On Nicolai Lilin’s Siberian Education
Nicolai Lilin’s memoir about growing up as an outlaw in Transinistra will probably make a good movie. (The film, with John Malkovich starring as the Lilin’s grandfather Kuzya, now appears to be in post-production.) Lilin’s written narrative spends as much time in back allies as he and his friends did. By the time it emerges onto a main street, you may find yourself trying to remember where it was supposed to be going.
“Oh, yeah, they’re killing the guys who raped the autistic girl.”
The book lays out a sizeable take of offbeat characters and evocative sketches of his alien, defiant world. It’s an unrepentant recollection, and a romantic one. I was hoping to learn more about Russian criminal culture. This is the wrong book for that. It opens with a disclaimer, saying that “certain episodes are imaginative recreation,” and I found it difficult to confirm the accuracy of his portrayal of Siberian criminals. Lilin notes at the end that his people no longer live as they did, that the strict codes his criminal family followed have since been relaxed or corrupted.
The criminals in Lilin’s world are not thugs looking to get rich and lose themselves in a trailing haze of hookers and blow. He portrays his people as an ethnic group set against all forms authority but their own. His “Urkas” are anti-materialist; thieving is a means of survival and a rejection of external law.
He who wants too much is a madman, because a man cannot possess more than his heart is able to love.
Their morality is anarchic spite set against Russian Orthodox iconography, guided by in-group loyalty and hierarchical man-code.
The Urka’s religious treatment of weaponry is particularly interesting. Weapons used for hunting, a purifying pursuit, are kept as ancestral cult objects within the home. These “honest weapons” are distinguished from the impure tools of the criminal’s trade, and the Urkas are careful not to contaminate pure weapons by placing impure weapons in the same room.
Lilin’s criminal underground is a world of men. Women have a place in it, but not the same place as men. Some women—mostly the women of other men and outsiders—are known to be whores, but Siberian women are portrayed as Madonnas. Their women are protected and revered. Siberian Education has much to say about manhood, both directly and indirectly. Siberian manhood is archetypal and tribal. It’s about “us” and “them.” Its Byzantine codes of manhood are always about identity, about what “we” do, about who “we” are.
Early in the book, Lilin tells a story about a starving wolf pack. One wolf rejects the rules of the pack, rationalizing his decision by saying that filling one’s belly is more important than following a code. The wolf leaves the others and begs for food from men. The men feed him. The wolf lives among the men and hunts with them. One day the men shoot an old wolf, and the wolf who runs with men realizes that the men have wounded the patriarch of his former pack. As the old wolf dies, he says to the young wolf:
‘I have lived my life like a worthy wolf, I have hunted a lot and shared many prey with my brothers, so now I die happy. But you will live your life in shame, and alone, in a world to which you do not belong, for you have rejected the dignity of a free wolf to have a full stomach. You have become unworthy. Wherever you go, you will be treated with contempt; you belong neither to the world of wolves nor to that of men . . . This will teach you that hunger comes and goes, but dignity, once lost, never returns.’
Though the storyline sometimes wanders too far off the road, Siberian Education is well worth reading for its reflective moments, its rituals, and its exploration of a wholly masculine ethos.
Siberian Education: Growing Up in a Criminal Underworld
Nicolai Lilin, Translated by Jonathan Hunt
W. W. Norton & Company (April 4, 2011)
Nicolai Lilin’s Official Web Site
Other Reviews of Siberian Education