Siberian Education by Nicolai Lilin (Translated by Jonathan Hunt) - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield


Siberian Education


Canongate 447pp £12.99

If you would prefer Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs without their ingenious wit and structure, this may be a book for you. A pitiless juvenile and his gang go out on a series of vindictive knifings and shootings, avenging insults and offences according to an esoteric, quasi-religious code of thieves’ honour (with intervals of torture and male rape by what pass for the authorities), which finally escalates to a murder that would make Tarantino blanch: the execution of four naked Ukrainians in an SUV, ostensibly to avenge their rape of an autistic girl. All this takes place in Bendery and Tiraspol on the border of Ukraine and Moldova, in the breakaway enclave of Transnistria, that last remnant of the USSR, so dubious that even Nauru and Nagorno-Karabakh don’t recognise it. The narrative mode of the book is strange: sometimes, an anthropologist seems to be describing the traditions of a hitherto unknown Siberian ethnos who combine utterly ruthless criminality with the religious punctiliousness of the Exclusive Brethren, their traditions embodied in a Grandfather Kuzya who guides the juvenile hero and his friends on when, whom, how and with what weapon to maim and kill. At other times, author and reader wallow in a pornography of violence. The teenaged autobiographical hero does not develop: after the final bloodbath, he contemplates the beauty of nature, and is then called up into the Russian army in Chechnya (which will be the subject of Nicolai Lilin’s next work, Free Fall).

If this ‘memoir’ were believable, it might have some value (and serve as a pretext for invading Transnistria as a festering sore of criminality). But credulity collapses in the first pages, and not just because the chronology is a complete mess. The background to the ‘memoir’ (in interviews

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RLF - March