BY DR. COSTANZA CURRO
Dr. Costanza Curro, a Postdoctoral research fellow on the Gulag Echoes project, has been analysing criminal subcultures in Georgia’s penal system. In this blog post, Costanza reports on an online workshop she organised on 30 March 2022 as part of the GULAGECHOES project.
Part of the research on the Gulag Echoes project has been devoted to the investigation of so-called criminal subcultures across the Soviet Union and in the former Soviet region. While the topic did not figure explicitly in the project’s initial remit, it has become apparent that involvement in subcultures and prison informal hierarchies is a crucial element in shaping prisoners’ and former prisoners’ identities and social relationships. The study of criminal subcultures has also raised the still largely unexplored question of how various types of affiliation with criminal and semi-criminal environments – in particular, to the world of the vory v zakone, the thieves in law[i] – intersect with ethnicity. The vory v zakone and the principles and practices associated with them have enjoyed different yet widespread levels of popularity across the region through the Soviet period and in the decades following the demise of the Soviet system. The website Prime Krime.ru, which is an encyclopedic source of information of all things regarding the vory – personal details, criminal history, affiliations and conflicts with other vory, individual and collective visual material such as pictures and videos – lists percentages of historical and currently active thieves in law according to their ethnicity. While Russians as the largest representative group may not come as a surprise (43% in total), high numbers among relatively small nationalities – such as the Georgians, who are the second largest group with 22% in total (but with 58% of the thieves active today, against 11% of Russians), or the tiny ethnic minority of the Yezidi Kurds (3%), which reside in Armenia and Georgia – call for fine-grained qualitative investigation.
Another element of interest in the study of criminal subcultures for the Gulag Echoes project is the way in which the subculture connects the prison with the ‘outside world’ – notably, the street and the neighbourhood – at the spatial, social, political, cultural and moral level. In this regard, the study of informal structures of governance and hierarchies inside the prison is complimentary to the material and non-material impacts that these structures, and its attached norms and practices, have on society beyond prison walls – from the degree of control that criminal authorities in prison have on political and economic activities outside, to the influence that vory have on various groups (in particular young men) as social and cultural models.
Advancing scholarship on crime in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine
These features have been explored only marginally by scholarship on crime, punishment and criminal subcultures in the (former) Soviet Union. Despite the narrowness of the topic, studies on the (post) Soviet criminal world are informed by a variety of disciplinary, but also ontological and epistemological approaches, which, to date, have run in parallel without fully engaging in conversation with one another. Creating a space of exchange to bring these approaches into a more organic interaction was the primary concern of the workshop ‘Criminal cultures and criminal figures in the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet space’, I organised in the framework of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) Anthrocrime Research Network. It was held as on online event on the 30th of March 2022. The workshop provided the opportunity for scholars of the criminal world and those interested in the topic to share their theoretical angles, epistemological and methodological tools, empirical findings and personal experiences, as well as their disciplinary, historical and geographical domains. At the same time, the event aimed to draft a bigger picture on this scholarship as a whole, addressing questions such as what is ‘specifically Soviet’ (or post-Soviet) in the criminal subcultures and criminal figures that we are looking at, or how these subcultures and figures have transformed at different stages of Soviet and post-Soviet history.
Given the ongoing war in Ukraine, and the crisis unfolding in the region and beyond, this workshop also was a platform for discussion and reflection on how our knowledge and experience could help understand current events and future challenges, as citizens and as academics. Besides stating our strong opposition to the war and showing solidarity to Ukraine and people hit by the conflict, re-focusing the debate on the war would shed light on issues that have been so far largely neglected by media, policy makers and academic community. These include the impact that war and crime have on one another, and the relationship between formal institutions and informal settings in the context of conflict. The war in Ukraine also raises important questions on the future of the criminal world and its principles and practices in a post-conflict framework. The development of a subculture that claims to be multinational and ethnically blind – according to the vorovskoi khod, the thieves’ way, it does not matter who you are and where you are from, as long as you abide by the principles of ponyatie, understandings, which guide a proper vor’s behaviour and deeds – in a context in which the importance of national borders and national belonging is increasing dramatically will call for attention.
The connections between the war and crime were explored by Federico Varese (University of Oxford) in his keynote speech. Prof. Federico Varese talked about the potential transformations of organized crime related to the war. He argued that if, on the one hand, criminality is likely to be one target of an increased repression which would hit society generally, on the other hand war may create new opportunities for criminal groups to emerge and develop. Varese’s speech also touched upon the position of the vory v zakone vis-à-vis the war, the situation of prisons in wartime, the trade of weapons across Ukrainian borders, as well as cybercrime.
Crime, criminals and punishment
After the keynote, the first session ‘Crime, criminals and punishment inside and outside prison: Perspectives from sociology, criminology and anthropology’ started with Gavin Slade’s presentation (Nazarbaev University, Kazakhstan), titled Prison subculture and prison governance: Towards a framework for comparative analysis. Dr. Gavin Slade suggested that informal hierarchies managing communal life in prison – what is called colloquially ‘criminal subculture’ – should be seen as a form of governance. He analyzed the various ways in which, in Moldova, Georgia, Lithuania and Kyrgyzstan, mediating or destroying this subculture is often an openly stated goal of prison reform. Through the discussion of these four qualitative case studies, Slade’s talk outlined an analytical framework for comparing forms of order emerging out of the attempts by prison administrations to take back control of prison systems from prisoners.
Dr Rustam Urinboyev (Lund University, Sweden), presented a paper titled Uzbek transnational prisoners in Russia and their interaction with traditional prison subculture (vorovskoi mir), which investigated how the arrival of large number of transnational Muslim prisoners – mainly from Central Asia – is shaping traditional hierarchies and power relations in Russian penal institutions. Dr. Urinboyev argued that such large-scale migratory processes have transformed Russian penal institutions into a legally plural environment where it is possible to glean the patterns of coexistence and clash between various formal rules and informal subcultures: prison administration, thieves’ law (vorovskoy zakon), ethnic solidarity norms, and Sharia law. The paper challenged the widely held view among Russian criminologists and Western historians that penal institutions in Russia have traditionally been ethnically and religiously blind.
Professor Rhiannon Dowling’s presentation (CUNY, US) A fishing expedition in Sochi: The popular origins of a late Soviet anti-corruption campaign offered a historical and socio-cultural analysis of the Krasnodar (Medunov) affair, a corruption scandal that shocked many throughout the Soviet Union by exposing high-level bribery, money laundering, and misappropriation of state fish. The state (in the form of the KGB) selectively prosecuted the enemies of its highest agents while turning a blind eye to the rampant corruption in the ranks of officials from top to bottom. Yet, in this case, the state did not act alone, but was assisted by workers from Krasnodar who, fed up with their local officials and bosses, exposed the corruption schemes to journalists and writers. The paper provided a look into the grassroots efforts that lay underneath the anti-corruption campaigns of the 1980s, and ultimately prepared citizens to demand reform during perestroika.
Ethics and aesthetics of criminal cultures
The second session ‘Ethics and aesthetics of criminal cultures’, started with Vakhtang Kekoshvili’s (Georgian-American University, Georgia) presentation The thieves in law in Georgia: Resilience, resistance or fallen myth? The paper offered an ethnographic exploration of narratives and practices surrounding the figure of the Georgian kurdi, the thief. Thieves have been not only models of masculine bravery and honorability, but also sources of authority and legitimacy symmetric yet in opposition to the state for generations of Georgian men and boys. The paper discussed the strength and resilience of this figure in Georgia today, and concluded that the thieves’ world persists as source of meaning and ethical stance. Unlike the form of resistance as it was under the Soviet regime, and despite its main actualization as a way of economic advancement and social connection through informal means, today the thieves’ world is seen as a social and cultural tradition offering psychological fulfillment and emotional comfort in a context of political, economic and even religious uncertainty.
Dr Maroussia Ferry’s (IHEID-CCDP, Switzerland) paper The “thief-in-law” as an ambivalent moral horizon for Georgian transnational burglars drew upon an ethnographic fieldwork led with men belonging to a group of burglars who were active in France in 2012. Focusing on the mythical figure of the thief as the centre of this transnational group’s practices, Ferry showed how feelings and narrative about kurdebi (thieves) reveal more broadly these people’s moral position vis-à-vis the liberal evolutions of their society, as well as the confrontation between two social worlds that these developments have brought about. The reference to the thieves, the paper argued, continues to structure the social practices and moral imaginaries of a socially relegated fringe of the Georgian population.
The last paper, Professor Svetlana Stephenson’s (London Metropolitan University, UK), paper The Russian Gang and the Virtue Ethics moved from the consideration that, when focusing on the attractions of the criminal world for young people, criminologists tend to emphasise the affective and instrumental factors (excitement, protection, income and criminal career opportunities) that draw members into the gang. Yet, Professor Stephenson maintained, the world of gangs and organised crime can be perceived as a world of virtue, where young people feel they can develop their moral character, and the positive features of bravery, responsibility and service to the common cause. In Russia, the social order within which this virtuous life is regulated by the moral code of poniatie (the ‘understanding’ – a set of norms shaping behaviors and interactions within the vorovskoi mir, the thieves’ world). Based on two life history interviews with a former gang member conducted in 2005 and 2022, the paper discussed how the realities of life in the gang, in contrast to idealised representations, led to increasing disappointment and desistance from crime.
Subculture and its representations
After the presentations and the Q&A, Prof. Judith Pallot and Dr. Costanza Curro wrapped up the discussion, highlighting the main points and questions that had emerged from the papers and the debate (in a non-exhaustive and non-ordered way). First, issues of terminology and conceptualization of what we mean by ‘subculture’ vis-à-vis governance, and whether it is appropriate to refer to prison informal hierarchy as ‘subculture’ in ‘classic’ sociological terms. Second, the strong ethical tones of purity and virtue with which narratives and practices related to the vory are imbued. Third, how crime generally and organized crime and the vory in particular were and are perceived and talked about at the popular level. Finally, a crucial question inherent to any discussion about the vory, but that somehow has not informed conversations between different perspectives so far, is, quite simply: Who is a vor? In our discussion, they have emerged as leaders of organized criminal group similar to Italian mafiosi, as prison authorities invested with power and status through a formal ceremony of crowing (or baptism), as aesthetical and behavioural models for young men, but also as a moral and cultural reference for marginalized people. Given such a diversity of understandings and representations of the vory, can we ultimately say whether they exist? Workshop participants have agreed that further discussion and possibly collaboration would make an exciting enterprise to address this and other questions.
[i] Originally having emerged as characters in Stalin’s labour camps during the 1930s, the vory v zakone (thieves in law) proliferated across the Soviet penal system. With the relative loosening of the state’s authoritarian grip after Stalin’s death, and after the fall of socialist regimes at the beginning of the 1990s, the vory progressively moved outside the prison and became a mafia-like organization, controlling business and politics locally and internationally. Vory v zakone can also be translated as ‘thieves professing the code’. Despite the name, a vor is not necessarily involved in theft or other specific criminal activities. Thieves in law live outside formal institutions’ rules while being bound by their own law.