Russian Criminal Playing Cards
52 card deck plus 2 jokers
Illustrations by Ricardo Cavolo
9 x 6.5
Each suit in this pack of cards has been taken from a different deck hand-made by criminals in Soviet prisons during the 1980s. Their unique designs were formed with hand-cut stencils using ‘inks’ mixed from soot and blood. In Soviet prisons card playing was prohibited. Cards were constructed using everyday materials sourced from prison life. The respect commanded by any Russian criminal was directly related to his ability to play, and win, at cards. A thief could stake anything in a card game, a finger, an arm, the life of another inmate, or even his own. If he lost, the debt had to be paid immediately. The penalty for defaulting was expulsion, a forcibly applied tattoo or in some cases, death.
Confiscated and destroyed by the authorities, original decks are difficult to obtain and often incomplete. The authentic designs reproduced here have been taken from original cards collected over the last ten years. More information about the cards here.