In summer of 2008, not long before a military conflict broke out in South Ossetia, tensions between two Georgian thieves of honor (vory v zakone), Tariel “Tariko” Oniani and Lashi “Rustavskyi Lasha” Shushanashvili were widely discussed in Russia. The issue was made public through television and print media after investigators for the Russian Interior Ministry managed to detain a record 39 Georgian thieves of honor as they were gathering for a traditional shodka meeting (mafia`s own local court). The detainees used to control building firms, casinos, wholesale markets and shop petrol stations in Moscow, to say nothing about such traditionally criminal activites like drug and arms trade, auto theft and prostitution. Though “Tariko” claimed that Lasha and his people violated the mafia`s rules, actually the real problem was with the turnover of hundreds of millions dollar assets.
It was a rare occasion for the ordinary people to learn something more about mafia. Thieves in honor usually shun publicity and settle all the problems on their own. However, the situation changed somehow in 1990s when the number of criminals grew bigger and it was harder for them to avoid internal conflicts. Then some facts about the thieves` way of life became available and gave food for thought to film makers, writers and journalists. But still, books, films or interviews cover very few aspects of life in mafia.
There are plenty of legends explaining the origin of thieves in honor. The first references date back to early 1930s, a very remarkable time in the Soviet Russia. Then the authorities made Herculean effort to fight supporters of NEP (New Economic Policy), which lead to the rise of criminal activity. Thousands of criminals were taken to GULAG penal labor camps. Meanwhile, the country began its way to industrialization, human labor was in high demand. Indeed, it would be strange if only honest citizens worked while criminals would just spend their jail time like in sanatoriums. However, to make those people with special psychological treats and habits work for the sake of their Motherland was a difficult task, and a huge number of wardens and guards. It was necessary to control the prisoners with the help of their cell mates.
The camps` administration had a kind of “activists”- prisoners who had changed their mind and now strived for cooperation with the authorities. They were appointed to be on duty. Activists officially had power over other prisoners. But this system had been invented long before GULAG camps were established by the Soviet authorities.
But “vory v zakone” (thieves in honor) became the Soviet know-how. It was a large-scale project of the Soviet authorities, which could be even compared to nuclear or missile exploration, although the nation knew little truth about the life in GULAG camps. “Activistis” did not have much influence on the criminals. Very often the so-called “otritsaly” (those who did not like to be controlled by the activists) stirred up revolts,which cometimes led to murders. So, the major aim was to somehow make prisoners obey and work hard.
A special thieves` ideology was invented to be imposed on the prisoners. This ideology comprised some rituals used in monk orders, masonic lodges and ethnic mafias. To effectively control prisoners, thieves in honor had to be good organizers. Apart from being cruel and ruthless, they had to offer prisoners an attracitve value system. Under the code, the thieves must not have any property and any luxurious things. He should have served seevral jail sentences before his distinction could be clamed. Thieves were not allowed to marry and have children, have city registration, enter “Komsomol” (Communist Union of Youth) of the Communist Party, serve in the army or work (neither they worked in prison). They also could not cooperate with the administration of the camps and seek early parole. A thief, who was appointed senior in a prison or claimed distinct from others at large, should have to collect money (obshtshak) that could be used to support the imprisoned criminals and their families. Each prisoner (“zek”) must regularly contribute to “obshtshak” -by giving a part of money and food products he receieved from his family, and also a part of his wages he earned in a labor camp. A zek could become a thief of honor after his candidacy was approved by at least three other thieves of honor during a special ceremony taking place at a shodka.
Naturally, the number of thieves in honor and those willing to become so, was very small. They did not work but were interested in good labor activity as it directly affected the amount of the prison`s obshtshak. Although thieves did not cooperate with the administration, they had much power over zeks. Thus, activitsts and thieves in honor helped the Soviet regime to control prisoners.
Like much of those invented by Joseph Stalin, the “thief in honor” phenomenon outlived not only himself but also the Soviet Union. The phenomenon has gone through some changes with time, with Georgia being the cradle of all these transformations. The role of Georgia in the evolution of thief ideology is so big that in this article I can only touch upon some of the landmarks.
In 1970s Georgia was a special kind of republic. Although some Georgian leaders of today are talking about the Soviet era as time of harsh repressions against the Georgian people, there is enough evidence to claim to the contrary.
When the First Secretary of the Georgian Communist Party, Eduard Shevardnadze demonstrated a creative approach to socialism, which often contradicted to that imposed by the official regime. At the same time he earned reputation of an effective lobbyist of the republican interests in the Kremlin and enjoyed little attention to his economic experiments from Moscow. Thirty years ago Georgia was already on its way to “the consumption society” pattern. People were allowed to have as many cars, flats and cottages as they liked. There were quite a lot of people in Georgia then who enjoyed millions of Soviet weighty rubles on their bank accounts.
This what caused transformation of Georgia's criminal world. Since “tsekhoviki” (black market manufacturers) were persecuted, this sphere of economy fell under control of thieves. Despite their Soviet origin, under new historic and economic circumstances thieves of honor were getting more like their fellow criminals in the West. Obliged to pay taxes, Georgian tsekhoviki made obshtshaks grew bigger. Naturally, Georgian thieves immediately felt the burden of the code. They no longer wanted to serve jail sentences and live ascetically. They treated the rules like Shevardnadze treateed socialism. A marriage ban was almost removed to let the thieves have children and strengthen relative ties. To live in comfort and at the same time not risking to be persecuted by the law-enforecment agencies, the Georgian thieves were allowed to cooperate with members of the party and the authorities.
In late 1970s the Georgian thieves even thought of seizing power but after KGB interfered, many of the criminals were put into prison outside Georgia (though usually the convicted were kept in the nearby camps and jails).
Shevardnadze is said to have had a hand in it allegedly to save the republic from criminal leaders. However, there could have been another reason. By that time the Georgian tsekhoviki were engaged in such great number of activities that gradually began to control markets in other regions. Huge sums of black money would inevitably lead to the transformation of criminal circles outside Georgia. But in this case the money raised from tsekhoviki would not return to Georgia. Probably, Shevardnadze wanted to prevent this.
So, even outside Georgia, tsekhoviki had to pay taxes to Georgian thieves in honor, who, put in prisons in new regions, continued their activity.
It is worth mentioning that originally there were very few thieves in honor in the Soviet Union. But in Georgia the situation was different: due to relative ties, the number of thieves in honor grew like a weed.
In other regions, for example, in the Far East, there could be no thieves in honor at all. That is why those from Georgia enjoyed privileged position in prisons outside their homeland. Possessing huge sums of money, they bribed a camp`s administration, helped zeks live through daily hardships and thus automatically recruited new members. At the same time they cooperated with the local criminal bosses and decided who deserved to be appointed as a thief in honor. So, in different regions there appeared thief clans controlled by Georgia. After being released from jail, many Georgian cirminal bosses prefered not to retunr to their republic or if they did so, they always appointed their “godsons”, so to speak. Georgia`s obshtshak was refilled from across the Soviet Union.
The collapse of the USSR naturally brought something new to the evolution of Georgian organized crime. In early 1990s almost all Georgian thieves, who were jailed in Russia, were convoyed to Georgia and there were amnestied. Then practically all of them returned to Russia and other economically lucractive republics (Ukraine, Kazakhstan). As Slavic thieves were spending their jail time, they missed the moment when primary accumulation of capital began in the post-Soviet Russia. Actually, among those there were plenty of true thieves of honor, who striclty observed the code. As Georgians were much more flexible in terms of this, they turned to be much better prepared to the conflicts not only inside their clans but also with those who did not recognize any bosses in the world of crime.
It is a common fact that in early 1990s the scene was occupied by criminal groups, which consisted of athletes, who had never been in jail, did not have any kind of ideology and just wanted to make easy money. They thought thieves in honor had too many prejudices and did not want to obey them. Those guys managed to seize control over some regions, including Saint Petersburg. They claimed the leading role in the Russian criminal world. First the new and the old thieves clashed in bloody conflicts but soon managed to achieve a kind of a compromise when the old ones regained their authority and many of the new ones were “crowned”. Then the first rumors appeared as if it cost hundreds of thousand dollars to have a “crown”. Nowadays the price has certainly reached millions. Even those criminal groups, where bosses were intended to become businessmen, politicians or public figures and thus were not allowed to be “crowned”, had to cooperate with the thieves in honor. This happened to one of the most powerful organized crime families of Russia, the Solntsevskaya bratva (brotherhood) in Moscow welcomed Djemal Khachidze, a thief in honor from Georgia. Of course, it was much easier to agree on a “crown” with the Georgian mafia as they had long been involved in market relations and would not miss an opportunity to benefit from this.
Did Shevardnadze have any personal ties with the thieves?
I lack enough evidence to prove this but in Soviet times and also during his return to power in times of Georgia`s independence, thieves in honor were not persecuted though preferred not to stay in the republic for a very long time, looking for other lucrative regions. At the same time, money raised by the thieves, which flow to Georgia from the nearby regions and abroad, keep the republican budget afloat and is no less important for the Georgian economy than US support or migrants` labor. Under Shevardnadze, some political and other kind of projects, were implemented only thanks to this money.
When Saakashvili came to power, he immediately launched a war against crime. The thieves residing in the republic were offered either to abandon their activity or to get ready to serve life sentence. Some former Georgian thieves, who had long forgotten their criminal past and settled in Italy, Spain, Fracne, Germany, Belgium, Austria, Greece or Turkey, were placed on the Interpol wanted list. Dozens of them were taken to Georgia and put in jail. The “war on thieves” was backed by huge propaganda but now we see it has almost come to an end.
Why? Probably, because Saakashvili has long been living outside Georgia, was not aware of how great the role played by the thieves in honor was and what he could benefit from cooperating with them. Primarily, he was aimed at pleasing Europe by demonstrating how successfully he was fighting against crime. Maybe he expected that in response Georgia would be granted membership in NATO and the EU and would receive support in conflict with Russia. But his expectations were deceived. And now the number of thieves who are about to be released in Georgia grows each day.
So what is the exact number of thieves in honor and which percentage of them are Georgians? Nobody can tell you exact figures. For various reasons (old age, death and others) some thieves in honor give way to the new ones. There are no statistics in the CIS. Besides, due to some conflicts inside the criminal world, the thieves happen to be deprived of the “crown”, which may also lead to some ambiguities with the status of a criminal. According to the most influential “Prime Crime” news agency, since the 1990s the number of thieves in honor have never been less than 600, with Georgians making 50% of them. Compare: the number of Slavic thieves have not reached 100. After his release in 2005, the most authoritative Russian thief Vyacheslav “Yaponchik” Ivankov called on his fellows to deprive of crowns those who had not earned but bought it. But the initiative was not backed by the thieves (and if you look at the statistics above, you will understand why).
Nowadays the Georgian thieves are a powerful and very united criminal community, with its members having relative ties and enjoying huge financial support not only in home but in Russia and other CIS countries. They are the strongest in the post-Sovet area.Besides, they do not call themselves an “ethnic mafia” and claim they observe the ideology.
It is difficult to predict if the Georgian official leaders could get this mafia involved in the anti-Russian policies. But we should remember that the founder of the notorious “Mkhedrioni” paramilitary group, Jaba Ioseliani,was not only a politician but also a bank robber...
Source:Strategic Culture Foundation