Organized Crime: Russian vs. Italian Mafia

Organized crime groups exist in many countries, but the most powerful groups are Russian and Italian mafia. There is a great difference between origins and predispositions of the Italian and Russian organized crime groups. The Russian mafia was influenced by political and economic changes, break down of the USSR and the wave of privatization. In contrast, the Italian mafia first occurred as a recognizable phenomenon toward the end of the eighteenth century throughout southern Italy.

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Perhaps the best way to acquire “a feel” for it (for that is all we can hope for) is to imagine it developing as a force of reaction against the intensified abuses of a moribund feudalism. To be sure, there were many instances in which the mafia was an instrument, not against, but in the hands of, the feudal nobility. But that merely reveals something about the mutability of human phenomena and the corruptibility of human ideals (Paoli 2003, p. 133).

The mafia probably had its roots in the absolute necessity of the southern Italian masses to defend their families, their honor, their source of livelihood, and their very life at a time when those who possessed secular and ecclesiastical authority were renouncing all obligations of law and order to the people while at the same time robbing them of whatever land they possessed, molesting their wives and daughters, imposing intolerable taxation, and inflicting all manner of moral as well as corporal punishments. Originally, the mafia consisted of little more than scattered little groups of peasants, often outlaws, who found in each other’s strength and resolve the basis of a new moral and social order (Paoli 2003, p. 55).

The main similarity between Russian and Italian mafia is a strict code of conduct and behavior. “There is a traditional code of conduct within this old style of organized crime in Russia called “Vory v Zakone,” or thieves in law. The members are bound by 18 codes and if they are broken, the transgression is punishable by death” (Organization and Structure n.d.). In Italy, one finds in many a village a sacra famiglia (sacred family), an organization of local young men whose express purpose is to defend the “honor and property” of the community in general and of their own families in particular.

The organization, sometimes termed Umiltà (Humility), has elaborate hierarchies of offices and functions, colorful ceremonies and rituals, and a language in which terms like “honor,” “blood,” “family,” “man,” and “wisdom” have a very special significance. So noble are the official intentions of the sacra famiglia, and so religious the members’ conception of its function within the local scheme of things, that when a new member is installed in the organization, after a full six months of being in bello (under scrutiny), the chief tells him, “From this moment on, you are not a mere member of the mob [the populace] but a man healthy, wise, and holy” (Finckenauer and Waring 2001, p. 23).

Proliferation and activities of both crime groups reveal how a corrupt individual can rise to the top of the power hierarchy and, aided by a small group of lieutenants, use the organization to commit under the protection of secrecy those very wrongs that it was supposedly established to prevent (Finckenauer and Waring 2001, p. 204).

Thefts, acts of terrorism against the weak, and abuses against helpless women are the specialty of the mafiosi. Sometimes, after a period of control, the leader becomes isolated by his own abuses and leaves the scene–usually either because he lands in jail or because he is slain. His followers disband, and a group of young men, eager for fun, new experience, power, and the highest kind of honor that can befall a peasant among his peers. The main difference between Russian and Italian mafia is that Italian mafia uses murders and thefts as the main methods of violence. The Russian mafia groups use extortion, credit card fraud, murder, kidnap, and fuel frauds (Friedman 2000, p. 160-161).

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It is probably neither common nor healthy for men to endlessly crave admission into groups that are persistently closed to them. The deeply ingrained need for social approbation and the need for self-respect are too closely tied together, to allow a man to continue a pursuit that yields continuous self-degradation (Paoli 2003, p. 45-46). Chances are that, after trying and failing for a time, the individual will turn to a group that readily grants him social approval and a healthy self-image.

The basic meaning in the tale of the fox and the sour grapes reaches the heart of a human universal. There is no clear-cut evidence that the gang is a school for socialization in the world of crime. “The kind of obedience low-ranking members have to show removes their sense of responsibility for these crimes, which is further negated by some other ad hoc measures” (Paoli 2003, p. 77).

Little is known about inter-organizational connections between communities, although there is little doubt that some ties exist. As a rough generalization, it may be stated that the degree of inter-organizational contact is in direct proportion to the volume and economic significance of the local organizations’ activities (Finckenauer, and Waring 2001, p. 207).

When, as in the Palermo area in Sicily, a number of local mafia-like organizations flourish and seek to extend their area of activity and influence, inter-organizational clashes are likely to develop. These conflicts are never fully eliminated, but the clashes invariably generate attempts at reconciliation. And from this flows the sort of phenomenon known as mafia (Paoli 2003, p. 53; Italian Crime Groups 1995).

Some basic techniques of organization of the American mafia came from Sicily. The Russian and Italian mafia’s success and growth, however, were unquestionably fostered by conditions arising from the monumental political error that was Prohibition, by the betrayal experienced when high ideals of democracy were rendered a sham by egoism and hypocrisy, by the festering sore that was the padrone system, by the corruptibility of self-seeking officials–both private and public-and by the pathetic fears and helplessness of the early immigrants (Friedman 2000, p. 149).

In both crime groups, the success depends on an operation called the “fix,” a working arrangement with key police, elected officials, and business and union executives. Most of the time it involves a simple money pay-off from the mob in return for favors received. Since the “bought” person must be in a position of power or authority in order to deliver his favors, “the cardinal principle of the fix is immutable–i.e., be with winners. Politically, this is conducive to bipartisanship” (Friedman 2000, p.148).

Examples of fixes range from one-million-dollar bribes to small pay-offs to officials for such favors as “the passing along of information that comes over their desks” and warning the organization of possible official action against it (Organization and Structure n.d.).

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Operating through and acquiring legitimate businesses is attracting increasing attention among the mafiosi in their search for profits. This trend represents a distinct move on the part of these twentieth-century “robber barons” toward legitimacy. The development suggests that since the big mafia chiefs are of Italian extraction, fifty years or so hence there are likely to be a great many peers of the Rockefellers, Morgans, Mellons, and the like having names that end in a vowel or claiming ancestors among those who had such names (Paoli 2003, p. 56).

No disrespect is meant for the “big families” of today. But money, like wine, does have a way of growing old and sublime. It is even possible that rarely if ever can great wealth be achieved without intrigue and scandal, without twisting the spirit and the arm of the law. The biographies and autobiographies of those who are suggestively called “robber barons,” together with reports about their business deals, will reveal to the curious citizen the extent to which they took, by hook or by crook, from the little man, the petty businessman, the government, and the soldier dying at the front for liberty, democracy, and “free enterprise.” (Paoli 2003, p. 141; Friedman 2000, p. 115-116). There are many ways of breaking the law.

Much of the history of America’s “big families” is a history of “war-profits conspiracies,” airplane scandals, charges of defrauding government on war contracts, attorney generals acting as “fixers” for the wealthy, the Teapot Dome scandal, the Shipping Board scandal, price-fixing scandals, oil and land “grabs,” airmail contracts collusively obtained, and so forth in an endless list of “free enterprise” deals. The Russian groups follow the same way in America: they “get into the legitimate gambling business and the hotel business in Las Vegas.” These legal and quasi-legal operations were much harder for law enforcement to crack” (Friedman 2000, p. 185).

An idea of the grabbing, the intrigues, and the law of might that prevailed is given by Hollywood’s recurrent theme of the land-grabbing scoundrel. In the movies the thief and his hired straw-chewing, blackjacketed gunslinger always lose out in the end to the “lawabiding”, courageous, redeeming hero (Friedman 2000, p. 175).

It is possible that the desire for power and wealth is nowhere and at no time innocent of the will to use all means necessary for their achievement. On the other hand, criminal innovation is condoned by a tendency among American people to tolerate, indeed admire and esteem, successful scoundrels and knaves. What is even more interesting is that the association between crime and politics is not due solely to the fact that both are power phenomena. Alas, it would almost seem that there is a need for crime in politics.


  1. Finckenauer, J. O., Waring, E. J. (2001). The Russian Mafia In America: Immigration, Culture, and Crime. Northeastern.
  2. Italian Crime Groups (1995). Web.
  3. Organization and Structure. (N.d.) Web.
  4. Friedman, R. J. (2000). Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America. Little, Brown and Company.
  5. Paoli, L. (2003). Mafia Brotherhoods: Organized Crime, Italian Style. Oxford University Press.
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