Post-Soviet Status: “Respected Thief”

From Restless Valley: Revolution, Murder, and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia, by Philip Shishkin (Yale, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2402-25:

Kyrgyzstan is a very small country, so rumors and news have a way of traveling fast in the overlapping circles of the country’s movers and shakers who booze, gossip, and do business together. Out of that cauldron, Ibraimova fished out a troubling morsel of scuttlebutt: a contract to kill Sadyrkulov had already been placed with a notorious mobster named Kamchi Kolbayev, a baby-faced, thirty-seven-year-old Don Corleone of Kyrgyzstan.

Following a long Soviet criminal tradition, Kolbayev was the so-called respected thief, a crowned prince of jailhouse aristocracy now entrusted by his colleagues to rule a vast criminal empire according to an informal code of “understandings” that are ruthless but noble, as any bleeding-heart mobster will tell you. Respected thieves require official protection, or at least acquiescence, and Kolbayev’s rise up the criminal food chain coincided with the entrenchment of the Bakiyev regime and the elevation of [his brother] Janysh. Kamchi benefited greatly from the murder of a major competitor: Ryspek Akhmatbayev, the Robin Hood who once dominated the country’s criminal underworld, won a parliamentary seat, and died in a flurry of gunfire outside a mosque.

Kamchi fared much better. One November evening in 2008, crime bosses from across the former Soviet Union gathered in a fancy Moscow restaurant to discuss pressing business matters and anoint new respected thieves. According to a Russian newspaper account of the meeting, the guests included such colorfully nicknamed individuals as Basil the Resurrected, Hamlet, Railcar, the Ogre, the Little Japanese Man, and Granpa Hassan. Kamchi was there too, and his peers crowned the Kyrgyz as a “respected thief,” elevating him to the rarefied top rung of organized crime. The title, peculiar to the Soviet criminal underworld, denotes an eventful life lived according to a rigorous criminal code that prohibits any normal employment, prescribes utter disdain for law enforcement, and usually involves significant prison stints and elaborately coded tattoos. Very few criminals rise to the rank of respected thief, whose closest international equivalent might be the Italian mafia’s capo di tutti cappi. (The original Russian term, Vor v Zakone, is often translated as Thief-in-Law, which is confusing as it conjures a meddlesome mother-in-law.)

A couple of years after attaining the respected-thief status, Kamchi became big enough to land on the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of major transnational crime figures whose assets are subject to a freeze. The U.S. government identified Kamchi as a key member of the Brothers’ Circle (formerly known as Family of Eleven, and the Twenty), a multiethnic criminal group spread across the former Soviet Union and active in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. “The Brothers’ Circle serves as a coordinating body for several criminal networks, mediating disputes between the individual criminal networks and directing member criminal activity globally,” the Treasury Department says. Tagged by President Obama as “a significant narcotics trafficker” under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, Kamchi serves as the Brothers’ Circle’s overseer for Central Asia, a principal staging ground for global trafficking of Afghan heroin.

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Filed under Central Asia, economics, language, Russia, USSR

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