I was recently privileged to be invited to speak on the rise of Russian organized crime at the Mob Museum in Las Vegas (I would add that this is an excellent museum, which manages to pull off that difficult trick of being both deeply informative and a great deal of fun).
In the process, I inevitably spent some time thinking about the allure of Vegas to the Russians, and this led to a very short op. in Certainly Las Vegas has its place on Russian gangsters’ mental maps of the world, as much for its thoroughly mythologized past (“built by the Mob” sounds so much better than the probably more accurate “built by Mormons”) as its gaudy and high-rolling present.
I remember in the 1990s talking to a Russian criminal-businessman who was snapping up swathes of real estate around Moscow.
He was paying bargain basement prices thanks to bribes, intimidation and insider connections.
With great satisfaction, he described the privatization programs in this post-communist country as “like Vegas, and we’re the house.” Russian organized crime has, after all, been one of the depressing success stories of the modern world and an especially transnational one, at that.
When the Soviet Union fell apart, it unleashed this new breed of gangster, combining a toughness learned in the Gulag labor camps with a street-smart entrepreneurialism that made them unparalleled criminal deal-makers.
They laundered money for the Italians, traded Afghan heroin for Colombian cocaine, trafficked women into Europe and guns into Africa.
In the United States, they established bridgeheads in immigrant hubs like New York’s Brighton Beach and have moved into all kinds of underworld activities, from multi-million dollar Medicare frauds to human smuggling.
But beyond dropping wads of their dirty cash in the casinos and bars, where are they in Vegas?
There are certainly plenty of Russians there, some resident (if you really care, they are especially in western Vegas, specifically zip code 89134, where they represent 4.87% of the population, compared with the 0.92% national average), many visiting.
On a purely subjective level, on my one stroll down the strip and into a few of the glittering mega-casino-resort-mall-extravaganzas I heard a goodly amount of Russian being spoken and there are specialist Russian tour operators bringing the new moneyed classes here.
On the other hand, even though — despite the massive strides made in cleaning up the city — organized crime is certainly alive, well and avowedly multi-ethnic in Vegas, I can find very few traces of Russian activity here.