A reader writes:
But anyway, you've stumbled onto a fascinating subject. I looked up the wikipedia entry, and it has some of the basics of the legend -- the 'scab' or 'bitch' war during & after WWII (really afterwards; the idea was that any vory v zakony who served in the army against the Germans were traitors, etc., and so were picked off in the camps in the 1950s), the basic code, and so on.
It leaves a lot out, though. For example, if you talk to old dissidents like Vladimir Bukovsky, the vory v zakony were heroes: the only people who lived by any moral code at all in Soviet times. Not just in refusing to work for the State, taking care of the poor, and so on, but in-- and this completely goes against the new LA-style- refusing luxury and ostentation.
There was a VERY strict code of behavior, sort of mafia-cum-Stoic-cum-Christian asceticism. A vor v zakony might have been wealthy, but he would never show it; and he would always share the wealth.
Some of this sounds like humbug, but people like Bukovsky absolutely revered the Vory v zakony -- they were the ones who kept people alive in the GULAG camps, right into the 1970s and 1980s.
Bukovsky doesn't really know the end of the story, since he came to the West in 1976. But if you believe Stephen Handelman's book on the Russian mafia, Comrade Criminal (he interviewed scores of Vory and other mafiosi in the late 1980s and early 1990s), the Vory v Zakony were basically wiped out circa 1991, right at the time of the Soviet collapse. Wiped out by the nomenklatura criminals: ie CP members who cashed in on export contracts, bought KGB muscle, and fought a brutal gangland war, basically the state mafia wiping out the last of the independent nonstate vory v zakony.
I don't know whether this is true, but it would make a great novel or movie!