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Siberian Education: Growing Up in a Criminal Underworld

3.69  ·  Rating details ·  2,763 ratings  ·  257 reviews
"Marvelous and illuminating. . . . Forces us to reassess our notions of good and evil."—Irvine Welsh

In a contested, lawless region between Moldova and Ukraine known as Transnistria, a tightly knit group of "honest criminals"—exiled there by Stalin-live according to strict codes of ritualized respect and fierce loyalty. Here, tattoos tell the story of a man's life, "honest"

Hardcover, 447 pages
Published April 11th 2011 by W. W. Norton Company (first published 2009)
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3.69  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,763 ratings  ·  257 reviews

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Marc Nash
Mar 04, 2013 rated it it was amazing
In my review of Lilin's other book "Free Fall", I said that his writing about the war in Chechnya knocked the spots off Vietnam War books. And in this, his earlier memoir about his childhood, Siberian criminal culture is laid bare and knocks all Mafia tales into a cocked hat. Exotic, brutal and frankly bizarre, it's a tale of an old culture with all its values and mores that seem to derive from another planet. But the book is undeniably fascinating.

The Siberians here don't even live in Siberia,
Apr 26, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: memoirs, read-in-2011
I received this book free through Librarything's early reviewers program.

This certainly is an extraordinary story, soaked in gore in a Painted Bird sort of way. Nicolai Lilin claims he has murdered multiple people, and so has almost everyone he grew up with, including one guy who killed thousands of policemen and kept their badges. While he was in juvenile prison he witnessed numerous gang rapes, some of which were made into child pornography films, and there were several more murders. The soc
Dec 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
I can safely say that I've never read anything quite like this book. it starts almost as a straightforward anthropological study of an ethnic criminal gang in the eastern reaches of the Russian Federation: mores, manners, gender roles, rites of passage, jailhouse traditions, and tattoo meanings. The book eventually turns to an unsentimental autobiography of the author's coming of age, leading to him joining the Army during the Chechnyan conflict. Fascinating and disturbing.
Jay Mccready
Mar 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I know I got this book for free, but at the risk of sounding biased I absolutely loved this book! It's written in a straight forward style that's direct and to the point which I found to be really refreshing. You will not find flowery language, run on sentences or fluff here.

This is a no holds barred account of growing up in a community where violence is a way of life and it was chilling, disturbing and enlightening all at the same time. I was fascinated by the dichotomy of their culture with t
Vaiva Sapetkaitė
This is a strange book, but in a good way. I found it engaging, but rather too long. Nothing essential wouldn't be lost, if it was made 1/3 shorter. I would be glad, if its writing style would be more elegant, but maybe when a russian is writing in italian and later it is translated to lithuanian it could be expected.
Nov 25, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic insight into an unimaginable life...
Isa K.
Dec 08, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Siberian Education starts off with the following disclaimer:

This memoir is based on the author's own experiences. Names have been changed, characters combined and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative recreation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events.

The first part of that disclaimer is fairly standard, the second part is not and it can't help but color your judgement of this ludicrously violent tale of honor of among thieves. I kind of wonder if this disclai
Mar 29, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoirs-bio, 2011
This is such a strange book from a very strange country. This country seems to be in a 50 year time warp, with Lenin statues still standing. The Transnistria postage,passports and money are not accepted in any other country. This country is not even recognized by the UN or other countries.I wasn't familiar with Transnistria, had never even heard of it. So,I researched it on the Internet

It is a country that broke off the Moldavia to the west and has on its east is the Ukraine. Here this country
Mar 25, 2011 rated it it was ok
This was a First Reads giveaway for which I am grateful, but I finally had to abandon this one, which is unfortunate because many of the stories were interesting but I just could not get into it. The writing style (or lack thereof) was one factor in my decision as it was simply too vague and jumped around from vignette to vignette with little to no rhyme or reason. It was difficult to follow since there was no continuous storyline. I understand that should be expected with an autobiography but i ...more
Jun 21, 2011 rated it did not like it
This memoir by Nicolai Lilin is about a community of criminals deported by Stalin known as Siberian Urkas. Initially, you understand it is a story of endless violence, the moral code followed by the "gangs", platitudes spewed out by the elders and Nicolai's education of how to survive as a ruthless gang member. As I read, it felt like I was listening to the author talking at nauseism about all his escapades and his glorification of the activities. It was like hitting a rewind button. I read it t ...more
May 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
Absolutley great story about what happened with young people in Russia, with those, who was born at the end of USSR, whom childhood was at bloody 90s. I understand, why this book everywhere in the world described as one of the best russian books. It shows everything how it was in real. And the same way I understand why this book will never be translated to russian language. I strongly recommend this book to everyone, who want how it was to raise in Russia and ex-USSR at 90's, our youth-culture a ...more
Dec 31, 2012 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I finally admit defeat. I tried. I honestly did try but this book is just not worth the time or effort. I basically don't know whether it's a load of baloney and the work of the author's imagination or just uninteresting. I simply did not care what happened to the main character and could not buy into the macho, bulls**t world he lived in. Boring. Dull. Not worth the money I paid...and that was in a book sale!
Patrick O'Neil
Apr 03, 2014 rated it it was ok
Repetitious, sophomoric, homophobic, and unapologetic... an editor's heavy hand would've helped - but in the end the judgmental condescending attitude of the author made me give up way before the end.
Jun 16, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: romanian
A novel/fictionalized memoir with a lot of blood and cruelty for which you need to be prepared somehow. Editor's blurb was helpful to some extent.

The story itself is very loose and hardly makes out a narrative line across the entire book, but what I liked most is the melancholy which you feel in author's voice when remembering the past days of childhood and teen ages which will never return, both because that age is now past behind him and also because the world in which he has been raised has b
Mar 14, 2018 rated it liked it
The tattoo chapter of this book will make you want to turn your own body into a diary and a canvas to penetrate your own "suffering" right into your skin. However, I gave it 3 out of 5, because I want to take off the fictional elements and get the brutal, raw reality of that underworld criminal community from the soviet union.
Alex Zhevi
Mar 07, 2018 rated it liked it
It was hard to distinguish between 'reality' and complete 'bullshit' – but I think the best parts were in describing the multi-ethnic state that was the Soviet Union/USSR. Really complicated.
Josipa Cvelić
Oct 02, 2017 rated it really liked it
Fascinating and easy to read. A challenging read from the moral aspect.
Esmay Bakker
Nice story, but not written in a way I could finish the book. Read the half.. Then I quit. Love the idea of the community though.
Cosmin Nicolae
Sep 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Savages, pure and antouched by the civilization. I come from Romania, near to Ucraina, Moldova and Russia. Is like a deja vu from what my grandfather used to tell me about the comunist era.
This was quite fascinating.
Apr 24, 2013 rated it it was ok
"To live outside the law you must be honest," Bob Dylan sang once, and few books I've read stick as closely to that as Siberian Education, the story of Nicolai Lilin's youth in the contested republic of Transnistria (Moldova/Russia). According to Lilin, this is where Stalin sent more or less the entire Siberian mob back in the day, and they've all settled there and carried on their business. We get to follow the young Nicolai from childhood - starting with the first time he sees the police come ...more
Siberian Education is a memoir of a young criminal.

Nikolaj grew up in Bender, Moldova, during the last years of the USSR and the first years after its collapse. That city featured several quarters run by criminal communities, the author's own being one consisting of Siberian expatriates, transplanted by Stalin all the way across the USSR for reasons unknown.

Apparently, there are essentially two things that define a Siberian criminal community: their strong sense of community spirit and tradition
Feb 13, 2012 rated it it was ok

I have the same problem with this book as some other people did, namely the fact that it says some of the events are imaginary. I'm okay with not being able to remember every single detail and conversation because that's impossible, so long as the author tries to be as close to reality as possible.

But my problem is I have no idea what's true or what's not. I expected, not unreasonably, a hard hitting non-fiction memoir, like it's supposed to be. I can't say what the author actually went t
Babak Fakhamzadeh
Reasonably funny, in an absurdist way, and presented as a memoir, though I have a hard time to accept that even remotely at face value. The book is supposedly the author's life story, having grown up in Transnistria from Siberian criminal exiles and having fought for Russia against Chechnya.
Though possible, in principle, the author's blanket use of the adverb 'Siberian' smells of deliberate and increasingly annoying hyperbole. 'Siberian' criminals, 'Siberian' families, 'Siberian' custom etc. Fa
Evie Byrne
This book is so fully of amazing scenes and dark, funny details that I'd say it's definitely worth reading, even if it might be 70% BS.

Overall, I'm not so bothered about its relative veracity as I am by its narrative flaws. There are many. It reads like a collection of reminiscences gathered into a stack of notes and handed over to you in a greasy bundle. The story wanders here and there for most of the book, then latches on one long, violent almost cinematic adventure (which however is also fu
Scott K.
I went into “Siberian Education” with high hopes but was let down almost immediately. The last sentence of the Author’s Note states “Certain episodes are imaginative recreation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events”. This is where Nicolai Lilin lost me. As I read the book I kept thinking, “Did this really happen or is it ‘imaginative recreation’?” The whole point of a non-fiction memoir is that the events are real. I can accept (and even expect) some embellishments, but n ...more
Apr 03, 2011 rated it liked it
This book was an interesting account of author Lilin's childhood growing up in a Siberian criminal community near Ukraine. The "honest criminals" who live there are paradoxically religious and rigidly civilized, living by a strict moral code and denouncing political or government authority. The criminals have a type of Robin Hood philosophy, robbing the wealthy or the government, yet living humble and simple lives despite accumulated riches. Cop killing is honored and encouraged, as is lengthy p ...more
Apr 01, 2011 rated it it was ok
Shelves: first-reads
This book is full of action; it's just too bad that the action is hidden behind an overweening boastfulness and a stilted narrative style. I found myself wondering, after reading this exciting passage or the other, whether the author was truly as daring and proficient as he portrays himself to be. There is nobody to refute his claims(presumably most of them are dead) or to recall any instances where he was not the most capable and self-controlled young criminal on the streets of Transnistria. Th ...more
Candace Jensen
Aug 25, 2011 rated it really liked it
I read an excerpt of this novel in my Paris Review earlier this year:

I loved it. I didn't even know it was an excerpt, I thought it was a short memoir-piece. I remember thinking, "I wish there was a lot more of that to read."
Then this summer, I was browsing in my favorite book-store and looked down to see the novel, which I recognized because of the author's name. I bought it immediately, although didn't really get around to reading it for a while.

I star
Tippy Jackson
Mar 28, 2011 rated it liked it
This was a goodreads first reads giveaway!!

So, when I was young I had to walk to school barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways. And I caught a fish this big. That's the feeling I get from this story. It's not a bad feeling. I enjoyed the book. It reminded me of an old man telling tales of how it used to be to his grandkids, while they sit snug next to a fire (of course they would be warped forever, for his tales are a lot more worrisome than most). I don't feel like the exaggeration was intenti
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Nicolai Lilin is a Russian writer of Siberian origin. He was born and grew up in Transnistria, which declared its independence in 1990 but has never been recognized as a state.
In 2004 he moved to Italy. In 2009 he published in Italy for Einaudi "Siberian education", his first novel, written directly in Italian. The book has been translated into 19 languages and distributed in 24 countries, and ha
“Chi vuole troppo è un pazzo, perché un uomo non può possedere più di quello che il suo cuore riesce ad amare” 11 likes
“le lacrime umane non cadono mai per terra, il Signore le raccoglie prima” 3 likes
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