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.”

Among the Criminals

Membership in a criminal gang did not guarantee safety. Gangs operated with their own internal code of conduct, their “thieves’ law,” and punishment for its violation was quick and lethal. Michael Solomon recalled one incident: “Sashka got up from his bunk. He was a young lad, bony, with hollow cheeks and watery blue eyes. Like all of us, his head was shaven. At 23 he had been jailed several times, and now, as a habitual criminal he had been sent to work in the mines of Kolyma. In the Arctic camps, Sashka, like all of those of his kind, refused to work and managed to live from what he stole from the kitchen or from the poor meals of his fellow inmates. He didn’t earn much as he had to share the ’fats‘ and the sugar with the senior thieves. Now he faced judgment for the worst offense in the criminal world: ‘selling’ his brother thieves to the camp administration. For such a crime of betrayal there was only one punishment—death.”

After the Second World War, a pitched battle broke out between criminal gangs—the so-called “bitches’ war.” Members of criminal gangs who had supported the Soviet war effort were accused of breaking the thieves’ law, of becoming “bitches.” The resultant conflict between the “bitches” and the “thieves” was protracted and violent through the late 1940s and early 1950s.