Mark Galeotti: “The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia” – Pushkin House Book Prize Finalist

Stylized Artist's Depiction of Shadowy Figures in Dark Coats and Dark Hats, One Carrying a Briefcase

(Moscow Times – – Emily Couch – May 4, 2019 –

In “The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia,” Mark Galeotti draws on years of research to tell the grimly absorbing tale of Russia’s criminal underworld. Galeotti is a specialist in Russian history, security and crime who is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations (Prague); a regular contributor to international news outlets, and advisor to government and law enforcement agencies. He has been studying and writing about security issues and the Russian criminal classes since the 1980s. “The Vory” is both the culmination of decades of study and a primer for specialists and the general reader that charts the rise, fall, and reinvention of the criminal world from imperial Russia up to the present day.

Russian gangsters, Galeotti writes, “hold up a dark mirror to Russian society” in which the boundaries between crime, business and politics are “all too often indistinct.” The book’s central contention is that these gangsters “have not only been shaped by a changing Russia, they have also shaped it.”

Since the end of the 1990s, Russian organised crime has become “regularised, corporately minded and integrated with elements of the state.” If you follow Russian politics, chances are that you have seen the now famous clip of President Putin threatening to “‘whack terrorists, even in the outhouse.” That Putin publicly deployed these terms, Galeotti says, is only possible because of the widescale appropriation of the underworld lexicon by mainstream society. Krysha (roof, i.e., protection), skhodki (meetings), and limonki (little lemons, i.e., one million rubles) are just a few examples of underworld vocabulary – and, indeed, practices – that have become part of everyday political parlance in Russia.

Another central premise of the book is that where there is demand, organised crime supplies. In most cases the demand is for illegal and often violent services, but Galeotti also tells the lighter tale of “cheese runners” who smuggle Western cheese – forbidden by Russian counter-sanctions – into the country through Belarus. If 20 years ago organized crime was “a facilitator within Russia’s still unruly business environment,” today it plays a similar role on a transnational scale.
[Kindle:]Another “brand” in the world of vory are Chechen gangs. Part Three describes how Chechen culture and values have shaped this part of the underworld, garnering a reputation for ferocity and a particular kind of honor. Such is the strength of this image, Galeotti demonstrates, that Russian gangs often claim affiliation with Chechen groups to boost their own credibility.

The one demographic group that is largely marginalized in the Soviet and post-Soviet criminal world is absent from the ranks of vory is women. A female underworld of sorts did emerge in Stalin’s Gulags, Galeotti writes, but it was largely “shaped by its masculine counterpart” and denied official status by men. The elaborate and symbolic tattoos boasted by criminals frequently feature women but only as virgins or whores – the only two roles available to them.
[Paperback:]Given the multitude of mafia characters in popular culture, it is easy to fall into the trap of glamorizing their exploits and lifestyle. Galeotti, however, treads the line between demonization and vindication. Indeed, “The Vory” disabuses readers of the notion that organised crime consists of Marlon Brando style Godfathers presiding over defined, hierarchized clans. Instead, we are left with a much more unsettling picture of fluid networks with ever-shifting nodes of control. And although people in the West may fear this “global bug bear,” Galeotti reminds readers in the final chapter that it is the Russian people who are “the first and worst victim” of the criminal world of vory.

“The Vory” provides an exhaustively research and comprehensive yet accessible account of the rise and integration of an enormous and fierce criminal class in Russia. If you want to understand contemporary Russian society and politics, this book is essential reading.