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Russian prisoners playing cards

Playing cards are illegal in Russian prisons, inmates improvise by making their own from whatever materials come to hand. All the designs on these cards have been taken from real handmade prison decks.

The most ‘noble’ cards are the king of clubs and king of spades. These are the main symbols of a ‘legitimate thief’. In prison ‘authoritative’ thieves did not work. They had shesterkas – literally ‘sixes’ (underlings or minions) to serve them. The six is the lowest card in a standard Russian thirty-six card deck.

Card games are taken very seriously, losing can have serious consequences. Each of these cards has a card-related fact printed on the reverse:

A thief who loses at cards and cannot pay his debt may be forcibly tattooed with a ‘shaming’ image, usually erotic in nature. The loser must also pay the artist for making the tattoo.

Poimet vetochku – ‘to get a twig’. A sadistic card game in which the winner cuts off the loser’s finger or toe (usually the little finger or toe), in the presence of other prisoners as witnesses.

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