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Horse Thieves and the Bandit Tradition

Mark Galeotti—

Periodic epidemics, crop failure and other disaster cannot compare with the harm that horse thieves bring to the countryside. The horse thief holds peasants in perpetual, uninterrupted fear.

Georgy Breitman, 1901

The horse thief lived a violent, dangerous life, at risk from both the police and peasant lynch mobs. He would typically form a gang and take over a village, then establish complex networks for trading stolen horses into other regions where they would not be recognized. This is, incidentally, an interesting parallel to the modern Russian gangster, who typically tries to create a home base, by corrupting or threatening local populations and political elites, as the hub for often transnational criminal networks.

These horse-rustling gangs had to have the numbers, strength and cunning to evade not just the authorities but, far more dangerous, the peasants themselves. In some cases, they numbered several hundred members. One investigator, for example, wrote of the gang led by a certain Kubikovsky, which included almost sixty criminals and had its headquarters in the village of Zbelyutka. There, they made their lair in an underground cavern within which they could hide as many as fifty horses at a time. If this was full or unusable, then each local village had an agent, known as a shevronista, who could be called on to hide horses or provide information. Not that they usually had to conceal them for long. Given that horses, while greatly in demand, were also relatively identifiable, the gangs—much like modern car thieves—needed to be able to conceal their original ownership (typically by selling them to a horse trader who could rebrand them and hide them amongst his regular stock) or else resell them far enough away from their original owner that it would be impossible for them to be traced. Thus, a study of criminal networks in Saratov province found that:

Stolen horses are taken on a certain road to the Volga or the Sura rivers; in almost every settlement along that road there is a den of thieves who immediately transfer the horses to the next village . . . All stolen horses end up . . . beyond the province’s borders, transferred either across the Sura into Penza and Simbirsk provinces, or across the Volga into Samara, while Saratov itself receives horses from these three provinces.

For a village to harbor horse thieves might bring it greater prosperity (not least as they squandered their gains on local alcohol and women) and perhaps even security. In some cases, the horse thieves operated as primitive protection racketeers, demanding tribute in return for leaving communities’ horses alone. Faced with the very real threat of such attacks and the economic costs to the community of having to mount constant guard on their precious horses, as well as the absence of effective state police, many regarded paying such ‘tax’ – or hiring a horse thief as a herder, which also gave him the opportunity to hide stolen horses amongst those of the village – as the lesser evil.

Horse thieves were sometimes caught, whether by the peasants or the police, but overall they prospered, growing in numbers in the years leading up to the Great War as part of a wider tide of rural crime. While this was a specialized form of rural banditry, in their rough-and-ready way the horse thieves did represent a kind of organized crime. They operated with a clear sense of hierarchy and specialization, possessed distinct turfs of their own, maintained networks of informants, corrupted police officers, visited retribution on those who resisted or informed on them and traded stolen horses with other gangs and corrupt ‘legitimate’ dealers. The more successful ones operated for years, and while they may have developed links with local communities, whether through extortion or as neighbors and protectors, they undoubtedly were not of the community, and in many cases recruited broadly, drawing on runaways, ex-convicts, deserters and petty outlaws.

This particular organized-crime phenomenon would prove an evolutionary dead end, though, and not survive long into the twentieth century. The First World War made dealing in horses difficult and dangerous, given the extent to which they were being bought and requisitioned for the army, and the chaos of revolution (1917), and the consequent civil war (1918–22) and famine (1920–2), further disrupted their commercial networks. Rural gangs were able to thrive for a while in this period of relative anarchy, a few becoming virtual bandit armies. In some cases individual bandits or even gangs ended up being coopted into the military or administrative structures of one side or another: just as Vanka Kain for a while worked for the state, so too did notorious criminals such as St Petersburg’s Lyonka Panteleyev, who for a while served in the Cheka, the Bolshevik political police, before likewise returning to a life of crime (and being shot in 1923 for his pains).  However, as the Soviet regime began to assert its authority over the countryside, these bandits faced unprecedented pressure from the state. While rural policing as a whole remained a low priority, when more serious challenges emerged, the response of the revolutionary state was much more urgent and exigent. To suppress the larger bandit armies of the Volga, for example, the Bolsheviks deployed more than four Red Army divisions, along with aircraft. The primal energies of bunt and banditry still remained, ready to break forth when the state seemed weak or when it put unbearable pressures on the countryside. In the whirlwind of Stalinist terror and collectivization, for example, rural criminality once again became a serious challenge. In 1929, Siberia was declared ‘unsafe due to banditry’ and gangs roamed across much of the rest of Russia. In Sheila Fitzpatrick’s words, ‘theirs was a harsh frontier world, where bandits – often dekulakized peasants [repressed ‘rich peasants’] hiding in the forest – were likely to take potshots at officials while sullen peasants looked the other way’. However, although bandits did often seek to steal horses, the specific phenomenon of the organised horse thief gang was not to survive long into the Soviet era.

The horse thieves already exhibited some of the traits of the later Russian gangsterism of the vorovskoi mir. They were a criminal subculture that deliberately held itself apart from mainstream society but learned how to manipulate it. In the process, they became connected to that society through cooperation with corrupt officials and winning over the allegiance of disillusioned populations. When they could, the horse thieves would take over political structures and establish ‘bandit kingdoms’ from which to manage networked operations. Extravagantly violent when they needed to be, they were also capable of very complex and subtle activities. Nonetheless, for the real roots of modern Russian organized crime, the real ancestors of the vory, one needs instead to look to the cradle of its Kains, the cities.

From Vory by Mark Galeotti. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.

Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations, Prague. An expert and prolific author on transnational crime and Russian security affairs, he has also advised the British Foreign Office and many government and law enforcement agencies in Europe and North America.

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Featured photo by Daniil Silantev on Unsplash

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