The Criminal Underworld and Urkas

You have been packed in the same cattle car for days now, maybe a week with dozens of other people. The lull of the moving train car doesn’t register to you anymore, as the main thoughts focusing your mind are food and water. It seems that everyday someone dies, suddenly passing in the night or slowly declining in the corner of the enclosed cart, covered in their own waste and dust. People with their families are in this cart, the adults trying to feebly comfort their children as whispered Russian and native dialects slowly reverberate through the stale air, from those who can talk at least. As you wonder about your own family, the car stops, loud voices are heard outside, and the sliding door opens. As your eyes adjust to seeing pure, unfiltered sunlight for the first time in awhile, gloved hands grab you and throw you out of the car, dumping you unceremoniously on the frozen ground. Those that are too slow to move are attacked with clubs by the guards, who yell at them to move faster. You try to get to your feet, but your weak legs threaten to collapse, so you decide to slowly look around instead. More people just like you, men, women, and children alike tumble out of the cars as the camp officials begin counting the dead already, secretly pocketing hidden valuables found among the dead. A hand on your shoulder lifts you off the ground with immense strength, and you look back to see a brutish looking thug covered in facial scars. He opens his hand and asks, “Money” in very poor Russian, but before you can respond, he punches you in the gut, leaving you winded and gasping for air.

Before the guards come, another pair of hands pick you up, this time belonging to an older man wearing a prison jumpsuit and paper thin cloth jacket. He grins a toothless smile and says, “Might want to watch for the urkas, my comrade. They’re the real criminals here, preying upon us the petty criminals and political prisoners. ‘Political prisoners’, my ass. Most of us here just came to work five minutes late…anyway, let me show you how things work around here…”.


In the gulags, there were three main “social groups of prisoners”, urkas, political prisoners, and petty criminals. Urkas were the word for professional criminals, those that have committed particularly heinous crimes, but never really answered for their sentences. Instead, they were used as “prisoner brigadiers”, practically sadistic prison guards for entire troops of political prisoners, who were treated as dangerous “enemies of the state” more so than actual murderers. Since they wielded absolute power over so many, urkas would do little actual work and instead force others to do it for them. Most of the prison guards wouldn’t care either, openly bartering with the urkas for valuables, which ranged from jewellry to an extra vodka ration. Unbelievably brutal, there was a case where to urkas gambled in a card game whether one political prisoner would live or die. Another practice was the usage of heavy zhargon, “jargon”, which developed so much that it essentially became a whole new language. Among other activities was physical and sexual abuse of the other prisoners, especially if an urka found himself in charge of a woman’s barracks.

A more traditional criminal organization in the gulags were known as the Vory-v-Zakone, “thieves in law”, who created an intricate criminal code and a brotherhood that profited of the misery of other prisoners. They would frequently steal, assault, and cheat political prisoners and take anything essential for survival in the brutal camps. More zhargon was created for each “class”: of Vory, mainly thieves and gamblers. Communication was also prevalent through a large variety of visible tattoos, showing each Vory’s criminal class and status among the Russian gulag underworld. Much of the Vory were wiped out by the Suki, a rival division of Vory members that were drafted into WWII, but shunned by the rest of the Vory who had never left the gulag. The word “Suki” literally means “bitch”, and represents the outcasts of the Vory who were expelled by the gang. However, the Suki, who were encouraged and supplied by prison guards with serviceable weapons, began a gang war with the Vory, who were mostly unarmed. Needless to say the Suki were victorious, and became the new “prisoner brigadiers”.

The situation never changed for the political prisoners and petty criminals, who were always in the crossfire of gang conflicts. If a prisoner insulted a Vory verbally, they were usually executed by a night raid of the offended Vory and his friends. Method of execution in these cases was mainly “plugging the throat”, which translates to hammering a railway spike into the prisoner’s mouth. However, some managed to create weapons out of metal bed frames for personal protection, maybe retaliating in an open scale war against the Vory if conditions were desperate enough.

This criminal underworld in gulags is only a small portion of the larger whole however, and a larger portion of that whole involves the “rations” given to the prisoners at the end of work days…which will be discussed next issue.

Do Svidaniya, Comrades

Sources Used:



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