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Originally published Wednesday, July 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Russians retain affinity for fading crime barons

It is unclear why they gathered. A police statement said it was to discuss "escalating problems of the criminal world. " Some insiders spoke...

The New York Times

MOSCOW — It is unclear why they gathered.

A police statement said it was to discuss "escalating problems of the criminal world." Some insiders spoke of a conflict between Moscow crime bosses and of a looming underworld war reminiscent of the bloody battles of a decade ago.

Whatever the reason, when leaders of Russia's criminal elite convened on a yacht in the Moscow River recently, the police moved swiftly to stop the meeting.

In black masks, with weapons drawn, commandos pounced from a hovering helicopter onto the roof of the yacht, starting a media frenzy when they briefly detained 37 men known here as Vory v Zakone or "thieves-in-law."

A Mafialike caste forged in the Soviet gulag, the Vory v Zakone maintain a hallowed place in Russia's criminal lore, something akin to the notorious Five Families in annals of New York crime.

Though the Vory's influence appears to have waned, Russians have long had an affinity for the group, perhaps because it has come to symbolize opposition to the country's often arbitrary political and legal practices, academics and other experts say.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Vory v Zakone "hit platinum," said Andrei Konstantinov, a journalist and novelist who has written about criminal subcultures. "Everyone started to sing about this topic, to talk about it, to make television series, write books," he said. "It became fashionable."

In the past 15 years the Vory have spread around the world, from Moscow to Madrid to Berlin and Brooklyn. They are involved in everything from petty theft to billion-dollar money-laundering schemes.

Born of Stalin's prison camps, the Vory grew into criminal barons that kept order in the gulags and governed the dark gaps in Soviet life beyond the reach of the KGB. While the Communist Party held a steadfast grip on government and society, they had something of a monopoly on crime.

With their own code of ethics, hierarchy and even language, they formed a society in opposition to rigid Soviet conformity, surviving on theft and black-market dealing when not in prison.

When the Soviet Union fell, the Vory emerged from the broken country's peripheries to exploit the legal chaos. By all accounts, they infiltrated the top political and economic strata, while taking command of a burgeoning mafia that spread murderously through the post-Soviet countries.

Crime war feared

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The Russian news media covered the raid on the yacht this month with apparent delight. The major channels showed commandos marching the handcuffed gangsters to waiting buses.

Most were later released for lack of evidence connecting them to a crime.

Some speculated that a major crime boss, Tariel Oniani, had organized the meeting to discuss a conflict with a rival don, Aslan Usoyan, known as Grandpa Hassan. The rift, reports said, threatened to erupt into a full-scale war.

"There will be war and there will be blood," said the operator of vorvzakone.ru, an Internet portal that monitors the activities of the Vory. He requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his work. He said Oniani was at the meeting and detained, but not Usoyan.

In an interview with the newspaper Vremya Novostei, "Grandpa Hassan" denied rumors of impending violence.

"We are peaceful people and don't bother anybody," he said. "We are for peace, in order to prevent lawlessness."

In fact the Vory have been linked to numerous murders in the post-Soviet period. Authorities have accused them of ordering contract killings and carrying out kidnappings and innumerable financial crimes.

To be inducted into the Vory's society involves a life devoted to crime, and, traditionally, an adherence to a strict ethical code, said Aleksandr Gurov, an expert on Vory who headed the organized crime units of the Soviet Interior Ministry and the KGB.

Compared to the Mafia in Italy, Gurov said, the Vory "have less rules but more severe rules."

They must have served several jail sentences before they can qualify. They should not marry, Vory said.

Then there are the tattoos. Just as a Russian Orthodox icon depicts the works of saints, the elaborate tattoos that the Vory wear detail their criminal exploits. They also indicate rank and occupation.

In modern Russia the Vory have a certain allure, in part because of their association with prison life.

"Very many people have passed through prison, even those who have had no special connection to the criminal world," Konstantinov, the journalist, said

This intimacy with imprisonment has spawned a pop culture particular to Russia, in which the Vory and other criminal elements have taken center stage. They recently went Hollywood, vividly portrayed in the film "Eastern Promises," which won the top award at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. Konstantinov said the film was the most accurate depiction that he had seen.

Still, despite all the celebrity, the Vory no longer seem to wield the power they once did.

According to criminologists, in the late 1980s and the 1990s, as capitalism seeped in, new criminal players entered the field. Gurov said that unlike most Vory, the top leaders of the newcomers were college-educated and these new gangsters swarmed into the legal void left by the Soviet Union's collapse to snatch up lucrative shards of the shattered empire.

Influence fades

In the past decade the Vory have suffered a declining influence, analysts generally say, as competitors with stronger ties to big business and the government squeezed them from their traditional niches.

"Vory are still strong in gambling and retail trade, but their significance in Russian economy and society is rather low," said Vadim Volkov, a professor at the European University at St. Petersburg, who has researched criminal societies in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

Estimates of their numbers in Russia vary. Rashid Nurgaliev, the Russian interior minister, said recently that just under 100 remain active on Russian territory today, though others dispute that count.

"This is just funny and does not correspond to reality," said Oleg Utitsin, editor of the crime section in the weekly Argumenty Nedely. "No one knows how many there are, not even the Vory."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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