- - Sunday, July 29, 2018



By Mark Galeotti

Yale University Press, $28, 344 pages

With Russia in the forefront of the news these days, one might be interested in reading a bit of Russian history. Mark Galeotti’s “The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia” offers a comprehensive history of organized crime in Russia.

The book opens with a body washing ashore in Russia in 1974. The body had deep knife wounds, which indicated the cause of death. As there were no fingerprints, no clothing, and his face was bloated, there was no way to identify him. But he was identified in only two days, as his body was covered with tattoos.

“The tattoos were the mark of a Vor, the Russian word for ‘thief,’ but a general term for a member of the Soviet underworld, the so-called ‘thieves’ world,’ or vorovkoi mir, and life in the gulag labor camp system,” Mr. Galeotti explains in the introduction.

The tattoos were still recognizable on the body and an expert on reading them was summoned. The man, a former prison warden turned police investigator, decoded the tattoos in an hour. The leaping frog meant he spent time in the northern labor camps. The knife wrapped in chains meant the man had committed a violent assault behind bars. And so on.

Like the Japanese criminals, the yakuza, the Russian criminals liberally adorn their bodies with tattoos and those tattoos told their life story.

Mr. Galeotti, a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague and an expert on transnational crime and Russian security affairs, offers a look back at how the Russian criminal evolved from rural horse thieves to the modern international drug and woman-trafficking criminals.

The Vory, Mr. Galeotti tells us, was born early in the 20th century, largely in Lenin and Stalin’s gulags and forced labor camps that the late great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described so well in his non-fiction — “The Gulag Archipelago” — and his novel, “The First Circle.”

“First, the criminals adapted an uncompromising and unapologetic rejection of the legitimate world, visibly tattooing themselves as a dramatic gesture of defiance,” Mr. Galeotti writes. “They had their own language, their own customs, their own authority figure. This was the so-called vor v zakone, the “thief within the code, or, literally, “thief in law” — law referring to their own, not that of the rest of society.”

Over time the code of the vory would change with a new generation who saw opportunities in dealing with a “cynical and vicious” state on their own terms, taking a back seat to barons of the black market and the Communist bosses in the 1960s and 1970s.

“In the post-Soviet Russia, they blended in with the new elite. The tattoos disappeared, or were hidden beneath the crisp white shirts of a rapacious new breed of gangster-businessman, the avtoritet (authority).” Mr. Galeotti writes. “In the 1990s, everything was up for grabs, and the new vory reached out with both hands. State assets were privatized for kopeks on the ruble, businesses forced to pay for protection that they might not need, and, as the Iron Curtain fell, the Russian gangsters crashed out into the rest of the world.”

The book offers profiles of Russian criminals from Vanka Kain, a kidnapper and burglar who was the scourge of Moscow in the 1730s and 1740s, to Rovshan Dzhaniyev, who shot his father’s murderer in a public courtroom when he was just 17. With this murder, Dzhaniyev established his credentials as a fearless man of action and one who understands the vory traditions of honor and revenge.

The book covers the evolution of the vory from the gulag camps through the Stalin years, the Cold War and the Soviets’ Afghan War. After the fall of the Soviet Union, some Russian criminals moved to London and other European capitals, while others moved to New York and settled in the city’s Brighton Beach area.

Mr. Galeotti informs us that in Russia the vory has penetrated the financial and political structures of the country and abroad the vory operates aggressively as part of the new transnational underworld. The Russian gangsters arm insurgents and other criminals, traffics drugs and people, and offers criminal services, such as money laundering and computer hacking.

The author states that the gangsters don’t run Russia, and he has met police officers and judges who fight them, but the state does hire hackers and arms gangsters to fight its wars. “Even President Putin uses it from time to time to reassert his streetwise credentials.” Mr. Galeotti suggests the real question is how far has the values and practices of the vory come to shape modern Russia?

“The Vory” is a well-researched, in-depth look at the history of organized crime in Russia. Students of crime and Russian history will find this book to be interesting and illuminating.

• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.

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