Skin Trade

Courtesy Russian Tattoo Encyclopedia
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?

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.

But by and large these are obvious interpretations, and ones Baldaev would surely find superficial at best. For in Russia's prisons, we are told, a tat is rarely just a tat.

Perhaps it's best to abandon your instincts. As we are told in an introductory essay by the Russian scholar Alexei Plutser-Sarno, copulation scenes--rather than signaling sexual triumph or desire--instead served as the ultimate punishment, a tarring act that deprived a thief of status and, presumably, security. Images of Orthodox churches similarly denoted not religious piety or longing but criminal prowess. And words carry their own hidden meanings. For instance, bog--Russian for God--was actually an acronym for budu opyat grabit--"I will steal again."

Then there are the individual drawings. Skulls, suits of spades, and eagle wings signified a thief with the experience to back it up; crosses referred to either the number of sentences or an unfulfilled vendetta; cats were synonymous with agility and luck; other feline symbols such as lions, panthers, and tigers indicated an authority figure; and so it went down the line.

Yet these markings brought with them serious responsibility. If asked, "Do you stand by your tattoos?" a prisoner had better damn well be prepared to say yes and mean it. (Unless, that is, he/she bore tattoos on a higher-up's behalf. Some prisoners served as mere human parchment, delivering living letters from one crime boss to another.) For above all else, the thieves' world was a caste system. And though the authorities thought these vermin beyond state "reform," their laws were strict and binding.

Even more intriguing are the thieves' talisman symbols. Found primarily on the hands and fingers, these small ink stamps revealed everything from childhood upbringing and sexual preferences to past convictions, prison status, and number of attempted escapes. In this presumably pocketless world, body art served as a wallet, passport, work permit, and business card rolled into one. (The ability to decipher this language, incidentally, has helped Baldaev carve out a small career as a "tattoo interpreter" for the post-Soviet police.)


To be sure, this is intricate stuff and, as we learn, the average prisoner wasn't running around with a needle humming songs from Tattoo You. Applying these labyrinthine designs were the kol'shchiki or "zone prickers." But Encyclopaedia offers few details about them or their methods other than to say these individuals were skilled, knowledgeable, and very highly prized.

Also left to guesswork is the complicity of the prison authorities in this beastly society. I can't speak for Baldaev, but in Solzhenitsyn's memorable phrasing, "the tattooed chests" were merely "the rear ends" of their keepers. The thieves thrived because--together with their guards and the outside authorities--they shared a common mission: keeping the innocents down and sharing in the spoils. The main difference being that some of the thieves could remove their uniforms at night and others could not.

Ultimately, Encyclopaedia is a book concerned with the growing influence of the thieves in today's society. The somewhat more recent photographs of the vory don't necessarily show men and women with glowing health and robust futures. These people are clearly not the inheritors of a glitzy new criminal underworld alive with limitless graft and annual BMW upgrades. The thieves we see here, sagging and hollowed out, are walking museum pieces--by turns bitter, haunted, and defeated.

You wonder if, perhaps, the cloistered and occult world of the thieves hasn't been somewhat left behind, their markings fated to be replaced by meaningless tattoos of Kharly Devidsons and the like. Yet it's clear that the basic tenets behind the thieves' culture--power and plunder--maintain a powerful hold. Baldaev and his contributors argue that the legacy and ethos of the criminal caste is ubiquitous in modern Russia--in its songs, films, novels, dress, and speech.

Another way to put it is that the Mafia has gone mainstream. Their stamp, far from fading, is everywhere.

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