For example, from the day we ran through the rooms of a ruined building, firing at the enemy from such close range we could almost touch them with our hands.
We were exhausted. The paratroopers worked in shifts, but we saboteurs hadn’t slept for three days. We went on like the waves of the sea, so as not to give the enemy the chance to rest, carry out manoeuvres or organize their defences. We were always fighting, always.
That day I ended up on the top floor of the building with Shoe, trying to eliminate the last heavy machinegun. We threw two hand grenades.
In the dust that was falling from the roof we couldn’t see a thing, and we found ourselves face to face with four enemies who like us were wandering like blind kittens through the grey, dirty cloud, which reeked of debris and burnt explosive.
I had never shot anyone at such close quarters in all my time in Chechnya.
Meanwhile, on the first floor our Captain had taken a prisoner and killed eight enemies, all by himself.
When I came out with Shoe I was completely dazed. Captain Nosov was asking Moscow to keep an eye on the Arab prisoner, while he, Ladle and Zenith went to check out the cellar.
I sat on the stairs next to Moscow, opposite the frightened prisoner, who kept trying to communicate something. Moscow wasn’t listening to him, he was sleepy and tired, as we all were. As soon as the Captain turned his back, Moscow pulled out his pistol – an Austrian Glock, one of his trophies – and, with an arrogant leer, shot the prisoner in the head and chest.
The Captain turned round, and looked at him pityingly without saying a word.
Moscow closed his eyes as he sat down beside the dead man, overcome with exhaustion.
Looking at all of us as if he were meeting us for the first time, the Captain said:
‘This is too much. Everyone into the cars! We’re going for a rest, behind the lines.’
One after another, like zombies, we trooped off towards our vehicles. My head was so heavy I was sure that if I stopped it would explode.
We went back behind the lines, into the area controlled and defended by our infantry. We fell asleep instantly; I didn’t even have time to take off my jacket and ammunition belt before I fell into the darkness, like a dead man.
Soon afterwards Moscow woke me by hammering the butt of his Kalashnikov on my jacket, at chest level. Slowly and reluctantly I opened my eyes and looked around; I struggled to remember where I was. I couldn’t get things into focus.
Moscow’s face looked tired; he was chewing a piece of bread. Outside it was dark; it was impossible to tell what time it was. I looked at my watch but couldn’t see the digits; everything was hazy.
‘What’s happening? How long have we slept?’ I asked Moscow in a weary voice.
‘We haven’t slept at all, brother . . . And I think we’re going to have to stay awake quite a while longer.’
I clasped my face between my hands, trying to muster the strength to stand up and arrange my thoughts. I needed to sleep, I was exhausted. My trousers were dirty and wet, my jacket smelled of sweat and fresh earth. I was worn out.
Moscow went to wake the others:
‘Come on, lads, we’re leaving immediately . . . We’re needed.’
They were all in despair; they didn’t want to get up. But, grumbling and cursing, they struggled to their feet.
Captain Nosov was pacing around with the handset to his ear, and an infantryman was following him around like a pet dog, with the field radio in his rucksack. The Captain was angry; he kept repeating to somebody or other, over the radio, that it was the first break we’d taken in three days, and that we were at the end of our tether. It was all in vain, because eventually Nosov said, in a clipped tone:
‘Yes, Comrade Colonel! Confirmed! Order received!’
They were sending us back to the front line.
I didn’t even want to think about it.
I went over to a metal tank full of water. I dipped my hands into it: the water was very cool; it made me shiver slightly. I put my whole head into the drum, right under the water, and kept it there for a while, holding my breath.
I opened my eyes inside the tank and saw complete darkness. Alarmed, I jerked my head out, gasping for air.
The darkness I’d seen in the tank had shocked me. Death might be just like that, I thought: dark and airless.
I leaned over the tank and watched, shimmering on the water, the reflection of my face, and of my life up to that moment.
Revue de presse
— Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah
"Terrifying, fascinating, horrific and violent — Lilin's memoir is an eye-opening and gripping account of a childhood spent in the brutal Siberian underworld."
— Simon Sebag-Montefiore, author of Young Stalin
"Astonishing. . . . Takes you into some very strange worlds; frightening, violent and yet with spirited moments of redemption which both offer hope and keep you reading. . . . Remarkable for its authenticity. . . . A breathtaking memoir."
— Misha Glenny, author of McMafia
"This story makes most of what we call true crime writing seem insipid and effete. Nicolai Lilin has produced a marvellous and illuminating book, which goes way beyond an expose of a subculture and lifestyle, and eventually forces us to reassess our notions of good and evil. If you want to understand how the so-called Russian Mafia came to dominate the global criminal underworld, Siberian Education provides many of the answers. An isolated, persecuted people, drawn together by a ruthless yet vividly moral bond against the authorities, and who relentlessly refuse to cede the monopoly of violence to the state, in our sanitized Facebook and Twitter world order, perversely emerge as the last great caste of anti-heroes."
— Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting
"A chilling portrait of the viciousness that comes from political disenfranchisement. . . . [Lilin] brilliantly depicts a criminal underworld of strict mores, arcane logic and brutal justice. . . . Amid the depravity of its anti-heroes, Siberian Education paints a memorable world of anarchism, devotion, humor and respect."
— The Wall Street Journal online