The Russian Mafia is a notorious term used to refer to the collective of various organized crime elements in the former Soviet Union. Although it's not a singular organization, most of the groups share similar goals and organizational structures, who call themselves Thieves by Law (Вор в законе).
The term "Thief by Law" means "thief who follows the law," referring to criminals who obey the Thieves' code and conduct.
Organized crime in Russia already began during the period of the Tsars, but it was not until the Soviet era, when Thieves by Law defined the honor code, and became the leaders of prison groups in soviet labor camps. In Russia, a criminal career starts at prison, where prisoners learn the rules and traditions of underworld. During Stalin's reign of terror, millions of people were sent to prison camps (Gulags), for both political and criminal offenses. Those people became the only political opposition in the Soviet Union. They even organized their own courts and held trials governed by the code of Thieves' honor and tradition. Free from Marxism-Leninist ideology, they lived under their own unwritten rules, which emerged in those very same camps. Tattoos became important, in order to understand ones rank in the hierarchy.
There was another subculture living along side of them – suki, meaning bitches. The 'suki' were former members of the criminal underworld, who had broken the thieves' code, by agreeing to join the Soviet army and fight against Nazi Germany, in exchange for being freed from prison. Due to a large number of 'suki', most gulags were divided into two separate zones for suki's and thieve's in law.
In 1987, during the Perestroika, when Communist government started issuing first laws regulating individual and cooperative production, freedom and sudden wealth floating around the country activated Thieves by Law, who wanted their share of the fortune.
The times were hectic, businessmen quickly realized they have to reach to an agreement with groups – give away part of their wealth for having a "roof" – meaning paying protection from another organized criminal groups – or die.
Money, luxury, western things – all those things represented a new time and freedom for ordinary Russian working class people, but above all, to Thieves by Law, who weren't afraid to demonstrate their (poor?) taste after leaving this world.
Thieves by Law is a wonderful documentary about 3 people, who consider themselves Thieves by Law. They tell openly how they see the world, how they started and how they operate now.