The society of the vory-v-zakone, 1930s-1950s

In: Cahiers du monde russe : Russie, Empire russe, Union soviétique, États indépendants. Vol. 39 N°4. pp. 515-538


Federico Varese, The society of the vory-v-zakone, 1930s- 1950s. This paper is a study of the society of the vory-v-zakone, a criminal fraternity that flourished in the Soviet Gulag. It is based on three types of sources: published recollections of eyewitnesses, unpublished memories and official records from the State Archive of the Russian Federation. The first part presents the main features of the society, the ritual, the code of behaviour, and the vory’s meetings, where issues of common concern were discussed and sanctions passed on fellow vory and outsiders. The second part explores the origin of the society. Although the term vory-v-zakone is recorded only in Soviet times, the society might have emerged earlier. After a comparison with pre-revolutionary guilds (arteli), the paper points to some crucial differences between arteli and vory-v-zakone, such as the national dimension of the latter. The paper concludes that the Gulag system was a crucial precondition for the emergence of the society as a national network, although a final answer on the origin of the vory is not yet available. The third part chronicles a violent internecine war (such’ia voina) that brought the original society to an end. A new society emerged in the eighties and is a feature of present-day Russia.