For a moment it seemed that an actual gangster could take on a gangster state. Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian criminal who had served time and spoke in prison slang, thought he could compete with the suit and tie lawyers of Russia’s criminal regime. Just two months ago he was leading his army of mercenaries in a march on Moscow, challenging the authority of the army leadership, claiming he could wage Russia’s imperial, genocidal war against Ukraine better than they could, implicitly questioning Putin’s power. Now, Prigozhin and his lieutenants have been assassinated, their plane crashed outside of Moscow. The assumption is this is Putin’s revenge. But Prigozhin, or rather what he represents, have a larger victory that will outlive the man.
Prigozhin had been such a role model for your average Russian crim: he’d started in a Soviet prison cell for robbery and risen to a lifestyle of gold-plated riches and Kremlin access. Though he has been killed, the prison and gangster culture that Prigozhin is an expression of has consumed the state. A Soviet joke used to describe the gulag system of labour camps as the ‘little prison’ (Malaya Zona) and the Soviet Union as the ‘big prison’ (Bolshaya Zona)—now the small prison has swallowed the larger one.
There’s a reason for this. In the ceaseless chopping and changing of Russian history—with its regular revolutions where the past is constantly re-written; where people are deported and moved across Eurasia in brutal population shifts; where whole peoples have been wiped out and their memories erased; where identity is constantly being remolded by the latest propaganda—prison culture is one of the few constants. From the time of the tsars to the Soviet Union and Putin’s post-modern dictatorship one thing you can rely is getting banged up in a fortress-prison; banished to a labour camp in Siberia; sentenced to the gulag. Today Russia has the highest rates of prisoners in Europe. While other things in Russia change, prison culture maintains its traditions: hierarchy; codes of loyalty; adherence to authority. At the top of the avtoretiti (authorities), the ‘thieves in law’ (bltaniye), under which come the “friars,” and all the way down to the lowest of the low, the “cockerels”, who have their own hierarchies. It has its own rules (zakoni) which you dare break, its own ways to deal with tensions, its own economy based around a sort of criminal sovereign wealth fund (obschyak). It has its own elaborate slang (Fenya). When Prigozhyn launched his quickly abandoned march on Moscow in June his mercenaries, many of whom were convicts he had offered the chance to escape prison by serving in the “meatgrinder” of Ukraine, expressed their support to his avtoritet in Fenya.
In the 1990s, when Russian society was in flux, where the status and solidity of old Soviet social categories, professions, and role models collapsed, criminals were one of the few groups who knew who they were. They could organise, they had a code of violence that passed for structure. In the absence of cops and courts they became the guarantors of business deals (and if you didn’t cut them in they would kill you). From being the dregs of society they became figures of aspiration: kids from nice families aped the way they talked and walked.
When Putin came to power the state resumed the role of master criminal. Just as it had been in the Soviet Union. The secret services took over curating the gangster’s businesses—and took their cut. But the cultural cachet of gangsters continued. Putin—an uncharismatic spy with a law degree who had become a corrupt bureaucrat managing relations with St Petersburg gangsters—imitated their slang when he talked of taking out terrorists “in the shitter.” He talked to his governors and ministers down a long table like a mafia boss running a meeting of the Five Families. When he announced he had ideology he called it “conservativism,”—but one of the few true conservative, as in constant, traditions in Russia is prison culture. Putin’s attacks on LGBTQ people is not informed by religion, Russia is among the least church-going nations. But the passive gay man is the lowest in the prison hierarchy, “the cockerel.” So Putin’s anti-LGBT media drives resonated in a nation infused with prison “values.” Even Putin’s idea of international relations reflects prison. For Putin you are either a country that dominates or is dominated by others, a thief-in-law or a cockerel.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine attempts to export this prison culture, to expand the Zona. When Russia occupies new territory it appoints local criminals as de facto administrators. Take Vovchansk, a small Ukrainian town just a few kilometres from the border with Russia that was occupied between February and September 2022—and where I was when the news of Prigozhyn’s death came through. When the Russians arrived in Vovchansk a local criminal, nicknamed Chizh, volunteered to be their enforcer. Recently released from prison, he used the new found power to extract money from the locals. The Russian occupiers used him for a while, then sidelined him as they sealed their grip, and proceeded to imprison, torture, and maim anyone they felt like—just to show who was really in charge.
The FSB, the successor to the KGB, soon became the most important authority in the occupied territories. The tradition of the secret police who arrest and oppress ordinary people is almost as constant as that of prisoners—from the tsarist okhranka through the Cheka and the NKVD. In the Gulag the prisoner slang for a particularly effective prison administrator was ‘Old Chekist’. The Old Chekists are still ultimately in charge. But Putin still had to pay his respects to Prigozhin even after having likely killed him, calling him a “talented businessman” who had “made mistakes.” While many other social groups have atrophied or been rendered powerless, Russia’s secret police and their gangster-prisoners remain, winking at each other in mutual recognition across the centuries.