With the death and lavish Moscow funeral of noted underworld boss Vyacheslav Ivankov (aka "Yaponchik"), RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Yury Vasilev spoke with Yakov Gilinsky, a law professor at the St. Petersburg Academy of the Prosecutor-General's Office, about the phenomenon of the Russian "thief in the code" (vory v zakone) and the state of organized crime in Russia today.
RFE/RL: What is a "thief in the code"? And how is he different from possible analogues outside the Russian criminal world?
Yakov Glinsky: The beginnings of organized crime go back to ancient times. In Russia, there have been criminal guilds with their own so-called codes of honor since at least the 16th century. During the Civil War -- that is, in the 1920s -- criminal guilds were replaced by named bands. Then in the early 1930s, a new form of organized crime emerged: the thief in the code. At that time, the USSR had essentially rid itself of banditry -- through harsh repressions primarily.
There is no analogue [to the thief in the code] abroad. They have their own versions, but they are different.
RFE/RL: There is nothing similar, for instance, in the structure of the mafia?
Glinsky: Mafia is basically a generic term. In the beginning, a thief in the code was someone engaged in a very strictly defined craft. That is, in various types of theft -- robbery, mugging, jewelry theft, art theft, and so on.
For such a person, getting money by means of theft was, first of all, a specialization, a profession. So, naturally, it had its own professional rules or "code." For instance, any cooperation with the authorities was not allowed. You couldn't have a family or carry weapons. Bloodletting was banned. Robbery, embezzlement -- but without shedding blood. This is what distinguished real thieves in the code from other criminals. And Ivankov was this type.
RFE/RL: At first. But then there were changes to the "code." What were they?
Glinsky: This strictly, theft-based law was observed until the early days of the Great Patriotic War [World War II]. When things at the front started going badly, the government began to release nonpolitical prisoners and give them a chance to atone for their sins with blood. The whole country was starving and it was worst of all in the camps.
Some of the thieves in the code gave in and went to the front. Many of them died -- they were in punishment battalions, after all. But some survived. They were given awards and some of them were made officers.
But after the war, they had nowhere to go. They were nobody and had no one. They had no jobs, no families, nowhere to live, nothing. Many of them turned back to crime and ended up back in the camps. That is when the so-called Bitches War began between those thieves in the code who were returning and those who had spent the whole war in the camps and remained faithful to the old code (which forbade them from taking up arms, even to defend their country). We should note that the Bitches War was provoked by the gulag authorities, who hoped that the thieves would kill one another.
RFE/RL: And did that happen?
Glinsky: To some extent. Some were killed, but some remained. But after the war, as a result of this, the practice arose of being able to buy the title of thief in the code -- which is something that most of the criminal figures from Georgia did.
By the way, Yaponchik was against those who purchased their titles and was upset by this practice. Apparently that was one of the reasons for the enmity between Ivankov and representatives of the Georgian criminal world. There is reason to think that that may have been where the bullet that killed him came from.
But back to history. At the end of the 1980s there appeared a new type of organized crime -- the bandits or sportsmen. Relations between them and the thieves in the code took various forms from cooperation to open conflict. The bandits began pushing the thieves out, since the latter were "honest" and the new ones didn't pay much attention to rules or thieves' codes.
In the 1990s here in Petersburg, a very well-known thief in the code named Gorbaty (real name -- Yury Alekseyev) died. He was mostly involved in jewelry crimes. When some babushka would go to him crying, Alekseyev would sit her down, soothe her, and try to give her justice. When he was dying, he summoned the then-head of the St. Petersburg Interior Ministry, Geneal Kramarov, to his bedside and said: "I'm afraid to die. The world is changing and some terrible times are coming." That was what a thief in the code said -- to a police officer. He was referring to the way the bandits did business.
In recent times we have seen a completely new phenomenon. Not only are the thieves in the code definitely in the minority and losing influence, but the bandit world is also changing, and not in a very pleasant way. If you'll allow me to quote from an interview I did with an officer of the police organized-crime department....
RFE/RL: Which doesn't exist anymore.
Glinsky: I did the interview two years ago. I asked him what was going on in St. Petersburg organized crime and he said: "There is no organized crime today. There are us -- police officers. Who is protecting their stalls and businesses? The police." We were sitting in a cafe, drinking tea -- after all, it is impossible to have such a discussion at my office or, of course, his.
He went on: "You watch that stand across the street. A police officer will walk up to it and get his money. On the fourth floor of that house, there is a drug dealer. It is also controlled by the police." And he named the precinct. "Today, all small retail businesses -- small and mid-size businesses -- are controlled by the police. Bandits don't go to trial. Prostitution? Controlled by the police. Gambling? The police. Actually, that's the FSB [Federal Security Service]. There's too much money there for the police." And so on.
But I'm a scholar. I have to check these things. So my next interview was with the head of a local division of the FSB, in charge of security within the municipal law enforcement community of St. Petersburg. "Yes, that's right," he said, "the police racket has replaced the criminal racket. And not on the level of individual members of the force. But on the level of whole departments." And he spoke about this in detail for an entire half-hour.
RFE/RL: So, what happened to the bandits?
Glinsky: For the most part, they were engaged in petty things. They offer "protection" at the markets, and the police take their cut from them. But most of them went into legal business or into government. Many of the former avtoritety are in the legislative branch and the mayor's office.
RFE/RL: With the help of the thieves in the code, can this police world control the bandit world?
Glinsky: That has happened. It wasn't an accident that Gorbaty summoned General Kramarov, a former investigator. Naturally, investigators and higher-ranking police took advantage of the fact that the thief- in-the-code system was more structured than banditism.
RFE/RL: When did the thieves' code stop working -- including dethroning a thief who would invite a police general to his hospital room?
Glinsky: Sometime around 1960.
RFE/RL: Is that connected with the arrival of the newcomers from Georgia?
Glinsky: Not only that. There is always more than one factor motivating social developments. For instance, at that time another category emerged in the criminal world -- the so-called shift worker. It began with cooperation. Thieves carried out hits with the help of shift workers and when the latter got caught, the thieves protected them in prison.
The lives of these shift workers -- legal, with registered places of residence, with families -- might have influenced the thieves in the code. They might think -- we are doing the same work, but they have families and children, but I am forbidden....
RFE/RL: That is, money spoiled the thieves?
Glinsky: Ultimately, yes. Money spoils everyone.
RFE/RL: And was Yaponchik spoiled?
Glinsky: They say he wasn't. They say that until the very end, he remained faithful to the thieves' code. Why was there such a fuss around him? Because he was practically the last one who could resolve disputes within the criminal world through diplomatic means, without bloodshed.
He could steer situations, although he probably wouldn't like that word. He was able to peacefully resolve the constant problems that arise within the criminal sphere. Now that he is dead, there aren't very many in that world who would be listened to as an able mediator. Criminal bandits, the authorities, business -- all this is conflated. This is the snake pit that we have ended up with.