The Wall Street Journal – review – April 16, 2011

Here Come the Cops – Steppe on It

Siberian Education
By Nicolai Lilin
Norton, 447 pages, $24.95


One day when he was 6 years old, Nicolai Lilin was given his first knife. This wasn’t just any knife but a “pike,” a menacing, foot-long switchblade with a handle carved from deer antler. To Nicolai, the weapon had talismanic power; it was both noble and ferocious, with the prospect of horrific violence only barely masked by the knife’s placid beauty. In short, as Mr. Lilin writes in “Siberian Education: Growing Up in a Criminal Underworld,” the pike “was a fantastic weapon, and I felt as if I were in heaven.”

Mr. Lilin was born into a tightly knit society of Siberian bandits, known as Urkas (gulag slang for thieves), living in exile in Transnistria, a tiny quasi-state that runs along the Dniester River between Ukraine and Moldova. His memoir of growing up among the Urkas is a mischievous, almost mythological, tale of robberies carried out with honor, of revenge exacted with judiciousness. Mr. Lilin and his childhood friends are indoctrinated into the many codes governing the Siberian criminal underworld, much as the hoppers pick up the rules of the drug game in “The Wire.”

The Urkas are a proud and merciless bunch, stabbing and killing their way to humble riches. But they are not without rules. “First of all,” Mr. Lilin writes, “you had to respect all living creatures.” He is quick, however, to note that this category does not include “policemen, people connected with the government, bankers, loan sharks, and all those who had the power of money in their hands and exploited ordinary people.”

Weapons fall into two categories: “honest” and “sinful.” Honest weapons are used for game-hunting. “In hunting there is no place for self-interest, only survival,” Mr. Lilin says, explaining that this doctrine informs the entire Siberian criminal ethos. Sinful weapons are tools of the criminal trade: An AK-47, the Siberians’ favorite, is a “saw”; a silenced rifle, a “whip.” Handguns, meanwhile, are kept in a home’s “red corner” amid religious icons and photographs of dead or imprisoned relatives. A crucifix is placed on top of the pistol—a seal of sorts, Mr. Lilin says, to keep it from being used in the house.

With its exhaustive descriptions of ritual and tradition, “Siberian Education” at times resembles a work of cultural anthropology. This can be delightful, as when Mr. Lilin’s grandfather turns back a bumbling group of policemen who have charged into the family home; he employs a mix of Siberian criminal humor and strictly ordered codes of conversation—all carefully annotated for the reader by Mr. Lilin. But this anthropological approach to even minor matters becomes a bit wearisome, as every kiss on the cheek or description of a letter is preceded by “in obedience to an ancient tradition” or the more Borat-like “as is the custom in our country.”

But how much of Mr. Lilin’s vivid portrait of the criminal life should be taken as fact? Some scholars of Soviet history and the Transnistria region have taken issue with Mr. Lilin’s depiction of the resettlement of the Urkas under Stalin—for starters, the Urkas were not an ethnic group at all, but a loosely organized criminal gang. At other points, Mr. Lilin piles on so many outlandish but faintly plausible stories that he threatens to spoil the book’s sense of vérité. When Mr. Lilin stops by the house of one particularly infamous criminal, for instance, he credulously reports that the man has killed 12,000 policemen over the course of his career.

Perhaps this book is best read as a darkly criminal version of magical realism, in which characters named Hedgehog and Plum sharpen their knives while discussing the fine points of tradition-steeped, blood-soaked morality. Mr. Lilin has constructed “Siberian Education” as a Russian nesting doll, with stories unfolding inside of other stories, which yield yet more stories. The author’s ultimate aim seems less to document a peculiar underworld than to upend our notions of right and wrong, and of who the good guys really are. The answer, depressingly, may be no one.

– Mr. Yaffa is an associate editor at Foreign Affairs.

Review published on the WSJ on April 16, 2011.

BORN A THIEF - Nicolai Lilin