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Gessen writes: "It's been a strange two and a half years. From the first allegations, in July, 2016, of Russian meddling in the U.S. election campaign to the arrest of President Donald Trump's former adviser Roger Stone last week, many of us who write about Russia professionally, or who are Russian, have struggled to square what we know with the emerging narrative."

Oleg Deripaska, a Putin ally who once lent millions of dollars to Manafort, is important to an understanding of the relationship between the Trump presidency and Russia's national interests. (photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty Images)
Oleg Deripaska, a Putin ally who once lent millions of dollars to Manafort, is important to an understanding of the relationship between the Trump presidency and Russia's national interests. (photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

The Trump-Russia Investigation and the Mafia State

By Masha Gessen, The New Yorker

04 February 19


t’s been a strange two and a half years. From the first allegations, in July, 2016, of Russian meddling in the U.S. election campaign to the arrest of President Donald Trump’s former adviser Roger Stone last week, many of us who write about Russia professionally, or who are Russian, have struggled to square what we know with the emerging narrative. In this story, Russia waged a sophisticated and audacious operation to subvert American elections and install a President of its choice—it pulled off a coup. Tell that to your average American liberal, and you’ll get a nod of recognition. Tell it to your average Russian liberal (admittedly a much smaller category), and you’ll get uproarious laughter. Russians know that their state lacks the competence to mount a sophisticated sabotage effort, that the Kremlin was even more surprised by Trump’s election than was the candidate himself, and that Russian-American relations are at their most dysfunctional since the height of the Cold War. And yet the indictments keep coming.

Reader, I think I’ve finally figured it out. I don’t mean that I’ve figured out whether Russians influenced the outcome of the American election—I doubt even the Robert Mueller investigation will be able to answer that question. I mean that I’ve figured out how to think about what we know and not go crazy. The answer lies in the concept of the Mafia state. (And, no, I’m not invoking the Mob because Stone encouraged an associate to behave like a character from “The Godfather Part II,” as detailed in his indictment.)

As journalists who usually cover American politics have connected the dots of the story of Russian interference, those of us who normally write about Russia have cringed. Early on, it was common to point out that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, who is now under arrest, worked for Viktor Yanukovych, who is often characterized as the “pro-Russian President of Ukraine.” In fact, there was no love lost between Putin and Yanukovych. After he was run out of town, during the 2014 Ukrainian revolution, Yanukovych did seek refuge in Russia, but during his tenure as President he was an unreliable partner for Putin at best. Perhaps more to the point, he’s a crook and a brute. He served time for robbery and assault before he became a politician, and he is wanted in Ukraine for treason, mass murder, and embezzlement. A visitor to Ukraine can take a tour of Yanukovych’s palace, famous for its marble, crystal, immense scale, and a life-size solid-gold sculpture of a loaf of bread. Manafort made a career of working for the corrupt and the crooked. That in itself tells us little about Russia or its role in the 2016 campaign.

We cringed at headlines that claimed to have established a connection between the Kremlin and Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who was at the Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, and Manafort. Veselnitskaya represents a Russian company, Prevezon Holdings Ltd., which was investigated in New York for money laundering, and Veselnitskaya has been charged with lying to prosecutors about her working relationship with the Russian prosecutor general’s office. Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York claim that Veselnitskaya collaborated with a lawyer in the Russian prosecutor’s office to draft exculpatory documents for Prevezon. In media coverage, her e-mailing with a lawyer in the Russian prosecutor’s office was portrayed as evidence of a direct line to Putin, suggesting that she met with Trump’s campaign officials as his emissary. To me, it read as a lot of bluster on the part of a minor operator. From all the available evidence, and contrary to her sales pitch, Veselnitskaya did not have any dirt to offer on Hillary Clinton. To the extent that Veselnitskaya had established connections to high-level Russian officials, they were the kind that are necessary for a lawyer to be at all effective in a corrupt system.

We cringed at the characterization of the Russian online influence campaign as “sophisticated” and “vast”: Russian reporting on the matter—the best available—convincingly portrayed the troll operation as small-time and ridiculous. It was, it seems, fraudulent in every way imaginable: it perpetrated fraud on American social networks, creating fake accounts and events and spreading falsehoods, but it was also fraudulent in its relationship to whoever was funding it, because surely crudely designed pictures depicting Hillary Clinton as Satan could not deliver anyone’s money’s worth.

What we are observing is not most accurately described as the subversion of American democracy by a hostile power. Instead, it is an attempt at state capture by an international crime syndicate. What unites Yanukovych, Veselnitskaya, Manafort, Stone, WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange, the Russian troll factory, the Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos and his partners in crime, the “Professor” (whose academic credentials are in doubt), and the “Female Russian National” (who appears to have fraudulently presented herself as Putin’s niece) is that they are all crooks and frauds. This is not a moral assessment, or an attempt to downplay their importance. It is an attempt to stop talking in terms of states and geopolitics and begin looking at Mafias and profits.

The Hungarian sociologist Bálint Magyar, who created the concept of the “post-Communist mafia state,” has just finished editing a new collection of articles called “Stubborn Structures: Reconceptualizing Post-Communist Regimes” (to be published by C.E.U. Press early this year). In one of his own pieces in the collection, using Russia as an example, Magyar describes the Mafia state as one run by a “patron” and his “court”—put another way, the boss and his clan—who appropriate public resources and the institutions of the state for their private use and profit. When I talked to Magyar on the phone on Monday, he told me that Trump is “like a Mafia boss without a Mafia. Trump cannot transform the United States into a Mafia state, of course, but he still acts like a Mafia boss.” Putin, on the other hand, “is a Mafia boss with a real Mafia, which has turned the whole state into a criminal state.” Still, he said, “the behavior at the top is the same.”

The Mafia state is efficient in its own way. It does not take over all state institutions, but absorbs only the ones necessary for extracting profit. Some structures therefore continue to work as though they were part of a normal state. This may explain why we saw the official Russian foreign-policy establishment preparing, in the lead-up to the 2016 election, for a working relationship with the presumed Hillary Clinton Administration.

When we think about a normal state, Magyar told me, “the assumption is that the state acts in the public interest, and if that doesn’t happen, that’s a deviation.” That is true of how we think about democracies but also, to a large extent, of how we think about dictatorships as well: the dictator positions himself as the arbiter and sole representative of the national interest. A Mafia state, on the other hand, acts only in the personal profit-seeking interests of the clan. “That’s not a deviation,” Magyar said. “It’s a substantive, structural characteristic of the state. The state itself, at the top, works as a criminal organization.”

When members of the American media cover the story of Russian meddling, they implicitly portray Russia as a normal state, and the influence operation as an undertaking of the state aimed at furthering Russia’s national interests. This strikes Russians as absurd. By the measure of national interest, the Trump Presidency has been disappointing for Russia. Most of what Trump has given the Russian state has come through inaction: he has barely reacted to continued Russian aggression in Ukraine; he has failed to support NATO; and he has said that the U.S. will withdraw from Syria, although it looks like the withdrawal is unlikely to be fast or total. At the same time, diplomatic relations between Russia and the U.S. have deteriorated to the point of near-total dysfunction, and, despite considerable foot-dragging by the White House, the U.S. has continued to impose new sanctions on Russia.

By the metrics of a Mafia state, though, the Trump Presidency has yielded great results for Russia. A Mafia boss craves respect, loyalty, and perceived power. Trump’s deference to Putin and the widespread public perception of Putin’s influence over Trump have lifted Putin’s stature beyond what I suspect could have been his wildest dreams. As happens in a Mafia state, most of the benefit accrues to the patron personally. But some of the profit goes to the clan. Over the weekend, we learned that the Treasury Department has lifted sanctions on companies that belong to Oleg Deripaska, a member of Putin’s “court” who once lent millions of dollars to Manafort. If a ragtag team employed by or otherwise connected to the Russian Mafia state tried to aid a similar collection of crooks and frauds to elect Trump—as it increasingly looks like they did—then the Deripaska news helps explain their motivations. The story is not that Putin is masterminding a vast and brilliant attack on Western democracy. The story, it appears, is that the Russian Mafia state is cultivating profit-yielding relationships with the aspiring Mafia boss of the U.S. and his band of crooks, subverting democratic institutions in the process.

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A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

-21 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-02-04 12:57
I think this analysis is just silly. Putin has said this term as president will be his last. He will step away from political office and retire. Mafia bosses don't retire.

There is a mafia state and it is sometimes referred to as the Deep State in the US. It is a permanent mafia state because it is not based on family or a single leader. There are many people who command power. Often it is whole institutions which play the role of mafia boss. These are the people who run the US government and therefore the US military, the department of treasury, and all the rest. Why is it that Goldman Sachs has controlled the US treasury for 40 years?

Gessen just cannot see how democracy is working in Russia. Russia's history with electoral politics is very young, either the 30 years since the fall of communism or just 100 years since the fall of the czar. Much of the bureaucracy and deference to authority that developed in Russia for 600 years of czardom, still continues. Cultures don't change very quickly about such things. It is the same in western Europe. There is no tradition of monarchy in the US. There is only oligarchy or aristocracy -- which is actually what was formalized in the US constitution. The oligarchs would always rule, that's what the constitution intended. Today we just call it the Deep State. Maybe we should take up Gessen's term, the Mafia State. Names don't really matter. We know who wields power in the US. It ain't "the people."
+8 # Robbee 2019-02-04 16:31
[quote name="Rodion Raskolnikov" Putin has said this term as president will be his last. He will step away from political office and retire. Mafia bosses don't retire.
- ]I think this analysis is just silly.

perfectly logical, but only if you accept the premises -

1) putin will return (whether he says so or not) and
2) mafia bosses don't retire

as far as we can tell, comrade, putin retired before, already

and last time putin retired, he did not release his control of russia

putin is just another dickhead, another mafia boss, at heart! sorry!

the deep state in russia is putin!

dickhead craves to be the putin of u s a!
+1 # harleysch 2019-02-04 16:50
The one interesting thing about this article is that, after months of articles accepting the idea of "Russian meddling", Gessen now seems to be stepping away from that -- perhaps to protect her credibility, as Mueller has provided no evidence of Russian meddling.

Otherwise, she still writes as an enraged ex-pat, demeaning the Russian people, culture, and their history. She also continues to ignore that Yanukovic was defeated not by the Ukrainian people, but a regime change coup run by the U.S. and NATO, relying on Nazi militia, who now control the security forces of the country. And Poroshenko, who depends on those security forces, and deploys them against ethnic Russians, is more corrupt than the government he replaced.
+3 # lfeuille 2019-02-05 18:11
Gessen never bought into it. She has other complaints about Putin. She has aways asserted that the "election meddling" thing was bullshit. (My word, not hers - she has claimed that it was small time and ineffective).
-9 # yolo 2019-02-04 17:07
It's nice to read that Gessen realizes the whole Putin and the Russian state interference in our elections is a lot of BS. Her description of a Mafia state describes most states today. Russia has very little influence in the US except for a few very rich Russian jewish oligarchs who looted Russia before Putin came into office. And then attempted to use their ill gotten gains to undermine Putin. Many of these same oligarchs spread their money around on both sides of the aisle in the US and a lot of other places. And when they felt threatened by Putin and the Russian state they escaped to Israel or other European nations. And then used their money and influence to divert peoples attention away from the real influencers in the US, Israel and toward Putin and Russia. Similar to how Israel used the cold war to get the US to side with Israel against it's enemies, Egypt and Syria who were supported by the old Soviet Union.
+4 # Texas Aggie 2019-02-05 12:59
That is not what she said. She said that there was definitely Russian interference in our election, but that it was motivated by financial gain, not political gain.

The difference between a kleptocracy and a dictatorship may be real, but the effect is the same. So as far as the outcome of the relationship goes, there isn't any difference.
+7 # BetaTheta 2019-02-04 17:44
Rodion has very selective perception of the problem. Most of the world is run like a mafia operation, and that includes Putin's Russia as well as the U.S. Globalization of commerce and finance in our techno age of instant transactions has been a great boon to crime and oligarchy.

Does he not think that Russian institutions are every bit as corrupt as Wall Street and the capitals of Third World countries?

There is little chance that Putin will "retire." He will not leave office unless he is absolutely sure he is protected, as in the deal he himself cut with Yeltsin.
+9 # Farafalla 2019-02-04 17:49
So authoritarianis m is a cultural thing. Funny you would call silly what seems to be a very useful optic on Trump and Putin. But your mission is to split the left in the US and grease the skids for Trump’s re-election. Keep it up troll.
+5 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-02-05 16:10
FF -- "But your mission is to split the left in the US and grease the skids for Trump’s re-election."

I have no idea where you got this false idea. Maybe you are reading too much of the Mueller conspiracy.

Authoritarianis m runs deep in Russian culture, as does the desire for democratic socialism. Monarchy only ended in Russia in 1917 and many people were not happy about that. Just last year, the Russian Orthodox Chruch held a huge memorial for the 100 year of the murder of the Czar, and they claimed that the Czar was still the only legitimate, god appointed government of Russia.

Maybe as many as 15% of Russian believe this. Here's a clip between two Russian orthodox clerics on the sugject --


Brother Nathanael: Why is the idea of the monarchy important to us who are members of the Russian Orthodox Church?

Archbishop Gabriel: We cannot forget who we are, either in the Fatherland or abroad.
While the memory of Holy Orthodox Rus and the Russian Tsars was burned out of the people by the Bolsheviks, those in the diaspora never forgot the divinely-appoin ted monarchy.

Brother Nathanael: How so?

Archbishop Gabriel: The monarchist ideal, the rejection of which led to the February Revolution, then to the October Revolution of 1917, did not fade away in the diaspora."

Both of these guys live in the US and write about and dream about returning to Russia with a restored Czar.

Yes, it is a cultural thing. The US does not have this.
0 # BKnowswhitt 2019-02-05 14:25
I don't sell this angle out .. monetitary henchmen .. Russia is just getting it's legs back after what communism did to it .. usa had similar behaviour in the past century with mafia subculture .. it comes down to corruption by money to man .. our political system is also beholden to the very same forces ..
+23 # Anne Frank 2019-02-04 15:21
The mafia that runs the United States is also known as the "deep state." Its purpose is to channel the wealth of the United States to the neoconservative bosses.
+1 # BKnowswhitt 2019-02-07 15:37
Name who and when .. give us an example instead pf this kind of accusation and speculation .. who are these Neo's for example .. specifically name a few .. and in what way is their position a Boss .. etc .. and who manipulates it behind the scenes to our detriment .. other than OPINION .. which is what you are saying in my view .. go ahead prove me wrong ..
+33 # HenryS1 2019-02-04 15:35
Very interesting read. The premise holds together well enough, but I think you do need to understand Russia better to have an educated opinion. And I don't.

What particularly makes sense is that the whole history does act to make Putin look strong and powerful as an individual. But the benefits to the Russian government that we know about are more spotty.

When all is said and done, though, Pelosi's question as to what Russia has on Trump is still a compelling question.
-1 # carytucker 2019-02-05 07:36
It's a relief to find a journalist good at his trade who hasn't yet been bought. Mr Trump is a second tier performer in the Kremlin kleptocracy. His unfitness--lazy habits, overindulgence, lack of acuity or curiosity--for the Presidency makes him a useful asset for the thieves and extortionists both here and abroad.
Masha Gessen has the proper framework for the story. His presence at the New Yorker and, I think, the New York Review of Books gives him a decent chance to survive the Kremlin goon squads.
+1 # pushingforpeace 2019-02-04 15:40
Liberal neo-cons are desperately trying to posit the Russia meddling story, told to manipulate the corporate DNC back into the WH,and deflect from their own meddling and manipulation of the media. And though it's true that Trump aspires to be an authentic oligarch, like Putin or Kim Jong-Un, who run their countries like Mafia dons (as opposed to liberals who use more subtle forms of persuasion and lying for self-enrichment ), they all need to be retired into the dust-bowl of a sad history.
+4 # rxfxworld 2019-02-04 15:51
Why would the troll who calls himself Rodion Raskolnikov choose to name himself after a murderer, albeit fictional. Could it be because that murderer rationalized his misdeeds as elitist entitlement? Why would I believe anything such a person says? especially above what Masha Gessen who has a National Book Award for The Future is History.
+1 # bevin 2019-02-04 15:55
In order for this theory to hold up long enough to be worth analysing one has to believe that Julian Assange is a member of a criminal conspiracy involving Yanukovych, Mifsud, Pappadopoulous etc.
Of this there is no evidence of any kind and every indication that it is, to put it charitably, extremely unlikely.
I am surprised that Masha doesn't know that people who betray their countries for money don't end up seeking refuge in south American embassies.
Assange is the real thing, Masha is a mercenary.
+4 # Woody41 2019-02-04 16:04
Gessen's main problem is she doesn't have an understanding of the USA as deep as her knowledge of Russia.

Look at the US and those it pulls in its money/millitary wake going after Venezuela. Does any sane or honest person believe (despite the blather in news organs like NPR, CNN, BBC and the usual journalistic suspects) that the US is concerned about the level of democracy in Venezuela?

She is right, however, about the inconsequential maneuverings of Russians and the process of the 2016 US presidential elections. All the yakking and breast-beating about "Russian collusion" is a red herring designed to distract attention from the goal of curbing independent news reporting from anti-war and anti-monopoly points of view.
+4 # HarryP 2019-02-04 16:19
Gessen got much of the story wrong.
It was not a question of Veselnitskaya having “dirt to offer” on Clinton. Shewas sent to New York by the Russian procurator general to sound out the Trump campaign. To which Don Jr. replied, “I love it.”
What Russian liberals have to say about all this is hardly relevant. I wish Gessen had considered, even for a moment, what Mueller wrote in his indictments. Mueller hardly described the IRA’s activities as “small-time and ridiculous.” He aptly pointed out it was in violation of US federal law, a violation Don Jr. loved so much - and thus wanted covered up.
Gessen’s conclusion: Nothing here to see but of Russian bunch of crooks and frauds. (Its that characterizatio n that drives Rodion crazy. Rodion prefers to see it as a democracy.)
Gessen is also wrong to say that the US media portrays “Russia as a normal state.” I’ve yet to see that, not even (as she puts it) “implicitly.”
And Gessen is certainly wrong saying that Trump hasn’t given the Russian state anything of value. He seeks (but has been unable) to lift sanctions, the be-all and end-all for the Putin regime. And that’s the tip of the iceberg.
-3 # 2019-02-04 16:25
Gessen is making some valid points about the (in)abilities of the Russian state -- from what I've seen of the Russian ham-handed attempts to introduce chaos into our elections, I cannot imagine any voter having actually been influenced. Too many progressives are buying into the nonsense -- naivete? paranoia? denial? who knows?

Focussing on what Trump is actually doing and criticizing his policies is where progressives can make the most productive and lasting impact instead of being diverted by psychologically soothing conspiracy theories.

Lee Nason
New Bedford, Massachusetts
0 # HarryP 2019-02-04 16:49
Gessen agrees with Russian liberals who laugh uproariously at the idea that their government has the means to “mount a sophisticated sabotage effort.”
But it didn’t take much. All it took was a handful of people - and little money - to pull it off.
It is reminiscent of other miscalculations about ostensible Russian incapabilities. Hitler thought he’d send a tank column into Russia and the whole hous would tumble down. Truman thought the Russians could never build an atomic bomb and then they did so four years after the US and then build the first ICBM (all without Werner von Braun, after they sent their German scientist back home.)
To deny Russiagate on the basis of the notion that the Russian government consists of a bunch of stumble bums makes little sense.
+2 # dotlady 2019-02-04 17:13
Gessen gets closer to the truth than most things I've read. The states function in the outlines of how we remember thinking about states, but at the same time, in a new geography based on the criminal clan mind. Putin gets pressure from his minions if he doesn't keep their lines to profits open and work to get rid of the sanctions. Likewise Trump must work to erase costly regulations and health measure so his profiteers can get fullest profit. Both criminal enterprises with nary a thought of public good. Pigs at troughs.
0 # lfeuille 2019-02-04 18:39
I agree with a lot of this, but I think she is crediting Putin with more power than he actually has by equating him with a Mafia boss. The Russian Mafia does have a lot a power over the gov't since the free-for-all '90's. But I don't really think Putin is the "boss". It's more like the Mafia curtails his power.
+5 # dascher 2019-02-04 18:57
Putin bet on wild long shot in Trump. Trump saw Putin as one of his 'angels' as in "The Producers". After the shock of winning the election, Trump has been completely at sea. He doesn't know which way to turn. He resists the establishment narrative of Russian invading Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Putin's circle. On the other hand, he has pulled out of the Treaty on Intermediate-Ra nge Nuclear Weapons accusing Russia of cheating but without talking to Putin - with whom, he tells us, he has a "close, wonderful" relationship.

Bottom line is that Trump is a madman and an idiot who stumbled into the White House more because of the cooperation of the US Press - and to an extent that of Hillary Clinton - with his well documented stupidity, ignorance, egomania, incompetence, and flouting of normal social behavior. Putin will be lucky - as we will - if Trump doesn't decide to blow us all up.
+1 # Inspired Citizen 2019-02-04 20:10
I don't trust this perspective. "Most of what Trump has given the Russian state has come through inaction: he has barely reacted to continued Russian aggression in Ukraine" is BS. Trump supplied heavy weapons to Ukraine, something Obama would not do.

I would argue both governments have mafia-like characteristics (Trump, not the Deep State). Both sides are corrupt oligarchies. Both sides are dishonest about what really happened w/r/t Russiagate.

Oligarchs and their media allies "are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in." Caitlin Johnstone is waging an exquisite war against plutocratic narratives including excellent advice.

Very few people fully understand what actually went down in terms of Russian attempts to influence outcome of election. I understand why they would have preferred Trump over Clinton. If Putin directed this, it's payback for 1998 and US helping Yeltsin. If not, something like a Russian mafia helped Trump get elected and hid that information from Assange who I trust and who insists Russians did not supply the emails.

For what it's worth, I think Russians hacked Podesta, and the DNC server files were leaked: a perfect storm to undermine Hillary Clinton's quest for power. On world stage, we ended up with Pres. Hillary Trump, Inc.
+2 # janie1893 2019-02-05 01:53
I'll wait to see what Mueller has to say.
+8 # they said what? 2019-02-05 11:29
Doesn't it amount to the same thing, though? Whether it's a brilliant mastermind plan to wreck American democracy or a business move, the people of both countries get screwed to benefit the businesses of the bosses?
+4 # Texas Aggie 2019-02-05 13:05
The story is not that Putin is masterminding a vast and brilliant attack on Western democracy. The story, it appears, is that the Russian Mafia state is cultivating profit-yielding relationships with the aspiring Mafia boss of the U.S.

I fail to see any significant difference in the two statements. They both result in the same outcome and use the same tactics. The only difference is the motivation, but the results are the same.
+5 # lfeuille 2019-02-05 18:21
It's a matter of state action vs. private criminal action. Blaming everything on the gov't leads to renewed arms race which Bolton and Trump (despite his alleged favoritism toward Russia) want and wich could easily lead to a nuclear disaster. Emphasizing the Mafia could possibly lead to more world-wide cooperation against crime syndicates which steal from the public and interfere with governments ability to do things that benefit the people all over the world.
+4 # LionMousePudding 2019-02-06 12:53
Yes. My position since this began.


I hope Mueller has realized this as well. The only way to really take anyone down is economically. Economic crimes, and devastating economic consequences.

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