By Mark Vincent
The rigid dichotomy of the ‘political prisoner’ vs. ‘common criminal’ continues to frustrate researchers of the Soviet camp system. Although accounts of late Imperial exile and hard labour have argued persuasively in favour of studying a wider range of carceral experiences, this dichotomy remains unchallenged in studies looking to reconstruct daily life in the Gulag.
Though an impressive achievement, the relatively recent volume edited by Michael David-Fox struggles to break down the reductive labels of ‘criminal’ and ‘political’ assigned to inmates. While—on a purely personal level—this volume proved incredibly helpful, as I was able find the activities of criminal gangs through terms such as urki (‘criminals’), vory (‘thieves’) or bandity (‘bandits’) in both survivor memoirs and archival documents, these inquiries raised the fairly obvious questions of who exactly constituted a ‘criminal’ in the Soviet Union in the first place, and what differences there might be within this broad category?
Looking for further ways of breaking down these labels and based on excellent advice by colleagues (special thanks to Miriam Dobson!), I began to look at prisoner newspapers from the 1920s The most prominent of these was the newspaper of the early Soviet ‘showpiece’ penal institution on the Solovetskii Archipelago in the White Sea – the inspiration behind Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous allegorical metaphor.
Beginning in 1923, and running until the spring of 1930, the most renowned publication from the camp, Solovetskii Island, reached an impressive circulation figure of around 3,000 copies and was available both via subscription or at kiosks in Moscow, Leningrad and Kharkov. Upon first glance, the all too familiar dichotomy of ‘criminal’ vs. ‘political’ prisoner looked to be even more pronounced here than in the Gulag memoirs that I consulted, particularly given that the vast majority of articles were written by prisoners hailing from the educated and cultural elite.
This was encapsulated perfectly in the title of the article “Frayera” i “Svoi” from the August 1925 edition of Solovetskii Island. In this sense, frayera is best understood as slang for an ‘outsider’ and svoi as ‘our own’, both implying a clear boundary of inclusion. These groups were consolidated further by the author of the article, a prisoner named ‘B. Borisov’ (pseudonyms were used by a number of authors ), who began the piece by depicting inmates from the 13th Work Company looking down from the walls of the Solovetskii Kremlin, dividing the mass of prisoners in the gardens below neatly in half.
Borisov clarified that these were the aforementioned two groups, with ‘outsiders’ representing anyone who could be stolen from (my emphasis), with ‘our own’ meaning those who earned their livelihood through stealing. Although, they stated, this divide could be clearly seen through physical appearance and mannerisms, the author also suggested that differences were not just external. As a self-ascribed ‘outsider’, Borisov explained how the opposing group viewed not just camp life but the entire world according to these rules, even lamenting that his group lacked the strict ideology and moral code that ‘our own’ lived by!
While this initial sketch subscribed to the conventional political vs. criminal paradigm with which we are familiar, Borisov later began to break down the category of ‘one’s own’ into a hierarchy which demonstrated a more diverse constellation of criminal identities. At the top of this pyramid, in Borisov’s words the ‘aristocracy’, were ‘swindlers’ (those who engaged in profit-making scams), followed by a ‘large bourgeois’ of safecrackers and counterfeiters. The remaining masses comprised of pickpockets, house burglars and thieves who stole from shops or market stalls with the aid of their accomplices.
According to Borisov, the ‘have-nots, pariahs and shpana (habitual prisoners)’ who formed the bottom layer were driven by their ‘petit-bourgeois morality’. Interestingly, but not surprisingly given that it had to pass through secret police censors, the article had absorbed the language of the New Economic Policy which looked to crackdown on old, capitalist ways of life. Although Borisov stated that criminal hierarches were full of ‘hypocritical traditions’, they stated that more professional crimes such as ‘safe-cracking’ could not be compared to situational offenses, such as the wild, ‘feral’ activities which took place in Khitrovka – a famous Moscow district afflicted by its association with alcohol, drugs and prostitution, and which came to be used as ‘shorthand’ for these activities..
This analysis not only reflects discussions in contemporary criminology regarding the ‘hierarchy of crime’ where some activities have traditionally carried more esteem than others, but shows how the pejorative label Khitrovka could be prefixed to criminals, regardless of whether or not they actually hailed from that location. Further interesting avenues this leads to could be to explore the interplay between incarceration and areas designated as ‘criminal spaces’ outside of penality; for instance the Odessan suburb of Moldvanka which appeared regularly in prisoner songs from the same period.
With criminals being designated a ‘Khitrovka pickpocket’ or ‘Khitrovka prostitute’ it also opens the possibility of looking at the differences between how male and female prisoners were discussed in the publication. Although, as suggested, the problems of using the camp newspapers are manifold, the information they have provided goes far beyond the survivor memoirs from the Solovetskii camp, helping to break down this reductive binary. This, in itself, would seem like a worthwhile endeavour in looking to construct a more detailed and nuanced picture of prisoner society during the early years of the Soviet regime.
Based on themes from Dr Mark Vincent’s upcoming monograph, Criminal Subculture in the Gulag: Prisoner Society in the Stalinist Labour Camps (I. B. Tauris, 2019). Link to the Amazon pre-order: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Criminal-Subculture-Gulag-Prisoner-Stalinist/dp/1788311892. Find Mark on Twitter at @VincentCriminal, or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
See, in particular: Sarah Badcock, A Prison Without Walls? Eastern Siberian Exile in the Last Years of Tsarism (Oxford, 2016); Sarah Young, ‘Knowing Russia’s Convicts: The Other in Narratives of Imprisonment and Exile of the Late Imperial Era’, Europe-Asia, 65:9 (2013). Link: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09668136.2013.844509
 Michael David-Fox (ed.), The Soviet Gulag: Evidence, Interpretation and Comparison (Pittsburgh, 2015).
 Gullotta, Andrea, ‘The ‘Cultural Village’ of the Solovki Camp: A Case of Alternative Culture’, Studies in Slavic Cultures, XI (2010), p.12.
 Borisov, B, ‘‘Frayera’ i ‘Svoi’’, Solovetskie Ostrova, No.8, August 1925, pp.80-82.
 Definitions of criminal activities checked against: Vitaly von Lange, Prestupnyy Mir Rossii: Moi Vospominaniya ob Odesse i Khar’kove (Odessa, 1906).
 See similar comments regarding prostitution in: Kowalsky, Sharon, Deviant Women: Female Crime and Criminology in Revolutionary Russia 1880-1930 (Dekalb: Northern Illinois Press, 2009).
 Crewe, Ben, The Prisoner Society: Power, Adaptation and Social Life in an English Prison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).