One of the most significant works of Soviet literature is Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, an autobiography of his experience as a political prisoner in Stalin’s infamous Gulag. The title of this landmark work refers to prison camps as islands separated from the mainland society. And as on an island, or in any other closed society, inhabitants develop relationships, establish rules and norms, and even adhere to unique culture and traditions. These prison societies have become a fusion—and often a clash—of inmate ideologies that effect life both inside and outside of prison walls. On the other side, as in any society, conflicts inside prison are unavoidable and occur on different levels including conflicts between individual inmates; conflicts between groups of inmates for political power; and conflicts between inmates and prison authorities.
To illustrate the social and political processes within prison societies, I chose prison camps in the former Soviet Union for several reasons. Since the 1930s, one criminal gang known as Vory (Thieves in Law) has retained total control within most post-Soviet prisons. This expansive, ninety-year timeframe makes it possible to trace the origins and development of the internal organization, rules, and norms of this prison-born system. Their longevity has spanned major governmental upheavals (including the death of Stalin and the dissolution of USSR), which allows a comprehensive view of internal changes adopted because of shifting government and penal system policies. Finally, beginning in the 1990s, members of radical ideological groups such as Islamists and neo-
Nazis began to challenge Vory norms with their own rules and systems. This more recent change has become a serious threat to the monopoly of one of the world’s oldest prison organizations.
So in this book, I not only trace the historical development of the Vory organization with its laws, rules, and traditions, but I also illuminate the social and political processes going on behind bars—the dynamic relations between inmates and prison authorities, the competition for scarce resources, and political leadership among the incarcerated population.