The documentary “Thieves by Law” interweaves the gripping stories of three notorious Russian mobsters that have transformed themselves from thriving criminals to successful “businessmen.” While these men have used violent and ruthless means for gain in the past, the political influence and clout they presently wield within Russia and beyond is more powerful than any pistol they ever brandished.
Along with three fascinating life stories, director Alexander Gentelev delivers a well crafted and comprehensive background about the origins of the Russian Mafia that started out as a criminal caste formed in the gulags under Stalin in the 1930s. It was in these prisons where they developed a code of criminal ethics (a sort of Cossack Ormeta) and referred to their kind as "Thieves by Law."
In these bleak prisons they remained under the brutal control of Communism until Russia became flooded with new freedoms and wealth during Gorbachev's perestroika in the late 1980s. With the sheer volume of new free-market business developing, everyone wanted their share -- especially the "Thieves" that were being released back into Russian society at the same time. The period became the genesis of epic mob disputes and criminal bloodshed unseen in Russia before, and made Al Capone’s Chicago of the 1930s seem like “West Side Story” in comparison. Gentelev's three crime bosses were in the thick of it, rare survivors of the era.
Since then they have each adopted pet projects, such as rebuilding a Russian Orthodox Church in Cannes, France, starting a hockey team and, most humorously, a film production company to direct Mob-themed action movies.
“Thieves by Law” becomes quickly engrossing as the film’s three subjects come across as very charismatic, funny and simply likable. That charm however, is tempered with their recounting gruesome tales of extortion, racketeering, murder and numerous other deplorable acts employed to amass their great wealth.
What makes the film truly astonishing is that director Gentelev’s was given the opportunity to closely follow and film these notorious figures nearly uninhibited. They rarely censor themselves or their henchmen when each recalls potentially self-incriminating stories for the camera. So much of their stories are told matter-of-factly, with enough depth of detail given to convince the viewer they are not embellished or fabricated.
Hearing their tales, it becomes clear that to get to where they are, the "Thieves by Law" never took their eyes off their competition. And Gentelev's storytelling makes it impossible for us to keep our eyes off of them.