Thieves By Law (Director: Alexander Gentelev): I’ve been reading Misha Glenny’s excellent survey of the world of organized crime, McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Underworld, so the subject of this film interested me. An exposé of the inner workings of the Russian “mafia” as told by three allegedly “former” gangsters, Thieves By Law wasn’t quite as shocking as it might be to someone completely unfamiliar with this world, but the level of access gained by director Gentelev is impressive.
We’re first introduced to Leonid “Macintosh” Bilunov, living in a mansion in the south of France. He’s cultured and rather charming, even as he recounts his own violent prison stories. Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, nicknamed Taiwanchik (“the Taiwanese”) is an Uzbek who was charged in the scandal surrounding the 2002 Olympic figure skating competition. It was Tokhtakhounov who was alleged to have bribed the French judge to score the Russian skaters higher than the Canadians. Most fearsome of all is Vitaly Dyemochka (“Bondar”), a cold-eyed gang leader who has spent nearly half his life in prison. Despite their willingness to talk, one gets the distinct impression that they have done many more bad things than they’ll admit to.
What they do reveal is just how quickly the underworld rose to power as the Soviet state apparatus was collapsing in the late 1980s. The vacuum in political and economic power was quickly filled by the criminal gangs, who had never played by Soviet rules. Instead, their “Thieves’ Code” had flourished since Stalin’s time, allowing them to virtually control the prisons in which they were held. In the lean Soviet years, this code seemed almost ascetic. No wives or children allowed, no registered addresses, no working within society, no betraying other criminals. When these gangs were turned loose upon a newly “free” Russia, though, their code quickly broke down. Each group began running extortion and protection rackets, targeting the thousands of new businesses that sprung up overnight. Many of Russia’s richest men succeeded by grabbing state assets cheaply, and the gangs latched on like parasites. This is where the concept of the krisha (“roof”) was established. A criminal organization would “offer” their services as a krisha to protect the business from other criminals (and often the police) for a price. The police at this time became just as corrupt, with the additional power that went with the threat of legal action against the businesses.
The long rot of the Soviet state meant that in the public’s eyes, criminals had a better reputation than the police anyway, so it wasn’t difficult for the criminal gangs to operate and recruit. While the Thieves’ Code was in effect, gangs would often meet up to arbitrate disputes in an almost gentlemanly fashion, but from 1994-2000, a brutal civil war took place among the gangs, who were each fighting for supremacy. This feeding frenzy essentially left the Code in tatters, as greed took over.
As the gangs themselves grew richer and more business-savvy, they wanted to get into business themselves, so they often demanded partnerships with the businessmen they were previously extorting. In this way, our protagonists ostensibly went legit, although there were never really any clean hands in the Russian business world. They also needed places to launder their newfound wealth, so many took advantage of Israel’s generous immigration policies and lack of financial regulations. If a gangster wasn’t Jewish, he would simply marry a Jewish woman in order to gain an Israeli passport. In this period, the gangs stopped killing each other and started killing more businessmen, in order to take over their enterprises. With criminal organizations now in control of many legal businesses in Russia (among them construction, banking and real estate), it’s difficult to tell the good guys from the bad. And globalization has allowed these guys to extend their reach right around the world, which Glenny’s book recounts in agonizing detail.
Although Thieves By Law is tremendously informative, and the characters are suitably chilling, it’s shot very much in a television documentary style. It packs a lot of information into its running time, but it’s not particularly filmic. In an ironic twist, the cold-eyed Vitaly now spends his time writing and directing gangster films in Russia. He admonishes his actors by telling them, “this isn’t just a story, this really happened!” Maybe Gentelev should have brought him aboard to film some “re-enactments.”