The Soviet Mafia by Hans-Jürgen Burkard

In 1989, photographer Hans-Jürgen Burkard started working for Stern magazine. For the magazine, he produced a series of distinctive photo essays in his signature style of dramatic colour lit with flash, which the magazine often ran in consecutive full-bleed double-page spreads.

Often, his subject was Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union. Burkard was only the second foreign photographer to receive official accreditation in 1989 and his photoessays covered subjects such as pollution in Siberia, the emergence of an extreme right wing, Moscow nightlife, dialy commute on the Moscow metro, human prison cages on Trans-Siberian Railway for people being moved to penal colonies, soldiers exercising for atomic, biological and chemical warfare.

The most memorable of Burkard’s photos were that of the Russian Mafia, at that time little known, which he spent nearly a year to document. He followed the RUOP, the division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs dedicated to combating organized crime – dangerous work during which he was often beaten up and his life threatened.

Organized crime had been rampant in the dying Soviet Union for years, fueled by economic shortages and corruption. Around the time Burkard was documenting the Soviet mafia, there were up to 5,000 gangs plundering the state, and every 22 minutes a person was murdered. (In another photoessay, Burkard documented a group of young siblings who robbed and killed at least four drunkards who had slipped on snowy ground and fell down near on Pushkin Square in Moscow). Im Chaos des sowjetischen Alltags ist die Mafia oft die einzige Gewalt, die wirklich funktioniert (in the chaos of everyday Soviet life, the mafia is often the only force that really works), wrote Stern.


Burkard’s powerful photoessay opened with a photo of an overcrowded cells of the detention center in St. Petersburg, where the prisoners waited for opening the hatch and the food to be served. In the following spread, the members of the Kazan gang, one of the big four mafia clans in St. Petersburg, who had been partying in their private sauna, were shown being arrested in an early morning police raid.

Usually only the little ones called “fighters” are caught, Stern observed. The big guys haven’t gotten their hands dirty for a long time. Indeed, of the men in Burkard’s photo, all had been released by early morning, due to lack of evidence.

The prison photos were taken at the St. Petersburg remand prison “IZ 45/1”, called “The Cross” which was built during the time of the Tsars on the banks of the Neva. In another spread, Konstantin Jakowlew, the mustachioed muscle of the Gravedigger Gang, custody on suspicion of extortion, stared out at the photographer from his cell bed. The last photo in the photoessay was that of a murdered man in a dirty Moscow stairwell, as the police took notes. The man was shot him in the heart with a homemade pistol.

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