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World of the Lower Depths: Crime and Punishment in Russian History

NCJ Number
Global Crime Volume: 9 Issue: 1-2 Dated: February-May 2008 Pages: 84-107
Mark Galeotti
Date Published
February 2008
24 pages
This article traces the profiles of two distinct criminal traditions in Russian history, one of which has persisted to the present.
One criminal tradition emerged in the rural areas of Russia, where gangs of horse thieves and traffickers in stolen loot became increasingly organized in the 19th century. This criminal tradition tapered off, however, as criminal opportunities became abundant under the trend toward urbanization and industrialization in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. An increasingly homogeneous and organized underworld culture emerged from the slums of Russian cities. This underworld culture had its own hierarchies, values, and spoken and tattoo languages. It came to be known as "vorovskoi mir" (the "thieves' world"). Hard core members of the vorovskoi mir embraced their identities as criminal outsiders and established their dominance within the Russian prison system. Their power in the prison system was aided by a trend beginning in the late 1920s, under which the Russian authorities began co-opting vorovskoi mir members to be trustees within the Gulag system under offers of better food and living conditions. They became foremen and enforcers, allowing the state to reduce its expenditures on salaried prison staff. When the Gulags were opened after Stalin's death in 1953, the vorovskoi mir who ruled that system emerged to reorganize the Soviet underworld while maintaining their ties to state officials when it suited their interests. A disastrous and unexpected byproduct of Gorbachev's reforms in the 1980s was to allow the vorovskoi mir to increase its power, as its intact organization and disciplined, ruthless operational methods enabled them to capitalize on the anarchy and unstructured economy of the 1990s, becoming today's "mafiya." 144 notes