From Stalin’s camps to Putin’s laws How ‘the Russian mafia’ came to be
On February 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced a bill into the State Duma that aims to combat the country’s unofficial criminal hierarchy. Among other measures, the proposal includes new penalties for those who are known in Russia as vory v zakone (VOR-ee v za-KON-ye), a term for powerful organized criminals that translates literally as “thieves in the law.” Putin’s bill describes them as “individuals who hold a high rank in the criminal hierarchy.” The proposal would also penalize participation in “gatherings of organizers, leaders, or other representatives of criminal organizations,” more commonly known as skhodki in the criminal community. Under the new bill, “criminal authorities” deemed to be the direct leaders of a group of organized lawbreakers could face a life sentence.
Most Russians have likely heard a variety of legends about the criminal hierarchy in that country, but even they may have difficulty telling fact from fiction in those tales. Meduza asked journalist Tatiana Zverintseva, who worked on the organized crime beat for many years, to answer a few basic questions.
How and when did vory v zakone first appear?
There is no definite answer to this question, but it is widely believed that the phrase first came into use in Soviet prisons during the Stalinist 1930s. Convicts who associated themselves with the term saw themselves as the guardians of pre-Revolutionary criminal traditions (or “understandings,” as they are often called), and they despised the Soviet regime. In those criminal circles, the idea of a “law” began to circulate, and that “law” dictated that “real” criminals would never collaborate with the government in any capacity. Of course, that idea most directly concerned collaboration with law enforcement officials, but it did not stop there: vory were prohibited from holding a legal job, serving in the army, and even getting married.
During World War II, a heated debate arose among Soviet organized criminals: would it be permissible for them to enlist, thereby essentially agreeing to work with legal authorities? Those who left for war were termed “bitches” in criminal circles, while those who stayed behind called themselves “legalists.” When the former group began returning from the front and attempting to regain authority, the so-called “bitches’ war” broke out in the Soviet Union’s prison camps. That conflict practically destroyed all that remained of the pre-Revolutionary criminal world.
Nonetheless, the “understandings” and the informal hierarchy of that world continued to exist. The ranks within that structure included opushchennye (“the fallen), the lowest caste, typically considered untouchable; muzhiki, or muzhiks, who were imprisoned but did not consider themselves part of the organized criminal world; blatnye (rogues or cronies) who were dedicated to criminal “understandings”; avtoritety (authorities) who led them; and, finally, the highest caste: vory v zakone. That status could be accorded only to those who had earned the approval of existing vory, and it was awarded in a special “coronation.” Vory would then divide various geographic spheres of influence among themselves.
Russia’s so-called “wild 90s,” however, sent that system reeling. Waves of desperate newcomers flooded the criminal world; many of them were athletes who did not find it necessary to limit themselves to the accepted “understandings.” Already established criminal circles came to call these young men bespredelshchiki, a term that stems from the Russian word for lawlessness or mayhem. Many of these younger criminals were killed in ongoing rounds of internal conflict called “demolitions.” Those who survived either agreed to adopt the rules that had developed in the criminal world over so many decades or underwent a successful “career rise,” meaning that they managed to enter the world of state-approved laws and become businessmen or government officials.
Do vory v zakone really have to reveal who they are no matter who asks them, even if the person asking is a police officer?
Experts can argue for hours about such things because the notorious “vor’s codex” does not exist in the form of a full-fledged legal document. Nonetheless, in principle, a vor v zakone is not supposed to reveal anything to police because even speaking with a police officer can be considered a forbidden form of cooperation with legal authorities. The only acceptable answer is scornful silence. That said, the silence itself usually provides police officers with a clear sign of who they are dealing with. In addition, no vor can openly deny his status under any conditions under penalty of losing that status entirely. These unofficial guidelines explain the existence of a mass of videos on the Internet in which police officers force those they have arrested to answer the question “are you a vor v zakone?” on camera.
Criminal tattoos also play a significant role in interactions between vory and the police. A vor who imprints recognizable criminal symbols into his skin essentially forces himself to reveal his status openly regardless of the situation. In any case, if a vor’s interaction with authorities inspires controversy, the matter is typically decided not so much by a set of abstract rules as by the opinions of other criminal leaders.
Is there only one hierarchy, or are there various vory v zakone who don’t recognize one another’s status? Is it possible for impostors to claim to be vory?
In the Russian criminal world, as in any unofficial community, there is no centralized authority and no consensus on many questions that involve the group. Yes, one vor may certainly deny the status of another either due to the facts of the latter’s situation or due to personal dislike. Whether a vor keeps that opinion to himself or takes the risk of expressing it aloud depends on the situation. A vor can lose his status if a special skhodka, or gathering, of other vory approves that decision. However, a “decoronated” crime boss can refuse to recognize such a move and continue operating in parallel to his former allies, leaning instead on gangs that are more friendly toward him.
Often, the deciding role in conflicts like these falls to widely recognized leaders in the criminal world like the late Vyacheslav Ivankov (known as “Yaponchik,” a racial slur targeting Japanese people) or Aslan Usoyan (known as “Grandpa Hassan”). However, such figures tend to be in no hurry to make their opinions known in the case of every single third-tier criminal leader who comes under fire.
There are times, however, when no such widely authoritative figures exist. For example, no broadly recognized “heir” to Usoyan, who was killed in 2013, has yet appeared in the post-Soviet sphere (although media outlets regularly report on multiple contenders for that role). After all, it is not the official title of a vor that matters in such a case but the amount of authority that person has amassed over many years of criminal activity. Only when the name of a vor becomes widely known outside criminal circles and his influence reaches beyond all imaginable limits can journalists begin to speak of a new criminal “king.”
As for impostors, organized crime in Russia is a small and self-enclosed world. The title of vor v zakone always implies at least some degree of notoriety within that world. Any potential impostor would have to lie at the very least about which already existing vory had participated in his coronation. It is doubtful that those vory would not hear about those claims and take measures against the person who spread them. Communication systems in the Russian criminal world worked smoothly even before it was possible to dream of the Internet or mobile phones. That was especially true within jails and prison camps themselves. So-called “kites” and “passes,” or covert messages, were relayed by word of mouth, and anyone could learn whatever information they needed through that informal system. And that was then — today, entire online outlets are dedicated solely to the Russian criminal world.
All that said, every rule has its exceptions. At the end of the Soviet era, a certain Leonid Svinukhov (known as Lenchik Tryasi-Bashka, or Lenchik Shake-Your-Noggin), began rising to fame. Svinukhov openly called himself a vor v zakone on multiple occasions and bounced among various corrective facilities. He ended up in a cell with several actual vory only in 1992. There, he was severely beaten, and he ultimately made an official request to be transferred to a different prison colony. Svinukhov then continued to keep his mystification alive: he took on a different nickname, “The Lemon,” and kept introducing himself as a vor v zakone. He was once again exposed and beaten, but he ultimately died of natural causes in 2011 at the age of 67. Some believe The Lemon really did earn a top criminal status and was only beaten in 1992 when a group of vory simply refused to recognize it.
If vory v zakone are so famous, then why don’t they just get put in prison?
The answer is that there is no official legal reason to imprison them. In Russia, as in many places, a person can only be legally imprisoned if that person is charged under a particular law. In Russia, the relevant system of laws is called the Criminal Codex, and it currently does not include a measure that penalizes holding the status of vor v zakone as opposed to committing a specific crime. This is the gap Vladimir Putin’s proposal aims to fill.
Whether or not the new measure would help combat organized crime in Russia is unknown. On one hand, vory v zakone would lose their ability to remain formally innocent before law enforcement officials even if they reveal their status. In addition, the decades-long underground conflict between legal authorities and organized criminals, which has so far taken place outside the bounds of the law, might become more official and transparent.
That said, the new proposal raises a number of questions. For example, how will the “high rank in the criminal hierarchy” mentioned in Putin’s bill be defined? Will that definition fall to the will of the investigators in any given case? If so, the bill’s enforcement would be dictated not only by a desire to combat organized crime but also by potentially personal or political motives. Alternatively, would law enforcement agencies recognize the vory’s coronation as a kind of legitimate procedure? But then how can it be a legitimate process if it is neither defined by law nor accompanied by official documents or the formulation of a printed registry that could provide evidence of one’s membership in a criminal group?
Most importantly, the government can combat individual representatives of organized crime in Russia, but the country’s organized criminal system will be nearly impossible to suppress. Throughout its history, that system has demonstrated a capacity to renew itself even after seemingly irreversible downturns.
Beyond that, many experts believe newcomers who resist the control of the older criminal generation may quickly become more dangerous than the “veterans.” When the first Kyrgyz vor v zakone, Kamchi Kolbaev (“Kolya the Kyrgyz”), was “crowned” in 2006, Kyrgyz Internal Affairs Minister Murat Sutalinov greeted that development with open arms. He said that “the [Kyrgyz] republic’s criminal world is undergoing a form of stabilization — there will be fewer bespredelshchiki and scumbags.”
Then again, why put vory v zakone in prison? Don’t they feel at home there?
Yes, vory v zakone are entirely at home in prison. The prison environment accords them an unusual degree of authority, and they consider every sentence a notch in the belt of their careers. Since the Soviet era, officials have attempted to solve that problem by creating so-called “red zones” in prison camps where prison administrators and official laws would hold sway. “Black zones,” on the other hand, continued to operate according to criminal “understandings.” Naturally, organized criminals remain strictly opposed to such a system, and resisting their wishes forces officials to one-up their cruelty. Neither the concept of human rights nor any other contemporary ethical norm plays any role in the conflicts that result, and those conflicts never end well. Today, only very few real “red zones” exist. Most of them have become special holding areas for former law enforcement officers who are convicted of crimes and whose lives in the “black zone” would be particularly miserable.
Are vory v zakone always thieves? Can a murderer or a rapist be “crowned”?
At first, in the 1930s, a variety of respected criminal “professions” could give a thief a chance to enter the criminal elite, which then included home robbers, commercial thieves, and safebreakers. The classical “understandings” in all their abstract strictness dictate that a vor can kill only to save his own life or to defend the honor of the laws of the vory, and in the latter case, it is often more widely accepted to call a skhodka than to carry out a unilateral execution. Rape is considered a crime that contradicts the “understandings” absolutely and automatically lowers the perpetrator to the very bottom of the criminal hierarchy (although, again, that principle does not always operate uniformly in practice).
From the outside, these principles may seem illogical. After all, a murderer may appear to be a more formidable criminal than a thief and therefore more likely to hold a higher status in the organized criminal world. Nonetheless, that kind of logic operates only among the above-mentioned younger bespredelshchiki. The older, classical criminal world is defined not by its bloodthirstiness but by its urge to gain material wealth without complying with the laws and norms of the society that creates that wealth. One could even say that criminal leaders are not so interested in wealth as they are in gaining power and status while remaining entirely independent from the mechanisms that typically confer power and status in Russian society. This is why crimes related to property and property law form the foundation of the Russian criminal world.
The list of accepted criminal professions has, of course, changed drastically in the last several decades along with a changing global economy. Now, a criminal operative can not only break into safes; organized criminals can lead massive financial schemes, steal cars, raid buildings, deal in contraband, engage in money laundering, or become an arms dealer or drug dealer. Present-day vory have become much more tolerant of economic mechanisms than their predecessors. A new system of “buyouts” gained popularity and inspired controversy in the 1980s and 1990s: it allowed organized criminals to purchase titles by donating large sums of money to a shared financial pool. Some reports indicate that criminals can now answer for breaking unwritten rules or “setting up” their peers by paying a fine rather than receiving a corporal punishment. Some vory have even begun presenting themselves to authorities as businessmen, and those thieves do not shy away from receiving some form of legal status.
Do vory v zakone only exist in post-Soviet countries, or do they exist all over the world?
The title of vor v zakone and all its associated nuances were an invention of the Soviet prison camps of the 1930s. As a result, the specific traditions that are still attached to that title today exist only in the criminal underground of the post-Soviet world. That said, post-Soviet criminal figures can live and pursue their illegal careers from within the borders of any country.
The first representatives of the “Russian mafia” abroad were so-called antikvarshchiki, illegal antique traders who made their way into Western countries well before the thaw of Perestroika. In the 1970s and 1980s, Jews were permitted to emigrate from the USSR, and not all of those emigres were inclined to follow the law. As a result, the Russian Jews Yevsei Agron and Marat Balagula became the forefathers of the so-called “Russian mafia” in the United States. Later on, after the collapse of the USSR, the post-Soviet mafia practically gushed outside its former boundaries with the label “Russian” clinging stubbornly to it all the way.
Like all members of ethnically specific gangs, “Russian” émigré thieves tend not to be accepted smoothly into the criminal cultures of the countries to which they move. Even if a high-ranking Russian vor v zakone were to land in a Western prison, the other convicts housed there would be unlikely to adopt any of that convict’s traditions. Instead, they would most likely remain attached to their own criminal codes.
Where do vory v zakone get their nicknames? Do they make them up themselves?
Historically, nicknames were often awarded in a special ceremony during which a new member was accepted into the criminal brotherhood. For example, in the Soviet era, a new criminal would walk into a cell and say, “Old lady prison, give me a handle,” at which point more senior gang members would give him a set of names from which to choose. As a rule, organized criminals are forbidden from creating their own nicknames. However, as in every aspect of this unstable world, one can never speak of a single, universal tradition.
The “handles” offered to a new inductee may speak to a thief’s high status or command respect (“Prince,” “Baron”), or they may indicate the ethnicity or birthplace of the criminal in question (“Chechen,” “Ryazansky”). Alternatively, they can point to some aspect of the inductee’s appearance or behavior (“Nose,” “Sparrow”). Some nicknames can simply be shortened versions of their bearer’s surname (“Kirpich,” or “brick,” from the name Kirpichev, for example). On certain rare occasions, the criminals who create new nicknames seem to land on a penchant for creativity and complex associations. For example, the criminal authority Pavel Struganov received the nickname “Pasha Tsvetomusyka,” or “Pasha Colormusic,” due to his habit of batting his eyes.
Nicknames carry important meanings in Russia’s criminal community because they further distance criminals from the legal world they reject, where people identify them by the surnames issued on passports and other official government documents. A nickname may also stem in part from specific events in its bearer’s career — events of the sort that tend to inspire a sense of pride in the criminal world.
Translation by Hilah Kohen