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1. Commonly acknowledged high status and personal significance. In the Russian language this word is used in the meaning close to English word "influence" and is opposite in meaning to "power" and does not complete it. Power exists in the sphere of formal structures manipulating people through the system of status, prestige, positions and other sanctions.. One obeys authority at his own free will, often forgoing his own benefits and interests. 2. Representative of the highest group in the prison informal hierarchy (see also "blatnoy", "thieves in law"). In prison slang (unlike common Russian language) this word is used in plural form.

Informal order operating in prison community authoritarian. That is why real situation in the shadow life of ITUs, SIZOs or their subdivisions (a cell, PKT, ShiZO etc.) is determined by the personal qualities of "authorities" in power and connections of a given institution with powerful "authorities" on the outside and in other ITUs as well as tactics local operative workers keep to. See also "right ideas", "prison law", "blatnyie" and "thieves".



is a real power in an PKT struggling with an official power, i.e. an PKT administration. In addition to their power, they also have some privileges: the right not to work; the right to take from the "obschak" (common prisoners' fond) whatever they want. But the blatnyie have their duties, too. A good blatnoi has to see that the community is kept "warming itself". That means to illegally obtain food, tea, tobacco, vodka, drugs and clothes. He has also to settle the conflicts between other convicts and actually prevent any violence between them; to see that no one would be unjustly punished, insulted or cheated out of his rightful share. All this does not mean that the right order in the PKT is more important for a blatnoi than his personal benefits. Fairly often, all his care for the community is only an excuse to press on it and grab everything for himself. Still, there are also quite a number of the colonies where the blatnoi spends all his time locked up in a punishment isolation cell, and gets only bread and water to eat, suffering for the community to live peacefully and not go hungry.

Since the 1960s, blatnyie caste has played an absolutely different role than it did in the 1930s1950s. During that period blatnyie kept separately from the rest of prisoners and lived according to their own laws regarding other prisoners as an alien part living under another rules. By the late 1950s, the blatnyie actually lost their power in the GULAG; early in the 1960s the remaining of them were separated from ordinary prisoners. Later, a new generation of the blatnyie appeared; they are informal leaders among prisoners, represent their interests and are organic members of prison community.

There are grounds to suppose that another one transformation is now taking place in prison subculture; as a result, a new group of informal leaders may appear. Anyhow, this subject needs a serious study.

The blatnyie have their own hierarchy from top down: "thieves in law", "svojaki" (brothers in law), "authoritative blatnyie", "patzany" (boys), "priblatnionnyie" and "fighters".


Common cell

Common cell is a cell designed for 2530 inmates. Its floor space is usually 6070 sq.m. There are one toilet (sometimes, a removable sewage basket), one sink, a table with benches for 1214 people, one or two shelves for dishes and utensils, a built-in cabinet for food and several hooks for clothes in it. From inside the window is screened with several bars and from the outside with a "muzzle" (a hanging cornice) or "lashes" (a row of slanting iron strips). These devices are designed to prevent any communication (messages or small objects) between cells. This post-Stalin period invention, which was not stipulated in any legislation, during forty years of its existence could not close the "roads" (this is how prisoners call extensive communication system between cells and the outside) in any Soviet SIZO, but soon after this innovation had been introduced the TB incidence began its victorious march across the prisons. It is not surprising, because "muzzles" and "lashes"( don't let fresh air or day light in. Only a small electric bulb gives dim light day and night. The cell door has a peep-hole and a flap through which food, parcels, news from the free world, usually newspapers and official papers, are passed.

Along the walls there are two-tire bunk beds made of iron pipes and strips of 1.8 by 0.5 meters, which replaced a plank bed. It happened in 1960s after Soviet prisoners had been given the right for an individual sleeping place. Approximately since that time there were always less sleeping places than inmates. Bunk beds are a good example, in prisoners' opinion, that any prison innovation changes things to worse: the plank bed had more sleeping space than bunk beds.

Food. At first it seems that it is better to die from hunger than to touch prison food, so repulsive it is. In some prisons it is a little better, but in any case it is not nutritious. If a prisoner does not receive food parcels from his family and had to eat prison food, in a short time hair begin to fall out, skin bursts and festers. And there are no even the most necessary medicines in prisons. It is almost impossible to breath, especially when it is hot. The stench in the cell turns one's stomach. The cells are infested with bugs, cockroaches, mice etc. It is a problem to wash oneself or clothes, or to use a toilet, because according to prison rules it is prohibited to screen anything in the cell, even a toilet.

But all these physical sufferings seem unimportant in comparison with a blind wall separating a prisoner from his former life, usual things, families, friends, the sun, the sky. This situation is unbearable. The first words in my secret prison diary were: "Prison has no time, no memory, prison is a grave... Death is more natural: beyond the threshold of life in your imagination there is either nothing or freedom..."

I should stop here and remind that I speak about prison, where living conditions and limitations are fixed or strictly fixed by the law. All these are not even considered a punishment. Arrest is only a measure of restraint for the suspects or accused, that is people whose guilt has not been proved yet. The time spent in SIZO or IVS will be taken into account later, if one receives a custodial sentence.

Now let's get back to the common cell. How many people can there be? Beside an individual sleeping place a SIZO prisoner is to be allocated 2.5 sq. m. of the living space. The capacity of the common cell should be defined by dividing the total space of the cell by 2.5 (excluding, at least, the space occupied by a toilet and a sink). In this case, we would have 2327 inmates per cell. But usually the number of places is equal to the number of bunk beds; in the common cell there are 3538 of them (for example, in Butyrka or Matrosskaya Tishina prisons). Without the space occupied by bunk beds, the table, etc. the free space of the common cell is 2535 sq. m. But some part of the cell space is occupied by prisoners' sacks, bags etc. In 1995 and 1996, vacant space, free from furniture and personal things reaches down to 0.10.2 sq. m. per inmate.



is another caste including open collaborators with the prison administration in informal prison hierarchy. This group appeared among prisoners in the 1960s. Unlike "activists" of 1930s50s, "goat" is a permanent status accompanying a prisoners during whole time spent in places of detention.

The caste of "goats", probably, appeared as a response of prison subculture to the Soviet penitentiary policy in the early 1960s.

Becoming a member of "prisoners' amateur organizations" or agreement to take a certain position or do work which considered disgraceful according to "right ideas" can be a formal act including a prisoners in the caste of "goats". All these are necessary conditions for receiving a number of privileges from prison administration, a possibility to occupy "profitable" positions, to enter a category of inmates "firmly pursuing the self-correction way" which means to become a candidate to be released ahead of time or to be pardoned.

For the majority of prisoners "goats" are traitors of the prison community interests, collaborators.

The word "goat" is one of the most serious insults for a prisoner who does not belong to that group. A prisoner called with this word must respond quickly and harsh (to strike an offender and maybe even with a knife) otherwise he risks his reputation and can be transferred to a lower caste. The word "goat" and its derivatives are a taboo and are prohibited to use in everyday speech.

For example, a dominoes game, which is called "goat" on the outside, has the name "one hundred and one"; to tell a prisoners that his sweater is knitted of goat wool means to insult him.

In 1930s50s, passive homosexuals were called "goats" in colonies.

Prisoners belonging to the caste of "goats" prefer to call themselves: an activist, red, an "independent man", "positive". In a calm situation, other prisoners also use these words in their presence.


"Lowered down"

the lowest caste in the prison hierarchy, the caste of the "untouchable". One can take nothing from the "lowered down", touch him, sit on his bed etc. The "lowered down" have separate places in barracks, in a prison cell, in a canteen, their use marked dishes and utensils. They do the dirties work which other prisoners should not do. They have special identification signs and must announce their status to the fellowship when they arrive in a new place so that other inmates will not lose their status coming in contact with them. It is no sense in concealing it: sooner or later his past as a "lowered down" becomes public and then the revealed are punished, beaten, often killed. He is considered to have defiled everybody who treated him as equal. The "lowered down" is a status for the rest of life.

Among the "lowered down", there are not so many, in contradiction with the wide spread opinion, passive homosexuals. According to some estimates, there are no more than 20% of them, though a person who was a passive homosexual on the outside and could not conceal that becomes a "lowered down". The main reasons for getting into the outcast, as a rule, are rough infringements of the prison law: reporting to administration; stealing from the community members; arbitrariness toward other prisoners; non-paying a card debt. "Pressmakers", "goats", those who committed disgraceful (from the point of view of "right ideas") crimes such as rape of children, brutal rape of women, violent non-motivated murder, sexual abuse of children; former MVD officers, internal troops soldiers who turned out to be in a common cell are usually "lowered down". An inmate, realizing how serious was an infringement he committed, sometimes prefer to enter the "lowered down" caste on his own free will, say, to bring his possessions into the corner of the barrack where the "lowered down" live. In this case, as a rule, he is not subjected to any ritual procedures or rape.

It should be pointed out that in juvenile and general regime institutions, attitude of the prison community to the "lowered down" is much more ritual and symbolic rather than meaningful. The very characteristic features of the "lowered down" caste acquire a special, mystic meaning, separate from the objects they define. For example, a person who committed no violations of the prison law, but was raped in a press-cell or accidentally contacted a "lowered down", gets into the caste of the untouchable.

This is not regarded as a punishment, but as an accident which makes one "disabled" for the rest of his life. Transference to the caste of "lowered down" is often made with rituals reminding of customs of background tribes.

The "lowered down" appeared in the convicts' community in the 1960s, probably, as a response of prison subculture to a new governmental penitentiary policy. A struggle to preserve personal dignity, when prison administration used the most cruel means of putting pressure on prisoners to force them commit something immoral from the point of view traditional culture, resulted in inventing an informal sanction used for traitors; this is a kind of ostracism, a moral exclusion from the community when real exclusion is not possible. It is also possible that inmates who became members of "prisoners' amateur organizations" being set up during that period were the first to be punished with rape. I would like to remind that in 1940s50s, the present name of the collaborators' caste  "goats"  referred to passive homosexuals.

By the way, keepers of prison law and traditions assert that a punishment in the form of transferring a prisoner to the "lowered down" caste, in accordance with "right ideas", is considered impermissible. They believe that the caste of "lowered down" was invented by "menty" (prison staff) and with its help introduced pressmakers and informers in the prison world. It should be noted that ITUs' administration gladly use the institution of the "lowered down" to break disobedient prisoners. One of the most frightening threats for a negatively minded inmate is to be raped in a press-cell. After the rape, the raped man could be suggested a gentleman deal: if he agrees to become an agent or to sign a paper where he withhold from the thieves' law, nobody will know about . Investigators also use this threat. We should add that the majority of the "lowered down" come from juvenile institutions, general regime colonies and press-cells. Recidivists use this sanction very seldom, it is sooner considered an exception (a violation of the prison law) than a rule.

Recidivists in ITUs do not treat the "lowered down" as cruel as prisoners in juvenile and general regime institutions do, though some norms regarded as taboos remains.

The "lowered down" caste also has its own hierarchy resembling the general prison hierarchy. There are also informal leaders there (chief "cocks", "mamas" and "papas") and ordinary "lowered downs" and "cocks" who are humiliated by others (they can be sold as a sexual object, forced to slave for somebody, raped, tortured). Former blatnyie who were "lowered down", say, for not paying a cards debt or reporting to administration as well as those raped or "lowered down" in some other way most often become leaders in this caste.



1) A general name of the biggest group in the informal prison hierarchy. They differ from the blatnyie because they work, occupying no responsible positions, in accordance with the prison law and differ from "goats" because do not collaborate with administration. They seek no power; they are not servant to anyone. They do not interfere in the blatnyie affairs, only in case of the blatnyie arbitrariness. An opinion of authoritative "men" are valued by all the other groups of prisoners. The majority of "men" keep to the "right ideas". 2) A common name for all prisoners except the "lowered down".



(resisters) are prisoners who, from the point of view of administration, impede their work and influence negatively other prisoners. ITU workers and MVD researchers divide prisoners into three groups: positive (those who help them), neutral (those who do not interfere with them) and negative. Beside "blatnyie", all prisoners who are not in favor of the prison administration get in this group (for example, those who complain about the administration, refuse to do extra work for prison officers, etc.).



(support) is the second in status informal leader in a cell, he could be a "blatnoy". In press-cell, podderzshka is an assistant of the main pressmaker



the pressure on a prisoner, to break his spirit and get him under total control.



a cell that can be found in IVSs, SIZOs, prisons, PKTs, and ShiZOs. In such cells prisoners selected by the administration beat, torture and rape prisoners to obtain some information from them or to make them do whatever the administration needs. For example, to obtain confessions necessary for an investigator, to find out where the money of the informal prisoners fond ("obschak") are kept, to make an inmate to sign a paper where he withhold from the prison law. Press-cells still exist.



is the prisoner who has agreed, by the order of the officer or investigator to play the role of butcher and torturer of other prisoners in the press-cell.



is a prison where many cells are used to put pressure on prisoners. See White Swan.


Prison law

a body of informal norms and rules operating in prison community. It was based on the "thieves' law" in the 1960s when the "thieves" and the "blatnyie" were kept separately. Unlike the "thieves' law", the prison law covers all prisoners. It defines norms, prohibitions and taboos for each group of prisoners, regulates relationships between them, has mechanisms of solving conflicts between inmates. According to the prison law, authoritative prisoners should resolve all conflicts. This function is usually carried out by the blatnyie (this is one more proof that the caste of "men" did not appeared spontaneously, but followed the pattern of the blatnyie who had their own law and order).

In recent years, the prison law is gradually ousted by new rules based on corruption, integrity of the criminal world with prison administration and power of money. In our opinion, this tendency may result in growth of the organized crime, increase in violent crimes, deterioration of prison conditions and destabilizing of ITUs functioning and, to some extent, destabilizing life of the society.


"Right ideas"

a system of informal norms and rules operating in such informal groups of prisoners as the "men" and the "blatnyie". They are an ethical imperative and a means of resisting prison administration at the same time. They are close to norms, values and precepts of traditional culture that is why they are supported, shared and recognized by the majority of prisoners. For example, they condemn reporting; declare prevalence of common interests over personal, proclaim brotherhood between prisoners, help to those who turned out in harsh conditions, justice; protects a prisoner from arbitrariness (from the point of view of the prison law) prohibiting to take anything without "legal" grounds; prohibits to accuse or just insult a person without proofs of his offense; requires to be careful and restraint in one's words. Wide spreading of "right ideas" and "prison law" and their support by the main part of prisoners can be also explained by the fact that the official law requires from inmates immoral ( from the point of view of traditional culture) deeds such as reporting, betrayal, hypocrisy, gaining personal profits at the expense of the whole prison community or the most part of its members, etc.).


Sherst, sherstyanyie

1) prisoners pretending to be "authorities" or "blatnyie", but who, in fact, commit arbitrariness acting in their own interests or at the orders of administration; 2) "blatnyie" committing arbitrariness.



if there is no real thief in the colony, the thieves's world tries to send there a monitor ("smotryaschi) who is their representative and will watch an observance of the "thieves' law" and orders. In this case, "smotryaschi" is provided with a "mandate" i.e. a massage with corresponding orders which he presents to authoritative "blatnyie" in this colony. If the colony is a "red zone" i.e. regulated by "sherstyanyie" (see below), the "smotryaschi" have select "right" prisoners as his assistants and seize power in the ITU. "Smotryaschi" can be appointed by a thief leaving for the outside or another colony.


Thieves in law

professional criminals, the elite of the criminal world, its leaders. The thieves are on top of the informal prison hierarchy. In some aspects (by the standards, ways of settling conflicts, rituals that are admitted in this community), the thieves' community resembles the Sicilian mafia. But there is a considerable difference, too. The thieves demonstrate their asocial conduct, i.e. they do not work, do not get married, had bright external attributes, had to serve more than one term in prison, etc.), the corporation was always international, the most important decisions were not made individually but at the thieves' gathering. Any contacts with law enforcement officers were prohibited. In the 1940s and the 1950s the number of thieves was at least 10,000 (perhaps, more) or, including criminals of the lower category (so-called "blatnyie"), between 40,000 and 50,000. By the end of the 1950s  the beginning of the 1960s, the corporation almost disappeared. But, unexpectedly, it was revived in the early 1980s, as the number of thieves in law totaled 500 to 600. However, the present laws and standards have been changed. Many bans of the above were eliminated. In particular, that of contacts with officers. Besides, clans and groups have formed according to ethnic communities (for example, the Chitin group). Yet, the Russian criminal world, that penetrates into the West more successfully than civilized businessmen do, is still unknown and unclear to the people in the West.

Thieves' law is a body of unwritten rules obligatory for "thieves". From the 1920s to 1950s, thieves' law with its "right ideas" did not concern all prisoners remaining an exclusively corporate means of organizing life. According to the thieves' law, the world was divided into "us" and "others". "Others" had only one value: "us" could live and survive at their expense.

Since the early 1960s, the thieves' law, gradually changing, began to spread over the whole mass of prisoners. Hence, one should not transfer his notions about blatnyie and thieves formed by the literature of the 1930s-1950s (V.Shalamov, A.Solzshenitsin) on later time.



is a "blatnoy" who is informal leader in a section or a barrack, or who is appointed to this position by a "skhodnyak" (a meeting of all the thieves doing time in that colony). As a rule, he occupies an honorable lower place in the corner of the sleeping block in the barrack.

In some institutions the administration screens the windows with iron perforated sheets or block them with glass bricks.

Until August of 1995 prisoners in SIZOs and IVSs could received letter from their families and visits with the permission of the investigator in charge of the case. Investigators used this order to put pressure on the defendants in order to obtain a confession. About the order of receiving correspondence and visits under a new Federal Law refer to...


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