The National Post Book Review: Siberian Education, by Nicolai Lilin

Siberian Education: Family, Honour and Tattoos: An Extraordinary Underworld Life
By Nicolai Lilin
Translated by Jonathan Hunt
McClelland & Stewart
464 pp.; $32.99

Reviewed by Richard Poplak

Siberia is, suddenly, hot. This has nothing to do with climate change, but is rather the result of a concerted burst of literary interest in a place that has traditionally been exiled to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s oeuvre, or used as the standby metaphor for “frozen backwater.” First, Ian Frazier released his Travels in Siberia. Now, we have the antidote for his gentle dilettantism: Nikolai Lilin, a Turin tattooist, has written a memoir called Siberian Education: Family, Honour and Tattoos: An Extraordinary Underworld Life. It’s a bracing, true-crime curiosity that should interest those who want their understanding of the region massively shaken up, or their knowledge of knife fighting thoroughly upgraded.

Siberian Education is a meditation on kin, clan and freedom, and works overtime at inverting traditional notions of law and morality. In Lilin’s topsy-turvy universe, police and government are the villains, while killers and crooks are the good guys. Lilin’s Urkas — Siberian underworld figures — are not merely criminals, but an outlaw caste moved by the Bolsheviks from Siberia to Transnistria, a sliver of rancid deli meat sandwiched between the Ukraine and Moldova.

Lilin’s rollicking book kicks off in another outpost of the once Soviet empire. We’re in the middle of a vicious battle in Grozny, Chechnya. Our hero, who has left home to join the army, has just engaged in a running gunfight with rebel insurgents. He stares into a tub of cool, black water, and muses, “Death might be just like that: dark and airless.”

We whip-pan back to 1980, and learn that a young Lilin has had plenty of occasion to muse on the vagaries of mortality. He was small, but grew up smart. Sitting at the feet of beloved, heavily tattooed elders, he learned the unbendable codes of conduct that form the moral system of honest Siberian crooks. His father was in and out of prison like most dads go to the supermarket, but patriarchs were an interchangeable bunch among the Urkas of Transnistria. A respect for elders, for the wisdom they commute, provides the book with its backbone and its raison d’être: In a region where cellphones and porn have replaced the atavistic order, Siberian Education intends to pass on the old lessons.

By all accounts, Lilin was a good student, which means he never went to school. Instead, he tried to shoot a cop when he was a toddler. He received his first pike — criminal slang for flick knife — at the age of six. By eight, he was an experienced street fighter. By 10, he knew that he wanted to be a kolshik — “he who stings” — and tattoo in the tradition of the criminal underworld. He learned to read the messages coded into these markings, which spoke of hard lives spent mostly in prison. This book can be thought of as his largest, and perhaps most lasting, work as a kolshik, given that life expectancy in Transnistria is often measured in minutes.

And like an old criminal’s back tat, Siberian Education is a discursive amble through the minutiae of the Siberian criminal underworld. The Urkas are, in many respects, a pagan-Orthodox mash-up, and their rituals are at once baffling and fascinating. Upon entering a house, bad guns (guns used for crime) are placed on an altar, above an icon, underneath a crucifix. Drinking chifir — strong tea — at a criminal gathering makes the most intricate of Japanese tea ceremonies seem like ordering a latte at Starbucks. Every single act is ritualized, and underneath them all runs a warm current of violence. In a land as hard as Siberia, without the strictest of codes, chaos and death are only a small mishap away. Lilin’s clan did not drape themselves in bling and drive BMWs with tinted windows. Their criminal activities were never acquisitive, but an ancient act of undermining the ruling class, and of standing in opposition to authority. That said, the Urkas have their own absurdities and lapses of moral judgment, of which Lilin is only too aware. No system is perfect, he suggests. But one that champions individualism over collectivism, and tradition over shiny modernity, is bound to be more humane.

A quick warning to purists: Lilin’s book admits in its preface to “imaginative recreations;” elsewhere it has been published as a novel. Lilin is unlikely to have to issue a mea culpa on the Oprah couch, so his forthrightness is appreciated. Siberian Education exists in the no man’s land between memoir and roman à clef, a region more memoirists should own up to inhabiting.

Ultimately, though, Siberian Education is a something of a requiem. Regimes came and went; Lilin’s band of untameable Urkas faced them down with contempt. It remains an open and tragic question whether they have emerged intact. This book’s brutal coda in Grozny can be read as a warning: The Russian bear is a brutal creature. The only thing that will save you is your clan, your wits, and your education.

• Richard Poplak is the author of The Sheikh’s Batmobile, Ja, No, Man and, most recently, Kenk: A Graphic Portrait.

Article published on the National Post: