Dons of the Gulag

A man with tattoos bathing in the Irtysh River
Alexander Aksakov/Getty Images
A man with tattoos indicating that he is affiliated with organized crime, Tobolsk, Siberia, January 2016; he is bathing in the waters of the Irtysh River to wash away his sins on Epiphany

Vor is the Russian word for “thief,” but in Russia, the vory, or vory v zakone (“thieves in the code”), were more than thieves. They were something like made men, or even mafia dons—initiates into the vorovskoi mir (the “thieves’ world”), which was distinct from Russia’s much larger blatnoy (“criminal”) world and governed by its own set of unwritten, inflexible rules. The vory were creatures of the Gulag—imprisonment being a requirement for inclusion—and rare creatures at that. In the West, you caught glimpses of them in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago and in Eugenia Ginsburg’s memoirs; in his Kolyma Tales, Varlam Shalamov discussed them at length.

In the Soviet Union, where these works were banned, the vor’s slang and stories informed the blatnye songs Vladimir Vysotsky was playing in the early 1960s. But by and large, the vory themselves had died out by then. Their short, brutal history is at the center of a recent study by Mark Galeotti, a well-known scholar, security consultant, and sometime member of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. But Galeotti’s subtitle, “Russia’s Super Mafia,” speaks more to their legacy. What does “lawlessness” mean, he seems to be asking, in a place where the rule of law has become, or always has been, a fiction?

There were bandits in tsarist times, too, of course. Galeotti quotes Nicholas I, who is supposed to have told his ten-year-old son, “I believe you and I are the only people in Russia who don’t steal.” Prerevolutionary Russia was underpoliced, and its policemen and bureaucrats were underpaid, to the extent that bribery was factored into their salaries. In the countryside, lynch law prevailed. “Was this a crime,” Galeotti writes,

or was it the commune policing itself? Needless to say, the state resented and feared the notion of peasants taking the law into their own hands, but there was very little it could do, given the strength of the peasants’ own moral code and the practical difficulties of mounting day-to-day policing of such a huge country.

Aside from small, localized guilds made up of thieves or beggars, Russian organized crime did not exist, in a meaningful sense, until industrialization and the concurrent rise of inner-city slums. These were the “pits” that the Russians called yamas: St. Petersburg’s Hay Market Square, which Dostoevsky wrote about in Crime and Punishment; Odessa’s Moldovanka, where Isaac Babel’s fictional gangster Benya Krik ruled over an underworld that Babel had drawn from life.

The revolution that Babel lived through did not sweep this old world away. “The Russian Civil War of 1918–22 was the formative moment for the Bolsheviks and…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.