Thieves in Law
It seems like every culture and society has its own criminal tradition. America has a long and proud history of outlaws, from Jesse James and John Dillinger all the way up to the Hell’s Angels tearing down the highways in precise formation like a modern horde of barbarians. Italians have the Mafia, Japan has the yakuza with their full-body tattoos and missing pinkies, and China has the Triads. Society might fear them, but there’s always a kind of respect for them as they’re the only ones who have the balls to pull off the shit the rest of us are too pussy to do. In Russia, we have the vory v zakone, also known as the ‘thieves in law’.
The closest Western equivalent to a thief in law is a ‘made’ member of the Cosa Nostra. But a thief isn’t necessarily a mobster. Rather, they’re a highly respected figure in the criminal underworld who abides by a set of certain rules and principles known as the thieves’ code. A thief in law is kind of an arbitrator, a mediator in criminal disputes. Say you and your boys just held up a bank but Joey Four-Fingers demands a bigger cut of the loot. Who do you call? It’s not like you can take him to court for breaching his contract. That’s where the vor comes in.
The vory started out in Stalin’s gulags, prison camps only a touch better than the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. Back in those days (the 1930s) communism was coming up strong and propaganda about the glorious revolution of the workers was everywhere. The crooks of the USSR resented this ideological crap being shoved down their throats and came up with their own philosophy to rub in the faces of the guards who made their lives a living hell. And it was hell. Forget about those cosy nicks you have in Britain or the States, this was some real beatings-every-day, work-your-ass-off-in-the-frozen-wastes-of-Siberia shit. Not everyone made it. To survive that shit you had to be tough. And so the ideals of the vory became a symbol of resistance against the oppressive Soviet regime.
The thieves’ code was strict and not everyone could become a member. There was a rigorous selection process and two existing thieves had to vouch for you. You had to show yourself worthy of the title, able to hold authority amongst the inmates, and have no history of co-operating with the authorities. No-one wants a snitch in their ranks. Once chosen you had to take a vow affirming your commitment to the thievish ways. This meant living by the following rules (there’s quite a few but I’ve narrowed it to the bare essentials):
- There can be no ties to mainstream society. No job, no mortgage, no knitting club, no nothing. Having a family was looked down upon but not completely verboten.
- Thieves are not allowed to make money legitimately. They’ve either got to earn it through theft or deception, or wipe out the table with cards.
- There can be no contact with the musora (‘garbage’, slang for cops) unless being questioned or detained.
- Thieves must support each other at all times.
- Thieves must always be on the lookout for new prospects to join the brotherhood.
- Thieves must uphold their status as leaders amongst crooks and cons.
- Thieves must regularly pay money into the obshak, the common fund used to hire lawyers, support imprisoned comrades and pay officials to look the other way.
Failure to abide by these rules meant you’d be called to trial before your fellow thieves and depending on the seriousness of the ‘crime’ there could be a punishment ranging from a public humiliation to being stripped of your title to ultimately death.
As well as Russians, there were also vory from Eastern Europe (Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova), the Caucasus (the region between Russia and Turkey/Iran – home to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), Central Asia (all the countries ending in ‘stan) as well as a whole host of other ethnicities including Jews and even some Greeks and Germans, who’d been living in this land for centuries. The Jewish influence is particularly important as they’d long suffered persecution at the hands of Russians, such as the pogrom race riots instigated by the Tsars. Driven to the edge of society a whole Jewish blatnoy (criminal) subculture evolved, and a lot of the slang terms thieves use today can be traced back to Yiddish.
The Soviet authorities were shockingly unimpressed by this threat to their power in the camps and tried to wipe them out. This came in the aftermath of the Second World War when a bunch of convicts were offered amnesty in exchange for joining the fight for Mother Russia. And Lord knows they needed every man they could get: over half of those dead in WWII came from the USSR. But rather than getting a hero’s welcome on their return these new recruits were thrown straight back in the pen where they found out that they’d all been dethroned from their rank for breaking a key tenement of the thieves’ code. Tensions rose, and the outcasts banded together to form a new alliance, killing all ‘real’ thieves that got in their way. The vory struck back, and before long a bloodbath was brewing between the O.G’s and the ‘bitches’. The Bitch Wars went on until the end of the 50s when the vory were the last ones standing, albeit barely.
Vory identify themselves through their tattoos. An intricate system of ink developed in the gulags, and a long-term con could use them to read your life story like a book. Each tattoo had a particular meaning. An Orthodox cross on the chest or stars on the shoulders indicated a thief in law, devilish figures represented hated communists and graphic depictions of group sex were applied to those who couldn’t pay their debts. In Russia, Ukraine and all those countries there’s plenty of guys with these markings walking around. I remember going on vacation in the Crimea a couple years ago as the climate’s quite nice in the summer and wanting to go diving at this place called Tarkhankut where there’s a cool underwater museum with old submerged statues of Lenin and Stalin. Even though it’s a popular diving spot there’s basically no road leading there and the only taxi driver whose car was enough of a tank to handle driving off-road was this one dude covered in Soviet prison tattoos. He had a massive church drawn across his chest, the number of towers representing how much time he’d done inside. He was chill, relaxed, but it was a long drive and eventually the conversation got to how he got his tattoos. Turned out he’d stabbed a man to death in a bar fight in the 80s and spent the next decade locked up in Siberia, only getting out after the fall of the Soviet Union. Then he told me about how the week before he picked me up some heroin addicts robbed a pregnant woman in his village and took her wedding ring. He found out who they were and the next day beat them almost to death with a lead pipe. So here I was in a car with a guy who was basically Robert de Niro from the movie Taxi Driver but in real life.
Since I was locked up in at a Young Offender’s Institution in Britain I never got the chance to meet any real vory v zakone. But there were plenty who followed the Russian criminal tradition. There was Rudas, a half-Russian half-Lithuanian who was the head of a crew that robbed and extorted brothels all over East London until they got caught. He had stars on his knees, which meant that he’d never kneel down before the law. Rudas’ old man did time in Georgia, a small country on the mountainous Black Sea coast between Russia and Turkey home to some of the most hardcore vory v zakone. During the Georgian civil war of the 90s one of the most powerful armed groups was the Mkhedrioni led by Jaba Ioseliani, a thief in law first sentenced for robbing a bank in Leningrad back in 1948 and then again in the 70s for manslaughter. Being locked up for as long as he was Ioseliani found the time to become something of an intellectual, writing and publishing several books and plays which became popular with the academic elite. When the Soviet Union broke up and Georgia gained its independence a war broke out with ethnic Abkhaz and Ossetian rebels to the north. That’s when Jaba founded his paramilitary faction. The Russians got involved in the fighting and a cease-fire was declared. Ioseliani then turned his attention to the president who was trying to rein him in and backed a coup which helped make him one of the most powerful men in the country. In the meantime the Mkhedrioni became the most powerful mafia in the country, running smuggling and protection rackets. But after a failed attempt to take out the new president with a car bomb in 1995 Ioseliani was locked up for good and his army disbanded.
My cellmate for 3 months was Misha from Moscow. Misha was of Oriental appearance, and with his long flowing hair reminded me a lot of Soviet rock singer and 80s protest icon Viktor Tsoi. A big hip hop fan, he spoke English only with black American ghetto slang: nigga this, nigga that, tinged with a strong Russian accent. But no-one seemed to get offended, probably owing to the fact he was so clearly not white and a foreigner. Misha was doing five years for fraud conspiracy, and with some extra time added on for getting caught with a smuggled cell phone. Conspiracy charges are a bitch. It becomes more serious if you’re accused of ‘organising’ a crime: It’s like, “Oh, so you planned it??”, to which you can only reply, “No, because I casually just drive around with a ski mask and a sawn-off shotgun in my car in the off-chance I spot a cash delivery van doing its rounds.” Anyway he got a friend of his, a computer hacker from Ukraine, to write a script for a virus which he then sent off to various banks before siphoning off three million pounds (around 4.5 million dollars) from compromised accounts to ones controlled by him and another guy from Kazakhstan. Not bad for a 20-year old, right?! He got caught, as usual, from one stupid mistake: one day, he’d forgot to turn the encryption on his laptop. The judge called him a ‘threat to national security’ as he pronounced his sentence. But it wasn’t all bad. Although the cops confiscated the money he stored here and in Switzerland, Holland and Costa Rica, when Scotland Yard detectives called the Russian judge to try and get a warrant, the judge simply said, “We do not know this man”, and hung up.
Despite our vastly different ethnic origins (Misha didn’t even look European – he was of Kazakh, Uzbek and Jewish origin), most inmates weren’t too keen on geography and called us all ‘Russia’, which sometimes got confusing when someone would yell “RUSSIA!!” and about six guys would turn around. The Lithuanians didn’t really mind being called Russian, but hated it if you referred to them as Polish. We all hung out together but it wouldn’t really be accurate to call us a ‘gang’, as the Lithuanians would spend all their time playing cards, brewing chifir (a kind of strong tea popular with zeks, or convicts) and making racist jokes about the blacks.
These guys were the new school of Russian gangster. As the ideals of communism died, the ideals of the criminal world died as well. Now everyone was about making money, whichever way they can. The 90s were, mildly put, an ‘interesting’ time. We suddenly switched from having an economy where the government had its hand in everything to being ten times more capitalist than you guys ever were. And with all these private businesses springing up, there was a whole bunch of dudes who felt entitled to a piece of the action: dirty cops, out-of-work soldiers, ex-KGB agents and sportsmen (the Soviets ran a huge sports programme but their funding had been cut), Chechen terrorists and plain street thugs. The body count mounted as gangs like the Solntsevo, Tambov and Uralmash went to war over protection rackets. Once a group of unhinged war veterans stole a tank from a factory in the Urals and drove it to a showdown with some rival Azerbaijani gangsters like some kind of real life GTA. The Azeri’s never bothered them again.
With that kind of firepower the vory v zakone were starting to find themselves in deep shit. But their name still held sway over the underworld. Most professional criminals end up having to go to prison one day, and conditions in Russian prisons are fucking terrible. No matter how miserable I was in British prison, I should thank God, Allah and Vishnu I wasn’t caught in Russia. Human rights? Ha-ha, what’s that?? Torture is endemic, and tuberculosis comes with the territory. And that’s where the vory v zakone still hold an iron grip. In January 2012 thousands of prisoners held all across the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan simultaneously sewed their lips together in protest at their overcrowded, disease-ridden conditions. Pulling the strings of the strike was Kamchy Kolbayev, a thief in law who’s been designated by the White House under the Kingpin Act. The only place where inmates didn’t strike was holding a rival crime boss, Chechen thief Aziz Batukayev. But Batukayev might have had enough of stirring up trouble: he organised a prison riot back in 2005 when his men took over the jail and shot dead a member of parliament who tried to negotiate.
Over the last few years there’s been a bloody war going on between two rival factions of the vory. Both sides are led by Georgians: Tariel Oniani and Aslan Usoyan. Upon his return to Russia from Spain after appearing on Interpol’ most wanted list, Oniani’s relationship with Usoyan, who’d become Russia’s top crime boss, grew tense and there were several tit-for-tat murders of one another’s top lieutenants. Fearing a return to the bad old days of the 90s, Usoyan asked a certain Vyacheslav Ivankov to step in. Vyacheslav Ivankov, aka Yaponchik (“the Jap”), was the most notorious thief in law of all time, a gangster who’d come over to America in the early 90s to run the Russian mafia there from the neighbourhood of Brighton Beach in New York City. Ivankov was arrested by the feds for extortion in 1995 and in 2004 got deported to Russia, where he was acquitted of shooting two Turks in a Moscow restaurant. But even Ivankov wasn’t enough to quash the beef and a sniper shot him in the stomach as a he left the Thai Elephant restaurant on 28th July, 2009. He died a few months later from his injuries. Then Aslan Usoyan, also known as Grandpa Hassan, got a bullet in the head from a sniper outside his favourite diner on 16th January, 2013. By now there was a third interloper in the mix, Azeri thief Rovshan Janiev, who runs a criminal empire stretching from Kiev in Ukraine to his native Azerbaijan.
As of right now things seem to have calmed down. The return of Zakhar Kalashov after his stint in a Spanish jail for money laundering in October last year has restored some order in the underworld. Kalashov, aka Shakro Junior, is the new big daddy of the vory v zakone after the deaths of Usoyan and Yaponchik. Since becoming a free man he’s been keeping himself busy by using his authority to pick up the pieces of Usoyan, Oniani’s and Janiev’s cluster-fuck so everyone can eat and get back to making money. But he may be the last of a dying breed. As the government of Vladimir Putin cracks down on any opposition, mob bosses are lining up around the block to get into bed with the authorities. No-one wants to be left without official ‘protection’. But such a cosy relationship with the feds betrays the very principles the thieves were founded on, and if they compromise their integrity any more the days of the vory v zakone as quasi-anarchist folk heroes might be numbered.