On the last weekend of September, one of the world’s frozen conflicts heated up. Armenia and Azerbaijan, two small nations in the Caucasus Mountains on the southeast frontier of Europe, accused each other of shelling around the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Officially part of Azerbaijan on the map, Nagorno-Karabakh is de facto controlled by Armenian forces, following a bitter war in the 1990s. In the last week, 220 people have died and conflicts have spread to the major cities in the region.
It’s hard to remember a time when the two neighbors, both former members of the Soviet Union, weren’t full of mutual hatred and distrust. But in 1993, an unexpected event briefly brought them together.
Rafael Baghdasaryan was born on Feb. 10, 1930, in the Armenian capital of Yerevan. As a boy, he admired the hoodlums and ruffians he saw on the streets. He began stealing at age 11 and before long started skipping school. By 14, he’d run away from home and been crowned a “thief-in-law,” one of the youngest to earn the title.
A thief-in-law, or a vor-v-zakone, is the Russian mafia’s equivalent to a “made man.” A vor is a highly respected figure in the criminal underworld that emerged from Stalin’s gulags, abiding by a set of rules and principles known as the thieves’ code, which strictly prohibits cooperating with the authorities. While hardly progressive — the thieves’ ideology, such as it is, is famously apolitical and misogynistic — the underworld was inclusive: Almost all nationalities of the USSR were represented. In the early days, there was a strong Jewish influence, and much of the underworld’s slang is borrowed from Yiddish.