SIBERIAN EDUCATION: GROWING UP IN A CRIMINAL UNDERWORLD
By Nicolai Lilin, translated by Jonathon Hunt
W.W. Norton & Company, $15.95; 447 pp.
By Nicolai Lilin, translated by Jamie Richards
W.W. Norton & Company, $24.95; 406 pp.
Nicolai Lilin’s best-selling, semi-fictional memoirs are added proof of the new barbarism threatening civilization.
Siberian Education recounts Lilin’s childhood in Transnistria. Stalin sought to dilute particularistic traditions by forcibly transferring populations and thus Siberian Urkas wound up here, northwest of the Black Sea between Romania and the Ukraine. Young “Kolima” grows up among criminals whose society is governed by elaborate rules and customs — from the etiquette for weapons to the patterns of tattoos. Offending any of them is cause for brutal retribution.
Local “Authorities” (“made-men” in American criminal slang) oversee the formation of young adolescent males. Among the most respected is Lilin’s grandfather, Kuzya, who teaches, “Human justice is horrible and wrong, and therefore only God can judge. Unfortunately, in some cases we’re obliged to overrule his decisions.” And: “Every man carries both God and the devil within himself. In some situations it’s right for one to prevail over the other.”
At the age of 12, Lilin serves his first prison term, for aggravated assault, and regards it as a vital rite of passage. He becomes proficient with knives and guns and in the preparation of Molotov cocktails. He is nearly killed and then commits murder in a vendetta. The moral code of the Urkas excuses any killing of police, government officials or rival criminals. He describes his youth with the clinical detachment of an anthropologist.
When Lilin is drafted into the Russian army at age 18, this “Siberian Education” has prepared him well for service in the Chechen campaign, which he describes in Sniper. Trained as a “saboteur,” the equivalent of American Special Forces, he endures two years of guerrilla warfare against Moslem insurgents seeking independence for Chechnya from the Russian Federation. He and his fellow saboteurs commit every brutality, every horror, every atrocity. Lilin records them all, occasionally approaching eloquence as in describing one dead soldier, “his hands clasped over his heart, as if in dying he’d tried to keep his soul from escaping.”
The commander of Lilin’s unit is Captain Nosov, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan whose cynicism about the leaders of the Soviet Union is exceeded only by his cynicism about the leaders of the Russian Federation. “The generals and politicians at the Kremlin eat our charred flesh and drink our rotten blood,” he says, and adds, “You know the only place where the constitutional order counts? The cemetery!” He tells his men, “Fear will make you grow eyes even on your back, but terror makes you blind.” Lilin listens, “I never stopped being afraid in the war, not even for an instant, and I think this is actually the reason I stayed alive and didn’t lose my mind.”
Grandfather Kuzya always said, “There is no Heaven or Hell — anyone who does wrong and commits serious sins is simply reincarnated as a Russian.” Reading Lilin’s memoirs will convince you that the Russian population is about to increase drastically.