MOSCOW (AP) — The contract-style killing of Russian mobster Aslan Usoyan, also known as Grandpa Khasan, on Wednesday drew renewed attention to the extensive and elaborate culture of the country's underworld figures who call themselves "crowned thieves" and "thieves in law." Questions and answers about this shadowy world:
WHO WAS USOYAN?
The 75-year-old ethnic Kurd, born in Soviet Georgia, was first convicted in 1956. In the past two decades, he gained control over many criminal groups in Moscow, St. Petersburg and southern Russia, according to widespread accounts from police officials, organized crime experts and media reports. He purportedly controlled underground gambling, drug trafficking, prostitution and legal businesses including in the construction industry. He also kept obschak, an emergency fund for imprisoned top criminals behind bars — a position that gave him immense power. He also was a "top judge" who settled conflicts between other criminal clans.
WHY WAS HE KILLED?
Usoyan's clan has been in a turf war since 2006 with the clan of Tariel Oniani, now serving a 10-year sentence for abduction and extortion. One of the prizes in the war is the allocation of multi-million-dollar construction projects in southern Russia, according to the respected newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
WHO ARE "CROWNED THIEVES?"
They are generally recruited in prison from among criminals who persistently refuse to follow prison administration rules, behave according to the thieves' code and show talent. The crowning has to be conducted by at least three "crowned thieves," and small handwritten notes are sent to other prisons with the new thief's name and nickname. The subculture emerged in the 1930s in the Gulag prison camp system, where the criminals were equally hostile to prison administration and to political prisoners. They forged their strict code and punished apostates with beatings, rape or death. There are hundreds in the ex-Soviet Union, most of them in Russia.
WHAT'S IN THE CODE?
Crowned thieves rejected the Communist doctrine and could not befriend men in uniform, work for the state or even sing the Soviet anthem. Hundreds of criminals were killed by fellow thieves for donning uniforms and fighting the Nazis during World War II. The code also bans them from marrying or having long-term relationships. Usoyan had two children, but never married.
HOW DO THEY LOOK?
Although crowned thieves are supposed to have a modest appearance, they bear characteristic tattoos. Some tattoos are code words: MIR (peace) means "Only capital punishment will correct me;" VOLK (wolf) means "a thief is resting while a cop is dying." Tattoos often have religious themes —depictions of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus were the privilege of criminals who had served their first term as teenagers. A Russian Orthodox cathedral tattoo signifies by its number of domes how many terms the wearer has served. Only a top thief could have a tattooed crucifix with Jesus. Sometimes the tattoos denominate the bearer's specialty or attitude: pickpockets have beetles and cats, a Nazi swastika means rejection of everything Soviet (but does not make its bearer a neo-Nazi), and a tall ship means the thief has no permanent residence.
HAVE THEY CHANGED SINCE THE 1991 SOVIET COLLAPSE? Continued...