Siberian Education, Nicolai Lilin

In Book reviews on May 27, 2011 at 3:30 am

A visceral and gripping account of the author’s life growing up in a criminal community in Siberia, this book grabbed me by the brain and didn’t let go till I’d raced through its 400 pages. Aside from the violence, which is rendered in some of the most vivid prose I’ve read since reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it is the philosophy of the criminal society to which Lilin belonged, the Urkas, that makes this book stand out. They are humble, showing no outward signs of their wealth, and unerringly polite (to insult someone’s mother is likely to lead to sever sanctions, possibly even death, under their system of justice). All their money is spent on Catholic idols and weapons. Unlike other criminal communities in the same region, they have great respect for the elderly, and the disabled (who walk freely between the houses of the Urkas and are cared for by all, they are said to have been ‘touched by the angels’).

In his review of the book for the Guardian, Irvine Welsh (of Trainspotting fame) wrote that the Urkas adhere to “higher principles than the mainstream ones pursued in the west”, and indeed there are admirable traits in their outlook (their rejection of consumerism, for example, and utmost respect for the autonomy of the individual). But Welsh ignores the many things that make ‘the west’ a much more desirable place to live, such as the rule of law, a relative lack of violence, and freedoms of religion and sexuality. Conversely, to dismiss them as entirely unprincipled simply because their society exists outside the laws of the state (and indeed, depends entirely on flouting those laws for its survival) would be wrong, too.

With many searingly memorable passages and images (in particular a nauseating account of the author’s time in youth prison) this book forces you to question assumptions about crime and criminals, and, in the process, look at the way we live in a different light, too.


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