This book reveals the importance of playing cards in Russian criminal culture. The handmade decks are beautiful works of art in their own right. Prohibited by the prison authorities, they are constructed from innocuous materials procured from the everyday routine of prison life. During construction both the cards and their designs are adroitly manipulated so they can be read. Once they are completed, the virtuoso player prowls the prison, searching for a suitable victim. This process is described here for the first time. Extensive diagrams show how the cards are made, while decks of actual prison cards are reproduced in facsimile.
The book also features a further 150 photographs from the Arkady Bronnikov collection. The texts and captions accompanying these images reveal the connection between the criminal hierarchy, tattoos and playing cards. The respect commanded by any criminal was directly related to his ability to play, and win, at cards. The game was viewed as a means to demonstrate cunning and bravado. Failure to pay a gambling debt could result in a forcibly applied pornographic tattoo, lowering its bearer's status. The loser would also be made to pay the "pricker" (tattooist). Fingers, ears, even eyes might be lost—cut off in the presence of other prisoners as witnesses. Russian Criminal Tattoos and Playing Cards provides unique insight into the design of these playing cards and their link to the Russian criminal underworld.