Gangs of Russia 08 (2)

Gangs of Russia: From the Streets to the Corridors of Power

Since their spectacular rise in the 1990s, Russian gangs have remained entrenched in many parts of the country. Some gang members have perished in gang wars or ended up behind bars, while others have made spectacular careers off the streets and joined the Russian elite. But the rank and file of gangs remain substantially incorporated into their communities and society as a whole, with bonds and identities that bridge the worlds of illegal enterprise and legal respectability.

In Gangs of Russia, I explore the secretive world of the gangs. Using in-depth interviews with gang members, law enforcers, and residents in Kazan, together with analyses of historical and sociological accounts from across Russia, I present the history of gangs both before and after the arrival of market capitalism.

Contrary to predominant notions of gangs as collections of maladjusted delinquents or illegal enterprises, I argue Russian gangs should be seen as traditional, close-knit male groups with deep links to their communities. I show that gangs have long been intricately involved with the police and other state structures in configurations that are both personal and economic. I also explain how the cultural orientations typical of gangs—emphasis on loyalty to one’s own, showing toughness to outsiders, exacting revenge for perceived affronts and challenges—are not only found on the streets but also in the top echelons of today’s Russian state.

Cornell University Press
ISBN: 978-1-5017-0024-8 | 264 pages | August 2015


This is a terrific book, based on fresh research and with a new approach. Instead of reducing Russian gangs to their economic operations or rationalizing them as a substitute for the authority of the state, Svetlana Stephenson analyzes gangs as a form of society. She sees them as warrior alliances, a perspective that enables her to penetrate a whole panoply of cultural forms of solidarity, ethos, leadership, territoriality and gender not usually brought together.”  Caroline Humphrey, King’s College, University of Cambridge

Svetlana Stephenson once again demonstrates her excellent empirical research and in-depth cultural knowledge to produce a groundbreaking book on Russian gangs. This much-needed, sober analysis of the complex relationships and historical and social contexts of crime in Russia will appeal not only to scholars and students across a variety of disciplines but also, in its highly readable form, to the interested lay reader.” Paddy Rawlinson, University of Western Sydney

There is still much to be learned about Russian organized crime, and a key gap in the literature has been serious, detailed local studies. Now, in Gangs of Russia, Svetlana Stephenson sets out the workings of Russian street gangs in a way that enhances our understanding of Russian social development and the interactions among politics, crime, and society over the past twenty years. Her detailed research into the gangs of Kazan is new and provides a level of depth that is simply not available elsewhere.” Mark Galeotti, New York University

“At a time when anxieties about the nation’s place on the world stage are once again on the rise, Svetlana Stephenson’s fascinating study of the world of the Russian gang – a “collective, predominantly male, violent endeavor; a militant alliance or clan that exists in the midst of modern society” – is particularly welcome … This is an important book about contemporary Russia and about a significant global social formation. While the existing scholarly work on these subjects is extensive, both are given fresh clarity in this assured analysis. The world of the gang, as Stephenson shows, tells us about much more than just what teenagers get up to in the evening.” Tim Hall, University of Winchester, in Times Higher Education (Book of the week), 14 January 2016.

“The implosion of the Soviet Union toppled not only the powerful, centralized state and the teetering command economy; it also upturned social structures. Gangs, bandity, gruppirovki – informal, mostly harmless groups of youths that have been around all through Russia’s modern history, gave disoriented young men, who previously might have transited into the working world, as Stephenson writes, ‘a structure that was available, familiar, and well adapted to developing new projects of accumulation.’  Absent the previous controls of the Strong State, the groups created protection rackets, parking lot scams, extortion and a myriad of criminal and semi-criminal operations that allowed many of the generation of the 90s to use their gang or group affiliations to accumulate wealth, cement social connections and build power bases for later advancement. As Stephenson notes: ‘The generation that started their adult lives in the 1990s now occupies the top positions in the government, business, academia and the media. Among the members of the State Duma, leaders of political movements, leading businessmen and university rectors, we can find many of those who rose from the streets or progressed in life via unsavory collaborations with bandits.’ They brought with them a code or ‘ponyatia’ that governs behavior in a manner starkly different from that of a law-based society, and that is more like a watered down version of the code of the vory v zakone (‘thieves in law’). The gang – a ‘male militant tribal alliance that is cemented by quasi-kinship obligations and loyalties’ – sees itself as superior and separate from society, having its own social order and not answerable to society’s laws. To see how all of this is significant and relevant, one merely needs to look for the stamp of these social groupings on Russia’s clannish political culture, on the mutation of Soviet-era blat into the rampant corruption infesting state and privately-owned businesses. As a result, Stephenson’s book is as revealing a look at the origins and nature of Russia’s new class of business, social and political leaders as was Milovan Djilas’ analysis of the post-war class of Soviet leaders.”  Paul E. Richardson (Editor) in “Under Review”, Russian Life, November/December 2015

“Academics and sociologists have for some years been casting light upon the dark recesses of pre- and post-Soviet corruption … A recent and valuable contribution to this field is Dr. Svetlana Stephenson’s book ‘Gangs of Russia’, a fine exposé that contributes much to our understanding of the reality of Russian ‘corruption … violence and crime'”. David Holohan in East-West Review, Journal of the Great Britain-Russia Society, Vol. 15 no. 1, Spring/Summer 2016.

“… in her landmark study, ‘Gangs of Russia: From the Streets to the Corridors of Power’ Svetlana Stephenson finds an analytical similarity between the two types of organizations: like the [Italian] mafia, gangs in Russia are woven into the fabric of society … In the final analysis, there is no equilibrium in the nightmarish world masterfully described by Stephenson … If Russia wants to do justice to its people, it must promote the rule of law, rather than condone the law of the jungle”, Federico Varese in Times Literary Supplement, 1 July 2016 p. 30.

“I cannot recommend this new book highly enough. It is one of those rare scholarly books that is hard to put down. Reading it is a real pleasure, as Svetlana Stephenson writes clearly, sometimes lyrically, but without jargon or disciplinary obfuscation. The reader is rewarded with a large number of original and sometimes startling insights. A new and powerful light is shone onto the deep structures of contemporary Russian society, and the thought-processes, mental worlds and modes of discourse of many of its leaders.” Bill Bowring in British Journal of Criminology 56 (4), 5 July 2016

“Svetlana Stephenson, in this painstakingly researched and fascinating book, reminds us that the gangs and their culture have not gone anywhere; indeed they still make up a recognisable yet interwoven part of life in poor, urban areas of Russian cities and beyond… read Gangs of Russia for a novel, grounded analysis of street and provincial life as well as a fascinating insight into Russian youth and masculinity.” Gavin Slade in British Journal of Sociology 67 (3), 20 September 2016

“This fascinating new book provides important insights into the evolution of gang life and organized crime in Russia. Clearly written, with illuminating interviews with gang members and a firm grounding in English and Russian-language sources, it provides a major new addition to the literature on the nature of urban life and violence.” Louise Shelley in Slavic Review 75 (3), Fall 2016.

“This is a history of the growth and partial assimilation of youth gangs in Russia after the collapse of Soviet socialism….highly recommended.”  M.G. Meacham, CHOICE

“Is Russia a ‘mafia state’? If so, what does this mean and what are its implications? Svetlana Stephenson offers a welcome and distinctive perspective on these questions in her study of Russian youth gangs and their complex transformation …  From [her] fascinating research and careful analysis three larger observations emerge. First, this account depicts a bleakly violent landscape. At its worst in the mid-1990s, provincial life for gang members was a semi-Hobbesian shadow world of fear and violence. Even many who were not disposed to join gangs felt compelled to do so as a form of protection from the pervasive threat of force. Second, Stephenson notes the disquieting evidence that in parts of Russia today gang predation remains as strong as ever … Third, Stephenson draws attention to the seepage of language and values from the gang world into the wider culture, displacing older intelligentsia values of restraint and politeness. The political elite, she suggests, both follows and cultivates this  “decivilizing process” as a source of popularity. The emerging conclusion is that gangs once ran the streets, and now shape system and culture.” Nigel Gould-Davies in International Affairs Volume 92, Issue 3,  May 2016 pp. 740–741

“This meticulously researched and vivid book is based largely on interviews with gang members in Kazan, but covers the whole of Russia, within an international context. Like all Stephenson’s work, it demonstrates a very special degree of insight and imagination, based on deep erudition.” Jury’s citation for award of the 2015 Alexander Nove Prize, British Association For Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES), March 2017.


In April 2017, the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies (BASEES ) awarded the 2015 Alexander Nove Prize for scholarly work of high quality in Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet studies to Svetlana Stephenson for Gangs of Russia: from the Streets to the Corridors of Power (Cornell University Press, 2015).

The jury’s citation reads: “Svetlana Stephenson’s new book, Gangs of Russia: from the Streets to the Corridors of Power, charts the rise and partial decline of gangs from the Soviet period to the present. It continues her long-term project on Russian society ‘from below’. As before, Stephenson recommends that ‘we move our sociological gaze from exclusion to incorporation’. Previously, she showed that homeless people are not a separate category, but ordinary people who have become homeless. Now she argues that ‘Russian gangs are not alien to society; they are firmly embedded in it’.  This meticulously researched and vivid book is based largely on interviews with gang members in Kazan, but covers the whole of Russia, within an international context. Like all Stephenson’s work, it demonstrates a very special degree of insight and imagination, based on deep erudition.” Jury: Prof Anne White (SSEES, University College London) and Prof Peter Waldron (University of East Anglia)

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9780754618133_frontcoverCrossing the Line: Vagrancy, Homelessness and Social Displacement in Russia

How do people find themselves homeless? Why are the needs of homeless people almost totally neglected in Russian society? Which lines do they cross to become complete outsiders? In this book I explore for the first time the experience of homeless people in Russia both in the late Soviet period and during post-socialist transition. I concentrate on the homeless, or roofless people, living on the streets or in other places unfit for normal human habitation: cellars and lofts of apartment blocks; at train stations and airports; or in rubbish dumps or underground hot water pipes.

Using in-depth interviews, I document their routes into homelessness; the strategies they adopt in using the city space for survival and building social bonds; and the barriers which block their escape from the streets. Interviews with people who became homeless in the 1970 and 1980s are contrasted with accounts of those whose homelessness started after the end of the Soviet regime. I place these narratives within the framework of theoretical perspectives on social-spatial exclusion, interaction between space and social identity and the regimes of settlement and social control. I set out to advance understanding of homelessness in Russia as an extreme case of social-territorial displacement, and to set out its causes and its individual consequences within the larger social and political context. I also show that by using the concept of displacement, particularly in a historical perspective, it is possible to better understand the ways in which social systems produce marginality and homelessness.

Ashgate Publishing Ltd
ISBN: 978-0-7546-1813-3 | 200 pages | July 2006


Dr Stephenson’s new book is that rare phenomenon: a serious work of sociological scholarship which, once opened, is practically impossible to put down. Through her intensive research and field work since 1993, she enables her readers to enter the lives of the bomzhi, the street people of Moscow. She provides a rigorously scientific yet compassionate understanding of how and why they have fallen outside the limits of society. Her aim is not only to advance the understanding of homelessness in Russia, ‘as an extreme case of social-territorial displacement’ …  but to reveal its causes and its individual consequences in the larger social and political context. … This is an important book, and should be read by anyone with an interest in Russia, or the problems of homelessness.” Bill Bowring, Birkbeck, University of London

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Youth and Social Change cover

Youth and Social Change in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union

Two decades have now passed since the revolutions of 1989 swept through Eastern Europe and precipitated the collapse of state socialism across the region, engendering a period of massive social, economic and political transformation. This book explores the ways in which young people growing up in post-socialist Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union negotiate a range of identities and transitions in their personal lives against a backdrop of thoroughgoing transformation in their societies.

Drawing upon original empirical research in a range of countries, the book’s contributors explore the various freedoms and insecurities that have accompanied neo-liberal transformation in post-socialist countries – in spheres as diverse as consumption, migration, political participation, volunteering, employment and family formation – and examine the ways in which they have begun to re-shape different aspects of young people’s lives. In addition, while ‘social change’ is a central theme of the issue, all of the chapters in the collection indicate that the new opportunities and risks faced by young people continue both to underpin and to be shaped by familiar social and spatial divisions, not only within and between the countries addressed, but also between ‘East’ and ‘West’.

This book was originally published as a special issue of Journal of Youth Studies.

ISBN: 978-0-4155-0371-6 | 136 pages | April 2012

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Responding to Systemic Human Rights Violations

As a response to widespread structural or endemic human rights violations, in 2004 the European Court began to issue pilot judgments, the aim of which was not only to exert further pressure on national authorities to tackle systemic problems, but also to stop the European Court itself being inundated with the same types of cases. This analyses the principal characteristics of the pilot judgment procedure and its application in key cases to date.

ISBN: 978-9-4000-0041-4 | 208 pages | June 2010

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Books in Russian

Жизнь по понятиям. Уличные группировки в России (“Life By The Code: Street Gangs in Russia”).

Книга посвящена российским уличным преступным группировкам. Центральное место в ней занимают казанские группировки, их история, моральный кодекс («пацанские понятия»), экономическая деятельность и трансформация этих организаций с конца 1970-х годов по 2000-е включительно. Помимо казанских группировок в книге анализируются имеющиеся данные по группировкам в других регионах России. Используя тексты углубленных интервью с участниками группировок, работниками правоохранительных органов и местными жителями, автор рассматривает практики насилия в группировках, взаимодействие между «реальными пацанами» и их родителями, учителями, соседями, работниками органов власти. Показано также влияние культуры группировок на массовую культуру и политический дискурс. Книга адресована специалистам и студентам, изучающим современную российскую историю, социологию, этнологию и урбанистику, но будет также интересна и широкой читательской аудитории. Британской Ассоциацией славянских и восточноевропейских исследований книга была удостоена премии имени Алека Ноува за 2017 год.

This book is an authorised Russian translation of “Gangs of Russia: From The Streets to the Corridors of Power”, published by the Khamovniki Fund for Social Research, Moscow (by permission of Cornell University Press), 2017

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Stephenson, S. (1998) Detskaya besprizornost’: sotsialniye aspekti  (po materialam sociologicheskogo issledovaniya v Moskve 1997-1998) [Street children: Social Aspects. The Results of a Moscow Survey, 1997-1998]. INION RAN, Moscow.

Stephenson, S. (1997) Bezdomnie v sotsialnoi strukture bolshogo goroda [The Homeless in the Urban Social Structure]. INION RAN, Moscow.