In the midst of the tented village that every August becomes the Edinburgh International Book Festival, it’s quite usual to see families wandering around enjoying the (rare) sunny days, children with ice creams, elderly ladies swooning over Alexander McCall Smith, that sort of thing. The Festival has a very laid-back atmosphere, and offers an escape from the hectic world of Festivals Edinburgh. It was therefore a rather odd sight to see Russian writer and Turin-based tattoo artist Nicolai Lilin, swaggering through the entrance with a humongous, muscle-bound bodyguard and his Italian interpreter.
Lilin comes from the tiny state of Transnistria, a region of Moldova which is neither recognised by the Moldovan government nor by any international organisation. His family, however, are deported Siberian Urkas, a close-knit criminal community that adheres to an incredibly strict set of social practices. His semi-autobiographical Siberian Education, gives the reader a look into the life of a child growing up in the Urka community; or at least, so it seems.
The book itself is bursting with colourful descriptions of the life led by the displaced Siberians. The tradition of tattooing and of reading tattoos is particularly interesting: each element of a tattoo has a specific meaning, which allows a skilled tattoo artist to know everything about that person’s life story just from glancing over their arms and chest. The community follows rules regarding how to speak to the police, who are generally regarded as the lowest of the low and cannot be spoken to directly, only through a translator (that is to say, a woman); and also of how to deal with criminals from other communities. The Urkas come across as ruthless and violent thugs, but with a strong sense of pride for their heritage. For instance, the young Lilin learns from one of his many ‘Grandfathers’ (the name given to an elder in the community) how to hunt and fish – a skill he would use to his advantage to fish a murdered corpse out of the river. When in prison as an early teen (for killing another boy), Lilin is protected by other Urka inmates, who rally together to help each other survive the cruel living conditions and the verbal, physical and often sexual abuse from other inmates. The vivid explanations of his criminal activities make it certainly not a book for the squeamish.
There is a catch, however. The talk at the Book Festival gave Lilin the opportunity to make it clear that most of the events were highly embellished, some of the key episodes being largely fabricated. One in particular, a gripping search to kill a man who had raped a girl from Lilin’s community, was in reality simply a series of rather dull snippets of hear-say thrown together in one chapter. In fact, the longer he spoke about the Siberian Urkas of Transnistria, the more the audience began to realise that this community of violent yet honourable criminals, who revere their guns as idols and uphold noble values of duty and brotherhood and integrity, was a thing of the past. Lilin explains how people today have been corrupted by the evils of capitalism, and that this idyllic world of respect for elders and camaraderie between the youth has long since disappeared. It’s not particularly clear what we can take as fact from this book, as the reader is often thrown off-balance by seemingly incongruous information about Lilin’s life: his ambitions to become a yoga instructor, for example, don’t seem to sit comfortably next to his general aggression towards everyone.
The book, which sold out within 48 hours of its release in Lilin’s adoptive Italy, has not made a huge splash in the English-speaking world. Billed as an exposé of a never-before described criminal community and a study of the morality of crime, Siberian Education leaves the Book Festival goer feeling rather deflated. However, regardless of the unreliability of the information, Lilin’s book does succeed in exploring questions of morality in crime. He considers revenge for an attack on his community as not only a right, but a duty, otherwise he himself will be the one to be punished. The fact that the Siberian Urkas in Transnistria no longer live this way is perhaps rather positive (especially for other communities living close by), as it might mark the beginning of the end of organised crime, institutionalised racism, sexism and homophobia, and high rates of knife and gun violence. Still, it also means the loss of a proud and noble people. Is there really a place for values like this in the 21st century? Lilin leaves that up to the reader to decide.