Simultaneously hilarious and horrific, Alexander Gentelev’s extraordinary docu “Thieves by Law” offers a clear, concise and shockingly candid account of Russian gangsterism as told by the shamelessly high-living, self-contented crooks themselves. Interviewed in opulent Mediterranean villas, four-star restaurants and luxury hotels, three all-powerful Russian crime lords — with the help of a trusted henchman, a Russian crime-fighter, an Interpol agent, a Mafia lawyer, a millionaire businessman and an Israeli general — matter-of-factly trace the evolution of organized crime from Stalinist gulags to the global present. Surefire audience-grabber definitely merits Stateside distribution.
While it is tempting to call Gentelev’s film an “expose,” the label implies a forced uncovering of activities that perpetrators want kept under wraps. Yet Gentelev’s kingpins display mind-blowing pride in their accomplishments, participate enthusiastically in the film and believe their shadow government has attained greater legitimacy than the real one.
Gentelev’s trio of criminal bosses form a study in contrasts. Genial, expansive expat Leonid “Mackintosh” Bilunov, comfortably ensconced in France and briefly glimpsed playing tennis, amiably escorts the filmmaker through his Antibes villa and Paris townhouse, equipped with bulletproof glass and reinforced doors that open only to his touch. President of the Cannes Church Society, Bilunov credits God with putting him on the right criminal path, easily reconciling religion with his avowed murderous practices.
Alimzhan “Taiwanchik” Tokhtakhounov, alone among the interviewees, maintains his innocence, asserting that the role of thief resembles that of a member of Parliament: He helps people! Indeed, he is charged by Interpol with “helping” to bribe a French ice-skating judge in the 2002 Olympics — an allegation he vigorously denies. Chafing against restrictions imposed by his wanted status, Tokhtakhounov goes so far as to claim that Russian organized crime doesn’t exist.
But the scariest of the three mobsters, shown methodically playing pool and ice-fishing, is the black-clad Vitaly “Bondar” Dymochka. Some 20 years younger than his two sexagenarian compatriots, Dymochka seems far more fanatical in his allegiance to the thieves’ code and the notion of personal honor. Engaged in making a quasi-autobiographical film in which much of the violence is real, he casts people who owe him money as victims.
Bilunov and Dymochka explain the laws that once governed these “Thieves by Law,” the elite criminal classes, marked by tattoos that spell out rank and identity (shades of David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises”). The thieves’ code demanded that adherents have no family, no job, no fixed abode and no private money, and that they demonstrate profound hatred and distrust of authorities.
Perestroika upped the stakes considerably, as the rise of small businesses and self-made millionaires gave ascendancy to no-nonsense protection rackets that milked businessmen for untold riches. (Dymochka’s minion explains how they instilled fear in recalcitrant execs: They abducted homeless people, dressed them like businessmen and chopped off their heads in front of prospective targets.) Profiteering went through the roof as firms were directly hijacked by criminal consortiums. To paraphrase Bilunov, all you had to do was off the CEO and everybody else sold their shares for a pittance. Gangsters went mainstream, bought homes and raised respectable families.
But untrammeled greed led to runaway violence and six years of internecine warfare, leaving few standing. As Dymochka puts it, coolly lining up his billiard shot, “People were earning the kind of money worth killing for. So we killed.”
Dark, grainy archival footage of Soviet-era prisons is presented in stark contrast to the gleaming surfaces and discreet lighting of Israel Freedman’s present-day lensing.