Despite efforts to clamp down on the Mafia, Russia's criminal underworld remains powerful. Its members talk about dignity and honor, and obey a strict code of conduct all their life.
They wear blue tattoos as a badge of distinction, and they evoke fear and respect in equal measures.
Vladimir Volzhsky's ultimate value is dignity. His favorite word is honesty. His rhetoric about rules and responsibilities make him sound like a law enforcer, but he could hardly be further removed from that. Vladimir Volzhsky is a thief. And proud of it.
“I’ve served seven [prison] terms, but it's not about how long you stayed behind bars, it's about how you did it, who you became after that. The most important thing is to preserve your honor and dignity," Volzhsky says.
Having clocked up almost 25 years behind bars, Vladimir is no ordinary criminal. His life achievements are inked on his skin, serving as both a warning and a VIP pass.
"This tattoo is called ‘lighthouse’. It means a pledge to give light to thieves and never to cops. You need special permission to get it. This is me. A bag on the leg with money means that you are an honest thief that you earn your living not by killing, not by raping but only by stealing," Volzhsky explains.
Accomplished and respected, Volzhsky still lacks the highest distinction – the blue stars on the shoulders that denote thieves under the code. The elite of the Russian organized crime.
Thieves also assume an obligation to follow a so-called code – a set of 18 rules – breaking any of which is punishable by death.
"A thief is not allowed to marry, to possess property, to collaborate with the authorities…many things. For example, I knew a very influential thief who died sometime in the '90s. He must have been about 80 by then. He lived in a one-room apartment, had $200 in his pocket and wasn't officially married to the woman he had lived his life with. And after he died it turned out that even the apartment wasn't his property. While he was a very influential and powerful thief," Aleksandr Zheglov, Kommersant newspaper's crime correspondent, says.
While over the last decade the mafia’s presence in Russia has become less noticeable, thieves by the code have not lost their influence. The recent funeral of Vyacheslav Ivankov, known as “Yaponchik” [“the Jap”], attracted thousands of tattooed men – all in the heart of Moscow.
It was soon after Ivankov’s lavish burial that Russia’s president Dmitry Medvedev ordered law enforcement to put thieves by the code where they belong – behind bars. But out of almost 200 of them across Russia, only three were rounded up last year.
"The reason why thieves by the code are so difficult to bring to account is because their status allows them to commit crimes without personal involvement. They don’t need to get their hands dirty. They have other people for that," Dmitry Ershov from the Criminal Investigation Department says.
Investigative journalist Artyom Iutenkov, who's made several reports on Russia's criminal underworld, says thieves of the code have evolved today and share all the attributes of respected businessmen.
“These people started as pocket thieves, and then went on to become the kings of the underworld as they call themselves. They created a code of conduct of the criminal world, which was to be obeyed everywhere, including prisons. These principles included a ban on having a family or property, on reading newspapers and cooperating with law-enforcers, and they shouldn't be free for more than a year. If they were arrested, they were obliged to confess that they are thieves by the code. I can draw you a portrait of an average thief by the code: it's a respectable businessman, with bank accounts both in Russia and abroad. His body is not covered with blue tattoos. He runs his own business – gambling, oil, sometimes drugs or arms trafficking – but these cases have become fewer. He invests in property and shares, and you can hardly distinguish him from other businesspeople, if you meet him at a restaurant," Iutenkov says.
As for Vladimir Volzhsky, he claims he has switched from stealing to singing, yet his tattoos still serve as the best identification for his audience.