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Romanticised criminals

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 14:28 UK time, Friday, 25 January 2013

The murder last week of "Grandpa Hassan" - the ultimate boss of the Russian criminal underworld - was in the headlines of the Russian press for three days. He was shot dead by a sniper while coming out of a restaurant in the very centre of Moscow and the courtyard where he was killed was widely shown from every possible angle.

That restaurant, according to experts, was his working office where he used to meet other criminals, sorting out different problems, planning new business schemes...

The courtyard where Grandpa Hassan operated

I spent years working behind the windows facing onto this courtyard

Here comes my turn. For three days I was nostalgically watching this courtyard, where I spent nearly 10 years of my life. It used to be the courtyard of the Union of Soviet Writers, where I represented Uzbek literature. The restaurant-cum-office of the criminal boss for all those years used to be the canteen I used every day.

So how did it happen that the most liberal, free-thinking and intellectual place in the whole of Moscow became the Casa Nostra, where murky dealings and contract killings were discussed?

To understand this metamorphosis we have to go right back into the thick of Soviet times. There are theories that the Stalinist regime, which sent millions and millions of the Soviet population to prisons and camps, itself organised the criminal hierarchy in order to run those imprisoned masses.

Later the genie got out of a bottle - those well-organised criminals replicated the structure of the Communist party and covered the entire Soviet Union. So-called "onlookers" were appointed to every Soviet republic, province, district. Just as the Communist Party had its regular congresses, so the criminal world had their "gatherings" every now and then.

In a country where the majority of the population lived double-lives (one in public, to tick all the boxes of communist ideology, and the other in private), it was perversely in the class of criminal outcasts that distorted rules of honour and integrity still meant something. For instance, they were quick to settle scores if you didn't keep your word or failed to repay a debt. "Grandpa Hassan" was one of the field marshals of that world, being the so-called "thief-in-law" - the highest rank in the criminal hierarchy.

That underworld came to the fore in all its might during Perestroika and the breakdown of the Soviet Union. Every thriving business was protected by criminal gangs at that time and it has been widely reported that many of the oligarchs had links with generals in the criminal underworld.

After the fall of the Communist Party only criminals were as well organised as their adversaries, the KGB.

Andrey Illarionov, a Russian expert who used to work as an advisor to the Russian President, recently wrote that after the break-up of the Soviet Union and during the big mess of the 90s, the alliance of those institutions - the KGB, the criminal underworld and the Nomenklatura (an equivalent of Civil Service) - came to power in Russia and still governs it to this day.

I have mentioned the pervasive code of honour and integrity which criminals maintained. Some parts of the Russian media - settling their own scores with the communist past of the country - made heroes out of those thugs, equating their disobedience to the Soviet authorities to a form of dissent. Publications in newspapers, glossy books, film and TV were produced to celebrate that world. The lives of gangsters were romanticised.

But the latest killing shows the way this criminal world operated, operates and will carry on operating.

These were the sad thoughts which occurred to me looking at the picture of the Moscow courtyard that was so dear to me...

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