Thief in law
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A thief in law (Russian: вор в зако́не, tr. vor v zakone; Estonian: varas seaduses; 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) in the Soviet Union, the post-Soviet states and respective diasporas abroad is a specifically granted formal status of a professional criminal who enjoys an elite position within the organized crime environment and employs informal authority over its lower-status members. Each new Vor is vetted (literally "crowned", with respective rituals and tattoos) by consensus of several Vors. Vor culture is inseparable from prison organized crime: only repeatedly jailed convicts are eligible for Vor status. Thieves in law are drawn from many nationalities from a number of post-Soviet states.
Although Armenia, Chechnya, Estonia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Ukraine and Uzbekistan 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 (Russian: 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 exterminated the criminal underworld completely. 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.
Ethics and code of conduct
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"Ponyatiya" (literally "the understandings") 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.
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 Levkiv "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 also are drawn from other ethnic groups from the former Soviet Union.
Set of rules according to Aleksandr Gurov
Under the theoretical code of the vory, a thief must:
- Never show his 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, and rely on lower-level criminals for accommodation. The word 'theft' as used here describes any criminal activity considered 'legitimate' by the Vory: 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 apply this 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 Soviet era 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 today, 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 sometimes used by the Russian police to illustrate vory arrests in the media (not very common, though).
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:
- 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) known as "The Roundstone" indicates an orphan (круглый сирота, krugly 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 aggravated 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; "in the circle of thieves")
- The letters "KOT" (kot; cat) indicate a chronic prison inmate (коренной обитатель тюрьмы, korennoy obitatel tiurmy)
- The letters "ОМУТ" (omut; deep water hole) on the back of the hand indicate "it's hard to get away from me" (от меня уйти трудно, ot menya uiti trudno)
- The letters "МИР" (mir; world or peace) on the back of the hand denote one who will never be rehabilitated or re-educated (меня исправит расстрел, menya ispravit rasstrel; "a firing squad will rehabilitate me")
- The word "CEBEP" (sever; north) 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, bared teeth); Russian: голова дьявола, 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 "four guard towers and me" (четыре вышки и я, chetyre vyshki i ya)
Notable thieves in law
|Aslan Usoyan||Ded Khasan||Georgian/Yezidi||Dead|
|Zakhar Kalashov||Shakro Molodoi||Georgian/Yezidi||Active|
In popular culture
- The 1930s Isaac Babel 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 the 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 mini-series 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.
- Vory feature in the film Eastern Promises.
- One of the main plots of the 3rd season of the French TV series Braquo heavily involves Vor of multiple origins (Turk, Armenian, Georgian...).
- Russian prison fighter Yuri Boyka of Undisputed II: Last Man Standing and Undisputed III: Redemption sports several Vor tattoos.
- Criminal tattoos
- Kazan phenomenon
- Made man
- Prison gang
- Russian mafia
- "Thieves by Law" (2010 documentary by Alexander Gentelev)
- Triads Society
- Michael Schwirtz (29 July 2008). "Vory v Zakone has hallowed place in Russian criminal lore.". International Herald Tribune. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
- 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.
- ""Tariel Oniani's case" has united Moscow and Tbilisi". Georgia Times. June 16, 2009. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
- SCHWIRTZ, MICHAEL (October 13, 2009). "For a Departed Mobster, Wreaths and Roses but No Tears". New York Times. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
- 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.
- Finkelstein, Leonid (2001). THE RUSSIAN LEXICON, 2001. London: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 3.
- Michael Schwirtz (2009-10-13). "For a Departed Mobster, Wreaths and Roses but No Tears". International Herald Tribune. Retrieved 2013-08-13.