MOSCOW MUSCLE: Life In Russia Is About Protection

Understanding “krysha,” the word that explains why Russian life is all about having the right kind of protection. In Russian, krysha literally means “roof,” but the word took on a second meaning in the late 1980s. Protection from the elements, yes, but also from the organized criminals who flourished as the Soviet state collapsed in on itself. And in Putin’s Russia, the concept of krysha has evolved dramatically since the end of the Cold War.

By Amy Mackinnon, a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.

On Oct. 7, 2006, the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was spending an unremarkable Saturday afternoon running errands. When she arrived home, she took what groceries she could carry out of her car and up to her seventh-floor apartment before heading back downstairs for the rest. As the elevator reached the ground floor and the doors shuddered open, a man in a baseball cap stepped forward and shot the 48-year-old dead. The person who ordered her assassination has never been found, but there’s little doubt about why someone might have wanted her dead. Politkovskaya spent years exposing human rights abuses, corruption, and the misuse of power. It is a beat that has proved lethal for many Russian journalists—particularly for those such as Politkovskaya who had no krysha, or protection, from the violent political underbelly of post-Soviet Russia.

In Russian, krysha literally means “roof,” but the word took on a second meaning in the late 1980s. Protection from the elements, yes, but also from the organized criminals who flourished as the Soviet state collapsed in on itself. And like Russia, the concept of krysha has evolved dramatically since the end of the Cold War. Its trajectory charts the evolution of power in Russia as the gangsterism of the 1990s was brought to heel, making way for the political violence of President Vladimir Putin’s rule in the 21st century.

The concept of krysha flourished in the late 1980s after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev signed a law allowing for the creation of worker-owned cooperatives. But these businesses became easy pickings for predatory protection rackets; criminal gangs took as much as a 30 percent cut of profits, and in return people got to keep their businesses—and their legs—intact. It was essentially, “We will protect you against us,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian organized crime. Former athletes of the Soviet Union’s prestigious sports clubs and young traumatized veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan were often hired to do “customer-facing” parts of the deals, said Galeotti, the author of The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia. The athletes came to be known as kachki, from the Russian word meaning to pump your muscles.

The collapse of the paternalistic Soviet state gave rise to a Hobbesian free market. Memories of the so-called wild 1990s are seared into the Russian collective memory. Everything was for sale. Desperate pensioners pawned the few possessions they had in crude roadside markets while hulking state enterprises were sold off through a disastrous scheme of voucher privatization, which saw whole swaths of industry, and much of the country’s wealth, brought under the control of just a handful of individuals.

As the state’s monopoly on the use of force began to crumble, criminal gangs were on the ascent as guarantors of safety and providers of a kind of justice. With private industry on the rise, krysha provided a steady stream of income for criminal gangs—a more reliable one than risky criminal activities like robbery. Racketeers became more invested in the success of the businesses they protected. Described as “violent entrepreneurs” by the Russian sociologist Vadim Volkov, gangs increasingly offered a broad array of support services to those under their krysha: assistance in navigating the fiendish state bureaucracy, dispute resolution, contract enforcement, loans, and the creation of problems for rival businesses. In the absence of a functioning police or court system, the protection offered by gangs was welcomed by many business owners. “It was something people trusted, more than the state,” said Yuliya Zabyelina, an assistant professor of political science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In the lawlessness of the 1990s, it was almost impossible for a business to survive without hired muscle.

Businesspeople were discerning about who provided their krysha. A good krysha was judged by its size and influence relative to its competitors. “Less powerful criminal groups would seek to align themselves with more powerful criminal groups, who in turn were more likely to obtain their own krysha from corrupt government officials,” Klaus von Lampe writes in his 2015 book, Organized Crime: Analyzing Illegal Activities, Criminal Structures, and Extra-legal Governance.

A good krysha provided not only protection but also opportunity. Even in the chaos of the 1990s, the concept was not confined to the world of violent gangsters. In a $6.5 billion court battle between the Russian oligarchs Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky, the former claimed to have paid $2 billion over several years to Berezovsky, an influential power broker who had President Boris Yeltsin’s ear, for access to the lucrative privatizations of the energy industry. (Berezovsky denied that there had been any krysha arrangements and said the payments were his share of the profits from Abramovich’s oil company, in which he held a 25 percent stake.) Nor was the term exclusive to Russia. “In Ukraine, krysha is very important if you want to understand how corrupt relationships are structured and maintained,” Zabyelina said.

By the turn of the millennium, the gangsterism of the 1990s was in decline. When Putin assumed the presidency in a very staged handoff from the ailing Yeltsin in 1999, it became clear he would brook no challenge to the state’s authority. Many gang members were killed or imprisoned. Other residents of the Russian underworld managed to use their connections to maneuver their businesses into semi-legitimacy.

Under Putin, Russia entered a period of long-craved stability and prosperity, and the lawlessness of the 1990s faded. “Most businesspeople nowadays are not going to encounter organized crime. If they’re going to find predators, it’s going to be the fire marshal or, you know, someone in the mayor’s office rather than anything else,” Galeotti said. As power in Russia became more centralized, so too has the concept of krysha, taking on a more political connotation; the assumption is that one’s source of protection must be a personal connection in the state, or someone closely connected to it. When bumbling politicians inexplicably continue to hold onto their jobs, or businesses score lucrative government contracts, it sets off speculation about which powerful official or influential oligarch is protecting them.

Krysha continues to take on new meanings in Russia today. The opposition activist Alexei Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Foundation have published several embarrassing investigations into the unexplained wealth of senior Russian officials, encouraging thousands of young Russians to take to the streets to protest against the government. To challenge powerful figures and remain alive in modern Russia is unusual, as Politkovskaya’s fate attests. But for Russians, Navalny’s good fortune is not a mystery—it’s only a question of which powerful figures are protecting him and why.