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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Good Thieves, Bad Thieves

In April this year, a list of 266 "thieves-in-law" -- the godfathers of the Russian yakuza, or Japanese mafia -- was published in a newspaper called Who's Who. Shortly afterwards, the owner of Who's Who, the parliamentary deputy Andrei Azderdzis, was found shot dead, apparently by contract killers. The Russian "thieves-in-law," as I wrote last week, are the bosses of a criminal system that seems to have originated in Stalin's prisons, but which may date back to pre-revolutionary times. The "thief-in-law," who had to be nominated and crowned by at least two other "thieves," traditionally started out as a prison or camp "baron," a man who dispensed justice, organized prison labor and sentenced informers to death. He was bound to a strict code of behavior, governing his life both inside and outside the prison. He had to be a "pure" thief: to live simply and without property or any dealings with the state. He had to keep the "thieves'" law, rule crime and guarantee the loyalty of his men. He had to be a man of respect. The power of the "thieves" in the country's prisons was finally broken in the 1950s and 1960s, after a massive quarantine and propaganda campaign. But then in the 1970s, a new generation began to emerge outside the prisons which was no longer purely Russian. There were Georgians and Armenians, Chechens, Uzbeks and Azeris, and they were deeply involved, not only in theft and prostitution, but also in the black economy and in underground manufacturing. To be able to operate in these last two successfully, they had, in effect, to break the "thieves'" code: They had to work with and suborn bosses and bureaucrats inside government, the militsia and the Communist Party. A lot of the new "thieves'" efforts were local, at first, to their own republics. But with perestroika, they began to converge on Moscow, and to threaten there the power and authority of the traditional "thieves," who controlled the city through the so-called Moscow Center, a sort of politburo of crime. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a battleground between the old and the new -- some of whom had simply announced and crowned themselves "thieves" without any authority. Many of the traditional "thieves" refused to become involved in drugs, money-laundering or the smuggling of strategic metals. A number of them were killed. Others were forced into permanent retirement. There are signs that the war is still continuing. In a recent book, a former KGB officer, Andrei Tereshonok, describes (with journalist Gyorgy Podlevsky) how the intelligence services, well into the 1980s, finally recognized what a threat to society the "thieves-in-law" had become, far greater than the dissidents had ever been. Now they have become so powerful, he says in an interview published in the London Guardian, that the only option for the state is to enter into a dialogue with them. "Dialogue," he told reporter James Meek, "is not cooperation. Dialogue doesn't place any obligations on either side. But it has the advantage of letting each side know what the other's requirements are." At first the mind boggles at all this. Secret negotiations between the state and the state within the state? Yeltsin to sit down with bosses like the Dummy, the Beard and the Japanese? But then all becomes clear. For Tereshonok, in Meek's words, draws "a favorable comparison with Japan," where he says that the "good" yakuza was effectively licensed by the police to keep out the "bad" yakuza. Ah. What he means, I think, is that the state should be encouraged from now on to turn a blind eye to traditional, Russian "thieves-in-law" in return for cooperation between them and the security services in getting rid of murderous arrivistes like the Georgian, Armenian and other "thieves-in-law." Russian crime, in other words, should be for Russians only, and not for those the Russians call "blacks." Tereshonok is clearly a Russian patriot in the Zhirinovsky mould. It is enough, in his mind, to be Russian and to follow traditional Russian ways. It is enough for the "thieves-in-law" to keep up the tattooing and the good works mediated by their central exchequer. The problem is that even the Russian "thieves-in-law" have become capitalists: Like everybody else with money in mind, they have graduated to banking, the stealing of Russia's resources and international crime. If you want to find the difference between the "good" yakuza and the "bad," perhaps you should ask Andrei Azderdzis' relatives.