Nicolai Lilin: author of Siberian Education
The writer tells of his time in prison, tattooing, and film offers
This article is from 2010.
Handed his first weapon at the age of six, Nicolai Lilin was destined for a life of violence. Having fled the horrors of his past, he tells Jay Richardson why death is sometimes a better option.
Born into a Siberian criminal dynasty, convicted of attempted murder at 12 and sent to prison, Nicolai Lilin became a Russian special forces sniper during the Second Chechen War. Having moved to Italy in 2003, he now runs a tattoo parlour in Turin, helps underprivileged children and instructs on the sporting use of weapons. The 29-year-old writes on crime and poverty for various European publications, but is best known as the author of Siberian Education, the first in a trilogy of books based upon his life. Translated into 14 languages, it will shortly be made into a film by the Oscar-winning director Gabriele Salvatores.
Lilin’s candour has attracted condemnation from some quarters of Russia and death threats from Muslim extremists. Sent bullets in the post, he escaped a car bomb last year. Nevertheless, the sun is shining in Turin when we speak and he’s delighted by Salvatores’ appointment, after rejecting several lucrative overtures from Hollywood to turn his account into ‘some kind of Rambo’. Suspicious of capitalism, the world he portrays in his astonishing book is one his daughter will never know. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the flooding of Russia by Western culture have all but wiped out the Urka community.
Lilin’s father was a frequently-imprisoned armed robber who descended from a Siberian crime clan resettled by the Soviet government in the 1930s to Transnistria, a de facto independent state unrecognised by the UN and situated inside Moldova on the border with Ukraine. Preying on mercantile transport and the government forces that defended them, the Urkas practised a Christian-derived form of libertarian socialism and dubbed themselves ‘honest criminals’, murderers and robbers who would be weak and dishonest if they stooped to drug dealing or prostitution.
Believing community and moral intent to be sacrosanct, the Urkas were a terrifying blend of piety, honour and ultraviolence, rejecting material gain and prioritising loyalty, justice and respect for marginalised members of society, all the while fetishising guns and knives with a religious reverence. Lilin was given his first ‘pike’, a flick knife, at six. After the rape of an autistic girl, his adolescent gang were duty-bound to avenge her, threatening all-out war against rival gangs around the city of Bender.
The most harrowing section of the book depicts his nine months in juvenile prison, where boys were held 150 to a cell. Murder and rape were frequent and the most vulnerable were forced into pornographic films distributed through international paedophile rings, though Lilin was protected by his Siberian brethren. ‘It was like a concentration camp and I have bad memories because it was the first time I saw human beings lose everything, even dignity,’ he recalls. ‘Thank God no one tried to hit me or put me down, there was no sexual violence towards me because our group stayed together, we made business with nobody and just tried to survive. I knew I never wanted to go back.’
Siberian Education has proved controversial, not least because the author has combined his own experiences with recreations of those of his revered grandfather’s generation. He maintains he never set out to write an autobiography or factual history but a ‘romance’. His mother feels he was too outspoken but his grandfather, acclaimed in criminal circles as an ‘authority’, gave his blessing to the memoir before he died. Returning to Transnistria, Lilin convened the five surviving members of his gang for a meal nine days after the death, as is traditional. But he was disappointed by their materialism and found himself ‘out of this community. They don’t lead the life my grandfather led, they are not honest criminals, they are not honest people.’ He recalls his friend Mel drunkenly roaring, ‘Nicolai, you must stop writing this bullshit and remembering our grandfathers. Our grandfathers are dead, they gave us nothing, no money, and they can’t help us survive, so fuck you and fuck your book!’
A skilled body artist, Lilin’s symbolic tattoos remain all but hidden from me. But they link him ‘now with the old world, with my grandfather and his society. I was never part of it when it was powerful and my tattoo activity is a way to give a little respect.’ He was persuaded of Salvatores’ capacity to present his own story respectfully after seeing the director’s I’m Not Scared. Part of a special parachute division in Chechnya sabotaging power lines behind enemy positions, he was involved in many hostage rescues.
‘One time, I found a kidnapped boy of 10 or 12, really dirty, really scared,’ he recalls. ‘I preferred to see dead people. Alive was more terrible, because their condition was like dead. All those people who stayed a year or more in the terrorist camps had psychological troubles for the rest of their lives. He slept on my arm and our doctor told me to keep holding him, because he was nervous, he needed to feel my body to sleep. When I saw Salvatores’ film, with the kidnapped boy, it was like reality for me. I told my manager, “he can make the film because he doesn’t care about money or public opinion [or even recreating] things in a perfect historical way, he cares about the true story inside the person”.’
Lilin’s follow-up book, Freefall, frankly depicts the butchery he witnessed while a sniper, killing as many ‘Arabs’ - ‘Chechens, Muslims, Afghans, Taliban, terrorists of any politics’ - as possible. ‘In war, I had no time for understanding. It’s really fast and you think only of your mission. If you start to think about morality, you will die, because you lose control. You can’t think about life, you must think only of war so you will survive.’
Currently writing the final instalment, he describes it as covering the most ‘tragic’ period of his life, the aftermath of the conflict. After two years of incessant fighting, he found it difficult to adjust to peace. For 12 months he found himself unwilling to sleep. ‘Many of my friends never got out of this state, they start to take drugs or a lot of alcohol, some turned to crime, some committed suicide. Many guys, good brothers who came from the Chechen War, they finished really bad because their psychological system was completely broken. Many of us start to hate peaceful society and feel ourselves its enemies. Many of us died because we couldn’t find our place here.’
Nicolai Lilin, 19 Aug, 6pm, £7 (£5).