The Mark of Cain

The Mark of CainThe Mark of Cain documents the fading art form and language of Russian criminal tattoos, formerly a forbidden topic in Russia. The now vanishing practice is seen as reflecting the transition of the broader Russian society. Filmed in some of Russia's most notorious prisons, including the fabled White Swan, the interviews with prisoners, guards, and criminologists reveal the secret language of The Zone and The Code of Thieve.

The prisoners of the Stalinist Gulag, or Zone, as it is called, developed a complex social structure (documented as early as the 1920s) that incorporated highly symbolic tattooing as a mark of rank. The existence of these inmates at prisons and forced labor camps was treated by the state as a deeply-kept secret.

In the 1990s, Russia's prison population exploded, with overcrowding among the worst in the world. Some estimates suggest that in the last generation over thirty million of Russia's inmates have had tattoos even though the process is illegal inside Russian prisons.

The Mark of Cain examines every aspect of the tattooing, from the actual creation of the tattoo ink, interviews with the tattooers and soberly looks at the double-edged sword of prison tattoos. In many ways, they were needed to survive brutal Russian prisons, but mark the prisoner for life, which complicates any readmission to normal society they may have.

Tattoos expressly identify what the convict has been convicted of, how many prisons he;s been in and what kind of criminal he is. Tattoos, essentially, tell you everything you need to know about that person without ever asking. Each tattoo represents a variety of things; cupolas on churches represent the number of convictions a convict has, epaulets tattooed on shoulders represent the rank of the individual in the crime world and so on and so forth.

Watch the full documentary now (playlist - 73 minutes)

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16 Comments / User Reviews

  1. docthoughts

    wow, that was humbling... going to go for a walk and enjoy my freedom...

  2. Guest

    Very brutal, and very sad, all they have is their tattoos. Watch this doc and be thankful for what you have.

  3. GodmanEnki

    I love my tattoos, but they were all taken outside of any jail. I feel for these guys. Some seem as though they fell on bad times; and then made the wrong decisions of how to deal with those bad times. I went to jail for 4 days when I was 19. I didn't even do what I was charged with. That didn't matter. I was put in jail anyway. 4 days was enough for me, and it was nothing like what these poor fools are going through. NOTHING is worth losing one's freedom. Unless it is fighting for it in the first place. Freedom is worth death....

  4. Jane Haydon

    You said my reaction & I do agree this should be seen by everyone especially our younger people.

  5. jennirn2005

    Really Interesting Doc. Worth a watch.

  6. Borsi Csókás

    very enlightening, definitely professional work. enjoyed it greatly, thanks for uploading.

  7. javier de coca

    Great work.

  8. Tracy Phillips

    Fascinating & informative. Very well made. I love the way that the people themselves told their own stories. Some of those tattoos (like the famed Japanese tattoos) border on fine art. The relationship between poverty, despair, alcohol (& other substance) abuse & criminal behaviour is devastatingly apparent here. The deplorable living conditions in which these convicts are left to languish are unworthy of any nation with pretenses of being civilized.

  9. Petar Vitanovich

    this is not the jail i went to lol, they should show this video to dumbasses locked up here in the u.s. to make them realize they are one, equal, against the system.

  10. ForeverDove

    Good documentary, very intriguing.

  11. Abraham Anand

    Very well made doc. Most prisoners here seem to have realized inner peace by staying in the prison. May God spare them a life to live.

  12. Ganesh Malhi

    prisoners in the west live in a hotel in comparison to this!

  13. Robyn318

    Mixing the burnt sole of your shoe with urine to make ink so you can be judged by the quality and message of your tattoos…no identity, no dreams, no goals except daily survival…30, 40 or 50 people to a cell, sleeping in shifts, absolutely no privacy, no compassion, just waiting for your release date…if you have one. If hell exists I think this is a pretty good description.

  14. Jamie

    I agree that there prisons are not modern but America has 5% of the worlds population and 25% of the worlds prison population.American jails are the most dangerous.I'm a Canadian and if in Canada you are foung guilty of 1st degree or secound degree muder or have a violent prison reputation at least in Ontario you go to a jail called Millhaven and a range called J unit.If A person is being killed guards will not come even if it's right if front of them untill everyone on the range and there is a few goes into there cell to be locked.But If you go in before the attack or murder is done you die.So guards just watch as it's to dangerous to go in when it's eather convited murders doing life that have nothing to lose by killing anyone including a guard of a person thats considerd to violent to be with the average prisoner.1ST and SECOUND DEGREE MUDERS ATOMATICLY HAVE TO SPEND AT LEAST THERE FIRST 2 YEARS THERE.If you stay out of trouble our don't get caught you may be able to go were average criminals that also many have worked there way down to get out of J Unite.But my main point is American prizons with 25% of the worlds prisoners are the most dangerous of any countrys prisons.All prizons are dangerous you could go sentenced to 2 years and get into a situation that gets you life.Remember with people doing sometimes 5 life sentences with nothing to lose.So your Hotel analogy is no were near correct.Thers Maximum Super Max Medium and camps,depending on your crime our the crime you may have been faulsy accused of and your prisn recourd decides were you go.In my city the county jail is over 1 hundred years old,so not all western prisons are modern.In Canada if your a rapist or done anything to a child your life is in danger with population criminals as it's real lowlifes that commite them crimes.Muder is bad but there are differing circumstances.The person cpould have been getting robed our someone hurt your familly so it's not looked down on.But to deside to rap a person our hurt children it just shows your scum.Some people think that most people that have been to jail are bad,but they would be the first in many cases to kill somone that hurt your child.I've never been to the Pen but know many hpow have and most are just good people that made mistakes or were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.For none violent crimes there should be places different than for violent charges to do your time.Like I said all jails can be very dangerous but America having much more people and for violent crimes it's the most dangerous.If your a good guy and get along with others and are not a rat our GOOF you should do ok,and see your familly again.

  15. Imightberiding

    Come on dude, surely as a Canadian you're familiar with the saying: "Can't do the time? Then do the crime... in Canada!" It's about as soft as it gets here. Perhaps Australia, Scandinavia & the U.K. might be a bit easier to serve your time but certainly you won't find a shorter sentence than in good ole Canada.

  16. Eric Garcia

    hell on earth..

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