Gulag Criminal Subculture

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Our knowledge of the Soviet penal system has substantially increased in the last 30 years. Yet, our knowledge of the camps as a lived experience remains relatively incomplete and based on either administrative documents or memoirs of mostly victims of political repression.

But Gulag life had its own culture, symbols, and rituals. And much it came from the long history of criminal subculture beginning in Imperial Russia, and the criminals who made up the majority of gulag inmates in the 1930s. Gulag criminal subculture included initiation rituals, tattoos, black market activity, card playing, and prisoner run courts, to name a few. After Stalin’s death, these cultural forms had a profound influence on Soviet culture, and continues today in the representation of the Russian mafia in films and Russian criminal folklore. For more on gulag criminal subculture, its history and meanings, I turned to Mark Vincent to talk about his book, Criminal Subculture in the Gulag: Prisoner Society in the Stalinist Labour Camps.

Guest:

Mark Vincent is a historian based at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom specializing in Russian criminality and criminal culture. He’s the author of Criminal Subculture in the Gulag: Prisoner Society in the Stalinist Labour Camps published by Bloomsbury.

Music:

Dina Vierny, “Kashmary.”