Thieves in Law and the Russian Mafia

In the last couple of decades, organized crime and Russia has had a reputation for goinghand in hand. Ever since the 1930s, an elite group of the Soviet underworld, known asThieves in Law (Vory v Zakone), has controlled the criminal activities in the country, andtoday they make up the leaders of the loosely affiliated organization known as the Russian Mafia. Here is a look at how these “thieves” came to power in Stalin’s Gulags and Russian prisons after World War 2, but also how the situation has changed since the collapse of theSoviet Union in 1991. 

Even though there were plenty of criminals in the days of the Tsar, the communist revolutionin 1917 would completely change the Russian underworld. Vladimir Lenin, and especiallyJosef Stalin were in charge of a totalitarian state that had no room for disobedience or peoplequestioning the authorities. Countless persons were executed in the 1930s, and millions ofcriminals and political prisoners were sent to Gulags and prisons, were they were forced to work under extremely harsh conditions. Inside these Soviet prisons, criminals uninterested in the marxist indoctrination of the communist party, decided to form their own society and set of rules. This criminal world had a strict sense of honor and rank, and the elite members were known as thieves by law or “Vory v Zakone”. A prisoner could only be crowned a “thief by law” if he was accepted and respected by other “vory”, and he would have to reject the laws of the outside world, instead submitting himself completely to live by the criminal code.

A “vor” was not allowed to have any family, he couldn’t “snitch” on other thieves, and he was also prohibited from having any legal income. One of the most important aspects of the“Vorovskoy Zakon” (the thief law), was that he could under no circumstances cooperate with the authorities or participate in political activities. This meant refusing to work and not obeying prison guards, risking to be punished by the rest of the brotherhood if they broke the rules. When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin was in desperate need ofsoldiers, and he offered to pardon any prisoner that would fight in the war. The “thieves”were of course strictly opposed to this, but many of the other criminals accepted.

The “Thieves in Law” were on top of the ladder in Russia’s brutal prisons

When the war was over though, many of the freed convicts would return to prison after committing new crimes. They were known as “Suki” (the Russian word for bitches), and now found themselves on the bottom of the prison hierarchy. Other inmates would beat, harassand even rape them for their decision to serve the state. The “Suki” were professional criminals connected by the tough experiences in the war, and as more and more of them wentback to jail, they decided to organize and cooperate with the prison guards, in order tosurvive. This was the beginning of the infamous “Bitch Wars” between the two sides, that would last until around 1953, when Stalin died and millions of prisoners would be released. The prison guards didn’t just do nothing to stop the violence, they encouraged the rivalry between what they saw as “unwanted elements” in Soviet society, and thousands of people would die in the conflict.

Tattoos were an important part of being a “thief in law”, and just with a quick look at somebody, you could know a lot about his rank, criminal activities and prison sentences. The “vory” used a complex system, and sometimes they same symbols could mean different things. One of the most popular images is a church on the chest or back, where the numberof towers and stairs can reveal rank and the number of times he has been to jail. Another famous symbol is stars on the knees, which symbolizes that the “thief” is not ready to kneel forany man or authority. A cat symbolizes a career criminal, while skulls can representmurders. A barbed wire across the forehead means that the person will spend the rest of hislife in jail.

Tattoos can also be used to punish people who have broken the criminal code. A sex offender will for example have a dagger on him, while an informer is marked with a goat. Prisoners who use symbols they have not earned will be beaten severely, and the tattoo will beforcibly removed. Vory also had their own language (jargon) called “Fehnay”, that only theycould understand

A Russian criminal who has had quite an active career

In the 1970s and 80s, the “Vory v Zakone” would change some of their rules to adapt to themodern world. They were able to marry and form families, and they even began to work withthe authorities when it was in their interest. There was a lack of many consumer goods in themarxist economy of the Soviet Union, and the “thieves in law” would control the black market, even opening many illegal small businesses. Corruption became a growing problemin the communist state, and politicians and criminals started to create bonds. A nationalorganized crime network started to form throughout the country, and leaders from thedifferent regions would meet to coordinate their criminal activities. By avoiding armed conflicts and cooperating, the criminals could stay off the radar while at the same time making a lot of money.

Older “vory” like Aslan Usoyan (killed recently by a sniper in Moscow) and Vyacheslav Ivankov (who would organize the Russian Mafia in the USA), became role models to the new generation of “thieves in law”, and they were also in charge of the “Obschak” (a common fund the criminals used to finance their criminal activities, but also to help families ofthieves in law who were in jail). Usoyan and Ivankov became two of the leading “Vory v Zakone” for several decades, but they would both end up dead after conflicts with rival gangs.

Vyacheslav “Yaponchik” Ivankov was one of the most notorious figures in the Russian Mob

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 would completely change the landscape for crimein Russia. The country was in an economic crisis, and many people wanted to exploit thetransition to capitalism for their own good. Criminals, police, bankers, oligarchs, former KGB agents and politicians all played their part in what would be known as the “Wild East”,competing for the oil, steel, banks, arms and other huge state-owned sectors that were nowprivatized. There was a drastic increase in violence, and everyday murders in Moscow became the norm.

Organized crime had an iron grip on the entire society, controlling over 50 percent of the country’s economy , and the 90′s was seen as a golden era for the criminal groups that were now known as the Russian Mafia. Protected by the legal system, they could do almostanything they wanted. The Russian mob managed everything from drug trafficking, arms trade, prostitution, gambling, extortion, money laundering and contract hits, but also started to invest in large companies that were completely legal.

Moscow in the 1990s was a very brutal place

Many of the kingpins of the Russian Mafia were traditional “Vory v Zakone”, but there was also a new generation of criminals that wanted their piece of the cake. Even though the Soviet Union had split up into several independent states, the criminal network was intact, and gangs from countries like Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan were still very much cooperating. The most powerful group today is called Solntsevskaya Bratva (brotherhood) with its base north of Moscow, but “the Red Mob” has become a truly global phenomenon. The wave of immigrants that went west also helped the Russian Mafia establish itself in other countries like USA, Germany, England and Spain. The violenceslowed down by the start of the millennium, and Vladimir Putin launched a crack down onorganized crime. There is no doubt though, that  some of the leaders in the Russian Mafiastill have very close connections with both the political elite and various Russian intelligence organizations.

The traditional “Vory v Zakone”, who called prison their “home”, are on their way out. Instead,highly educated criminals with international connections that control legal businessesthrough corruption and threats, are taking over more and more. The excessive tattoo tradition is also on its way out, making it harder for outsiders to recognize who the “bad guys”really are. Many other of the old codes have also been forsaken, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the “Vory” and the Russian Mafia isn’t as dangerous and violent as ever. It just means they are adapting to a changing world in order to get what they really want; moremoney and more power!