Thief in law, 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.
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.
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’ (‘Thieves World’).
As the police and court system were re-established after the 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.’ They 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 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.
After World War II, the vory in the Gulag system were weakened a prison gang war between pure vory and the so-called suki (‘bitches’), 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 II, 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 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 and the 2000s, 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, Vladimir Podatev, 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.
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.’
In the Russian prison system there are also regulations for all prison inmates (‘ludi’ – ‘people,’ in this meaning more like proletariat). The important part of their laws 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,’ the lowest level of prisoner) 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. Ludi are prohibit the use of terms used in the Criminal Code and Criminal Procedure Code. For instance, they must not say ‘witness’ (‘svidetel’), and say ‘ochevidetz’ (‘beholder’) instead. Some words like ‘to ask from someone’ are taboo because they denote ‘payment’ for doing. 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 the regulations 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.
The Petukhi (‘roosters’) 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.