The Guardian Saturday Review – July 10th 2010 – by Irvine Welsh
We could learn a lot from the honour code of a Siberian criminal caste, says Irvine Welsh
In this country we have specially designated zones where people learn to be criminals. In such areas there is practically no legitimate employment, with dealing drugs just about the sole way of earning cash. Youths offend, we send them to the finishing school of prison, where they then build their contacts and hone their skills. Of course, you don’t have to come from that sort of place to fall foul of the law, it just gives you a great start.
Siberian Education is a memoir about the criminal socialisation of young people from a traditional Urka community, displaced into the small republic of Transnistria, between Moldova and Ukraine. The Siberian Urkas are essentially bandits, who for centuries attacked mercantile transport and the government forces who defended it. In this society the designation “criminal” means someone who adheres to a strict moral code and accepts only the authority of their own community, rather than that of the state. Nicolai Lilin has not so much written a crime biography as a detailed account of an amazing culture, one that, in the face of globalisation, is sadly disappearing in front of us.
I say sadly because, despite the often extreme violence and the fetishism of knives and guns inherent in the Siberian criminal culture, it operates on higher principles than the mainstream ones pursued in the west. The denizens of Transnistria’s Low River steadfastly reject the materialism of other post-Soviet gangs and their western counterparts. They practise a Christian-derived form of libertarian socialism, based on the belief that community and moral intent are sacrosanct, and that those who seek power and material gain are inherently weak and evil.
“First of all, you had to respect all living creatures – a category which did not include policemen, people connected with the government, bankers, loan sharks, and all those who had the power of money in their hands and exploited ordinary people.” The problem here, of course, is that by designating certain individuals non-persons, you justify any amount of violence against them. Conversely, you have to expect them to operate in the same way with regard to you.
We follow Nicolai’s young life, in which high expectations are placed on him, coming as he does from a leading criminal dynasty. As a result he grows up quickly, owning his first knife at six and gun at 12, when he’s sentenced for attempted murder. The years of his late childhood read like the advanced teen period of the most desperate and ghetto-hardened emergent gangsters in the west. Yet he remains a thoughtful individual, reciting Pushkin from an early age, and despite being restless to experience more of the world, respectful of his role as a custodian of a culture that places great value on loyalty, the elderly, women, children and disabled people.
While it’s easy to be repelled by the violence of these young lives, much of it is generated through pursuing justice and curtailing the activities of liberty-takers in their own community. At one point, Nicolai’s gang risk all-out war with other criminal teams in order to avenge the heinous rape of a young autistic girl.
If the values of the Urkas were our global ones, we would not have experienced a greed-led economic crisis, nor would we be ravaging our environment and destroying so many other species on the planet. As we tweet impotently, gallons of oil spew daily into the Gulf of Mexico, our obsession with economic growth remains unchallenged and neo-Malthusian principles of population control have become respectable again. In this light, it’s not hard to postulate that we could be living in a failed global order. In the long run, we may just be forced to learn from community-based societies such as the Urkas. Ironic, then, that the Siberian community of Lilin’s Transnistria has been all but rendered extinct by other gangs who have appropriated part of their criminal code without the attendant values, buying instead into the commodity fixation of consumer capitalism in all its glittering, crass vacuity.
Lilin’s pride in Urka outlaw society and his genuine love for the characters who shaped his life come through on every page. The structure of the book is informed by the oral storytelling tradition, spinning tale within tale; this evokes the place and its people more vividly than a simple sequential composition would do, making Siberian Education a delight to read. Its narrative is refreshingly devoid of the egotism and posturing of most gangster memoirs, and is replete with a genuine desire to find a higher truth. Inadvertently, it also shows how post-Soviet gangs have come to dominate the global criminal underworld.
I finished this book with great respect for Lilin’s honesty in seeing the flaws in his own Siberian education, yet felt sorrow at the demise of the Urka culture. The propensity towards ultimately self-defeating extreme violence aside (Nicolai himself ended up a conscript in the war against the Chechens), it’s hard not to admire a people who resisted the tsar, the Soviets and finally the epoch of western material values, including the flip-side of those financiers who’ve ravaged our economy: the hollow gangster cliques of post-Soviet Russia. In a world where clichéd postures of rebellion have become as obligatory as the mind-numbing conformity our society paradoxically imposes, it’s hard not to think of the Siberian Urkas as the last great anti-heroes of the Facebook era. Certainly, you won’t find much evidence of their sense of ethics in our ghettos (or our boardrooms), which are, like the rest of us, immeasurably poorer as a result.
Irvine Welsh’s Reheated Cabbage is published by Cape.