Commentary Magazine

Excellent Cadavers by Alexander Stille; Comrade Criminal by Stephen Handelman

The Black & the Red

Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic
by Alexander Stille
Pantheon. 467 pp. $27.50

Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya
by Stephen Handelman
Yale University Press. 398 pp. $27.50

For most of this century, one enduring piece of conventional political wisdom has been that “partnership” between business and government makes for socioeconomic well-being. Time and again, however, it has been forcibly brought home to us that such partnerships are fraught with perils, including especially the peril of corruption.

In the United States, for example, well-connected individuals have recently walked away with billions of taxpayer dollars in the savings-and-loan debacle, and now the complex Whitewater affair is slowly unfolding before our eyes. Abroad, in Europe both East and West, in Asia, in Africa—in fact, wherever governments wield extensive power over economic life—the abuse of high public office to serve private pecuniary ends is common. Both Alexander Stille and Stephen Handelman provide vivid illustrations of the phenomenon at work in two countries where it is especially severe.



Stille’s Excellent Cadavers promises to examine the connection between organized crime and the dramatic upheavals currently rocking the political system of Italy. But Stille, who is also the author of a well-received book on Fascism and Italian Jewry, Benevolence and Betrayal, 1 actually focuses here on a narrower tale: the exploits of two heroic Sicilian prosecutors tracking the misdeeds of Mafia families in various neighborhoods of Palermo, Sicily. Witness by witness, corpse by corpse, Stille documents how the Mafia and its shadowy political protectors stymied the two investigators, isolated them, left them defenseless, and made martyrs of them in the end.

The Mafia emerges from Stille’s portrait as essentially a band of small-time crooks who, though they can hardly speak anything but the local dialect, have nevertheless gradually managed to spread their web across Italy and beyond. But now this organization has fallen into difficulties. Stille attributes its current troubles to the activities of an especially violent family from the village of Corleone (of Godfather fame) that took over during the 1980’s and destroyed the Mafia’s cohesiveness. This in turn rendered the position of its political protectors in Rome untenable, and, despite the murder of the two investigators in Palermo, has enabled prosecutors to strike the biggest blows against it since the time of Mussolini.

The story recounted in Excellent Cadavers is grippingly told, but as an analysis of what is going on in Italy it falls short on several counts. For one thing, though Stille hints that the mob’s power and wealth were built on ties with the Italian government, he focuses most heavily on its drug operations, which he suggests were its primary source of revenues. But the Mafia flourished less through control of the narcotics trade or other illegal rackets than through its thorough penetration of local government in Sicily and its ability to deliver votes to allies in Rome.

In the years after World War II, the Italian government attempted to aid impoverished Southern Italy by channeling hundreds of billions of dollars in public works and industrial subsidies to the region. The Mafia became, not accidentally, the chief broker of a financial bonanza. Mastery of the levers of public administration—which brought under the Mafia’s thumb not only the lucrative construction business but health, welfare, and pension funds as well—yielded far more wealth than drugs could ever have generated, and far more power in Southern Italy than any number of sawed-off shotguns could confer.

Another shortcoming in Stille’s account derives from his focus on Sicily, which diverts him from developments in the richer and more important North. While government officials in league with the Mafia in Southern Italy have made millions killing hundreds, politicians and their “business” friends in Northern Italy have fed at the trough of the world’s fourth-largest economy. Their success at looting Italy’s wealth should make even Mafia godfathers blush.

Every regulation, every government program decreed by Rome has afforded some official the opportunity to take a cut and nurture his entourage. Billions of Italian taxpayer dollars have been illicitly drained into private hands from things like hospital construction, the Milan subway system, and foreign-assistance contracts. Until recently, Italy’s political parties benefited from these financial diversions in a precise mathematical ratio: four parts for the Christian Democrats, three for the Communists, two for the Socialists, and one part split among the minor parties.

As soon as the danger passed that the Italian Communist party might profit from the turmoil, long-simmering resentment against these arrangements sparked a revolt against Italy’s elite. Voters in recent years have replaced four-fifths of the parliament, and the Italian people have cheered as some 3,000 of their former leaders have been indicted, put in handcuffs, convicted, and locked in jail. It is still too soon to say whether the Italian electorate will succeed in its struggle either to sever the tentacles of the Mafia or to cut the bloated public sector from which many parasites regally feed, but the upheaval in Italian politics today suggests that the country has a fighting chance.



Though Italians can take little comfort from the fact, their problems with corruption and organized crime look positively mild when compared with the depredations to the East. As we learn from Comrade Criminal by Stephen Handelman, a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, the post-Communist order in Russia is more thoroughly Sicilianized than Sicily ever was.

Of course the story of today’s Russia is not a simple one. Clearly Communism’s dilapidated totalitarian machinery has been shattered and cast off, and civil society has come to life with remarkable speed. One hundred flowers along with many weeds have spontaneously bloomed. Of those weeds, however, one of the most toxic is organized crime, which has done much to stifle the flourishing of healthy institutions on Russian soil.

The Russian mafiya includes managers of businesses, the officials who supply them with a claim to legality, and the enforcers who make claims stick. The last-named are sometimes units of Russia’s various police forces, and sometimes criminals; in practice the distinction fades. Businessmen who report shakedowns to the authorities often face the danger of reprisals from extortionists and authorities alike.

Unfortunately, the kind of pervasive lawlessness Handelman describes has a long tradition in Russia, a tradition which, if anything, was accentuated by seven decades of Communist rule. While the Communist political system cloaked itself in egalitarian slogans, existence under it became an endless and often violent quest for government-granted privilege. Those at the pinnacle lived, in the words of one of Handelman’s interviewees, as “gods and czars.” Below the top were the tolkachi, or expediters, who made the unworkable system of central planning function by arranging payoffs for transactions of every kind.

While in theory all property belonged to the working class, in practice goods flowed to those most adept at maneuvering through central planning’s arcane rules, and such types tended to run in packs. During the regime’s last years, these self-interested factions, under the guise of “privatization,” transferred to themselves formal ownership of most of the property they had controlled all along, thus setting the stage for the massive corruption that Handelman recounts.

As in the past, so today, Handelman shows, there is no strict line separating many Russian officials from the very lawbreakers whom they are ostensibly charged with stamping out. The two groups, the police and the gangsters, often come together in heterogeneous criminal enterprises, and are constantly making and breaking deals with one another as they attempt to divide and redivide Russia’s vast riches and turf.



The historical circumstances that have brought Italy and Russia to their doleful encounter with corruption and organized crime are unique. Nevertheless, one clear lesson looms large: in countries where political and economic power are insufficiently distinct, the road from patronage to petty malfeasance to full-fledged Mafia is well-trodden and all-too-short. Rule by impartial laws impartially administered is a rare and fragile historical achievement, one which the relentless expansion of government in our century has done a great deal to undermine. “Miserable is the people whose sovereign is in business,” Montesquieu once wrote. With all their differences, Italy and Russia offer two sad examples of that hard truth.


1 Reviewed in COMMENTARY by Edward Alexander, May 1992.

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