Thief in law
A thief in law (Russian: вор в законе vor v zakonye; Ukrainian: злодій у законі zlodiy u zakoni; Belarusian: злодзей у законе zlodzey u zakone; Georgian: კანონიერი ქურდი kanonieri kurdi; Armenian: օրենքով գող orenk'ov goğ; Azerbaijani: Qanuni oğru) is a career criminal who is respected, has informal authority and an elite status within the organized crime environment in the Soviet Union, and currently in the post-Soviet states and respective diasporas abroad. Estimates concerning the number of "Vory" throughout the world range from several hundred to over 10,000. Thieves in law are drawn from many nationalities from a number of post-Soviet states.
The term "thief in law" might be more closely translated as "thief who follows the law," figuratively referring to a criminal who obeys the Thieves' Code.
Although Armenia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Georgia, Russia and Ukraine have long had criminals and bandits, during the disorder of the Russian Revolution of 1917, armed gangs proliferated until they became a very significant factor which controlled society. The criminal culture with its own slang, culture and laws became known as Vorovskoy Mir in Russian (i.e. воровской мир) or "Criminal/ Thieves World".
As the police and court system were re-established in the Soviet Union shortly after the 1917 revolution, the NKVD secret police nearly completely exterminated the criminal underworld. Under Stalin, the forced labor camps (Gulag) overflowed with political prisoners and criminals, and a new organized group of top criminals arose, the vory v zakone, or "thieves in law."
The "thieves in law" formed as a society for ruling the criminal underworld within the prison camps, "who govern the dark gaps in Soviet life beyond the reach of the KGB". They adopted a system of collective responsibility, and swore to a code of "complete submission to the laws of criminal life, including obligations to support the criminal ideal, rejection of legitimate employment (must support oneself through criminal enterprises) and refusal to participate in all political activities."
As an example, while incarcerated, a Vor (вор) must refuse all work, and is not allowed to assist the warden/correction officers in any way, as the thieves' code states: "Your own prison you shall not make." For example, if an inmate walks past a guard, and the guard asks him to ring the dinner bell, the convict must refuse or he will be judged by his fellow inmates and found guilty of assisting his jailers. The Vory organized their own courts and held trials governed by the code of 'thieves' honor and tradition'. Acceptance into the group is often marked by specific tattoos, allowing all members of the criminal world to instantly recognize a "thief in law". Most prison inmates are tattooed (by other inmates) to indicate their rank within the criminal world, noteworthy criminal accomplishments and places of former incarceration. For example, a tattoo of one cat indicates that the criminal robs alone while multiple cats indicate that he has partners during robberies. Reportedly, "while the Communist Party had a steadfast grip on government and society, the Vory had something of a monopoly on crime."
After World War II, the vory in the Gulag system were weakened by the so-called Bitch Wars - a prison gang war between pure vory and the so-called suki ("bitches"). The 'suki' were former members of the criminal underworld who had broken the thieves' code by agreeing to join the Soviet army and fight against Nazi Germany during World War II (in exchange for being freed from prison).
By joining the army, they violated the Thieves' Code which expressly forbids assisting authority in any way. After the end of the war, thousands were re-arrested again for new crimes and were placed at the very bottom of the criminal hierarchy in prison, treated with the same lack of respect shown to police informants and victims of prison rape.
Since most 'suki' were tough, lifelong criminals and assassins hardened by the experience of brutal combat during World War II, they decided to murder all the 'pure vory'. This resulted in the so-called Bitch Wars which lasted for decades. Due to a large number of 'suki', most gulags were divided into two separate zones: one for 'suki' and one for 'vory'.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the vory assumed a leading role within the Russian criminal hierarchy (see Russian Mafia). The group was able to "infiltrate the top political and economic strata while taking command of the burgeoning crime network that spread murderously through the post-Soviet countries." Thieves In Law are given the title by other vory and in order to be accepted they must demonstrate considerable leadership skills, personal ability, intellect, charisma, along with a well-documented criminal record. Once accepted they must live according to the thieves' code. The penalty for violation of this code is often mutilation or death. Reportedly, "today the Vory have spread around the world, to Madrid, Berlin, and New York" and are "involved in everything from petty theft to billion-dollar money-laundering while also acting as arbiters among conflicting Russian criminal factions."
Reportedly, as capitalism began to take hold in Russia, an increasing number of college-educated criminals began to take over more lucrative ventures. While these new criminal elements first worked with the Vory in the 1990s, in the 2000s (decade), ties to big business and government grew in importance. Consequently, while the "Vory are still strong in gambling and retail trade," their importance in Russian economy and society has decreased. However since the majority of criminals eventually are arrested and incarcerated, at some point they will come in contact with the Vory who are at the top of the hierarchy of the criminal world within the penal system in Russia.
One famous Vor V Zakone is Vladimir Podatev who was appointed a member of the commission for human rights under President Boris Yeltsin, in spite of three previous felony convictions for murder, assault, and rape. Another famous vor is Vyacheslav Ivankov, a notorious mobster with convictions in both the former Soviet Union and the United States who was assassinated in 2009.
The Thieves' Code 
Vory consider prisons their true home and have a saying 'The home for angels is heaven and the home for a Vor is prison.' According to Aleksandr Gurov, an expert on the Vory who headed the organized crime units of the Soviet Interior Ministry and the GRU, "unlike the Cosa Nostra the Vory have 'less rules, but more severe rules' [and the] members must have no ties to the government, meaning they cannot serve in the army or cooperate with officials while in prison. They must also have served several jail sentences before they can be considered. They also are not allowed to get married."
Furthermore, according to Michael Schwirtz, "ethnicity has rarely determined whether someone can join the club, and today many members, even those active inside Russia, are from other post-Soviet countries such as Armenia, Georgia, or Chechnya, and are not ethnic Russians." While there still are a lot of ethnic Russian vory, many vory are drawn from other ethnic groups from the former Soviet Union: ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Soviet Jews, Georgians, Chechens, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Kyrgyzstanis, Uzbeks, Yezidi Kurds, Abkhazians and Ingushetians.
Under the theoretical code of the vory, a thief must:
- Not have emotions
- Forsake his relatives: father, mother, brothers, sisters. (Varies)
- Not have a family of his own: no marriage, no children; this does not however, preclude him from having an unlimited number of women. *During a large gathering of thieves-in-law during the late 1980s, this rule was removed. (Varies)
- Never, under any circumstances, have a legitimate job or significant property (e.g. a house), no matter how much difficulty this brings; live only on money obtained through gambling or theft (the word 'theft' as used here describes any criminal activity considered 'legitimate' by the Vory), and rely on lower-level criminals for accommodation. For example, harming or molesting children is strongly frowned upon and may endanger a vor's status and could provoke a more brutal retaliation from one's comrades than from the police. A 'thief in law' is a leadership position, so direct participation in arms smuggling and drug trafficking is incompatible with their high status since those crimes are a form of commerce. However receiving tribute from smugglers and drug-dealers or robbing and extorting them is a legitimate activity for a 'thief in law'. (Traditional thieves this apply but modern Vor tend to be in more powerful positions and this rule now, is very uncommon.)
- Help other thieves: both by moral and material support, utilizing the commune of thieves.
- Rule and arbitrate the criminal world and protect basic needs of criminals and prisoners according to the extents and priorities set by the thieves' commune (typically in a given prison/prison cell, or region when not imprisoned)
- Keep secret information about the whereabouts of accomplices (e.g. dens, districts, hideouts, safe apartments, etc.).
- In unavoidable situations (if a thief is under investigation or is arrested) to take the blame for someone else's crime; this buys the other person time to escape and remain free.
- Demand an inquiry and judgment by a council of thieves to resolve disputes in the event of a conflict between oneself and other thieves, or between thieves.
- If necessary, participate in such inquiries if called upon.
- Punish any offending thief as decided by the judgment of the thieves council.
- Not resist carrying out the decision of punishing the offending thief who is found guilty, with punishment determined by the thieves council.
- Have good command of the thieves' slang (called "Fenya"), a distinct language spoken by hardcore criminals in Russia and understood by few outsiders.
- Never gamble without being able to cover losses.
- Teach the criminal way of life to youth with potential.
- Have, if possible, informants from the rank and file of thieves.
- Not to lose your reasoning abilities when drunk.
- Have nothing to do with the authorities (particularly with the ITU, Correctional Labor Authority), not participate in public activities, nor join any community organizations. (This rule came from during the years of Soviet oppression and rarely applies now)
- Not serve in the military or accept any weapons from the government or prison authority (police baton). (Again this rule is traditional and rarely applies day, in fact, Vor control the black market, which is discharged Soviet weapons)
- Make good on promises given to other thieves.
- Never deny his Vor status directly. To the questions like 'Are you a Vor?' or 'Who are you for life?', a vor should always answer: "Yes (I am a vor)", even if asked by police and videotaped. The latter question phrase is ritual and video footage containing the answer is commonly used by the Russian militsiya to illustrate vory arrests in the media. (Not common in post-Soviet times)
The above code is no longer in use besides the standard prison code of ethics of not cooperating with prison authorities or informing on your fellow inmates. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, claimed never to have seen any thief honor the code if it conflicted with his personal criminal wants.
The Vory subculture (more exactly: the prison inmate subculture where Vory are the respectful leaders) are well known for having very well-made tattoos. The tattoos are usually done in the prison with primitive tools.
Tattoos associated with the thieves in law include, but are not limited to:
- A pair of eyes on the underside of the abdomen indicate homosexuality
- Madonna and her Child (St Mary and the infant Jesus Christ) indicates a criminal lifestyle from a young age
- A spider tattoo, when facing up, denotes an active criminal; facing down, it denotes one who has left the lifestyle
- The eight-pointed star denotes rank as thief in law depending on where it is placed
- A circled "A" (done in the style of a finger ring) indicates an anarchist (анархист, anarkhist)
- A circle with a dot inside (as finger ring) indicates an orphan (круглый сирота, krugliy sirota), or the saying "Trust only yourself" (надейся только на себя, nadeisya tolko na sebya)
- A skull inside a square (as finger ring) indicates a conviction for robbery (судим за разбой, sudim za razboy)
- A lozenge with an Orthodox cross inside (as finger ring) indicates a thief-in-law (вор в законе, vor v zakone)
- A circle with the left half black, right half white (as finger ring) indicates one who moves around thieves-in-law, but is not one himself (в кругу воров, v krugu vorov)
- The letters "KOT" indicate a chronic prison inmate (коренной обитатель тюрьмы, korennoy obitatel tiurmy)
- The letters "ОМУТ" on the back of the hand indicate one from whom it is difficult to get away (от меня уйти трудно, ot menya uiti trudno)
- The letters "МИР" on the back of the hand denote one who has murdered (меня исправит расстрел, menya ispravit rasstrel)
- The word "CEBEP" (North; север, sever) on the back of the hand indicate time done in a Northern prison (Siberia, or Magadan)
- A cat in a hat (from Puss in Boots) on the back of the hand is the symbol of the thieves in law and, as such, denotes one
- The head of the Devil (Fenya: Оскал, oskal; Russian: голова диавола, golova diavola) on the back of the hand denotes one who harbours anger towards the Government
- The quincunx on the wrist indicates one who has done extensive time, from the saying "the four walls and I" (четыре вышки и я, chetyre vyshky i ya)
In the USSR, it was a well-known fact that the ordinary person must never have a tattoo which denotes a Vor, and, if the criminals will see such a person, he will be confronted (sometimes in a deadly way) by them for being an impostor of a Vor.
According to some ex-law-enforcement officers like Dmitry Puchkov, this gradually ceased with the USSR downfall.
The Notions 
"Ponyatiya" (literally "the notions") is the rules of conduct (or even the customary law or code of honor) among prison inmates, with Vory being respectful leaders and judges according to these rules.
The "vorovskie ponyatiya" - the requirements for aspiring Vory, are listed above. However, there are also "ludskie ponyatiya" - requirements for all prison inmates ("ludi" - "people", in this meaning more like proletariat).
The important part of "ludskie ponyatiya" is that everybody is required to maintain his own honor, mainly by avoiding doing any impure, humiliating and thus taboo thing. Examples are cunnilingus (or even telling detailed accounts of your sexual exploits) or picking up items from the floor - collectively named "zapadlo". Touching a "petukh" ("rooster"), or accepting items from his hands, is also such. More so, the floor is considered to be impure not due to hygienic reasons, but because the "roosters" touch the floor when they walk.
Also, "ponyatiya" prohibit the use of terms used in the Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code. For instance, one must not say "witness" ("svidetel'"), one must say "ochevidetz" ("beholder").
Some words like "to ask from someone" are taboo because they denote 'payment' for doing, or saying something that violates ponyatiya. This 'payment' occurs when one offends another due to violating "ponyatiya", such as dishonesty in monetary affairs. Due to the deadly nature of this sort of conflict; asking questions must be in the form of "he was interested", not "he asked me".
Some words are considered to be deadly verbal insults, often punishable by murder - like "rooster" (more so - anything related to bird and feather), "kozel" ("goat") and so on.
According to "ponyatiya", women are disrespected and considered to be equal to animals. Thus, the opinion of the women can never be significant. A man who betrays his male friends due to a romantic affair is despised.
"Petukhi" ("the roosters") 
||This section may stray from the topic of the article into the topic of another article, Prison sexuality.|
They are not allowed to touch the "normal" inmates or to share any items with them, and occupy the worst places in the prison cell. Contacting a "petukh" is "zapadlo" and can sometimes even lead the other person to be declared a "petuh" - usually by beating and knocking under the bed ("pod shkonku").
Sometimes, a person can become a "petukh" due to the offense for which he is imprisoned. Sexual offenses, especially against minors or women completely unknown to the offender (street rapes), are an example (rape of women after being her guest and drinking with her is not considered a humiliating deed). Homosexual acts were illegal from 1933 to 1993, and all those jailed for this were automatically considered petukhi.
The status of "petukh" is lifelong and cannot be cancelled. A "petukh" is obliged to warn everybody on his status (the standard formula - "I have problems in this life") in any new prison/camp he is relocated to, and even in his possible next imprisonment after serving the current punishment and being released. Otherwise, it is considered that he polluted ("zashkvaril") the normal people who had any contact with him while being unaware of his "petukh" status. This can lead to a severe beating or even murder.
Notable thieves in law 
|Aslan Usoyan||Ded Khasan "Grandpa Hassan"||Kurdish/Yezidi||Dead|
|Zakhar Kalashov||Shakro molodoi "Young Shakro"||Kurdish/Yezidi||Imprisoned|
|Vladimir Podatev||Cossack(Ethnic Russian)||Active|
|Vyacheslav Ivankov||Yaponchik "Little Japanese"||Russian||Dead|
|Rafael Bagdasaryan||Svo Raf||Armenian||Dead|
In popular culture 
- The Isaac Babel's 1930s play Maria includes the character of Isaac Dimshits, a Lithuanian Jewish vor who rules a black market empire in 1920 St. Petersburg.
- Vory feature in the popular Soviet 1972 comedy film Gentlemen of Fortune - the first Soviet movie to depict criminal underworld in details. Although the issue is not directly addressed, both the main character and the criminal "Docent" he is impersonating sport prison tattoos that may be found on a vor. Other criminals in the film repeatedly characterize "Docent" as an "authority Vor" (literally "avtoritenyi" - which is the synonym for respected professional criminal)
- The iconic Soviet 1979 TV miniseries The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed was the first direct on-screen mention of the Vory phenomenon in the USSR. In the plot, the police are tasked with bringing down a gang of vicious robbers known as the Black Cats in post-war Moscow, several members of which are described as Thieves-in-law.
- In the iconic Russian TV series Brigada the main character's gang gets into a conflict with a Vor who tries to bring them under his patronage.
See also 
- Criminal tattoos
- Kazan phenomenon
- Made man
- Prison gang
- Russian mafia
- "Thieves by Law" (2010 documentary by Alexander Gentelev)
- Triads Society
- Michael Schwirtz (2008-07-29). "Vory v Zakone has hallowed place in Russian criminal lore.". International Herald Tribune.
- Treasury Imposes Sanctions On Key Members Of The Yakuza And Brothers’ Circle Criminal Organizations
- Gurov, A. I. (1990). Professional Crime Past and Present. Moscow: Iuridicheskaia Literatura.
- Varese, Federico. 2001. The Russian mafia: private protection in a new market economy. Oxford University Press.
- Russian: "Кто ты по жизни?"
- The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1973)
- Adam Przechrzta (2011-07-21). ""Wory w zakonie", rosyjskie więzienia i tatuaże.". Konflikty.pl.
- "(Ir)relevance of condoms in prisons", Hernán Reyes MD, ICRC Geneva
- "GAY IN THE GULAG", www.slavamogutin.com
- Gurov, A. I. (1990). Professional Crime Past and Present. Moscow: Iuridicheskaia Literatura.
- Fikenauer, James O; Waring, Elin J. (1998). Russian Mafia in America: Immigration Culture and Crime. Boston: Northeastern University Press. ISBN 1-55553-374-4.