The Vory: Russia's Super Mafia.
Mark Galeotti, a well-known scholar of global crime, offers a thoroughly-researched (there are more than 700 source notes) examination of Russian organized crime, broadly defined, of which the vory, or vory v zakone--"thieves in law", referring to their code--constitute a part. He supplements relevant literature with interviews conducted during his own time in Russia. We learn a great deal about Russian organized crime, although many groups referred to as being part of "Russian" organized crime are actually from the former Soviet satellite states and whose members may not even speak Russian.
The inability to police the vastness of tsarist Russia meant banditry and the prevalence of the law of lynching. Soviet rule tamed banditry but gangsterism continued to thrive in urban slums and in Stalin's gulags, in which contexts the vory emerged from the 1930s through the 1950s. With their own language and customs, particularly a rejection of conventional society and tattoos symbolizing attachment to the code, high-profile criminal activities (e.g., murder), and even to criminal specialties (e.g., forgery), they constitute an easily identified segment of the Russian underworld. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, vory competed with predatory businessmen to take advantage of opportunities offered by the new and rudimentary capitalism. While not part of a hierarchical organization, a vor undergoes an initiation ceremony and thereby enjoys exalted status in a criminal underworld segmented into loose networks, which are often identified by ethnicity, such as of Chechens or Georgians.
The book provides a history of the changes that resulted from the collapse of the Soviet state. This period was characterized by struggles among the highest levels of the political-economic system and by the competitive gang violence at the street level, all with an overlay of corruption, to seize a piece of the emerging free-market economic pie. "Gangs and corrupt officials alike plundered the economy on a massive scale" (113). Unable to secure protection from inept and corrupt law enforcement, businessmen often preferred to pay private security firms, which may simply have been extortionate entities. Confronted with an expensive--in terms of time--and inefficient court system, businessmen "were often willing to turn to organized crime to adjudicate disputes and enforce judgments" (115).
Galeotti notes that in today's Russia the gangster, the businessman, and the government official melt into a soup, whose constituent parts are difficult to disentangle. Even gangster slang has bled into conventional language. And as far as the vory is concerned, while there are still people who call themselves vory v zakone, "the term itself has fallen into disuse" (21). Vory customs are being put aside by a new generation, who have rewritten the code to permit collaboration with the state when this is to their advantage. "The old-style vory v zakone, with their prison records, garish tattoos and clannish rituals, increasingly became anachronisms" (119). The subtitle of Galeotti's book, "Russia's Super Mafia," is clearly hyperbole.
This is an impressive work, from which a reader can gain insight into an important and developing phenomenon. On the other hand, the sprawling organization of the book, in terms of history and geography, as well as the numerous Russian surnames and locations can be a challenge. There is, however, a glossary.
St. John's University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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