The PrimeCrime website carries thousands of photographs, videos and articles on Russia's murky criminal caste known as the Vory.
The Who's Who of Moscow mobsters
MOSCOW // It was a curious offence for notorious crime bosses to commit. Within one week, two reputed gangsters were nabbed by police for shoplifting high-end liquor from Moscow supermarkets this year. Exactly why the two mob bosses, with the respective monikers of "Brazen" and "Vova St Pete", would feel compelled to seek five-finger discounts on expensive whisky and wine remains unclear. Some Russian media suggested the economic crisis was hitting the mafia hard. Others speculated that the two mobsters had intentionally landed behind bars to expand their influence among Russia's hardened criminals. The truth is difficult to discern. The figures involved, after all, are members of Russia's secretive fraternity of crime bosses known as Vory v Zakone, or "thieves-in-law". One Russian website, however, has taken up the task of trying to explain the Byzantine relationships, conflicts and incidents permeating this criminal caste. And the man behind the website, PrimeCrime.ru, wants to give the English-speaking world access to what is perhaps the world's most exhaustive information resource about Vory v Zakone available to the public.
Launched three years ago, PrimeCrime.ru marked the culmination of a decade of research by Alexander, a 33-year-old Moscow-based businessman who agreed to a face-to-face interview with The National on the condition that he not be photographed and that as little as possible be revealed about his identity. The reason for the anonymity, he said, was that the colourful crime bosses that are the focus of his project are not the types inclined to file lawsuits should they object to something he publishes.
"Not everyone goes to court or writes a letter of complaint," Alexander said in an interview over tea at a Moroccan restaurant in central Moscow. With thousands of photographs and hundreds of videos of Vory, a stream of fresh news items and electronic versions of newspaper articles dating back to before the fall of the Soviet Union, the website pulls back the curtain on one of Russia's most alluring and nefarious institutions, whose members are celebrated in Russian literature, film and song and maintain their own laws, courts, leaders and initiation rites.
The site, which charges visitors for access to materials that are not necessarily its property, is also replete with reprinted news articles about Vory dating back to 1991. An English-language version of the website is now in the works, he said. "[In English] there are lots of sites about the mafia, but none about Vory." Alexander speaks fluent English and said his website had hired a company to translate the content, though the regular news updates, which typically include extensive biographical details about the Vory in question, will likely be abridged in the English version.
"We're not looking for exact translations of the Russian news items. Western readers aren't going to be too interested which police unit detained [a Vor] or on what street. If they have nicknames, we'll try to do the best we can to convey the meaning of it." Indeed, lively nicknames are not the exclusive domain of Italian mafiosi. A random scan of a list of prominent Vory turns up names like Alexander "The Boar" Zagorodnikov, Yevgeny "Zhenya the Asian" Dmitryev, Pavel "Bonzai" Romanov, Soslanbek "The Mexican" Apayev, Ruslan "Ruslan the Grey" Gulariya and Yevgeny "The Pawn" Pershin.
Alexander, who makes his money in advertising and has an MBA from a US university, said the website had been almost 15 years in the making. He grew up in southern Russia, where he said the Vory traditions were "very strong" and "still propagated". "Even in school, everyone knew where the Vor lived, what kind of car he drove," Alexander said. "I know the psychology and terminology of this world because I had some direct contact with it, and that's what turned me on to this hobby."
While he was studying foreign languages in Moscow in 1994, a wave of murders and arrests of Vory in the Russian capital piqued his interest further, and he began collecting newspaper articles about the spike in such crimes. But Alexander said his research began in earnest three years later, beginning with anything he could find on the internet, searching black-market police databases and obscure news reports in library newspaper archives.
"For 12 years, I just collected information from where I could: open sources, buying the odd leaked police database, going to libraries and scanning things from original newspapers," he said. In 2006, he registered his website with the Russian government press agency as an official media outlet, primarily to allow it to make official requests for information with law enforcement authorities but also to make public the results of his research.
"The goal was to release the material that I had accumulated over the years: texts, photographs," he said. "I guess the goal was also to attract the attention of like-minded people and create a kind of community. And that's what has happened. People who are interested write to us. We've received letters from relatives of Vory thanking us for not allowing them to be forgotten. For me that was more of a bonus. I wasn't really counting on something like that when I started."
The site pulls in enough revenue to pay for its web hosting and a programmer and relies on fellow enthusiasts - including police officers - from around the country to contribute news, pictures and videos about Vory from Russia's distant corners. "They don't get paid anything for writing for the site," he said. "They only get money if they have to pay to get their hands on a certain piece of information. But that money comes out of my own pocket, not from revenues from the site."
The site's followers, who, like the Vory themselves, span the former Soviet satellite countries, regularly send in photographs of the often comically elaborate and gaudy headstones of deceased crime bosses, who are often depicted in dramatic poses, puffing on cigarettes or dressed up in wise guy or track suits. "The photographs of the gravestones we receive from readers from all over the place: from Uzbekistan, Georgia, Armenia."
Alexander brushed off suggestions that registering his site with federal authorities risked exposing his identity. "They can't trace it back to us." The Vory as an institution dates back to the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's gulags, where they emerged as the elite of the criminal (rather than political) inmates and forged their strict traditions and membership rules, including a ban on marriage, jobs, army service and any co-operation whatsoever with authorities.
It was this staunch opposition to Soviet authorities that helped establish an air of romanticism about the Vory, said Vadim Volkov, a professor at the European University at St Petersburg who has written extensively about criminal subcultures in Russia and the former Soviet Union. "They believed that no gulag could take away their freedom and portrayed themselves as martyrs for an idea," Mr Volkov said. "The halo of suffering is in and of itself a romantic idea. Add to that the collective prison culture: jargon, heart-rending songs, tattoos, rituals and a plethora of oral histories creating a mythology around the brotherhood of Vory. All of this stood opposed to the official Soviet culture - mocked it - and, therefore, became counterculture."
The Vor concept of justice, Mr Volkov said, stood in stark contrast to the repressive Soviet justice system, even though it was exclusively for criminals. "It was like an inverse, mirror world," he said. The urban romanticism of the Vory was only buttressed by the mass amnesty that followed Stalin's death in 1953 and "splashed this criminal subculture into Soviet society", Mr Volkov said. The Vory dominated criminal life in the Soviet Union, feeding particularly successfully on entrepreneurs flourishing in the black-market economy who could not turn to the authorities and therefore had little chance to defend themselves.
One Vor notorious for brazen armed robberies on these black marketeers was Vyacheslav Ivankov, known by the nickname "Yaponchik" or "Little Japanese" because of his vaguely Asian visage. Born in 1940, Ivankov earned his reputation in Moscow in the late 1960s and 1970s as a member of a gang specialising in extortion and blackmail led by a prominent Vor named Gennady "The Mongol" Kharkov, according to Alexander Maximov's 1997 book Russian Crime: Who's Who.
Ivankov served an extended prison term in the 1980s but was released in the dying days of the Soviet Union and shortly thereafter made his way to the United States, setting up shop in the Brighton Beach neighbourhood of New York. He was convicted by a US court of extortion in 1997 and was deported to Russia after serving almost 10 years in a Pennsylvania prison. After arriving in Russia, Ivankov - whom a senior FBI official compared to the late Cosa Nostra boss Carlo Gambino - was tried and acquitted by a Moscow jury of a 1992 double homicide and remains free, reportedly living in the Russian capital.
Andrei Kalitin, one of the few reporters to have interviewed several Vory, managed to convince Ivankov to talk to him on camera for a television documentary and remembers the convicted extortionist as a "very powerful person and personality". "But his power is destructive," Kalitin said. "He is bitter, but powerful and not broken." Ivankov, along with an ethnic Kurd from Georgia named Aslan "Grandpa Hassan" Usoyan, are now among the most powerful Vory in a Vor world that is currently split by a deep rift that threatens major bloodshed, said Alexander of PrimeCrime.ru.
A sniper shot Ivankov in the stomach last week after the reputed mob boss left a restaurant in north-west Moscow. Ivankov survived the attack and is recovering in hospital. The state-run Interfax news agency cited an unidentified law enforcement source as saying the attempt on Ivankov's life was probably tied to the conflict between clans linked to Usoyan and another prominent gang leader named Tariel Oniani.
The conflict, experts said, is over commercial interests but also touches upon what it means to be a Vor, pitting those with greater respect for the relatively austere lives led by the original Vory against those who embraced the money and good life when capitalism hit Russia like an anvil. In the free-for-all in Russia at the start of the 1990s, young Russian criminals with little regard for Vor traditions began building their own careers and decided themselves whom to rob and whom to kill, Kalitin said. Many of today's Vory, most of whom are from the Caucasus, are involved in banking, sport, drugs and gambling and have their own villas and fleets of vehicles, he said.
"This is against the [Vor] rules, but there's no one to tell them that," Kalitin said. "Furthermore, you see ? Vory who are buying the title of 'Vor' with money without ever having served time, and they get away with it. The paradox is that the Vory world died because of its own intra-company wars over money." An anonymous interior ministry official told Interfax in late March that there were about 1,200 Vory v Zakone in Russia, 60 per cent of whom are citizens of neighbouring Georgia, a former Soviet republic that Russia crushed last year in a short war over the breakaway Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. (At about the same time Kremlin foe Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, reportedly boasted that he was cleaning up the country by sending Georgian Vory to Russia, making these crime bosses Georgia's largest export to its former imperial masters.)
Alexander said the 1,200 figure sounded probable, but that it is impossible to say exactly how many Vory remain. Last year, he noted, the Russian interior minister Rashid Nurgaliyev publicly stated there were just 150 Vory in Russia. "Of course he didn't know anything," Alexander said. "Someone just gave him a piece of paper with that information. But it was total nonsense. Twelve-hundred is closer to the real figure, but nobody knows for sure the exact number. Even the Vory themselves don't know it. Someone dies, someone is killed, someone has their title revoked, someone is initiated ? It's not a brotherhood limited by territory. Any Vor can find connections anywhere he goes. Some are in jail in Spain, Italy, France, Uzbekistan."
Wherever the world of the Vory is heading, Alexander said PrimeCrime.ru will be there to cover it. His obsessive interest in this criminal underworld is visceral, and he clearly enjoys discussing his ideas about Vory more than whether his site's traffic will eventually reach its goal of 30,000 visitors a day, up from the current level 1,500 to 2,000 visitors. "I have my own business. I have worked in big companies. I have other sources of income," he said. "But this is the thing I am most interested in doing. What I do to make money isn't really interesting to me. I believe that with time, what I am doing that interests me can bring in enough money to allow me to live without being distracted by anything else."