Born in 1981 in Transnistria, an independent, though unrecognized state between Ukraine and Moldova, Nicolai Lilin moved to Italy in 2004. He now works as a tattooist in Turin and is an acclaimed novelist. His stories of criminals and tattoos have captured the imagination of Italian readers and have been translated into several languages. The Oscar winning director Gabriele Salvatores has turned the first and perhaps most famous of his novels, Siberian Education, into a successful movie starring, among others, John Malkovich playing grandfather Kuzya.
If you are a voyager travelling all the way from Moldova to Ukraine and to the Black Sea, you will most likely be advised not to cross Transnistria: you’d better embark on a journey along the dusty roads of Moldavia. There you will find sunflowers, kids selling you all sorts of vegetables, flocks of geese, colourful street shrines. All but the corrupted police of Transnistria. At least, this is what I was told a few years ago, when I made my way from Chisinau to the Black Sea to visit Odessa, at the remotest outskirts of Mitteleuropa (Figures 1 & 2).
In the 1930s Stalin moved the members of the Siberian mafia from their homeland to Transnistria at the periphery of the Russian empire in order to weaken them by eradicating them from their homeland. Siberian criminals settled down around the river Dniester and, predictably, soon successfully resumed their activities. What is striking about these criminals – the honest criminals, as Lilin refers to them – is their code of honour. Siberian criminals do not deal either in drugs or prostitutes; they pay the highest respect to women (particularly pregnant women), to children and orphans, and to their elders; they consider the mentally and physically disabled or handicapped as being endowed with a special gift from God (“God-willed”, as they describe them). The so-called Siberian Education is a special upbringing that brings together their criminal code and the Orthodox tradition implying, among other things, never mentioning the name of God or of the Holy Mother in vain. Furthermore, respect for the freedom of every living thing, humility, and simplicity are the basis of the Siberian criminal life. As young Kolima (the author’s nickname) soon learns by listening to and watching his fellow rascals of Low River, in the city of Bender, “respect, courage, friendship, loyalty” play a pivotal role within this restricted society. All these values seem to hint at the pervasiveness of religion in the Siberian criminal community. Paradoxically enough for people used to manoeuvring pikes (flick-knives), rifles, guns, Kalashnikovs, the sacredness of life is at the centre of everyday practice. As Lilin puts it, “Our philosophy of life has a close relation to death; children are taught that taking someone else’s life or dying are perfectly acceptable things, if there is a good reason”. Thus, children from a small age are accustomed to watch their parents killing small animals; later, they are given the opportunity to kill small animals themselves and to practice with their knife on the carcasses of bigger animals, like pigs or oxen. By the age of thirteen or fourteen the apprentice criminal might have one murder to his name. This is not at all perceived as dishonourable, since it does not imply vices such as sadism or cowardice. Even hunting in the woods is seen as a purification ritual “which enables a person to return to the state of primal innocence in which God created man”. Siberian criminal society is highly ritualized, and strict and severe rules codify almost every aspect of everyday life, from killing to sipping your tea, to choosing a tattoo.
What is most astonishing, and certainly most pertinent to the purposes of our research, is the deep religiosity of this culture. Even if criminality and devotion seem to be at odds, yet the devotion of Siberian criminals is intense and articulated. And, furthermore, it is intimately domestic. Throughout Lilin’s books one frequently meets criminals referring to themselves as “humble people, servants of Our Lord and of the Siberian Orthodox Mother Church,” or addressing interlocutors with complex invocations such as: “By the passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for us sinners!” or “By Holy Christ and all His blessed family!”
In the first chapter of Siberian Education, Lilin introduces us to the inner household of the criminal. Within the house, a sacred space is created through a rather fixed pattern of practices, prayers, objects. Devotion is especially linked to weapons. There are special places for them in the house. Those that are personal, everyday weapons are placed in the so-called “red corner”, “where the icons hang on the walls, along with the photographs of relatives who have died or are serving prison sentences. Below the icons and the photographs there is a shelf, draped with a piece of red cloth, on which there are usually about a dozen Siberian crucifixes”. (Figure 3)
The altar-like shelf, the crucifixes, and the icons show the role played by objects in domestic devotion. However, objects would mean little, if they were not enlivened by peculiar practices. It is practices, rather than objects, what allows us to distinguish orthodox devotion from the rather unusual (not to say deviant) criminal devotion. When a criminal enters the house, “he goes straight to the red corner, pulls out his gun and puts it on the shelf, then crosses himself and places a crucifix over the gun. This is an ancient tradition which ensures that weapons are never used in a Siberian house: if they were, the house could never be lived in again. The crucifix acts as a kind of seal, which can only be removed when the criminal leaves the house“. (Figure 4)
But there is more, as weapons are divided into honest and sinful, the first being those used for hunting and the latter those used for “criminal purposes”. Although sinful weapons are not given such a sacred place as the honest ones, nevertheless each of them is engraved “with the image of a cross or a patron saint, and has been ‘baptised’ in a Siberian church”. Interestingly, these sinful weapons are kept in the cellar or hidden in the yard as the sacrality of the house cannot be profaned by such objects. Should they remain in the same room as an honest weapon, the latter would be contaminated and could not be used again “because its use would bring bad luck on the whole family”. When such an unfortunate case happens, honest criminals know how to behave: their tradition provides them with the right ritual. The contaminated weapon is “buried in the ground, wrapped in a sheet on which a mother has given birth. According to Siberian beliefs, everything connected with childbirth is charged with positive energy, because every newborn is pure and does not know sin”.
The connection between weapons and icons is so strict that Siberian criminals are happy to spend their money almost entirely on weapons and on Orthodox icons. Tattoos are another means of conveying religious meanings, besides assuring oneself protection (Figure 5).
Just as Renaissance pilgrims used to tattoo themselves with devotional images, like the ones that can still be seen at the Museum of the Holy House in Loreto, Siberian criminals tattoo themselves with sacred images. The code that lies at the heart of the Siberian tattoo is impressively complicated. Tattoos display the story of a criminal’s life; therefore, their choice is not free but must be related to specific events in the criminal’s life. In Lilin’s novel there is an episode in which a devotional tattoo saves the life of a character, Kostich, who intends to punish in an exemplary way a couple of young criminals (two junkies who had left their four-month-old baby to die). As he approaches their house, he strips his shirt off. Bare-chested, he walks through a bunch of criminals who were trying to protect the couple and asks, pointing at the Madonna and Child tattooed on his chest: “Are you going to strike her?” As the criminals, out of respect for the Virgin and Child, back off, he reaches the couple and beats “those two unnatural parents to death”. (Figure 6)
As testified to by the flourishing Italian tradition of the ex voto, the house is often the place where miraculous events take place, or are believed to take place. This is the case with the young Evgeny, “Geka”, who wears eyeglasses. In the Siberian community wearing eyeglasses is considered a weakness that affects one’s dignity, and therefore it is not tolerated. To avoid the shame of eyeglasses, Grandfather Boris performs an apt ritual in order to help Geka regain his eyesight. This episode allows us to catch a glimpse of Siberian devotion, and to learn some of their prayers. The young Geka is brought to the “red corner” of the house, forced to kneel down in front of the icons of the Siberian Madonna and of the Siberian Saviour, repeating the prayer Grandfather Boris recites, while crossing himself. The prayer goes as follows:
O Mother of God, holy Virgin, patron of all Siberia and protectress of all us sinners! Witness the miracle of Our Lord! O Lord, Our Saviour and Companion in life and death, You who bless our weapons and our miserable efforts to bring Your law into the world of sin, You who make us strong before the fire of hell, do not abandon us in our moment of weakness! Not from a lack of faith, but in love and respect for your creatures, I beseech You, perform a miracle! Help Your miserable slave Evgeny to find Your road and live in peace and health, so that he can sing Your glory! In the names of the Mothers, Fathers and Sons and of those members of our families who have been resurrected in Your arms, hear our prayer and bring Your light and Your warmth into our hearts! Amen!
Then, “making solemn, spectacular gestures”, Grandfather Boris touches Geka’s glasses and removes them saying this sentence, “Just as many times You have put Your strength into my hands to grip my knife against the cops, and have directed my pistol to hit them with bullets blessed by You, give Your power to defeat the sickness of Your humble slave Evgeny!” Finally, Boris asks Geka if he can see well; when Geka, out of respect, answers affirmatively, Boris turns to the icons and thanks the Lord with “traditional formulas”: “May Your will be done, our Lord! As long as we are alive and protected by You, the blood of the cops, the contemptible devils and the servants of evil will flow in abundance! We are grateful to You for Your love”.
What is common to all these prayers and formulas is the idea that protection is accorded by God to the criminals’ weapons: guns, knives and bullets all are blessed by Him and thus, by his Grace, are become apt to kill the hated cops. There is a touch of world turned upside-down in these prayers; certainly, the idea that God’s blessing manifests itself in helping to kill enemies, though archaic and deeply rooted in popular religiosity, appears all but orthodox. What is certainly orthodox is the domestic context of this deviant piety: icons, candles, signs of the Cross and the deep humility and respect towards the Lord and the Virgin.
Since the criminals spend the majority of their life in prison, in the Siberian community prison cells become a domestic space characterised by a specific kind of devotion. In one striking passage, Lilin describes the rape of a young criminal in a cell by the members of the sect called Black Seed. In Siberian Education homosexuality is not tolerated and is referred to as “the sickness of the flesh”; criminals are persuaded that it is transmitted through the gaze. It is supposed to destroy the human soul and in those prisons where the majority of the people belong to the Orthodox faith, homosexuals are forced to commit suicide. As criminals put it, “the sick of the flesh do not sleep beneath the icons”. Once again, in the world of Siberian criminals, faith and death go hand in hand. And, once again, the “domestic” space must be preserved from what is perceived as impurity. The episode of the young criminal being raped in the cell causes a violent reaction on the part of other Siberian criminals. As Lilin explains: “Having sexual relations while, in the same space, in the cell – which in the criminal language is called “home” – people are eating, or reading the Bible, or praying, is a flagrant violation of the criminal law“. The domestic space, however peculiar, is, once again, marked by devotion and everyday activities are regulated by rules in which Orthodox faith and criminal law are entangled in an indiscernible way.
Although many other scenes of domestic devotions could be found throughout Lilin’s novels, I reckon that this selection is representative enough to allow for some broader reflections. First of all, domestic devotion can be as highly ritualized as public (and liturgical) devotion. Secondly, it relies very often on tradition, where superstition and piety merge to the point that they are undistinguishable from each other. Thirdly, not only can objects create a sacred space within the house, but they can also violate it. Thus, spaces within the household are hierarchically disposed. The moment of entering the house is a most sacred one and it is not surprising that it is connected with the departed. The threshold of the house also acts, in a sense, as the threshold to the afterworld. Finally, these passages show how domestic devotion is much more a matter of practices and textuality (prayers, formulas) than merely of objects and materiality. It is only practices, prayers, acts and beliefs related to objects that can shed light on people’s feelings, and help us navigate in the vast world of private and domestic devotion.
 This and the previous quotation are taken from Nicolai Lilin, Siberian Education (Edinburgh-London-New York-Melbourne: Canongate, 2011), p. 19.
 Ibid., p. 7.
 Ibid., p. 13.
 Ibid., pp. 12 and 14.
 Ibid., pp. 6-7.
 Ibid., p. 7.
 Ibid., p. 8.
 Ibid., p. 9.
 Ibid. p. 183.
 Ibid., p. 238.
 Ibid., p. 239.
 Ibid., p. 286.
 Ibid., p. 301.