Images of tattooed, toothless and scarred criminal recidivists regularly feature in films and TV shows about the Stalinist Gulag.
Descriptions of the horrific crimes of criminal gangs also fill the pages of memoirs written by former inmates imprisoned for suspected political crimes.
As the system developed into a vast network of camps during the 1930s, the violent actions of criminal gangs would have far reaching effects on Gulag inmate society. The impact of the gangs became particularly prominent following the Second World War, when the overall prisoner population peaked at roughly two and a half million leading up to the death of dictator Josef Stalin in early March 1953.
Here are 9 codes of the Gulag criminal underworld.
It was extremely important for gangs to have a clearly defined hierarchy, with designated individual roles similar to wider criminal organisations such as the Sicilian mafia group Cosa Nostra.
The leader of gangs in the Gulag was often referred to as the Pakhan (boss). They were supported by lackeys known as Shestyorka (‘Sixer’), named after the lowest number in a Russian card deck. Beneath this, a host of other recruits would look to perform menial and occasionally dangerous tasks to work their way up through the ranks.
Given the frequency of prisoner transfer and release, alongside high mortality rates, movement through the gang hierarchy was dependant on both respecting the hierarchy and mastering the following behavioural traits.
2. Thieves’ Law
Crucial to the cohesion of criminal gangs was loyalty to the ‘Thieves’ Law’ which not only dictated their behaviour toward other prisoners but also helped to enforce internal discipline.
Similar to other worldwide prison traditions, the most basic laws upheld by criminal gangs in the Gulag were opposition to camp authorities and hostility towards any fellow prisoners seen to be collaborating with them. Among the most stringent observers this often meant a refusal to perform labour duties which would result in many being sent to punishment cells.
Although individual groups developed their own more intricate and detailed sets of rules, these two main principles always remained central.
This helped to create a strict divide between prisoners with a background in the criminal underworld and those from other areas of society.
The performance of different initiation tests provided prospective gang members an opportunity to prove their worth and loyalty.
Value was most commonly expressed by demonstrating the mastery of both verbal and physical violence. Alongside intimidating other prisoners through threats, spontaneous fighting contests often resembled those seen in the late Imperial village and were important in gaining respect from senior gang members.
Initiation rituals could differ from location to location. Towels might be placed down in the barracks for the use of gang members only, and tattoos were also often used to indicate that someone had passed the tests.
The most well-known expression of membership in the Russian criminal underworld came through tattoos displaying a multitude of new meanings as the Gulag developed during the 1930s.
Gang hierarchy was reflected in these tattoos with certain images on particular areas of the body, most prominently the chest, solely reserved for the Pakhan.
Different criminal ‘professions’ such as banditry and robbery were often marked by ring tattoos on the fingers of both female and male prisoners.
While there were other wide and varied reasons for displaying ink, such as subverting Communist propaganda slogans or indicating separation from a loved one, tattoos became an important tool of communication in the camps.
Another vital skill for gang members was the use of various forms of prisoner slang, which had developed new meanings from that which had been used before the 1917 revolutions.
In Gulag prisoner society there were often multiple layers to prisoner slang, ranging from the most secretive to that also used by camp authorities. Most often these words were entirely specific to the camp environment or criminal world, such as the term for ‘crowbar’.
While laden with racism, homophobia and other explicit slurs, slang functioned as a way to position inmates into different roles in the same way as other popular prisoner pastimes.
6. Card Playing
One of the most popular practices was card playing, which had a long tradition in Russian penality noted in the first books by written by prisoners such as famous writer Fyodor Dostoevsky.
As the labour camps system grew in the 1920s, card playing amongst prisoners became more widespread than ever. It was reported that an entire brigade of over 100 inmates had to be force-fed by authorities after gambling away all of their rations to just three expert card players.
Invariably, these games were won almost entirely through cheating, yet they became a way for gang members to display their status and steal important items from other inmates.
In order to regulate the rules of criminal society, gangs would often stage ad hoc court proceedings in the setting of the prisoner barracks.
Trials would take place for reported transgressions of the ‘Thieves’ Law’ such as stealing from other members or stashing goods for personal use rather than the collective fund.
Senior figures, with their ranks indicated by their tattoos, took the place of judges at these rudimentary court proceedings.
With the audience in the barracks looking on, proceedings were known to become quite detailed and sometimes rely on additional testimony in either support or to diminish the character of the accused.
Criminal gangs were extremely creative in finding a variety of different punishments, ranging from collecting a thousand cockroaches or religious pendants to being barred from speaking for a whole year.
These methods would often use the sparse environment of the labour camp, containing similarities with medieval torture devices such as ‘The Rack’. There was often also a sexual dimension to these punishments, which could be communicated through specific punitive tattoos.
With both court proceedings and their punishments, the audience was crucial for displaying powerful messages about loyalty and respect to the ‘Thieves’ Law’, along with the dominance the gangs.
Violence between rival criminal gangs often spread throughout both individual camp complexes and right across the Gulag.
This was particularly evident following the Second World War when a number of inmates released to fight on the frontlines were returned to the camps. They were confronted by other recidivists who accused them of breaking the main principle of the Thieves Law.
This period had a profound impact on the entire Gulag system with reports stating how different sides would control their territory, including violent beheadings for anyone unfortunate enough to be caught on the wrong side of the tracks.
Mark Vincent is an independent scholar. He gained his PhD from the University of East Anglia in 2015. Mark studied archival material from the Moscow Criminological Bureau; journals, song collections, tattoo drawings and dictionaries of slang; to reconstruct a fuller picture of life and society in the Gulag. Criminal Subculture in the Gulag: Prisoner Society in the Stalinist Labour Camps is published by Bloomsbury.