Revolution under the Shadow of the State: Organized Crime in the Soviet Union

Moscow’s Red Square during the Soviet era. Photo:
/Flickr. No changes made. View the license here.

By Mike Shirley


“I have no mother and no father. 
There is only the code, the vory v zakone code.” 
Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises[1]

In 1971, Voldemar Mirkin, an antiques dealer in the Soviet Union’s thriving black market, came across a suspicious van that blocked his car’s path. Mirkin exited his vehicle to argue with the van’s driver when, suddenly, he was grabbed and stuffed into a coffin sat in the back of the van. The van sped off but was swiftly intercepted by a police vehicle, then inspected. Mirkin watched through a hole in the coffin as the police officer who pulled the van over was summarily executed by the men who had taken him hostage. Mirkin, in his horror, pleaded with his kidnappers and agreed to pay them for protection of his black market dealings. The murdered police officer then rose to his feet and began to celebrate with those who “shot” him.[2] Mirkin had unknowingly set off this chain of events the day before, when he refused to cooperate with one the most infamous criminals in the Soviet Union – Gennady Karkov.[3]

Karkov was a member of the criminal underworld that existed in the Soviet Union, he was a vor (a thief in law). The vory operated in the shadows of Soviet society. They bridged the gap between ordinary Soviet citizens, the informal market, and corrupt Soviet officials. The vory had their own vernacular, aesthetic, code of conduct, and society – known as the vorovskoy mir (thieves world). As a respected criminal leader, Karkov was also known as a vor v zakone (thief within the code), which can be compared to the Italian Mafia’s ‘made man.’[4] Karkov, and the vory in general, represent a significant contradiction to the aspirations of Soviet rhetoric. Why should one turn to criminality to fulfil their needs in a socialist society? Moreover, how did a new class of people emerge in the shadows of a supposedly classless society? Vladimir Lenin, the founding father of the Soviet Union, argued that criminality was a symptom of the failures of capitalism.[5] For Lenin, a socialist society would remove one’s need to resort to criminal behaviour as their needs would be provided for by the state. Yet the vory emerged in the early stages of Soviet socialism and thrived in its middle-to-late period. 

This essay will tell the story of the vory to understand how these contradictions emerged in Soviet society. This will be accomplished by first detailing who the vory are, the structure of the vorovskoy mir, and vor culture, and then tracing the evolution of the vory throughout the Soviet period. This essay finds that Soviet policy was directly responsible for a second revolution under the shadow of the Soviet Union. Just as Soviet officials would evolve under the conditions of socialism, so too did Soviet criminals. This simultaneous evolution would bring about a mutually beneficial relationship between the Soviet state and its criminals that would come to raise the prestige and influence of the vory. This essay concludes that contemporary Russian organized crime, which now wields influence all over the world, owes its success to the Soviet state.  

Who are the Vory?

The origins of the vory can be traced back to tsarist Russia. Horse thieves, for example, would band together to claim a home territory and corrupt or threaten the local populace and officials in what historian Mark Galeotti calls “an interesting parallel to the modern Russian gangster.”[6] These groups, though, were relatively disorganized and possessed no real desire to monopolize the criminal world. It was the thrust of industrialisation, urbanisation, and modernisation in late-tsarist Russia that would create the conditions in which like-minded individuals would converge and forge relationships with one another. Moreover, the subculture of the vorovskoi mir emerged from the drinking dens and low-cost lodgings in the yamy (slums) of the late-tsarist industrial cities.[7] Varieties of criminals, with their own distinctive skills and titles, began to voluntarily pool their efforts towards a common cause and created an early form of a gang, known as an artel. The artels, however, were not durable nor substantial and were made only of small pockets of criminals.[8]  

It was not until the Bolsheviks had decisively achieved victory over the old tsarist regime and the Glavnoe upravlenie lagerei (Gulag) prison system was established that criminals would begin to cohesively shape the vorovskoi mir. Hardened vory, known as the blatnye, came to dominate the camps. They contrasted from their fellow inmates and previous tsarist criminals because they had no desire to participate in what Galeotti calls “polite society.”[9] The blatnye instead sought to reject the legitimate world in favour of their own code. These dedicated thieves, within the walls of the Gulags, would come to radically change the vorovskoi mir. They would establish the code of conduct, the structure, and the culture of the vory that is still practiced today.[10]  

Code and Structure

The vory are professional criminals and are part of an exclusive fraternity that places membership above everything else. A group of criminals who just happen to plan and conduct a robbery should not be assumed to be members of the voroskoi mir.[11] Instead, membership is contingent upon the acceptance of and adherence to a code. This code is a purposeful and direct rejection of mainstream society and its values (e.g., nation, church, family, and charity).[12] The code requires the vory to dedicate their lives to criminal acts, refuse cooperation with the state, share all they have with the fraternity, abandon family ties, and ensure that other vory uphold the code.[13] A vor who broke this code would be swiftly and severely punished. However, adherence to some of these requirements, as I will discuss below, would become less and less important to membership over time. 

The closest equivalent to the vory is the Italian Mafia, but ethnic and familial ties play a much smaller role in the vory than it does for other gangs. Economic interests unite the vory more than anything else.[14] Additionally, the vory have no specified leader. The vory v zakone act as the shepherds and high priests within the vorovskoi mir but they do not necessarily wield power over their peers.[15] In contrast to the hierarchical structure of the Italian Mafia where a ‘Don’ controls a particular family, Galeotti notes, “one of the most distinctive things about Russian organized crime is precisely how disorganized it is.”[16] The code dictates how a vor should act. Status within the vory, however, is relatively structured.

The status of a vor is based on a tiered system. A prospective member is known as a patsan, a “regular” thief is a vor, a senior thief is a pakhan, and the vory v zakone represent the upper echelon of the vorovksoi mir. Patsany must be quizzed by vory v zakone to ensure that they were honest about their criminal past and to screen for informants. Further, at least two existent vory must be able to vouch for the candidate. A successful entrant may hope, with years of distinguished accomplishments (such as several successful robberies), to be considered a pakhan. This process is a mark of respect rather than a formal ascension process. Finally, to be selected as a vor v zakone is an intensive process, as candidates had to be well respected within the community and sponsors had to attest to the candidate’s devotion to the thieves’ code. A successful candidate would then be coronated as a vor v zakone.[17] Moreover, the vory communicated with one another across the camp system. Prisoners were regularly transferred which allowed for convicts to exchange messages from one camp to another. One’s criminal background could be sponsored through word of mouth or on a small piece of paper called a ksiva, and their status within the vory could be accepted or rejected because of this transfer of information.[18] If it was determined, for example, that one was a professional killer, they would not be allowed into the fraternity.[19]

The vory had a rudimentary but effective system of administration known as the skhodki. The skhodki dealt with member ascension and served as a court for any vory who broke the code. Those who broke the code typically faced four types of punishment: (1) the disallowance of boasting about one’s crimes;[20] (2) a public slap from a member of the vory; (3) permanent expulsion from the fraternity; and (4) corporal punishment – often in the form of a beating with a stick.[21] The death penalty was reserved for grave breaches of the code such as informing the authorities about a fellow vor or repeatedly cheating them. The guilty party would be given the opportunity to die as a vor if they stood with their back against a wall, ripped their shirt open, and said: “take my soul.”[22]

Vory Culture

In addition to their unique code and structure, the vory had a well-established and often mythologized culture. It was homogenized within the Gulag system and continued to evolve throughout the Soviet period. Vor culture existed to increasingly separate the gangsters from society. They started using language in a way that would not be understandable to an ordinary citizen and began to mark their bodies with symbols that were meant to offend and intimidate. For example, fenya (or ofenya) is the “can’t” of the vory.[23] It was a way for vory to communicate around the Gulag authorities. The grammatical structure was the same as Russian, but the words were coded, making it difficult for the uninitiated to understand.[24] For example, ordinary people were labelled as frayery (meaning a John or a sucker) and lyudi (people) was used to describe svoi (our own) members of the vorovskoi mir.[25] Nothing was more important to the vory than their association with the vorovskoi mir because it provided acceptance to those who had been cast out of (or chosen to reject) civil society.

Perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the vory is their use of tattoos. The vory’s use of tattoos appears to have begun at the turn of the 20th century. Tattoos acted as a coded curriculum vitae as one can learn everything there is to know about a vor through their tattoos.[26] This included their rank and criminal deeds, where and how long they were imprisoned, and their criminal specialties. Stars tattooed on one’s knees symbolised the vor’s refusal to kneel before authorities, while the number of domes used in a tattoo of an Orthodox church represented the number of sentences served by the vor.[27] Even Nazi swastikas or grotesque images of Marx, Lenin, or Stalin were used to communicate through a vor’s body.[28] Tattoos allowed for the vory to recognize one another if someone was transferred to a different prison camp. An existent vor, once recognized by his new colleagues, would receive automatic membership into the local community after being transferred.[29] Tattoos were to become so sacred to the vory that if someone had a tattoo that they had not earned, even the tattoo artist could face fatal consequences. [30]

The vory were only as good as their word and their commitment to the vorovskoi mir. Vory, even when they were released, were expected to maintain their oath to never work for the state. Vory had to earn their money from illegal activities and not from working for the state, which had a role in most ordinary occupations. They were also expected to continue to help fellow members still imprisoned by sending them money, organising escapes, and integrating them into the outside criminal networks upon release.[31]  Another way a vor could make money was by winning card games.[32] Card games were the unofficial sport of the vorovskoi mir. Making a deck was a difficult task, requiring paper, bread, stamps, and the base of a tin mug or shoe heel to create the card and ash, clay, blood, or Streptomycin (an antibiotic).[33] Overall, the code would instill the moral code by which a vor was expected to follow; failure to uphold the code would remove one from this exclusive fraternity.

Gender and the vorovskoi mir

The vorovskoi mir was based on hypermasculine notions of strength, fraternity, and loyalty. Emotions could only be safely expressed through music. The vory embraced what Galeotti calls a “horrifically misogynistic culture” where women were “confined to the rules of the idealised mother, wanton prostitute, helpless victim, gangster’s moll or excluded outside.”[34] Women were often despised by the vory. Even a vor’s mother was only symbolically respected through his tattoos, as little evidence exists to suggest that a vor would send any money back to their mother.[35] In addition, a vor’s wife was allowed relatively little social relations with anyone outside of the criminal world. She was understood to be property of her husband and if he went to prison, she would continue to take an interest in his wellbeing. Wives had no special rights and, like sex workers, could have been expected to satisfy the needs of other vory.[36] Women within the Gulag system were also subjected to a subaltern position where they would follow the direction of the male vory.[37]

The vorovskoi mir owed its true beginning to the Russian Revolution and would continue to evolve throughout the Soviet experience until it came to dominate the criminal underworld well beyond the collapse of the Union. It is likely that, without the Soviets, the vory would not have ever extended beyond the small pockets of criminals that existed in the tsarist era. The vory experienced its own revolution in the shadow of the Soviet project. 

Emergence & Consolidation: The Stalin Era (1922-1953)

Contrary to Lenin’s belief, crime did not subside with Russia’s transition to socialism. The violence and chaos that came with the First World War and the Russian Civil War combined to create new opportunities for criminals, as waves of displaced people were easy to prey on.[38] Desperation and material scarcity ran rampant in the enormous territory as Soviet policy makers attempted to gain control of the newly formed union. It was not until the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924 and the rise of Joseph Stalin that the Soviets were able to turn their eyes towards the rampant criminal activity in the country. 

A propaganda poster from the Soviet era. Photo is in the public domain.

Stalin’s collectivization and urbanization policies that started in 1929 would bring famine and chaos to the countryside and banditry to the cities as people became desperate to survive.[39] Criminals would follow as people increasingly moved to the cities to avoid starvation in the countryside. Stalin’s regime, like the late tsarist period, had brought about a rapid urbanization and industrialization that would increase specialization and stratification in the criminal underworld.[40] In 1932, the political police instructed local authorities across the Soviet Union to pay greater attention to the criminal elements of society. This would coincide with a crackdown on political dissidents who would come to fill the Gulags by the millions.[41]

The ‘Gangster Archipelago’

The Gulag slave labour camp system spread throughout the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule. It would reach a total of 30,000 camps and serve as the melting pot for the vorovskoi mir. While the slave labour system had been used since Russia’s tsarist period, sentencing to the labour camps was reserved for those who committed the most serious crimes.[42] The camps under the Bolsheviks would come to fulfil a political purpose as they were used to “re-educate” those who were deemed to be counterrevolutionary.[43] Articles 49 and 56 of the Soviet Criminal Code, introduced in 1922 and 1928 respectively, would bring an influx of prisoners to the Gulag system. Article 49 brought petty criminals – such as shoplifters and those connected to them – into the labour camp system, while article 58 led to the imprisonment of political dissidents.[44]

The camp system homogenized and magnified the pre-existing culture of the vorovskoi mir. The camps quickly became the best possible locations for the swift dissemination and maintenance of vor traditions and culture.[45] Prisoners would mingle with one another in the transport trucks and train carriages, as well as in the transit stations along their route.[46] The influx of petty criminals and political dissidents into the camps gave the professional criminals a new set of victims to prey upon. Scarcity in the prison system drove the desire for goods and a black market emerged. Those who were able to acquire profitable goods were able to demonstrate their authority, connections, and outright toughness to the other prisoners.[47] Respect for these individuals began to surface and suddenly, the vorovskoi mir had something it did not have before – a hierarchical system.[48] 

A separate class system within the vory themselves emerged as those most dedicated to the code became known as the blatnye.[49] A true blatnoi was so dedicated to the code of the vorovskoi mir that they would feign illness, mutilate themselves, or withstand the clubs and guns of the guards before lifting a finger for the state.[50] The blatnye’s dedication to the code, however, would bring their supremacy into question, as Mark Galeotti notes:

If there was one crucial, and ultimately fatal, weakness in the code of the vorovskoi mir, it was the absolute ban on any form of cooperation with the state. This helped define the thieves and build their coherent subculture, but in an age of totalitarian dreams and massive state power, it was to prove increasingly untenable.[51]

Indeed, vory willing to cooperate with the state became more and more prominent as the administration offered attractive opportunities for collaborators (such as free movement in the camp’s courtyard). These collaborators would become known as the suki (bitches). The authorities had originally worked with criminals not of the vorovskoi mir, but using the vory allowed the officials to coopt the dominant class of the prison and ensure that the petty criminals and political prisoners were controlled.[52] On the one hand, Stalin’s policies unified the vorovskoi mir, while on the other driving a wedge between them.[53] This division would come to shape the future of the vorovskoi mir. 

The suki were clever enough to not actively pursue the blatnye. Though they had the support of the state, the suki were outnumbered by their counterparts and decided to focus their efforts on the petty criminals and political prisoners.[54] It was not until the Second World war that the suki would be able to challenge the blatnye. The People’s Defence Committee Order No. 227, introduced in 1942, conscripted convicts into the Red Army. Those who were sent away would be considered collaborators by the traditional thieves. These returnees, known as the voyenschina (soldiery), would come to a conscious compromise with the suki that saw them maintain the code of the vorovskoi mir without the ban on collaboration with the state.[55] The suki now outnumbered the blatnye, which started a battle of authority in the camps and threatened the future of the vorovskoi mir. This battle came to be known as the Bitch Wars and lasted from the late 1940s until the early 1950s. Not only did the suki now have the numbers, but they also had battle-hardened soldiers who were able to make swift work of the traditional thieves. The suki emerged victorious and the code of the vorovskoi mir was permanently altered as collaboration between the state and the vory was now acceptable.[56] This collaboration, now accepted by the vory, would only continue to grow through the collapse of the Soviet Union and into the contemporary period.

The Gulags also united the vory. The constant shuffling of prisoners allowed for the exchange of ideas and values, which fostered a system with its own structure, language, and culture. Stalin’s repressive laws then brought an influx of prey for the professional criminals and effectively established a class system in the Gulags, with the vory on top. Stalin’s policies underlined a fundamental phenomenon as state officials began to cooperate with criminals to ensure proper administration in the Gulags.[57] When Stalin decided to conscript prisoners into the Red Army, he unintentionally sealed the fate of the blatnye and guaranteed the longevity of the vory, as the fundamental flaw in their code became obsolete. But the shadow revolution had only just begun. 

Thaw & Retreat: Khrushchev’s Interlude (1956-1964)

Stalin died of complications due a cerebral hemorrhage on 5 March 1953. His death brought an immediate change to the Gulag system as his former head of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), Laverty Beria, declared an immediate amnesty of about one million inmates from Gulag camps.[58] The following three months saw the release of some 1.5 million prisoners – with preference given to the vory who collaborated with the state.[59] This led to a brief increase in criminal activity, as the combination of freedom and the connections made in the Gulags created new opportunities for eager criminals. However, the state under Nikita Khrushchev was swift to react, as Khrushchev established himself as the victor of the power struggle that followed Stalin’s death. 

The 1956 Law of Measures for Improving the Performance of the USSR MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) was launched by Nikita Khrushchev to supress the gangs that had erupted from the Gulags.[60] It was a multifactored effort that would see the police, the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB), and other social and political Soviet institutions crack down on elements of organized crime.[61] The state was successful in its repression of the vory, as organized crime throughout the 1960s and 1970s returned to relatively small-scale ventures, such as fraud and illegal gambling.[62] This was the Soviet Union’s best chance to eliminate organized crime entirely, but international crises related to the Cold War would keep the Soviet state occupied. The vory, resilient as ever, bided their time to re-emerge. Their time would come as stagnation came to dominate Soviet society.

Resurgence: Brezhnev’s ‘Little Deal’ (1964-1982)

Leonid Brezhnev ascended to the General Secretary’s Office in October of 1964 after ousting Khruschev. He inherited a country that was in the middle of an international great power struggle between the Union and the United States. Due to this power struggle, Brezhnev divested the country’s funds from ambitious programs and reforms in favour of a substantially increased defense budget. This decision jeopardized the rapid improvement of living standards that had been envisioned during Khrushchev’s reign.[63] Brezhnev’s policies facilitated an economic slowdown, and consumer goods became less available on the legitimate market. 

The economic slowdown coincided with the rise of foreign-influence fads that would come to drive consumer demands. Stilyagi (stylish) beatniks and rockers of the 1950s and 1960s and the football-obsessed fanaty (fans) would create a demand for western goods that challenged the orthodoxy of the Party.[64] Scarcity in domestic stock coupled with a demand for foreign goods manifested into an elaborate and extensive informal market. The informal market had existed in the Soviet Union well before Brezhnev ascended to the leadership, but under his direction it began to cross the line dividing the underworld and the state.[65] It was in this informal market that the vory would re-emerge and revolutionize. 

The vory, while effectively reduced under Khrushchev’s reforms, found new opportunities in the scarcity that Brezhnev’s slowdown created. Not only did ordinary Soviet citizens desire consumer goods, but scarcity had reached the upper levels of the nomenklatura (the Soviet elite).[66] The vory’s ability to retrieve and distribute goods would forge new relationships with the state and Soviet society, as they acted as the broker between them and the tsekhoviki (the informal entrepreneurs). Had collaboration with the state not been accepted by the vory in the late Stalinist period, it is likely that the vory would never have achieved this role.  Brezhnev turned a blind eye toward the informal market instead of suppressing it, and allowed rampant corruption to exist within the Soviet elite in favour of stability.[67] So long as these deals did not challenge the state or exceed an unspecified amount, there was a tacit agreement between the state and the informal market. This would come to be known as Brezhnev’s “little deal.”[68] The vorovskoi mir intertwined with both the white-collar criminals of the informal economy and the state bureaucracy, as party officials began to learn how profitable the informal market could be.[69] The ‘little deal’ unleashed state corruption and emboldened those in the vorovskoi mir to set out and reach new heights in terms of wealth, prestige, and influence.

The Informal Market

The informal market was only made possible because of the failures of the Soviet state. Citizens turned to bribery, the black market, and blat (the economy of favours) to fill the gaps left by Brezhnev’s economic stagnation. Soviet life became increasingly dependent on the informal market as it provided desired, and sometimes necessary, goods to an alienated populace. The official rhetoric of worker empowerment and Soviet superiority did not line up with reality. The socialist system had become what Galeotti calls, a “pyramid of predation, as those at the bottom paid those at the top, often for what was no more than their legal due.”[70] The use of the informal market gave some semblance of personal control to the Soviet populace, which was otherwise shaped by the corrupt state apparatus.[71] 

The vorovskoi mir found its new life in the desires and needs of a Soviet population that was isolated from the rest of the world. The vory became the middlemen between white collar criminals, the tsekhoviki, Soviet officials, and the general population. This is because the state’s acceptance of the informal market did not mean that it would provide protection for those operating within it. New opportunities for the vory came to fruition as a result. Italian Mafia historian Federico Varese argues that “the mafia banks on the inefficiency of the state in supplying efficient protection to legal transactions. The more confused the legal framework of a country… the more the mafia will thrive.”[72] The lack of legal accountability within the informal market allowed for the vory to exploit it with relative freedom. 

Further, the tsekhoviki were flush with cash but poor in protection, which left them vulnerable to their competition and gangsters. Varese states that “if trust is scarce, and the state is not able or willing to protect property rights, it is sensible to expect a high demand for non-state, private protection.”[73] This desire for protection would be accommodated in the form of a krysha (roof or protection). Krysha is an ambiguous term, but it ranges from the extortion of protection money, protection from other criminals, debt recovery (which was handled more efficiently than the Soviet courts), to access to the local authorities who would take bribes.[74] The tsekhoviki had to reach an agreement with both Soviet officials and organized crime. Tsekhoviki, with the protection of the vory, could then smuggle foreign luxuries, deal in high demand goods, and set up workshops and factories that produced everything from cigarettes to counterfeit jeans.[75] This system simultaneously provided Soviet citizens their desired goods and raised the prestige of the vory. 

The vory were no longer the rough-and-tough outsiders of the Gulag system – they were fundamental to Soviet society. By the 1980s, the vory would come to enjoy wealth and influence that the previous generation could never have achieved. However, the vory had to institute new structures if they hoped to ensure their longevity. The vorovskoi mir began to take a new shape as gang leaders started to hold congresses on issues related to the vory. These meetings included the terms of the krysha, whether the gangsters should deal drugs, how to respond to the police, and even whether to get involved in politics.[76] The vory began to mirror the state apparatus as their influence continued to grow. 

Brezhnev’s tacit acceptance of the informal market essentially allowed citizens more freedom to loaf, complain, steal, and barter if they did not challenge the status quo of the leadership.[77] The Soviet elite, not afraid to line their own pockets, eagerly participated in the informal market. The nomenklatura, with its own internal system of incentives and punishments, funneled tribute gained from the informal market into the upper echelons of power. The elite, in doing so, not only tolerated criminal activity but actively encouraged, facilitated, and protected it because they directly benefitted from it.[78] Brezhnev would die in 1982 and was followed by two successors: Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. Neither leader would live long enough to establish a meaningful policy towards organized crime as Andropov died in 1984 and Chernenko would follow in 1985.[79]

Continuity Through Change: Gorbachev’s Reforms (1985-1991)

Mikhail Gorbachev inherited a decades-long war in Afghanistan, widespread corruption, and the informal market from Brezhnev’s rule. The liberal-minded leader had hoped to bring fresh life to the Soviet Union through economic and social reforms. Gorbachev’s Perestroika (restructuring) brought limited liberalisation to the country and created small private businesses called kooperativniki (cooperatives), while glasnost (openness) allowed Soviet citizens to criticize their government without fear of state oppression. Gorbachev also tried to combat alcoholism which had run rampant in the country due to what Galeotti calls, the “drabness and hopelessness of everyday life.” These reforms would ultimately help bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they also created the conditions for the vory to become exceedingly wealthy and ensured their existence well beyond the Union’s collapse. 

Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign had a similar effect that Prohibition did in the US, as Soviet citizens increasingly turned to the informal market to purchase moonshine. The vory had established themselves not as predators but as suppliers during the Brezhnev years, and had thus experienced an informal legitimation process in which the vory elicited trust from the Soviet population. The vory’s participation in a transaction often implicitly and explicitly guaranteed the sale, as they maintained their connections to the corrupt Soviet elite. Soviet citizens knew they could turn to the vory to get them what they needed without fear of state reprisal. The vory gained tremendous new wealth as they became the only avenue for Soviet citizens to buy their alcohol. They did not, however, limit themselves to alcohol distribution. The kooperativniki established by Gorbachev’s policies offered a place for the vory to launder and reinvest their new-found money, as they easily intimidated the vulnerable entrepreneurs by means of muscle and money. Vory with a credible capacity to deploy violence became the basis for organized crime in the Soviet Union. Fortunately for the vory, there was a large supply of people willing and able to commit violent acts. 

Among these groups of people were top Soviet athletes and veterans. The USSR invested significant amounts into their sportsmen so that they may reap the benefit from their physical labour and performance in international competitions.[85] Boxing coaches would send out their protégés into the cities to test their strength against street hoodlums armed with pocketknives. The vory would observe these contests and invest in the strength of these athletes. The athletes would then experience the illicit luxury that the criminal underworld could provide, and would succumb to its temptations.[86] The number of gangster-athletes would continue to grow as the Soviets were unable to provide the athletes with the generous salaries they previously enjoyed.[87] Additionally, veterans from the Soviet’s war in Afghanistan, afgansty, would come to fill the vory’s ranks. They returned from war as politically marginalized citizens who were scapegoated and neglected by the state.[88] They too needed to compete for material means in a time of scarcity, and thus offering protection with the vory gave them a way out. Had the Soviets properly reintegrated veterans to society, it is possible that this could have been avoided. Again, Soviet policy directly influenced vory membership.

By late 1989, the vory controlled or were profiting from an estimated 75 percent of the cooperatives.[89] The vory’s influx of wealth coincided with the collapse of the authority of the state, which meant the gangsters faced no serious challenges from the state. Gorbachev had unwittingly created the best possible conditions for the vory. They were able to exploit the market forces that Gorbachev’s reforms created, and they were unopposed by a state that was rapidly unravelling.[90]


In 1971, Voldemar Mirkin had unknowingly been an early victim of the vory’s shadow revolution. Gennady Karkov would be arrested in 1972 and serve 14 years in prison. He remained active in the vorvoskoi mir but when he was released in 1986, the vory had reached new heights and he found that his time had passed. His legacy, however, remained respected in the Soviet criminal underworld. His cruel cunning would become something of a model for the vory – his gang tortured and killed those who refused to work with him, and this reliance on violence would come to shape the vory beyond the collapse of the Union.[91] The vory found longevity through their newfound wealth and this proclivity towards violence.

The vory emerged from the collapse of the Union with wealth that would allow them to exploit a devastated economy. Moreover, the collapse of the Iron Curtain afforded criminals new, international avenues to conduct their business.[92] Ruthless businessmen would kidnap, bribe, and kill their way to the top of the social ladder as the illicit criminal world merged with legitimate business interests. These criminals would come to control influential businesses that would deepen the partnership between the state and criminal underworld. Contemporary Russian criminals fight their battles through the courts instead of through violence and physical force, as they wield unprecedented political influence. From the ashes of the Soviet state’s relationship with the criminal underworld came a nexus that would encapsulate Russian gangsters, some Russian politicians, the Russian business world, and Russian intelligence services.[93]

Contemporary Russian vory grew out of the nomenklatura system as the personal relationships established between the Soviet elite and the criminal underworld remained mutually beneficial after the collapse of the Union.[94] The market forces unleashed under Russia’s transition to capitalism gave incredible opportunities to the vory, who had only grown wealthier and more powerful in the late Soviet period. The vory have maintained their commitment to the code, but its content has shifted along with the times. The fraternity and general trademarks of the vory can still be witnessed though the transition to capitalism, which raised the value of money above the value of prestige for the vory. Young and unproven criminals with money were now able to buy tattoos that would have gotten them killed in the early days.[95]

What began as a rag-tag group of likeminded criminals forced into slave labour camps under early socialism evolved into a criminal organization that would span the globe. The vory are now recognized for their brutality, cruelty, and influence over politicians in the post-Soviet region.[96] The Soviet system had almost brought an end to the vory, but the shortcomings of the late Soviet period brought a shadow revolution to the criminal underworld that catapulted the vory into the upper echelons of power – never looking back. Without the Soviet system, the vory would never have reached these heights. The Soviet state unified, diversified, and revolutionized the vorovskoi mir into the expansive criminal network that it is today.


[1] Eastern Promises, directed by David Cronenburg (2007: Amazon Prime Video),film.

[2] Brayden Simms, “How communism gave birth to the world’s most vicious mafia,” The New York Post, June 23, 2018.

[3] Better known as, “The Mongol,” because of his Asiatic appearance. See: Simms, “How communism gave birth to the world’s most vicious mafia.”

[4] For more information on the concept of a made man, see: “How do you Become a Made Man?,” The National Crime Syndicate, n.d, accessed March 17, 2022,

[5] V.I. Lenin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii 26,(Moscow: Gosizdat, 1958-65), 372.

[6] Mark Galeotti, The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 18.

[7] Galeotti, The Vory, 22.

[8] Galeotti, The Vory, 29, 32.

[9] Galeotti, The Vory, 31.

[10] Galeotti, The Vory, 3.

[11] Federico Varese, The Russian Mafia: Private Protection in a New Market Economy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 4.

[12] Galeotti, The Vory, 22.

[13] Ibid, 47; Varese, The Russian Mafia, 152.

[14] James O. Finckenauer and Yuri A. Voronin, “The Threat of Russian Organized Crime,” Issues in International Crime (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, 2001), 4.

[15] Galeotti, The Vory, 46.

[16] Mark Galeotti, “The Russian ‘Mafiya’: Consolidation and Globalization,” Global Crime 6, vol. 1, (2004): 55.

[17] Galeotti, The Vory, 63.

[18] Galeotti, The Vory, 63.

[19] Killing was only acceptable to defend one’s honour or one’s life. A thief who committed murder had to justify the act before obtaining membership. For a discussion on the early vory and murder, see: Varese, The Russian Mafia, 155.

[20] Boasting served as an important function for a vory. One would early recant their criminal activities to achieve higher prestige amongst their fellow vory. For a detailed description of boasting, see: Varese, The Russian Mafia, 158.

[21] Varese, The Russian Mafia, 158-159.

[22] Varese, The Russian Mafia, 159.

[23] Ofenya was used in old Russian while fenya was more contemporary.

[24] Varese, The Russian Mafia, 146.

[25] Galeotti, The Vory, 65.

[26] Galeotti, The Vory, 70.

[27] Galeotti, The Vory, 69-70.

[28] It is argued that images of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin were used because it was believed that the guards would not shoot the founders of the state. For a detailed discussion on the symbology in the vorovskoi mir,see: Galeotti, The Vory, 69.

[29] Varese, The Russian Mafia, 150.

[30] Galeotti, The Vory, 71.

[31] Varese, The Russian Mafia, 155, 166.

[32] Varese, The Russian Mafia, 55.

[33] Galeotti, The Vory, 74-75.

[34] Galeotti, The Vory, 76.

[35] Galeotti, The Vory, 75; Varese, The Russian Mafia, 152-153.

[36] Varese, The Russian Mafia, 152-153.

[37] Galeotti, The Vory, 77.

[38] Galeotti, The Vory, 39.

[39] Galeotti, The Vory, 43-45.

[40] Galeotti, The Vory, 43.

[41] Galeotti, The Vory, 43.

[42] Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (New York: Anchor, 2004), xxxi.

[43] Ronald Radosh, Mary Habeck, and Grigory Sevostianov, The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 11.

[44] Galeotti, The Vory, 42.

[45] Varese, The Russian Mafia, 165.

[46] Galeotti, The Vory, 45.

[47] Galeotti, The Vory, 75.

[48] Galeotti, The Vory, 45.

[49] They also called themselves urki, urkagany, and blatary. See: Galeotti, The Vory, 47.

[50] Galeotti, The Vory, 47.

[51] Galeotti, The Vory, 50.

[52] Galeotti, The Vory, 51-52.

[53] Galeotti, The Vory, 51.

[54] Galeotti, The Vory, 53.

[55] Galeotti, The Vory, 55.

[56] Galeotti, The Vory, 57-59.

[57] Galeotti, The Vory, 36.

[58] It is argued that Beria enacted this amnesty as a last-ditch attempt to repair his reputation after having ruled ruthlessly with Stalin. See: Aleksei Tikhonov, “The End of the Gulag,” in The Economics of Forced Labour: The Soviet Gulag, eds. Paul R. Gregory and Valery Lazarev (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2003), 67.

[59] Galeotti, The Vory, 60.

[60] Galeotti, The Vory, 86.

[61] Galeotti, The Vory, 86.

[62] Galeotti, The Vory, 86.

[63] James R. Millar, “The Little Deal: Brezhnev’s Contribution to Acquisitive Socialism”, Slavic Review 44, no.4 (Winter 1985): 695.

[64] Galeotti, The Vory, 85; For a discussion about the fanaty, see: Manfred Zeller, Sport and Society in the Soviet Union: The Politics of Football After Stalin, translated by Nicki Challinger, (London, New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2018), 4.

[65] Stephen Handelman, Comrade Criminal (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 56.

[66] An oath of loyalty to Brezhnev was not enough to rise in the nomenklatura, now a material item had to be presented. See: Arkady Vaksberg, The Soviet Mafia (London: George Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 1991), 7.

[67]  Some have argued that Brezhnev acted as the “Godfather” of the Soviet criminal world because of his approach. See: Vaksberg, The Soviet Mafia, 32.

[68] It is called the “little deal” to contrast with Stalin’s “big deal” which privileged prestige and material incentives over ideological commitment for the Soviet middle class. See: James R. Millar, “The Little Deal: Brezhnev’s Contribution to Acquisitive Socialism,” Slavic Review 44, no. 4 (1985), and Vera S. Dunham, In Stalin’s Time: Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976).

[69] Finckenauer and Voronin, “The Threat of Russian Organized Crime,” 2.

[70] Galeotti, The Vory, 91.

[71] Galeotti, The Vory, 91.

[72] Varese, The Russian Mafia, 5.

[73] Varese, The Russian Mafia, 2.

[74] Galeotti, The Russian Mafiya, 57.

[75] Galeotti, The Vory, 95.

[76] Galeotti, The Vory, 83, 96.

[77] Galeotti, The Vory, 89.

[78] Finckenauer and Voronin, “The Threat of Russian Organized Crime,” 6.

[79] Though Andropov would utilize an anti-corruption campaign against his political enemies, little evidence exists to suggest that he had a plan to tackle the state’s relationship with the vory. See: Galeotti, The Vory, 94-95.

[80] There was a brief interlude in leadership between Brezhnev and Gorbachev that was filled by Yuri Andropov and later Konstantin Chernenko. Both leaders would die shortly after taking control, and thus had little impact on the Soviet Union that Gorbachev would inherit.  

[81] It has also been argued that alcohol was culturally promoted in the USSR and that it helped overcome various communication barriers. See: Sergei V. Jargin, “On the Causes of Alcoholism in the Former Soviet Union,” Alcohol and Alcoholism 45, no. 1 (2010): 105; Galeotti, The Vory, 99.

[82] Varese, The Russian Mafia, 5.

[83] Galeotti, The Vory, 99.

[84] Galeotti, The Vory, 99, 102-103.

[85] International competitions had become a sort of proxy battle in the Cold War. See: Galeotti, The Vory, 103; and Carl Schreck, “Blood Sport: The Rise of Russia’s Gangster Athletes,” RadioFreeEurope, May 8, 2016,

[86] Schreck, “Blood Sport.”

[87] Galeotti, The Vory, 103.

[88] Galeotti, The Vory, 103-105.

[89] Galeotti, The Vory, 103-105.

[90] Galeotti, The Vory, 81.

[91] Simms, “How communism gave birth to the world’s most vicious mafia.”

[92] Galeotti, The Vory, 191.

[93] Galeotti, The Vory, 241.

[94] Finckenauer and Voronin, “The Threat of Russian Organized Crime,” 5.

[95] “The Mark of Cain,” Lambert, 51:38.

[96] Perhaps best represented (in English) in David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises.


Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. New York: Anchor, 2004.

Cronenberg, David, dir. Eastern Promises. 2007; Amazon Prime Video.

Dunham, Vera S. In Stalin’s Time: Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

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Galeotti, Mark. “The Russian ‘Mafiya’: Consolidation and Globalization.” Global Crime 6, no. 1 (2004): 54-69.

Jargin, Sergei V. “On the Causes of Alcoholism in the Former Soviet Union.” Alcohol and Alcoholism 45, no. 1 (2010): 104-105.

Handelman, Stephen. Comrade Criminal. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

The National Crime Syndicate. “How do you Become a Made Man?” Accessed March 17, 2022.

Lambert, Alix, dir. The Mark of Cain. 2000. Youtube, Accessed. December 11, 2021.

Lenin, V.I. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii. 26 (Moscow: Gosizdat, 1958-65).

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Radosh, Ronald, Mary Habeck, and Grigory Sevostianov. The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.

Schreck, Carl. “Blood Sport: The Rise of Russia’s Gangster Athletes.” RadioFreeEurope. May 8, 2016.

Simms, Brayden. “How communism gave birth to the world’s most vicious mafia.” The New York Post, June 23, 2018.

Tikhonov, Aleksei. “The End of the Gulag,” in The Economics of Forced Labour: The Soviet Gulag. Edited by Paul R. Gregory and Valery Lazarev. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 2003.

Vaksberg, Arkady. The Soviet Mafia. Translated by John and Elizabeth Roberts. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1991.

Varese, Federico. The Russian Mafia: Private Protection in a New Market Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 

Zeller, Manfred. Sport and Society in the Soviet Union: The Politics of Football After Stalin. Translated by Nicki Challinger. London, New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, 2018.

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