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Your Russian Mafia Press Kit

Hollywood loves 'em, and how about those tats?

By Dorothy Bartoszewski 8 Oct 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Bartoszewski is a Vancouver journalist. Read previous Tyee articles here.

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Viggo Mortensen: vory buff

This fall, Russian gangsters are apparently ready for their close-ups. They're the subject of box-office winner Eastern Promises, and are central to the upcoming star-studded Hollywood film We Own the Night. But do these big-screen baddies bear any resemblance to the real thing, or are they just Kalashnikov-toting, vodka-soaked clichés?

You'd be forgiven for suspecting liberties are being taken: after all, the trouble in Eastern Promises starts with a very pregnant enslaved Russian prostitute escaping a brothel. (What, those running the brothel wouldn't be able to rustle up an abortion to keep a working girl working?) But some of the other more outlandish aspects of the film -- like Viggo's extensive tattoos -- are actually surprisingly accurate.

So you can tell what's what, here's a quick-hit background check on this latest flavour of gangsta chic.

1. Honour among thieves: The aristocracy of the Russian underworld, showcased in Eastern Promises, are the vory v zakone, or "thieves in law," bound by an 18-point code of conduct, initiation rituals, and their own courts. Vory laws include forsaking family and love interests, never working and helping other thieves; violations are punishable by mutilation or death.

2. Support system: Armed gangs proliferated in Russia during the chaos of the Revolution; afterward, this population (among others) ended up in Stalin's brutal gulags. The vory v zakone system developed there, providing mutual support, ideology and discipline that aided survival.

3. Opportunity knocks: After the Soviet Union disintegrated, the vory are widely believed to have become leaders of the Russian criminal world, not to mention public institutions. One example: notorious vor v zakone Vladamir Podatev was appointed to the human rights commission under President Yeltsin despite murder, assault, and rape convictions. A few observers, however, contend that the vory are no longer the most influential force on the Russian mob scene.

4. New world order: The Odessa mafia, which established itself in the late '70s in New York's Brighton Beach area (the setting for We Own the Night), supposedly dominates Russian crime in the U.S. And move over, Sopranos: Russian mobsters in New York apparently outnumbered the Italians by the 1990s.

5. Tell-tale signs: The vory v zakone are known for their elaborate coded tattoos, made from soot and urine, which denote rank and criminal history; a tattooed vory's life story can be "read" on his body by those in the know. Many of the tattoos mockingly subvert traditional Russian iconography. Some samples:

6. Home sweet home: Church cupolas or spires (as seen on Viggo's lower back in Eastern Promises) represent the number of incarcerations or years imprisoned. The common inscription below, "The Church is the House of God," means "Prison is the Home of the Thief."

7. Hanging with Jesus: A crucifix on the chest indicates a "Prince of Thieves," or highest ranking vory. If the crucifix has a crown, the vory heads a thieving family. A Madonna with child tattoo means the wearer has been a thief since childhood.

8. Who, me? A spider or spider web symbolizes a drug addict, a knight in full armour identifies a sadist, and butterflies mean an escape artist.

9. Star power: Stars on the knees indicate the bearer kneels before no-one.

10. A dying art: Alix Lambert, who documented vory tattoos in her film, The Mark of Cain, says the tattoos are disappearing; younger Russian criminals prefer Western or Japanese imagery. But the old-school tats still pack a punch: customers reportedly got very nervous and even left after Eastern Promises' star Viggo Mortensen -- sporting 43 (fake) vory tattoos for filming -- showed up in various Russian ex-pat haunts in London.

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