Damon Murray and Stephen Sorrell

Russian Criminal Playing Cards

A complete standard Western deck of 52 playing cards and 2 jokers, making them suitable for any card game.

This deck of cards has been put together using four different sets (one for each suit) made by Russian criminals in prisons during the 1980s. Prohibited by the prison authorities, they are constructed from innocuous materials procured from the everyday routine of prison life, their unique designs skillfully manipulated so that they could be read.

The respect commanded by any criminal was directly related to his ability to play, and win, at cards. Being ‘lucky’ at cards was also seen as a good omen ¬(even if the winner cheated, as this practice is acceptable within the thieves world). 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 by the authors. A standard Russian deck contains only 36 cards. This pack has been adapted to make a complete standard Western deck of 52 cards.