The Vor v Zakone: Soviet Era Organized Crime

Organized crime was radically different during the Soviet era than in the post-Soviet era. Officially, the Communist Party taught that there was no organized crime in the Soviet Union, but in reality, organized crime thrived in the vast networks of prisons and labor camps established during Stalin’s rule.[1] Organized criminals called those prison networks, and their society, the Vorovskoy Mir, or Thieves World. The Vorovskoy Mir had a clear hierarchy, over which Vor v Zakone, or Thieves in Law, ruled. As the name states, the Vory followed a strict set of rules that dictated how a thief was expected to live, one that demanded complete loyalty, and against which transitions could be punished by death. The thieves saw themselves as separate from Soviet society, and forbid any collaboration with the Soviet State. Despite this enforced separation, the group’s rules were probably a closer manifestation of communist ideals than the Soviet state. These rules dictated that thieves could only make money from criminal activity, could not save wealth, should rarely resort to violence, and had to contribute earnings to the obshchak, the communal fund that the Vor v Zakone distributed equally amongst the thieves. [2]

Just as the post-Soviet class was shaped by the dictates of their circumstances, so too was the Vorovskoy Mir. Many of the inhabitants of the Thieves’ World spent most of their lives in the prison system, and even outside of the prison, Soviet laws revoked ex-convicts rights to a job or residence in major cities. [3] The Vory imposed order on prison life, and created their own justice system called the Thieves’ Court where the Vory v Zakone handed out punishments for infractions of the thieves’ code. As judges, the Vory v Zakone gained authority from their ability to interpret the law, and this authority granted them respect and honor that extended outside of the prison walls. This allowed the gang leaders to maintain control, and run criminal enterprises while incarcerated.

The prison system in the Soviet Union also created a unique opportunity for the political and criminal class to interact. In the Soviet Union, it was common for political prisoners, including political figures, to be in the same prisons as common criminals. The Vory prohibited working with the official state, but welcomed opportunities to collaborate with corrupt officials. This collaboration resulted in a mutually beneficial smuggling operation. The Vory controlled large sections of the black market, such as caviar, spare parts, and automobiles. The black market was essential in communist countries to get around the inefficiencies of the Soviet command economy, and during the last years of the Soviet Union was valued at an estimated $60.5 billion.[4] The Vory were unquestionably the most powerful criminals in the Soviet Union, however, the transition to the Russian Federation created new criminal challengers who had little respect for the Thieves’ traditions and rules.

[1] Stephen Handelman, Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 29.

[2] Serguei Cheloukhine,”The Roots of Russian Organized Crime: From Old-Fashioned Professionals to the Organized Criminal Groups of Today,” Crime, Law and Social Change 50, no. 4, (December, 2008): 358.

[3] Stephen Handelman, Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 34-35.

[4] Stephen Handelman, Comrade Criminal: Russia’s New Mafiya (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 28-29.

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About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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