Days and Lives :: Conflict

Prisoner: John Noble

“Unofficially, however, Vorkuta had a different master. Our camp was ruled with a steel fist by about 250 blatnois, the Russian criminals. They kept the political prisoners in abject fear. There were about eight of them in my barracks, living on a shelf at the far end that would normally hold more than twenty prisoners. They spent their time sleeping, stealing whatever they admired, sharpening the knives they made, playing homemade balalaikas, dancing the plashka, a fast dance something like the Spanish flamenco. The blatnois were unemotional professional criminals, mostly in their twenties, serving comparatively short sentences for theft and murder. They had begun life as besprisorni, the vagrant children that travel in small bands throughout the Soviet Union, robbing as they go. They had been raised under communism, but they knew nothing about politics and cared less.”

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.