First published in May of 2010, Transnistria born Nicolai Lilin’s debut novel ‘Siberian Education’ combined a wealth of first hand experiences and actual events from the author’s own life growing up within the Siberian criminal underworld during the 80’s and early 90’s.
Nicolai is a young man who is finding his place within the criminal fraternity of the Siberian Urkas. Located in a remote part of the former Soviet Union, the honour-driven criminal community live out a humble existence, paying homage to their religious beliefs and ‘honest’ criminal traditions. Violence, respectful criminal activities and cold blooded murder are a way of life for this close-knit community; their traditions and family values carving out what is classed as an honest lifestyle in their culture.
A complex hierarchy amongst the families and self-dubbed ‘honest criminals’ sets down this internally-governed fraternity; respect and honour the values held most precious to these hard-living individuals. The complexities of the criminal code of conduct sets down a hard path for the juveniles to follow, with slight deviations from the strict rules resulting in the presumption of disrespect and therefore severe consequences.
Lilin lives by the strict rules that each criminal must live by; following the vast array of traditions and practices in order to show the utmost respect for his elders and family members. Vicious fights are a commonplace amongst the rival communities, often resulting in death or lengthy prison sentences. Lilin’s own life follows this same self-destructive route; mapping out the story of his harsh upbringing, with prison sentences and acts of great loyalty detailed throughout. Lilin gradually hones his skills as a criminal tattooist, learning the deeply complex symbolism involved with the tattoos and the rules that surround this important aspect of the criminal culture.
When a young autistic girl from the criminal community is raped, all hell breaks loose; with Lilin heading up the search for those responsible. Life is permanently marked with violence and a struggle for a respectful existence. Police are the most hated of all, but there are many more authorities that Lilian will need to contend with before he reaches adulthood...
Nicolai Lilin’s novel is a self-confessed elaboration and embezzlement on the truth of his upbringing. This alone is in no way a bad thing, but instead makes for a gripping and entertaining story based on the realities of an extraordinary criminal fraternity. Almost every page is littered with thoroughly descriptive insights into the Siberian way of life that constantly kindles the reader's evolving interest in this culture and code of conduct.
The novel begins with a slow pace, carefully setting down the various rules that govern the criminal fraternity’s way of life. Each custom and tradition is explained, with side-notes and sub-stories that paint a vivid picture of this shocking criminal underworld. The first hand insight is involved and intriguing, however from time to time the author does get a little too bogged down in the many explanations and sub-stories, which often results in a meandering plot that time and time again loses its direction.
The basic plot is a violent coming of age story, which builds towards three distinct peaks in the storyline, until the novel winds down to its eventual conclusion. The ending itself is merely where the author has decided the book should finish, and not where the story itself finds an ending. Although by the very nature of the tale, this seems to fit in suitably well with how the novel has progressed.
The violence contained within the book is often of a harsh and gritty nature that is amplified tenfold from the believable reality of the tale. The chapter that details Lilin’s time spent in juvenile prison is perhaps the most shocking section of the novel; the sadistic violence uncompromising and haunting in the stark way in which it is retold.
All in all, the novel is an intriguing and engaging expose of a somewhat surreal way of life, which still holds a certain unavoidable truth in its telling. Although the novel has many faults with the over-elaboration and repeated dominance of the intricate details involved, as well as the loose direction of its main storyline; Lilin has still managed to successfully deliver an engaging novel with numerous shocking qualities that cut a cold line of truth into the reader with each haunting chapter.
The novel runs for a total of 447 pages.
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