Blatnoi in the Soviet era

Gulag Museum

I recently made a very interesting find in my local second-hand bookshop: Katorga, by Bernhard Roeder. Katorga means “hard labour” in Russian, and Roeder knew all about that. As far as I can make out, he was an East German, arrested by the Soviet authorities in 1950 for reasons that never become quite clear. He was sent to a hard- labour camp in Siberia, and was released seven years later. The book is his account of what he experienced, and is written in a very clear, drily entertaining manner. Each chapter documents a different category of camp inmate. One of the most interesting chapters covers the blatnoi, a group I was previously unaware of. Readers of my jianghu blog will note the overlap with elements of the ‘brotherhood of the rivers and lakes’ – but there are also significant differences. Below I quote fairly extensively from this chapter, with no further commentary; I want to return to the topic in a future post.

The blatnoi is an anarchist. He denies the necessity of a State and fights uncompromisingly and with all means available against the machinery of State. He only acknowledges individuals, free and strong individuals who choose their leaders themselves when necessity forces them to, and then deposes them when they have carried out their tasks and are no longer needed. The old Russian tradition of the free, armed peasantry, as also that of the Cossacks, lives on in the anarchism of the blatniye. The old Russian peasantry and the Cossacks were communities that existed in their own right apart from the State.

[…]

Traditions of this kind, long obscured by Tsarist absolutism abd by the serfdom which was developed by Tsarism, live on in the blatnoi even today. But there also lives on in him a piece of Asia, the tradition of the Asiatic hero and robber who leads a free life in the forests, subject to no one. He rebels against the Khan and the Sultan and robs them of their treasure, which he distributes to the poor.He takes bloody revenge on the oppressors for the sake of the oppressed. The people celebrate in song his heroic deeds and keep his memory in high honour. The myth of the Asiatic hero and robber is one of militant freedom which does not yield to slavery at the hands of a tyrant and fights its hopeless struggle to the bitter end. It prefers to live a few glorious days in the bright light of freedom as a rebel than to spend a whole life as a slave whose master distributes not only the daily bread but also the daily work and the daily blows.

The blatnoi is a bandit but also a free rebel. He fights with his fists, a knife, or a bomb against the omnipotence of the State, against police, machine-guns and tanks. The blatnoi describes the Communists as Fascists and nothing but Fascists, because they have pressed the people into the slavery of the totalitarian State.

[…]

The blatniye live in small organizations of about twenty to fifty members in wooded areas or in large towns, in the places where the grip of the totalitarian State becomes less sure.

[…]

Image credit: Gulag Museum by whatleydude, on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

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