The Rise of the Gulag Tapes

Deep in the shadows of the Iron Curtain, the black market is booming. Clandestine groups are using it to traffic everything from bombs to blue jeans. For the right price, this underground hub will supply virtually any demand, no matter how depraved. In its darkest corners, you’ll find items that are stranger, often scarier, than fiction—items like the Gulag Tapes.

Featuring real-life footage of brutal, blood-soaked prison riots, these hyper-violent videos are about as disturbing as they come, and they’re taking the black market by storm. They depict scenes of actual prisoners carrying out gang hits, inciting riots, and murdering everyone in their path in a desperate attempt to be the last man standing.

The origin of these videos is as mysterious as the market that supplies them. Copies of what is believed to be the first-ever Gulag Tape surfaced in Berlin, after the infamous Bernauer raids in 1985. “Our forensics team found dozens of copies in a crate of whiskey,” says Simon Weber, an Interpol agent now leading the agency’s investigation into the tapes. “They looked unassuming, like home movies. No packaging or design, just regular VHS cassettes with ‘Hosan’ scribbled across the labels.”

The content of the videos was anything but regular: CCTV footage of a bloody brawl in a prison yard; only one survivor; not a prison guard in sight. Weber traced the video back to Hosan Prison in South Korea, but to date nobody has cooperated with the investigation. “The case fell apart as soon as we arrived,” says Weber. “One guard disappeared—two were found dead in a prison shower. The leads were running out and the bodies were piling up, so we turned our attention back to Berlin.”

From there, the trail scattered—and the legend of the tapes grew exponentially. Over the course of several months, Interpol found more copies of the Hosan riot in Europe, Central America, and Asia. Weber recalls: “Every raid, every arrest, every brush with smugglers, gangsters, corrupt politicians… there always seemed to be at least one copy of this tape lying around.” The tape had gone global, but Weber was no closer to finding the supplier.

A breakthrough finally came last year in Oslo, Norway, when heavy metal band Blodråte revealed in a television interview that they had come into possession of a video “as dark as it gets… a true portrait of the caged man’s yearning for violence”. Weber knew right away that they were talking about the Hosan tape, so Interpol brought the band in for questioning. “They told us the video was a gift from a Berlin club owner,” Weber recalls. “No backstory, no mention of value… just a note saying they might get a kick out of it.” The band did get a kick out of the tape—so much so that their song Gulag Død, or ‘Gulag Death’, is rumoured to describe the grisly events of the Hosan video scene-by-scene; it also inspired the name “Gulag Tapes”, which Weber himself coined when addressing the media earlier this year.

What interested Interpol the most wasn’t so much the fact that the band received a copy of the video but rather how much people were willing to pay to buy it off them. During their tour of West Germany, the band received outrageous offers for the tape: tens of thousands of dollars, sexual favours, mountains of every drug imaginable… and death threats. “Their manager was happy to hand the tape over to us,” says Weber. “It was becoming a security concern. You could tell that for all their morbid curiosity, the tape scared them. Sure, heavy metal has a certain reputation for shock and awe, but it’s performance. This tape… it’s very real. Too real.”

Academics will surely have a field day intellectualizing the socioeconomic landscape that helped create a demand for something as heinous as these Gulag Tapes, but when you look at what the demand is at this juncture, and more crucially how this demand is being met, all eyes turn to the money.

“The more tapes we seized, the more we realized that pound-for-pound, these tapes were starting to sell for more than Schedule 1 narcotics,” says Weber. “Records show that ‘first cuts’ of the tapes were going for as much as half a million US dollars. If our projections are correct, the people responsible for the Gulag Tapes are running an operation that could rival even the most powerful drug cartels.”

Perhaps even more troubling: earlier this year, authorities found another edition of the Gulag Tapes, this time labelled ‘7’. The format is the same: CCTV footage of a prison riot that leaves all but one man in a lifeless, bloody heap. Judging by the prison uniforms and layout, Interpol suspects that the tape was smuggled from somewhere in Eastern Europe. With (at least) two editions now in circulation and a supplier still very much at large, this might only be the beginning of the Gulag Tapes—or something much worse.