Francis Kirk

Perestrelka: surviving the crime boom in southern Ukraine, 1985-2000

Motorrad mit Beiwagen, St. Petersburg 1993
image credits

Motorrad mit Beiwagen, St. Petersburg 1993 Photo Francis Kirk, Foto Katharina Kucher CC BY-SA 3.0

Among the grassroots social forces that drove change at the end of the Soviet Union, the importance of criminality, both in its own right and as a catalyst for wider upheaval, cannot be overstated. Organised criminal bands were among the largest winners of perestroika, accruing enormous amounts of capital and political influence from the ruins of the Soviet state that remain to the present. The blood-soaked moonshot undertaken by previously-marginal elements of society is well-known, the subject of pop culture and crude stereotypes.

However, very little attention has been paid to these groups in a wider social context. Crime was not just the product of an economic or political vacuum but was baked into social and cultural processes during the last years of Soviet rule.

Moreover, the boundaries between the non-criminal, criminal and organised criminal worlds were fluid. The crime boom had profound and under-studied effects on how ordinary citizens went about their lives. Furthermore, while significant focus has been given to national and international level crime, its effects on local communities have received less attention. Now that journalists and political scientists have moved on from the scene, an historical reassessment is due.


The project examines the grassroots social composition of the perestoika-era crime boom in two Ukrainian cities, paying particular attention to its effects on society, identity and politics. It hopes to investigate both the immense damage that criminalisation caused and the role it played in creating social order during a period of state collapse. Using oral testimony and archive research to create in-depth case studies of Odesa and Kryvyi Rih, supported by broader primary and secondary research, it hopes to yield insights that will advance our understanding of modern Ukraine, organised crime as a social phenomenon, and the USSR's twilight years as viewed from below.

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