Fascinating Facts About The Russian Mob You Never Knew About

Organized crime is responsible for countless theft, trafficking and murder around the globe. By all rights it should be something we all look down on and intensely despise, yet there’s something inherently captivating about it. In America, films like The Godfather and Goodfellas captured the imagination of multiple generations, offering us all a glimpse into the inner workings of the Italian mafia in the U.S. It’s made us all curious, and seeing these characters as protagonists has made many of us even root for them in a way.

The Italian Mafia may be the most well known organized crime group in the States, but they aren’t the only ones. The Russian Mob has their own rituals and customs, but aside from seeing films like Eastern Promises, the average American might not know that much about them. They are a terrifying organization full of ruthless killers and a long, shady history. Read on to learn fascinating facts about this criminal enterprise.


They Began In Stalin’s Gulags

Joseph Stalin was the harsh Soviet leader from 1926 – 1953. Under his rule, countless millions suffered.

Millions of people were thrown under his regime into a network of Siberian labor camps called the “Gulag.” It was here the Russian mob was born.

In the harsh atmosphere of prison life in these worker camps, groups of prisoners began to come together. Using an old Russian thieves code from centuries past, they called themselves “vore v zakone,” or thieves-in-law.


The Tattoos

One of the most well-known aspects of the Russian mobs are the tattoos that cover the bodies of its members.

This practice began in the gulags. These tattoos read like a resume and indicate specialties, rank and accomplishments.

By doing this, one zakone could immediately size up another zakone without saying a word that could be overheard by the guards. The gulags were shut down in the ’80s, and the zakones were released into the world, where the mob began to spread.


There Is No Single Russian Mafia

The Russian mob is unlike the Italian mafia in many ways, and this makes them harder to stop.

One key difference is that there is no central Russian mafia or leadership. You could cut the head off one branch and it won’t affect countless others.

The zakone operates as a loose network of affiliated gangs, each with a couple of higher ups. The FBI and Interpol have taken down dozens of Russian gangs over the years, but new ones keep popping up.


Russian Saunas

In the movies, you’ve likely seen Russian mobsters hanging out in saunas. This is a practice taken from real life.

Strange laws have actually been implemented as a result of this. For many years in Sydney, Australia, it was required by law that all men entering must be naked.

Because there was no central Russian mob, they were just as likely to war with each other, leading to several banya (Russian bathhouse) shootouts. The naked law was made so that no one could conceal weapons.


They Are The Second Biggest Crime Group In The World

With all the movies about Italian gangsters, you’d assume they were the biggest organized crime group in the world.

This isn’t the case at all. The Russian mob is actually a considerable amount larger than the Italians.

It’s hard to know the exact numbers, but the Russian mob is believed to be the second biggest crime group in the world, second only to the Japanese Yakuza. They have operations and nefarious schemes set up all over the world.


They Work With The Italian Mob

Speaking of the Italian mob, how do they feel about the Russian gangsters? Are they sworn enemies?

Actually, according to a 2004 special FBI investigation, the Vore V Zakone and La Cosa Nostra Italian mob family have worked together several times.

They negotiated trade deals, assigned territories among each other and were even involved in laundering each other’s dirty money. In fact, when notorious Italian mob boss Pasqual Scotti was arrested in Brazil, two Russian mobsters were dining with him and also arrested.


They Run The Russian State

Russian President Vladimir Putin brought an end to the rampant mob violence that plagued post-Soviet Russia.

However, he didn’t destroy the zakone. Quite the opposite, he elevated them to positions of power. The Russian mafia is known to control the oil and gas industry in Russia.

Elected representatives that don’t gain the mob’s approval often wind up dead in mysterious car accidents or apartment explosions. In 2008, the CIA told the State Department that Russia was the world’s first “militarized Crime-Syndicate State.”


The Black Market

The Russian mob makes its money by engaging in illegal selling of drugs, weapons and other contraband.

Considering how large a series of organizations they are, you might think this must be a huge amount. But you have no idea just how huge it is.

According to a Canadian RCMP special task force report in 2011, the Russian mafia accounted for nearly 40% of all worldwide black market trade. That’s a staggering figure that accounts for billions of dollars.


How Many Are There?

So there is no central Russian mob, and it’s comprised of several (sometimes warring) splinter groups.

But exactly how many are there? In early 1993, the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs reported there were over 5,000 organized crime groups operating in Russia.

“These groups were comprised of an estimated 100,000 members with a leadership of 18,000. Although Russian authorities have currently identified over 5,000 criminal groups in that country, Russian officials believe that only approximately 300 of those have some identifiable structure.”


Their Structure

So, there’s no central organization in the Russian mob. Does that mean they operate completely uncoordinated?

Not at all. There’s actually a rigid structure in all of the groups, according to a model provided by the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

The main idea is having several different groups handling different aspects. There’s an elite group, support group, security group, working unit and “obochek,” a monetary fund used for bribes and other services. The key among these groups is how they operate.


How They Operate

The main principle behind their structure is to minimize contact with other cells as much as possible.

They operate independently of each other, all towards the same goal. They only communicate when absolutely necessary, and do it rarely.

The reason they do this is to minimize the threat of being identified and upending the entire organization. So, many of the members of the same mob don’t even know they’re in the same mob. As you can see, this makes it extremely difficult for authorities to capture them.


The Members

Each boss, called a “pakhan,” controls four criminal cells through an intermediary called a “brigadier.”

The pakhan employs two spies that watch over the actions of the brigadier to ensure loyalty and that he does not get too powerful. At the bottom of the structure are criminal cells specializing in various types of criminal activity, made up of “enforcers.”

Street operators are not privy to the identity of their leadership. Strategy and planning is done only at the top echelon in order to minimize the risk of detection.


Thieves’ Code Of Conduct

According to law enforcement sources, the structures described would fall into the old style of Soviet criminal enterprises.

It is quite possible as organized crime has changed in Russia, so has the structure of these groups.

There is a traditional code of conduct within this old style of organized crime the thieves in law live and obey, called the “Vorovskoy Zakon,” the thieves’ code.


What’s In The Thieve’s Code?

As stated, the thieve’s code is comprised of 18 rules that are not to be broken under penalty of death.

These rules are even more intense than you would think. The first rule is to forsake all your relatives.

This includes your mother, father, brothers and sisters. Once you’re in the Russian mob, they are your family. The next rule is to never have a family of your own. You can have lovers, but you must never have a wife or child.




Never Work

Another interesting rule in the Thieves’ Code of Conduct is that they are not allowed to work.

Under no circumstances are members of the Russian mob allowed to take on a reputable job, not matter how difficult it may be.

They are supposed to live exclusively off of what they make through thievery. The next rule is to also support other thieves, either through moral or monetary support. After all, they are your family now, and what is family for?


Code Of Silence

The Italian mafia’s “code of silence” is known well. The Russian mob has a similar practice.

The next rules in the Thieves’ Code is to keep secret information about the whereabouts of accomplices, dens, hideouts, etc. at all costs from other criminals.

But what if they get caught by law enforcement? The next rule is to take the blame for someone else’s crime. This buys that other person time of freedom to continue their criminal activities for the greater good of the family.



Convocation Of Inquiry

The Russian mob makes sure they are the only family its members have. But families sometimes fight.

What happens then? The next four rules in the Thieve’s code detail how to deal with disputes within your own gang, using a convocation of inquiry.

This is like a trial by your peers. Members are required to demand one to resolve disputes, and other members are required to participate, offer judgement and carry out the punishment. No matter what the punishment is deemed to be, there must be no hesitation carrying it out, even if it’s on a member of your “family.”


Vice Control

Being in the Russian mob sounds like a lot of work, but with that much money and power, it must also be fun, right?

You can gamble and drink like crazy, and not have to worry about a thing. Actually, that’s not the case at all.

Two other rules involve not causing trouble by having too much fun. Members are required to never gamble without being able to cover their losses and not lose your reasoning ability when using alcohol.





Several other rules in the Thieves’ Code of Conduct involves authority. Specifically, which type to respect and interact with.

As you’d imagine, they are to have nothing to do with legal authority or law enforcement, unless they control them.

They’re not supposed to serve in the military. Their only responsibility is among themselves. That’s why it’s in the rules to teach the trade to young beginners, make good on promises given to other thieves and even to have a good command of the thieves’ jargon (“Fehnay”).


Their Tech

As you’ve seen, the Russian mob are bound by laws and codes rooted in the old ways.

But even though they’re traditional in their practices and beliefs, they’re very modern in the execution of their illegal activities.

Law enforcement officials in the former Soviet Union indicate that most of the organized crime groups are well organized with sophisticated technical equipment, computers, transportation, financial support, and an excellent counterintelligence network. Those groups are involved in extortion, precious metal and raw material smuggling, money laundering, fraud, weapons smuggling, narcotics trafficking and black marketing.