Scene from Alien Girl (2010).
“Mafia is not a Russian word,” retorted Putin, in a brusque exchange with Italian journalists questioning him on the rule of law in Russia in 2000.
View it as a forceful reframe or a case of aggrieved butthurt as you wish, but he has a point. Despite the comparisons made between them, there are in fact very few intersectionalities between the Sicilian Mafia (Cosa Nostra) and its less well known cousins such as the Calabrian Ndrangheta and the Apulian Sacra Corona, and the amorphous network that has come to be known as the “Russian” mafia, or Bratva (“brotherhood”).
The Cosa Nostra is extremely hierarchic, whereas the Bratva is far more “horizontal.” To be sure, it has its pakhan equivalent to Italian and Italian-American godfathers/bosses, and its avtoritety (“authorities”) that correlate to caporegimes. But that is where the similaries end. The Cosa Nostra clans are strongly familial, territorial, and substantially hereditary (though more so in the US than in Italy itself). This directly extends to the name of their basic organizational unit: The family. Membership in most Sicilian families is limited to men of Sicilian ancestry or even specific regional ties or bloodline associations. There are formal initiation rites involving symbolic blood sacrifice (a pinprick to draw out blood and splatter on an icon, which is then burnt, with the promise that the initiate will likewise burn in hell should he betray the oath of omerta).
The Russian mafia is completely different, even in etymology. It is not a “family” but a “brotherhood.” And a brotherhood not in any literal blood sense, but in a way that evokes associations with a “fraternity,” or a “band of brothers.” Organization is strongly hierarchic, as is the case in every strongly masculine institution from the army to the priesthood, but the direct control the pakhan exercises over matters such as personnel policy is far more limited relative to the godfather. They are highly decentralized, with the constituent “brigades” operating largely independently of each other. There are no particularly elaborate initiation rituals; instead, a vor’s (thief’s) position in the criminal pecking order can be gauged by his associates through an elaborate system of tattoos that can be studiously analyzed and decoded by the brothers in bathhouses, in prison showers during the vor’s periodic spells of incarceration, and during card games many of which are played while topless. After all, if you don’t have blood ties, you need to be able to recognize your own through other means.
By far the most striking difference is that the “Russian” mafia is strongly multiethnic. It has its origins in the heavily Jewish port city of Odessa in Tsarist times, which originated most of the criminal argot known as fenya, or blatnoy language. (The term “blat” itself is a Yiddish one which has transmigrated to denote the whole concept of crony connections, kickbacks, favors, etc. that have its parallels in what we might know as an old boy network in the Anglo-Saxon West (but more overtly criminal) or guanxi in China (but less overtly nepotistic). The world of blat and of the vor are not the same thing, but they do intersect quite heavily – many businessmen and politicians associate with them out of the pursuit of advantage or just plain necessity).
Fast forwarding to the 21st century, some of the most prominent Russian mafia bosses of recent years were the Kurdish Aslan Usoyan (“Grandpa Hassan”), assassinated in January 2013 by a competing kingpin rumored to be either the Georgian Tariel Oniani or the Azeri Rovshan Janiev. In the US, they had their counterparts in the Evsey Agron and Boris Goldberg; the heavily Jewish nature of the Russian mafia in the US was made clear in the 2005 movie Lord of War. Though it is necessarily incomplete, what statistical evidence exists indicates that ethnic minorities, especially the Caucasians, are so massively overrepresented in the ranks of the Russian mafia that ethnic Slavs are a minority within it. As such, the Bratva is a highly multiethnic and universalistic organized criminal group.
The traditional Italian mafia is an organic part of its community, with no restrictions on conventional employment to its “associates.” In contrast, one of the core “vorovskie ponytie” (thief understandings) is that it is forbidden to pursue legitimate employment. Another such “understanding” is that the thief is to take no wife and father no children (though as in the Night’s Watch, having a woman or even many women is just fine). There are of course no such restrictions in the Cosa Nostra. As Don Corleone informs us, a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man.
Speaking of women, they are very rare but not completely unheard of in both organizations. However, in the Italian mafia, they are almost invariably related by blood to senior figures within the organization and typically only come to play a role when their male relatives die, go to prison, or are otherwise incapacitated in some way. Within the Russian mafia, they are just another crewmember, possibly an unreliable one; one of the first songs in the Soviet criminal chanson genre was about a “murka” who betrayed her crewmates to the Cheka and got paid with lead for it.
One point of similarity is that both organizations are highly antithetical with respect to nationalism: The Russian mafia because of its “multinational” nature and ingrained aversion to authority, and the Italian mafia because of its strongly familial and regionalistic nature. The Cosa Nostra hated Mussolini, and even helped the Allies take southern Italy. However, some forms of organized crime group, which we will soon come to, are far more conductive to nationalism than others.
So what you have then in the Russian mafia is a far more amorphous, globalist, and literally “rootless cosmopolitan” structure relative to the far more grounded and blood-knit Italian mafias.
”The problem is in the definition,” said Pino Arlacchi, an expert on the Italian mafia and a former Italian senator who heads the United Nations’ Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention. ”When you go to court, you have to be able to define what the mafia is. In Italy, we discovered that there was a formal structure, with a very precise division of roles, and formal system for joining. In Russia you don’t have that.”
This accords with the opinion of Giovanni Falcone, the famous Sicilian prosecutor assassinated by his quarry in 1992:
Even if the Russian mafia (and those of the other countries of the ex-Soviet bloc) do pose serious problems… in the East an organization comparable to Cosa Nostra does not exist. Without doubt the collapse of state and ideological structures will inevitably cause a growth in illegal traficking and criminality, but the criminal organizations of the ex-Soviet Union, for the moment, are above all a phenomenon of generalized adminstrative corruption. There is no sense in calling something a Mafia when it is not…
But why these differences?
Many people and even criminologists would say “culture” and leave it at that. But as the HBDsphere constantly asks, “Where does culture come from?”
Ultimately, it comes from the family.
(1) Here is Emmanuel Todd’s map of Europe’s traditional family systems:
Emmanuel Todd’s European family systems. Link to best intro to this topic.
(2) hbd*chick on the viscosity of different family systems:
and some populations are more viscous than others:
1) inbreeding populations where close relatives marry frequently over the long-term. mating with relatives must be highly viscous [insert sweaty/sticky incest joke here]. not only do the individual members of the population likely interact fairly regularly (can depend on your mating pattern), they pass many of the genes they share in common on to the next generations — who then also interact and mate. that’s what i call viscous! and, as you all know by now, some human populations inbreed more than others, and some have been doing so for longer than others. and vice versa. (see: entire blog.)
2) populations where extended families are the norm. societies where two or three generations of families all stay together, work together, play together. viscous. plenty of opportunity for nepotistic behaviors to be selected for. on the other hand, societies of nuclear families where more distant relatives are seen only once a year on thanksgiving, and then only to argue, and where your your heir is your pet cat…not very viscous. (see: family types and the selection for nepotistic altruism.)
3) socio-economic systems which push for close relatives to remain together rather than dispersing. if that sounds vague, that’s ’cause it is. sorry. i haven’t thought through it all yet. i do have an example of the opposite for you — a socio-economic system which pushed for close relatives to disperse — and that is the post-manorialism one of northwest europe. already by the 1500s, it was typical for individuals in northwest europe to leave home at a young age (as teenagers) and live and work elsewhere — often quite long distances away (several towns over) — before marrying. then it was not unusual for them to marry someone from their new locale. not viscous. conversely, many societies outside of the hajnal line (northwest europe) have had systems which encouraged the opposite.
There is a vast body of literature – very helpfully summarized and interpreted by several bloggers, most prominently hbd*chick – on traditional family systems before industrialization. In short, more “introspective” family systems – that is, ones characterized by greater degrees of inbreeding and clannishness (not necessarily the same thing) – tend to produce more in the way of corruption and less in the way of civic virtue, even after adjusting for IQ (which also tends to suffer).
The Arabs, for instance, are an extreme case – more than a millennium of widespread FBD (father’s brother’s daughter) marriage has brought their levels of average IQ down to close to Sub-Saharan African levels. Even where inbreeding doesn’t have a direct effect, clannish dysgenics might have selected against intelligence (though considering that the communitarian family is humanity’s “default,” it’s perhaps more accurate to speak of merely the absence of nuclear or authoritarian family eugenics).
But inbreeding is unlikely to have inflicted much of an IQ hit on either South Italians/Christian Mediterraneans or Russians/Eurasians directly. First cousin marriage was the exception rather than the rule in the former (just as in pre-Meiji Japan), and virtually completely absent in the latter.
That said, this doesn’t exclude the appearance of particular cultural peculiarities.
With the extended schemata recently proposed by hbd*chick quoted above, it strikes me that South Italians would fall fall into Category 3 with considerable overlap with Category 1, while Russians would fall heavily into both Category 2 and Category 3 but largely avoid Category 1.
so, again, i think there are at least three things to juggle in our heads here when thinking about possible selection pressures for nepotistic (or or not-so-nepostistic) altruism, all having to do with the “viscosity” of populations: 1) inbreeding, 2) family types, and 3) the forces socio-economic systems exert on familial relationships. for more than the last thousand years, northwestern european pops have had low inbreeding, small family types, and societal pressures which have pulled apart related individuals (those pressures increased over the period). eastern european pops have probably had higher inbreeding for some or all of this time period (although nothing on the scale of the arab world), large family types, and not very many social or economic pressures for family member to disperse. the mediterranean world, aside from the large islands mentioned by kaser above, has had higher inbreeding rates than northwestern europe (especially southern italy), small family types (at least, small residential family types), but few pressures for close family to separate much.
Organized criminal groups tend to hew to conservative social mores and act as repositories of tradition.
They are the distillation of the essence of a national culture.
And isn’t it striking that the heavily regionalistic and nepotistic nature of the Cosa Nostra is perfectly synced with the traditional family system of Southern Italy, which combined conjugal autonomy, modest degrees of inbreeding, and a strong regionalistic focus?
In contrast, the strongly exogamous communitarian family system of Russia is, in crime as in politics, authoritarian but strongly universalistic.
Incidentally, while the Russian mafia has little in common with the Sicilian Mafia and its American offshoots, that is not the case with respect to the Camorra, or Neopolitan mafia:
Of Italy’s other regional crime groups, the Camorra in Naples is the most anarchic, a loose band of gangs whose penetration into local society has been more difficult to root out. According to Mr. Arlaachi, Russian organized crime is closer in kind to the Neapolitan version, although even in Naples, he conceded, the Neapolitans abide by rules that the Russians routinely ignore.
By its very essence, the Russian version of the mafia defies the Italian definition of a secret society, which until recently protected itself by a wall of silence. Here there is no oath of silence, or ”omerta,” as the Sicilians call it. Instead, crime groups have an open-door policy that over the last 10 years has been wide enough to let in a large swath of society, willingly and unwillingly, from policemen to bankers, from politicians to industrialists.
The region of Campania from which it hails had a historically lower rate of consanguineous marriage than either Sicily (Mafia) or Calabria (Ndrangheta), with their far more restrictive entrance policies.
Midway between Sicily/Calabria and Hajnal Northern Italy, it is also organizationally midway between the Sicilian Mafia and the Russian mafia.
And lo and behold! Unlike the Sicilian mafia, who disapprove of them, the Neapolitan mafia sure do love their tattoos! And their card games!
Apart from the patriarchal clans of Sicily and Calabria, and the horizontal networks formed in the cosmopolitan seaports of Naples and Odessa, perhaps the most culturally distinctive criminal underworld is that of the Japanese yakuza.
The yakuza are far less familial than the Sicilians; its structure resembles that the traditional oyabun-kobun (FOSTER parent – FOSTER child) model. Most of the kobun are drawn from low caste and “outcast” backgrounds, such as the burakumin; ethnic Koreans, who are marginalized in Japanese society, are strongly overrepresented (0.5% of the population; 20% of the top bosses in the early 1990s). Traditional folklore features many stories of orphans getting accepted by the yakuza.
Predictably enough, the yakuza take their tattoos to the max; they are not just a veritable book of symbols testifying to a rich criminal history, as with the Russian and Neapolitan mafia, but veritable full body ink suits.
And they love their cards so much that the yakuza are named after a particular hand in a card game, which they play without their shirts on:
The nickname for the worst hand in oicho-kabu—an eight, a nine and a three—is phonetically expressed as “ya-ku-za” and is the origin of the Japanese word for “gangster,” yakuza.
However, unlike the Russian mafia, the yakuza are extremely hierarchical; the oyabun holds unquestioned authority, instead of being sustained by (ever treacherously shifting degrees of) respect as in the Russian mafia. Rank and file relationships are defined in terms of brotherhood; but unlike with the Bratva, there are explicit designations for “elder” and “younger” brothers.
The yakuza are also strongly “rooted” in their communities, even to the extent of helping with earthquake and tsunami relief. The police famously know the locations of the main yakuza HQs and maintain good relations with them on the “understanding” that they don’t make too much of a mess and help them keep other roach infestations down. In contrast, the Russian “vorovskie ponytie” precludes any form of cooperation with the authorities or participation in the white market economy, and relations between the state and organized crime relations are, as in Italy and the US, strongly antagonistic (rhetoric from some quarters about their supposed “merger” to the contrary).
Thanks to this transparency, it is possible to maintain a much more accurate tally of the number of yakuza members than for almost any other criminal grouping (there are around 100,000 of them, if you’re curious).
Moreover, this symbiotic relationship has deep roots, from Tokugawa times when oyabun were granted the right to wear a wakizashi (short sword) – a right otherwise reserved for the nobility – to their close cooperation with and intermingling with the ultranationalist factions during the 1930s.
So, in short, with the yakuza you have: Top down authoritarian control, inegalitarian brotherhood, regional rootedness, nationalism, and a penchant for cooperative relationships with the official authorities.
What does this remind you of? The authoritarian/stem family type characterized by paternal authority, unequal inheritance, and a tendency towards social democratic and fascist governments upon its breakdown – and which also happens to be the family type characteristic of traditional Japan!
So what sort of organized crime group corresponds to the last of the major family types: The traditional Anglo-Saxon absolute nuclear family?
Characterized as it is by autonomy, decentralization, a tendency towards Christianity, patriotism, capitalism, and “libertarianism”?
Proud and iconic products of American civilization – Hells Angels are almost as much a staple of global popular culture as the Sicilian mafia, the Russian mafia, and the yakuza – the biker culture ironically enjoyed its biggest political success upon migrating to Russia, where “The Surgeon” – the leader of the Night Wolves biker gang – has become a regular guest at convocations of the Russian elites thanks to his expert geopolitical trolling of Europe.
(The communitarian family had broken down in Russia two or three generations ago, so presumably by the 1990s there was no presumably no longer any substantial cultural barrier to such an assimilation).
But now the political winds are shifting in their homeland, and the bikers are gonna help make America great again!