The Vory – 50 Years in 50 Books

Mark Galeotti’s book The Vory is the first English-language book to document the men who emerged from the gulags to become Russia’s much-feared crime class: the vory v zakone.

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Mark Galeotti shares the unconventional research required to write a book about ‘self-confessed gangsters’, including his travels to Russia to interview members of the vory.

Article by Mark Galeotti

In the main, scholarly research doesn’t involve sitting down to an overpriced but under-tasty lunch in a Moscow cafe, across the table from a self-confessed gangster, his bodyguard, and his bottle-blonde girlfriend. Indeed, these days I can only dread the ethics committee wrangles that would have entailed. Nonetheless, there I was, an attentive audience as he held forth on his criminal career. This was one of the many striking features of exploring the underworld in the 1990s. Speak to a criminal in the West, and they were all too aware that I could be a police informant, or simply compelled to give evidence in a trial under oath. Their stories were much more carefully told, full of ambiguities, and most likely to be about “a guy I knew,” even if that guy’s experiences were an obvious proxy for their own.

But in Moscow, the challenge was not getting the gangster to speak, it was shutting him up, and trying to ascertain which of his stories were true, which were exaggerations, and which were downright inventions. After all, in those days, every criminal of any standing had his krysha, his ‘roof’ — he was under the protection of some corrupt official, some dirty police chief or some powerful godfather. So long as his roof stayed sound, he didn’t have to worry about what he told some foreigner, let alone about ending up in the dock; and if he lost his roof, well, at a time when car-bombings and drive-by shootings were commonplace expressions of the rolling turf wars as a new underworld order was being established, a police investigation would be the least and last of his worries.

Besides, I was a status symbol. At first, when I started this particular venture into the shadows of the emerging new Russia, I was trading on contacts made with veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan whom I had come to know while doing my PhD research. Some of them had drifted into low-level positions in the underworld, as runners or muscle. Bit by bit, year by year, I was able to parlay that into higher-and higher-level contacts until at some point, it became a mark of some odd distinction for some gangsters with pretensions, who had heard that an anglisky profesor was researching Russian organised crime, not just to meet with me, but to be seen to do so, hence our table in the window of the cafe.

This was, after all, just on the cusp of a transition in that underworld, as the traditional tattooed gangsters of the old Vorovskoi Mir, or ‘Thieves’ World’ were being replaced by a new generation of Avtoritety (‘Authorities’), criminal businessmen first and foremost, who were thinking much more about their standing in the outside community. Endowing youth sports clubs, building churches, going into local politics and, yes, talking to some upstart foreigner like me, were all ways of curating their public personae and their personal mythologies.

Of course, most of the research that went into my book The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia (2018) was much more conventional. Although there was no real foundational text, there were a handful of existing studies of Russian criminality from emigres, such as Valery Chalidze’s Criminal Russia (1977). There was also vital scholarly work on specific times and crimes, from Cathy Frierson’s on pre-Revolutionary peasant justice (‘Crime and punishment in the Russian village: rural concepts of criminality at the end of the nineteenth century,’ Slavic Review 46, 1, 1987) to Alena Ledeneva’s on the informal practices in Russia’s Economy of Favours (1998). Given the central importance of the Stalinist Gulag labour camps as an incubator of the distinctive subculture of the Vorovskoi Mir, survivors’ accounts like Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales (1994) were as invaluable as they were depressing, while Anne Applebaum’s magisterial synthesis, Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps (2003), gave them all context. What goes in, must eventually come out, and Miriam Dobson’s Khrushchev’s Cold Summer: Gulag Returnees, Crime, and the Fate of Reform after Stalin (2009) was a vital guide to the way that criminal subculture crashed into the rest of the USSR when the camps were opened up. The story of the gangsters was then for a while largely subsumed within the wider one of corruption in the Party-state, but with the reform era of the 1980s and then the transition of the post-Soviet 1990s, organised crime emerged not simply as a newly visible feature of life, but as one of the actors shaping the new system. In his The Russian Mafia (2001), Federico Varese brilliantly extends Diego Gambetta’s notion of a mafia as a provider of protection in a time when the state is unable or unwilling to provide it, while Russian sociologist Vadim Volkov’s Violent Entrepreneurs (2002) attacks the question from the other direction, exploring how the capacity to use (or withhold) violence can be monetised in times of anarchy. Both were very important in helping me formulate my own ideas about how organised crime fit within not just the modern, transitional era, but Russia’s wider story, adapting to over a century of extraordinary changes.

‘Fight Against Hooliganism!’ 1956 Poster, courtesy of Mark Galeotti.

There were also not just the voices of Russians themselves, but also a wealth of documentary material, from newspapers to government reports. Much of the former was sensationalist, much of the latter — especially in Soviet times — censored or simply written by official template. Nonetheless, they offered a rich array of sources to be triangulated, a breathless nineteenth-century ‘yellow press’ account of ‘hooliganism’ in St Petersburg compared with police reports, the raw data of crime rates and court appearances in 1970s Vladivostok set against the blandly optimistic speeches of local officials.

None of this was quick or easy, though, which helps explain why this book was perhaps twenty years in the making. It was the kind of project that had to be bubbling away in the background while I worked on others, given that access to materials was often serendipitous, and personal meetings depended on being in Russia and getting lucky with my contacts. Thought by thought, source by source, though, it finally came together. There will, in due course, no doubt be other, better studies, but for now, if I am honest, this is the book of which I am perhaps most proud. After all, how often can one say that a book required one to dine with gangsters, drink with riot cops, get shot at, and swap a watch for archival access?

About the Author:

Mark Galeotti is an expert and prolific author on transnational crime and Russian security affairs. He has advised the British Foreign Office and many government and law enforcement agencies in Europe and North America. 

About the book:

The Vory
Russia’s Super Mafia
Mark Galeotti

The first English-language book to document the men who emerged from the gulags to become Russia’s much-feared crime class: the vory v zakone. Now, Western readers can explore the fascinating history of the vory, a group that has survived and thrived amid the changes brought on by Stalinism, the Cold War, the Afghan War, and the end of the Soviet experiment. Based on two decades of on-the-ground research, Galeotti’s captivating study details the vory’s journey to power from their early days to their adaptation to modern-day Russia’s free-wheeling oligarchy and global opportunities beyond.

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Books by Mark Galeotti:

Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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