Prison Songs

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Given Russia's vast prison population, prison songs always constituted a considerable part of popular culture. Interestingly enough, in contemporary Russian prisons themselves, prison songs are not as popular as is commonly thought. As experienced prisoners explain, if the person likes to sing, he or she may receive the nickname "Tape recorder" and may be "turned on" at any moment, meaning that anyone may ask him or her to sing at any moment for someone's pleasure. This subordinate position brings down the status of the convict who thus cannot be very popular or prestigious. But in normal life outside of prison, these songs acquired tremendous popularity starting from the second half of the twentieth century.

Contemporary prison songs originate from the older traditions of the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries, such as brigand songs of those in active opposition to the state and social authorities, drawling songs of hard-labor convicts, and thieves' cant as a creature of urban environment closely related to the genre of city romance. The latter became widespread at the turn of the twentieth century due to rapid social changes and marginalization of Russian society in the years of the Revolution. The most popular song of the period, Murka, tells a dramatic story of an undercover policewoman killed by her criminal lover for her betrayal.

From the second half of the twentieth century, prison songs occupied a leading position in Soviet underground culture. In the 1960s the most popular bards, such as Vladimir Vysotsky, Alexander Galich, and others, attracted intelligentsia by singing prison songs, thus giving a form of expression of hidden protest against the regime. In their songs prison is associated with the state as a whole; it is implied that under this regime everone is a convict, whether past, present, or future. Rich metaphorical content, antistate motivation, and strong heroic poetics made these songs the sign of the time when the truth about the regime became known with gulag prisoners first being rehabilitated after Stalin's death. This tradition stems from the political, not the criminal, environment and was closely connected to the dissident movement of the time.

In contrast to the dissident content of prison songs of the 1960s and 1970s, contemporary prison songs emphasize the criminal element more and are targeted at a specific audience with a clear criminal past and present. Recently these songs successfully entered the popular music industry. These songs are based on the most popular genre of contemporary prison folklore such as ballads. Most of them are "humble" songs: They aim at compassion for the lot of any marginal personality, such as thieves, prostitute, and social outcasts. Their subject is misery, tragic accident, or cruel destiny. Several verses of the ballad cover the entire life of the hero with its happiness, tears, love and betrayal, crime, and custody. Another type of song, by contrast, aims to unite people who share asocial values as a group claiming brotherhood and heroism of a few against conventional authorities.

See also: dissident movement; gulag; prisons


Stites, Richard. (1992). Russian Popular Culture: Entertainment and Society since 1900. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Julia Ulyannikova