The Fall of the Traditional Thief

With Nikita Khrushchev coming to power after the death of Stalin in 1953, the days of the traditional thief, also known as the Vory neared the end of their power reign. The Vory are a group of professional thieves(thief in law) mostly located in the Gulag system. They are known for their complex tattoos, their own language(Fenia), their loyalty to the code of thieves, harsh punishments and abuse , and pain tolerance. For instance, “It was customary that if a thief lost all his money playing cards and wanted to carry on playing, he would bet fingers or other limbs, mutilating himself during the game and then playing on”(1). One of the principle rules for the Vory is to not work with authorities in any manor. One could be kicked out of the brotherhood for even accepting a tea packet from a prison guard. The Vory opposition to authority and dedication to thievery meant that they were only allowed to live off of their criminal earnings. Therefore, Vory would refuse to participate in gulag labor.

‘Plugging the throat’ – a common punishment for any camp inmates deemed to have insulted one of the Vory – image from Danzig Baldaev(1)

The irony about the Vory is that while they were in decline due to the Bitch Wars and political reforms, the popularity of them continued to rise in the USSR. The decline of the Vory began during WWII. Criminals in the Gulag system were offered their freedom if they served for the Red Army in WWII. Many criminals served, but were then sent back to the gulags after the war ended. This service is considered working with authorities and is against the Vory code, which resulted in a division between the Vory and the criminals who served. The criminals who served were from then on known as Suki, with a literal translation being Bitch. The Vory began their decline during the Bitch wars, which were power struggles within the gulag systems. The Suki often out powered the Vory due to their higher numbers and their cooperation with prison guards, who were known to help out the Suki in various ways. Their downfall can further be seen during the leadership of Khrushchev. Under Khrushchev, anti-criminal policies were implemented that created harsh punishments for the associated with the criminal underworld. To add to this, “after Stalin’s death in 1953 over four million prisoners were released within the first five years, and by 1960, the Gulag had been reduced to a fifth of its former size”(1). This effectively tore through the Vory’s power hold. Many of the Suki were also released into the public and became successful due to their relationship with authorities. The Suki adapted and changed the code of criminals to benefit themselves. This new more successful way of criminal enterprise meant that more and more people would join the Suki rather then stay with the Vory, resulting in the downfall of the Vory.

Video 1- Vory Documentary, English Subtitles, 1:30hr(5). Video 2- Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia(6)


The criminal culture soon released into the public, resulting in movies, songs, literature, and styles. “The prison experience seeped its way into popular culture through songs and an argot called blatnoi slang, which gave rebels a language of resistance that would guide them through the coming decades”(2).




Works Cited.







A Bittersweet Homecoming

After the victory of the Great Patriotic War, the Red Army returned with nearly 11 million men. Of these 11 million, nearly 8.5 million will be demobilized after the war and left with a severance package of 1-5 months of pay, depending on years of service. Stalin and the rest of the government had to incorporate this powerful group into the rest of society, who also expected more from the government after the war. The government made it seem like the every soldier could reintegrate and become part of the rising middle class. For instance, they helped push multiple veteran success stories from around the country. They made it seem like every veteran could buy into the Big Deal and the rising quality of life for the middle class. One of these stories that the government helped to promote was Aleksandr Stopler: Story of a Real Man(1948). This story that was first a novel and then radio program is about a general who lost his leg and his journey back to being a productive part of society.

Preview above(2). Full movie in Russian here.


While there were numerous success stories of veteran reintegration back into society and strong messages from the government bout the ease of transition, the average veteran had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life. They came back to a weakened economy with a weakened infrastructure as a result of the war and its destruction. Due to this, there was a housing shortage and a job shortage. In many regions unemployment reached fifty percent, veterans had nowhere to live. They moved into zemlianki, huts dug into the earth, which were also common on the war fronts”(1).

Zemlianki (4)

Wounded veterans had an even worse time returning to society. They experienced a lack of care and medical treatment upon returning home, and there was a shortage of prosthetic limbs to make matters worse. Wounded veterans had it hardest when it came to the economy. With the little jobs that were available, the wounded veterans would often lose out to the healthy veterans. On the bright side however, women greatly outnumbered men in the Soviet Union. So, healthy soldiers returning from duty often took advantage of this and could easily start a family if they choose to do so.



Works Cited:




4.   [If you can read Russian you can learn all about zemliankis and their construction here]

Tanks and Tractors

In the late 1930’s, the Soviet Union had an intense focus on military preparedness as well as loyalty. The Red Army went through a series of purges due to Stalin’s perceived lack of loyalty. His purges were especially focused on higher ranking leaders of the army. The military preparedness came from recent conflicts with Manchuria, Japan, Eastern European States, and their anticipation of conflict with Germany. The USSR preached military preparedness through various propaganda campaigns. A main point in much of their propaganda was how prepared they have made their citizens for transferring between average life and life as a solider. They put a focus on how they incorporated everyday technology into the military. For instance, the Soviet Union introduced tractor technology on collectivized farms that were similar to their tank technology. This allowed tractor drivers to easily transition to tank drivers for the army.

Dmitrii Moor: Tractors (1934) (1)

The above picture shows the death of farming by plow and the emergence of the tractor. This tractor also happens to resemble a tank, which implies that the technologies of the tank and tractor at that time period were nearly interchangeable.

The military preparedness of the Soviet Union, especially in reference to tractors and tanks was exemplified in the 1939 movie directed by Ivan Pyriev, Tractor Drivers. This popular movie was the story of three tank men who would return home from their victory in Manchuria to continue to live their life on collectivized farms as tractor drivers(1). This movie was an important cultural piece of its time as it sent various messages to the public. First of all, it was supported by Stalin and served as military propaganda to show preparedness as well as success. It gave the impression that the Soviets were ready for war and could defend themselves to the East and the West. “This movie also showed the amicable union of peoples in the healthy Soviet organism since the characters were a Georgian, a Ukrainian, and a Russian(1).”

Opening credits Ivan Priev: Tractor Drivers(1939)(2).

Works Cited.

1. Tractor Drivers. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History.



The Soviet Drink of Choice

When one thinks of things of a cultural cornerstone for the Soviet Union, something that always comes to mind when one hears about the USSR, vodka is one of the first images to pop into mind. However, the Soviets experienced fancier times when it came to their high levels of alcohol consumption. The Mid 1930’s, up until the war was an easier time for many of the people in the Soviet Union. The First Five Year Plan, for all intensive purposes was an eventual successful. Millions of people died the as a result of the plan, but eventually the Soviet Union level stabilized and even saw periods of relative prosperity. The second five year plan concentrated on consumer goods and making the average person happier. This was especially true when it came to the food industry. Markets throughout the USSR had still had requirements on what they must carry, but these markets carried a much wider variety of food than what was seen in earlier parts on the century. Advertisements for a variety of consumer goods and new Soviet foods began to expand as well; a variety of advertisements can be seen here.

Soviet Confectionery/Grocery Store(1)

Among these fine items in during food surpluses across the Soviet Union was Soviet Champagne. The drink became a staple of diet and culture in the mid-thirties after the brilliant discovery of mass champagne production. “Anton Mikhailovich Frolov-Bagreev, an aristocrat and chemist was able to change the fermentation process from occurring in bottles to occurring in large reservoirs. This upped production from around 300,000 bottles in 1934 to around 12,000,000 bottles in 1942. It became so popular and accessible that it was sold on tap in local food stores”(1). The quantity of Soviet champagne during this era impressive, but it was also said that the quality of the champagne was to that of France. A majority of the Champagne produced during this period came from the Northeast Coast of the Black Sea across from Crimea.

Soviet Caviar advertisement(3)

As well as having a taste for champagne, Soviets also indulged on incredible amounts of caviar and oyster. We can thank the Soviets for the rarity, price, and exclusivity of caviar and a large destruction of oysters in the region. Back then caviar was eaten very frequently; many had it every day. Even the poorest of Soviets spread it on their bread like jam. This rapid consumption of fish eggs (sturgeon) along with their consumption in other ways helped to severely reduce their population since they are a fish that live long(100 yrs.) and reproduce slowly. This realization was not made until decades later, which results in caviar being so expensive currently; up to $250/oz. on the legal market.
Many people consider food to be an extremely important part of culture of a country. When a country has a food culture full of fine foods, the people and that country experience a greater amount of prosperity, success, and stability. This is especially true when this cultural change occurs a few years after millions of people died of starvation. For Soviets, the change from bread rationing to cheap champagne and caviar in their local stores was a widely supported change that improved their happiness, their way of life, their support of Stalin, and the rise of the Soviet Union.


Caviar Tins(2)




1. Geldern, Von James. Soviet Champagne. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. <>.

2. Caviar Tins. <>

3. Soviet Advertising, 1930-1950. Dieselpunk.

Shock Workers

In 1928, Joseph Stalin decided to implement the first five year plan throughout the Soviet Union. This was intended to boost the economy through heavy industrialization and collectivization. Collectivization was intended to boost the food and crop output, but it also was meant to free up peasants so that they could become industrial workers. During the five year plan, the industrial workforce rose from 3.12 million in 1928 to 6.01 million by the end of 1932(1). While the workforce size increased, the efforts of the workers did not. In a socialist system, there is no incentive to to work hard or efficiently. This is one of the reasons that the Soviet Union did not reach their desired industrial output by the end of the first five year plan. To combat the problem of workers not working, the Soviet Union introduced a new type of worker, called shock workers.

Soviet Shock Worker Propaganda(2)

“Shock workers(udarniki) was a term used to designate workers performing especially arduous or urgent tasks, reemerged and was applied to all workers and employees who fulfilled obligations over and above their planned quotas(2).” The incentives in becoming a shock worker included an official title, a badge, extra money, a certificate, privileged dining, and occasionally vacation vouchers and scarce goods.

Shock worker badge(2)

“Official statistics indicate that by the end of 1929, 29 percent of all workers in industry were participating; a year later, the proportion was 65 percent(2).” Being a shock worker soon became part or the working class culture, as did shock worker competitions. “Many competitions occurred mainly on paper or were used by enterprise authorities to get around legal prohibitions against mandatory overtime(2).” The use of shock workers would continue on and off throughout the time of the Soviet Union, especially during economic plans and wartime. It may be argued that the need and the huge success of shock workers proved that socialism was a failed system since it needed capitalistic characteristics to be efficient.

[Komsomol shock workers (25,000ers) volunteer to help build factory in the Moscow Region coal mining district, and help organize collective farms(2)]


Works Cited

1. Hansen, Stephen (1997). Time and Revolution: Marxism and the Design of Soviet Institutions. University Of North Carolina Press. p. 95

2. Shock Workers. Seventeen Moments.

Controlling Through Cinema

Backed by Lenin as, “the most important of all the arts for us” and campaigned for by Trotsky as “the weapon excelling any other”, cinema roared into the minds of the Bolsheviks and the eyes of the masses(1,2). The Bolsheviks believed that this new and revolutionary form of culture would be able to shape the masses and usher in a new era for Russia. Cinema went well with the Bolsheviks considering how new of a technology it was and how the Bolsheviks had a repeated emphasis on the future and future technologies. The Bolsheviks favored cinema as the new way of sending out their message due to the ease of distribution and the fact the that cinema can be widely understood, even by the uneducated. Cinema connected with audiences in Russia because much of the cinema was relatable and accessible. For instance, Trotsky stated that, “The passion for the cinema is rooted in the desire for distraction, the desire to see something new and improbable, to laugh and to cry, not at your own, but at other people’s misfortunes”(1). Cinema worked for the Bolsheviks because it allowed for an easily understandable medium to push propaganda. This meant that their messages within the cinema became ingrained in culture and he memories of the masses, and as an added bonus, they gained money out of the whole process.


However, early on in the Bolsheviks’ discovery of cinema, a few problems had to be worked out. The first of those problems included a lack of support from people in the movie industry. Mostly everyone involved in the production of cinema was anti-bolshevik and left the scene when the Bolsheviks came into power, thus creating a gap in people who could create successful cinema. The second large problem was the west. After the Russian civil war, western movies came rushing into Russia, with American movies becoming the most popular due the the high levels of excitement.(2) The third problem during the initial stages of cinema for the Soviets was the funding. There was often little money to make movies at all.  The Bolsheviks lacked money for equipment and money for the people involved in the cinema. They also lacked money for film schools. This compounded on itself since a lack of funding for schools meant that there was a lack of creativity and knowledge on how to create successful cinema and therefore a lack of meaningful, intriguing, or effective cinemas.

The hardships of Soviet cinema soon came to and end with the director Sergei Eisenstein and his movies Strike and Battleship Potemkin, and Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Baghdad. These movies became incredibly successful and popular throughout Russia. They marked the beginning of an era where cinema was the effective mode of Soviet propaganda as well as a popular and critical part of culture for the masses.



Works Cited:




The Revolutionary Train of Culture

With the Revolution of 1917, the culture of Russia began a transformation towards a theme of communism thanks to the victory of the Bolsheviks. With the rise of communism came a rise in the power of the state and their ability to control various aspects of life, including culture. One might believe that under a prospectively communist regime culture would be viewed as a source of rebellion and opposition, and therefore need to be eradicated. This however, was not the case,  and the Bolsheviks soon began the transformation of culture in Russia during this time period. It was changed from something that was by the people and for the people to something that was by the state for the people. The Bolsheviks began to transform culture into something that was used to help further their cause. The official name for this was agitprop; a way for the communists to spread their ideals through culture.  These various methods included movies, posters, newspapers, plays, and even a traveling propaganda train.

Soviet Agitprop(2)

The Sevpechat train was a was a Bolshevik agitprop train. It was “Armed with public speakers, writers, stores of books and pamphlets, even printing presses”(1). These trains traveled across the country to remote locations including Siberia in order to spread the Bolshevik agenda.These trains resembled old carnival trains in that they were covered in paintings and decorations in order to attract people to their cause. One they came to a village around the railroad tracks they would stop and hand out various forms of information and then talk about their cause. “During its trip the train circulated books, papers, and pamphlets worth more than a half-million rubles, distributed free more than 150,000 proclamations and leaflets, posted more than 15,000 posters, and supplied 556 organizations with various publications. About 90,000 workers, peasants, and soldiers from the Red Army attended the lectures, meetings, and conferences; about sixty lectures were organized on all sorts of burning questions”(1). The Sevpechat train was widely successful, bringing the communist ideas towards the country side and thus beginning a cultural change that would last almost the rest of the century.


Sevpechat Train(3)

The Bolsheviks believed that everyone in Russia should know about and support the communist cause, not just people in the cities. This was especially important because the poor peasant from the countryside had a tendency to support the communist ideals.  This propaganda train was one of their main methods for garnering support of the masses. However the Bolsheviks were also working on other creative methods to spread their cause to the masses. For instance, a newspaper during the time stated, “At the present time[1920], five more trains of this kind are being organized, also boats for a similar purpose on the Volga and its tributaries, and motor trucks which will make it possible to reach places where neither railroads nor waterways are available”(1).

Sevpechat Train(4)


Works Cited:

1.  A Soviet Report on Agitprop Trains(1920).




Vasily Perov: A Wanderer

Vasily Perov was a painter of the Peredvizhniki movement in Russian during the 1860’s. By being one of the founders of this artistic movement, Perov had a large impact on the Peredvizhniki, also known as the Wanderers. The Wanderers began in 1963 in opposition to the strict requirements that the Russian Imperial Academy of Arts set on paintings topics that their students could pursue. As a result, 14 Students, including Perov split off the create the Peredvizhniki. Perov and his fellow painters focused their paintings on realism in order to capture everyday life throughout Russia. This enabled the Wanderers to critique the government and the life of the nobility through various paintings depicting peasant life, landscapes, and potraits.

Self Portrait of Vasily Perov(1).

In order to spread their ideas and critiques on society, the Peredvizhniki traveled throughout Russia, setting up exhibits in major cities. “The organized traveling exhibitions allowed for them to take their art to the people as well a beyond the cities of St Petersburg and Moscow”(2).  Vasily Perov was one of the most influential painters to come from the Peredvizhniki. His ideas and critiques flowed through numerous portraits and depictions of everyday life. His paintings exemplified what was wrong with the nobility in Russia as well as the day to day hardships for the average person in Russia. For example, his painting, Tea-Party at Mytishchi near Moscow, can be viewed as a critique of the nobility in Russia and how there was such a large divide between the nobility and the peasants during that time. One struggles to survive day to day, while the other struggles to drink tea in the shade.

Tea-Party at Mytishchi near Moscow(3)

If Perov was not critiquing the government or the nobility, or painting portraits, he was depicting everyday life of the Russian people. This type of work created by Perov displayed a high level of realism while also incorporating the genre of landscapes that was so common to the Peredvizhniki. For instance, the painting, The Bird-Catcher uses realism and the genre of landscapes to show the life of an average Russian.

The Bird-Catcher (4).

By the 1890’s the Peredvizhniki began to decline in popularity and influence since their artistic style had been around for such a long time. Their paintings had become engrained in Russian society, and as a result their style started to become adopted by average artists, thus making their unique style of painting and critique average.


Works Cited:


2. The Peredvizhniki-Pioneers of Russian Painting. National Museum.

3.  Olga’s Gallery. Vasily Perov. .