Alix Lambert’s The Mark of Cain

mark of cain poster

When someone says, “Respect your elders,” it is often ignored and treated as an old cliché that has no relevance in modern society. In a Russian prison, however, respecting your elders, or those of higher rank, is of the utmost importance. Luckily, the intricate coding and culture surrounding tattoos in Russia’s prisons during the Gulag and beyond has provided a template for new generations of convicts to understand who is not to be trifled with. We learn about this system and see some incredible tattoos in The Mark of Cain.



A tattoo always has some sort of importance and meaning to the one bearing the ink. Whether it’s a tribute to a family member, a family crest, or an inspirational word poorly translated from an Asian language, the tattoo has value to the person. In Russia’s prisons, inmate tattoos can indicate status, sentences served, type of crime, and more. For instance, the amount of cupolas depicted in the tattoo can denote the number of murders committed.

The Mark of Cain interviews some of the more hardened criminals currently (as of 2001, at least) in Russia’s prisons. These men and women have served multiple sentences and simply cannot escape the labyrinth of the Russian penitentiary system. The main point of interest is hearing these people lament over their past mistakes and how these tattoos in modern Russia have become more of a brand than a mark of pride as they had been in generations past. Once the Soviet Union fell, tattoos became an illegal part of the prison system that has since survived underground through less than sanitary means. Many of the inmates want to remove their tattoos to rid themselves of the shame or guilt.

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Where the tattoos emblazoned on chests, backs, and fingers previously held a high place in society as one’s status marker, tattoos now have become diluted in their meaning. The younger generation of Russian criminals and lowlifes has begun getting the tattoos that had been reserved for those of high prison rank. The problem with this strategy is that upon being incarcerated, these kids are treated ruthlessly and forced to “cleanse” themselves of these tattoos. These poor saps are forced to “know their place” and many become the “раб” (slave) of their cell.

As you can imagine, becoming the slave of a prison is not ideal. These inmates are forced to relinquish meals—if that’s what you call water/soup and stale bread—and rarely are given the chance to sleep. In today’s unbelievably overcrowded cells—thirty to fifty men in a cell meant for sixteen to twenty—this leads to terrible health very quickly.

mark of cain 2

The Mark of Cain would be better served as a History Channel documentary or a special on National Geographic. As a longer documentary, it drags considerably. There is the mandatory melancholy song in the middle sung by one of the inmates that signifies a moment where director Alix Lambert is clearly running low on information to use.

The topic is incredibly interesting and the film displays a piece of Russian culture that is a dark connection to the past. The production value is low, so the monetary support is evidently minimal. If the topic catches your interest, I’d recommend giving the first half hour or so a look, as this is the most informative and enlightening section. It certainly begins in riveting fashion due to the amazing artwork, but much like a tattoo, the film fades.

Couldn’t find a trailer, so here’s the first 9 min if you are so inclined:

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