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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Marks of a Criminal Elite

If you ever go to a Russian bathhouse and see men with spiders, swords or snow leopards tattooed on their bodies, then you are definitely in the wrong bathhouse. You have fallen among hoods with the dossiers of their various crimes on their skins. And if you also see an old man sitting in a corner with a constellation of five dots on the first joints of his fingers -- or tattoos on the knuckles, or the tattoo of a wedding ring on the appropriate finger -- then you will know that you are in a major criminal bathhouse indeed. For these are the marks of a "thief-in-law," one of the 200 to 400 men who are the traditional bosses of the Russian criminal underworld. The thief-in-law system -- about which little is known in the West -- dates from before the revolution, but came of age in Stalin's prisons and camps. The thief-in-law was the prison or camp boss: it was he who dispensed justice among prisoners, and saw to it that they did not steal each other's food and that food from outside was shared. He maintained a general prisoners' fund. He organized prison labor and sentenced informers and those who cooperated with the prison authorities to death. The thief-in-law had to be tough, but he also had to live simply, to be a man of respect. He had to follow certain strict codes of behavior: never to be used by other men or become anyone's servant; to protect the weak; and to prevent anyone from terrorizing prisoners. Physical strength was important. More important, though, was strength of will and the ability to outface stronger men. A talent for organizing resistance was paramount. But violence, though permitted in prison, was not allowed to be part of a potential thief-in-law's criminal pattern outside. Most were "pure" thieves who, as made men -- each had to be crowned in a formal rite by another three -- continued their prison role in the outside world: dispensing justice through "people's courts," maintaining a central thieves' exchequer, and directing crime. By the 1950s, the thieves-in-law dominated large parts of the massive Russian prison system. The Communist authorities decided to take action. Three hundred thieves-in-law were gathered in a special camp near Perm and forced to work and clean their own cells -- in violation of their code. Meanwhile, a huge propaganda campaign was mounted against them. By the beginning of the '60s, their power was finally broken. In the long boredom of the Brezhnev years, however, a new generation of con men and card sharps appeared in Russian cities, calling themselves "hussars," "packagers" and "sharps." Among them, and the "bugs" who were their strong arms, were a number of former thieves-in-law. At around this time they began an active and secret correspondence between themselves, and their traditions were slowly revived in the camps. The authorities were slow to catch on to what was happening. But then, in the late '70s, there was a massive rise in crime in Uzbekistan. A special police department was set up there, and a number of modern-day thieves-in-law were exposed. It became clear to the investigators, though, that the Uzbek thieves-in-law were merely caretakers: the whole operation was in fact run from Moscow by a new generation who were not Russian, but Georgian, Armenian, Uzbek and Azerbaijani. They were robbers and racketeers controlling prostitution and gambling. They were businessmen operating in the shadow economy. They were also, increasingly, very well organized. In 1979, according to police sources, they called a special congress outside Moscow, the Congress of Spades, to consolidate their operations. Many of the old thieves-in-law were killed off or retired. The new generation had dachas, it was deeply into corruption, and the title of thief-in-law could even be bought, as it still is, mostly by Georgians. In 1986, at another meeting, this new dispensation came of age. The old ones' voting powers were taken away, and though some remained as mediators, the real power passed to the racketeers. In 1991, a further gathering of 100 thieves-in-law was held, to discuss how to operate in the new circumstances prevailing after the August coup. From then on, they increasingly became involved in bank operations, bank scams and the laundering of money. Nobody knows today how much power the modern thieves-in-law have. But when one of them, Rafik Svo, died last year in Lefortovo Prison, his body was escorted by BMWs and Mercedes to an airfield outside Moscow, and taken by military plane to Yerevan. His funeral there was presided over by the head of the Armenian church. Many private planes flew in for the occasion -- including at least one from the United States.