not take advantage of that demand by offering them beautiful young women at low, low prices just over the German border, in slightly more relaxing surroundings than the rest stops of the E55? So Bulgarian gangs bought up, built, or rented cheap motels in north Bohemia. With the aim of maximizing their profits,
they sought out pliant women who were not so well connected with the local community. So they sought out their compatriots. In contrast to the local Czech women, however, these Bulgarian women did not enter into the trade voluntarily—they had no idea what awaited them.

* Women are attractive as an entry-level commodity for criminals. They can cross borders legally and they do not attract the attention of sniffer dogs. The initial outlay is a fraction of the sum required to engage in car theft; overhead costs are minimal; and as a service provider, the commodity (a trafficked woman) generates income again and again.

* The Russians were indispensable for the transition from socialism to capitalism.

Despite the murders and the shoot-outs, the Russian mob actually ensured a degree of stability during the economic transition. Of course, by normal standards one might perceive extortion, kidnapping, and murder as constituting a rather harsh policing regime; and most people would probably find it hard to approve of car theft, narcotics, or sex trafficking as a legitimate business enterprise. Yet Russia was not in a normal situation.

No societies are free from organized crime except for severely repressive ones (and although North Korea has undoubtedly very low levels of organized crime, its state budget is decisively dependent on the trading of narcotics to criminal syndicates in neighboring countries). But when you replace one set of rules (the Five-Year Plan) with another (free market) in a country as large as Russia, with as many mineral resources, and at a time of epochal shifts in the global economy, then such immense change is bound to offer exceptional opportunities to the quick-witted, the strong, or the fortunate (oligarchs, organized criminals, bureaucrats whose power is suddenly detached from state control) that were absent hitherto. It is certainly true that the Yeltsin government made some appalling errors. But they were under considerable economic pressure at the time, as the
crumbling Soviet system was no longer able to guarantee food deliveries to the people and inflation (even before the freeing of prices) had hit at least 150 percent and was still rising. Something had to be done. By the mid-1990s the Russian government estimated that between 40 and 50 percent of its economy was in the gray or black sectors, and it is within this context that Russia and the outside world needs to understand the phenomenon of organized crime: it emerged out of a chaotic situation and was very brutal, but its origins lie in a rational response to a highly unusual economic and social environment.

* b) Unlike the traditional American and Italian mafias, members of the gangs were not strictly bound by family loyalties. The codes of the thieves’ world (which conferred honor and recognition on the vory) only survived a matter of months in Russia’s primitive capitalism.

* c) Third, in contrast to the five families of America’s Cosa Nostra, there were thousands of these organizations in Russia.

* The oligarchs’ rape of Russia’s assets enjoys pride of place in the boom of the global shadow economy during the 1990s. Not only did these men succeed in turning Russia upside down, but their actions had a huge economic and social impact on the United States and on countries throughout Western Europe, in the Mediterranean (above all Cyprus and Israel), in the Middle East and Africa, and in the Far East. Unable even to claim that they were helping to police the transition to capitalism (as protection rackets undoubtedly were), they have had an overall influence more destructive than most of Russian organized crime.

* different branches of Russia’s security service would find themselves fighting against each other on behalf of warring oligarchs.

* The oligarchs understood instinctively that Russia was a capricious and dangerous environment and that their billions of dollars were not safe there. They overestimated their ability to control President Putin, the man whom they chose to replace the weak and easily manipulated, alcoholic president Yeltsin. Yet their instincts served many of them well—as an insurance policy, they needed not just to get their money out of the country. They needed it to be clean once it arrived at its destination. So did the organized crime groups. Everybody needed to launder his cash. But before they could establish a worldwide launderette, they all—oligarchs and mobsters alike—needed to establish themselves abroad. The criminal groups now entered the most challenging stage of their development: phase three—overseas transplantation.

* Organized crime and corruption flourishes in regions and countries where public trust in institutions is weak. Refashioning the institutions of Kafkaesque autocracy into ones that support democracy by promoting accountability and transparency is a troublesome, long-term process. The task is made doubly difficult if economic uncertainty accompanies that transition. Suddenly people who have been guaranteed security from the cradle to the grave are forced to negotiate an unfamiliar jungle of inflation,
unemployment, loss of pension rights, and the like. At such junctures, those crucial personal networks from the Communist period become very important. The Red Army evacuated its bases in Eastern Europe, but the equally effective yet more seductive force of favors owed and promises once made stood its ground to exert a strong influence over the transition.

* Apart from when Stalin had a vicious anti-Semitic spasm just before his death, being Jewish in the postwar Soviet Union was not usually much worse than being anything else. As a Jew, one’s professional ambition was often circumscribed in a way that did not affect Slavs and some other minorities, but in many respects all peoples in the Soviet Union were shat upon in equal measure. From 1989 onward, however, the Jews of the former Soviet Union enjoyed one valuable and exclusive privilege—they were eligible for Israeli citizenship and could get the hell out of Belarus, the Caucasus, Siberia, or wherever else with no questions asked.

And many didn’t wait to be the victim of an assassination attempt like Gentelev. They took the passport and ran. Soon hundreds turned into thousands, thousands into tens and hundreds of thousands until within a decade 1 million Russian Jews had pitched up in Israel, amounting to more than 15 percent of the total population.

* But the Jews from Russia and Ukraine were very different—they came in huge numbers in a short space of time, and they had a strong Russian cultural identity that was often more ingrained than their Jewishness. In the profoundly secular Soviet Union,
Judaism and Zionism remained a minority interest at best among Russian Jews. “The former Soviet immigrants perceive themselves as the bearers of European culture in Israel, and 87% of them would like cultural life in Israel to be similar to that of Europe,” noted one study on the sociology of the immigration based on extensive surveys. “However, only 9% believe that this is indeed the situation in Israel.”

Israel, it seems, was a foreign country for these Russians. “The immigrants perceive Russian culture and language as superior to Hebrew. 88% of immigrants evaluate the impact of immigration on cultural life in Israel as positive or very positive, while only 28% evaluate the impact of cultural life in Israel on the immigrants as positive or very positive…” And then there were economic issues. “In addition to its size, another unique aspect of the Russian immigration was that many of the Russian immigrants were highly educated,” the economists Sarit Cohen and Chang-Tai Hsieh have written. “About 60% of the Russian immigrants were college-educated, compared with only 30 to 40% of native Israelis.” This led to social tension and real resentment between the indigenous population and the newcomers—Russian professionals wanted to muscle in on the labor market in large numbers. Not the dirty, poorly paid jobs traditionally reserved for immigrants but the well-paid posts for highly trained men and women.

* It was the police who first noticed something odd happening. “At the time, I was head of the intelligence in Jerusalem,” said the retired police commander Hezi Leder, “and we started getting reports from my colleagues in Haifa and the north of Israel of a dramatic rise in the amountof criminality among young people. These were kids who were thirteen and fourteen, maybe fifteen years old, but they seemed to be outside the education system. And they were almost all Russian.” By the mid-1990s, there were more than 700,000 Russians in Israel. Most were entirely honest…

* police started to observe an increase in murders and assaults involving unprecedented brutality. The crime wave centered on Tel
Aviv—or Sin City, as the tabloids refer to it—but almost always contained within the Russian-speaking community.

* “Their parents pack ’em off from the Upper West Side to Israel with a book filled with the phone numbers of synagogues, rabbis, and shuls, and a wad of cash. And then the minute they get here, they head for the whorehouses.”

* Since the last intifada, the Palestinians no longer carry out the dirty and dangerous jobs that are the preserve of immigrants elsewhere in the industrialized world. Their places have been taken by Romanians, Uzbeks, Thais, Filipinos, Turks—you name it. The
importation of labor into Israel is a corrupt business in which organized crime also engages: globally, the International Migration Organization has identified the trafficking of indentured or slave labor as the fastest-growing sector in the industry.

* For their part, the oligarchs and organized crime bosses started colonizing Israel for a number of reasons. It was an ideal place to invest or launder money. Israel’s banking system was designed to encourage aliyah, the immigration of Jews from around the world, and that meant encouraging their money to boot. Furthermore, Israel had embraced the zeitgeist of international financial deregulation and considerably eased controls on the import and export of capital. And, like most other economies around the world in the 1990s, it had no anti-money-laundering legislation. Laundering money derived from criminal activities anywhere else in the world was an entirely legitimate business.

* The main reason for Israel’s popularity was the simplest—many of these iffy businessmen were Jews, and in Israel they were not treated like dirt but welcomed as valuable and respected additions to the family. A disproportionate number of the most influential Russian oligarchs and gangsters were Jewish. Before the huge wave of immigration to Israel, Jews made up only about 2.5 percent of the population of Russia and Ukraine. But they were hugely influential in the vanguard of gangster capitalism during the 1990s. A cursory search of the Internet will reveal countless racist sites fueling the theory that the pillage of Russian assets during decade was borne of the World Jewish Conspiracy, once so beloved of the Nazis and (when it suited him) of Stalin. By contrast, many liberal commentators simply overlook the issue of Jewish involvement in Russia and Ukraine’s chaotic transition, presumably to dodge accusations of anti-Semitism. In fact, by avoiding any mention of the elephant in the living room, they facilitate its portrayal by anti-Semites as a jackal.

* Although the Soviet Union was renowned for its antipathy toward most national identities that threatened its idealized image of homus sovieticus, it did construct one specific barrier for Jews—the glass ceiling. In virtually all the central party and state offices, in almost all industrial branches, and in most places of learning, Jews were systematically prevented from reaching the top. There were exceptions to this rule—Kaganovich (one ofStalin’s unloved Politburo colleagues) and, in the 1980s, Evgeni Primakov emerged as an extremely influential political figure, having prophylactically discarded his birth name, Yonah Finkelshtein. But on the whole, if you were Jewish, the key promotion would elude you.

In consequence, there were a lot of smart Jews who felt frustrated in their pursuit of intellectual challenges and entrepreneurial opportunities. Where better, then, to exercise those skills than in the world’s toughest market (which officially didn’t even exist!)—the Soviet planned economy. Over seventy years, they honed their business skills in this grim totalitarian world where huge industrial behemoths would seek to produce goods without regard to the laws of supply and demand. Instead, enterprises would follow the targets (or norms, as they were known) set down every five years by the State Planning Commission. These rarely bore any relation to the available materials, raw or processed, and so each factory would be engaged in a relentless and exhausting struggle against shortages. Factories were often reliant on suppliers based thousands of miles and several different time zones away and with which there were no functioning communications. The only way to meet those targets was to employ wheelers and dealers who could hustle the right materials from any source anywhere. These people were known as tolkach, and without the ingenuity of the tolkachi in sustaining the wobbly edifice, the Soviet Union may have buckled earlier than it did. And just as there were a disproportionate number of Jews among the oligarchs, so there were among the tolkachi.

* This ability was not restricted to the Jews. It is no coincidence that among organized crime bosses, the other two chronically overrepresented nationalities in Russia were the Chechens and the Georgians, whose talent for overcoming the daily consumer misery of the Soviet Union was similarly the stuff of legend. The criminals and oligarchs emerged from communities who inhabited the twilight periphery of the Soviet Union—although usually denied access to the central institutions, they were not pariahs. Instead they were compelled to seek out the possibilities of social and economic activity that existed in the nooks and cracks of the state. This experience was invaluable for many when negotiating the roller coaster of post-Communist Russia. For the Jewish oligarchs and gang bosses, Israel was both a retreat and, by dint of its passport, a door to the outside world.

* The Palestinian issue is simply overwhelming in Israel. At times, it almost seems that Israelis have willingly diverted all their intellectual faculties into consideration of this one matter. Everything appears illuminated by the torch of the Arab-Israeli conflict, obscuring in the process the fascinating and dynamic nature of Israel’s own society, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the advent of globalization.

* The Russians had agreed at the 1995 El Dan meeting in Tel Aviv to avoid acting in an ostentatious criminal manner within Israel. Now Israelis were about to discover that the years of champagne and excess in the 1990s had spawned a new phenomenon—indigenous Israeli organized crime. And unlike the Russians, these people cared very little about their public image.

* “The Russians were very careful. And were able to impose discipline because they were based on an organization. The Israeli crime groups were families.” This meant that in structure they were much more like the Sicilian Mafia than the Russians were. “When you have crime based on families, then issues such as honor and vendettas come into play,” Professor Amir continued. The existence of family feuds may result in the occasional innocent victim, as in the Rosenstein case, but in another respect they assist police. The bloodletting enables intelligence officers to monitor what is going on in the crime community, “which means that the Russians and similar organizations are more effective and more dangerous.”

* And lest we fall into the error of thinking that Israelis or Jews had a particular penchant and ability for engaging in organized crime, it is worth remembering that the center for the global money-laundering industry was a few hundred miles away in a very different country—the United Arab Emirates.

* Lev Timofeev, the former Soviet dissident mathematician turned analyst of Russia’s shadow economy, has written one of the most comprehensive economic studies of the drug market. His conclusions are stark:

“Prohibiting a market does not mean destroying it. Prohibiting a market means placing a prohibited but dynamically developing market under the total control of criminal corporations. Moreover, prohibiting a market means enriching the criminal world with hundreds of billions of dollars by giving criminals a wide access to public goods which will be routed by addicts into the drug traders’ pockets. Prohibiting a market means giving the criminal corporations opportunities and resources for exerting a guiding and controlling influence over whole societies and nations. This is the worst of the negative external effects of the drug market. International public opinion has yet to grasp the challenge to the world civilization posed by it.”

From an economic point of view, a person’s decision to enter into the drug trade as a producer, distributor, or retailer is entirely rational because the profit margins are so high. This is all the more compelling in countries such as Afghanistan and Colombia where chronic poverty is endemic. Time and again, narcotics traffickers have demonstrated that their financial clout is sufficient to buy off officials even in states with very low levels of corruption, as in Scandinavia. In most countries, traffickers can call on combined resources of billions of dollars where national police forces have access to tens or hundreds of millions (and are further hamstrung by a complex set of regulations constraining their ability to act).

On the whole, governments do not argue that drug prohibition benefits the economy. They base their arguments instead on perceived social damage and on public morality. On the contrary, it distorts the economy because it denies the state revenue from taxes that might accrue from the purchase of a legal commodity (not to mention the immense costs of trying to police the trade and the incarceration of convicted criminals). This huge financial burden is one reason that so many economists, like Timofeev, and indeed one of the great organs of the British establishment, The Economist magazine, are adamant in their support of the legalization of drugs.

* Rio’s favelas produce some of the finest documentary films in the world, a testimony to the openness of the culture. This was the only country I encountered in which not a single person asked me to turn off my tape recorder when I spoke to him or her. Brazilians are fanatical communicators (witness the huge success of Orkut, an equivalent of MySpace in Brazil), and so it is easy to learn a great deal about the country (the dark and light sides) in a short space of time, especially in Rio.


I gave up watching McMafia like 4 episodes in.

I watched a couple of your streams today. I liked what you had to say, it was refreshing the other day you were open enough to admit what many of use porn for.

To watch some lady getting humiliated so we can “let off steam”, and feel superior for a few minutes, ending with the 4 second orgasm.

I find it remarkable how often I’ve ejaculated, and within milliseconds, the browser tab is closed and I’m back to reading some article, completely moved on from the several minutes of hate-fucking porn.

One of the worst parts of porn is the minutes spent browsing for something you ad hoc decide will be a suitable clip to watch, the endless browsing.

You’re reading about narcissism, be careful I do know a bunch of morons who interpret the whole world through name-calling people ‘narcissists’, it becomes a kind of astrology. These videos on youtube by Gannon and Vaknin and HG Tudor, it is a cottage industry. Most of their followers are middle aged women looking for a catch-all explanation for their breakup or divorce.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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