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Published March 06, 2023 Updated March 06, 2023

Russian criminal tattoos and playing cards

Russian criminal tattoos and playing cards, United Kingdom, 2018.

2018 Russia United Kingdom FUEL Design & Publishing Prison Tattoo Add to Collection

In Soviet prisons card playing was prohibited. Inmates improvised by making their own from whatever materials came to hand. Confiscated and destroyed by the authorities, original decks are difficult to obtain and often incomplete. This pack of cards has been put together using four different sets (one for each suit) made by Russian criminals in prisons during the 1980s. Their unique designs were formed with hand-cut stencils using “inks” mixed from soot and blood. Normally a standard Russian deck contains only 36 cards. However, this pack has been adapted to make a complete standard Western deck of 52 cards. See the box

The pack was published by FUEL Design & Publishing, London, in November 2018 as part of a larger series on Russian criminal tattoos. For more information on the cards see here

Russian criminal tattoo playing cards published by FUEL Design & Publishing, London, 2018 Russian criminal tattoo playing cards published by FUEL Design & Publishing, London, 2018
Russian criminal tattoo playing cards published by FUEL Design & Publishing, London, 2018

Above: Russian criminal tattoo playing cards published by FUEL Design & Publishing, London, 2018.

A book with the same title as the pack was published simultaneously as part of the series.

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By Peter Burnett

Member since July 27, 2022

I graduated in Russian and East European Studies from Birmingham University in 1969. It was as an undergraduate in Moscow in 1968 that I stumbled upon my first 3 packs of “unusual” playing cards which fired my curiosity and thence my life-long interest. I began researching and collecting cards in the early 1970s, since when I’ve acquired over 3,330 packs of non-standard cards, mainly from North America, UK and Western Europe, and of course from Russia and the former communist countries.

Russian Playing Cards

Following my retirement from the Bodleian Library in Dec. 2007 I took up a new role as Head of Library Development at the International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications (INASP) to support library development in low-income countries. This work necessitated regular training visits to many sub-Saharan African countries and also further afield, to Vietnam, Nepal and Bangladesh – all of which provided rich opportunities to further expand my playing card collection.

Since 2019 I’ve been working part-time in the Bodleian Library where I’ve been cataloguing the bequest of the late Donald Welsh, founder of the English Playing Card Society.


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