Obshchak (Russia)

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Obshchak
Location: Soviet Union and post-Soviet Union Countries
USSR map.png
Author: Gavin Slade
Affiliation: Freie Universitat, Berlin

Original Text: Gavin Slade, Freie Universitat, Berlin

The obshchak (Russian: общак) is a term that emerged in the early Soviet penal system in Russia[1][2][3]. It derives from the Russian adjective for shared, common or communal (obshchii) and denotes a collective fund, used primarily for the purposes of mutual aid among like-minded convicts.

The practice of collecting the obshchak was originally confined to the Soviet Union. In the post-Soviet period, the term is used in criminal communities and prisons in most countries of the former Soviet Union. In the Baltic States, the South Caucasus countries and in Central Asia, the Russian word is given a local twist. Georgians, for example, call it the obshchaki, where the addition of i, a Georgian nominative ending, makes it sound colloquial. In Central Asian states such as Kyrgyzstan, the word is used as an adjective to denote any prisoner who concedes to the informal code of the vory v zakone, the prisoner elite (see kanonieri qurdebi in this volume). Thus, a prisoner can be described as obshchakovyi. In some Russian regions, the word has acquired an additional meaning, synonymous with criminality. For example, in Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East there is a powerful organised criminal grouping which simply calls itself Obshchak. The norms associated with such practices have also spread outside the successor countries of the Soviet Union through migration from the old Soviet bloc[4].

In criminal contexts, funds are raised through the extortion or voluntary contributions of prisoners or entities outside prison. Those who give voluntarily signal their commitment to the criminal community. The term is linked to organised crime in a two-fold way. On the one hand, obshchak is part and parcel of extortion, whereby so-called protection money is paid by racketeered businesses. On the other hand, the obshchak ensures integration within and cooperation between criminal groups. This penetrates all levels, from individual prison dormitories and street gangs to city districts and even regions, with funds funnelling upwards to the most powerful groupings[5][6]. Both functions – the collection (informal taxation) and redistribution (informal welfare) of common funds, dissociated from the state or other legal providers – are essential for the emergence of mafias[7]. The colloquial use of the word obshchak can also be used in non-criminal contexts, as an abbreviation of obshchaya kassa (‘common fund’), to highlight the informal nature of collection and distribution (see chyornaya kassa, black cash or black coffers, Ledeneva 2014: 273).

While the criminal obshchak can be used for mutual aid and support to those who are ill, in police custody, or in the segregation unit of the prison, the spoils generally accrue to those at the top of the criminal ranks. Thus, the obshchak should be understood as a form of generalised reciprocity that locks those who practice it into consistent lines of action. This means it represents an investment by criminals who do not receive immediate benefits but who then have an interest in remaining within the criminal community to reap the long-term returns as they move up the ranks. As such, voluntary investments in the obshchak can be understood as a signal of commitment, solidarity and positive attitudes towards the criminal community[8]. Investments are a measure of this commitment and can lead to promotion within the prison hierarchy or organized criminal group. However, for those who do not adhere to the inmates’ code that supports the obshchak, it may be nothing more than a source of extortion.

Image representing the informal practice of Obshchak.

The practice of pooling resources for mutual support and insurance against the worst is of course common in many informal settings. Paoli’s work on the Cosa Nostra and ‘ndrangheta mafia groups in southern Italy shows similar common pooled resources[9]. As well as creating rational incentives for long-term individual commitment to a social group, such pooling of resources is often sacralised as surrender of the individual to a higher good – that of the collective. In post-Soviet Georgia, criminal materials confiscated by police included a document with rules concerning the use of obshchak [10]. The pious language it uses is revealing: ‘The obshchak is a sacred place. It may only be governed by saintly people…These people must be absolutely honest to the thieves’ idea, dedicated in their heart and soul… Every keeper [of the obshchak – GS] must have from five to fifteen people in his care.’ [11] Misuse of the obshchak and abuse by the keepers is a particular sin. This sacralisation of the community that the obshchak represents is by no means unique. Communal work and investments that inspire feelings of a higher calling to a collectivity is widespread in groups such as religious sects and utopian communities [12][13].

The obshchak norms and practices are related to other informal practices that emerged in the prison camps of the Soviet Union and became institutionalised. The practice of the skhodka – an informal ‘court’ for meetings of elite level prisoners – was and still is important for organising the obshchak, sanctioning breaches of rules connected to it, and electing those who should look after the fund. An insight into the rules and sanctions in Russia comes from the 2015 conflict between factions of one of the most powerful organised criminal groupings of vory v zakone over irregularities in obshchak book-keeping. After conducting an ‘audit’ of obshchak finances, a high-ranking boss uncovered instances of dubious book-keeping in the prison colonies of Ryazan region in Russia. This serious episode led to the person responsible for the obshchak records having his criminal status downgraded as punishment [14]. While in the past, the importance of the obshchak lay mainly in providing mutual support to prisoners and in furnishing the authority of the prisoner elite in the Soviet gulags, today the practice has been adapted for the purposes of organised crime-led business and is monitored more closely by both insiders and outsiders.

Police forces from Sweden to Armenia have endeavoured to find hidden resources associated with the obshchak, to uncover traces of their investment and to establish their beneficiaries. As the obshchak was the key mechanism of criminal coordination and cooperation for those imprisoned in the Soviet gulags, its norms and practices have lent themselves to transnational organised crime in the present day. Transfers of resources can be made without actual flow of funds, thus making payments invisible to the authorities. In this respect, the obshchak resembles underground banking systems based on informal rules and honour operational in the Middle East, India and North Africa (see hawala in this volume). In cases where obshchak has been exported beyond the geographical boundaries of the former Soviet Union – for example among post-Soviet immigrant labourers in Greece, ethnically Russian prisoners in Israel, and Eurasian criminal bosses laundering money in Spain – there is a shared understanding of what the obshchak is and of the correspondent code that enables its operation.

Perhaps the most important implication of obshchak practices is their functionality for, if not symbiotic relationship with, formal institutions. Prison is the most common example (see krugovaya poruka in this volume). According to ex-prisoner respondents in Kyrgyzstan, the criminal authorities are actively involved in the running of decrepit prisons. They report that obshchak contributions are collected on Fridays in all prison dormitories, records of the contributions are kept, and the resources are then redistributed according to need. In Lithuania, prisoner respondents report the obshchak is still collected as it was in Soviet times, though its importance has declined with the prison reforms and the greater efficiency of the formal prison authorities[15].

Prison reforms aimed at inmates’ well-being reduce their dependence on obshchak, while anti-mafia policies directly targeting obshchak can make a real difference. Thus, during an anti-mafia campaign in Georgia in 2006 as part of President Saakashvili’s anti-corruption reforms, 19 people were arrested and an obshchak, containing 100,000 lari ($50,000 USD) was seized. Along with the money, an encoded list was recovered with names, dates and amounts given. According to the Georgian police, ‘the money was collected by criminal authorities or contributed by people who voluntarily donated money to support the criminal world and transferred funds to this criminal account’ [16]. These examples show the importance and variation of obshchak as a distinct form of collective resource pooling and wider solidarity among like-minded criminals across the post-Soviet region and beyond.

Notes

  1. Gurov, A. 1995. Krasnaya Mafiya. Moscow: Samotsvet
  2. Varese, F. 2001. The Russian Mafia: Private Protection in a New Market Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  3. Dolgova, A. 2003. Prestupnost’: Ee organizovannost’ i kriminal’noe soobshchestvo. Moscow: Rossiiskaya Kriminalogicheskaya Assotsiatsiya
  4. Varese, F. 2011. 'How Mafias take advantage of globalization: The Russian Mafia in Italy', British Journal of Criminology: 235-253
  5. Varese, F. 2001. The Russian Mafia: Private Protection in a New Market Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  6. Volkov, V. 2002. Violent Entrepreneurs: The Use of Force in the Making of Russian Capitalism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press
  7. Gambetta, D. 1996. The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection. London: Harvard University Press
  8. Slade G. 2013. Reorganizing Crime: Mafia and Anti-Mafia in Post-Soviet Georgia. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  9. Paoli, L. 2003. Mafia Brotherhoods. Organized Crime, Italian Style. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp.85-86.
  10. Glonti, G. and Lobjanidze, G. 2004. Vory-v-zakone: Professional’naya Prestupnost’ v Gruzii. Tbilisi: American University Press. pp.118-119.
  11. Ibid
  12. Kanter, R. M. 1972. Commitment and Community: Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective. Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  13. Tilly, C. 2005. Trust and Rule. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  14. Znak.com. 2015. 'Preeminik Deda Hasana na postu lidera vorovskogo soobshchestva Rossii zanyalsya auditom kriminal’nogo byudzheta strani. Pervuyu nedostachu uzhe vyyavili',http://www.znak.com/urfo/news/2015-06-02/1040692.html
  15. Slade, G. forthcoming. Post-Soviet Prison: Reform, Order and Violence after the Gulag
  16. Prime Crime. 2006. 'Sredi zaderzhannikh v Gruzii avtoritetov net ni odnogo koronovannogo vora v zakone: stali izvestny familii kriminal’nikh avtoritetov, podozrevaemikh v prinadlezhnosti k vorovskomu miru, http://www.primecrime.ru/news/2006-12-21_3287

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