"Many Siberian fairy tales tell of the deadly clash between criminals and representatives of the government, of the risks people run every day with dignity and honesty, of the good fortune of those who in the end have got the loot and stayed alive, and of the 'good memory' that is preserved of those who have died without abandoning their friends in need. Through these fairy tales, the children perceive the values that give meaning to the Siberian criminals' lives: respect, courage, friendship, loyalty." --Nicolai Lilin
I have been reading Nicolai Lilin's autobiography Siberian Education: Growing Up In A Criminal Underworld which is a harrowing tale of a once tight knit community of criminal families that flourished in the lawless region of Transnistria between Moldova and the Ukraine. Fittingly, it is a area that despite declaring iundependence in 1990 is not recognized a country. It is wild borderland inhabited by the Siberian Urkas (considered criminals by the state) who were brutally rounded up and then deported in the 1930s from Siberia by Stalin's military far away to the remote area of Transnistria. Those who survived brought with them the strong traditional values of their Orthodox Faith and the deeply pagan traditions of a hunting culture (which they were) and combined it with a philosophy of personal freedom that encouraged criminal acts on outsiders -- like the military and the police, while retaining within the community an elaborate code of respect, honor, and loyalty. They refer to themselves as the "honest" criminals.
Lilin has come under some criticism because he has admitted to employing a more creative style when writing the autobiography -- adding stories that didn't happen to him, but were part of the history of the community and embellishing other aspects of the narratives. (They are now calling it an "autobiographic novel.") Frankly, this doesn't bother me at all, because the culture he came out of (and which has now all but disappeared) still retained the oral narrative traditions, the importance of story telling as education, the rituals passed down that surrounded every aspect of their lives -- from hunting animals to hunting humans and committing crimes. Also the writing is clean, precise, and sharp as a blade.
It is as if the darker aspects of the fairy tale world recounted stories of heroism and loss from their perspective. Weapons are divided into sacred or sinful objects and treated accordingly. There are rituals for both, and designated places in the house where each may reside, separated at all times. There are weapons that define a man -- his "pike" -- a slim blade that can not be purchased, only given as gift by one of higher authority. There are rites of passage for all young boys that include initiation by committing a criminal act and serving time in a juvenile prison and later adult prison where one is protected and "educated" by older Urkas prisoners.
There is the coded language of the tattoos -- like runes designed to reveal only to the initiated the past and future of the man who has them. These tattoos begin at early adolescence -- starting from the outer extremities, hands and feet, and moving inward in a spiral to the center of the body, until the entire body is covered. The tattoo artist is regarded as a shaman or priest transforming and inscribing each man with a unique story of his life.
Yeah, it's dark and uncomfortable. Lilin describes a dangerous world, where crime, despite the rituals and rules (or maybe because of their demands) justifies a terrifying familiarity and acceptance of violent acts. Though strangely this region has become even more dangerous now that the old ways of loyalty, discipline, respect and a strict hierarchy of authority have disappeared in the winner-takes-all modernization of the criminal world. But it is a fascinating tale none the less. It has been made into a movie -- though I think I prefer the book since I am not sure I want to see some of the violence here realized in film. Lilin himself escaped that world only by entering the military (where he experienced even more brutal war with Chechnya). He eventually left Russian, spent itme in Ireland as a fisherman, and settled Turin, Italy where he has a tattoo parlor ( a skill he learned as a boy and perfected in prison).