That was actually said in the early days of the crumbling Soviet Union. The speaker was a young man from the Caucasus who had staked out a street corner in Moscow where he planned to set up a kiosk to sell magazines and newspapers, notions and common drug store items. Just like newsstands on sidewalks in American cities. Before 1992, those sidewalks were bare, now they are teeming with foot commerce.
There was even porn. At least in Bulgaria. And they were on full graphic display even in very public pedestrian and children areas, so I wondered how long before a local decency committee would shut them down. Or at least hang a pastie over those magazine covers.
Bulgaria fell to democracy at about the same time as Russia and Ukraine, but it was not until the Kosovo War, 1998, that I noticed the porn kiosk in the park behind Dmitrov’s tomb had been moved. The old rule under Communist states was that if it wasn’t specifically outlawed in writing under the old (communist) law, it was legal. So It took about 5 years for angry mothers to join forces and put new ordnances on the books.
Just as it took awhile for the mining towns and railheads in our own American West to tone down their more notorious brothels, until there was “some talk of building a church” as Mark Twain wrote about Virginia City in the 1860s.
So, nothing really new here.
As you know, sex was the biggest money-maker for organized crime in virtually ever civilization in history. Both Old and New Testament allude to them. And they were all run by some form of organized mob, often with little more than a wink and a nod from society. Even in straight-laced Baptist Mississippi there was usually a small bawdy house in the county managed by a local entrepreneur, whose name might have been Pauline instead of Paul, protected by the high sheriff, and paid for by some sort of common exchange.
But that’s America.
What was novel in the old Soviet Bloc that didn’t exist in America was that every square foot of public space, what we call common areas, such as sidewalks was all controlled by some mafia or another. And virtually every store front had a decal on the window that showed which insurance company protected them. Even the new “private banks” that Gorbachev had used Party money to establish. I worked out of one in Ukraine, and they had “protection” as well, although I doubt they had to be muscled to accept it.
It was bootleg television and films that probably introduced the name “mafia” to the Soviets, for by the time of the fall of the USSR in 1992 it had been in common use for at least ten years. Every young man who worked in the bank in Ukraine I operated out had adopted the mannerisms of the hoods in “Good Fellas”. And the Russian criminal world had known the ruling Soviet regimes were on their last legs years before their official collapse, for they began staking out territory back into the Brezhnev era.
But it was confusing for an American. At the beginning there were no high profile “families”, as now run Russia. Since the Soviets had declared all forms of private business-for-pay to be criminal, e.g., fixing cars from your garage, which I had some experience with in Ukraine, making the term “mafia” describe any pay for hire, even auto repair. (We got a new set of plugs while-we-waited They even had a sliding window, like a speak-easy, to make sure we weren’t cops.)
All that would change quickly, but I know that every private business in the old Soviet Bloc, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Serbia, Macedonia, was paying someone for the privilege for being there…other than the city agency who issued their business licenses.
Kharkov, Ukraine had a subway system modeled after Moscow’s famous subway. I used it a lot. One day I spied an amputee in a Soviet Army uniform on a blanket, begging. I had a pocket full of rubles and some kopek coins, which at the legal exchange rate were worth close to $100, but on the black market, less than $10. So while people were dropping in 20-kopek coins into his cup I walked by and quickly dropped a 5 ruble note in his cup, then beat a quick retreat to the opposite stairs to watch while waiting for my train. Along came a well-dressed man in a wool overcoat and black velvet collar, with two bodyguards, who approached the beggar. The beggar reached inside his little cloth bag and produced a wad of rubles and a small bag of coins. The man counted them, put the rubles in his pocket, then counted out some coins to the veteran.
The mob owned this space and the beggar was their employee, not an independent contractor.
Later I attended a late night mass at a recently re-opened Orthodox Church. (Everything religious was “reopened” in those days.) Inside the walled enclosure leading to the church was a string of beggars, bundled for the cold winter air, their hands out. My translator, a beautiful girl named Sonya, gasped as we walked by, then whispered that one of her friends from school was in the line. She told me the church grounds were the only places people could beg without having to give a cut to the mafia.
The mafias had staked claim to every inch of public ground in this city of over a million, every sidewalk, every street corner, every public park.
For what it’s worth, it’s this way in Central America, who’s sent us (some say) 11 million uninvited over the past decade. No one there can just save their money then go to a city and start a small business in Tegucigalpa. Everything is mobbed up-owned, so that between various cartels and corrupt city, state and federal officials, and their police, there is no reason to even try.
In America, perhaps in two generations, they can do better, because there is no mafia to pay off just for being alive.
If you survey the world you’ll realize that every part of the world except America, has their private sectors mobbed up. Most are ancient; China, Asia and Spanish America. And most are top down, allied with government. In the south “cartels” are equivalent with mafia, and quite sophisticated, while “oligarch” is just a smooth-sounding name for a Russian mob boss. And none of them live by any sort of honor code concerning, say, innocent bystanders, as once defined the Sicilian mafia, which America has romanticized for 40 years now.
Bottom line, there is no place on earth that a person can simply go to get a start, and someday build a private life without having to pay an extortion price to an external “mafia” for the privilege of doing so.
This is why they have always wanted to come here.
Believe it or not, Americans have always known this. We knew that for every immigrant that would turn to crime, a thousand more would take jobs in our factories, send their kids to school, then perhaps open a shop, and within three generations, become Americans instead of Sicilians, Italians, Jews, or Poles.
Once upon a time we welcomed Latinos with open arms.
And people in El Salvador still want these things, too, only now they must sell themselves to a new kind of mafia; sponsors in the south, and maybe even the High Castle, who will pay their way here, but with other intentions for their services, and handlers in the north, who will own them in a kind of indentured servitude while in the United States. This is the fine print they are never told.
This has been going on for several years now.
And there is no clear pathway to “becoming American” any longer, which was the only reason we wanted them.
We need to reconsider all this in light of the rise of a new, sanitary, cynical and indifferent corporate “mafia” from the top.
This begs the obvious question: If the US Congress is associated with this organized crime, or is its own mob, and the US government the same, perhaps more than one, (this is where it gets complicated) did the Founders see this aspect of human nature going in?
And does it explain why they decided it best that our citizenry be well-armed, not so much as to protect ourselves, as to be the final answer to government’s natural drift toward organized crime problem?
In answer to my Caucasian buddy in Moscow, today there are no “good mafias”, nor benign ones. And while there is time, we need to redesign the path for newcomers who wish “to be America” (Ser Americano) and the H1B smarter set who only want to come to be part of the management without knowing what “to be American” even symbolizes.