Coming of Age in Hell

In “Siberian Education,” Nicolai Lilin remembers growing-up in a violent criminal underworld. Even if only one-tenth of it is true, says reviewer Toby Lichtig, the book still achieves something impressive.

Nicolai Lilin’s “Siberian Education” depicts the author’s early life growing up in Transnistria, a breakaway enclave of the Soviet Union, on the border of Ukraine and Moldova.

This “memoir” has been causing quite a storm, and not just because of its outlandish brutality. For some, it is a too violent, terrifying account of a lawless and neglected corner of the Soviet Union as the fracturing empire struggles to emerge from communism; for others it hints at the continued legacy of Russian gangsterism and corruption.

And then there are its critics: the book has been accused of outright mendacity. In the “Literary Review,” Professor Donald Rayfield described its contents as “a fantasist’s ravings” and mocked its “gullible” admirers.

Certainly, “Siberian Education” should not be taken at face value. Nicolai Lilin’s tale of life is filled with historical implausibility and statistical impossibility. But rethought as a piece of semi-fictional anthropology and the story springs to life. Even if only one-tenth of it is true, the book remains a chilling portrait of the viciousness that comes from political disenfranchisement.

Mr. Lilin, who now lives in Italy, brilliantly depicts a criminal underworld of strict mores, arcane logic and brutal justice. Politicians are a natural enemy; policemen their servile dogs. Jail is a rite of passage; criminality an ethos. But the community is not without its morality. Above all, Mr. Lilin’s Urkas venerate humility, freedom and anti-materialism (a strange feature given all the thieving). They revel in their ethnic solidarity: “How wonderful it is to be Siberian.”

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The Urka community in Bender was supposedly deported there from Siberia by Stalin in the 1930s (another questionable piece of history). As such, it is bound up in the myths of the old country. Russian Orthodoxy is central but mingled with derivatives of Shamanism and cult symbols of the outlaw. Guns are placed next to Orthodox icons and ritualistically blessed; weapons exist in a complex taxonomy and can be used for deeds both “good” and “evil.”

As a toddler, Mr. Lilin “didn’t care about toys.” His main fascination was with the “pike,” a traditional knife. When he is given his own by an aging godfather, he becomes a kindergarten celebrity. As he grows into a delinquent, he learns how to slice the knee ligaments of his enemies. He drinks hard, fights harder and is tried for attempted murder. He isn’t yet 13.

But young Lilin is also polite to his mother, a gifted raconteur and trainee body artist. The depictions of the “codes of tattoos” are fascinating. Tattoos chart the trajectory of a criminal’s life; those who know how to decipher them can tell the life story of their bearer by a glance. The oral folk tradition is also fundamental. With so much time spent in prison, storytelling is a precious entertainment.

And so Mr. Lilin recounts various episodes of the bizarre and the grotesque. An abused dog gets his own back; a neglected TB victim gains a minor victory; a Rasputin-esque robber survives an execution.

Lilin delights in the argot of the underworld (adeptly rendered in English translation by Jonathan Hunt). His upbringing is replete with sardonic maxims and wry imprecations: “Death and damnation to all cops and informers”; “The only thing a worthy criminal takes from the cops is a beating, and even that he gives back.” “Writing” is slang for a knife wound; a good thrashing will make an adversary’s “shadow bleed.”

Lilin also narrates with his tongue firmly in cheek. Describing a terrifying ex-con “completely covered in tattoos, and with iron teeth,” he concludes: “he seemed a normal kind of guy.”

Ever open to distraction, “Siberian Education” meanders like a shaggy dog story. We are told Mr. Lilin enjoys Charles Dickens and Arthur Conan Doyle; there are Pushkinesque moments of ribald monstrosity. But the literary forebear that best comes to mind is Maxim Gorky in “My Childhood.” It is through a child’s eyes that we view this fiendish adult world; and it is through a child’s eyes that we accept it.

Mr. Lilin’s Urkas are always in the right, whether wreaking awesome vengeance for a rape in the community or opining on the perfidy of other criminal communities. Even when he dismisses the idea of human “justice,” Mr. Lilin can never quite condemn his own. This is a life of us and them—to see nuance would mean weakness.

When Mr. Lilin goes to juvenile prison, he forms bonds with the Armenians, Belorussians and Cossacks; the Ukrainians and Georgians are despised. A hideous story of gang violence unfolds, of rapes and routine tortures. Worst of all are the prison guards. The pack mentality is vital. Stray from the flock and you risk being picked off.

Mr. Lilin delights in the “egalitarian” nature of his criminal world, where valor and loyalty count for more than wealth or family connection. However “violent and brutal” his mentors, there is “no place for lies and pretence, cant and dissembling.”

This is the Russian gangland recast as a medieval Romance. Now, we are told, things have changed: post-Soviet materialism and treachery have infected the integrity of the neighborhood. Once again, we should take this with a large dose of Siberian salt. But Mr. Lilin still achieves something impressive. Amid the depravity of its anti-heroes, “Siberian Education” paints a memorable world of anarchism, devotion, humor and respect. It is not one in which any sane-minded person would choose to live; but it is one that we could learn from.

Mr. Lichtig is a freelance writer, editor and producer. His criticism regularly appears in the Times Literary Supplement, among other places.

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Full article and photo: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703748904575410890254628062.html