About the book
This book reveals the importance of playing cards in Russian criminal culture. Prohibited by the prison authorities, the beautiful hand-made decks are constructed from innocuous materials procured from the everyday routine of prison life. During construction both the cards and their designs are expertly manipulated so they can be read. This process is described here for the first time. Extensive diagrams show how the cards are made, while decks of actual prison cards are reproduced in facsimile.
150 previously unpublished photographs from the Arkady Bronnikov collection reveal the connection between criminals, tattoos and cards. The respect commanded by any criminal was directly related to his ability to win at cards. Failure to pay a gambling debt could result in a forcibly applied tattoo, lowering the bearer’s status. Fingers, ears, even eyes, might be lost — cut off in the presence of other prisoners as witnesses.
About the cards
Each suit in this pack of cards has been taken from a different deck hand-made by criminals in Soviet prisons during the 1980s. Their unique designs were formed with hand-cut stencils using ‘inks’ mixed from soot and blood. In Soviet prisons card playing was prohibited. Cards were constructed using everyday materials sourced from prison life. The respect commanded by any Russian criminal was directly related to his ability to play, and win, at cards. A thief could stake anything in a card game, a finger, an arm, the life of another inmate, or even his own. If he lost, the debt had to be paid immediately. The penalty for defaulting was expulsion, a forcibly applied tattoo or in some cases, death.
Confiscated and destroyed by the authorities, original decks are difficult to obtain and often incomplete. The authentic designs reproduced here have been taken from original cards collected over the last ten years.