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book review: Russian Prison Tattoos: Codes of Authority, Domination, and Struggle;

Reading this book soon after having watched ‘The Mark of Cain’ felt almost like meeting old friends and, as usual with the books vs. films, ‘meetings’ with the Russian prisoners portrayed in this book could go on my own pace.

The book is co-authored by Alix Lambert and Mary Christ who wrote most of the text. Everything here is focused and to the point, so the contents are both very informative and interesting to read as there’s nothing here to distract our attention.

The introductory part of the book gives us some insight into ‘behind-the-stage’ details of the documentary and provides some statistics that could escape us while watching the movie, a.o. such information as the number of inmates in the Russian prisons (a the time of making the film) and the hierarchy among prisoners. The 12 chapters that follow show the daily life of prisoners in slow motion (and that’s something that could not be achieved by means of a film, I think) and shed light on the whole process of getting imprisoned, from arresting to the trial to sentencing and then to living in a cell with other inmates. Just like in ‘The Mark of Cain,’ also here there is a wonderful focus on prisoners’ thoughts and feelings on the system, their lives and choices they’ve made and, in a way, this book is even more impressive than the movie.

There are plenty of images here, showing the details of prison tattoos and describing the meanings behind but many of the images included focus not as much on tattoos as on the people themselves. These are dark, kind of stained with time and prison stigma pictures that show tired, prematurely aged people realizing where they are and what happened to them due to their own decisions and the harshness of the system they live in. Men and women, speaking of the crimes they committed, the life they experience in the prison and their plans for the future, sometimes filled with hope and optimism, sometimes bitter and sad.

Here tattoos are both full of life and getting closer and closer to the final decay of meaning. From the pages of the book stare at us, with eyes full of pride or sorrow or fatigue or the whole array of different feelings, men and women with their own share of pain and suffering but also with their own burden of cruelty or vengefulness. Some of their stories, that did not appear in the movie, show them in more complex a light than a common stereotype would like them to have, and their background can surprise us (a good example here is Alexei Kuznetsov whose educational background does not fit the idea of prisoners most of us have imprinted in our minds).

I’m a fan of reading more than a fan of film watching, so in my opinion this book is definitely more interesting than the ‘Mark of Cain’ documentary but I also think that they both make for a great experience and an opportunity to learn more about one piece of body modification puzzle that is both still alive and yet slowly losing its meaning and dying away. What’s even more important, this movie-book-combo defies our ways to think who’s an average prisoner is and brings more depth to people who are exiles kept behind the bars for, allegedly, their own good.

Lambert Alix, Russian Prison Tattoos: Codes of Authority, Domination, and Struggle, Schiffer Publishing, 2003

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About Ania Reeds

fit, modified, open-minded, well-read, always eager to learn. Don't judge me by your standards!

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