April 1, 2013


Growing up in a Criminal Underworld
by Nicolai Lilin
570 pages, Canongate

Review by Marc Nash

In my review of Lilin's other book "Free Fall", I said that his writing about the war in Chechnya knocked the spots off Vietnam War books. And in this, his earlier memoir about his childhood, Siberian criminal culture is laid bare and knocks all Mafia tales into a cocked hat. Exotic, brutal and frankly bizarre, it's a tale of an old culture with all its values and mores which seem to derive from another planet. But the book is undeniably fascinating.

The Siberians here don't even live in Siberia, but in a region between Moldova and Ukraine after exile under the Communists as Siberia became the preserve of the Gulags and meant the local 'honest' criminals were displaced in the prisons by political prisoners. A fiercely proud and independent criminal culture who stubbornly resisted integration under the Communists, now find themselves trying to preserve their independent traditions in the face of the new Russia and Capitalism. They are guided by a strange mix of Orthodox religion and criminal code of ethics, in which God is used in elliptical codes that the police and authorities can't pierce. They refer to themselves as men of honour, bringing the justice of God to their criminal, anti-authoritarian activities. The body count is high in the book, mainly for those who fall foul of the strange etiquette built of 'honourable' behaviour. And yet this etiquette is utterly predicated on respect like any Mafiosa, albeit one more embedded on your actual deeds, rather than naked shows of power. The language and etiquette apart from being religious is also rather poetic and lyrical, because it's formal. "Dignified criminals introduce themselves, exchange greetings and wish each other every blessing even before they start killing each other". It's like something out of Shakespeare's portrayals of high nobility.

They are criminals and yet their code demands they remain humble. They eschew flagrant shows of wealth. The money is really only spent on provisioning everyday living, guns and religious icons. They despise gangsters who wear gold, instead they have their copious tattoos tell their stories for them. At the time of writing this novel, Lilin was a professional tattooist in Italy, bringing his native skills with him. It's hard to see quite why these criminals worked so hard to rob for money, when they didn't really spend it, other than helping out less fortunate members of their community, which usually meant widows of other criminals who maybe wouldn't have needed financial help if their men hadn't worked so fatally hard being criminals... In fact the most money appearing in the book was for a community raised reward to track down the perpetrators of the rape of an autistic girl. And the strange rules of the community meant that only the juveniles could go about seeking out the perpetrators and seeking justice, because they equated to the same age of the victim. This chapter was seriously fascinating and alienating in equal counts.

The mores of the criminal culture is a repellent one. Kids get inducted into knives and then guns. They all have scars from battles with other ethnic groups. They think nothing of disabling a foe in a fight by slicing the ligaments behind the knee. They expect to wind up in jail and indeed the chapter on Lilin's juvenile prison experience is jaw-droppingly powerful in its utter insanity. But ultimately, traditional as though it may be, it still derives from choosing a position and that terrible word 'lifestyle', borne of opposition to authority. It is not morally superior to the corrupt and brutal police, however hard the gangsters proclaim themselves as honourable and fair. The casual and cursory way they refer to police they have murdered to my mind cannot be mitigated by their view of being honourable in all other behaviours.

Yet having said this, the lifestyle and community by the end of Siberian Education is shown to be declining. The culture resisted the Soviet authorities' attempts to crush and integrate it, but as so often, it seems that the lure of Capitalism has done for it. A postcard from a fascinating, far-flung outpost.

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