The Russian Mafia

In 1994, Russia's Interior Minister, Mikhail Yegorov, estimated that the number of organized crime groups had grown from 785 during Gorbachev's reign to over 5,000. By 1996, the number had grown to almost 8,000. Today, no one is really sure what the number has grown to. Organized crime has existed in Russia since the reign of czars in the form of petty theft and burglary. Around the time that the Soviet Union emerged, so did a new band of criminals known as Vor v Zakone ("Thieves in law"). These criminals began fill the gap that the Russian economy was creating by supplying cigarettes, vodka, jeans, gum and technology that the rich could afford. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1990, the Vor v Zakone began to play an important role in the criminal hierarchy of Russia.

This particular group of criminals began abiding by certain rules in prison, such as forbidding members to cooperate with authority. The Vor v Zakone consider prison to be their true home and have a saying that reflects this belief: "The home for angels is heaven and the home for a Vor is prison." Under the code of the Vor v Zakone, members must have no emotions, must forsake all family members, have no wives or children, and to never deny Vor v Zakone status amongst others.

The Vor v Zakone are known for having very well-articulated tattoos. The tattoos are usually done in the prisons with homemade tools, so they are on the body for life. Tattoos are often done as a rite of passage for the criminals - they are often tattooed before they are even sentenced to prison. It is hard to decode Vor v Zakone tattoos because most of the tattoos have multiple meanings. The reasoning behind this is so that people who are not involved with the Zakone will not know their whereabouts. The Vor v Zakone tattoos also have hidden meanings as well, such as the widely popular cathedral with onion-shaped cupolas tattoo. To the average person, this looks like a religious tattoo. However, to a Russian criminal, it has a very different meaning. The number of cupolas present is the number of times a person has been incarcerated.

Cathedral tattoo, as seen on Russian criminal
Another reason for the hidden meanings behind the tattoos is because criminals can show how tough they are to other prisoners without the obvious designs. A lot of the "popular" prison tattoos are religious symbols. To anyone looking at a Russian criminal, the tattoos would make the person seem very religious. Another good example of a religious tattoo having a completely different meaning is the Madonna and Child. It is thought to "ward off evil", which I find ironic. In reality, this tattoo symbolizes that the person has been a criminal from a young age.

Huge tattoo of Madonna and Child
One of the most recognizable tattoos is the eight-point star, often placed on the chest and on the knees. This tattoo, when placed on the knees, means "I won't stand on my knees before the authorities." When placed on the shoulders it shows rank as Thief. 

Eight-point star

Stars on the knees indicate the rank of Captain

Other common Russian prison tattoos:
Spider facing upwards indicates
active criminal
~Spider: symbolizes that the person is a thief. If the spider is facing towards the person's head, it means he is an active criminal. If the spider is facing downwards, it means that he is leaving the life of crime. 
~A crucifix and Mother of God with the Christ child in a typical Orthodox fashion: 'I will not betray.' Usually on the chest.
~An eel wrapped around an anchor: hope for the salvation of the soul
~An eye inside a triangle: The All-Seeing Eye, the symbol of God's omniscience
~A serpent with an apple: a symbol of temptation
~Erotic tattoos with the penis as the focal point

Sometimes tattoos are given by force. They are often put on the face by force. These particular tattoos are meant to stigmatize and embarrass the criminal. They could be given to a criminal for owing someone gambling money or breaking the unspoken "criminal code." They often humiliate the person's ethnicity, sexual orientation or involvement with prison officials. Humiliating tattoos are often forcibly given to the outcasts of prison, such as the child rapists. A tattoo that is often worn by homosexual men is a pair of eyes tattoos on the lower stomach. This can be seen in the above picture of the man with the Madonna and Child on his chest.

In the Russian prison system, tattoos tell your life story. If you have no tattoos, you do not exist. These tattoos tell the number of times you have been incarcerated, where you have been, what crimes you have committed and more. It seems that these tattoos are your entry into the very private world of the Russian prison. Many people have tried to decode the tattoos, but no one has gotten all of the meanings behind the tattoos ebcause there are so many variations, often kept private.

Sources used on this page:

Other Great Resources Used:
"Russian Prison Tattoos" by Alix Lambert
"Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia: Volume III" by Danzig Baldaev