Through the process of destalinization, prisoners from the war were to be released from their camps. To start this process, the first people to get to leave were those there for up to five years, those convicted of economic and military crimes, women with children younger than ten, women that were pregnant or older than fifty, kids to age eighteen, men older than fifty-five, and those with incurable diseases. While this was a good start, it still left a multitude of people left in the camps at first. Some prisoners were pressured for confessions and in return were released from their camp. But the catch was that most were not allowed to go back home, and instead sent to live in exile. Another problem for released prisoners was that they weren’t welcomed back into society for the most part. Not that they always lived hard lives, but they were seen as outsiders in society.
An interesting aspect of the prisoner life is the meaning of their tattoos. Russian prisons are interesting in that every tattoo is a symbol for something, with most of them being backlash against the authorities and the Soviet regime. The prisoners take their tattoos so seriously that if anyone gets one that is wrong or unearned, they would be punished.
The meanings of the tattoos were often nothing like you could possibly guess and very different from the image itself. One example is if someone had the virgin Mary holding Jesus indicates to others that this person has been a thief since a young age. Some tattoos were even used as a means of protection. If a prisoner had a tattoo of Stalin or Lenin, guards wouldn’t hurt “such sacred images,” so prisoner’s used it to their advantage by getting these images tattooed over their heart or other places they didn’t want to be injured. Some other examples are:
- a spider means the wearer is a drug addict
- a bull means the wearer is a pimp
- a snake around the neck means the wearer feels Communism is strangling them
Geldern, James von. “1954: Prisoners Return.” Seventeen Moments of Soviet History, assessed October 25, 2014. http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php?page=subject&SubjectID=1954gulag&Year=1954&navi=byYear
“Russian Prison Tattoos” Hubpages. assessed October 25, 2014. http://jonaitis.hubpages.com/hub/Russian-Prison-Tattoos
Image 1: Russkoe Polye. 1999.
Image 2: “Russian Prison Tattoos” Hubpages. assessed October 25, 2014. http://jonaitis.hubpages.com/hub/Russian-Prison-Tattoos
I really enjoyed this post. I liked that you incorporated the tattoos into the post. You also did a good job of explaining who was released from prison after Stalin’s death. Definitely take a look at Kelly’s post, which goes into more detail about what prisoners were release, who wasn’t, and why: http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/keepcalmandreadon/2014/10/26/soviet-prisoners-released-not-all-necessarily-free/
I agree that your post fits really nicely with Kelly’s discussion of the 1954 amnesty. And the tattoos are incredibly interesting as a kind of cultural expression and identity. There’s a publisher in England that specializes in Russian criminal tattoo and they have some fascinating stuff on their website: http://fuel-design.com/russian-criminal-tattoo-archive/
In terms of the post-Stalin amnesties, though, the people who were rehabilitated were political prisoners rather than criminals. And tattoos have generally been associated with the latter.
I found your post very informative and interesting. especially with the tattoos. The tattoos as link to the Russian underworld with the Vory. Also, prison camp life was exciting and full of conflict with the Bitch Wars.