Elevate Difference

The Mark of Cain

Although prison life is a dreary subject and Russian prison life even more so, The Mark of Cain is a film anyone interested in post-communist Russia must see. The documentary features interviews with Russian prison inmates. Director Alix Lambert examines the changes Russian prison tattoo art has undergone since the fall of communism and winds up vividly capturing both the changes in Russian prison life since the fall of communism, and the problems Russian society faces as it grapples with its communist past.

During one scene, a prison administrator proclaims, “To speak of the history of our correctional labor institution, it’s worth going back to the year 1930” as a statue of Lenin is shown. He goes on to give a brief history of the modern prison system. Then an elderly inmate complains that tattoos have no meaning anymore. He proudly shows off his tattoos of Joseph Stalin and Vladmir Lenin. A younger inmate then implies that prison tattoos do still have meaning when he says, “Certain questions just don’t have to be asked…If a person ends up in prison again then those tattoos will say a lot about them.”

The conditions of Russian prisons are actually worse now than they were during the communist era, as is the present economy. Lambert expresses just how dismal the conditions in Russian prisons are in a scene where a bowl of watery soup the color of vomit is shown as an inmate says, “And you live off of that.” Another inmate remarks that family and friends bring inmates extra food because if they only eat the prison food they will have a “lack of vitamins.”

In another scene, a Russian criminology expert says, “The first testimony of terrible torture came in 1989.” He goes on to describe the "cell-press,” a particular torture method used by communists where an inmate was placed in a small cell with other inmates who were allowed to do anything they wanted to him. The past becomes not so distant in the next shot when an inmate describes the torture methods currently used in prisons, and the ‘cell press’ is included in his list.

Despite the dark subject, this documentary captivates you. Alix Lambert is to be commended.

Written by: Gina-Marie Cheeseman, July 7th 2007

Thanks for this review! I've recently become interested in Russian criminal tattoos, partially because of Alix Lambert's book, and I'll be picking up this DVD in March.