Hard times make hard men humble

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"TELEPHONE! IT'S for you, some guy called Dima." Costya, my husband, picked up the receiver and I heard him say to this Dima: "Look, I thought we had agreed you were going to leave me in peace for a few months."

Dima, I discovered, is the young sidekick of Uncle Boris, the mafia godfather who keeps Costya's rock and fashion business under his wing. I have known for some time that Costya, like every other Russian small businessman, has a krysha or roof of protection. That is how the system works here. Only recently, however, have I learnt more of the workings of Russia's ubiquitous protection rackets.

"OK, I'll see you on the Arbat," Costya told Dima on this occasion. When he returned from the meeting, I gleaned a fascinating little detail about the mafia's current affairs.

Since the economic crash, Russian businesses have not been able to afford to pay dues to the godfathers who, in the absence of effective police, offer a kind of security, which is also, of course, an illegal tax. In the autumn, Uncle Boris agreed with Costya that he could have a "tax holiday" until his business began to make profits again. However, it seems that Uncle Boris is now hard up himself.

"Dima took me to a cafe," said Costya. "He does not usually do that. He usually comes to my office to pick up the money for Uncle Boris. He was trying to be nice to me."

Dima did not demand cash. Instead, he pleaded and told Costya a sob story. One of the "lads" had been injured in a shoot-out while protecting a business, he said. The gangster's treatment in hospital was costing $200 (pounds 120) a day. "Donations would be gratefully accepted."

"I refused," said Costya. "I'm broke. I told him: `Listen mate, you can't get blood out of a stone.'" Dima had no choice but to take this message back to Uncle Boris.

In the West, you may be bothered by unwanted insurance salesmen. In Russia, as soon as you have a visible shop window, you can expect a visit from the protection racketeers, hinting darkly at the "risks" that you will be running if you do not accept their services.

The mafia gangs divide along ethnic lines but contrary to what Russian nationalists say - that only the nasty, swarthy Caucasians belong to these bands - there are plenty of ethnic Russian groups as well. A court in Geneva last week tried to prove that a certain Sergei Mikhailov led the mafia in the Solntsevskaya district of Moscow and laundered money in Switzerland but it was forced to acquit him for lack of evidence.

Costya, being a small fish, has a relatively minor godfather. Uncle Boris is an old criminal from a provincial Russian city. He is a "thief in law" or figure of authority among ex-labour camp inmates and enforces a moral code, which boils down to the tribal idea: "If you hurt one of mine, I hurt you".

At first, he charged Costya a modest $300 per month for his insurance cover. But after Costya was held up at gunpoint by rival protection racketeers and Uncle Boris's intervention was required, the price went up to $1,200.

"It was as if I had used up my no-claims bonus," joked Costya.

Every month, Dima, who wears a smart wool coat and heavy gold jewellery, would make the collection. About 150 other small businesses were also liable for this "tax", so you can work out how much profit Uncle Boris was making before the economic crisis.

He never made any overt threats. He did not need to. Costya knew that if he tried to manage without protection, some problem would inevitably arise, a bomb, say, in his storehouse, and he would have to admit that Uncle Boris was indispensable.

"It's blackmail, it's a burden," said Costya. "But what can I do?"

Indeed, as long as the mafia is the real power in the land, usurping the protecting and revenue-raising functions of the state, little people will be helpless. Helpless, but not necessarily mute. Which is why I have spoken about this.

Helen Womack