Organized crime in Russia began in its imperial period of Tsars, but it wasn't until the Soviet era that vory v zakone ("thieves-in-law") emerged as leaders of prison groups in gulags (Soviet prison labor camps), and their honor code became more defined. After World War II, the death of Joseph Stalin, and the fall of the Soviet Union, more gangs emerged in a flourishing black market, exploiting the unstable governments of the former Republics, and at its highest point, even controlling as much as two-thirds of the Russian economy. Louis Freeh, former director of the FBI, had once said the Russian mafia posed the greatest threat to U.S. national security in the mid-1990s.
In modern times, there are as many as 6,000 different groups, with more than 200 of them having a global reach. Criminals of these various groups are either former prison members, corrupt Communist officials and business leaders, people with ethnic ties, or people from the same region with shared criminal experiences and leaders. However, the existence of such groups has been debatable. In December 2009, Timur Lakhonin, the head of the Russian National Central Bureau of Interpol, stated, "Certainly, there is crime involving our former compatriots abroad, but there is no data suggesting that an organized structure of criminal groups comprising former Russians exists abroad", while in August 2010, Alain Bauer, a French criminologist, said that it "is one of the best structured criminal organizations in Europe, with a quasi-military operation."
The Russian mafia can be traced back to Russia's imperial period, which began in the 1700s, in the form of banditry and thievery. Most of the population were peasants in poverty at the time, and criminals who stole from government entities and divided profits among the people earned Robin Hood-like status, being viewed as protectors of the poor and becoming folk heroes. In time, the Vorovski Mir (Thieves' World) emerged as these criminals grouped and started their own code of conduct that was based on strict loyalty with one another and opposition against the government. When the Bolshevik Revolution came around in 1917, the Thieves' World was alive and active. Vladimir Lenin attempted to wipe them out after being robbed by a gang of highwaymen, but the criminals survived onto Joseph Stalin's reign. Not True JIJIJIJI
1917–1991: Soviet era
When Stalin seized power after the death of Lenin, he sought to crush the Thieves' World, ordering the execution of thousands of not only criminals, but also political opponents. Millions of others were sent to gulags (Soviet labor camps), where powerful criminals worked their way up to become vory v zakone ("thieves-in-law"). These criminal elite often conveyed their status through complicated tattoos, an act that is still used today by Russian mobsters.
After Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II, Stalin was desperate for more men to fight for the nation, offering prisoners freedom if they joined the army. Many flocked to help out in the war, but this act betrayed codes of the Thieves' World that one must not ally with the government. When the war was over, however, Stalin sent them back to prison. Those who refused to fight in the war referred to the traitors as suki ("bitch"), and the latter landed at the bottom of the "hierarchy". Outcast, the suki separated from the others and formed their own groups and power bases by collaborating with prison officials, eventually gaining the luxury of comfortable positions. Bitterness between the groups erupted into a series of Bitch Wars from 1945 to 1953 with many killed every day. The prison officials encouraged the violence, seeing it as a way to rid the prisons of criminals.
After the death of Stalin, around eight million inmates were released from gulags. Those that survived the imprisonment and Bitch Wars became a new breed of criminal, no longer bound to the laws of the old Thieves' World. They adopted an "every-man-for-himself" attitude that meant cooperating with the government if necessary. As corruption spread throughout the Soviet government, the criminal underworld began to flourish. This corruption was common during the Brezhnev era, and the nomenklatura (the power elite of the country, usually corrupt officials) ran the country along with criminal bosses. In the 1970s, small illegal businesses sprang up throughout the country, with the government ignoring them, and the black market thrived. Then, in the 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev loosened up restrictions on private businesses, allowing them to grow legally, but by then, the Soviet Union was already beginning to collapse.
Also during the 1970s and 1980s, America expanded its immigration policies, allowing Soviet Jews and criminals to enter the country, with most settling in a southern Brooklyn area known as Brighton Beach (sometimes nicknamed as "Little Odessa"). Here is where Russian organized crime began in America. The earliest known case of Russian crime in the area was in the mid-1970s by the "Potato Bag Gang," a group of con artists disguised as merchants that told customers that they were selling antique gold rubles for cheap, but in fact, gave them bags of potatoes when bought in thousands. By 1983, the head of Russian organized crime in Brighton Beach was Evsei Agron.
He was a prime target among other mobsters, including rival Boris Goldberg and his organization, and in May 1985, Agron was assassinated. Boris "Biba" Nayfeld, his bodyguard, moved on to employ under Marat Balagula, who was believed to have succeeded Agron's authority. In the following year, Balagula fled the country after he was convicted in a fraud scheme of Merrill Lynch customers, and was found in Frankfurt, West Germany in 1989, where he was extradited back to the US and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Balagula would later be convicted on a separate $360,000 credit card fraud in 1992. Nayfield took Balagula's place, partnering with the "Polish Al Capone", Ricardo Fanchiniin, in an import-export business and setting up a heroin business. In 1990, his former friend, Monya Elson, back from a six-year prison sentence in Israel, returned to America and set up a rival heroin business, culminating in a Mafia turf war.
1992–2000: Growth and internationalization
When the USSR collapsed and a free market economy emerged, organized criminal groups began to take over Russia's economy, with many ex-KGB soldiers and veterans of the Afghan war offering their skills to the crime bosses. Gangster summit meetings had taken place in hotels and restaurants shortly before the Soviet's dissolution, so that top vory v zakone could agree on who would rule what, and set plans on how to take over the post-Communist state. It was agreed upon that Vyacheslav "Yaponchik" Ivankov would be sent to Brighton Beach in 1992, allegedly because he was killing too many people in Russia and also to take control of Russian organized crime in North America. Within a year, he built an international operation that included, but not limited to, narcotics, money laundering, and prostitution and made ties with the American Mafia and Colombian drug cartels, eventually extending to Miami, Los Angeles, and Boston. Those who went against him were usually killed.
Prior to Ivankov's arrival, Balagula's downfall left an empty void for America's next vory v zakone. Monya Elson, leader of Monya's Brigada (a gang that similarly operated from Russia to Los Angeles to New York), was in a feud with Boris Nayfeld, with bodies dropping on both sides. Ivankov's arrival virtually ended the feud, although Elson would later challenge his power as well, and a number of attempts were made to end the former's life. Nayfield and Elson would eventually be arrested in January 1994 (released in 1998) and in Italy in 1995, respectively.
Ivankov's reign, too, ended in June 1995 when a $3.5 million extortion attempt from two Russian businessmen, Alexander Volkov and Vladimir Voloshin, ended in an FBI arrest that resulted in a ten-year maximum security prison sentence. Before his arrest and besides his operations in America, Ivankov regularly flew around Europe and Asia to maintain ties with his fellow mobsters (like members of the Solntsevskaya Bratva), as well as reinforce ties with others. This did not stop other people from denying him growing power. In one instance, Ivankov attempted to buy out Georgian boss Valeri "Globus" Glugech's drug importation business. When the latter refused the offer, he and his top associates were shot dead. A summit held in May 1994 in Vienna rewarded him with what was left of Glugech's business. Two months later, Ivankov got into another altercation with drug kingpin and head of the Orekhovskaya gang, Segei "Sylvester" Timofeyev, ending with the latter murdered a month later.
Back in Eastern Europe in May 1995, crime boss Semion Mogilevich held a different summit meeting of Russian mafia bosses in his U Holubu restaurant in Anděl, a neighborhood of Prague. The excuse to bring them together was that it was a birthday party for Victor Averin, the second-in-command of the Solntsevskaya Bratva. However, Major Tomas Machacek of the Czech police got wind of an anonymous tip-off that claimed that the Solntsevskaya were planning to assassinate Mogilevich at the location (it was rumored that Mogilevich and Solntsevskaya leader Sergei Mikhailov had a dispute over $5 million), and the police successfully raided the meeting. 200 guests were arrested, but no charges were put against them; only key Russian mafia members were banned from the country, most of whom moved to Hungary.
One person that wasn't there, though, was Mogilevich himself. He claimed that "[b]y the time I arrived at U Holubu, everything was already in full swing, so I went into a neighboring hotel and sat in the bar there until about five or six in the morning." Mikhailov would later be arrested in Switzerland in October 1996 on numerous charges, including that he was the head of a powerful Russian mafia group, but was exonerated and released two years later after evidence was not enough to prove much.
The worldwide extent of Russian organized crime wasn't realized until Ludwig "Tarzan" Fainberg was arrested in January 1997, primarily because of global arms dealing. In 1990, Fainberg moved from Brighton Beach to Miami and opened up a strip club called Porky's, which soon became a popular hangout for underworld criminals. Fainberg himself gained a reputation as an ambassador among international crime groups, becoming especially close to Juan Almeida, a Colombian cocaine dealer. Planning to expand his cocaine business, Fainberg acted as an intermediary between Almeida and the corrupt Russian military. He helped him get six Russian military helicopters in 1993, and in the following year, helped arrange to buy a submarine for cocaine smuggling. Unfortunately for the two of them, federal agents had been keeping a close eye on Fainberg for months. Alexander Yasevich, an associate of the Russian military contact and an undercover DEA agent, was sent to verify the illegal dealing, and in 1997, Fainberg was finally arrested in Miami. Facing the possibility of life imprisonment, the latter agreed for his testimony against Almeida in exchange for a shorter sentence, which ended up being 33 months.
As the 21st century dawned, the Russian mafia remained live and well. New Mafia bosses sprung up, while imprisoned ones were released. Among the released were Pachovich Sloat,Marat Balagula and Vyacheslav Ivankov, both in 2004. The latter was extradited to Russia, but was jailed once more for his alleged murders of two Turks in a Moscow restaurant in 1992; he was cleared of all charges and released in 2005. Four years later, he was assassinated by a shot in the stomach from a sniper. Meanwhile, Monya Elson, along with Leonid Roytman, were arrested in March 2006 for an unsuccessful murder plot against two Kiev-based businessmen.
In 2009, FBI agents in Moscow targeted two suspected Mafia leaders and two other corrupt businessmen. One of the leaders is Yevgeny Dvoskin, a criminal who had been in prison with Ivankov in 1995 and was deported in 2001 for breaking immigration regulations; the other is Konstantin "Gizya" Ginzburg, who is reportedly the current "big boss" of Russian organized crime in America after it was suspected that Ivankov handed over his control to him.
In the same year, Semion Mogilevich was placed on the FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list for his involvement in a complex multi-million dollar scheme that defrauded investors in the stock of his company YBM Magnex International, swindling them out of $150 million. He was indicted in 2003 and arrested in 2008 in Russia on account of tax fraud charges, but because the US does not have an extradition treaty with Russia, he was released on bail. Monya Elson stated that "[h]e's the most powerful mobster in the world" in 1998.
Around the world, Russian mafia groups have popped up as dominating particular areas: Alec Simchuk and his group ripped-off and robbed unsuspecting tourists and businessmen in South Florida, leading to Rick Brodsky of the FBI to say that "Eurasian organised crime is our no. 1 priority"; Russian organized crime has a small hold in the city of Atlanta where members are distinguished by a spade with a 3 under it tattooed on their body. Russian organized crime was reported to have a stronger grip in the French Riviera region and Spain in 2010; and Russia was branded as a virtual "mafia state" according to the WikiLeaks cables. The Jewish branch of the Russian mafia has created tremendous problems for the Israeli government. There has been a large increase in criminal activity in Israel due to the large influx of Russian-Jews. The Israeli police and intelligence services have focused their resources on the Palestinians and have not paid adequate attention to this growing problem. The Russian Jewish mafia has cooperated with Israeli mafiosi 
Structure and composition
Although most Russian criminal groups vary in their structure, there have been attempts at trying to figure out a model in how they work. One such model, which could be possibly out-dated structure, as it is based on the old style of Soviet criminal enterprises, works out like the following:
- Elite group: the leadership, oftentimes a vor or vory, manages and organizes plans for operations.
- Support group: they set specific tasks for subordinate groups or choose who does what task.
- Security group: they are in charge with security and intelligence.
- Working group: the individuals that actually carry out the crimes; they are often uninformed of the identity of the leadership.
Strongest ethnic criminal groups
Russian criminal gangs are rarely formed along ethnic lines. Within the post-Soviet criminal world there exist a multitude of strong ethnic criminal gangs who often cooperate with each other regardless of ethnic origin. The strongest, most well-represented groups are the following:
- Russian criminal groups
- Chechen criminal groups
The Chechen mafia has long held an important place in the Russian criminal underworld.
- Armenian criminal groups
Organized criminal groups consisting of Armenians have long been active in the Eastern European underworld. Gangs with ties to the Armenian organized crime kingpins also exist abroad, such as the Armenian Power in Los Angeles.
- Georgian criminal groups
Organized crime operating out of Georgia is regarded to be one of the strongest in the former Soviet Union. Georgian criminals are mainly based out of the ethnic Georgian Kutaisi region, the Svaneti and the Mingrelian community and the Georgia-based Yazidi community (such as Aslan Usoyan). Georgian criminal groups are active throughout the former Soviet Union and Western Europe.
- Azerbaijani criminal groups
Gangs consisting of Azerbaijanis have long been a major force in the Russian criminal world. Azeri groups control a large portion of the illegal drug market, as well as being involved in weapon trafficking and kidnapping.
- Dagestani criminal groups
The mountainous regions of Dagestan have been a hotbed of clan strife for centuries. The Dagestani immigration (mostly by ethnic Avars) to Moscow and other major Russian cities have brought with them the formation of major organized criminal groups involved in a multitude of criminal activities.
- Assyrian criminal groups
Assyrians who emigrated from Iraq or who have lived in the former Soviet Union for centuries have formed criminal groups as well. Nowadays their power has waned, but ethnic Assyrian organized crime groups (not necessarily in connection with their Russian counterparts) are active throughout Europe, North America and Australia.
Notable individual groups
- The Solntsevskaya Bratva: Led by Sergei "Mikhas" Mikhailov, it is Russia's largest criminal group with about 5,000 members, and is named after the Solntsevo district.
- The Lyuberetskaja Bratva (russ.: Люберецкая Братва) or Ljubery (russ.: Люберы): One of the largest criminal groups in late 80-s early-mid 90-s in the USSR. Based in (and originating from) Lyubertsy district of Moscow.
- The Dolgoprudninskaya gang: Russia's second largest criminal group. Origanally from the City of Dolgoprudny.
- The Izmaylovskaya gang: One of Russia's oldest modern gangs, it was started in the mid- to late-1980s by Oleg Ivanov; it has around 200–500 members in Moscow alone, and is namafter the Izmaylovo District.
- The Tambov gang: Named after Tambov Oblast, this group has been known to dominate Saint Petersburg; the man most associated with them is Vladimir Kumarin.
- The Orekhovskaya Gang: Founded by Segei "Sylvester" Timofeyev, this group reached its height in Moscow in the 1990s. When Timofeyev died, Sergei Butorin took his place. However, he was sentenced to jail for life in 2011.
- The Odessa Mafia: The most prominent and dominant Russian criminal group operating in the US; its headquarter is in Brighton Beach.
- The Spetsialnoye Nazranie Bratva of Eastern Europe and West Asia, was founded in 1974, and means troops of special purpose in English, and have its origin from the army all the way back to KGB. Is Russia's one of the largest organisations today, with Branches in all the former Soviet states: Middle East, USA, Western Europe, Asia and Australia.
- The Brothers' Circle: Headed by Temuri Mirzoyev, this multi-ethnic transnational group is "composed of leaders and senior members of several Eurasian criminal groups largely based in countries of the former Soviet Union but operating in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America." In 2011, US President Barack Obama and his administration named it one of four transnational organized crime groups that posed the greatest threat to US national security, and sanctioned certain key members and froze their assets. A year later, he extended the national emergency against them for another year.
- The Semion Mogilevich Organization: Based in Budapest, Hungary and headed by the crime boss of the same name, this group numbers approximately 250 members as of 1996. Its business is often tied with that of the Solntsevskaya Bratva and the Vyacheslav Ivankov Organization. Aleksey Anatolyevich Lugovcov is the second-in-command, and Vitaly Borisovich Savalovsky is the "underboss" to Mogilevich.
- The Uralmash gang of Yekaterinburg.
- The Mkhedrioni was a paramilitary group involved in organised crime led by thief-in-law Jaba Ioseliani in 1990s Georgia.
- Armenian Power, or AP-13, is a California based crime syndicate tied to Russian and Armenian organised crime.
- The city of Kazan was known for its gang culture, which later progressed into more organised, mafia-esque groups. This was known as the Kazan phenomenon.