The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

The Rise and Fall of the Vory v Zakone.


Concluding the first week of the student showcase, Samuel Threlfall takes a look at criminal subculture in the Stalinist-era Gulag camps in this article about the Vory v Zakone – a small brotherhood of criminals with a distinct  code of conduct, rituals and method of communication. While the Vory gained notoriety for asserting a significant degree of authority within the camps during the 1930s and early 1940s, following the Second World War their numbers were decimated in a violent conflict between different criminal factions within the Gulag.


The Rise and Fall of the Vory v Zakone

By Samuel Threlfall.


The Vory-v-Zakone (‘thieves in law’) were a small brotherhood of criminals who consolidated their power in the Soviet Gulag camps in the years leading up to World War II. Many aspects of their criminal culture can be traced back to the Tsarist era but it was during the 1920s and 1930s that the Vory became firmly established as a distinct group.[1] The Vory were composed of many different kodlo, (crime groups or ‘families’), but all adhered to the same criminal subculture within the Gulag camps, demonstrated by their strict code of conduct, secret initiations, rituals, their own private language (fenia) and visual communication through coded tattoo art. Prior to World War II the Vory easily asserted their authority over the other muzhiki (working convicts), particularly members of the intelligentsia and political prisoners. Margaret Werner, an American woman held in the work camp in Burepolom, even stated that the camps were ‘unofficially run by the criminals’.[2] In the aftermath of World War II however, the influence of the Vory began to decline as they increasingly found themselves under attack.


The Vory-v-Zakone


Not just anyone could join the Vory. Many criminals served years of ‘apprenticeship’ before they were recommended for full inauguration into the criminal fraternity. New members had to be formally recommended by an existing Vor and then inaugurated at a special skhodka (meeting or ‘thieves court’) where they would swear an oath of loyalty to the brotherhood. Once inaugurated the novice had to change his name – a new criminal nickname was required to show that the thief was prepared to leave his old life behind and make the full transition to criminal life.[3]


Members of the Vory adhered to a strict set of rules. This Code bonded them together and established basic principles for them to live by, including the provision of moral and material support for other members of their criminal ‘family’. Conversely, the consequences for any thief who broke the code were brutally severe: they would be cast out as a traitor and labelled a Suka, a literal ‘bitch’, something which often resulted in their execution. Any conflict between members of the Vory would be resolved at a skhodka. The code also stated that a Vor must live off his criminal profits, prohibiting him from working. Gambling was allowed, although a Vor must honour his debts and have the resources to pay whatever he owed. It was customary that if a thief lost all his money playing cards and wanted to carry on playing, he would bet fingers or other limbs, mutilating himself during the game and then playing on.[4]


The criminal code also stated that a Vor had to be proficient in fenia, the language of the thieves. Shalamov stated that while in Kolyma he met a criminal called Williams who ‘answered with that peculiar accent characteristic of so many of the thieves’.[5] This was fenia – a criminal slang which resembled the nineteenth century dialect used by Russian peddlers but also incorporated colloquialisms from other languages including Yiddish and Romanian. Specialist criminals were known to have their own personal vocabulary, for example, pickpockets had roughly four hundred colloquialisms and gamblers had two hundred.[6]


The Vory communicated visually as well as verbally, using an intricate system of tattoo art. These tattoos provided a very visible sign of a Vor’s commitment to the fraternity. Particular tattoos denoted rank (generally speaking, the more tattoos a Vor had, the more respected he was) and highlighted individual criminal specialities, but the meanings of certain images could also change depending on where they were placed on the body. For example, pickpockets traditionally bore the image of a cat to denote their trade. However Kot (cat in Russian) was also an acronym for Korennoy Obitatel Turmi, meaning ‘I am a native to the prison camps’.[7] There was an urban legend within the camp that many thieves had tattooed Stalin and Lenin on their chests so that if they were executed in the camps, the firing squad would give them a painless death by shooting them directly in the head to avoid hitting the ‘sacred images’.[8]There were also strict regulations governing the wearing of tattoos, and criminals discovered wearing ‘unnacceptable’ or inappropriate tattoos were often punished by execution.


Example of A tattoo commonly used by the Vory – the image of a cat (kot) generally indicated that the wearer was a proficient pickpocket – image from Danzig Baldaev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Volume II, 141.


Hand and finger tattoos were common amongst the Vory – Danzig Baldaev, Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia Volume II, 133.


While not religious, many criminals did believe in dukh, the idea of ‘personal spirituality’. Wearing homemade aluminium crucifixes were believed to improve their dukh and also illustrated their unity and loyalty to one other. One of their rituals was known as ‘earthing’. When a member had broken the Code, he would be rotated several times to remove his dukh before being backed into a wall where he would be stabbed multiple times.[9]


Life in the Gulag


As their code prohibited submission to any state authority or engaging in ‘legitimate’ labour, the Vory refused to work in the Gulag. According to Shalamov, thieves tried to avoid work by faking illnesses, bribing or threatening the camp doctor to send them to hospital. However, they would induce physical symptoms if this failed and this often involved some form of grievous self-injury, including eating shards of glass and metal or swallowing fish hooks to tear their insides. One Vor even blinded himself with styptic powder from a pencil.[10] For this reason, many Vory boasted of their high pain tolerance. Because the camp doctors had the ability to get them out of work unpunished, the thieves often applied a code of ‘morality’ to them. Doctors were often given presents and money in exchange for helping the thieves, and it was widely known that the thieves would not steal from medical personnel.[11]


However, their relationships with other prisoners in the camps tended to be far more antagonistic. Many political prisoners have recounted their experiences with the Vory in their memoirs, stressing their brutality and ‘inhuman’ nature. During her journey aboard the S.S Dzhurma, Evgenia Ginzburg, a political prisoner, came into contact with female criminals who were ‘covered in tattoos’. These women ‘openly stole what little provisions the politicals had, whilst most of the guards refused to intervene’.[12] Elinor Lipper also encountered some particularly violent criminals whilst on a transport ship, the Dalstroi, heading to Kolyma who ‘raped the women, starved the old, and murdered any men who tried to stop them’. Again, Lipper notes that many of the guards had been bribed to turn a blind eye, and on some occasions they even encouraged the Vory.[13]


Another prisoner, Janusz Bardach, described playing cards with a group of Vory who cheated him to rob him of all of his possessions. After he confronted them they beat him, and took what little he had left, making threats if he refused to hand over future rations. Later, during his incarceration at Kolyma, Bardach also came into contact with a pickpocket, Ruchka (‘Little Hand’), who did little to no work and constantly abused him for being a political prisoner. When Bardach attempted to strike back, he was taken to the guards who threw him straight into the isolator without even questioning Ruchka.[14] In his collection of drawings from the gulag, Danzig Baldaev has illustrated the torturous treatment many of the politicals faced at the hands of the Vory, illustrating prisoners having their clothing stolen from them, and depicting the frequent abuse and gang rape of women. If another prisoner insulted the Vory they would retaliate by ‘plugging the throat’ where a spike was forced into a prisoners mouth and hammered down:


‘Plugging the throat’ – a common punishment for any camp inmates deemed to have insulted one of the Vory – image from Danzig Baldaev, Drawings from the Gulag (London: Fuel, 2010), 136


However, relations were not always antagonistic. The Vory Ginzburg later encountered while working on a camp medical ward were more peaceful, demonstrating respect for her and asking her to tell them romantic tales.[15] Bardach also came across a prominent Vor known aspockmarked’. Again, in exchange for storytelling, ‘pockmarked’ made the other thieves return his stolen possessions, and made Bardach his personal guest at mealtimes, generally a privilege reserved for criminals only.[16] Almost all Vory were illiterate which would explain why storytelling was a valued commodity in the camps. For the most part though, memoirs tell of the contempt, animosity and brutality the Vory displayed towards other prisoners, unless they had something to offer them in return.


Such‘Ia Voina: The Bitches War 1948-1953


By the end of the 1940s, the situation had changed. The Second World War proved to be a turning point in the Vory’s influence over the Gulag camps. The thieves’ position in the camps was weakened by the large influx of prisoners in the immediate post war years. According to Varese between 1944-1947, over 600,000 were sentenced to the Gulag. Whereas the zeks of the 1930s were largely comprised of the intelligentsia and ‘politicals’, these new camp inmates were ex-soldiers and former prisoners of war, men who had combat experience. One camp inmate commented that these prisoners were ‘not the shy type’ and were ready to face the criminals who tried to rob them.[17] Many camp documents describe tensions between the Vory and the other inmates, as relations became so strained that riots frequently broke out.  In 1951, in the Obskii MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) labour camp, roughly 400 prisoners revolted against the thieves and their stranglehold over the camp and in 1953, in the Vanino transit camp, guards had to resort to using their firearms to quell a riot between convicts and thieves. These were by no means isolated phenomena; other reported incidents saw prisoners dismantling their beds and forging weapons out of the materials to fend off the thieves.[18]


The underworld was also riven by internal divisions following World War II as the criminal fraternity became divided between the traditional Vory and a growing number of Suki (bitches). Many Vory had been drafted into the Red Army, but after the war, many returned to the Gulag, either because the authorities refused to grant them their promised freedom, or because they had committed new crimes after release, so were re-arrested. On arrival back in the camps, they were shunned by the traditional Vory, who viewed them as traitors who had betrayed the criminal code by serving on the front line.


By 1948, a full scale civil war had broken out between the rival factions, the Such’Ia Voina (Bitches War). In the battles that were fought within the camps, the Suki were generally victorious, as the guards often supplied weapons to the Suki whilst the Vory remained unarmed. Some incidents occurred where 150 armed Suki fought 100 unarmed Vory massacring the majority of them.[19] The Suki were often encouraged by the guards to attack the Vory, and were ‘rewarded’ by being offered supervisory roles.[20] As a result, the Suki adopted a revised criminal code, one with fewer constraints which allowed for collaboration with the camp guards. The Suki then became the ‘storm troopers of the Gulag’ as they ruled over the other camp inmates under direct orders from the guards.[21]




World War Two marked a clear turning point in the Vory-v-Zakone’s influence over the Gulag camps. Prior to the outbreak of war the Vory enjoyed a privileged position at the top of the camp hierarchy. However, after the war, the influence of the Suki was on the rise. After Stalin’s death in 1953 over four million prisoners were released within the first five years, and by 1960, the Gulag had been reduced to a fifth of its former size.[22] Many of those released during the post-Stalinist amnesties were veteran thieves and during the 1950s the Suki moved outside the walls of the Gulag. The traditional Vory had been replaced by a new breed of criminal, one willing to work with the state authorities. Their revised criminal code allowed the Suki retain many of their old criminal traditions while also forging lucrative links in the corrupt shadow economy, creating a new breed of organised crime.[23]  By 1975 Vladimir Bukovskii estimated that only a few dozen traditional Vory were left throughout the entire Soviet Union.[24]


About the Author:


Samuel Threlfall has just completed his BA in History and American Studies at Swansea University. In his final year of study, Samuel researched and wrote a History Dissertation entitled ‘Unity and Divide, The Rise and Fall of the Vory v Zakone and Underworld Crime in the Russian Gulag’.


[1] Vyacheslav Razinkin, “Thieves in Law” and Criminal Clans (Moscow, 1995), 3; Federico Varese, ‘The Society of the Vory-v-Zakone, 1930s-1950s’, in Galeotti M (ed) Russian and Post-Soviet Organized Crime (Dartmouth, 2002), 516.

[2] Karl Tobien, Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, The Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2006), 189.

[3] Federico Varese, ‘The Society of the Vory-v-Zakone, 1930s-1950s’, 517.

[4] Yuri Glazov, ‘”Thieves” in the USSR – A Social Phenomenon’, in Galeotti M (ed) Russian and Post-Soviet Organised Crime (Dartmouth, 2002), 149.

[5] Vladimir Shalamov, Kolyma Tales (Penguin, 1994), 41

[6] Sergei Cheloukhine. ‘The roots of Russian Organized Crime: from Old-Fashioned Professionals to the Organized Criminal Groups of Today’ Crime, Law and Social Change, Vol. 50, No. 4-5  (June 2008), 353-374,  357.

[7] Danzig Baldaev, Tattoo Encyclopaedia Volume Three (Steidl, 2008), 141

[8] Alix Lambert, Russian Prison Tattoos: Codes of Authority, Domination and Struggle, (Atglen P.A Schiffer, 2003).48.

[9] Yuri Glazov, “Thieves” in the USSR, p. 145.

[10] Vladimir Shalamov, Kolyma Tales,  408-410.; Yuri Glazov, ‘“Thieves” in the USSR’, 149.

[11] Vladimir Shalamov, Kolyma Tales, p. 408.

[12] Evgenia Ginzburg, Into The Whirlwind, (London: Collins/Harvill, 1967), 268.

[13] Elinor Lipper, ‘The God That Failed in Siberia: A Tale of a Disillusioned Woman’, in Critchlow. Donald and Critchlow Agnieszka (ed), Enemies of the State, Personal Stories From Within the Gulag, (Chicago: Ivan. R. Dee, 2002)., 26.

[14] Janusz Bardach, Man is Wolf to Man, Surviving Stalin’s Gulag (London: Scribner, 2003), 149, 211-212.

[15] Evgenia Ginzburg, Into The Whirlwind, 277.

[16] Janusz Bardach, Man is Wolf To Man, 154.

[17] Federico Varese, ‘The Society of the Vory-v-Zakone, 1930s-1950s’, 528.

[18] Federico Varese, ‘The Society of the Vory-v-Zakone, 1930s-1950s’, 528.

[19] Yuri Glazov, “Thieves” in the USSR’, 153.

[20] Alexander Dolgun. Alexander Dolgun’s Story: An American in the Gulag (New York: Random House, 1975), 147.

[21] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago, 126; Serio,‘Thieves Professing the Code’, 74.

[22] Miriam Dobson, Gulag Returnees, Crime and the State of Reform After Stalin (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009), 109.

[23] Patricia Rawlinson, From Fear to Fraternity, (London: Pluto Press, 2010),  160.

[24] Federico Varese, ‘The Society of the Vory-v-Zakone, 1930s-1950s’, 527.

June 22, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. This has been enlightening. Very interesting, I am currently writing my dissertation on how the subculture of art (tattoos) thrived amongst the political chaos in the Gulag. I study illustration and find the coded tattoos fascinating.

    Comment by Poppy Reid | November 1, 2012 | Reply

  2. […] served as healing charms or remedies. For sailors they told a story of where they’d been; for prisoners they told of what they’d done or for how long they’d […]

    Pingback by Sorry, I don’t speak tattoo. | and after that the dark | November 16, 2013 | Reply

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