What is the Russian word for crime?


Jens Siegert

has been head of the Russia country office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Moscow since 1999. Before that, he worked for ten years as a correspondent for German-language print media and radio stations in Moscow.

The Russian criminal world has its own rules. But if you want to understand this, you first have to familiarize yourself with the linguistic peculiarities of the criminal milieu. After all, what does it mean if you are considered a "thief in the law" in Russia?

Barbed wire in front of the Moscow office of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

At the end of July, some articles appeared in the German press about a trial against a "Russian-Georgian mafia" before the Lüneburg district court (e.g. here: http://www.zeit.de/2016/30/mafia-organisation- georgia-thieves-in-law). In court the criminal gang was called "thieves in the law", which was repeated in most of the articles. According to the German press, the so-called "thieves" should have had a good time. Or they felt flattered. Because "thief in the law" is a rank, a title or a kind of rank, but not a proper name.

Now I do not want to unduly disparage the work of the court and journalists. It is not so easy to find your way around the Russian criminal world and Russian criminal jargon. So I would like to try to give you a few pointers here. This is also useful because some of them - more the "terms" than the rules (but also them!) - have for some time been (are) finding their way into everyday Russian life to an increasing extent.

But first a small distinction is necessary. In Russian there is the criminal jargon and there is the so-called Mother curses (Russian: mat). At first, both have little to do with each other, although the social groups, which make excellent use of criminal jargon, also fervently many Mother curses eject. Mother curses often serve as largely meaningless filler words that are interspersed in large numbers in every sentence. Mother curses consist of infinite variations of a fairly small group of words, all of which denote the human genital area. They are coarse (much coarser than German swear words), are considered deeply indecent in "civilized" public opinion and have even been forbidden by law for some years. Nevertheless, they are ubiquitous and I would not believe anyone, really anyone, who claims to never use them, not even occasionally and spontaneously (even if it is in my mind). Mother curses have often found their way into public space through corruptions, in which, however, the original curse can be heard by anyone without thinking.

The criminal jargon, on the other hand, describes people, objects and actions in connection with criminal social interaction. While the mother's curses have no analogies in German, the criminal jargon is definitely comparable with the Rotwelsch that originated in German in the late Middle Ages. It received its predominant form at the end of the 19th / beginning of the 20th century. Many words in criminal jargon come from Yiddish, others have Turkish origins. But the crooks and thieves also made use of Russian. Here are just a few that are useful for understanding the "thieves in the law" and that seem to have played a role in the process mentioned above: Frajer, student, hole, bazaar and schodka.

A schuler is a crook, a cardsharp, a fraudster, someone who unfairly (according to bourgeois moral standards) outsmarts others. The word already appears in classical Russian literature of the 19th century, often in connection with the card game. bazaar is what you have prepared, promised or agreed upon. bazaar can be just as much a (serious) conversation as an argument. In everyday language, the phrase "otwetschat sa bazaar"used, which means to be responsible for a thing or an act.

A schodka (speak s-chodka) is a meeting or gathering in the criminal environment. The same word schod, but also refers to the village assembly in me, the traditional village community. The Cossacks also referred to their meetings as schod. Today it is often used colloquially for meetings and gatherings of all kinds. At a schodka the "thieves in the law" meet to discuss the affairs of the "thieves" world. Before we go any further, it must be explained what a "thief" actually is. "Thief" was (and sometimes still is) a self-designation of those who subscribed to the criminal statute (and thus committed wereto adhere to it). Originally, they were actually literally thieves (Russian: wor). Later the term also included other criminals. The opposite of the "thief" is that frajer. This word denotes all non-thieves. A frajer is fair game for "thieves". He can be stolen, cheated, robbed or even killed. There are no rules against him, in any case not those of the state law from which the "thief" is free, nor the criminal code of honor, which strictly regulates the relationship between the "thieves". The code of honor also delimits the "thieving" spheres of interest from one another and serves to resolve conflicts within the "thieves" world.

Most of them frajer are at the same time lochy (Sometimes and increasingly these two terms are used synonymously, with the hole has found its way into everyday language more strongly during the use of frajer goes back). A hole is a victim, a loser. Someone who is easily duped, often stupid and careless. In short: a hole is the ideal and eternal sacrifice (which, by the way, also seems to have played a greater role in the Lüneburg trial).

That brings me to the "thieves in the law". In the above-mentioned time article on the process, it says: "The" thieves in the law ", as they also call themselves, are a closed society that arose in Soviet prison camps during the Stalin era, at that time acted against the rulers and went underground organized ". Unfortunately, a lot got mixed up. As already indicated above, "thieves in the law" are not a society or organization, but were a kind of functional elite within the criminal world. For the time of the Soviet Union you have to imagine it as a confederation of criminal gangs, similar to the Italian mafia, but without family connections. In contrast, the Soviet criminal organizations were more like surrogate families. The huge number of war and civil war orphans formed their most important recruiting reservoir.

Second, this structure has largely disintegrated since the end of the Soviet Union. Those who call themselves "thieves in the law" today are little more than what one might call upstart. They take on an established and melodious title, but without having the authority that goes with it or even being able to perform functions even remotely similar to those of, one must say, real "thieves in the law". This disintegration, which has not really been investigated so far, has, as I suspect, something to do with the opening of the formerly closed Soviet Union. Organized Soviet crime has become provincialized and internationalized at the same time. In addition, in almost all the successor states of the Soviet Union, parts of organized crime have risen to the highest political offices and have blurred the line between the criminal world and the rest. As a result, not only did the "thieves in the law" disappear as an institution (they were also mixed, provincialized and internationalized), but the long-standing "thieves' code" also lost a large part of its meaning in the underworld.

Incidentally, this code denotes another word in criminal jargon, the so-called ponyatija. The ponyatija (literally this is the plural of the Russian word for "concept" or "idea") stand in opposition to the law, i.e. to the codified law. "Shit po ponjatijam", that is, "life according to the terms" means today, even in everyday life, not to follow codified law, but rather to follow other, informal rules and agreements. Much of everyday life in Russia works this way today, including and not least in politics.

In the Soviet era since Stalin (although the roots go back a long way to the times of the tsar) the "thieves in the law" were a kind of "constitutional court" of the criminal society, which governed compliance with the law ponyatija had to watch. At the same time, however, they were also a kind of "supreme criminal court" because they exercised their authority over punishment sentences. All real "thieves" (i.e. those who po ponjatijam (about: according to thief terms) lived and had been accepted into the community of thieves) were obliged to implement these judgments. The principle "once a thief, always a thief" (also known from the mafia and other secret societies) applied. Leaving the "thieves" community was impossible. After the end of the Soviet Union, this structure disintegrated about as quickly as the "thieves in the law" who had lived until then died.

Today there is no one in the post-Soviet criminal world who still has the authority of the "thieves in the law". Anyone who calls themselves this way or is called this by others is to a certain extent a con man, at most a smaller or larger gang boss. This can already be seen from a number that one hears again and again and that was also mentioned in the Lüneburg trial. Accordingly, there should be "around 1000 thieves in the law worldwide" today. Perhaps there are so many criminals in the post-Soviet area today who call themselves that and have a certain authority in criminal circles (what is called a "criminal authority" in Germany too). I don't know if the number is correct. In the post-war Soviet Union, however, there were never more than 13 to 15 "thieves in the law". There were practical reasons for that. How else could a system have worked in which the "thieves in the law" regularly join those already described schodkihad to meet to hold court? Since there were always some of the "thieves in the law" in the camp (often even a majority), this was only possible in the so-called "stage prisons", i.e. those six or seven large prisons into which prisoners were repeatedly taken, and then to the actual ones To be redistributed to prison camps where they had to serve their imprisonment.

The most famous of these stage prisons is the one that is still in service today Vladimirsky Central in the district town of Vladimir, about 200 kilometers east of Moscow. Many gulag prisoners, but also later prisoners who reported (were able to report) of their imprisonment, gave testimony of this. So just because of the difficulty, enough "thieves in the law" for one schodka To get them together in one place in the truly extensive Soviet camp archipelago would have been logistically difficult with a large number, but impossible with a really large number. It is not for nothing that the Federal Constitutional Court, which meets in freedom (as well as other upper and supreme courts in the world) consists of a very limited number of judges. Judiciary should work.

The classic "thieves in the law" also had to follow a fairly rigid (moral) code (part of the ponyatija is). They were somewhat like an order of monks to which the thieving people, first and foremost because of its remote world and asceticism, granted the necessary authority and legitimacy to take over the ponyatija to watch. The most important rule for a "thief in the law" was the renunciation of any private property (here the huge difference to those who call themselves today should quickly become clear). So that they could watch over the thief code with sufficient neutrality, they were exclusively from the obschtschak provided. The obschtschak, also a word from the language of thieves that found its way into everyday Russian language and is used today, for example, for a common holiday fund, was (and still is today) a common fund, to which all members of the world of thieves pay a kind of tax had. On the one hand the "thieves in the law" were cared for from it, on the other hand it served as a kind of social fund for members of the thieving community or their families in need. Thieves' members also received benefits from it as long as their fathers or husbands were in the camp and consequently could only pursue their jobs to a very limited extent.

Incidentally, "thieves in the law", similar to monks here, were not allowed to have families. They had to give themselves up completely to the community of thieves. Perhaps even more important was that the authorities or criminals should not be given any leverage in the event of a conflict - women and children could not be threatened. Violent criminals could not qualify as a "thief in the law". Anyone who had an armed robbery on the heartwood was ruled out as a possible "thief in the law". But that doesn't mean that the "thieves in the law" were particularly sensitive. The code of honor also provided death as a punishment for serious thieving misconduct. And this punishment was not infrequently imposed. They especially sanction ponyatija any cooperation with the so to speak natural enemy, the police or, in criminal jargon, the menty. This is again a word that is used everywhere in everyday life today, for example in the meaning that "cops" has for police officers in Germany.

But all of this is a lost world. Or rather, one in the process of dissolution. It hasn't completely disappeared. One of its parts lives on in the "1000 thieves in the law", who are supposed to be up to mischief not only in the area of ​​the former Soviet Union, but also beyond. Another part has sneaked into Russian (and other post-Soviet) politics and society. A lot has been going on in Russia for a long time po ponjatijam, also because the law and the law work very poorly. Informal agreements are often far more important than legal rules. Above all, however, the language and code of the criminal world have been preserved as folklore. The public figurehead for this is President Putin, of all people, who uses criminal jargon - often but not always with a twinkling eye - and thus shows his loyalty to the people. Most of the time the audience hoots or at least nods approvingly and thinks that the president has once again shown the boring and politically correct "liberals" and the West that he (unlike them) is a real man pazan (another thieving-bourgeois double word), so a whole, young guy who can assert himself in a fist fight in the backyard.

You can find this and other texts on Jens Siegert's Russia bloghttp://russland.boellblog.org/.
The Russia analyzes are carried out by the Research Center for Eastern Europe at the University of Bremen and the German Society for Eastern European Studies. The Federal Agency for Civic Education / bpb publishes them as a licensed edition.