Q&A on Russian 'crowned thieves'

By MANSUR MIROVALEV | January 17, 2013 | 11:32 AM EST

FILE - In this file photo dated Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012, inmates of a prison colony pour cold water over themselves to celebrate Epiphany at St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in the Murmansk region of northern Russia. The contract-style killing of Russian mobster Aslan Usoyan, also known as Grandpa Khasan, on Wednesday Jan16, 2013, drew renewed attention to the extensive and elaborate culture of the country’s underworld figures who call themselves “crowned thieves” and “thieves in law.” Only top criminals are allowed to have tattoos which signal their privileged status within the criminal underworld, and may contain obscure codes, such as MIR (peace) meaning “Only capital punishment will correct me, and the Nazi swastika means rejection of everything Soviet (but does not make its bearer a neo-Nazi). (AP Photo/ Andrey Pronin, FILE)

MOSCOW (AP) — The contract-style killing of Russian mobster Aslan Usoyan, also known as Grandpa Khasan, on Wednesday drew renewed attention to the extensive and elaborate culture of the country's underworld figures who call themselves "crowned thieves" and "thieves in law." Questions and answers about this shadowy world:


The 75-year-old ethnic Kurd, born in Soviet Georgia, was first convicted in 1956. In the past two decades, he gained control over many criminal groups in Moscow, St. Petersburg and southern Russia, according to widespread accounts from police officials, organized crime experts and media reports. He purportedly controlled underground gambling, drug trafficking, prostitution and legal businesses including in the construction industry. He also kept obschak, an emergency fund for imprisoned top criminals behind bars — a position that gave him immense power. He also was a "top judge" who settled conflicts between other criminal clans.


Usoyan's clan has been in a turf war since 2006 with the clan of Tariel Oniani, now serving a 10-year sentence for abduction and extortion. One of the prizes in the war is the allocation of multi-million-dollar construction projects in southern Russia, according to the respected newspaper Novaya Gazeta.


They are generally recruited in prison from among criminals who persistently refuse to follow prison administration rules, behave according to the thieves' code and show talent. The crowning has to be conducted by at least three "crowned thieves," and small handwritten notes are sent to other prisons with the new thief's name and nickname. The subculture emerged in the 1930s in the Gulag prison camp system, where the criminals were equally hostile to prison administration and to political prisoners. They forged their strict code and punished apostates with beatings, rape or death. There are hundreds in the ex-Soviet Union, most of them in Russia.


Crowned thieves rejected the Communist doctrine and could not befriend men in uniform, work for the state or even sing the Soviet anthem. Hundreds of criminals were killed by fellow thieves for donning uniforms and fighting the Nazis during World War II. The code also bans them from marrying or having long-term relationships. Usoyan had two children, but never married.


Although crowned thieves are supposed to have a modest appearance, they bear characteristic tattoos. Some tattoos are code words: MIR (peace) means "Only capital punishment will correct me;" VOLK (wolf) means "a thief is resting while a cop is dying." Tattoos often have religious themes —depictions of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus were the privilege of criminals who had served their first term as teenagers. A Russian Orthodox cathedral tattoo signifies by its number of domes how many terms the wearer has served. Only a top thief could have a tattooed crucifix with Jesus. Sometimes the tattoos denominate the bearer's specialty or attitude: pickpockets have beetles and cats, a Nazi swastika means rejection of everything Soviet (but does not make its bearer a neo-Nazi), and a tall ship means the thief has no permanent residence.


The first post-Soviet decade was their heyday. They controlled racketeering and abductions, killed competitors in broad daylight, took over factories and oil refineries and promoted young politicians. One crowned thief led a paramilitary group that launched a coup against Georgia's first president and effectively installed Eduard Shevardnadze as successor. Meanwhile, after absorbing Western mafia culture — mostly from movies like "Godfather" and "Pulp Fiction" — they started changing their ways by adopting a luxurious lifestyle and "crowning" young thieves who never served time, prompting fierce disputes among their ranks.

The emergence of heroin, cocaine and synthetic drugs, which were not available in the Soviet Union, enriched them, but also contributed to the rise of their enemies such as ethnic gangs from Chechnya and other provinces of Russia's Caucasus regions.


Their caste faces extinction or radical change in most ex-Soviet states. Some of them have evolved into godfather-like figures that run legal businesses and support sports clubs. Some have moved to the West, others are losing the war with a new generation of gangsters and ethnic mobsters who disrespect the old prison laws and enjoy the support of corrupt police officers.


They started migrating to the West in the late 1980s and soon became feared enemies of "traditional" criminal groups such as Italian and Colombian gangs. They smuggled Iraqi oil and pulled off scams such as the 2011 Medicare fraud by ethnic Armenian "crowned thieves" in California who used phantom health care clinics to try to cheat Medicare out of $163 million. They also dabbled in racketeering, drug smuggling, money laundering, human trafficking and prostitution. "Eastern Promises," a 2007 criminal drama by David Cronenberg, depicts human trafficking schemes by Russian "crowned thieves" in Britain.


In the Soviet era, street hoodlums romanticized them as the dark princes of the criminal underworld. Hundreds of folk songs about the hardships that jailbirds face on the inside and outside have evolved into a whole genre of popular Russian music known as shanson — torch-songs about unhappy cons, their mothers and sweethearts based on simple chord changes and old-fashioned electronic loops. Radio Shanson is one of the most popular stations in the country, and many cabbies drive their passengers crazy by playing it non-stop.