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The Evolution of Prisons and Penality in the Former Soviet Union - Book Reviews (4)

Mark Galeotti, The Vory: Russia’s Super-Mafia

New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018, 344 pages
Gavin Slade
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Mark Galeotti, The Vory: Russia’s Super-Mafia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018, 344 pages

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1One day during my PhD research on organized crime in Georgia in 2009, I was sitting with five middle-aged men in an apartment in Batumi, a city on the Black Sea coast. All five had come to the end of long careers in completely different fields. Three of the men were former prisoners with long criminal careers going back into the Soviet past. The other two men were former police officers. The five knew each other intimately, though not quite as friends. One of the former prisoners, sitting topless in the heat of the day, tattoos exposed, raised his vodka glass and made a toast. "Long live the vory!" he exclaimed, referring to the elite prisoner caste that emerged in the Gulag and later became a networked mafia, providing protection on illegal markets in the strong Soviet state, and on legal and illegal markets in the weak post-Soviet state of the 1990s. The former police officers sat motionless, politely but firmly refusing the toast. "That’s the one toast we can’t drink to", one said.

2I provide this anecdote as a way of highlighting the essence of the argument of a new book by Mark Galeotti that looks up at the modern Russia state from the "world of the lower depths" – the country’s complex relationship with organized crime and its highly developed criminal subculture. The book attempts to show how this world shapes Russian governance, power projection and even social development up to the present day. Ostensibly the Russian state does what any state does: attempts to root out competitors that challenge its monopoly on the production of violence. This is reflected in media, state and public discourse: there is a clearly delineated "criminal world" in Russia which the state fights against. Those within this criminal world view their position in its various status hierarchies as a vocation – akin to being a Communist Party member or a member of the security services. The question young men are asked on the streets of, say, Kazan or prisoners in prison "quarantines" - kto ty po zhizni? Roughly, which life do you lead? – indicates exactly this sense: you are either all in, or all out. Yet, as Galeotti shows, ringing true in my own experiences researching the (Georgian) vory, the line drawn between the "criminal world" and the state is often symbolic, a declined toast at a shared dinner table covered with the spoils of mutually comprehensible practices of predation. The respective values, norms and informal institutions of the state security services and this nefarious ‘criminal world’ at some point blur into each other. The essence of this provocative conclusion to the book can be summarised in all the variations of the oft-heard joke across the former Soviet Union: What is the difference between a politician and a mafioso? A prison officer and prisoner? A cop and a criminal? I don’t know either.

3Galeotti makes a strong case for the presence of a vory logic in current Russian state practices – look at how the "raiding" of businesses is conducted with state agents using tactics reminiscent of the mob; the state uses criminals to fight its wars in Ukraine and do its dirty business in Spain; Putin uses the language of the street to assert his credentials; taxi drivers listen to shanson, prison music, on the radio; films about honourable criminals and gangs gain cult followings; and young men spatter vory jargon into their speech. The book, especially in the later chapters, provides up to date, thorough and thought-provoking analyses of important events. It is a comprehensive account of an argument that has been touched on before but has never been so well articulated. Svetlana Stephenson’s 2015 Gangs of Russia, for example, ends by noting the infusion of gang logics and language into Russian politics. Anton Oleinik (Organized Crime, Prison and Post-Soviet Society 2003) also argued that post-Soviet society mirrored the "small society" of criminal subculture and the norms originating in Russian prison. Here, though, this argument gets its fullest and most convincing airing yet.

4Indeed, Galeotti takes it even further. He suggests not just state practices but even Russian social values have become suffused with the norms of organized crime. "Maybe…it is not that the vory have disappeared so much as that everyone is now a vor, and the vorovskoi mir [thieves’ world] ultimately won (p. 222)". The book has an unfortunate tendency, unusual for Galeotti’s writing, towards moments of overstatement – we are never told what a super-mafia is supposed to be – and here the argument atrophies somewhat. There is an undoubted popularity and mainstreaming of elements of the vory subculture in Russian society. I think this is easily overstated though; it is not the vory per se that have become part of the Russian psyche so much as prison and punishment more broadly. As I write this review, new research by the Levada centre reports that one in ten Russian adults claim to have experienced some form of violence or threat of violence from law enforcement bodies and more than half believe that it is very likely that they or their relatives could fall victim of lawlessness by law enforcement. Failed reform and draconian criminal justice policies have ensured that Russia remains one of the biggest incarcerators in the world decades after the Gulag. Prison "colonies" look and feel very similar to Soviet times where operatives still recruit informants – "bitches" – and prisoners are subjected to beating and torture. The corruption of prison regimes combined with social media savvy prisoners have made the prison world even more visible. Due to this, prison remains a large part of Russian direct and vicarious social experience. Prisons, prominent in the early historical chapters of the book, curiously are not discussed much in the later chapters on contemporary Russia, yet for me the prominence of the vory in Russian society are perhaps only part of a wider story about Russia’s peculiar relationship with the prison, the colony and the camp.

5As well as the dissection of present-day Russia discussed above, the book provides a sweeping overview of the history of organized crime in Russia. These chapters will be particularly informative for any general reader coming fresh to the shadowy world of Russian violence and corruption, curiosity piqued by the recent wide-eyed reporting of Russian election meddling and spy poisoning. The book delivers in spades here; it is right up there as a go-to text for any introduction to Russia’s historical underworld as well as the role of criminality in Russia’s modern-day politics. The book tells the story of Russian organized crime going all the way back to Vanka Kain in fluid, no-nonsense prose based on meticulously complied sources developed over a long career. A highly rewarding feature of the book is Galeotti’s mixing of the individual and personal stories with structural, wider social processes. Built into the chapters of the book is a wealth of mini-biographies of mafiosi and criminal figures. Galeotti uses their lives (and usually untimely deaths) to draw out broader points concerning how Russia’s economy and society were changing. Galeotti does an incredible job bringing so much together and tells for the most part a riveting story.

6It bears mentioning here, for the academic reader, and wary that I am writing this review for a Russian area studies journal, that the book does cover a lot of old ground if you are familiar with Galeotti’s previous work and that of other authors such as Vadim Volkov, Federico Varese, Joseph Serio, Phil Williams, Patricia Rawlinson and Svetlana Stephenson. For example, Part Two, "Emergence" takes the reader through the role of organized crime in the Soviet second economy, Gorbachev’s perestroika and the "Wild Nineties" when traditional vory were overtaken by bandity and avtoritety. These parts of the book tell the story very well, focusing nicely on some of the personal trajectories of certain vory to take us through the decades, but ultimately provide few fresh insights into the mafia for the already initiated, if you’ll pardon the pun. Moreover, the book is thin, most likely deliberately given it is clearly aimed at a broad audience, on theoretical and academic conceptual discussion. Galeotti nods to issues of definition and sources when using loaded terms such as "mafias" and "brotherhoods" but never confronts them head on. This can be frustrating. We are told (p. 126) that there are eight "major structures" working in Russia today but what and how should we calculate to arrive at this number?

7Regardless of these issues, The Vory: Russia’s Super-Mafia is a hugely impressive work of synthesis that brings to bear Galeotti’s immense experience of Russia and writing on Russian organized crime. The result is a painstakingly researched, rich new book that builds up to a provocative and eye-opening analysis about the role of organized crime in shaping the Russian state and society. The book is an evocative account of individual vory that ultimately moves far beyond them. It provides a fresh lens on Russia for all those analysts and policy-makers examining the resurrection of this superpower on the world stage. More importantly, it tells an accessible story for a broader readership of a how a murky underworld crawled out of the lower depths and became an unignorable element of Russian life. That is certainly something nobody would refuse a toast to.

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Electronic reference

Gavin Slade, « Mark Galeotti, The Vory: Russia’s Super-Mafia  », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 19 | 2018, Online since 05 July 2019, connection on 24 November 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Gavin Slade

Nazarbayev University

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