Fighting Criminal Groups in Corrective Labour Camps and Penal Colonies in the Post-War USSR




Gulag, groups of prisoners, thieves’ law, thieves under the code, the departed, penitentiary crime, correctional labour camps and colonies, camp society


It is impossible to understand the peculiarities of the domestic penitentiary system during later Stalinism and its influence on Soviet society without considering the processes that took place in the Gulag at the time, clarifying the interests and interaction of the actors of these processes. Between the second half of the 1940s and the first half of the 1950s, the USSR’s penitentiary system witnessed a confrontation between criminal groups unprecedented in terms of its scale and the number of victims: these have gone down in history as the Bitch Wars. Based on a systemic interdisciplinary approach, the authors try to recreate an objective picture of this confrontation. For this purpose, they analyse the causes and dynamics of the conflict, the composition of the participants, the activity of the penitentiary personnel supposed to resolve it, and the legal framework regulating this activity. The article emphasises that all Gulag society was involved in the confrontation, which rapidly divided into numerous criminal groups. The authors substantiate the thesis that the main cause of the conflict was the truggle for camp resources and the right to parasitise in the camp population. It is concluded that the attempts of the camp administration to restore order in the institutions, using some criminals against others, led to an increase in violence and destabilised the entire penal system. Additionally, the authors analyse the dynamics of crimes committed by gangsters, paying close attention to the characteristics of the activities carried out to combat banditry and the normative support of this activity. It is concluded that the administration of the Gulags did not find an effective solution to put an end to criminal terror. The conflict, along with other events that took place in the camp system, forced the country’s leadership to start looking for a new concept of the corrective labor system. The confrontation between thieves under the code (Rus. vory v zakone literally, “thieves in law”) and those who had abandoned the criminal cause (Rus. otoshedshie, literally, “the departed”) has no clearly established chronological boundaries. Individual excesses took place during the war years and until the early 1960s. The authors limit the time frame of the work to the period between 1947 and 1954, when the most massive, active, and fierce confrontation between criminal communities took place. The work is based on the principles of historicism and objectivity. In preparing the article, the authors used specific historical, logical, legal, statistical, sociological, and other methods of scholarly research.

Author Biographies

Yuri Piliavets

PhD (History), Dean of the Faculty of Training State and Municipal Employees, Academy of Law and Management of the Federal Penitentiary Service (Pskov Branch).

28, Zonal’noe Highway, Pskov, Russia.

ORCID 0000-0001-5407-9525

Roman Ivanyakov

PhD (History), Head of the Department of State and Legal Disciplines, Academy of Law and Management of the Federal Penitentiary Service (Pskov Branch).

28, Zonal’noe Highway, Pskov, Russia.

ORCID 0000-0001-5303-5838


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How to Cite

Piliavets, Y., & Ivanyakov, R. (2022). Fighting Criminal Groups in Corrective Labour Camps and Penal Colonies in the Post-War USSR. Quaestio Rossica, 10(1), 238–252.



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