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Aleksander's Ink: The secret story of Russian tattoos

Aleksander's Ink: The secret story of Russian tattoos
September 3rd 2012

Aleksander Emelianenko’s tattoos are a source of much controversy and rumour. Those that are not familiar with the various symbols that adorn his body may be forgiven for thinking that the man simply likes having tattoos done, particularly those with a grim or gothic slant.

But this article explains that the images are actually taken from the highly complex symbolism used by criminals in the days of the Russian Empire and, later, the Soviet Union.

Aleks spent some time in prison as a juvenile and each tattoo on his body has a deeper meaning within the underworld. Observers in the West are generally not familiar with these meanings, which has led to much speculation and misinterpretation. There are two main arguments that surround the meaning of Aleksander’s tattoos. One is that he is a member of the Russian mafia, the other that he is a neo-Nazi. But neither of these views is particularly accurate.

aleks' tattoos

As you can see, Aleks has many tattoos. Some of the more significant are as follows:

On the front of his shoulders and on his knees he has stars. These are the classic symbol of the Vor v Zakone (“Thieves in Law”), a Russian criminal fraternity with a strict code of ethics and behaviour.

The stars on the knees mean the wearer will never kneel to "musor" (“pigs”), or more precisely that the wearer will never under any circumstances cooperate with police or government officials.

On his right arm, he has a cathedral with five domes. Each dome symbolises one year of imprisonment.

On his right shoulder, he has a spider’s web. This particular tattoo can have several different meanings - If there is a spider going up the web, it means you are a professional thief. If the spider is going down,  the wearer is saying he is done with the criminal world. However, in some circumstances the spider’s web can also denote a drug addiction.

On his left arm, he has a tattoo that is half cat's head, half skull, with the legend "Homo homini lupus est."

This translates as “Man is a wolf to his fellow man” and is used to indicate a very vicious and dangerous prisoner.

On his back, he has a grim reaper holding a baby, underneath the German phrase "Gott Mit Uns", meaning "God is with us".

 

"AleksAleks home photo

 

Aleks also has stars on his knees, which have aroused controversy because they have swastikas in the centre. “Gott mit uns” was a phrase found on the accessories - particularly belt buckles - of German soldiers sent to fight in Russia during the Second World War. This has prompted rumours that he has Nazi affiliations, but Russian criminals generally do not use these symbols for political reasons. If one understands the history of the Russian crime world a different meaning becomes apparent.

The Vor v Zakone stem from a time when millions of criminals were put in prison camps operated by the Communist regime. They hated the camps and the regime and considered them mortal enemies. Meanwhile, the Nazis had invaded Russian and were locked in a bitter conflict with the Communist forces. So, in keeping with the theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the inmates began to use Nazi symbolism.

Thus the symbols do not represent the adoption of Nazi political views. Instead, they are intended to insult and defy the Communist regime and by extension, government authority in general. “I hate you so much”, the wearer is saying, “that I will wear the symbols of your worst enemies.”

Russian prison guard Danzig Baldaev photographed tattoos in St Petersburg's notorious Kresty Prison for over 40 years. He published a book several years ago which was translated into English and released as the two-volume Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopaedia.

In the book he notes that even the strongest Nazi symbols and slogans generally “have absolutely nothing to do with Hitler or National Socialism”. Instead, they symbolise the wearer’s “refusal to submit to the prison and camp administration and also... a total refusal to cooperate in any way with the Soviet authorities”.

That said, Aleks’ association with the Russian Slavic Union (RSU) makes his tattoos a little more ambiguous.

RSU’s slogans are “Russian Power” and “Russia for the Russians”. Members have a habit of throwing Nazi salutes whenever there is a camera nearby - and their symbol is a stylised swastika. Aleks has appeared in a few friendly photos, and his name has appeared on lists of past and present members, but as he has never been seen wearing any of the group’s outfits or t-shirts, the measure of his involvement is not well established.

As for the criminal connotations of Aleks’ tattoos, the days when a person with such images would risk injury or death by wearing a tattoo they had not earned have now passed. Again, World War Two was a key period. Stalin offered amnesty to prisoners that agreed to join the army. However, many returned to criminality at the end of the war and thus found themselves in prison once again.

Here, they were termed Sukas – literally ‘bitches’ – for their perceived cooperation with the government. Internal wars broke out between old-style Vor gangs and returning Sukas, who sought protection by collaborating with prison authorities.

This period is known as the ‘Bitch Wars’ in Russian criminal circles and is blamed for the decline of the old criminal codes. This decline meant that use of the markings spread to inmates who previously would not have been allowed to wear them.

These days, there are people who have various criminal tattoos applied to their skin for no better reason than simply wanting them. And while plenty of wearers may be hardened criminals who have served jail time, they are not Vor v Zakone in the true sense.

It is also worth noting that Aleks’ went to jail as a juvenile offender. Some of his tattoos indicate a high-ranking Vor, which is a status he would have been too young to achieve at the time of his imprisonment.

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