Godfather vs. Vor

Who would win in a fight?

Vyacheslav Ivankov, a major figure in the Russian underworld, was shot in the stomach four years after this photo was taken

An Armenian-American gang stole more than $35 million from Medicare, according to the Manhattan U.S. attorney. The government unsealed indictments against 44 people on Wednesday, including the first racketeering charges ever filed against a “vor,” the Eurasian gangster equivalent of a godfather. It seems as if the power of Russian, Armenian, and other Eurasian mobsters is rising as the power of Italian Mafia declines. In a gangland battle between the vory and the godfathers, who would win?

The godfathers. Most Italian crime families are hierarchical organizations. As the unquestioned leader, a godfather can order his foot soldiers into battle. Eurasian organized crime is a lot less … organized. Their “gangs” are loosely affiliated networks of criminals who band together opportunistically—more like independent contractors than employees. While Russian, Armenian, and Georgian gangsters are certainly not above violence, they wouldn’t enter into direct conflict with even the enfeebled Mafiosi of today. They don’t have very many loyal gunmen, and turf battles aren’t their style, anyway.

The original vory v zakone, or “thieves in law,” emerged from Soviet jails in the middle of the last century. They arrived in the United States in the 1970s and took over a few Russian ethnic communities. The most notorious vor was Evsei Agron of Brighton Beach, a classic Russian strongman who carried a cattle prod. Everyone knew the vory were criminals. Many sported intimidating tattoos and talked about how the U.S. government couldn’t scare anyone who had survived the savage cruelty of the Gulag.

Despite their bravado, the vory weren’t strong enough to tangle with La Cosa Nostra. They avoided the Mafia’s neighborhoods and their traditional portfolio—mainly extorting small and medium-size businesses for protection money. Many Russian kingpins moved into unexploited criminal niches like financial fraud. While these schemes occasionally necessitated bumping someone off, they didn’t lend themselves to towering hierarchical organizations and legions of loyal enforcers.

Today’s Eurasian mob bosses have a wide variety of business interests, some of them totally legit. Many belong to country clubs and wear Armani suits. They so little resemble the old-school vory that prosecutors and journalists are the only ones who still refer to them that way.

When Eurasian mobsters see a business opportunity, like a chance to defraud Medicare, they tap into their network to see who’s available. Members include everyone from petty criminals to former KGB agents and Ph.D.s in economics. The mobsters prefer to send an operative with no criminal record to the United States to execute the scam. He establishes a post office box and collects checks until he thinks someone’s getting wise. Then he disappears back into Russia, Armenia, or wherever else he can be sheltered. Having turned a tidy profit, the agent may never speak to the scheme’s mastermind again. While the Teflon dons of the Mafia excelled at beating charges in court, Eurasian mobsters are rarely identified in the first place.

Just because Eurasian gangsters don’t command loyal armies doesn’t mean they’re not as dangerous as the Mafia. In many ways, they’re more so. The Mafia’s scams required them to be firmly rooted in their communities. They leaned on local businessmen and kept crooked politicians in their pockets. Those relationships held them in check. If a godfather put a hit on a pillar of the community, the citizens might call for his arrest. The local alderman, who also had the voters to worry about, might not be able to protect him.

Transient, transnational Eurasian gangs who answer to no one have crossed lines the Mafia never would. They are known to have sold heavy arms to Islamic terrorists, for example. While he later recanted his statement, captured al-Qaida member Ibn al-Shaykh al Libi even claimed that Russian criminals provided the group with nuclear material.

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Explainer thanks Mark Galeotti of NYU and Louise I. Shelley of George Mason University.

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