Thief in law
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Thief in law (Russian: вор в законе voř v zakone; Ukrainian: злодій у законі zlodiy u zakoni; Belarusian: злодзей у законе zlodzey v zakone; Georgian: კანონიერი ქურდი kanonieri kurdi; Armenian: օրենքով գող orenk'ov goğ; Azerbaijani: Qanuni oğru; a more clear translation may be a "Thief who operates within the law" or "A criminal who obeys The Thieves' Code") is a criminal who is respected, has authority and a high ranking status within the criminal underworld in the old Soviet Union, Russia and the republics that formed the former Soviet Union. Thieves in law are the elite of the Russian world of organized crime: an equivalent of the rank 'Godfather' in the Italian mafia or the rank of General in the army. According to various Russian news sources there exist hundreds of organized units which retain independence in their actions. Estimates concerning the number of "Vory" throughout the world range from several hundred to over 10,000. Many of thieves in law are no longer exclusively ethnic Russians but are drawn from other nationalities, including those living in other former Soviet states or former Warsaw pact nations such as Poland, the Czech Republic, and Bulgaria.
2 The Thieves' Code
4 The Notions
5 "Petukhi" ("the roosters")
6 Notable thieves in law
7 In popular culture
8 See also
Although Azerbaijan, Armenia, 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 "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 that: "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 Vors 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. (see Criminal tattoo) 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, life-long criminals and assassins hardened by the experience of brutal combat during World War 2, they decided to murder all the 'pure vors'. 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 'vors'.
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
Vors 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."
Under the theoretical code of the vory, a thief must:
Not have emotions
Forsake his relatives: father, mother, brothers, sisters.
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.
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'.
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.
Be good at playing card games for money.
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.
Not serve in the military or accept any weapons from the government or prison authority (police baton).
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?', Vor should always answer : "Yes (Vor)", even if it is 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 vors arrests in the media.
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.
Many tattoos have special meanings, like "I've lost my freedom due to woman", "murderer" or "prison-born" (a tattoo of a baby). Some tattoos, like large Christian crosses, a Russian Orthodox cathedral with onion-shape cupolas, or military rank insignia tattoo on the shoulders, mean the Vor himself - the respected leader was "crowned" (approved) during a Vory meeting.
Female prison inmates also often have tattoos, like "they are tired" on the feet.
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 Vors, 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")
These are the lowest layer of inmates, something like the pariahs. They are the subject of constant humiliating acts (including anal rape) from other inmates.
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
Name Nickname Ethnicity Status
Armen Kazarian Pzo Armenian Imprisoned
Aslan Usoyan Ded Khasan "Grandpa Hassan" Yazidi Kurdish Active
Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov Tayvanchik "Taiwanese" Uzbek (Uyghur) Active
Zakhar Kalashov Shagro molodoi "Young Shagro" Georgian Imprisoned
Tariel Oniani Taro Georgian Imprisoned
Vladimir Podatev Cossack / ethnic Russian Active
Evsei Agron Jewish Dead
Jaba Ioseliani Georgian Dead
Otari Kvantrishvili Otarik Georgian Dead
Vyacheslav Ivankov Yaponchik "Little Japanese" Russian Dead
 In popular culture
The Isaac Babel play Maria includes the character of Isaac Dimshits, a Lithuanian Jewish vor who rules a black market empire in 1920 St. Petersburg.
The vory are featured prominently in the 2007 David Cronenberg film Eastern Promises, with members being a part of a criminal gang involved in sex trafficking and smuggling.
They are also featured in the popular Soviet comedy film Gentlemen of Fortune. Although the issue is not directly addressed, both the main character and the criminal he is impersonating sport prison tattoos that may be found on a vor. The black comedy film Zhmurki also features a character who is a vor.
In the Soviet TV miniseries The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed, 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 Secret Speech (book), a novel by Tom Rob Smith, the primary antagonist Fraera is a vor. Vory are also encountered at other points in the story.
Vor v zakone is featured in the game Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear.
V Vory V Zakone has also been featured in a Criminal Minds (2007)(Season 2 Episode 20) Where a Vor implies he has a son and is forced to enforce the thieve's law.
Vory V Zakone organization is part of the main plot of John le Carré's Our Kind of Traitor.
In the Russian tv series Brigada the main character's gang gets into a conflict with a vor in a few episodes.
 See also
"Thieves by Law", documentary by Alexander Gentelev, 2010
^ a b c d e f g h i j k Michael Schwirtz (2008-07-29). "Vory v Zakone has hallowed place in Russian criminal lore.". International Herald Tribune.
^ 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