Drug Trafficking and Related Organized Crime in Russia

The present study was carried out on behalf of the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNODCCP). It is a part of the larger project “Immediate Technical Assistance on the Control and Prevention of Drugs and Related Organised Crime in the Russian Federation”, which was launched by the UNODCCP early in 1999.
Project category: Expert opinion
Organisational status: Departmental project
Project time frame: Beginning of project: 1999
End of project: 2001
Status of Project: completed

Head(s) of project

  • Prof. Dr. Letizia Paoli
  • Eliko Ciklauri (Freiburg); Jacov Gilinskiy, Yakov Kostjukovski and Maya Rusakova (Institute for Sociology, Russian Academy of Sciences); Irina Korobko (Freiburg); Ljudmila Majorowa (University of Krasnoyarsk); Ljudmila Obidina (University of Nizhniy Novgorod) and other external researchers

To reconstruct the evolution of illegal drug consumption and trade in Russia, a research team was set up under the leadership of Dr. Letizia Paoli, which was composed of the following researchers: Dr. Siegfried Lammich (MPI, Freiburg) and Dr. Eliko Ciklauri (Freiburg and Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia); the staff of the Research Institute of the Prosecutor General's Office (Moscow); Prof. Dr. Yacov Gilinsky, Yakov Kostukovsky, and Maya Rusakova (Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg branch); Prof. Dr. Ludmila Obidina (University of Nizhniy Novgorod); and Dr. Ludmila Maiorova (University of Krasnoyarsk). Smaller contributions were also provided by: Sergej Poliatikin from NAN (No to Alcoholism and Drugs, Moscow), Sergej Saukhat from Anti-AIDS South (Rostov-on-Don), Ludmila Markoryan and Gennadiy Rakitsky from the Balakovo and Khabarovsk sections of NAN, and Yelena Zavadskaya from the Vladivostok AIDS-Centre.

Ever since the study began in October 1999, the MPI research team has applied a variety of research methods, drawing information from a plurality of primary and secondary sources. 90 in-depth interviews with key observers (law enforcement officials, drug-treatment providers, members of relevant NGOs, and journalists) in different parts of the Russian Federation were carried out, as well as 30 in-depth interviews with drug users in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Additionally, the research team analysed 50 judicial sentences, as well as all the relevant statistics, the Russian and international secondary literature, and articles published on the topic in the Russian press.

Besides collecting nationwide data, field research work was conducted in several Russian cities and regions where the members of the research teams were settled: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhniy Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don, Balakovo, the Republic of North Ossetia-Alanja, Krasnoyarsk, Khabarovosk, and Vladivostok.

The final report, written by Letizia Paoli, was submitted to the UNODCCP in late 2000. In the beginning of 2001, it was published as a book in both English and in Russian under the authorship of Letizia Paoli. The report constitutes the first large-scale empirical analysis of illegal drug trade in post-Soviet Russia, and it has largely confirmed the hypotheses which led the UNODCCP to launch the project of immediate technical assistance.

Main Findings:

Today, Russia is a country in which a variety of illegal drugs are produced, transited to final markets in Western Europe, and consumed by a growing number of young people. The former USSR did not participate significantly in the international narcotics markets as a consumer or supplier of illicit substances. This pattern of relative self-sufficiency, however, drastically changed during the 1990s, at the same time as Russian drug demand consistently expanded and diversified.

Even though large drug quantities merely transit through Russian territory to reach final consumers in Western Europe, the domestic market absorbs today a growing and overwhelming portion of the illegal drugs that are produced, smuggled and sold in the country. In fact, in the 1990s, a rapid growth of illegal drug use was registered in Russia. Since 1990, the number of registered drug users has increased by almost 400 percent, and in 1999, 359,067 drug users were registered in state drug-treatment centres. According to most experts, however, the true number of drug users is eight to ten times that figure. The Russian Ministry of the Interior estimates that 2.5-3 million people regularly or occasionally use illegal drugs in the Russian Federation, representing 2.1 percent of the whole population.

In absolute values, this figure is not staggering. What is really impressive, is the explosion of injecting drug use and, specifically, of heroin consumption. The latter substance became available in Moscow and other Russian cities in the second half of the 1990s, and rapidly substituted the less powerful home-made opiates that were previously injected by Russian users. Today, heroin attracts not only intravenous drug addicts, but also teenagers of all social backgrounds. Six percent the of 15-16 year-olds interviewed in Moscow in 1999, admitted to having used heroin at least once in their lives. In none of the 21 other countries involved in the survey did the lifetime prevalence rate exceed two percent. In the late 1990s, injecting use of heroin and other drugs has turned to be a formidable means of spreading HIV and AIDS.

Following the rapid increase of illegal drug use, the market itself has expanded in both its turnover and its geographic extension, so much that illegal drugs of some kind are available even in the most remote parts of the country. The drug supply, too, has diversified tremendously. In order to get 'high' or to forget their sorrows, drug users all over Russia are no longer obliged to rely on home-made products or derivatives of locally-grown plants. If they can afford it, they can easily buy the same illicit psychoactive drugs that can be found in any Western European or North American city, and which are imported from countries as far away as Colombia, Afghanistan and Holland.

Particularly rapid has been the spread of heroin, as the rapid multiplication of heroin seizures in different parts of the country shows. In 1996, the MVD seized heroin in 14 Russian regions; in 1997, this happened in 43 regions; in 1998, it were 67, and in 1999, heroin seizures were conducted in more than 70 different regions of the Russian Federation. Heroin largely comes from Afghanistan, the source of two thirds to three quarters of the global supply of illicit opiates in recent years. It is largely smuggled into Russia through the former Soviet Central Asian republics and, above all, Tajikistan. In the latter country, weakened by civil war and economic recession, many people have no choice but to deal illegal drugs in order to survive. According to reliable estimates, 35 percent of Tajikistan's gross domestic product comes from drug trafficking.

Through Tajikistan and the other CIS states, heroin is also increasingly smuggled into Eastern and Western Europe along the old 'Silk Road'. The International Narcotics Control Board estimates that up to 65 percent of opiates intended for export from Afghanistan, may pass through the porous Central Asian borders to Europe. In most cases, these heroin cargoes are also brought across Russia. Furthermore, Russia is increasingly used to transfer large amounts of cannabis products, originating from Southern CIS countries and Afghanistan, into Western Europe.

The expansion of the Russian drug consumption and trade during the 1990s, entailed the emergence of a nation-wide drug distribution system, which brings illicit drugs from producers to consumers, and the consolidation of the professional role of the drug dealer. This role did not exist in Russia up to the early 1990s, as much as it did in Western Europe and the USA up to the mid-1970s. In Soviet times, drug users largely consumed psychoactive substances that were available in their region, and often either harvested or produced the drugs themselves.

In most Russian cities, a multi-level drug distribution system has developed and today, users increasingly buy their drugs from the dealers, instead of cultivating or harvesting themselves. However, contrary to sensationalistic accounts, drug users' demands seem to be neither satisfied nor promoted by large, hierarchically-organised firms that monopolise local markets. It is understandable that professional and non-professional observers hypothesise the involvement of a powerful Mafia, to explain the sudden expansion of illegal drug consumption and trade in Russia. Nonetheless, neither the fieldwork nor the analysis of judicial sentences provide any backing for such a hypothesis. The phenomenal growth of drug use can rather be attributed to the 'invisible hand' of the market. Today, the local drug markets of Russian cities are largely supplied by a myriad of dealers who tend to operate alone or in small groups and often consume illegal drug themselves. In many cases, the dealers do not even possess previous criminal expertise and deal with illegal drugs to make a living or to supplement the meagre income they obtain from licit activities.

The retail and wholesale levels of the local drug distribution systems are often occupied by dealers belonging to ethnic minorities, most notably members of the Roma community, Caucasians, as well as Tajik and Afghan nationals. Nevertheless, although the members of some ethnic communities may be over-proportionally represented in the drug distribution system of many Russian cities, they are far from occupying it all. Illegal drugs are also produced and sold today by many people who cannot be easily classified by a precise scheme, because they belong to the mainstream Russian population.

The large criminal organisations that are presented as the dreadful 'Russian Mafia' by the domestic and foreign press, are at the moment apparently not interested in the drug business, though some of their younger affiliates may be dealing drugs. The extraordinary enrichment chances offered by the transition to a market economy explain, according to some interviewees, their lack of interest in drug trafficking. As a law enforcement officer put it, 'they have such huge opportunities to make money in the so-called legal economy, that it makes no sense for them to deal drugs'.

Despite the recent expansion and the increasing sophistication and professionalism of drug suppliers, the threat of the illegal drug trade should hence not be overemphasised. Rather, this contra legem activity should be matter-of-factly assessed within the larger context of Russia's economic and organised crime. Illegal drug trade, in fact, still represents a relatively small part of the booming Russian illegal and semi-legal economy, and it has not yet become the primary source of revenue for the galaxy of Russian organized crime. Although drug trafficking certainly has huge potential for growth, the largest fortunes in Russia are still collected in the wide 'grey area', where the distinctions between the legal and illegal economy are blurred.


United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNODCCP).

Lectures (selection):

  • Paoli, L.: "Drug Trafficking in Russia: A Case of Organised Crime?" Den Haag: High Level Expert Meeting on East European Organised Crime, Europol, 29.11.2001.
  • Paoli, L.: "Mafia = or | Organised Crime?" London: 1st European Conference on Drug Trafficking and Law Enforcement, 11.10.2001.
  • Paoli, L.: "The 'Invisible Hand of the Market': Illegal Drug Trade in Germany, Italy, and Russia", Venice: 12th Annual Conference of the European Society of Social Drug Research, 5.10.2001.
  • Paoli, L.: "Illegal Drug Trade in Russia: The Results of the UN Project", Moscow: RIA, 6.4.2001.

Publications (selection)

  • Paoli, L./Ciklauri-Lammich, E.: Politika rossii po protivodejstviy esakonnomy oboroty i sloypotrebleniy narkotikami ('The Russian Policy Against Drug Trafficking and Abuse'). In: Kriminologia v razvitii (Criminology in Development) (2002).
  • Paoli, L.: Javlaetsa li oborot narkotikov formoj organisovannoj prestypnosti? ('Is Drug Trafficking a Form of Organised Crime?'). In: Kriminologia v razvitii (Criminology in Development) (2002).
  • Paoli, L.: The Development of an Illegal Market: Drug Consumption and Trade in Post-Soviet Russia. In: British Journal of Criminology 1/42, 1-19 (2002).
  • Paoli, L.: The Price of Freedom: Illegal Drug Markets and Policies in Post-Soviet Russia. In: The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 1 (2002).
  • Paoli, L.: Rasvitie rinka nesakonnix narkotikov: potreblenie i torgovla v post-sovetskoj Rossii ('The Development of an Illegal Market: Drug Consumption and Trade in Post-Soviet Russia'). In: Kriminologia v razvitii (Criminology in Development) (2001).
  • Paoli, L.: Drug Trafficking in Russia: A Form of Organized Crime? In: Journal of Drug Issues 4/31, 1005-1034 (2001).
  • Paoli, L.: Arcipelago Droga. In: Narcomafie IX, 35-39 (2001).
  • A Research Project Commissioned by the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention. Kriminologische Forschungsberichte, Freiburg i. Br. 2001, 166 S.
    Paoli, L.: Illegal Drug Trade in Russia.
  • Paoli, L.: Nezakonnaja Torgovlja Narkotikami v Rossii. UNODCCP, Moscow 2001.
  • Paoli, L.: Illegal Drug Trade in Russia. Freiburg i. Br., Report Submitted to the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, 09/2000.
  • Paoli, L.: Illegal Drug Trade in Russia. A Research Project commissioned by the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention. research in brief | forschung aktuell no. 3, Freiburg i. Br. 2001, 21 p.
  • Last update: 16 July 2015
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