Even if you don’t know anything about Russia, you probably know that there’s kind of a bit of a problem with organized crime there. Alexander Gentelev knows that and a lot more, which is why he decided to make a documentary about the explosion of organized crime in Russia following the break-up of the Soviet Union. Thieves By Law also looks at the origins of the modern-day Mafia in the thieves’ code of the old Soviet Union, a code everyone in the criminal underworld was bound by.
People like Vitali Dyomochka, who looks like John Malkovich playing Nosferatu, always wears black polo necks and talks a lot about honor and a murder he once committed. Another of the stars, Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov, is a luxury-obsessed Uzbek who pads around his ornate mansion in slippers that say “made it in life” on them.
The Russian Mafia is an international organization embedded in every part of Russian life. In the 90s, racketeers became businessmen. One subject interviewed challenges us to “show me one person in Russia who doesn’t have a criminal record,” while another describes himself as a "law-abiding citizen." In the logic of 21st century Russia, that makes perfect sense. These thieves are state-sanctioned and pretty honest about that. In a way, it’s kind of laudable of them to explain to us what the hell is really going on. I got in touch with director Alexander Gentelev.
VICE: Can you explain what being a "thief by law" means?
Alexander Gentelev: The term "thieves by law," which refers to the uppermost echelon of the Russian criminal world, was born in the 30s. Some people say it might have something to do with "Chekists," or the early Soviet secret service (what later became the KGB). At first, thieves by law followed a strict code: a thief by law had to serve time in jail, and had no right to have a family, a registered address, or belongings, surviving only by criminal means. They'd discuss their dealings at congresses and wielded huge power in prisons. Their word was the decider. Today, everything has changed, and lots of their rules aren't followed. But to this day this world is closed off, and a lot of what we know about it is only via hearsay.
So how did you get access to the stars of your film?
Through journalists we knew and just friends of friends. It took a lot of time.
Why do you think Russia has this problem with high-level crime?
Since the mid-90s, the organized crime world has strived to transform itself into legalized business. In Russia today, in my opinion, the biggest problem is corruption.
The guys in your film don't seem all that friendly. Were you scared at any point?
Not really. The only thing I was afraid of was that they'd say, "Enough. I'm sick of filming."
Britain is familiar with the cuddlier face of oligarchs—people like Roman Abramovich, who doesn't look like the life and soul of the party but probably hasn't killed anybody, are often in the news. How do you think they are connected to the "thieves by law"?
I don't know Roman Abramovich, so that's a question for him. But I think that big oligarchs probably didn't require the services of thieves, even under the law of criminal authorities. Oligarghs were strong enough on their own. They only needed connections in government and politics.
What did you learn about the importance of tattoos in this culture?
Unfortunately, the scenes about tattoo culture didn't make it into the film. A long time ago tattoos had a big role to play in the criminal world. You could tell the status of a criminal just by looking at their tattoos—how much time they'd served and what for, etc.
Your stars are very much "in demand." It seems weird for people who are on the run from Interpol to agree to be in a feature film. How do they avoid being caught?
First of all, not all of them are on the run. For now, Interpol is only looking for Alimzhan Tokhtakhunov. For this reason he can't leave Russia, but in Russia he's a patron of the arts and a businessman, and the Russian government has no qualms with him.
Can you explain the relationship between people who describe themselves in the film as "businessmen" and the Mafia?
There's a lot on this topic in the film. The protagonists discuss this. In the late 80s to early 90s, during the birth of business in the ex-Soviet states and Russia, many people rushed to start up their own private businesses. At the same time, lots of criminal groups appeared, which had nothing to do with the thieves by law. Criminal groups were warring with each other over their sphere of influence. They harbored businessmen who would pay them protection fees, and the criminals in turn felt the extra cash would help protect them from the other criminal bosses. This is when the great criminal war first started.
What happened in the great criminal war?
Everyone got killed.
You can watch Thieves By Law in its entirety below: