October 20, 2010

Vor v zakone

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!
 

19 comments:

korf said...

An even more interesting and, naturally, often overlooked bit is that Russian post-1917 organized crime used to be dominantly Jewish up to mass incarcerations of late 1930-s. Russian criminal argot, formed in the 1920's, is mostly based on Yiddish. Despite losing some ground to barons from the Caucasus and to ethnic Russian criminals, Jews are still a major force in Russian-speaking organized crime.

There's an opinion that the whole elaborate procedure of crowning a "Vor v zakone" was initially devised as a way of incorporating useful outsiders into a band of blood relatives. This explains negligible number of Jews given that title. Of about ~600 currently active "vor v zakone" only 1 is Jewish.

AP said...

Solzhenitsyn gave a very different account in the Gulag Archipelago. He hated the romantic view of the thieves' world and paints a picture of them living totally parasitically on political prisoners, as well as being favored by the camp administration in getting camp jobs (because the thieves were "the people" rather than "enemies of the people"). His direct experience experience would have been in the 40s and 50s.

For a somewhat anti-romantic point of view, see the Russian film "The Thief," which is about a mother and young boy who take up with a con artist (in the 40s?).

international jew said...

Steve, is "vor v'zakonye" (singular) and "vory v'zakonye" (plural).

Lugash said...

I am Lugash.

Sounds like a story for The Exiled to dig into.

I am Lugash.

Anonymous said...

nomenklatura criminals... CP members who cashed in on export contracts...

In other words, Larry Summers's clients [and, ah, members of his, ah, "partially inbred extended family"].

You know, if you think about the thesis of 200 Years, and if you keep in mind the Olof Aschberg story*, then you have to ask yourself if maybe that wasn't the entire purpose of 1917 in the first place - to simply loot the whole damned country, calories be damned.



*Which link is still being censored by Google Search.

Anonymous said...

There are no stigma'z against making fun of the French.

The French are often caricatured as the worst of the caucasian-peoples. They can often be obnoxious, malodorous, and miserly.

Anonymous said...

The VoR???

Try some african-american women, and their gangsterism:

isn't it telling that the FIRST thing that Anita Hill did when she heard Ginny Scalia Clarence Thomas's voicemail message was to call THE-FBI???!!! i mean, what was she thinking? ? that the wife of a Supreme Court Justice was threatening her?? via voicemail???
i think it's quite telling about her... it reveals her TYPE of mentality
she believes taht she is always a victim.....
someone is always after her.....
i'm not sure if her accusations some 2 decades ago were bogus, but i'm inclined to believe it is
she exhibits the classic female-victimization psychosis.
she's an academic feminist, through and through---always whining, always a victim.

Big Bill said...

Anonymous, does Anita know what Ms. Thomas' voice sounds like? Does she get other crank calls? Did she call the FBI? I heard she called the police and the police called the FBI. Did she say "Ms. Thomas is calling me" or did she say "Some kook called me claiming to be Ms. Thomas, and wanted to come over and 'settle things once and for all'".

You may be right in you denunciation of Anita. For me there are too few facts to go on.

MQ said...

This is completely the opposite of any depiction of the "thieves" I have ever read in the the Russian literature of the camps. Solzhenitsyn hated the Vory v Zakone, depicts them as being given special privileges by the camp overseers, who used the thieves to torture, beat, and kill political prisoners. The great Varlam Shalamov (for my money a better pure writer than Solzhenitsyn) in his stories of the Kolyma camps also depicts the thieves as torturers and murderers of political prisoners and favored collaborators with the Communist establishment.

Peter A said...

Interesting that Bukovsky - who liked the vory v zakone - was Jewish. Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov - who saw the criminals as collaborators and predators - were both Christian.

Truth said...

"isn't it telling that the FIRST thing that Anita Hill did when she heard Ginny Scalia Clarence Thomas's voicemail message was to call THE-FBI???!!!"

What would you do if some creep you knew tangentially 20 years ago, and had no use for, called you out of the blue?

Anonymous said...

"What would you do if some creep you knew tangentially 20 years ago, and had no use for, called you out of the blue?"

I wouldn't describe Mrs. Thomas as a creep, Truth. An unfriendly acquaintance maybe, but it's not like she was stalking Ms. Hill.

All Ms. Hill had to do was phone her back and say "Please do not call me again. I have no interest in talking with you." That's it. Why get the police involved and cause more drama?

Laban said...

"The words krysha and vor are as essential to understanding the Russia of the 1990s as glasnost and prestroika were to the Gorbachev era. Krysha literally means 'roof' and is the Russian word for a protection agency or racket, the purest meaning of the Sicilian word mafia. The vor-v-zakonye is a term that originated in the prisons of the Soviet period. It means thief-in-law and refere to those criminal (as opposed to political) prisoners who were 'crowned' leaders by their peers. The vory were subject to a peculiar code of behaviour (they were not supposed to marry, for example), while subordinates cosidered their word final in the resolution of disputes between prisoners.

'Most of the vory were also run by the KGB, whether knowingly or not', according to Peter Grynenko, a New York cop who specialised in Russian organised crime before setting up his own consultancy in Latvia. It was a means, Grynenko explained, by which the state monitored and controlled the criminal world, both inside and outside prison...

By the mid-1990s the Russian government estimated that between 40 and 50 per cent of the economy was in the grey or black sectors ...unlike the traditional American and Italian members of the Russian gangs were not strictly bound by family loyalties. The code of the 'thieves world' (which conferred honour and recognition upon the vory) only survived a matter of months in Russia's primitive capitalism. Before long the title of vor was up for sale. Instead of earning it by spending years in prison, you could simply buy it. This devalued the authority of the vor, and and the strict hierarchy of thieves that pertained to Soviet-era prisons crumbled in the face of street gangs and operational criminal networks."


From Misha Glenny's McMafia, about globalised crime. Glenny was a BBC Eastern Europe reporter for twenty-odd years.

Anonymous said...

"Interesting that Bukovsky - who liked the vory v zakone - was Jewish. Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov - who saw the criminals as collaborators and predators - were both Christian."

Perhaps Bukovsky had positive experiences with the original vory and Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov had bad experiences with the suki (bitches). It seems plausible that the collaborators in the gulags were disproportionately suki and not vory. Solzhenitsyn was also a devout Russian Orthodox Christian and he would have found the vory repulsive even if they had treated him nicely. Vory live a life of sin and they should not be respected by anyone. Fuck their "code".

Steve Sailer said...

Laban,

Thanks.

Laban said...

McMafia is worth a read - lots of stuff on criminal/government links in Eastern Europe (a lot of security services seem to have semi-privatised themselves), and also on Russian/Israeli crime links. Plus more about individual 'vory'.

MQ said...

The best source I've seen on organized crime in 1990s Russia is Vadim Volkov, "Violent Entrepreneurs". He has a good discussion on how the Vory were in many cases pushed aside by new-style criminal gangs with backgrounds in sports clubs, Afghan vets, and ex-KGB and military officers.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the reader's source is Bukovsky himself, in which case I bow to superior knowledge. But I presume the reader's source is Bukovsky's brilliant autobiography, To Build A Castle. If so, I don't think this is a very accurate summary.

Bukovsky explains specifically that a few decades earlier, the politicals had terrible problems with the criminal prisoners, but that in his era relations were friendly. Out of necessity he befriends many criminal prisoners, and he does come to genuinely care for these labor camp allies.

But I don't think there's any support in the text for the idea that he "reveres" them. He never stops trying, unsuccessfully, to reform them. When a criminal prisoner explains that he, too, opposes the Soviet system, Bukovsky argues that their criminal behavior is only supportive of the regime, not subversive of it.

TBaC explains that the whole dissident movement was animated by a legal philosophy known as the position of a citizen, where the dissidents became familiar with the rights they had according to the formal law and demanded them in the face of the state's normal disregard for its own rules. This was surprisingly successful. Bukovsky speaks of the law with great reverence, and it seems like it would be highly out of character for him to regard criminals as "heroes." (The sentence is unclear - perhaps it means that Bukovsky reported that ordinary Soviet people regarded the vor as heroes, but not he himself?)

Also, he's not Jewish. There's an incident recounted in TBaC where he shamefully recounts that he stopped walking to school with a Jewish friend after the wave of anti-semitism during the Doctor's Plot.

Anonymous said...

You know, the ideas [& the real-life stories] behind this thread are some of the more fascinating ever posted at iSteve, and yet we get only 18 comments?

I was expecting 100 or more.

Among other things, it would appear that there's a great deal of profit to be made in suppressing the issues raised by a work like 200 Years.