Skin Trade

Brezhnev's blow job, written in flesh

Danzig Baldaev
Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia

Some stinking purgatories, it turns out, are more pleasant than others. In The Gulag Archipelago--Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's grim, three-volume play-by-play of life in the Soviet prison camps--there's an early passage where Solzhenitsyn describes his relief at being dumped with fellow "colleagues in misfortune" rather than have to face further interrogation alone. Only what to do with friends like these?

Suddenly you lift your eyes to the square recess in the middle bunk, to that one and only heaven above you, and up there you see three or four--oh, no, not faces! They aren't monkey muzzles either, because monkey muzzles are much, much decenter [sic] and more thoughtful!....Those strange gorilloids were usually dressed in sleeveless undershirts...Their sinewy purple necks, their swelling shoulder muscles, their swarthy tattooed chests have never suffered prison emaciation. Who are they? Where do they come from?

Courtesy Russian Tattoo Encyclopedia

Solzhenitsyn, you see, has just had a run-in with the vory or "thieves," and what happens to him next is a vicious plundering. Yet his tormentors weren't pickpockets or thugs in the traditional sense. Steal though they might, these "thieves" were bad guys of a deeper, darker sort. Members of a prison subculture rooted in tsarist times, their kind thrived like weeds in the hostile Soviet prison environment. The Soviet vory lived by their own laws and spoke their own brand of slanged Russian doublespeak (Solzhenitsyn thought it "gibberish"). They also identified one another by their tattoos, and these intricate markings forged of urine, soot, and boot grime bring us to the engrossingly lurid Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia.

Encyclopaedia comes courtesy of Danzig Baldaev, a veteran Soviet prison attendant turned folklorist, who is our entrée into this culture where invitations are rarely extended, much less turned down. The son of a Siberian ethnographer, Baldaev grew up harboring few illusions about the bright Soviet future awaiting him. His father, like many academicians of the day, was arrested as an enemy of the people when Baldaev was just a boy; all told, 58 members of his family either died in exile or perished in the camps. It was only following World War II when he was forced to work in Leningrad's (modern-day St. Petersburg's) Kresty prison that Baldaev found his purpose. And it's a moment he retells with that distilled fablelike quality that Russian prose (or is it translations of Russian prose?) so often seems to possess.

One day I showed my father a copy of some tattoos from the "Crosses" (solitary confinement cells) where I worked as a supervisor, and he said to me, "My son, collect the tattoos, the convicts' folklore, their anti-social drawings, or it will all go to the grave with them."
Needless to say, young Baldaev honored his father's request. Crisscrossing the Soviet Union's labor camps and prison colonies over the next 50 years, he collected more than 3,000 tattoos from male and female convicts of every stripe--including crime bosses, prostitutes, stooges, informants, and corpses. In Encyclopaedia, this fieldwork is presented through Baldaev's own sketches--crisp black-and-white renderings of images from hips, stomachs, arms, thighs, and the like. (All seem to have been collected at considerable personal risk given, as we shall see, their content.) The book also offers a series of vory prison portraits taken by the photographer Sergei Vasiliev from 1989 to '92--a sign, surely, of the greater political liberties of the late Soviet period. Collectively, writes Baldaev, now in his late 70s, these artifacts "'scoop up' some of the 'filth' from our slavish past...and record it 'in all its glory' for future generations."


And filth it most certainly is. Thumb through the pages and you'll find swastikas falling like snowflakes on shoulders, gang rapes of unfaithful "whores," and--with remarkable zeal--everywhere everywhere everywhere tattoos confirming that those crook-nosed and horned Jews are at it again. Then there are the scenes of bestiality (dog on woman), Slavs Gone Wild sodomy parties, as well as dozens of erotic images ranging from heterosexual encounters (with Georgians and Africans no less!) to lesbian strap-on couplings.

Female prisoners, I should add, often give as good as they get. In a tattoo called "the prick-eater," a topless woman smiles contentedly while holding a dismembered member on her fork. In her other hand, a glass is raised. Men's heads litter the ground.

More palatable are the political tattoos. It's said that firing squads wouldn't pull the trigger on prisoners bearing the images of their feared Soviet leaders. Perhaps, but Encyclopaedia makes clear that the thieves had their share of fun at the Politburo's expense. These so-called "grins at the authorities" are remarkably brazen for a population that sat a shorter second than most from a bullet in the back of the head.

None of the Soviet icons are immune from their scorn: Karl Marx, looking like an elvish bonobo, lays his erection down on a copy of Das Kapital; Boris Yeltsin pours himself a shot on the bald pate of the teetotaler Mikhail Gorbachev; and Leonid Brezhnev, ever expressionless in his ridiculously over-medallioned jacket, receives fellatio. This I take as deliberate humor. Not so with the cameo of a fang-bearing Joseph Stalin wreathed in skulls. Call it the curse of a Western education, but I can't help but think the mastermind of the Great Terror slightly resembled a Georgian Count Chocula.

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