A film based on Nicolai Lilin’s honour-among-thieves thriller Siberian Education, starring John Malkovich as an elderly criminal, hits cinema screens in Italy this Monday. The American actor has called Educazione Siberiana “an interesting story about a way of life that most of the audience would not know about”. Back in Russia, Zakhar Prilepin, award-winning novelist and inveterate controversy-stoker, has condemned Lilin’s books as “a load of exorbitant cock-and-bull stories” and “nonsense that no one in Russia in his right mind would ever bother reading”.

The truth seems to be somewhere between the two positions: Siberian Education, variously marketed as a novel and a memoir, takes elements from Lilin’s actual childhood in Transnistria (a disputed area on the Moldovan border with Ukraine) and uses them to create what the disingenuous author’s note calls “a story constructed with true details” about growing up among the Urkas, a clan of Siberian criminals.

Lilin, who was born in 1980 in the town of Bender in Transnistria, now lives in Milan and runs an art gallery, where he exhibits, among other things, examples of traditional Siberian tattoos. His fourth novel, Stories on the Skin, was published in Italian last year; in Italy at least, a new release from Lilin is a major event for readers. The buzz around him attracted Oscar-winner Gabriele Salvatores (Mediterraneo) as director, as well as Malkovich and an international cast.

Lilin, who worked on the film, says he turned down an offer from Martin Scorsese. He has praised Salvatores for skilfully condensing the essence of the novel, although he does seek to distance it from veracity, describing it as “a fairytale”.

Among the more convincing and evocative sections of Siberian Education are those set in Auntie Katya’s restaurant, where ex-convicts share cigarettes and play cards with hand-painted decks, like they did in prison, while Nicolai and friends knock back vodka and talk about fighting. Katya is one of Lilin’s few female characters (they tend to be either rape victims or earth mothers). She serves up soup with sour cream among steaming saucepans and bottles of preserved cranberries. Such images of borsch and babushkas are stereotypical, but not untruthful, and certainly not controversial.

"The state is the enemy, wealth is a sign of weakness, violence is often necessary"

More problematic is the depiction of the thieves as samurais with samovars. “In our culture everyone is judged for what he represents as a person,” writes Lilin (note the male pronoun). The state is the enemy, wealth is a sign of weakness, violence is often necessary (Nicolai is given a flick knife aged six), and “the concept of freedom is sacred.”

Bad guys with Russian accents of varying authenticity continue to be a commonplace in today’s blockbusters; their ubiquity could be the reason for the appearance of this particular subspecies — thieves who set themselves apart with a strict moral code and a striking line in DIY body art. Whatever the basis in truth (and there is some), films like David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007) have firmly established the trope for western audiences.

Viggo Mortensen’s cheekbones aside, the idea of “honest Siberian criminals” living by their own code of honour has found willing fans because, as often with Russia, it seems to offer something at once beguilingly alien and morally pure. Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh, reviewing the novel of Siberian Education for the Guardian in 2010, celebrated Lilin as a hero. He loved the idea of a society operating “on higher principles than the mainstream ones pursued in the west”, rejecting materialism in favour of a “form of libertarian socialism”.

"Booze, blades and brooding in Mother Russia"

Such an endorsement from an author with a cult following in Russia provoked a backlash. Most readers objected to Lilin’s inaccuracy rather than his championing of a culture of lawless violence, misogyny and extreme homophobia. Critics dismissed the work as “pure fantasy”, “not just improbable, but impossible” and called Lilin “a fraud”. While these accusations echo the brouhaha around the dubious true-life memoirs of James Frey or Ryszard Kapuściński, the scandal was particular acute because Lilin’s imaginings coincided pretty neatly with western stereotypes about booze, blades and brooding in Mother Russia. An Amazon reviewer of Siberian Education said: “If you believe in bears walking along the streets of Moscow drinking vodka and playing balalaikas, this is a book for you.”

Lilin’s brutal sequel, Free Fall, or (in the US) Sniper: a Novel, has met with similar scepticism. The author conflated his own experiences (he joined the Russian army as a volunteer) with those of others who were conscripted. Prilepin has been scathing, not just about Lilin, who he claims “has never set foot in Chechnya”, but also about “naive western readers”, eager to have their preconceptions confirmed.

Prilepin’s diatribe seems to be partly motivated by envy. Although he is feted at home — his novel Sin won the prestigious Super Natsbest award in 2011, effectively crowning it as the Russian novel of the decade — and widely translated, he clearly feels that international recognition and Hollywood film offers have been unfairly slow to arrive. Some of Prilepin’s own books, including Sin, are also novelised memoirs, drawing on his previous careers as a security guard, a journalist and a military captain in Chechnya.

"There is something really horrible about having all our national flaws laid bare"

The difference between them is that subtly crafted, picaresque tales like Sin paint a picture of Russia that runs on emotional connections, not codes of honour: for him life is about familial love at the dacha, anger outside a nightclub, or yearning for home on the frontline. But this touchy-feely approach can seem dangerously close to airbrushing. “There is something really horrible about having all our national flaws and foibles laid bare for all to see,” Prilepin writes; he calls for a return to the literary values of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov that are “free of dogma and didacticism” (a strange way to describe the relentlessly preachy Tolstoy). “It would be nice to be able to do without tanks and Cossacks,” he concludes, having dismissed Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago as hardly a “pivotal moment in modern Russian literature”. This, perhaps, is because Solzhenitsyn’s enormous success surely had as much to do with revelations about the Soviet camps as stylistic merit.

When it comes to attracting foreign readers in translation, it tends not to be finely crafted language that wins out. While in Russia Boris Pasternak is a poet, in the west it is Doctor Zhivago, with its violent passions and broad scope, that made him famous. No one can predict exactly what readers will want, but narrative drive and sensational details rarely hurt.

On this level, Lilin knows his market. He told Oliver Bullough of The Independent that Arkady Babchenko’s far more reliable book about the Chechen war was too large: “People who only read romances or detective novels won’t read it so they won’t know the truth about the war.” Although the question of “the truth” in Lilin’s works is bound to surface as Siberian Education reaches a wider audience, both in print and on screen, box office returns will be one measure of the global significance of this version of Russia. And this time, perhaps, Lilin’s Russia has run out of steam: despite the starry cast, Educazione Siberiana (which was shot in English) has not yet found distribution outside his adopted home of Italy. 

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