Dir: Alexander Gentelev. Germany-Israel-Spain. 2010. 90mins


An exciting, fast-paced course in the history of organised crime in Russia, Thieves by Law(Ganavim ba Hok) bursts with information on the creation and transformation of the Mob over the past six decades. Gentelev constructs the documentary around three principal interview subjects, all fascinating middle-aged crime leaders, who grant him such unbelievable access that it must be grounded in egomania.

The underworld situation in Russia is so unique, and so surreal, that audiences everywhere should take to the material.

Television is a natural home to the film, but specialised cinemas in major urban locales might do good business once reviews are out and word of mouth gets around.

Even though it moves quickly, Thieves is all about content. It is fairly conventional. The filmmaker doesn’t fully trust his viewers, especially during interview segments, so he cuts too often to clichéd images that have some visual correspondence to what we hear, like a steering wheel when someone speaks about…a steering wheel; the literalisation is redundant and uninteresting. Yet Gentelev does such a fine job of detailing the growth of the criminal organisations, and the men’s reflections so outrageous to the average person that they would seem exaggerated if this were a fiction, that few will care about the film’s formal drawback.

One learns that the thieves’ code can be traced all the way back to Stalin’s gulags, where the loose criminal gangs were the only opposition to the dictatorship. The members were so-called ‘Thieves by Law’, with tattoos as markers, and they chose ‘soldiers’ to join them in Soviet prisons.

When perestroika took effect in 1987, private businesses emerged, and by the end of the decade, a new superwealthy class as well. The criminals wanted a piece of the pie, so a large protection racket was born. By the early 1990s, they had started banks and businesses, technically legal even if integrally tied into the underworld.

Foreign businesses that invested in Russia had to work with the underworld. During the period 1994-2000 the bloody ‘criminal wars’ ensued. The collusion between the Mob and politicians, and between the Mob and the Russian Orthodox Church, was, and remains, well, business as usual.

Of the interviewees, the most fascinating is Bilunov, aka Mackintosh, one of several bosses who immigrated to Israel, which had until the government caught on more relaxed laws about organized crime, and from where he ran his empire. He now lives a life of luxury in Cannes, where he is a major contributor to the Church, and has Putin’s support.

Former card shark Tokhtakhounov, aka Taiwanchik, born in Uzbekistan, gained international notoriety after being accused of bribing a judge at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Even though he remains on Interpol’s Most Wanted List, he is president of Russia’s National Football Association. A criminal from childhood, Dyomochka, aka Bondar, managed to retain his gang leadership gang while imprisoned. He plans to make a film based on his experiences as a Thief by Law, financed, as one might expect, by underworld sources.    

Production companies: Le Vision Film and TV Productions Ltd., S.M.S. Productions, ChelloMulticanal

International sales: Cinephil Distribution & Coproductions, www.cinephil.co.il

Executive producers: Simone Baumann, Sasha Klein, Pedro Lozano

Producer: Maya Zinshtein

Cinematography: Sergei Freedman

Editor: Arik Baskin

Music: Avi Benjamin, Philipp E. Kumpel, Andreas Moisa

Main cast: Leonid Bilunov, Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, Vitaly Dyomochka