From the ‘Brothers’ Circle’ to ‘Thieves-in-Law’: one myth succeeds another for the US Treasury

Vory(Of course I can’t not start with a plug: my book The Vory, on Russian organised crime yesterday, today, and tomorrow, comes out from Yale University Press in April for the UK, May for the USA. Now available for pre-order…)

So, on 22 December, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated as one of its Big Bad Global Criminal Targets, “the Eurasian criminal entity, the Thieves-in-Law.” Criminals such as Zakhary Kalashov and Lasha Shushanashvili are targeted as part of “a Eurasian crime syndicate,” a “vast criminal organization which has spread throughout the former Soviet Union, Europe, and the United States.” Sounds scary. And also faintly familiar.

Hang on, weren’t criminals such as, say, Zakhary Kalashov and Lasha Shushanashvili not already sanctioned? Why yes, come to think of it, they were: back in 2012, as members of “the Eurasian crime syndicate, the Brothers’ Circle,” which was described as “a criminal group composed of leaders and senior members of several Eurasian criminal groups that are largely based in countries of the former Soviet Union, but also operate in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.”

At the time, I expressed deep skepticism about the existence of any such “Brothers’ Circle,” not a term one ever finds in this context in Russian sources, and suggested that given the essentially fluid nature of Russian organised crime, and the need for bureaucracies to have terms more substantive than “assorted Russian and Eurasian bad guys,” that it was simply invented, as “a convenient catch-all term, a way of making sure that Russian OC is included in the Order.” (I then returned to this theme here.)

That the “Brothers’ Circle” has apparently quietly morphed into the ‘Thieves-in-Law” seems to prove the point. Frankly, this is, I suggest, if anything worse. The Circle had the advantage of being essentially made up, but the Thieves exist…just not in the way Treasury suggests. First of all, it’s not an organisation, but a subculture and a social rank. It’s not even like using “Made Men” as a substitute for the Cosa Nostra, because the Thieves – the vory v zakone – represent a small and often not dominant fraction of some of the gangs in question. Secondly, that whole culture is dying, if not dead, the old titles losing their relevance and increasingly simply being bought. Thirdly, it is disproportionately a Georgian and to a lesser extent Russian fascination, which does not touch the Chechens, for a start.

I get it, OFAC needs a title, a label. But I never thought I’d actually be missing the old fantasy of a “Brother’s Circle.”


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1 Comment

  1. Very much one for the pre – order. Merry Christmas to author, contributors and readers. Well, some of the latter.A good 2018 Christmas present, alongside “McMafia” BBC TV boxset.


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