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Siberian Education: Growing Up in a Criminal Underworld

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"Marvelous and illuminating. . . . Forces us to reassess our notions of good and evil."—Irvine Welsh In a contested, lawless region between Moldova and Ukraine known as Transnistria, a tightly knit group of "honest criminals"—exiled there by Stalin-live according to strict codes of ritualized respect and fierce loyalty. Here, tattoos tell the story of a man's life, "honest" "Marvelous and illuminating. . . . Forces us to reassess our notions of good and evil."—Irvine Welsh In a contested, lawless region between Moldova and Ukraine known as Transnistria, a tightly knit group of "honest criminals"—exiled there by Stalin-live according to strict codes of ritualized respect and fierce loyalty. Here, tattoos tell the story of a man's life, "honest" weapons are separated from "sinful" ones, and authority is always to be distrusted. Beyond the control of any government and outside the bounds of "society" as we know it, these men uphold values including respect for elders and an unwavering adherence to the truth with passion-and often by brute force. In a voice utterly compelling and unforgettable, Nicolai Lilin, born and raised within this exotic subculture, tells the story of his moral education among the Siberian Urkas. A bestseller in his home country of Italy, this unique tale of an extreme boyhood "will produce a thrill of pleasure that is hard to forget" (Roberto Saviano).


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"Marvelous and illuminating. . . . Forces us to reassess our notions of good and evil."—Irvine Welsh In a contested, lawless region between Moldova and Ukraine known as Transnistria, a tightly knit group of "honest criminals"—exiled there by Stalin-live according to strict codes of ritualized respect and fierce loyalty. Here, tattoos tell the story of a man's life, "honest" "Marvelous and illuminating. . . . Forces us to reassess our notions of good and evil."—Irvine Welsh In a contested, lawless region between Moldova and Ukraine known as Transnistria, a tightly knit group of "honest criminals"—exiled there by Stalin-live according to strict codes of ritualized respect and fierce loyalty. Here, tattoos tell the story of a man's life, "honest" weapons are separated from "sinful" ones, and authority is always to be distrusted. Beyond the control of any government and outside the bounds of "society" as we know it, these men uphold values including respect for elders and an unwavering adherence to the truth with passion-and often by brute force. In a voice utterly compelling and unforgettable, Nicolai Lilin, born and raised within this exotic subculture, tells the story of his moral education among the Siberian Urkas. A bestseller in his home country of Italy, this unique tale of an extreme boyhood "will produce a thrill of pleasure that is hard to forget" (Roberto Saviano).

30 review for Siberian Education: Growing Up in a Criminal Underworld

  1. 4 out of 5

    Marc Nash

    In my review of Lilin's other book "Free Fall", I said that his writing about the war in Chechnya knocked the spots off Vietnam War books. And in this, his earlier memoir about his childhood, Siberian criminal culture is laid bare and knocks all Mafia tales into a cocked hat. Exotic, brutal and frankly bizarre, it's a tale of an old culture with all its values and mores that seem to derive from another planet. But the book is undeniably fascinating. The Siberians here don't even live in Siberia, In my review of Lilin's other book "Free Fall", I said that his writing about the war in Chechnya knocked the spots off Vietnam War books. And in this, his earlier memoir about his childhood, Siberian criminal culture is laid bare and knocks all Mafia tales into a cocked hat. Exotic, brutal and frankly bizarre, it's a tale of an old culture with all its values and mores that seem to derive from another planet. But the book is undeniably fascinating. The Siberians here don't even live in Siberia, but in a region between Moldova and Ukraine after exile under the Communists as Siberia became the preserve of the Gulags and the local 'honest' criminals were displaced in the prisons by political prisoners. A fiercely proud and independent criminal culture who stubbornly resisted integration under the Communists, now find themselves trying to preserve their independent traditions in the face of the new Russia and Capitalism. They have a strange mix of Orthodox religion and criminality, in which God is used in elliptical codes that the police and authorities can't pierce. They refer to themselves as men of honour, bringing the justice of God to their criminal, anti-authoritarian activities. The bodycount is high in the book, for those who dishonour the strange etiquette built of honourable behaviour. And yet this etiquette is utterly predicated on respect like any Mafiosa, albeit one more embedded on your actual deeds, rather than naked shows of power. The language and etiquette apart from being religious is also rather poetic and lyrical, because it's formal. "Dignified criminals introduce themselves, exchange greetings and wish each other every blessing even before they start killing each other". It's like something out of Shakespeare's portrayals of high nobility. They are criminals and yet their code demands they remain humble. They eschew flagrant shows of wealth. The money is really only spent on every day living, guns and religious icons. They despise gangsters who wear gold, instead they have their copious tattoos tell their stories for them. At the time of writing this novel, Lilin was a professional tattooist in Italy, bringing his native skills with him. It's hard to see quite why these criminals worked so hard to rob for money, when they didn't really spend it, other than helping out less fortunate members of their community, which usually meant widows of other criminals who maybe wouldn't have needed financial help if their men hadn't worked so fatally hard being criminals... In fact the most money appearing in the book was for a community raised reward to track down the perpetrators of the rape of an autistic girl. And the strange rules of the community meant that only the juveniles could go about seeking out the perpetrators and seeking justice, because they equated to the same age of the victim. This chapter was seriously fascinating and alienating in equal counts. A postcard from a seriously exotic outpost of the world.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Meaghan

    I received this book free through Librarything's early reviewers program. This certainly is an extraordinary story, soaked in gore in a Painted Bird sort of way. Nicolai Lilin claims he has murdered multiple people, and so has almost everyone he grew up with, including one guy who killed thousands of policemen and kept their badges. While he was in juvenile prison he witnessed numerous gang rapes, some of which were made into child pornography films, and there were several more murders. The I received this book free through Librarything's early reviewers program. This certainly is an extraordinary story, soaked in gore in a Painted Bird sort of way. Nicolai Lilin claims he has murdered multiple people, and so has almost everyone he grew up with, including one guy who killed thousands of policemen and kept their badges. While he was in juvenile prison he witnessed numerous gang rapes, some of which were made into child pornography films, and there were several more murders. The society he grew up in, he says, was criminal but certainly not lawless; in fact, it looks like it had more laws than most "normal" civilizations. I do wish more page space had been given to the role of women -- who barely exist in the story -- and how it was that Lilin grew up to be a law-abiding tattoo artist in Italy. I hate to say it, but I find myself questioning the memoir's authenticity. I'm not going to say anything one way or another because I don't know enough about the region, but I don't understand how such a society could continue to exist almost into the 21st century, and I wonder how these people lived and what they lived off of. This is, nevertheless, a galloping read. Take that for what it's worth.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Tara

    I can safely say that I've never read anything quite like this book. it starts almost as a straightforward anthropological study of an ethnic criminal gang in the eastern reaches of the Russian Federation: mores, manners, gender roles, rites of passage, jailhouse traditions, and tattoo meanings. The book eventually turns to an unsentimental autobiography of the author's coming of age, leading to him joining the Army during the Chechnyan conflict. Fascinating and disturbing.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

    This was a First Reads giveaway for which I am grateful, but I finally had to abandon this one, which is unfortunate because many of the stories were interesting but I just could not get into it. The writing style (or lack thereof) was one factor in my decision as it was simply too vague and jumped around from vignette to vignette with little to no rhyme or reason. It was difficult to follow since there was no continuous storyline. I understand that should be expected with an autobiography but This was a First Reads giveaway for which I am grateful, but I finally had to abandon this one, which is unfortunate because many of the stories were interesting but I just could not get into it. The writing style (or lack thereof) was one factor in my decision as it was simply too vague and jumped around from vignette to vignette with little to no rhyme or reason. It was difficult to follow since there was no continuous storyline. I understand that should be expected with an autobiography but it was too distracting. My biggest hang up is with the overly glamorous, romanticized depiction of these criminals. I knew I was reading about a culture that was very different from my own, but at the same time the sense of realism was missing. It read like the author's bright and rosy memories leaving out the dirtiness and reality of that kind of life. There were many inconsistencies with statements like they would not be captured alive by authorities/police unless gravely injured and yet almost all of them spent many years in jail. It seems unlikely that they would all have fought to the death prior to capture given the inordinate amount of them being jailed. It just never came together for me and I ended up giving up because I felt I was having to force myself to read it.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Jay Mccready

    I know I got this book for free, but at the risk of sounding biased I absolutely loved this book! It's written in a straight forward style that's direct and to the point which I found to be really refreshing. You will not find flowery language, run on sentences or fluff here. This is a no holds barred account of growing up in a community where violence is a way of life and it was chilling, disturbing and enlightening all at the same time. I was fascinated by the dichotomy of their culture with I know I got this book for free, but at the risk of sounding biased I absolutely loved this book! It's written in a straight forward style that's direct and to the point which I found to be really refreshing. You will not find flowery language, run on sentences or fluff here. This is a no holds barred account of growing up in a community where violence is a way of life and it was chilling, disturbing and enlightening all at the same time. I was fascinated by the dichotomy of their culture with thieves and vagabonds on the one hand and yet their sense of freedom, honor, justice and commitment to family and community is enviable. Nicolai's detailed explanations behind the old traditions from the way the criminals interact with one another and those outside of their community (not all criminals hold to the same code of honor) to the story behind the tattooing made me feel totally immersed in his world. I personally could not put this book down. I highly recommended this book for anyone who enjoys reading memoirs with a gritty edge and who isn't bothered by the lack of a feel good happy ending.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    This memoir by Nicolai Lilin is about a community of criminals deported by Stalin known as Siberian Urkas. Initially, you understand it is a story of endless violence, the moral code followed by the "gangs", platitudes spewed out by the elders and Nicolai's education of how to survive as a ruthless gang member. As I read, it felt like I was listening to the author talking at nauseism about all his escapades and his glorification of the activities. It was like hitting a rewind button. I read it This memoir by Nicolai Lilin is about a community of criminals deported by Stalin known as Siberian Urkas. Initially, you understand it is a story of endless violence, the moral code followed by the "gangs", platitudes spewed out by the elders and Nicolai's education of how to survive as a ruthless gang member. As I read, it felt like I was listening to the author talking at nauseism about all his escapades and his glorification of the activities. It was like hitting a rewind button. I read it to the end because I received it as a complimentary advance reading copy but would not recommend it to any of my friends.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Vaiva Sapetkaitė

    This is a strange book, but in a good way. I found it engaging, but rather too long. Nothing essential wouldn't be lost, if it was made 1/3 shorter. I would be glad, if its writing style would be more elegant, but maybe when a russian is writing in italian and later it is translated to lithuanian it could be expected.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Victoria

    Fantastic insight into an unimaginable life...

  9. 5 out of 5

    Isa K.

    Siberian Education starts off with the following disclaimer: This memoir is based on the author's own experiences. Names have been changed, characters combined and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative recreation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events. The first part of that disclaimer is fairly standard, the second part is not and it can't help but color your judgement of this ludicrously violent tale of honor of among thieves. I kind of wonder if this Siberian Education starts off with the following disclaimer: This memoir is based on the author's own experiences. Names have been changed, characters combined and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative recreation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events. The first part of that disclaimer is fairly standard, the second part is not and it can't help but color your judgement of this ludicrously violent tale of honor of among thieves. I kind of wonder if this disclaimer was in the original (italian) release of this book or if it was something they added later in the wake of the waves of popular memoirs where shit was just made up (*cough* James Fry), because it seems to me that it's stupid to structure the book as a inside look into the elaborate rituals and rules of the criminal underworld if you're going to have a 'oh yeah some of this is total bullshit' disclaimer hanging over it. This book is absurdly violent and directionless. The chapters are far too long ("My Birthday" weighing in at a staggering 150 some-odd pages. A SINGLE CHAPTER) and ladened with so many digressions you begin to lose track of what's going on. It would have been better to split each digression into its own chapter where the many colorful characters of the criminal community could be introduced in their own context and then referenced as they became important in Nicolai's escapades. Actually it would have been much better to structure the book around Nicolai's relationship with his best friend Mel rather than trying to force it into becoming some strange ethnography of Russian criminal culture. Mel is Nicolai's constant companion, a clueless thug incapable of understanding the rules that govern their society nor the strategy required to thrive within them. Nevertheless his loyalty and earnestness keeps him from being shut out of Nicolai's life even as he brings progressively more trouble to the table. It's Nicolai's realization that he will never be able to build a future for himself outside the criminal world until he casts off Mel that's the turning point of the book. By making the focus the rules and customs the writer did a great disservice to what could have been a really interesting read. To begin with you won't find much here that you can't gleam from other (far more credible) sources. Descriptions of rules and practices that are unique to this story seems so absurdly impractical, the punishments for breaking even the tiniest rules so extreme, one can scarcely imagine any society surviving like this for very long. Russian organized crime does have elaborate culture and rituals, but those are always secondary to survival and business. Lilin's description of them comes off as very idealistic and childish if not outright fabrication (and with such a disclaimer hanging over the book...). Almost lost among the violence and romanticism of crime is the book's most profound point: the ugliness and inherent unfairness of justice. Nicolai lives in a world where official justice is run by corrupt and sadistic figures, conditions in prisons so brutal reform practically impossible. Criminal honor exists to establish law and order in this vacuum (Robert Friedman made this point himself in Red Mafiya), and Siberian Education details Nicolai's slow disenchantment with the justice all the rules support. The violence ultimately restores and resolves nothing, the criminal life that was once a matter of basic survival under a harsh Soviet system is slowly becoming about money and power, "honest thieves" are always under attack by lowly criminals, etc, etc, etc. So basically there's some interesting stuff here but if you're looking for a book about the ins and outs of criminal communities there are much better options.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    This is such a strange book from a very strange country. This country seems to be in a 50 year time warp, with Lenin statues still standing. The Transnistria postage,passports and money are not accepted in any other country. This country is not even recognized by the UN or other countries.I wasn't familiar with Transnistria, had never even heard of it. So,I researched it on the Internet It is a country that broke off the Moldavia to the west and has on its east is the Ukraine. Here this country This is such a strange book from a very strange country. This country seems to be in a 50 year time warp, with Lenin statues still standing. The Transnistria postage,passports and money are not accepted in any other country. This country is not even recognized by the UN or other countries.I wasn't familiar with Transnistria, had never even heard of it. So,I researched it on the Internet It is a country that broke off the Moldavia to the west and has on its east is the Ukraine. Here this country is known, it is supposed to be the human trafficking it in the world, drug trafficking and is thought to be manufacturing dirty bombs. That is my short introduction to the country. What the author, Nicolai Lilin covers are what it was like growing up there and his events in his life. The author talks of a culture built around weapons. There are rituals built around the weapons. The author states that when he was a child, he did not want toys, he wanted weapons! There are 'sinful weapons' for criminal purposes and 'honest weapons' for hunting. He goes into great detail about the culture of the tattoos. I have to stop reading at times because of the tremendous amount of violence in this man's life. This book is so disturbing and life in Transnitisa is so brutal. I am not relating the worst of what is written in this book. There is a deep hatred of the police. In fact, this even enters the way that people relate to them. The differences between our society and their is overwhelming but I will leave that to you to find out the details. The writing is straight forward and I would even say blunt. The author explains the language, many words are code for other meanings. You cannot learn the languages spoken by the people in the country and have a real idea of the meaning. This book is very difficult to read because of its content. It is very gritty and so awful that you may not want to read much of it at a time. I have a weak stomach and this book really gets to it. I reccommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about the Transnistria culture and had a stronger stomach than I. This book was received from Library Thing and in no way influenced by review. My thoughts are my own.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Konstantin

    Absolutley great story about what happened with young people in Russia, with those, who was born at the end of USSR, whom childhood was at bloody 90s. I understand, why this book everywhere in the world described as one of the best russian books. It shows everything how it was in real. And the same way I understand why this book will never be translated to russian language. I strongly recommend this book to everyone, who want how it was to raise in Russia and ex-USSR at 90's, our youth-culture Absolutley great story about what happened with young people in Russia, with those, who was born at the end of USSR, whom childhood was at bloody 90s. I understand, why this book everywhere in the world described as one of the best russian books. It shows everything how it was in real. And the same way I understand why this book will never be translated to russian language. I strongly recommend this book to everyone, who want how it was to raise in Russia and ex-USSR at 90's, our youth-culture and laws. Because 80% of that story, I think, was experienced by every russian who was born between 1980 and 1994.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Greenockian

    I finally admit defeat. I tried. I honestly did try but this book is just not worth the time or effort. I basically don't know whether it's a load of baloney and the work of the author's imagination or just uninteresting. I simply did not care what happened to the main character and could not buy into the macho, bulls**t world he lived in. Boring. Dull. Not worth the money I paid...and that was in a book sale!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Shainna

    I gave up. There were too many lies and untruths and errors that I'm disgusted this was ever published. If you want to read about the Vori v zakone, find a different book. If you want to learn about Siberians, this book will tell you nothing. If you want to read about violence, here you go. Just know that it's not true.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Patrick O'Neil

    Repetitious, sophomoric, homophobic, and unapologetic... an editor's heavy hand would've helped - but in the end the judgmental condescending attitude of the author made me give up way before the end.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Ian Andrews

    My advice: don't waste your time or money. In the internet you can find some articles discussing this hoax: Michael Bobick's "Bending the Truth" (in English, very well documented), and Antonio Armano's "Lilin, la buffala che vene dal fredo" (in Italian). In fact, the only thing I've learned as a result of reading this book is that "buffala" is the Italian word for "hoax". I don't know what drove a credible journalist like Roberto Saviano to endorse this invention by Italian-based tattoo artist My advice: don't waste your time or money. In the internet you can find some articles discussing this hoax: Michael Bobick's "Bending the Truth" (in English, very well documented), and Antonio Armano's "Lilin, la buffala che vene dal fredo" (in Italian). In fact, the only thing I've learned as a result of reading this book is that "buffala" is the Italian word for "hoax". I don't know what drove a credible journalist like Roberto Saviano to endorse this invention by Italian-based tattoo artist Nikolai Lilin, but I was personally very disappointed to realise as soon as the first chapter that this is not a credible source about the East European underworld. The book claims to be an exposé about the Urka, an ethnic group presumably known for its ferocity, independence from the Soviets, and devout religiosity, that was deported by Stalin to Transnistria in the 1930s. Herein lie the first fabrications. First, Transnistria did not become Soviet territory until WWII. Second, "urka" is a Russian term for "thug", "mobster", not a defined ethnic group. This is merely the beginning in a series of rather uninspired, pointless fabrications. I wouldn't mind if at least this was a good narrative, but it is hard for me to decide what is more irritating: the flat, wish-fulfilment, Mary-Sueesque characterisation of the narrator-hero, or an amateurish style that falls somewhere between the triviality of Dan Brown and the cheesiness of a teenager's first diary

  16. 4 out of 5

    Bogdan

    A novel/fictionalized memoir with a lot of blood and cruelty for which you need to be prepared somehow. Editor's blurb was helpful to some extent. The story itself is very loose and hardly makes out a narrative line across the entire book, but what I liked most is the melancholy which you feel in author's voice when remembering the past days of childhood and teen ages which will never return, both because that age is now past behind him and also because the world in which he has been raised has A novel/fictionalized memoir with a lot of blood and cruelty for which you need to be prepared somehow. Editor's blurb was helpful to some extent. The story itself is very loose and hardly makes out a narrative line across the entire book, but what I liked most is the melancholy which you feel in author's voice when remembering the past days of childhood and teen ages which will never return, both because that age is now past behind him and also because the world in which he has been raised has been changed dramatically and irremediably.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Ezra

    The tattoo chapter of this book will make you want to turn your own body into a diary and a canvas to penetrate your own "suffering" right into your skin. However, I gave it 3 out of 5, because I want to take off the fictional elements and get the brutal, raw reality of that underworld criminal community from the soviet union.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Alex Zhevi

    It was hard to distinguish between 'reality' and complete 'bullshit' – but I think the best parts were in describing the multi-ethnic state that was the Soviet Union/USSR. Really complicated.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Josipa Cvelić

    Fascinating and easy to read. A challenging read from the moral aspect.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Esmay Bakker

    Nice story, but not written in a way I could finish the book. Read the half.. Then I quit. Love the idea of the community though.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Janneke

    This was quite fascinating.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Federicobeach

    I was told by a moldavian guy that there are a lot of lies in this book.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Cosmin Nicolae

    Savages, pure and antouched by the civilization. I come from Romania, near to Ucraina, Moldova and Russia. Is like a deja vu from what my grandfather used to tell me about the comunist era.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Bjorn

    "To live outside the law you must be honest," Bob Dylan sang once, and few books I've read stick as closely to that as Siberian Education, the story of Nicolai Lilin's youth in the contested republic of Transnistria (Moldova/Russia). According to Lilin, this is where Stalin sent more or less the entire Siberian mob back in the day, and they've all settled there and carried on their business. We get to follow the young Nicolai from childhood - starting with the first time he sees the police come "To live outside the law you must be honest," Bob Dylan sang once, and few books I've read stick as closely to that as Siberian Education, the story of Nicolai Lilin's youth in the contested republic of Transnistria (Moldova/Russia). According to Lilin, this is where Stalin sent more or less the entire Siberian mob back in the day, and they've all settled there and carried on their business. We get to follow the young Nicolai from childhood - starting with the first time he sees the police come into their home to arrest his grandfather, only to get sent packing outgunned, humiliated and ridiculed - until he turns 18, by which time he's been to juvenile prison twice, seen a lot of violence (really, a LOT) and taken active part in much of it himself. The word "honesty" is indeed used a lot here, and almost exclusively by and about people who live outside the law. This is a society which has evolved under pressure from the outside, and survived through both political purges, the rise and fall of empires, a state that actively wants to get rid of them, and obviously the fact that they all get sent to jail or get killed regularly. In return, they've become a tight-knit community with very strict rules, where family and faith are sacred, where the young and strong look out for the weak and old, where everyone works together for the common good, and all that jazz. This isn't just organized crime, it's a society organized around crime. Very well organized. And I say that not to hold it up as an ideal or anything, but because of this odd effect: as Lilin gets deeper into how this society works, all the unspoken rules, all the moral imperatives, all the hidden-to-outsiders meanings, all the things that we take for granted about how the world works without necessarily questioning them suddenly become the text. It becomes more than just a book about how a group of people live (and kill, and die), but also why, how a lot of things that people both here and there take for granted are actually that way for a reason - not quite a philosophical treatise on the construction of society, ethics and moral relativism, but, y'know. Quite fascinating at times. That's the good. The bad? Well for starters, as always with these sorts of books, you have to decide how to approach it. After all, this is an author who has no issues with telling us in detail how he's hurt others and seen people get hurt. Sure, almost every act of violence described in the book is committed either against police (who are pretty much seen as non-human) or against other criminals (often children, but criminals all the same), but ultimately I assume all these criminals have to rob someone, and while Lilin's silence about that works well as part of setting up how their world works (do you think of Chinese child labour every time you put on a pair of sneakers?), it doesn't make the book any less disturbing. You can take issue with this, or you can read it as a pure objective reportage: "Here's what happens, the naked truth, from the point of view of someone who was there. Questions?" (And then get out your Black Books DVDs and watch the episode where they try to hold a reading for an autobiography by a former gangster.) But there's still a certain feel of wanting to have the cake and beat it too - to entertain and shock with details about the criminal life, while still mostly letting us keep our safe distance from it. And to be honest (sorry), the descriptions of slashed tendons, busted heads and prison rapes soon lose their shock value and become just really repetitive. Part of that is because of the text itself. Somewhere in Italy, an editor hasn't done his job. Not only is Lilin's prose amateurish to say the least, but the pacing is way off. Lilin tells his story in a series of episodes, each of which keeps getting interrupted so he can explain the meaning of every minute detail, give backstories of every character, and relate anecdotes from years earlier. A good writer might have pulled it off - especially the last 100 pages, before the book ends rather abruptly, read like an attempt to imitate the last 20-30 minutes of Goodfellas - but here, it just feels like he's constantly losing track. At the end, we're left with a book that fulfills its blurb of being "a snapshot of a violent world," as such it has its merits and if you're into that sort of thing by all means give it a go; but it could have used autofocus, a wide-angle lens, and some retouching.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Matija

    Siberian Education is a memoir of a young criminal. Nikolaj grew up in Bender, Moldova, during the last years of the USSR and the first years after its collapse. That city featured several quarters run by criminal communities, the author's own being one consisting of Siberian expatriates, transplanted by Stalin all the way across the USSR for reasons unknown. Apparently, there are essentially two things that define a Siberian criminal community: their strong sense of community spirit and Siberian Education is a memoir of a young criminal. Nikolaj grew up in Bender, Moldova, during the last years of the USSR and the first years after its collapse. That city featured several quarters run by criminal communities, the author's own being one consisting of Siberian expatriates, transplanted by Stalin all the way across the USSR for reasons unknown. Apparently, there are essentially two things that define a Siberian criminal community: their strong sense of community spirit and tradition, particularly in regards with their Orthodox faith, and their fierce resistance against and hatred of state authority, be it a communist one or a new Russian capitalist one, and everyone who represents it. Especially police officers, of course. Such a community has an abundance of rules and traditions for any situation an honest criminal can find himself in. He must master the criminal jargon, which is apparently a rather poetic and lyrical way of greeting other criminals, showing respect and talking indirectly about the subject matter at hand. Every major milestone along a criminal's life path is subject to traditional ceremony and appeals to a higher power. Even such a seemingly simple thing as a child criminal getting a slingshot might require getting permission from the elders and must be done in strict accordance with the rules of the Siberian criminal community. Lilin is a good storyteller, this is a fast, although a very discomforting read. Violence and senseless brutality are everywhere, but especially in the chapter describing the juvenile detention center that Lilin is incarcerated in for a couple of months as a teenager. Consider yourself forewarned, that part is downright sickening, as death and rape are a daily occurrence. One thing I found interesting at first, but later it got weary, is a sort of rambling, stream of consciousness mode of storytelling. The author would start describing an event, then half way through switch to a life story of a criminal we meet during that event, then he would think of another story and tell it even though it is at best tangentially related to the first one, before eventually returning to the original story and completing it. I would also have liked to have seen a bit more introspection about his life as a criminal. Don't get me wrong, the fact that he does no moral pontification on rights and wrongs of such a life during the storytelling is something I consider a plus, because you get a rawer, less obscured picture that way, unburdened by society's norm. It is also completely natural that as a child he did not even consider such matters. It was how he was raised and where he grew up. But later on, when touching on his life as a young adult, it would have been a welcome addition, since it is obvious he did feel something was wrong and decided to go abroad for education, apparently attempting to abandon such life. Read this in Slovene, titled Sibirska vzgoja.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Tyler

    2.5/5. I have the same problem with this book as some other people did, namely the fact that it says some of the events are imaginary. I'm okay with not being able to remember every single detail and conversation because that's impossible, so long as the author tries to be as close to reality as possible. But my problem is I have no idea what's true or what's not. I expected, not unreasonably, a hard hitting non-fiction memoir, like it's supposed to be. I can't say what the author actually went 2.5/5. I have the same problem with this book as some other people did, namely the fact that it says some of the events are imaginary. I'm okay with not being able to remember every single detail and conversation because that's impossible, so long as the author tries to be as close to reality as possible. But my problem is I have no idea what's true or what's not. I expected, not unreasonably, a hard hitting non-fiction memoir, like it's supposed to be. I can't say what the author actually went through because I don't know, and this particular group of criminals I'm not real knowledgeable about so I don't know what's true or not. However, the fact it says some shit is imaginary just makes me wonder. Why are these kids so good at everything? I mean, it sounds very exaggerated. I did enjoy hearing about the actual aspects of the criminal underground, and like I said, since I don't know much about it... I take the author's word for it in terms of the customs, rules and regulations. When the book settles down and talks like that it's a fascinating read, for sure. I'm fine with him calling criminals honest people because I'm not one of those people who think all criminals are "bad" and I question the whole concept. Basically I'm understanding and try to understand both sides. I feel like I learned some when reading this, but then again, what is imaginary and what isn't? I actually admire certain aspects of their philosophy. Aside from that, it kind of reads like a Hollywood action movie in ways. A lot of violence, so if that's your thing you should enjoy it. I just feel it's dampened by the fact I DON'T KNOW WHAT'S REAL! I mean, when you read anything non-fiction you have to be skeptical, but it's just not convincing. Certain parts of the book just go on way too long. Some don't go on long enough. He jumps back and forth between things, and some of it is interesting, some is not. The part about the girl with autism that comes in near the end of the book spoke to me, for example, and I liked the beginning and end. But the author has a habit of just going on and on about the least interesting things, and that took me out of the book a bit. So I'm disappointed by it but it's not an awful read. A 2.5 basically means decent to me, so it's worth picking up if you're looking for something like this... but there are better, way better, books about this kind of thing and I don't feel this book does the criminals justice.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Babak Fakhamzadeh

    Reasonably funny, in an absurdist way, and presented as a memoir, though I have a hard time to accept that even remotely at face value. The book is supposedly the author's life story, having grown up in Transnistria from Siberian criminal exiles and having fought for Russia against Chechnya. Though possible, in principle, the author's blanket use of the adverb 'Siberian' smells of deliberate and increasingly annoying hyperbole. 'Siberian' criminals, 'Siberian' families, 'Siberian' custom etc. Reasonably funny, in an absurdist way, and presented as a memoir, though I have a hard time to accept that even remotely at face value. The book is supposedly the author's life story, having grown up in Transnistria from Siberian criminal exiles and having fought for Russia against Chechnya. Though possible, in principle, the author's blanket use of the adverb 'Siberian' smells of deliberate and increasingly annoying hyperbole. 'Siberian' criminals, 'Siberian' families, 'Siberian' custom etc. Fact is, Siberia is so big and so diverse, that an adverb used like that is in itself rather nonsensical. Additionally, Lilin appears to know so many Siberian criminals that his extended family seems to have been responsible for every single major crime in the USSR for decade after decade. The book, cut up in to loosely related chapters, becomes a bit tedious as a result of it slowly losing it's credibility. The fact that the book claims the author was born in 1981, while it appears, according to Wikipedia, he was actually born in 1980 doesn't help. As doesn't his regular claim of the fluidity and ease of independent movement inside the Soviet Union as well as it's satellite states. However, probably my biggest issue is with the authors implied moral ambiguity. "at these moments I found it moving to see how simple he was, and how beautiful and pure his simplicity was", the author says of himself after reciting a poem to an old man who had murdered so many, his nickname had become the name of the knife he killed with, while we learn little of the old man but his appreciation of a poem and him beating to death two 'junkies', supposedly exemplifying the old man's moral standing. The last chapter handles the author's entry into the Russian army, supposedly in 1998 or 1999, after receiving a draft notice at home. By that time, Transnistria had already declared itself independent from Moldova, let alone Russia, for six years. How exactly is this likely? In the end, perhaps all this book is, is a cross between an idealization of the author's past and a social commentary on the effects of the Soviet system.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Evie Byrne

    This book is so fully of amazing scenes and dark, funny details that I'd say it's definitely worth reading, even if it might be 70% BS. Overall, I'm not so bothered about its relative veracity as I am by its narrative flaws. There are many. It reads like a collection of reminiscences gathered into a stack of notes and handed over to you in a greasy bundle. The story wanders here and there for most of the book, then latches on one long, violent almost cinematic adventure (which however is also This book is so fully of amazing scenes and dark, funny details that I'd say it's definitely worth reading, even if it might be 70% BS. Overall, I'm not so bothered about its relative veracity as I am by its narrative flaws. There are many. It reads like a collection of reminiscences gathered into a stack of notes and handed over to you in a greasy bundle. The story wanders here and there for most of the book, then latches on one long, violent almost cinematic adventure (which however is also full of digressions), and then ends suddenly and inexplicably. As I regarded it as fiction, I did not get too caught up in the "is it real?" debate, but a couple of things really bugged me. You can make up as much as you like on the road to what Herzog calls "the ecstatic truth" but you've also got to make it hang together. Spoilers ahoy: 1) There's a huge section a tattoos, and how he trained to be a tattoo artist (a "stinger"). And this is fascinating. Yet this story vanishes into other narratives and you never get to read about his first tattooing job (or any later jobs, except once, when it is alluded to as background to another topic). Nor do you ever learn how he received his own first tattoo, which would have been a big deal, or any subsequent ones. And I'd like to know about the iconography that (presumably) decorates his own body. Nope, after a certain point you just never hear about tattoos again. 2) At one point he mentions his 3rd jail term, and says it was his first as an adult. This phrasing could even imply he did more than one as an adult. But at the end of the book he states he only did 2 terms in juvenile prison. What happened to that 3rd term? Unless he gets thrown in jail in the sequel, when he's in the military, color me puzzled. 3) Why would an Honest Criminal ever, ever show his face in a military recruiting office?????

  29. 5 out of 5

    Scott K.

    I went into “Siberian Education” with high hopes but was let down almost immediately. The last sentence of the Author’s Note states “Certain episodes are imaginative recreation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events”. This is where Nicolai Lilin lost me. As I read the book I kept thinking, “Did this really happen or is it ‘imaginative recreation’?” The whole point of a non-fiction memoir is that the events are real. I can accept (and even expect) some embellishments, but I went into “Siberian Education” with high hopes but was let down almost immediately. The last sentence of the Author’s Note states “Certain episodes are imaginative recreation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events”. This is where Nicolai Lilin lost me. As I read the book I kept thinking, “Did this really happen or is it ‘imaginative recreation’?” The whole point of a non-fiction memoir is that the events are real. I can accept (and even expect) some embellishments, but not episodes of complete fiction. I do believe that the author experienced most of the events in the book, but I hate not knowing what was real and what wasn’t. Overlooking my previous gripe for a moment, the book itself was just okay. The story telling felt very disjointed. I would compare Lilin’s writing style to a Russian Nesting Doll. Lilin would continually interrupt the narrative of his story with another story. Then, within that second story, he would insert a third story (and so on). I found this very distracting. To make it even more difficult to read, the stories weren’t overly interesting or informative. In addition, the writing style left a bit to be desired. I will give him a pass on that, however, due to the fact that it was translated into English. I did, however, enjoy the beginning and end of the book. In the first few pages Lilin recounts a fire fight he was in while in the Russian Army. In the final few pages he circles back to when he enters the Army. I found them to be very interesting and it left me wanting to know more about his time in the Russian Army. After reading "Siberian Education", I feel like I still don’t know very much about “Growing Up in a Criminal Underworld” or about Nicolai Lilin specifically.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sasha

    This book was an interesting account of author Lilin's childhood growing up in a Siberian criminal community near Ukraine. The "honest criminals" who live there are paradoxically religious and rigidly civilized, living by a strict moral code and denouncing political or government authority. The criminals have a type of Robin Hood philosophy, robbing the wealthy or the government, yet living humble and simple lives despite accumulated riches. Cop killing is honored and encouraged, as is lengthy This book was an interesting account of author Lilin's childhood growing up in a Siberian criminal community near Ukraine. The "honest criminals" who live there are paradoxically religious and rigidly civilized, living by a strict moral code and denouncing political or government authority. The criminals have a type of Robin Hood philosophy, robbing the wealthy or the government, yet living humble and simple lives despite accumulated riches. Cop killing is honored and encouraged, as is lengthy prison time. The values cherished and acted upon by the criminals are surprising for a community built on murder and lawbreaking, and made for some interesting reading. Lilin's writing is reverential yet pensive, taking into account the consequences of the actions of his community and himself. The descriptive violence and brutality of his experiences in prison and in doling out justice to offending rival criminal groups is appalling, yet not glorified. The section on the art of the Siberian Urkas tattoos was fascinating, yet other areas of the book were meandering. It seemed to jump around, going off on a lot of tangents about other stories and characters before returning to the starting point of the chapter, which was at times difficult to follow. The end of the book could have been stronger, with more explanation as to what became of Lilin to tie things up. As it is, the explanation is left to a few sentences about the author on the inside of the book jacket. In all, an eye-opening look at a unique upbringing. Note: I received this book for free through Goodreads First Reads.

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