The Fall of the Traditional Thief

With Nikita Khrushchev coming to power after the death of Stalin in 1953, the days of the traditional thief, also known as the Vory neared the end of their power reign. The Vory are a group of professional thieves(thief in law) mostly located in the Gulag system. They are known for their complex tattoos, their own language(Fenia), their loyalty to the code of thieves, harsh punishments and abuse , and pain tolerance. For instance, “It was customary that if a thief lost all his money playing cards and wanted to carry on playing, he would bet fingers or other limbs, mutilating himself during the game and then playing on”(1). One of the principle rules for the Vory is to not work with authorities in any manor. One could be kicked out of the brotherhood for even accepting a tea packet from a prison guard. The Vory opposition to authority and dedication to thievery meant that they were only allowed to live off of their criminal earnings. Therefore, Vory would refuse to participate in gulag labor.

‘Plugging the throat’ – a common punishment for any camp inmates deemed to have insulted one of the Vory – image from Danzig Baldaev(1)

The irony about the Vory is that while they were in decline due to the Bitch Wars and political reforms, the popularity of them continued to rise in the USSR. The decline of the Vory began during WWII. Criminals in the Gulag system were offered their freedom if they served for the Red Army in WWII. Many criminals served, but were then sent back to the gulags after the war ended. This service is considered working with authorities and is against the Vory code, which resulted in a division between the Vory and the criminals who served. The criminals who served were from then on known as Suki, with a literal translation being Bitch. The Vory began their decline during the Bitch wars, which were power struggles within the gulag systems. The Suki often out powered the Vory due to their higher numbers and their cooperation with prison guards, who were known to help out the Suki in various ways. Their downfall can further be seen during the leadership of Khrushchev. Under Khrushchev, anti-criminal policies were implemented that created harsh punishments for the associated with the criminal underworld. To add to this, “after Stalin’s death in 1953 over four million prisoners were released within the first five years, and by 1960, the Gulag had been reduced to a fifth of its former size”(1). This effectively tore through the Vory’s power hold. Many of the Suki were also released into the public and became successful due to their relationship with authorities. The Suki adapted and changed the code of criminals to benefit themselves. This new more successful way of criminal enterprise meant that more and more people would join the Suki rather then stay with the Vory, resulting in the downfall of the Vory.

Video 1- Vory Documentary, English Subtitles, 1:30hr(5). Video 2- Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia(6)


The criminal culture soon released into the public, resulting in movies, songs, literature, and styles. “The prison experience seeped its way into popular culture through songs and an argot called blatnoi slang, which gave rebels a language of resistance that would guide them through the coming decades”(2).




Works Cited.







21 thoughts on “The Fall of the Traditional Thief

  1. This is an extremely fascinating post! You always hear about the Russian Gulags and the pits that they were, but that is usually as deep as the conversation and understanding goes. This post really sheds light on the intricacy of Gulag life and the truly unique societies that developed therein. Seeing as the USSR was so massive, it is impressive that these criminals were able to come together and unite to form their own culture, society and heritage. This post definitely stirred my interest around the “unknown” culture of the Soviet Gulags. Great job!

  2. I had no idea that there was such a thing embedded in the Gulags. It doesn’t surprise me. With so much time spent in the Gulags, there must have been multiple groups founded to organize life in the Gulags, some for this, others maybe to create a “better” stay.

  3. Great topic! This was a really cool post to read and gave a lot of good information on something I’ve never heard of before. These were two very interesting groups that formed in the Gulags with a very unique set of codes and standards that was fostered by the Gulags they were in.

  4. It is the height of Stalinist authoritarianism that criminals were used for cannon fodder and then thrown back in jail. It also strikes me as ironic that the Gulag system helped some criminals fight others, seems like a good way to keep them occupied and quell riots and the like.

  5. This is really interesting because I had no idea about any of this. I like that the vory had their own culture and language within the prison system. I think that the Gulag system and the authorities would have liked to see this sectarianism because it meant that the prison population as a whole would be easier to control.

  6. Interesting to see how the Gulag drove them to do these things such as mutilate their own bodies just over a poker game. This goes to show just how bad the Gulags were. Also it is interesting to see how much the Voli rejected the authority of the prisoners and you could only get by on what you stole. What a strong code of conduct in a place where most of life is taken away from you.

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