International Herald Tribune, July 29, 2008, Michael Schwirtz
It is unclear why they gathered. A police statement said it was to discuss "escalating problems of the criminal world." Some insiders spoke of a conflict between
Whatever the reason, the police said that when leaders of
A mobster caste forged in the Soviet gulags, the Vory v Zakone maintains a hallowed place in
Though the Vory's influence appears to have waned somewhat in recent years, Russians have long had an affinity for the group, perhaps because it has come to symbolize opposition to the country's often arbitrary political and legal practices, experts said.
"Everyone started to sing about this topic, to talk about it, to make television series, write books," he said. "It became fashionable."
Today the Vory has spread around the world, to
The Vory was born of Stalin's prison camps and grew into a group of criminal barons who kept order in the gulags and governed the dark gaps in Soviet life beyond the reach of the KGB. While the Communist Party had a steadfast grip on government and society, the Vory had something of a monopoly on crime.
With its own code of ethics, hierarchy and even language, the Vory formed a society in opposition to rigid Soviet conformity, surviving on theft and black market dealing when not in prison.
The Russian media covered the raid on the yacht this month with apparent delight. The major television channels showed footage of commandos marching the handcuffed men single file to awaiting buses.
Most of those arrested were released for lack of evidence. The authorities did not explain why they had conducted the raid without reasons to bring charges against those they detained.
Some speculated that a major crime boss, Tariel Oniani, had organized the meeting to discuss a conflict with a rival, Aslan Usoyan. The rift, reports said, threatened to erupt into a full-scale mob war.
"There will be war and there will be blood," said the operator of VorVZakone.ru, a Web site that monitors the activities of the Vory. He requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his work.
In an interview with the newspaper Vremya Novostei, Usoyan denied rumors of impending violence.
"We are peaceful people and don't bother anybody," he said. "We are for peace, in order to prevent lawlessness."
To be inducted into the Vory's society involves a life devoted to crime and, traditionally, an adherence to a strict ethical code, said Aleksandr Gurov, an expert on the Vory who headed the organized crime units of the Soviet Interior Ministry and the KGB, and who now serves as chairman of the Commission on Ethics in Parliament.
Unlike the Cosa Nostra, Gurov said, the Vory has "less rules, but more severe rules." Members must have no ties to the government, meaning they cannot serve in the army or cooperate with officials while in prison. They must also have served several jail sentences before they can claim the distinction. They should not marry.
Ethnicity has rarely determined whether someone can join the club, and today most members, even those active inside
Then there are the tattoos. Just as a Russian Orthodox icon might chart the pious works of saints pictographically, the elaborate tattoos worn by the Vory members detail their criminal exploits and also indicate rank and occupation.
"Very many people have passed through prison, even those who have had no special connection to the criminal world," Konstantinov said. "This is a theme that has been very relevant for many families."
This intimacy with imprisonment has spawned a pop culture particular to
Still, despite all the attention the group receives, it no longer seems to wield the power it once did. In the late 1980s and 1990s, as capitalism seeped in, new criminal players entered the field. They were college educated - unlike most Vory - and swarmed into the legal void left by the
At first, this new criminal class worked in tandem with the Vory, who helped arbitrate the gang wars that bloodied the streets of
"Vory are still strong in gambling and retail trade, but their significance in Russian economy and society is rather low," said Vadim Volkov, a professor at the
Estimates of the group's numbers in
"This is just funny and does not correspond to reality," said Oleg Utitsin, editor of the crime section in the weekly Argumenty Nedely. "No one knows how many there are, not even the Vory."