Thief in law

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A thief in law (Russian: вор в зако́не, romanizedvor v zakone), in the Soviet Union, the post-Soviet states, and respective diasporas abroad is a specifically granted formal and special status of "criminal authority" (Russian: криминальный авторитет, romanizedkriminalny avtoritet), a professional criminal who enjoys an elite position among other notified mobsters within the organized crime and correctional facility environments and employs informal authority over its lower-status members.

The phrase "Thief in Law" is a calque of the Russian slang phrase "вор в зако́не", literally translated as "a thief in [a position of] the law", that can have two meanings in Russian: "a legalized thief" and "a thief who is the law". Note that Vor came to mean "thief" no earlier than the 18th century; before that it meant "criminal" (and it still means that in the professional criminal argot). Each new Vor (thief) is vetted (literally "crowned", with respective rituals and tattoos) by consensus of several Vory. Vor culture is inseparable from prison organized crime: only repeatedly jailed convicts are eligible for Vor status.[1] Thieves in law are drawn from many nationalities from a number of post-Soviet states,[1] but absolute majority are ethnic Georgians and also other ethnic minorities from Georgia.[2]


Although Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Estonia 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."[1]

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".[1] 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 (one must support oneself through criminal enterprises) and refusal to participate in all political activities."[citation needed]

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."[1]

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 cooperate with administration of prisons and labor camps. The "Bitch Wars" 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."[1] 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."[1]

Reportedly, as capitalism began to take hold in Russia, an increasing number of college-educated criminals began to take over more lucrative ventures.[1] 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.[1] Consequently, while the "Vory are still strong in gambling and retail trade," their importance in Russian economy and society has decreased.[1] 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.

In 2011, the Obama administration implemented sanctions against an organisation known as the Brothers' Circle, several members of which are thieves-in-law.[3]

Ethics and code of conduct[edit]

"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."[1]

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."[1]

While there still are many ethnic Russian vory, many also are drawn from other ethnic groups from the former Soviet Union.

Set of rules according to Aleksandr Gurov[edit]

Under the theoretical code of the vory,[4] a thief must:

  1. Defend and love his relatives—mother, father, brothers, sisters...
  2. Not have a family of his own—no wife, no children; this does not however, preclude him from having a lover.
  3. Never under any circumstances work, no matter how much difficulty this brings—live only on means gleaned from thievery.
  4. Help other thieves—both by moral and material support, utilizing the commune of thieves.
  5. Keep secret information about the whereabouts of accomplices (i.e. dens, districts, hideouts, safe apartments, etc.).
  6. In unavoidable situations (if a thief is under investigation) take the blame for someone else's crime; this buys the other person a time of freedom.
  7. Demand a convocation of inquiry for the purpose of resolving disputes in the event of a conflict between oneself and other thieves, or between thieves.
  8. If necessary, participate in such inquiries.
  9. Carry out the punishment of the offending thief as decided by the convocation.
  10. Not resist carrying out the decision of punishing the offending thief who is found guilty, with punishment determined by the convocation.
  11. Have good command of the thieves' jargon ("Fenya").
  12. Not gamble without being able to cover losses. The losses must be covered in the agreed time.
  13. Teach young beginners.
  14. Have, if possible, informants from the rank and file of thieves.
  15. Not lose your reasoning ability when using alcohol.
  16. Have nothing to do with the authorities (particularly with the ITU [Correctional Labor Authority]), not participate in public activities, nor join any community organizations.
  17. Not take weapons from the hands of authorities; not serve in the military.
  18. Make good on promises given to other thieves.

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.[5]

Vory tattoos[edit]

The Vory subculture (more exactly: the prison inmate subculture where Vory are the leaders) is well known for having symbolic tattoos.[6] The tattoos are usually done in the prison with primitive tools.

Tattoos associated with the thieves in law include, but are not limited to:

  • The eight-pointed star is the main tattoo in thieves world and it usually appears on the shoulders.
  • Madonna and her Child (St Mary and the infant Jesus Christ) indicates a criminal lifestyle from a young age[7]
  • A spider tattoo, when facing up, denotes an active criminal; facing down, it denotes one who has left the lifestyle
  • 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 uyti 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 shooting 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[edit]

Name Nickname Place of Birth Ethnicity Status
Aslan Usoyan Ded Khasan Tbilisi, Georgian SSR Georgian/Yezidi Dead
Zakhariy Kalashov Shakro Molodoi Tbilisi, Georgian SSR Georgian/Yezidi Imprisoned
Tariel Oniani[8] Taro Tkibuli, Georgian SSR Georgian Imprisoned
Nadir Salifov Lotu Guli Dmanisi, Georgian SSR Azerbaijanian Dead
Evsei Agron Leningrad, Russian SFSR Russian/Jewish Dead
Rovshan Janiyev Rovshan Lankaransky Lankaran, Azerbaijani SSR Azerbaijanian Dead
Jaba Ioseliani Khashuri, Georgian SSR Georgian Dead
Hikmet Mukhtarov[9] Sabirabad, Azerbaijan SSR Azerbaijanian Dead
Vyacheslav Ivankov[10] Yaponchik Tbilisi, Georgian SSR Russian Dead
Razhden Shulaya [11] Roma, Brother Leningrad, Russian SFSR Georgian Imprisoned

In popular culture[edit]

  • The cast of the 1935 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 detail. 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 "avtoritetnyi" – 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 whom are described as thieves-in-law.
  • In the iconic 2002 Russian TV series Brigada, the main character's gang gets into a conflict with a Vor who tries to bring them under his patronage.
  • In the 1988 film Red Heat, Arnold Schwarzenegger portrays a Moscow cop sent to Chicago to bring back a Georgian criminal - Vagran Rustaveli (played by Gábor Koncz).
  • Vory feature in the 2007 film Eastern Promises, starring Viggo Mortensen and directed by David Cronenberg.
  • Russian prison fighter Yuri Boyka of Undisputed II: Last Man Standing and Undisputed III: Redemption sports several Vor tattoos.
  • The 2009 video game Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony features fictional Georgian crime boss Marki Ashvili.
  • The 2010 German TV series Im Angesicht des Verbrechens focuses on the Russian Mafia and its involvement in the black market trade in untaxed cigarettes in Berlin. The characters of Misha and Uncle Sasha are shown to sport prison tattoos that identify them as Vory.
  • The 2010 John le Carré novel Our Kind of Traitor is about a Russian Vor trying to defect to the United Kingdom after a dispute with his superiors.
  • One of the main plots of the third season of the French TV series Braquo, which aired in 2012-2014, heavily involves Vor of multiple origins (Turk, Armenian, Georgian...).
  • The 2016 video game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided features the fictional Georgian Dvali crime family.
  • The Denise Mina novel Conviction features a retelling of the suki versus vor war in a side story.

Modern Integration[edit]

The 2001 to present era of the Vory-v-Zakone should be considered an example of alliance between organized crime and state. Russia published their intent of employing organized criminals in order to achieve hybrid warfare. Mark Galeotti defines this strategic effort as, “Russia’s recent operations in Ukraine, especially the integrated use of militias, gangsters, information operations, intelligence, and special forces, have created a concern in the West about a ‘new way of war’, sometimes described as ‘hybrid’."[12] The Vory committed to political integration by assisting as middlemen to the KGB and carrying out bounties of United States military personnel in Afghanistan.[13] The use of middlemen in order to issue bounties on United States military personnel is a direct example of the Vory mafia being utilized as an instrument to the state. This level of integration between the state and organized crime is remarkably new in the sense that Putin denies all ties to the Russian mafia yet recent events such as bounties in Afghanistan and ‘little green men.'[12] This type of integration is covert, invasive and extremely dangerous. President Putin denies any and all ties to these activities yet bank account exchanges between KGB agents and Russian mafia members have been uncovered.[14] In order to project Russian activism against organized crime, President Putin burns public officials in order to calm nerves over organized criminal activities. Mark Gaelotti outlines this in his report, “Putin has publicly acknowledged, time and time again, that corruption is widespread. However, after 18 years of his rule, we have seen little evidence that he has ever intended more than a public show of resolve and a periodic purge of officials who serve as disposable scapegoats."[15] The modern Vory are invasive, dangerous, and support Putin’s reach for hybrid warfare.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Michael Schwirtz (29 July 2008). "Vory v Zakone has hallowed place in Russian criminal lore". International Herald Tribune. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
  2. ^ Национальный состав воров в законе, ПРАЙМ КРАЙМ
  3. ^ Treasury Imposes Sanctions On Key Members Of The Yakuza And Brothers’ Circle Criminal Organizations
  4. ^ Gurov, A. I. (1990). Professional Crime Past and Present. Moscow: Iuridicheskaia Literatura.
  5. ^ The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1973)
  6. ^ Adam Przechrzta (21 July 2011). ""Wory w zakonie", rosyjskie więzienia i tatuaże". Archived from the original on 4 October 2011. Retrieved 22 July 2011.
  7. ^ Baldaev, D. S. (2003). Russian criminal tattoo encyclopaedia. Göttingen, Ger.: Steidl/Fuel. p. 37. ISBN 9780955006197.
  8. ^ ""Tariel Oniani's case" has united Moscow and Tbilisi". Georgia Times. 16 June 2009. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
  9. ^ | Hikmet "Sabirabadsky" Mukhtarov
  10. ^ SCHWIRTZ, MICHAEL (13 October 2009). "For a Departed Mobster, Wreaths and Roses but No Tears". New York Times. Retrieved 3 September 2013.
  11. ^ SCHWIRTZ, MICHAEL (13 October 2009). "The Shulaya Enterprise Organised Crime Bust in New York". Retrieved 3 September 2013.
  12. ^ a b Galeotti (2016). "Hybrid, ambiguous, and non-linear? How new is Russia's 'new way of war'?". Hybrid, Ambiguous, and Non-linear? How New is Russia's 'new Way of War'? Small Wars & Insurgencies. 27 (2): 282–301. doi:10.1080/09592318.2015.1129170. S2CID 147471024. Retrieved 21 March 2022.
  13. ^ Mashal, Mujib; Schwirtz, Michael (13 July 2020). "How Russia Built a Channel to the Taliban, Once an Enemy". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 March 2022.
  14. ^ Charbonneau, Madeline (30 June 2020). "U.S. Officials Found Russian Bank Transfer Data Supporting Bounty Accusation". Retrieved 21 March 2022.
  15. ^ Galeotti, Mark (23 March 2018). "Gangster's paradise: how organised crime took over Russia". The Guardian. Retrieved 21 March 2022.


  • 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.

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