Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: Alla Tumanova

“I was surrounded by strange women – crude, unlovely faces, half-naked bodies with enormous tattoos. They spoke in shouts, interspersing their words with profanity. For awhile it seemed to me that they were speaking a foreign language; I couldn’t understand half of the words. All these loudmouthed women looked old, although their figures and their wild behaviour suggested youth instead. Lida whispered to me that these were blatznyazhki, thieves, and that I should tell them nothing about myself. But they didn’t need any of our help to realize that we were ‘politicals.’ They asked me about something, shouting down from the racks at the top, but I had lost the power of speech in this terrifying place. ‘Hey, pinky, you mother fucker, don’t be sulky. We’re not going to bite you!’ a large half-naked devakha in a bra spoke to me pleasantly from the floor. On her stomach a dark blue snake wriggled at her every movement: the tattoo had been done masterfully.”

Criminal Gangs

The tattooed members of the Gulag’s criminal gangs posed the most serious threat to those who did not belong. These criminal gangs maintained their own vicious subculture in the Gulag, one notable for its vulgar language, pornographic tattoos, gambling (often with the life and limbs of other prisoners as the stakes), and violence against all inmates not in the gang. Criminal gangsters robbed, beat, raped, and murdered their fellow prisoners, often with the toleration or outright encouragement of the Gulag authorities.

"The professional criminals are beyond the bounds of humanity," observed Eugenia Ginzburg in the typically stark terms used by political prisoners to describe the criminal gangs. "I have no desire to describe their orgies, although I had much to put up with as an involuntary witness."

In this excerpt from Stolen Years, several political prisoners recall their experience with the criminal gangs.

Movie Transcription

The camp criminals lived at the expense of the political prisoners. In other words, the political prisoners did the actual labor, while the criminals, who often didn’t do any work divided up the work quota points among themselves. Nadezhda Joffe – The criminals didn’t work at all. The men had to cart wheelbarrows with ore around the side and the criminals used to sing a little ditty. “Wheelbarrow, wheelbarrow, don’t you fear, I won’t touch you, or come near.” Nikolai Getman – The criminals were obviously a lowly bunch of people. They despised those of us convicted of political crimes. They called us, enemies of the people. If they like a jacket or pants that we were wearing, they would make us give it up.