A Review of Criminal Subculture in the Gulag: Prisoner Society in the Stalinist Labour Camps, 1924-536 min read

 In Culture, Review, Russia
Although much is known about life in the gulag via the memoirs of political prisoners such as Eugenia Ginzburg and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, there is little research on the experience of the 49ers. Not to be confused with the American understanding of that term, 49ers were recidivists or incarcerated adults who had a prior history with the criminal world outside of camps.

Mark Vincent highlights the routines and rituals of the 49ers with utmost respect in his latest work, Criminal Subculture in the Gulag: Prisoner Society in the Stalinist Labour Camps, 1924-53. His research highlights the wealth of alternative and traditional forms of knowledge that recidivists possess. He focuses on prison songs, pop culture depictions, criminal hierarchies, slang, tattoos, gambling, and informal courts – allocating a detailed chapter for each aspect of life in incarceration. 

Drawing from memoirs from previously uncited prisoner newspapers, survivor testimony, and ethnographic reflections – Vincent’s monograph paints a picture of an active community beyond stereotypes of illiteracy and innate human criminality. As a result, inmates are humanized and their language and rituals warrant further legitimization by scholars and society alike. In accessing this wealth of primary source information, his work also shatters notions of what voices are privileged in formal academic research. 

Criminal Subculture in the Gulag decolonizes every reader’s perception of what they think they know about incarceration. Vincent’s thoughtful book is a humbling, often harrowing, but necessary read that I recommend to anyone interested in cultures beyond their own.

Incarceration in the Soviet Union

From May 1923, Solovki was the Soviet Union’s most prominent camp for hard labor and prisoner re-education. Located in the Solovetsky archipelago, the camp was seized by the Red Army during the civil war and grew from around 3,000 prisoners to 65,000 between 1923 and 1930. From 1932 to 1933, the population grew to 108,000, correlating the party’s need to complete an infrastructure project linking the White and Baltic Seas during the Five Year Plan.

By the mid-1930s and the formal creation of the GULAG institution, the overall inmate population in Russia reached 1 million. Population surpassed 2 million during the 1937-1938 Great Terror. While the field of gulag studies in Soviet research is frequently reduced to merely an aspect of discipline and brutality under Stalin, Vincent stresses that previous scholarship “fails to encapsulate the complexities of the penal system and its place within the larger state apparatus.” His work provides the much-needed legwork for updated realizations about modern-day incarceration.

Etap: A rite 

With record-high incarceration rates in the mid-1930s, inmate transportation grew into an industry as well as a collective inauguration rite. Penal transportation in both bureaucratic language and in slang is known as etap

Etap was “notable for demonstrating that certain groups of prisoners manipulated the lack of surveillance from the authorities to gain hegemony over others” which was a preview of social conditions to come. Lack of communication from the people in charge, no windows or signage, cruel indirect routes, and unplanned stays at transit stations with inadequate clothing, coupled with the structural deficiencies of inmate overcrowding and lack of food made etap a hotbed for developing social relations, and constructing hierarchies which lasted the duration of incarceration. 

Within the journeys were symbols that persist in popular culture. Wagons were called stolypins, after the ruthless late imperial prime minister. Other symbols, such as barking dogs and armed guards shouting orders, were up to inmates to “make sense of the symbolic rituals that now marked them as being disenfranchised.” These symbols are seen in tattoos, slang, prison songs, and more, “laying down important symbolic markers and rules that would continue later in other types of more permanent institutions.”

Lastly, “most prisoners had little time to construct and sustain agency before their arrival in more permanent surroundings” and often used etap to create new carceral identities, as Vincent shows us with examples of females rebranding from political prisoner to that of a prostitute or thief, to ensure better treatment inside the camp. Self-branding is seen again in tattooing, which allows individuals to retain power over their own bodies and some anthropologists cite tattooing as evidence of the deep psychological trauma inflicted by late imperial punitive measures.

A focus on sexuality 

In discussing aspects of gulag life, Vincent refreshingly includes the differences that exist between the genders. His analysis dissects outdated depictions of female criminals – homosexuals or sexual deviants. Vincent highlights the notorious burglar Sonka “Golden Hand” through analysis of verifiable historical accounts combined with modern pop culture artistic reimaginings to show that the male point of view may not be the most accurate, and lament that we will never have a complete picture of Sonka. Chekov focused on her physical appearance, characterizing her as gaunt and aging. Doroshevich created a more alluring image, emphasizing her “coquettishly curled and dyed hair”. An Italian criminologist depicted her in masculine traits. 

Another difference between the genders in the gulag is that the female caste system was “traditionally constructed ‘informally’ along horizontal rather than vertical lines, with a length of sentence and multiple sentences remaining the main enhancers of status”. Though just like the men, some women were imprisoned for petty crimes like stealing bread. The wide range in seriousness of offenses is present in both inmate populations.

Similar to their male counterparts, females were subjected to patriarchal gender roles. At times, women were housed with men, forcing them to adapt to varied roles. Same-sex relations were crucial in enforcing hierarchies of power. Femininities were often constructed onto male bodies, a phenomenon still observed in contemporary slang, across all cultures. 

Research on modern Russian street gangs shows “‘aggressive hegemonic masculinity’” characterized by extreme sexism which is rooted in gulag relations, and observed in “microscopic practices that include sexist expressions in everyday discourse”. Vincent notes that violence performed in a group as well as the “masculinized expectation that [men] would participate without objection” reinforce these hierarchies. As a female reader, I found his analysis surprisingly humane and culturally relevant to the latest discourse in feminism.

The respect for inmate order is played out in punishment rituals, replicating a historically entrenched system of penalty with theatrical elements. Lynch-law style punishments followed gambling losses or violations in order. Samosud, or self-judging represents “a complex and consistent way of maintaining order and shared cultural values within the pre-revolutionary peasant commune… with a weak police presence but a strong, traditional peasant institutions… found in almost every province of the Empire and amongst most ethnic groups well into the twentieth century.” Inmates drew from what they knew to fill the official power vacuum that existed and research suggests that Russian society unspeakingly continues this practice today.

A subculture on its own

To say that I enjoyed this book is an understatement. With the growing popularity of prison television shows, Vincent’s research is radically honest. He writes like an ethnographer without the pretense and lets us into this fascinating underworld with a genuine appreciation for the rituals and cultural impact. Honestly, given the fact that he listened to heavy metal throughout the entire writing process strikes me as invigoratingly cool. Perhaps what interests me the most is the apparent “traditional hostility towards institutional structures” seen in how the recidivists live and how Vincent’s research embodies that principle with a reverential take.

Featured image: Review of Criminal Subculture in the Gulag
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