July 6, 2018

The History of Russia’s Underworld

The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia

Mark Galeotti. The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia. Yale University Press, 2018. 326 p.

Mark Galeotti is a well-known analyst specialising in Russia and a researcher at an international relations institute in Prague. He has worked at reputable British and US universities and been a visiting professor at MGIMO. However, few know that Galeotti has studied Russian organised crime for the past 25 years and has written a book based on this work.

The Vory is based on detailed research and its main thesis is that Russian organised crime can be viewed as a subculture with its own norms, rituals and practices. In addition to interviews and the works of Russian- and English-language authors on the subject, Galeotti makes use of texts by historians, literary scientists and anthropologists.

Thieves—vory in Russian—have traditionally been an organised, closed and criminal caste of the Russian underworld, whose activities will be somewhat familiar to those who have read Estonian fiction such as Ahto Levi’s Halli hundi päevik (The Diary of Grey Wolf) or Raimond Kaugver’s Nelikümmend küünalt (Forty Candles).

At the beginning of the book, the author takes the reader to pre-revolutionary times and shows that Czarist Russia was a state that “policed on the cheap” (p. 12)—in the late 19th century, there were fewer than 48,000 policemen for 120 million residents in Russia. Most of them served in cities, and hence there were slightly over 8,000 officers for the 90 million people who lived in the countryside (p. 16). It is no wonder that forms of rough justice were prevalent among country residents, with horse thieves receiving the strictest punishments. Chronic corruption in the Russian Empire, which Galeotti even calls “something of a Russian tradition” (p. 13), must be also taken into account in this.

Galeotti identifies the slums (jamy) of historical cities like St Petersburg, Odessa and Moscow as the birthplace of modern Russian organised crime. People from the villages flocked to the cities in search of good fortune due to urbanisation and industrial development. Most of them ended up in the slums, where official structures were only nominally represented. As a result, criminal groups emerged, which Galeotti considers to be the beginning of the world of thieves, or vorovskoi mir. The groups dealt in extortion, pickpocketing and robbery and specialised in a certain type of activity from quite early on (p. 31). Galeotti claims that criminal groups borrowed their structure from the first artels—they had a specific hierarchy, joint budget and the obligation to help one another (p. 30).

According to Galeotti, the ties between power and the criminal world emerged owing to Stalin, who wasn’t the only revolutionary to fill the Bolshevist party’s coffers with the proceeds of robbery. There was a shift after the Bolshevik coup. The chaos in Russia during and after the revolution forced the Bolsheviks to take increasingly brutal steps to remain in power. One of these was to establish a system of prison camps and send people there in great numbers. The Gulag camps brought the homogenisation of the vorovskoi mir—prisoners were moved from camp to camp and they created a unified subculture. In the world of the camps, a nationwide hierarchy was established: the top was reserved for thieves in law (vory v zakone), who were “not necessarily gang leaders” but rather “judges, teachers, role models and high priests of the vorovskoi mir” (p. 46). During that time, one of the norms of the world of thieves—the prohibition to cooperate with the state—was cemented. Those who broke the rule were called “bitches” (suka). The historical overview of what happened in the camps during the war is long, but one breakthrough moment is worth mentioning: the bitches’ war. More than a million Gulag prisoners, many criminals among them, joined the Red Army during World War II (p. 54). Galeotti believes the reason for this was pure opportunism, the desire to achieve better living conditions, but Anne Applebaum says that the camps were also affected by the general surge of patriotism, so that even criminals went to war for idealistic reasons.1 The last chapter of the first part is a treat for scholars of culture, as it explores the development of thieves’ slang, tattoo culture and norms. There is also a short summary of the role of women in the world of thieves.

Galeotti claims that the vorovksoi mir was nearly done for after Stalin’s death and the closure of the Gulag camps, since it was meant to exist in the camp system (p. 87), but the economies of shortage2 and the endemic corruption in the Soviet Union connected to it gave a new lease of life to thieves. Alena Ledeneva has described this system (blat) as a structure of informal networks that helped people gain access to goods and services in short supply.3 This was an opportunity for thieves, who formed illegal companies and mediated these goods in cooperation with Communist Party structures, “the biggest gang in town” (p. 86).

The book is especially interesting in its coverage of the 1990s, as this section is based on the author’s own fieldwork in Russia. As expected, one of the most important sources of income for the world of thieves during perestroika was the manufacture and sale of bootleg alcohol (p. 99). There is an excellent book on this period, which shows the extent of the chaos in the Soviet economy when one of the most important sources of income for the state disappeared.4 Galeotti claims that the situation that emerged led the criminal world to participate in business—the author explains in fascinating terms how people started to ask criminals for goods besides alcohol (p. 100). The book dedicates too little space to protection rackets and the development of ethnic groups during that time; for the author these are, rather, an episode that serves to show how the basis for the structure of later organised crime was created after the Soviet Union collapsed.

Changes in organised crime in the Russian Federation take up more than half the book. It shows how former gang crime was gradually replaced with the so-called structure of authorities, where it is hard to differentiate between a businessman and a crime boss. This structure emerged due to the situation that has also been called “Russian neofeudalism”,5 caused by the state-supported “kleptocracy” where being close to power grants access to resources.6 The analysis of the rivalry between ethnic gangs, especially the section on Chechens, is a highlight here. I also recommend the chapter on the idealisation of the world of thieves in modern Russian cinema and music.

Galeotti claims that the emergence of the Russian underworld was most influenced by Stalin (by creating a criminal willing to work with the state), Brezhnev (by allowing the black market to flourish due to an economy of shortages) and Gorbachev (by providing new economic opportunities to the thieves). The book concludes with an analysis of how Russian organised crime has infiltrated the Crimea and the Donbas. It proves that crime is a dynamic phenomenon capable of development that is in constant flux.


1 A. Applebaum, Gulag: A History. New York, Toronto, Sydney and Auckland: Doubleday, 2003.

2 K. Verdery,  “Ethnic relations, economies of shortage, and the transition in Eastern Europe”, in C.M. Hann (ed.) Socialism: Ideals, Ideologies, and Local Practice. London and New York: Routledge, 1993, pp. 172–87.

3 A.V. Ledeneva, Russia’s Economy of Favours. Blat, Networking and Informal Exchange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

4 M.L. Schrad, Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

5 V. Shlapentokh, Contemporary Russia as a Feudal Society. A New Perspective on the Post-Soviet Era. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

6 K. Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy. Who owns Russia? New York, London, Toronto, Sydney and New Delhi: Simon and Schuster, 2014.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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