Russian Mafia: Ultimate 2022 Guide To History, Books, Games and Movies

Russian mafia, otherwise known as Bratva, has been the subject of many crime novels, movies and non-fiction books. Perhaps this is because the mystery, perceived sophistication and ruthlessness of the members of Russian Mafia has always provided attractive material for writers.

In this guide, we provide you with a comprehensive guide on everything Russian Mafia: from non-fiction books and movies to games.

Russian Mafia: A Brief Overview

Organized crime in Russia began in the Russian Empires, but it was not until the Soviet era that vory v zakone (“thieves-in-law”) emerged as leaders of prison groups in forced labor camps, and their honor code became more defined.

With the end of World War II, the death of Joseph Stalin, and the fall of the Soviet Union, more gangs emerged in a flourishing black market, exploiting the unstable governments of the former Republics.

Louis Freeh, former director of the FBI, said that the Russian mafia posed the greatest threat to U.S. national security in the mid-1990s.

In 2012, there were as many as 6,000 groups, with more than 200 of them having a global reach. The Russian mafia is similar to the Italian Mafia in many ways, the groups’ organization and structure follow a similar model. The two groups also share a similar portfolio of criminal activity.

The highly-publicized Italian Mafia is believed to have inspired early criminal groups in Russia to form Mafia-like organizations, eventually spawning their own version. The Russian mafia however differed from the Italians due to their environment. The level of political corruption and arms sales in a post-Soviet Russia allowed for massive expansion and incorporation of many government officials into the crime syndicates. The Russians also dabbled in uranium trading stolen from the Soviet nuclear program and human trafficking.

Best Non-Fiction Books

What follows is a list of some of the best Russian Mafia non-fiction books written or translated into English:

*****

Comrade Criminal: Russia`s New Mafiya by Mr. Stephen Handelman

Stephen Handelman, Moscow bureau chief for The Toronto Star from 1987 to 1992, has based his book on interviews with more than 150 Russians – mobsters, police, political crusaders, former KGB agents, new millionaires, and ordinary citizens. Handelman traces the roots of the criminal underworld to elements of society that have existed on the margins of Russian life for centuries and that during the last twenty years of Soviet power became an essential arm of the black-market economy.

He reveals how organized crime has flourished since the demise of totalitarianism, and how the Russian mafiya has begun to export to American cities not only guns and drugs but also its particular brand of mob violence.

And he shows the detrimental effects crime has had – and will continue to have – on political and economic reform in the new states of the former Soviet Union.

Vodka, Hookers, and the Russian Mafia : My Life in Moscow by Joe Serio

This is a hybrid of biography + story. Joe Serio’s head exploded. All of the information pointed in the same direction. Secret KGB documents, police intelligence reports, and FBI and CIA estimates feared that the Russian Mafia was taking over the largest country in the world. But that wasn’t the troubling part. The bigger picture unfolding before him was simply unbelievable.

This can’t be true, he thought. He’d been years inside the kaleidoscope — the dizzying, frustrating, and ever-changing puzzle that is Russia — and he’d come to expect that the most shocking explanation was often closest to the truth…but he never expected something this shocking.

In this unique and compelling hybrid of memoir and detective story, Joe Serio recounts nearly ten years of living and working in the former Soviet Union.

His journey, made hazy by endless vodka, took him to many dark corners, including the secret police, the underworld, and inside notorious prisons. Vodka, Hookers, and the Russian Mafia: My Life in Moscow reveals a little-known reality that will change what you think you know about Russia.

The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia by Mark Galeotti

The first English-language book to document the men who emerged from the gulags to become Russia’s much-feared crime class: the vory v zakone.

Mark Galeotti is the go-to expert on organized crime in Russia, consulted by governments and police around the world. Now, Western readers can explore the fascinating history of the vory v zakone, a group that has survived and thrived amid the changes brought on by Stalinism, the Cold War, the Afghan War, and the end of the Soviet experiment.

The vory—as the Russian mafia is also known—was born early in the twentieth century, largely in the Gulags and criminal camps, where they developed their unique culture. Identified by their signature tattoos, members abided by the thieves’ code, a strict system that forbade all paid employment and cooperation with law enforcement and the state.

Based on two decades of on-the-ground research, Galeotti’s captivating study details the vory’s journey to power from their early days to their adaptation to modern-day Russia’s free-wheeling oligarchy and global opportunities beyond.

Russian Mafia In America: Immigration, Culture, and Crime Hardcover by James O. Finckenauer and Elin J. Waring

Tales of contemporary mobs, criminal activity among Russian immigrants, and claims of KGB involvement in American crime have long been reported in the news, but what of the “Russian mafia” is real, and what is a creation of sensational media?

With research conducted in collaboration with the Tri-State Joint Soviet-émigré Organized Crime Project, Russian Mafia in America was the first in-depth study on Russian organized crime following the breakup of the Soviet Union.  Authors Finckenauer and Waring focus on criminal networks in the New York-New Jersey-Pennsylvania area, as well as a nationwide survey of law enforcement agencies and major criminal cases.

Red Mafiya: How the Russian Mob Has Invaded America by Robert I. Friedman

In the past decade, from Brighton Beach to Moscow, Toronto to Hong Kong, the Russian mob has become the world’s fastest-growing criminal superpower. Trafficking in prostitutes, heroin, and missiles, the mafiya poses an enormous threat to global stability and safety.

Today, the mafiya controls over 80 percent of Russia’s banks and has siphoned off billions of dollars in Western loans and aid, almost certainly derailing the chance for a stable democracy there. But that is just the beginning, for the mafiya is now in every corner of the United States and has infiltrated some of the banks and brokerage firms that handle your money. And American law enforcement is just waking up to this staggering problem.

No journalist in the world knows more about the mafiya than Friedman, who has covered the Russian mob for Details, Vanity Fair, and New York. At great peril to himself, Friedman interviewed many of the top mobsters, who were stunningly candid about their activities.

Investigating The Russian Mafia by Joseph D. Serio

In the 1990s, the so-called Russian mafia dominated newspaper headlines, political analysis, and academic articles around the world. It was the new scourge, a threat so massive that it was believed to hold the Russian economy hostage. Former FBI Director Louis Freeh announced that the Russian mafia was a significant threat to the national security of the United States.

Before the end of the decade, Director Freeh reversed himself, saying that in reality the magnitude of the danger from the Russian mafia had been overestimated. Heading into the new millennium, the international hue and cry about gangsters from the former Soviet Union subsided dramatically, particularly after the terrorist attacks of September 11. Al-Qaeda shifted the spotlight from organized crime to terrorism and U.S. homeland security. Has the Russian mafia been eradicated or has it simply fallen below the radar?

Countless books and articles have reported on the Russian mafia in breathless terms bordering on hysteria. Casting a broad net, Serio brings a different, more analytical approach to his exploration of the subject. In Investigating the Russian Mafia, Part I begins by asking a series of basic questions: What did the Soviets understand ‘mafia’ to mean? Was this a Russian phenomenon or more broadly-based, multi-ethnic groups? How did the media influence the perception of the Russian mafia? What does a close examination of the official statistics reveal about the nature of crime groups in the former Soviet Union?

In Part II, Serio discusses an overview of attitudes and practices of the criminal world, business, and policing, among others, in Russian history. He demonstrates that many of the forces at work in the 1990s did not originate in the Communist era or arise because of the collapse of the USSR. Part III presents a discussion of the crime groups that developed in the post-Soviet era, the challenges that faced the business world, and the law enforcement response.

This book is not simply a discussion of the Russian mafia. It is an exercise in critical thinking about one of the major developments in international crime over the past two decades. Readers will be challenged to examine information being presented by the media and government authorities, to put the current news stories in a broader historical and cultural context, and learn to ask questions and arrive at their own conclusions. Investigating the Russian Mafia is ideal for students, law enforcement, practitioners, and business people operating in the former Soviet Union, as well as the general reader.

Serio brings a unique perspective to his subject matter. He lived in the former Soviet Union for seven years, witnessing the country and culture from a variety of angles. In the Soviet era he was a tourist and student in Moscow. He also served in a unique internship in the Organized Crime Control Department of the Soviet police prior to the collapse of the USSR. In the 1990s, he worked as a media consultant to The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, BBC, the Chicago Tribune, and others. Serio became a security consultant to the global corporate investigation and business intelligence firm, Kroll Associates, and later served as director of Kroll s Moscow office overseeing investigations across the former Soviet Union.

*****

Best Movies Featuring Russian Mafia

The Equalizer

Robert McCall (Denzel Washington), a man of mysterious origin who believes he has put the past behind him, dedicates himself to creating a quiet new life.

equalizer denzel washington best russian mafia movies

However, when he meets Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), a teenager who has been manhandled by violent Russian mobsters, he simply cannot walk away. With his set of formidable skills, McCall comes out of self-imposed retirement and emerges as an avenging angel, ready to take down anyone who brutalizes the helpless.

Boyka: Undisputed

Boyka (Scott Adkins) accidentally kills an opponent in the ring, forcing him to question everything he’s worked for. When he finds out his opponent’s widow is in trouble, he becomes her champion in a series of seemingly impossible fights.

Eastern Promises

best russian mafia movies eastern promises

Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who is both ruthless and mysterious, has ties to one of the most dangerous crime families in London. He crosses paths with Anna (Naomi Watts), a midwife who has come across potentially damaging evidence against the family, which forces him to set in motion a plan of deceit, death and retribution.

Thick as Thieves

Before he retires, veteran thief Keith Ripley wants to pull off one last job in order to repay his debt to the Russian mob. He enlists the help of talented pilferer Gabriel Martin, and the pair devise a strategy to steal two extremely valuable Faberge eggs.

Maximum Risk

French police officer Alain Moreau (Jean-Claude Van Damme) makes an astonishing discovery: Mikhail, a man who died recently in a breakneck car chase, is the twin brother he never knew.

Alain then uncovers a web of family secrets that lead him to New York City, where his brother was involved with the Russian Mafia. Teaming up with Mikhail’s lover, Alex Minetti (Natasha Henstridge), Alain must now assume his twin’s identity and go undercover to avenge Mikhail’s death.

Red Heat

A dedicated Soviet cop arrives in Chicago, where he reluctantly teams up with a foul-mouthed American detective to comb the streets of the Windy City for the Russian drug dealer who killed both their partners.

Little Odessa

Long separated from his Russian family, hit man Joshua (Tim Roth) returns to Brighton Beach for a contract killing for the Russian Mafia. His abusive father, Arkady (Maximilian Schell), banned him from returning after Joshua committed his first murder. He takes up residence in a hotel, and soon everyone knows he has returned.

He goes home to visit his dying mother, Irina (Vanessa Redgrave), and prepares for the assassination, getting drawn back into the criminal community he left behind.

Best Russian Mafia Games 

What follows is  list of some of the best Russian Mafia Games released in the market

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is a 2004 action-adventure game developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games. It is the fifth main entry in the Grand Theft Auto series, following 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, and the seventh installment overall.

Russian Mafia: Gangster City

Build reputation of real Russian mafia gangster in San Andreas crime city. Become toughest villain in Russian Mafia Gangster City 3D simulator game. Scavenge mobster from slum to rebuild the Russian mafia terror on citizens.

best russian mafia games gangster city 3d

After spending time in slammer of American Las Vegas prison, people see you as saints. Ghetto Crooked gangsters of criminal Russian mafia and urban cops forgot you. Use treachery and exploitation, start earning reputation for your underworld gang as crime boss. Capture rival turf, ruling the hood and expanding your Russian mafia territory. Shoot down real enemy gang members. Master in attacks to bring down opponents gangster city rivals and cops.

Put your fear in dangerous mobsters in crime town. Multiple criminal case are filed against your criminal mafia gang in police station. Play as most wanted real Russian mafia mobster and escape chase from armed forces. Do not get arrest for shooting and killing gangster city rivals. Call air strikes for backup. The action in this gangster crime simulator 3D game revolves around shooting and killing your enemies as Russian mafia crime gang mobster.

A Note on vor v zakone (Thiel In Law) for History Fans

A thief in law, in the Soviet Union, the post-Soviet states, and respective diasporas abroad is a specifically granted formal and special status of “criminal authority”, a professional criminal who enjoys an elite position among other notified mobsters within the organized crime and correctional facility environments and employs informal authority over its lower-status members.

Although Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Estonia and Uzbekistan have long had criminals and bandits, during the disorder of the Russian Revolution of 1917, armed gangs proliferated until they became a very significant factor which controlled society. The criminal culture with its own slang, culture and laws became known as “Criminal/Thieves World”.

As the police and court system were re-established in the Soviet Union shortly after the 1917 revolution, the NKVD secret police nearly exterminated the criminal underworld completely. Under Stalin, the forced labor camps (Gulag) overflowed with political prisoners and criminals, and a new organized group of top criminals arose, the vory v zakone, or “thieves in law.”

The “thieves in law” formed as a society for ruling the criminal underworld within the prison camps, “who govern the dark gaps in Soviet life beyond the reach of the KGB”. They adopted a system of collective responsibility, and swore to a code of “complete submission to the laws of criminal life, including obligations to support the criminal ideal, rejection of legitimate employment (one must support oneself through criminal enterprises) and refusal to participate in all political activities.”

As an example, while incarcerated, a Vor must refuse all work, and is not allowed to assist the warden/correction officers in any way, as the thieves’ code states: “Your own prison you shall not make.” For example, if an inmate walks past a guard, and the guard asks him to ring the dinner bell, the convict must refuse or he will be judged by his fellow inmates and found guilty of assisting his jailers. The Vory organized their own courts and held trials governed by the code of ‘thieves’ honor and tradition’.

Acceptance into the group is often marked by specific tattoos, allowing all members of the criminal world to instantly recognize a “thief in law”. Most prison inmates are tattooed (by other inmates) to indicate their rank within the criminal world, noteworthy criminal accomplishments and places of former incarceration. For example, a tattoo of one cat indicates that the criminal robs alone while multiple cats indicate that he has partners during robberies. Reportedly, “while the Communist Party had a steadfast grip on government and society, the Vory had something of a monopoly on crime.”

After World War II, the vory in the Gulag system were weakened by the so-called Bitch Wars – a prison gang war between pure vory and the so-called suki (“bitches”). The ‘suki’ were former members of the criminal underworld who had broken the thieves’ code by agreeing to cooperate with administration of prisons and labor camps. The “Bitch Wars” lasted for decades. Due to a large number of ‘suki’, most gulags were divided into two separate zones: one for ‘suki’ and one for ‘vory’.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the vory assumed a leading role within the Russian criminal hierarchy (see Russian mafia). The group was able to “infiltrate the top political and economic strata while taking command of the burgeoning crime network that spread murderously through the post-Soviet countries.”

Thieves In Law are given the title by other vory and in order to be accepted they must demonstrate considerable leadership skills, personal ability, intellect, charisma, along with a well-documented criminal record. Once accepted they must live according to the thieves’ code. The penalty for violation of this code is often mutilation or death. Reportedly, “today the Vory have spread around the world, to Madrid, Berlin, and New York” and are “involved in everything from petty theft to billion-dollar money-laundering while also acting as arbiters among conflicting Russian criminal factions.”

Reportedly, as capitalism began to take hold in Russia, an increasing number of college-educated criminals began to take over more lucrative ventures.

While these new criminal elements first worked with the Vory in the 1990s, in the 2000s (decade), ties to big business and government grew in importance. Consequently, while the “Vory are still strong in gambling and retail trade,” their importance in Russian economy and society has decreased.

*****

Best Free Documentary Films About Russian Mafia

Brooklyn’s Russian Gangsters 

This is from National Geographic and available on Youtube.

RusDocu: Thieves by Law (Ganavim Ba Hok)

This is our favorite documentary. So authentic. A hidden gem.

Thieves by Law, or Ganavim Ba Hok is a 2010 documentary film charting the rise of Russian organized crime in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. In the film several noted crime figures are interviewed, a number of which are currently wanted by Interpol. “Is there anything the Russian Mafia can’t do?” After this film, you will probably say, “Nyet”.

Russian Godfathers

Watch it here. This documentary series examines the relationship between Russia’s richest men (‘the oligarchs’) and Putin’s administration in the Kremlin.

The series follows each one in turn to find out what they were up to in the years leading up to 2005, and the crew is granted intimate access. Two of the five are now in exile, wanted on criminal charges and planning their own anti-Putin campaigns with their wealth and influence.

*****

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