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Book Review

Russian Prison Tattoos — Codes of Authority,
Domination and Struggle by Alix Lambert
Cheryl-Ann Tan

In this month’s review, we will take a look at art of a very different kind—an underground art that is slowly dying. The symbolic Russian prison tattoos that represent the pecking order among thieves, are a biography of criminal and prison life etched on skin, or sometimes, labels forcibly tattooed on ‘Downcasts’. In a way, the tattoos are part of a life underground the underground. Ink was forbidden, so were playing cards, knitting needles... However, nothing stopped the prisoners from knitting when guards were not looking, making playing cards out of paper and bread, or tattooing.

In Lambert’s book almost 200 photographs of typical tattoos on Russian men and women in prison are captured in stunning black and white, and color photographs. Each photograph of a tattoo or convict is accompanied with a caption to decipher what they symbolize.

Lambert, for the most part, allows the photographs and the voices of convicts to speak for themselves (which explains the scant text accompaniment). The real story is written on skin using makeshift materials—a wound-up razor blade, or needles dipped in ink composing of a burnt rubber sole mixed with urine. The book focuses mainly on men’s prisons, but doing the one chapter on the women’s prison after weeks of investigating the men’s prisons, Lambert said of their film crew, they “left the women’s penitentiary in Perm feeling rattled.”

The kind of tattoos of ‘The Zone’ (the Russian prison), with modern-day prisoners veering away from the traditional tattoos associated with thieves who follow the unwritten rules Thieves’ Code, they take the liberty to include spiders and syringes that represent drug-use, demons, fantasy-like images or whatever images they found symbolic to themselves.

Many tattoos reflect the spitefulness and hate of the Russian justice system and many take the form (like one interpretation of the Madonna and Child) of telling of their long-suffering life in prison. Some tattoo a woman they love, or the image of the Bitsa, the most respected woman in The Zone. Names, are however, rare, as there is a superstition that bad luck will come to that person whose name is tattooed on. Some tattoos are part of fads. In the 1920s, the eagle symbolizing helping one’s mother or someone else was common. The Soviet era saw many Stalin, Lenin and Engels tattooed on chests, as convicts believed “you couldn’t be put in front of the firing squad.

You have the leaders on you.” The era of the Thieves’ Code saw tattoos of the crucifixion on a chest designating the highest-ranking Thief-in-Law, a dagger for a killerfor- hire, and many more representing one’s place in the power structure.

Some may find Lambert’s pictorial book it a bit too graphic, but it would appeal to tattoo enthusiasts or anyone interested in finding out about the Russian prison life (Gorky Park fans rejoice, there is a bit on the detective who inspired Martin Cruz Smith). In a unique way, this book is a piece of art in itself.

Russian Prison Tattoos – Codes of Authority, Domination and Struggle is available at Anglia bookshop, Moscow

Riding the Waves of Culture
Jerome Dumetz*

The newly released Russian edition of Fons Trompenaars’ global bestseller « Riding the Waves of Culture » offers a unique opportunity to review the original title.

Dutch from his father and French from his mother, Trompenaars experienced very soon the meaning of cultural differences. He is among the handful of “cultural gurus” who explain us why things are done differently in other countries.

Knowing that the world is supposed to become more global everyday, with multinational corporations as front-runners, the main idea of the book is based on the fact that the reality of international business is indeed more complex. More often than not, most businesses overlook the relevance of culture in the success or failure of their operation. Culture thus becomes a side dish, or worst, a minute part in the considerations made by managers and executive officers in managing and running their business. Since culture supervenes every feature of human existence, it must then be understood, appreciated, and applied to the various facets of a business.

This book discusses the effect of cultural diversity in the way people do business. Since culture is not easily felt, it is important for businesses to carefully understand how the culture of foreign partners may optimize their operations and enhance their communication.

Trompenaars explains that culture is the way people solve their problems, as we all share the same dilemmas in life vis-È- vis people, time and our environment. Choosing one solution instead of another, such as showing your emotions in a business meeting, is what makes us different.

This book is not a country-specific cultural survival kit. The approach is to define general traits of culture - the “7 dimensions”- in order to be able to compare and understand not only the reader’s culture and another one; but two, three or more cultures alien to the reader’s one.

By presenting in a clear and pragmatic way why we view deadlines, contracts, brainstorming or management by objectives in very different ways, this book is a valuable tool to any expatriated manager.

“Riding the Waves of Culture” is interesting for expats living in Russia because, for once, Russia is part of the countries reviewed. It is appreciable to see that Russia is not embedded, as too often, in a so-called “central and eastern Europe” group along with Greece, Moldova or Hungary.

However, on the negative side, we would wish more examples related, precisely to Russia. Maybe the reason lies in the fact that the Russian business culture is in constant mutation. Anyway, more hints on how to deal with Russians would be appreciated.

To conclude, the seasoned expatriate in Russia will enjoy reading this book, which is full of anecdotes, tips and answers about doing business in a different culture. The Russian version may be also a useful gift to Russian colleagues and employees in order to provide them with the tools to understand us, the foreigners.

Riding the Waves of Culture
Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business (Second Edition)
By Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner
Nicholas Bradley Publishing, 2000
ISBN 1 85788 176 1

* Jerome Dumetz is teaching cross-cultural communication at the REA Plekhanov in Moscow, and is an independent consultant to western corporations operating in Russia.
He may be reached at

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