In This Review

The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia
The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia
By Mark Galeotti
Yale University Press, 2018, 344 pp

Gangsters turn up in every society, but the shape they take and the ways in which they operate depend to a great extent on the culture and politics of their countries of origin and change with the times. As this comprehensively researched book shows, nowhere is that more true than in Russia. Galeotti starts by describing the different kinds of crime that plagued imperial Russia, focusing on the contrast between the countryside (where banditry, poaching, and horse thievery were most common) and the rapidly swelling cities, with their slums, gangs, and criminal underworlds. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the nature of the country’s crime changed, as Stalin’s gulag produced new criminal clans led by the vory v zakone, or “thieves in law.” The law in question was the strict code by which they ruled themselves and related to the rest of society. The vory set themselves apart from the civilian world with dramatic tattoos and elaborate jargon—which has found its way into the thuggish language employed by contemporary Russian politicians, including President Vladimir Putin. After Stalin’s death, these gangs were eclipsed by a new underworld that adapted to the opportunities presented by each successive era. Today, mob bosses wear three-piece suits and slip between criminal and legal business, often in collusion with the state. Much of their activity takes place beyond Russia’s borders with foreign partners from China and the United States.