Cult of the ‘Urka’: criminal subculture in the Gulag, 1924-1953

Vincent, Mark (2015) Cult of the ‘Urka’: criminal subculture in the Gulag, 1924-1953. Doctoral thesis, University of East Anglia.

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Although a large body of work has been amassed on the Gulag a number of voices remain excluded. Criminal subculture had a profound influence on daily life in the camps yet academic study has lagged behind other groups, such as political prisoners. Without gaining a better understanding of the inner workings of the world of the criminals, our knowledge and understanding of Gulag society remains incomplete. This thesis contributes primarily to answering two broad questions within the current scholarship on the Gulag: (1) How were approaches and perceptions of criminality shaped during the period in question? And (2) What can we learn from the reconstruction of criminal subculture from the large literary corpus regarding life in the camps? These issues are not easily separated, with the second often self-consciously playing into the first. The first question is explored in the first section of the thesis, which examines a number of well-known images of criminal subculture across the revolutionary divide of 1917 and discussions of criminality found in the early prison press (1918-1930). The second section will reconstruct criminal life in the camps from the mid-1930s onwards, and address a number of principle questions such as: How did groups of criminal prisoners adapt to the process of ‘prisonization’ (adaption in the penal environment)? What methods of communication were used to transmit criminal norms? How important were methods of enactment, such as card playing, in the construction of penal hierarchies? What form did punishment rituals amongst criminals prisoners take? And, finally: How was conflict between criminal prisoners resolved and what effect did this have on Gulag society as a whole?
The thesis will look to test two principal arguments. Firstly, the resilience of criminal subculture, not only across the revolutionary divide of 1917 but throughout the entirety of the Stalinist Gulag. The creation of illicit hierarchies and development a number of ‘informal’ practices undermined attempts by Gulag authorities to fully control their inmate population, suggesting that the camps were as much a product of neo-traditionalism as an emblem of modernity. Secondly, the rendering of criminal subculture through various ‘cult products’ such as tattoo drawings, song collections, books, plays and films has resulted in a conflation of folklore and historical fact. Using a strong interdisciplinary approach with influences from social and cultural anthropology, ethnography, literature studies, criminology and penology, the reconstruction of these practices will demonstrate that perceptions of criminal subculture have often prevented a comprehensive study of its effect on daily life for all prisoners.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Faculty \ School: Faculty of Arts and Humanities > School of History
Depositing User: Jackie Webb
Date Deposited: 14 Dec 2016 10:18
Last Modified: 14 Dec 2016 10:18


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