Thursday, 3 February 2011

Transnistria (again): Further Education from the ex-Siberian Community

I now find myself, for a second time, in the tiny – and contentious – state of Transnistria. So why, amongst the hundreds of other, larger and more established countries, am I gracing this place with a second visit? After all, this is a breakaway territory located mostly on a strip of land between the Dniester River and the eastern Moldovan border to Ukraine. And it is only recognised by two other states (themselves, of limited international recognition – Abkhazia and South Ossetia).

Well, the reason for this is twofold – firstly I was a little unsatisfied with my last visit there. Not that the book I read: "This is Radio PMR" was not enlightening and interesting, but it was primarily a photobook interspersed with individual interviews and as such I felt that I only scratched the surface of this complex - and contentious - nation in my last visit. Also, since my visit, a book has been published which presents a first-hand account of contemporary life there, by a native of Transnistria. This book, “Siberian Education” by Nicolai Lilin recounts his life in the criminal underworld of the city of Bender, and promises to be a very different perspective than my previous trip there.

However, before giving my account of this book I should add a caveat – in fact the caveat is that of the author himself. At the outset of the book he states that: “certain episodes are imaginative recreation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events.” This broad statement leaves us, as readers, with the dilemma of not knowing what IS fact or fiction in the following account… I can understand the complaints of certain reviewers that they cannot therefore, treat this book as a serious social commentary, however for the purposes of my trip I am satisfied. After all, most of the books I have chosen for countries are fiction, and even if this IS a wholly fictionalised account – it fits my criteria well in being by a native author and set within my timescale in an actual location in Transnistria (the city of Bender).

As far as the book itself goes, veracity aside, I found this to be an interesting and enjoyable read. Nicolai describes his upbringing in a close knit community of ex-Siberian criminals in the ‘Lower River’ area of the city of Bender; from his pre-teen (but still prolifically criminal) youth until his forced eviction from the city in his early 20s. This eviction is as a conscript in the Russian Army – sent to the frontlines of the Chechnyan conflict (a conflict which only merits a few pages here, but which has already been described – from the Chechnyan perspective – previously on my journey). The book’s cover informs us that Nicolai subsequently lived in Ireland before settling as an Italian citizen – although the circumstances of this are never covered in this book (and have added to the scepticism surrounding the validity of his account of his criminal past…)

Still, I found this to be a gritty and visceral account of criminal life in an enclave of Transnistria (and certainly an interesting counterpoint to the rather clinical accounts given in my previous visit via “This is Radio PMR”).

The timescales of this account run roughly from the 1980s to the late 1990s, and mainly focus on his teenage years as a fledgling ‘criminal’ (a term of honour in his community). Life in this criminal society is a strange mix of ancestral pride, social etiquette (the elderly must be respected, fellow criminals must be greeted in an elaborately formal manner etc) and extreme violence – especially against rival criminal communities, who are often seen as degenerate by the Siberians. Perhaps one depiction that typifies this almost schizophrenic society is Nicolai’s account of how the family weapons are kept within the religious shrines of the household. No irony is acknowledged here.

Similarly, Nicolai’s progression from boy to man is a mix of increased social responsibility (within his community) and increased criminal activity. He is given his first ‘pike’ (knife) by a respected Siberian criminal at the tender age of 12 – and promptly gains an elevated status amongst his peers as a result.

Another element of Nicolai’s rite of passage is his first criminal conviction and incarceration in a juvenile prison. Here, divorced from the ‘Low River’ society, Nicolai has a degree of protection through fellow ‘Siberians’ but is nevertheless constantly in close proximity with other gangs. The atrocities carried out by these other gangs within the confines of the prison (including a particularly disturbing account of a prolonged gang-rape) are both nightmarish and, if one is honest, take one back to the author’s caveat that certain “episodes are not intended to portray actual events”.

Another important element of criminal society that Nicolai encounters whilst in prison is the socially-important culture of tattoos. Apparently tattoos play an important role in the criminal subculture - both in telling the story of a criminal’s life and enhancing his reputation as a result. Given this pivotal importance, skilled tattooists are also highly regarded within the criminal fraternity and enjoy an almost shaman-like status.

Nicolai determines to become a tattooist, and succeeds, and this is largely portrayed as a step on the road, in his life, to his escape from a criminal community that he portrays as both potentially fatal and in terminal decline. Certainly in recent interviews he has stated that the Siberian criminal society that he depicts in this work no longer exists – which seems odd given the tight-knit structure that he portrays as existing only a decade or so ago.

Another event that – more forcibly – extracts him from his criminal surroundings is his conscription (a virtual kidnapping by the authorities) into the Russian army to fight rebels in Chechnya. Most of Nicolai’s graphic account of his time in the army fighting the rebels (or “saboteurs” as he refers to them) comes, a little confusingly, in a chapter at the start of the book, and provides an interesting alternative perspective to that provided by Chechnyan surgeon Khassan Baiev in the earlier Chechnyan book “The Oath”.

Upon his enforced conscription the book abruptly ends, leaving us hanging as to the story of Nicolai’s time in Chechnya and subsequent escape to his current life as an Italian citizen. Perhaps this is intentional and another book is in the offing.

If my account seems a little cynical, I would say that that is inevitable. His opening caveat, along with a lack of explanation of how Nicolai came to be accepted as an Italian citizen despite his long criminal record – as well as his convenient attestation that the Siberian criminal community that he describes no longer exists – all make me question the amount of fact over fiction here. That said, taken at face value, I found the book to be pretty well written and an interesting account of criminal social mores in a post-Soviet Mafia-like community (and certainly, there is no denying that these Mafia-type gangs are thriving in the post-Soviet region, as previous books on my travels have shown).

As I mentioned in my last blog: there are no civilian flights into or out of Transnistria, so I retrace my inward journey from Bender to Chisinau via a Marshrutka. I have my exit papers so no issues at border control.

The next step of my journey returns me to Russia, specifically to Yekaterinburg, a large industrial city in the Urals Federal District, some 900 miles east of Moscow. To get there from Chisinau I take a 4.00pm flight on Siberian airlines from Chisinau’s International Airport. This takes me to Domodedovo airport in Moscow 2 hours later. Fortunately this is one of Moscow’s more salubrious airports: there are a lot of amenities including a clean lobby, secure waiting area, good cafes and restaurants, and a business centre. Author’s note: a few days after writing this description, on 24th January 2011, a suicide bomber detonated a 7kg explosive device at the airport, killing 35 people and injuring 110. Early news reports stated that “Militant groups from the North Caucasus are suspected of planning the attack.” (BBC News). This is a grim reminder that the conflicts and dangers described in some of the books on my journey have a very real impact upon the lives of ordinary people, and demonstrates how, in virtually the whole of this planet, ‘peace’ is an aspiration rather than an actuality…

At 10.00pm I take another flight directly to Yekaterinburg (flight announcements refer to it as Ekaterinburg/Sverdlovsk) which touches down at 02.10am (although this is largely due to time difference – the actual flight is just 2 hours 10 minutes). The price? £242 one-way, including taxes etc. Not bad for such a vast distance…

Thus begins my latest excursion – with “Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak”, an account by anthropologist Jeanne Guillemin of her visit to Yekaterinburg in 1992 with a team of US scientists to investigate the causes of a deadly outbreak of anthrax there back in 1979; at the height of the Cold War…


  1. Couldnt agree more with that, very attractive article


  2. Awesome post! Thanks for taking the time to write this out! For some reason, I find former Soviet republics fascinating. Though I have no real desire to visit Transnistria, I want to know more about it. The premise behind your blog is so interesting and I've got a ton of books to check out now. Thank you!