Inked and Imprisoned: The Story of Soviet Criminal Tattoos

Credoit: Sergei Vasiliev/FUEL
Credoit: Sergei Vasiliev/FUEL

In 18th century Russia, branding criminals was standard practice. Deserters were branded with a cross on their left hand, while thieves had "KAT," an abbreviation for katorzhnik (convict), seared onto their foreheads and cheeks.

But, the landscape shifted under Stalin. The Gulag labor camps swelled with both political prisoners and criminals. By 1941, the Gulag's population had ballooned by approximately 300,000. A new criminal elite emerged: the vory v zakone, or "thieves in law”. Tattoos became the dividing line, distinguishing these criminal authorities from the masses of political prisoners. The "thieves in law" weren't just a gang; they were a shadow government within the prison system, operating in realms the KGB couldn't reach. They adhered to a strict code of honor, they conducted their own trials and meted out punishments too.

Silent Acts of Defiance 

Tattoos in Soviet prisons served as indelible acts of defiance against the regime. Initially used to dehumanise inmates, these marks were reclaimed as tools of resistance. Prisoners etched anti-Soviet symbols onto their bodies, making a clear statement: they were not commodities for the state to control. The permanence of tattoos ensured that their past could not be erased, regardless of any future reform.

These tattoos also became badges of outsider status. They symbolised both a rejection of mainstream society and an embrace of the criminal underworld. Inmates didn't seek societal approval; instead, they celebrated their fringe existence. Tattooing became an integral part of this celebration.

Decoding the meanings behind Tattoos

The tattoos themselves were complex and coded. They evolved from mere markings to a form of currency within the prison hierarchy. Prisoners resorted to makeshift tools, using ink made from burned rubber and their own urine to avoid infection. The tattoos could be broadly categorised into three types:

  1. Authority tattoos signaled rank. Stars meant "I kneel to no one," while cats signified seasoned inmates. Other symbols, like suns, skulls, and crosses, were shorthand for sentences served, crimes committed, and religious leanings. These tattoos were public statements, worn openly to establish one's place in the prison hierarchy.
  2. Personal tattoos acted like private diaries, capturing meaningful relationships and memories.  They were deeply personal and often hidden from plain view, revealing themselves only to those who knew where to look.
  3. Forced tattoos were tools of punishment and stigmatisation. An active homosexual would receive a bee tattoo on the genitals, while a passive one would get a beehive on the buttocks. These designs were a constant reminder of one's marginalised status within the prison walls.

Credit: Sergei Vasiliev/FUEL
Credit: Sergei Vasiliev/FUEL

The Brotherhood in a post USSR world

In the chaotic aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, the "vory v zakone," seized new opportunities. They ascended the ranks of Russia's criminal underworld, infiltrating the highest levels of political and economic power and extending their reach in the fragmented post-Soviet landscape. As their influence grew, they unified under the name the Brothers' Circle. 

The tattoos that once marked rebellion and rank within the prison system evolved alongside their expanding empire. These tattoos took on new layers of meaning, serving not just as a coded language within the underworld but also as emblems of a criminal network that had successfully infiltrated mainstream society. Recognising their growing influence, the U.S. government targeted this group in 2011 with an Executive Order designed to freeze their assets and cut them off from the global financial system. 

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