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 | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Thoughts on Eastern Europe, Immigration and Crime.


I recently read THIS article on the Mail Online [‘To East Europeans, Legal is Anything They Can Get Away With’, written by Alexander Boot]. For those of you familiar with the Mail, it won’t come as a surprise that much of this article is couched in typical rhetoric  – right-wing, anti-Europe, anti-immigration etc –  although I suppose it could be worse, having also read THIS article a couple of days ago, about a website set up by the Dutch far right anti-immigration political party PVV which encourages people to report their complaints about ‘problematic’  East European migrants, with one PVV spokesman openly blaming central and east European migrants for a range of social problems including crime, alcoholism, drug use and prostitution.


In his recent article, Alexander Boot claims that the inclusion of East European countries in the EU has led to a ‘staggering influx’ of emigration to the UK, and East European migrants, we are told, statistically ‘contribute more than their fair share’ to the UK crime rate. Suggestions of a link between immigration and crime, attempts to present crime as an ‘alien import’ and to lay  the blame for increased criminality with immigrant communities are hardly new ideas, but have featured throughout human history, often becoming particularly prominent during times of economic hardship. Following both EU enlargements into the former communist block to date – in 2004 and 2007 – media organisations here in the UK (and elsewhere across Western Europe) published a number of alarmist stories predicting a ‘crime wave from the East’, something which I discussed in a previously published article HERE. During the recent economic downturn, we have seen a resurgence of articles linking crime and immigration published by some media organisations. It would perhaps, have been nice if Boot had provided some evidence to support his claim that East Europeans contribute ‘more than their fair share’ to UK crime, especially as a few years ago, this study, conducted by the UK Association of Chief Police Officers, concluded that contrary to popular opinion, increased levels of immigration from Eastern Europe to Britain had not fuelled a rise in crime, but that criminality among East European communities was in line with the rate of offending in the general population. Interestingly, preliminary research carried out in the Netherlands in 2005 also concluded that criminal suspects from central and eastern Europe accounted for only 0.81% of foreign criminals arrested. [1]


What particularly interested me about Boots’ article however, was his suggestion that the alleged propensity of East Europeans to commit crime was directly related to their experiences of life under communism, something which relates to my own research into crime in communist and post-communist Eastern Europe. Boot alleges that a sustained lack of legality and morality during the communist era caused a ‘cultural genocide’ in Eastern Europe. His article states that ‘a child growing up under a communist regime learns as he emerges from his pram that he must think one thing, do another and say a third… He’ll lie not because he’s a compulsive liar but because he wasn’t taught the concept of truth’. As a result, he argues, ‘intuitive respect for the law just isn’t part of Eastern Europeans’ psychological or cultural makeup … Legal is anything they can get away with, moral is anything that pays an immediate dividend’.


To an extent, many of Boots’ claims have been documented by those who lived under communism in Eastern Europe and many of his arguments are also represented in academic research into this topic. Many former communist block citizens have spoken about the existence of ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres under communism; about learning from an early age that certain topics could only be safely discussed and certain opinions could only be openly expressed within the confines of closed circles of acquaintances and this theme has been explored by scholars including Orlando Figes and Sheila Fitzpatrick. In addition, from the close of the 1960s, increasing economic deterioration and a sustained lack of respect for communist authority fuelled a burgeoning ‘second economy’ in all states across the socialist block, so that petty crime, pilferage, black market trading, graft and corruption became endemic. Economist Edgar Feige has claimed that, under communism, ‘virtually every citizen became a de-facto criminal’ by virtue of their involvement in a wide range of ‘petty illegalities’. [2] In effect, many illegal activities were essentially ‘de-criminalised’ by popular discourse, so that most people did not perceive themselves as ‘criminals’ despite openly acknowledging that they regularly broke the law. Many citizens expressed their lack of respect for formal law and subsequent studies have claimed that this exacerbated the moral failing of communism, something which contributed to its eventual collapse. [3]  However, my conversations about crime under communism suggested that, rather than leading to a ‘cultural genocide’, many individuals remained aware that their actions were legally and morally dubious, so developed a range of coping mechanisms which enabled them to justify and normalise their behaviour, even while acknowledging its illegality. In his study of law and social norms in post-communist Europe, Denis Gallighan describes this process as representing the ‘pathology of social norms’ – creating a situation where the norms by which people lived their daily lives were a significant distortion of and alien to true accepted values, as the result of social forces. [4] This is a topic that I explore further in my forthcoming book.


In the interviews I have conducted about crime under communism for my own research, many of the people I spoke to expressed the sentiment that, in the communist era, ‘we were forced into crime, to survive within the system’. In his article, Boot also attributes the widespread illegality that developed in communist Eastern Europe to the necessity for survival. This ‘survival thesis’ is an idea that has been widely promoted by former citizens of the communist block, many of whom admit that they engaged in a range of petty illegalities in order to circumvent the inefficiency and material shortcomings of the regime and provide a decent standard of living for themselves and their families. There is, of course, ample evidence to support the ‘survival’ theory, as the general economic decline during the latter decades of socialism was marked by increasing shortages of basic foodstuffs and consumer goods, with protracted waiting lists for ‘luxury items’ such as washing machines, cars and telephone lines which were in short supply. However, even under conditions of communist-era shortage, for the most part these were far from subsistence economies. For many people, involvement in the second economy tended to be more about relative deprivation; many transactions were motivated by the (modest) desire to improve ones living standards and have a ‘nicer life’ within the constraints of the socialist system. There were occasions where a willingness to engage in illegal activity could mean the difference between life and death – for example corruption in the medical sector was widely accepted and expected, so bribing a nurse or doctor could ensure access to scarce medication or allow a patient to ‘jump the queue’ to undergo an essential operation – but many people primarily used the black market to obtain luxury consumer goods, particularly in urban areas. In one Czechoslovakian survey from 1988 for example, a large majority (75%) said they used the black market primarily to purchase luxury or consumer goods, and it was widely recognised that refusal to engage in these petty illegalities would, in effect, mean relegation to the margins of socialist society. [5]


However, it is far too simplistic to claim that experiences and attitudes developed in response to communist rule translate – in effect – to a predisposition towards illegality in the post-communist period, or that such behaviour has subsequently been ‘imported’ into the UK. A recent report published by the Migration Policy Institute demonstrates that between 2004 and 2010, of the estimated 1.5 million East Europeans who travelled to work in the UK, 70% were aged 18-35 – meaning that a large number would have been born and/or largely raised after communism collapsed – well educated and skilled, while numerous UK employers have praised the honesty and hard work ethic they have experienced when employing workers that originate from central and eastern Europe. Of course, there have been cases of known criminals from Eastern Europe moving westwards after the iron curtain was lifted, and establishing criminal operations in their new countries of residence. Historically however, migrant communities have often been restricted to the socio-economic margins on arrival in foreign lands, and studies into crime among these communities suggest that many who do turn to crime use it as a ‘crooked ladder of mobility’ – so it is not enough to consider their previous experiences of legality and criminality, but we also need to consider their experiences and the conditions they find themselves living in post-emigration.  During the current economic crisis, with many media outlets blaming East European migrants for job losses and evidence that many individuals have struggled to establish new lives here in the UK (with reports of many migrants returning home, or sleeping rough in appalling conditions after failing to secure employment), factors which could increase the likelihood that they will turn to crime, for ‘survival’, perhaps drawing unlikely parallels with the communist era. Meanwhile, with newspaper headlines continuing to link East European migrants to high levels of criminlity, research by the Institute of Race Relations published in May 2011 shows that eastern Europeans in the UK today face increasing threats of racial violence.


Besides, Boot concedes that not all former communist block citizens are ‘criminally inclined’; there are, he concedes, ‘numerous exceptions, people endowed with the mind, courage and moral sense to reject the spiritual poison of communism’, many of whom have ‘found themselves in the West, where they become hard working, law abiding citizens’. As the author was born and raised in Russia before emigrating to the US (and then the UK), then presumably he is counting himself among this ‘exceptional’ group.



[1] Weenink, A and van der Laan, A, ‘The Search for the Russian Mafia: Central and Eastern European Criminals in the Netherlands 1989-2005’, Trends in Organized Crime, Volume 10, (2007), 57-76

[2] Feige, E, ‘Underground Economies in Transition: Non-Compliance and Institutional Change’ in Feige, E and Ott, K (eds), Underground Economies in Transition (London: Ashgate, 1999), 18.

[3] See, for example, Clark, J and Wildavsky, A, ‘Why Communism Collapses: The Moral and Material Failures of Command Economies Are Intertwined’, Journal of Public Policy, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Oct. – Dec., 1990), pp. 361-390 and Grossman, G, ‘Subverted Sovereignty’, (Center for German and European Studies, University of California, 1998)

[4] Gallighan, G, ‘Legal Failure: Law and Social Norms in Post Communist Europe’ in Denis Gallighan and Marina Kurkchiyan (eds), Law and Informal Practices: The Post-Communist Experience, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

[5] ‘Problem nejen moralni, ale i ekonomicky’, Hospodarske noviny, 20 January 1989, 8-9



February 10, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 4 Comments

Mafia International? Organised Crime in Central and Eastern Europe

The collapse of communism led to increased levels of organised crime across Central and Eastern Europe, as the early post-Cold War period was characterised by the growth of a substantial indigenous underworld combined with an influx of criminal gangs from outside the region. The evolution of the East European underworld has thus been shaped by a mixture of cooperation and conflict between various criminal organisations. In this article, guest author Thomas Garrett asseses the state of East European organised crime, analysing the development of relations between some of the region’s key players.


Mafia International? Organised Crime in Central and Eastern Europe.

By Thomas Garrett.


In the decades since the collapse of communism, Central and Eastern Europe has been popularly portrayed as a cross roads for international organised crime: a meeting point for mafias from east and west and a hotbed of criminal cooperation, fuelled by the forging of international crime links between domestic criminal gangs and various external mafias who have infiltrated the region. In the early 1990s, crime groups from the former Soviet Union quickly moved in to develop a formidable presence in central and Eastern Europe, and as early as 1993, Irving Soloway, a spokesman for the US State Department claimed that American and Sicilian mafias were also ‘working with their counterparts in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union… to apply strategic planning and market development policies for the new emerging free markets [of Eastern Europe]… and to develop and expand extremely illegal activities’. Soloway even claimed that three post-communist ‘crime summits’ had taken place in central and eastern Europe soon after the collapse  –  in Warsaw (1991), Prague (1992), and Berlin (1993) – where he alleged that the leaders of various organised crime groups met to approve alliances, divide territories of interest, and organise ways to work together (Irving Soloway quoted in Washington Times, 1993). Soloway’s scenario smacks of the kind of ‘Pax Mafiosa’ outlined by Claire Sterling in her book Crime Without Frontiers (Little, Brown & Company, 1994) – the formation of a transnational alliance allowing criminals to work together peacefully in the post-Cold War world, an arrangement regulated by business-like meetings to coordinate mutually profitable ventures. This is an idea that remains popularly accepted today: organised crime expert Mark Galeotti recently described how ‘I’ve come across… prosecutors who believe that somewhere – like a scene out of some Bond movie – there is a ruling council running all post-Soviet organised crime’. Galeotti disagrees with the idea that any kind of ‘Pax Mafiosa’ exists in central and Eastern Europe however, arguing that this idea is a ‘myth’ and argues that instead, crime in the post-Soviet states is characterised by a diverse mix of ‘loose but entrepreneurial’ organisations and smaller networks centred around important underworld figures (Mark Galeotti, Mythologising the Mafia, The Moscow News, August 2011).


Mafia International?


Whether they are united or not, the organised criminals of Central and Eastern Europe certainly represent a powerful force. A thriving domestic underworld has developed in countries across the region in the decades since the collapse of communism. The World Security Network Foundation currently estimates that as much as 20% of Hungary’s GDP is under the control of organised criminals, with Hungarian police citing a significant increase in illegal economic activity since Hungary joined the EU in 2004. Czech police now believe that they face about 100 different organised crime groups, comprised of around 3000 members, and 5000 further ‘auxiliary supporters’, with recently published survey data suggesting that Czechs believe organised crime to be one of the most serious problems facing their country today. While the Slovakian underworld appears to be rather less developed, with police estimating that only about 700 organised criminals are active in the country, that hasn’t stopped Bratislava from becoming a European centre for prostitution, an industry believed to generate over 50 million Euros in profit a year (Michaletos and Hanakova, Organised Crime in Central Europe). Poland has become a leading European centre for amphetamine production, while Albania remains a key European route for heroin smuggling. Organised crime has successfully penetrated economic and political spheres across the regions, with a number of ‘scandals’ connecting high profile politicians to organised crime. Reports compiled by both the Council of Europe and the German military have claimed that Hashim Thaci, Prime Minister of Kosovo, ran a powerful Albanian Mafia group controlling racketeering and heroin trade in the Balkans, and has alleged they even murdered Serbian captives to sell their organs on the black market (These allegations have always been denied by the KLA – the original version of the report is available here).


Hashim Thaci (Left) - the Kosovan Prime Minister is alleged to have close links with the mafia.


The geopolitical position of many central and east European states, lying between the poor, crime-ridden states of the former Soviet Union and the richer consumer countries to the west made the region a naturally lucrative smuggling route once the ‘Iron Curtain’ was opened, thus also attracting the attention of organised crime groups based outside of the region. Today, heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan destined for sale in western Europe and north America travel through central Asia across Russia and into eastern Europe, or through Iran, Turkey and the Balkans. While a lot of marijuana is produced in north Africa and transported directly to western Europe, marijuana grown in fields across central Asian states such as Kazakhstan (also a leading producer of marijuana for west European markets), has to be smuggled through Russia or Turkey before entering the EU.


Macedonian police seize packages of heroin, en-route for sale in Vienna and Frankfurt


Human smuggling routes follow a similar pattern across the region  Prostitution is a particularly lucrative crime, with women commonly brought from the poorer states of south east Europe and the former Soviet Union, and smuggled into states including the Czech Republic, Germany and the Netherlands. There they will be forced to work in brothels to earn money for the gangs who now ‘own’ them. Middle Eastern countries (particularly Israel), are also common destinations for prostitutes originating from the former USSR, who are often illegally transported through the Balkans. Aside from prostitution, victims of trafficking are sometimes forced to work for criminal gangs in various other illegal capacities to make them money, such as fraud.


Prague has become a European centre for prostitution


Today, despite heightened security measures, EU borders remain far from impermeable. In EU member states such as Bulgaria where corruption is rife, it remains relatively easy for criminal gangs to arrange for fake documentation such as passports and visas, which allow both material and human cargo to illegally travel on to popular European destinations such as Germany, France and Britain after they arrive in Bulgaria. And while trafficking drugs and people remain two of the most serious smuggling crimes, they are by no means the only illegal cargo to pass through central and Eastern Europe. Speedboats cross the Adriatic sea every night, laden with cigarettes and alcohol, to dodge tax regulations. Cars stolen in the West can be smuggled to Eastern Europe, but much more commonly today, cars stolen in Eastern Europe are smuggled to Russia, the Middle East and central Asia. Counterfeit designer fashion and bootleg DVDs and computer software, produced domestically and imported from Asia are also transported for sale inside the European Union.


Cooperation … and Conflict.


Given the broad scope of these smuggling operations, the post-communist decades have clearly witnessed a significant level of criminal cooperation, both between the various domestic mafias of central and Eastern Europe, and between domestic criminals and gangs based outside of the region. But does this equate to the formation of a ‘Pax Mafiosa’ –  a coordinated criminal network spanning the central and east European region? Or are we witnessing a series of more transient, short-term mutually profitable individual agreements between gangs who retain the power to fight over territory and markets when their interests and loyalties shift?


Since the beginning of the 1990s, Italy has been clamping down hard on the Sicilian Mafia. According to the deputy director of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, at the end of the 1990s the Mafia sought to survive this crackdown by forming a “symbiotic” relationship with the Albanian crime families known as fares, who provided the struggling Sicilians a number of services (mostly providing ‘muscle’), in their operations across Italy. Today, both Sicilian Mafia groups and the ‘Ndrangheta are believed to have franchised out prostitution, gambling and drug dealing in territories along the Adriatic coast to the Albanians. One CSIS report even claimed that this partnership had proved so successful that the Sicilian mafia established a ‘headquarters’ in Vlorë, a coastal town in southern Albania at the close of the 1990s (And the Winner is … the Albanian Mafia, Washington Quarterly, 1999).


Vlorë, Albania, suspected to be the external headquarters of the Sicilian Mafia


While the Sicilian Mafia initially seems to have benefitted from cooperative relations with Albanian groups, using them to make up for the loss of manpower suffered during the Italian government’s clampdown, other Italian groups appear to have had less success. This has been particulalry apparent since the Albanian gangs have sought to expand their own influence in the last decade. According to one British anti-organised crime agency, native criminal groups based in Milan struggled violently with Albanian gangs who were attempting to muscle in on their lucrative drug market at the close of the 1990s, eventually losing out to their new competitors (Albanian Mafia targets Britain, The Guardian, 1999). Other criminal groups are also wary of working with their Albanian rivals. A US Newspaper reporter investigating Polish organised crime was told by an underworld source that ‘the Poles will work with just about anybody… blacks, Italians, Russians, Asians. But they won’t go near the Albanian mob. The Albanians are too violent and too unpredictable’. (Philadelphia, December 2002).


A similar scenario unfolded with the powerful Russian gangs. After the fall of the USSR, Russian crime groups quickly moved to establish a ‘presence’ in Eastern Europe, forging mutually profitable alliances through cooperation with many native criminal groups. According to the Conflict Studies Research Centre, many Russian gangs used connections formerly established during the Soviet era to forge links with the emergent East European underworld in the 1990s. Russian criminals liaised with Czech gangs to smuggle arms and drugs through Prague and into Germany (Dallow, Russian Organised Crime, 1998). Prague also quickly became a centre for prostitution, with Russian gangs smuggling girls in from the former Soviet Union, where they were sold or loaned to the ‘local’ Czech gangs who operated the brothels. In exchange, Czech gangs used their influence with local law enforcement to benefit their Russian counterparts, for example, faking court orders to free a particularly infamous Russian gangster from gaol. During the Cold War era, many Red Army recruits were stationed in East Germany, meeting German criminals who they were later able to form ‘business’ links with. In addition to the familiar alliances relating to prostitution and drug smuggling, a thriving market in stolen cars also developed through Germany in the aftermath of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. High-value cars stolen by German car thieves (sometimes to order) would be passed on to Russian gangs, who arranged for their illegal transportation through Poland and into the former Soviet Union In a matter of days, if not hours, a car stolen in Warsaw could end up anywhere from Kiev to Vladivostok. In Hungary, it was estimated that during the last week before the Soviet Union’s collapse, 1000 Red Army soldiers stationed in Hungary deserted rather than return home. Many of these later became involved in criminal enterprises based in Hungary but having connections in the former USSR. Dirty Russian money has been laundered through numerous financial institutions in central and eastern Europe.


But again, the post-communist Russian influx led to conflict as well as cooperation. While the early 1990s provided a windown of opportunity for Russian criminals to move in to Eastern Europe this influx often resulted in violence. In the mid-1990s one infamous case in Frankfurt involved the slaughter of a Russian pimp, his wife and four prostitutes due to a feud with other criminals, while a series of bombs set off in the Cypriot town of Limassol were believed to be caused by gangs fighting over extortion rackets on Russian businessmen. All across eastern Europe there were similar conflicts and ‘turf wars’ as gangs battled over the control of illegal markets, with car bombs, shoot outs, assassinations and even stereotypical gangland instances where gang members have been killed, hidden in the boots of cars and then buried. Levels of overt violence peaked at the close of the 1990s, partly as the underworld stabilised and partly because the state fightback launched by many central European governments led to a number of Russian criminals being ‘forced out’. However, there has been some resurgence in violence during the second post-communist decade and occasional ‘flare ups’ still occur today, for example in Italy, where Russian gangsters have recently sought to establish operations in the north (especially Milan), a strategy which has has brought them into conflict with both indigenous Italian gangs and with the resurgent Albanian fares.         


It would seem wrong then, to claim that there is some kind of East European ‘Pax Mafiosa’, as the relationships between the various criminal gangs operating across central and eastern Europe are often fractious and violent. It would also be wrong to characterise them as bitter rivals however, continually warring over territory and always seeking to monopolise their own particular markets. In today’s globalised economy, cooperation is increasingly a prerequisite for successful criminal organisations. Today, the East European underworld is characterised by loose alliances between groups, who cooperate to carry out more sophisticated and profitable crimes when it suits them, but also retain the capacity for fractious infighting and disunity. There is certainly no supreme Mafia council coordinating crimes across Eastern Europe, but in the twenty years since the collapse of communism, many criminals have learned how to work together to fully exploit the lucrative advantages that carving out a presence in the heart of Europe can provide.


About the Author:

Thomas Garrett is completing his MA in History at Swansea University. He is currently working on his dissertation, entitled ‘The Internationalisation of the Russian Mafia’ which analyses the global spread of Russian organised crime from the 1980s to the present day.


For more information see:

RW Dallow, Conflict Studies Research Centre, Russian Organised Crime (Surrey: Camberley, 1998)

Ian Davies, Chrissie Hurst, Bernado Mariani; Saferworld, Organised crime, corruption and illicit arms smuggling in an enlarged EU: Challenges and Perspectives (December 2001)

Kelly Hignett, ‘The Changing Face of Organised Crime in Post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe’ Debatte, vol 18, no 1 (April 2010)

Ioannis Michaletos and Marketa Hanakova; World Security Network Foundation, Organised Crime in Central Europe (2010)

October 7, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | 6 Comments