tl;dr: Ponyatiya is a code of conduct of the Russian criminal class. The way it has evolved in Russia suggests that there is a give and take between written and unwritten rules, and the balance between the two points reflects the level of confidence a people have in their civil institutions. If the U.S. has a crisis of faith in its institutions, perhaps brought on by the Trump Presidency, what kind of unwritten rules will predominate? (1,903 words)
“My friend Andrew Ryvkin, who wrote for the same blog, was also attacked — in broad daylight, by two well-known pro-Kremlin writers, for a Twitter slight; his attempt to report the case ended when the detective told him, ‘Come on. They’re famous guys. You must understand.’ That last sentence was telling. There is a Russian word, ponyatiya, which literally means ‘things that are understood’ — i.e., unwritten rules. Like many phenomena of modern Russian life, it comes from prison culture. And to live by the ponyatiya means not only to stay within the lines but also not to acknowledge the lines’ existence out loud…”
—Michael Idov, Russia: Life After Trust
“Bunk: A man must have a code.
Omar: Oh, no doubt.”
—David Simon, The Wire
During the Russian Revolution, armed gangs emerged to control major parts of Russian society. As the state apparatus was re-instituted, these gangs were systemically repressed, and many gang members were sent to forced labor camps. In the camps, they developed a distinct culture, and the culture is centered on a criminal code of conduct. This code of conduct is called ponyatiya (понятия in Russian). It stems from the root word ponimat, which means “to understand”. In broad strokes, it means:
- “Your own prison you shall not make.” Or, an ethic of non-cooperation with authorities, particularly observing a code of silence and not aiding prison officials, police or the military in any way.
- “One is not a thief in a field.” Sever attachments to blood relations, personal possessions and other (non-thieving) employment.
- “Live with wolves, howl like a wolf.” Participates in the life of the thief community: recruits new thieves, arbitrates conflicts, enforces punishments, perpetuates the culture of thieves, etc.
- “Every person is the blacksmith of their own destiny.” Avoid being controlled by your emotions, intoxicants, and gambling. Make good on your promises, help other thieves, and keep secrets.
Ponyatiya points to two interesting dynamics. First, it shows that there is a continuum in group formation that moves from one extreme of individuals acting alone to decentralized, informal networks of personal relationships to centralized, formal bureaucracies based on command and control and written rules. The greater the centralization, the greater the power of the group, and there’s an ongoing process of building and eroding of power. Second, unwritten rules are foundational for formation of groups and when shared across society, they turn into the laws of civil society.
It is difficult to maintain power and centralized control. It is very easy for a society to revert back to a code of the street, such as this description of the environment facing black communities in the United States:
“The code of the streets is actually a cultural adaptation to a profound lack of faith in the police and the judicial system. The police are most often seen as representing the dominant white society and not caring to protect inner-city residents. When called, they may not respond, which is one reason many residents feel they must be prepared to take extraordinary measures to defend themselves and their loved ones against those who are inclined to aggression. Lack of police accountability has in fact been incorporated into the local status system: the person who is believed capable of ‘taking care of himself’ is accorded a certain deference, which translates into a sense of physical and psychological control. Thus the street code emerges where the influence of the police and the justice system ends and personal responsibility for one’s safety is felt to begin. When respect for the civil law erodes, ‘street justice’ fills the void, thus underscoring the need for street credibility to operate on the streets of the local community. Exacerbated by the proliferation of drugs and easy access to guns, this volatile situation promises those with unassailable street credibility, often the street-oriented minority, the opportunity to dominate the public spaces.”
Whether it is the breakdown of civil government for minorities, a foreign invader colonizing an entire population, a prohibition of particular activities (such as drugs or gambling), new commercial developments, or reactionary forces challenging regime change, these changes create room for the code of the streets. Enforcing ‘street justice is hard, and invariably, it leads to the development of informal groups to do it. These groups are often at odds with the state.
For examples, we can look to the history of other major criminal organizations in the world. The Triads, the organized crime syndicates of China, were originally formed as a secret society aimed at overthrowing the contemporaneous government and restoring the old. They were not any more in favor of the British and the Chinese communists and as those groups came to power in China and were resisted, the Triads were suppressed by both in turn.
The origins of the Sicilian Mafia can be described in this way:
“The Mafia, a network of organized-crime groups based in Italy and America, evolved over centuries in Sicily, an island ruled until the mid-19th century by a long line of foreign invaders. Sicilians banded together in groups to protect themselves and carry out their own justice. In Sicily, the term ‘mafioso,’ or Mafia member, initially had no criminal connotations and was used to refer to a person who was suspicious of central authority.”
The Japanese Yakuza have their origins in either: (1) providing gambling services at a time when gambling was outlawed, or (2) providing security to trading communities for their markets during religious festivals when the local police force was inadequate. Some argue that yakuza codes against street crime served as a deterrent, which partially explains why the were tolerated by the Japanese state.
While these are well-known international criminal organizations, each illustrates the need for groups to develop a code of conduct. The Triads, Mafia, Yakuza, the black gangsters of Baltimore depicted in the television series, The Wire, each has a code. Sometimes, it is written. More often, it isn’t, and it has many of the same features of the ponyatiya of the Russian Vor. The codes provide greater group cohesion and effectiveness, prevent preying on one another within the group, and help their organization keep a low profile.
The evolution of these groups also shows how social organizations, when they are repressed or prohibited by civil authorities, evolve into criminal organizations. For a recent example, consider the current environment of the United States, where several state legislatures are considering bills to criminalize “unauthorized” protests.
On one hand, government prohibitions tend scare off law-abiding citizens who do not want to be labeled as criminals by the state. But, it also tends to organize and radicalize opposition. If protesting is a felony — on the same level as arson, burglary, armed robbery, kidnapping, drug sales and so forth — with similar penalties to severe crimes, then the legal line between these activities has been erased. Then, the only rule is the unwritten code of the group and the opportunities presented by the environment. In other words, the incentives are for the group to evolve into true criminal organizations because they can do so with little additional cost.
Any group suppressed by the civil authorities faces similar challenges to survival, which do not change with time or place. The group needs to take precedence among the various allegiances of their members. They need to maintain individual competence and have procedures for managing conflict and corruption undermining the group. These groups have to be able to resist other groups. And ultimately, they have to have income to support their activities. Ideally, they should also provide social services — whether it be security, education, food, or something else — to win popular support. All of this leads to an unwritten code of conduct to achieve these objectives.
When looked at in this light, then the difference between a state, a criminal organization, international corporation, paramilitary, terrorist or other group amounts to scale and their level of success. Winning “hearts and minds” is just as important to groups of criminals, insurgents, outlaws, etc. as it is to the marketing campaigns of corporations or the counterinsurgency efforts of militaries of the state trying to impose state rule. The limits of government, in any form, are essentially the limits of enforcement, which is a function of the level of popular cooperation. Compliance is control.
The same pattern is there for minority communities such as Jews. They may rely on codes of silence like mesirah, which is a code for not reporting fellow Jews to an abusive authority and rely on religious leaders and institutions for arbitration, rather than civil institutions. Then, there’s the dynamics between different groups, such as the ethic of Stop Snitchin’ in black communities and the corresponding ethic of the police to observe a blue wall of silence, the unwritten code among police officers not to inform on fellow police officers. The latter places allegiance with one’s group above civil society or ideas like the rule of law. It undermines centralized authority and moves all the groups of larger society down the continuum to less concentrated power and more reliance on unwritten laws of groups and reliance on informal personal networks.
Ponyatiya in Russia is no longer a counter-cultural criminal code, but the de facto social code for all of Russian society. It’s an ethic that impedes the functioning of the state. One unwritten rule that the quote above shows us is that famous people live by a different standard than everyone else, to the point that they can expect to attack someone on the street for a tweet and not be called into account for it. Another is that anyone can be called into account, at any time. If they attack the wrong person with better connections, then the script will be flipped. It is reminiscent of the old saying about the law, that it is “what is most boldly asserted and plausibly maintained” backed up by what is affectionately known in Chicago as “clout”, or political connections.
And lest we think this is some strange phenomena in Russia, there is a lot of lip service given in the United States to the Constitution, the rule of law, the strength of our government institutions, the goodness of U.S. military intervention in promoting democracy around the world and other notions of this sort. At recent mass protests, many people still believe that the police lining the streets are there to protect them. So, there is still a great deal of confidence in the centralized institutions by significant parts of the population. However, the election of Donald Trump has created a great deal of uncertainty — for immigrants, increasing the surveillance state to the point that the Department of Homeland Security seriously floated the idea of asking visitors for their social media passwords, taking a much more aggressive stance towards Iran, etc. It does not take much imagination to think that four years of a Trump administration using the significant powers of the Presidency could undermine the faith that the American people have in their civil government.
When/if that happens, what groups and unwritten codes will U.S. civil society devolve into?