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"My adventures with Interpol" (the author about his arrest in Spain) 
 
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23,000 
 
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23.000 
 
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A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik 
 
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A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik 
 
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A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik 
 
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A Russian Orchid 
 
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A Train Named Russia 
 
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A Triumph of Metaphysics 
 
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A Well-run House 
 
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On 22 August 2012, the anti-fascist Petr Silaev was arrested in Grenada. He is an activist in anti-governmental protests, and the author of the book “Exodus” (published in Finland, Greece, Italy and Germany), under the pseudonym DJ Stalingrad. Petr took part in the infamous protests in Khimki, which for some protestors ended in jail or hospital (as it did for the renowned journalist Oleg Kashin, who was attacked with baseball bats near his home). Around 400 young people threw stones and flares at the administrative office of the town in protest against the construction of the Moscow – St. Petersburg highway through the Khimki forest – one of the few remaining green oases around Moscow. The situation bore some similarity to the recent events in Istanbul.

The grounds for the arrest were participation in an unsanctioned demonstration. But in Russia, who sanctions demonstrations by opponents to the regime? At the time of his arrest, Petr Silaev had the status of a category A political refugee in Finland, which did not stop the Spanish police from putting him in a Madrid jail at the request of the Russian prosecutor’s office, which sent information about Petr to Interpol. Just to be on the safe side, Madrid charged Petr with terrorism and possession of weapons and explosives. Not even the intervention of the Finnish embassy helped. It was like something out of Kafka!

When he got out of jail, Petr was forced to remain on Spanish territory, without any means of support and under the threat of deportation to Russia. All of the charges against him were only dropped quite recently.

This is what the author himself wrote about the reason for his arrest and the “excellent” work of Interpol:

“My adventures with Interpol”

Yesterday I received a letter from Interpol – and I sighed with relief. From all appearances, this strange international case which I unexpectedly found myself at the center of was coming to an end. Oligarchs, “red notices”, terrorism – “…from all these woes, may God deliver us…” I’ll discuss everything in order.

In July 2010, on a hot day, I made an ill-fated trip to the Moscow Oblast with a group of friends, which ended with the Khimki prosecutor’s office opening a criminal case against me under the laughable charge of “hooliganism”. No one understood, not at the time or later, what my crime actually involved. A few months later I was traveling in the European Union on a tourist visa, waiting for a decision on my application to be granted political refuge – while the Moscow Region police continued to arrest, beat and use plastic bags to suffocate my distant acquaintances, interrogating them to find out where I was hiding in Moscow. The people gasped for air as they were tortured, but they really could not help the police at all – and so I was put on the federal wanted list. Perhaps this played a crucial role in the decision of the Finnish authorities to grant me the “elite” status of a political refugee – category “A” international protection.

...

In August 2012, I left cold Finland for Spain to warm myself in the rays of the scorching sun, and indeed I had plenty of opportunity to get warm, in the walking yard of the maximum security prison Soto del Real. In the morning, a police squad came bursting in to the room of the cheap hostel where I was staying, handcuffed me and took me to the station with a convoy – they told me that I was charged with possessing weapons and explosives. I was alarmed – everyone knows about the Spanish paranoia of the war on terrorism, and I could really have ended up in a really nasty situation because of a mistake. After long hours of waiting, I was taken to the investigator’s office – there was already a group of inquisitive officers in the room, as well as the public lawyer. I was shown a photocopy of an order from Interpol for 2011: Articulo 213 de Código Penal de Federación Rusa - "Gamberrismo" (hooliganism) – two years later the “Khimki case” had finally caught up with me.

I sighed with relief and took my plastic refugee card out of my pocket – status “A”, international protection. “No te entiendo” – no one in the room could read or speak English. By using gestures, I tried to tell the police about the basic meaning of the Geneva Convention of 1951, inform them about the regulations on the status of refugees, non-refoulement and the common European space of political refuge. I only made them smile – no one believed me. “Sign everything,” the lawyer said. “You’ll be sent home soon, you won’t have to spend so long in jail.”

I was handcuffed again and taken to the court in Madrid. “OK,” I thought, as I lay on the floor of the police car, with my hands behind my back. “Perhaps a provincial policeman doesn’t know international law. At the National court, the highest court in the kingdom, they must be better informed.” I was mistaken – on the same day, the judge, without looking at my papers from the Finnish embassy, signed a decree to put me in custody and start the extradition process. It took me 10 days, using all my efforts and connections, for this decision to be overturned, and for me to be released. After this, my case dragged on for another six months out of inertia, and ended with the unanimous decision of the judges that it did “not conform to legislation”.

Since then I have had quite a lot of time to look more deeply into the problem of extradition legislation and cooperation on the basis of Interpol. First of all, I was interested as to whether a person could really be extradited from one country of the European Union if he had political refuge in another. In international law, there is a regulation on “non-refoulement” – “non-extradition”, when the state may officially refuse extradition in a court of law. However, this regulation did not apply to me – I was already under political protection at the moment of my arrest. The Geneva Convention states directly that refugees cannot be extradited under any circumstances. However, the Geneva Convention is already over half a century old, and I would have to find some internal European document which directly refuted this possibility.

I started searching. In 1999, in the Finnish city of Tampere, a summit of European Union countries on issues of immigration was held. By that time, the flows of people who used the Convention of 1951 as their last chance to escape from the hell of “third world” countries had become a flood: hundreds of thousands of people fled on rafts from Turkey to Greece, from Libya to Italy, from Algeria and Morocco to Spain, and from the CIS people fled in trains to Poland. These were well-established routes by which you could enter the territory of the European Union, request political refuge, and while your case was being examined, you could go to better-off parts of the Schengen zone, such as Belgium or the Netherlands, and submit your documents again. To prevent these movements, it was decided to unite national procedures for receiving refugees into a common system – the result of the meeting in Tampere was the signing of a declaration of intentions to unify the system completely for all countries in the European Union. “A common Europe – a common refuge”.

14 years have gone by since then – to my own dissatisfaction, I discovered that these recommendations were implemented in a very one-sided way. In 2003, the infamous “Dublin-2” bill appeared, which consolidated the judicial aspect of the “Fortress Europe” project with its regulations for once and for all. Information about all immigrants is now recorded in a single data base, and those requesting refuge are concentrated in a system of special camps on the territory of “buffer” countries – from the list given above. The authorities of the European Union now take the decision themselves where you have the right to be – “political protection is equal and identical in each one of the countries”. At the same time, no documents were signed to the effect that this protection applies to the territory of the other countries. “One for all, but not all for one” – this contradiction is quite glaring, but nevertheless, no steps have yet been taken to fix the situation.

In the end, I found an assessment of the existing situation in a report by the UN High Commissioner for refugees – and my heart sank. “A person in such position can find himself in a very precarious situation” – this was all that the head international body on issues of political refuge could tell me. Every year, many journalists, bloggers, activists and politicians are arrested in European Union countries – as a result of orders signed in Uzbekistan, Belarus, Indonesia or China. European legislation cannot do anything to oppose this, despite the Convention of 1951, the mere mention of which makes lawyers smirk.

There are grounds for skepticism – the post-war agreement on the status of refugees was clearly intended for a world which was not destined to come into being. In accordance with this agreement, all of the signatory countries undertake not to return refugees under any circumstances – and almost every country signed it. Thus, literally following the principle would theoretically lead to a situation when any criminal could buy himself refugee status in Uzbekistan, and forget about prosecution forever – it is not surprising that in all countries around the world, people usually turn a blind eye to the Convention. The only overseer of the Convention today is the institution of the UN High Commissioner, who at present mainly carries out advisory functions. In a case when a country does not observe the rules of the Convention, he may apply certain sanctions – which are unfortunately also of an advisory nature. Thus, the dichotomy of “Interpol – political refuge” that was invented half a century ago was completely violated: with a “red notice” from Interpol, you will really be arrested and thrown in jail – and physically, not on an advisory level.

It’s now time to say a few words about Interpol – I constantly encounter systematic ignorance about this institution among the people I talk to. No, I’m not going to discuss the fact that in the 1930s its headquarters was located in Vienna, and after the Anschluss the organization came under the control of the Third Reich – at one time it was headed by Ernst Kaltenbrunner himself. That’s not what I want to talk about at all. Interpol is an international non-commercial organization, which at present is based in France, in the city of Lyon. Its main activity is to support the work of special postal mailing, such as echo conferences on FidoNet, to which national offices may write applications. In Lyon, these requests are processed, they are given codes and labels – and then sent over the entire network. Interpol itself does not investigate cases and does not issue orders – it is just a postal client, which allows national security bodies to exchange data about people of interest to them in a unified form. After the trial was over, I received copies of this correspondence: in broken English, the investigator Ochnev from Khimki (in the correspondence he amusingly called himself “agent Ochnev”) requested to be given assistance in my arrest. In two sentences, he stated the charge against me: “he joined a mob of 150-300 people, which marched to the administration building, and using rocks, paint bombs and smoke flares, did damage to the building of a cost of 395,000 rubles”. No real actions on my part were described in this letter – the Spanish police had to resort to falsification, and changed the smoke flares into “possessing explosives” – no judge would have signed a sanction for arrest on the charge of “joining a mob”.

This really would have been amusing, if it hadn’t been sad – thanks to one simple email, I was not only arrested and spent some time in jail – in the course of my slow-moving case, the Spanish was forced to exchange investigative correspondence with the Russian Interior Ministry, and gave them a lot of personal information about me – my current addresses, above all… I decided to act, and wrote a letter to another office which worked on cases for exclusion from the Interpol database – the British association Fair Trials International. Previously, while studying the statistics for extradition cases, I had come across several sensational cases which they had won – and it was a pleasant surprise for me when they rang me the next day.

“Your case is very interesting for us – it’s a gross violation on Interpol’s part” –I could hear genuine enthusiasm in the case manager’s voice. “We’re also very happy to have a case from Russia in our portfolio. It’s very pleasant for us to finally be dealing with a… traditional activist, you understand…”

...

The machinery of the law was put in motion, and we drew up an official statement to the Commission for the Control of Interpol’s Files (CCF) – a special body designed to examine national requests for compliance with the third article of the Interpol Constitution. “The organization is strictly prohibited from taking part or intervening into activities of a political, military, religious or racial nature.” In my case, the Commission had clearly committed negligence, and not only failed to see the political motive of my prosecution, but also the lack of an element of crime – which was noted by the National Court of Spain in a harsh form. Several reports appeared in the press, the English made a small clip with my participation – everything took its course, until the Russian authorities acted in their usual manner.

Drooling with pleasure, officials from the Interior Ministry informed the public that they had just sent Interpol a request for the arrest of William Browder, the head of the Hermitage Capital hedge fund, which initiated sanctions against a number of Russian officials on the Magnitsky List, which, I guess, everyone is familiar with. I still don’t understand why they published this – there is no doubt that the CCF would have let pass this request, and Browder would have been suddenly arrested somewhere in Saudi Arabia while on a business trip, to his great dissatisfaction. But the Russians preferred to publicly humiliate themselves rather than play a witty prank: a scandal erupted on the pages of all the newspapers in England. Browder wrote furious articles, human rights advocates castigated the bloody regime, and commentators recalled that Kaltenbrunner had been the head of Interpol. Fair Trials International also cautiously raised its voice, stating that timely reform of the entire organization and the CCF in particular could prevent such situations. In many articles, as an illustrative example of the unprincipled nature of the Russian authorities in using the international warrant system, my case was mentioned – and unexpectedly for myself, I became an English media personality. The bacchanalia in the press lasted for a week, until finally a roar of thunder was heard – the voice of Interpol itself. “Big Ron” – Ronald Noble, the general secretary of the organization, replied in an open letter to The Telegraph.

“Interpol makes the world safer” – first of all, Mr. Noble informs the public that Russia’s request concerning William Browder was thoroughly examined for presence of political motivation – and rejected. The rest of the letter is a rather harsh rebuff to any proposals for possible changes in the system: “The recent example of William Browder’s case demonstrates the extent to which Interpol cares for human rights – and does not require any reforms”.

Mr. Noble continues: “Would our critics really not want Russia to warn us about suspected child molesters, human traffickers, rapists, murderers… or terrorists, as in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers?”

It was a very strange letter – because the article by the columnist Peter Oborne, which Noble formally replied to, was mainly about me. It contained rather harmless sentiments in favor of reforming the system for gathering data – so why did it get such an aggressive response, so that I found myself in the company of child molesters and murderers? Especially since the need for this reform has been under discussion for many years.

The methodology and practice of Interpol is terribly outdated – every police officer knows that a request to include a dossier in the database usually lasts at least a year. Many Poles, Czechs and Latvians were with me in the Madrid prison, who were arrested by Interpol for unpaid consumer loans – after extradition they would be immediately released, as their cases would have long been closed by that time. In 1994, the Europeans created a more modern and effective system of searches for wanted people – it is called Europol, and it carries out the same functions on the territory of the EU.

Interpol is a very small organization, and around 700 people work at its headquarters in Lyon – for all 190 member countries. This gives scope for arbitrary decisions and corruption – in 2008, Interpol President Jackie Selebi was dismissed on charges of taking bribes and suspected links with drug cartels. It would be quite unrealistic to expect that this number of people could control all the correspondence sent to them by “Agent Ochnevs” from all over the world. The system is mainly built on trust, and the assumption that all police officers in the world are honest – an idea that is even more utopian than the Geneva Convention or the Declaration of Human Rights put together.

This is also the memory of a world which was not destined to come into being – the world of post-war optimism. However, there is more involved than optimism – in the new, highly unstable geopolitical situation, the main players had to create a certain framework, a common humanitarian playing field, in which everyone would be prepared to operate on equal conditions. Since then, over half a century has gone by, and no one needs optimism or a common chessboard – UN bodies at present mainly carry out information functions. At the same time, Interpol, on the contrary, is constantly expanding, increasing its budget, and bringing in new members. Mr. Noble signs an agreement with the Turkmenistan Interior Ministry, he visits Dushanbe, goes to a reception in Mongolia – and congratulates Alexander Lukashenko on solving the case of the explosion in the Minsk metro at lightning speed. The two men who were charged with the explosion were subsequently executed, although the majority of human rights advocates believe them to be innocent. This was a very provocative gesture, given the image that the “last dictator in Europe” has in the world – one gets the feeling that Noble is playing his own international game.

Ronald Noble became the Secretary General of Interpol in 2000, at a time when the organization was in a state of permanent crisis. But a year later, on the 11th of September, everything changed. “We can say that Interpol was reborn on the 11th of September 2001,” Noble later said. Enormous funds were invested in its rebirth – from this point onwards, the key task of the organization was gathering information about armed groups and rebels all over the world. In particular, new classes of notices were introduced, which made it possible to keep track of the movements of suspects, along with new data bases of identification documents and drivers’ licenses – Ronald Noble felt very comfortable in his role. On his CV, his previous job was at the US Department of the Treasury, where he was the Undersecretary for Enforcement. He was in charge of the US Secret Service (the president’s personal body guard service), and also the Office for combating terrorism and gathering financial information: Ronald Noble is a former high-ranking counterintelligence official. “It’s irrelevant whether a friend or an enemy informs you about dangerous people,” he constantly repeats in interviews. “America should invest more in the international police force and Interpol,” he wrote in an article in the New York Times. “This is the only path for gathering and analyzing valuable information”.

One gets the impression that Mr. Noble is one of the busiest officials in the world. He constantly signs new agreements on cooperation, sends open letters and writes articles – he uses the carrot and stick approach left, right and center. Vladimir Markin from the Investigatory Committee once more shows dazzling flashes of wit, and proposes for Givi Targamadze to move for good to Micronesia and Tuvalu, to escape from the united actions of the Russian investigation and Interpol – he is absolutely certain of success, for some reason. One month later, Novaya Gazeta publishes an open letter by Noble to President Saakashvili: “The request of the Russian Federation does not comply with the third article of the Constitution… We hope for further productive cooperation on Georgia’s part.” He made the Russians a laughing-stock – and immediately praised them for participation in the case of the Tsarnaev brothers. Humiliation and reward – the small, compact organization does not make it possible to examine criminal cases in detail, but it does make it possible to encourage and punish fickle regimes, while formally being outside politics. This is a large-scale geopolitical game, in which despite all the assurances, fugitive opposition members of all kinds will play an increasingly important role – as figures to be exchanged, of course.

One week ago, the Tverskoy Court in Moscow ordered to put Bill Browder in custody – the prosecutor’s office stubbornly states that it is prepared to send a document for his arrest to Lyon for the second time. In response, Browder threatens to put all his efforts into excluding Russia from Interpol altogether for systematic violations – but I expect that in light of the situation I have described, this will not go beyond a threat. In my opinion, Interpol is not threatened by any reforms. As for myself, I haven’t bought any shares in Gazprom, and generally I prefer to lead a cautious life – yesterday I finally received a letter from the CCF. “We wish to inform you that all the data about your case will henceforth be restricted for all participants of the network”. Thanks for that, at least.

See more on youtube: http://youtu.be/Av7UalX4Jb8

 
 
 

Published by

Zakharov Publishers, Moscow

Wydawnictwo W.A.B., Warsaw

Berlin Verlag, Berlin

New York Review of Books, New York

Èditions de l’Olivier, Paris

Gondolat Kiadó, Budapest

Alfaguara, Madrid

Vladimir Sorokin's novel "23,000" is the third and concluding book in his "Ice" trilogy that began with the novels "The Ice" and "The Path of the Bro."

The Brotherhood of the Light has almost realized its dream. Soon the 23,000 brothers and sisters, who emerged from the Eternal Light and slipped into human bodies in the primordial time, will gather together in a great circle and regain their original form as beings of light. The cosmic error will be corrected, and the Earth—that corporeal Hell of sexuality and violence—can find its way back to an eternal existence.

Only the humans stand in their way, or, to be more precise, the "empty shells" who survived the blow of an ice hammer on the chest, which is the only way that a "living heart" can be detected. They know too much, and are starting to interact with one another on the Internet in an attempt to join forces in the battle against the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood sets a trap for them and lures them to the Chinese city of Guangzhou, where they are interned in a camp, and forced to make ice hammers from the last remnants of the Tungus Meteorite. The two main protagonists of the novel, the Russian-American Olga and the Swede Björn are among the prisoners.

The Brotherhood is running out of time. The mass murders of the "machines of flesh" who did not survive the ice-hammer test can no longer be covered up with the secret police methods that could be applied under Stalin and the Nazi-s, and there is a danger that a "metaphysical hole" will be created. On top of this, Khram—who became the guardian of the secrets of the end-of-time sect after Bro's death—is old and weak, and does not have much longer to live. She is being aided by Misha, the small, mentally handicapped boy, to whom the reader was introduced in the concluding scene of "The Ice." Misha has since earned the name Gorn. His strong heart is helping Khram track down the remaining unlocated Brothers and Sisters on Earth, including a professional killer and a number of other unusual characters.

The dream has come true, and light circles are being formed all over the world. This is just in time for the Brotherhood, because the prisoners in the camp in Guangzhou have risen up in revolt. Only Olga and Björn survive the suppression of the uprising. Fate itself leads them to the Brotherhood. The select 23,000 gather together in a great circle on an island covered with white marble plates in the middle of the ocean . During the ceremony, Olga and Björn are seen holding two babies—also among the chosen—in their arms. They cannot avoid being mesmerized by the strength of the faith that emanates from the circle of the Brotherhood. In parting, sister Ze tells Olga that "there is no such thing as 'your' happiness and 'our' happiness. There is always only one happiness. One happiness for everyone."

When the great circle begins to speak and pronounces its verdict, the Earth shutters. Shaken out of their trance, Olga and Björn see that the circle is now one of 23,000 corpses. The realization that God created everything that surrounds them on Earth descends on them in a sort of enlightenment. They want to pray to Him, but words fail them, and they decide to go in search of humans who can teach them how to pray.

Were it not for his brilliant stylistic experiments and etudes that strongly recall the Sorokin of the period of "Sky-blue Bacon": his replication of the speech of the insane, the tale of the contract killer in the style of a roman noir, the excursion into the fascination with machines that was typical for the literature of the 1920s, Sorokin's novel "23,000" could almost be classed as a thriller because of the breathtaking tension that he creates with action that defines countless fates, taking place in Russia, China, Israel, Switzerland, and the U.S.A..

What catches the reader's attention in Sorokin's trilogy is that its protagonists are not the members of the sect of the Brotherhood, but rather the soulless "machines of flesh." No one other than humans can solve the world's problems. Olga and Björn, however, can hardly be considered average humans, because they believe too strongly in justice and are attracted too much by ideals. As one of the Russian critics theorizes, the epic of the Brotherhood of the Light is "only a play that has been staged so that people can learn something important about themselves." The idea that man can escape earthly existence and corporeality has been shown to be an illusion. What remains is the cosmic loneliness of a mankind that will remain alone with itself and its problems unless it can find a common God, but not necessarily the one fought over by theologians and religious militants. This is just one of the many possible interpretations of this multifaceted novel that plays on current fantasies about the outcome of time.

 
 
 

Published by

Zakharov Publishers, Moscow

Wydawnictwo W.A.B., Warsaw

Berlin Verlag, Berlin

Rights acquired by

New York Review of Books, New York

Gondolat Kiadó, Budapest

Alfaguara-Grupo Santillana, Madrid

Vladimir Sorokin's novel "23,000" is the third and concluding book in his "Ice" trilogy that began with the novels "The Ice" and "The Path of the Bro."

The Brotherhood of the Light has almost realized its dream. Soon the 23,000 brothers and sisters, who emerged from the Eternal Light and slipped into human bodies in the primordial time, will gather together in a great circle and regain their original form as beings of light. The cosmic error will be corrected, and the Earth—that corporeal Hell of sexuality and violence—can find its way back to an eternal existence.

Only the humans stand in their way, or, to be more precise, the "empty shells" who survived the blow of an ice hammer on the chest, which is the only way that a "living heart" can be detected. They know too much, and are starting to interact with one another on the Internet in an attempt to join forces in the battle against the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood sets a trap for them and lures them to the Chinese city of Guangzhou, where they are interned in a camp, and forced to make ice hammers from the last remnants of the Tungus Meteorite. The two main protagonists of the novel, the Russian-American Olga and the Swede Björn are among the prisoners.

The Brotherhood is running out of time. The mass murders of the "machines of flesh" who did not survive the ice-hammer test can no longer be covered up with the secret police methods that could be applied under Stalin and the Nazi-s, and there is a danger that a "metaphysical hole" will be created. On top of this, Khram—who became the guardian of the secrets of the end-of-time sect after Bro's death—is old and weak, and does not have much longer to live. She is being aided by Misha, the small, mentally handicapped boy, to whom the reader was introduced in the concluding scene of  "The Ice." Misha has since earned the name Gorn. His strong heart is helping Khram track down the remaining unlocated Brothers and Sisters on Earth, including a professional killer and a number of other unusual characters.

The dream has come true, and light circles are being formed all over the world. This is just in time for the Brotherhood, because the prisoners in the camp in Guangzhou have risen up in revolt. Only Olga and Björn survive the suppression of the uprising. Fate itself leads them to the Brotherhood. The select 23,000 gather together in a great circle on an island covered with white marble plates in the middle of the ocean . During the ceremony, Olga and Björn are seen holding two babies—also among the chosen—in their arms. They cannot avoid being  mesmerized by the strength of the faith that emanates from the circle of the Brotherhood. In parting, sister Ze tells Olga that "there is no such thing as 'your' happiness and 'our' happiness. There is always only one happiness. One happiness for everyone."

When the great circle begins to speak and pronounces its verdict, the Earth shutters. Shaken out of their trance, Olga and Björn see that the circle is now one of 23,000 corpses. The realization that God created everything that surrounds them on Earth descends on them in a sort of enlightenment. They want to pray to Him, but words fail them, and they decide to go in search of humans who can teach them how to pray.

Were it not for his brilliant stylistic experiments and etudes that strongly recall the Sorokin of the period of "Sky-blue Bacon": his replication of the speech of the insane, the tale of the contract killer in the style of a roman noir, the excursion into the fascination with machines that was typical for the literature of the 1920s, Sorokin's novel "23,000" could almost be classed as a thriller because of the breathtaking tension that he creates with action that defines countless fates, taking place in Russia, China, Israel, Switzerland, and the U.S.A..

What catches the reader's attention in Sorokin's trilogy is that its protagonists are not the members of the sect of the Brotherhood, but rather the soulless "machines of flesh." No one other than humans can solve the world's problems. Olga and Björn, however, can hardly be considered average humans, because they believe too strongly in justice and are attracted too much by ideals. As one of the Russian critics theorizes, the epic of the Brotherhood of the Light is "only a play that has been staged so that people can learn something important about themselves." The idea that man can escape earthly existence and corporeality has been shown to be an illusion. What remains is the cosmic loneliness of a mankind that will remain alone with itself and its problems unless it can find a common God, but not necessarily the one fought over by theologians and religious militants. This is just one of the many possible interpretations of this multifaceted novel that plays on current fantasies about the outcome of time.

 
 
 

Just barely out in Russian, Sorokin’s new novel has unleashed a literary debate and conquered the best-seller lists. His book is seen as a sharp, anti-Utopian political satire on the present-day situation in Russia. Sorokin himself calls it “a fantasy on a Russian theme,” adding: “It is my reaction to the modern Russia and our lives in it.”

Russia in the year 2027. The period of the Red, White and Grey turmoil, followed by the period of the restoration are over. It is now that time to put the rebirth of Russia on the agenda. The monarchy has taken power, and has officially declared that its guiding principles are: self-determination, Orthodoxy and tradition. It has already been a long time since foreign travel passports had been burned on Red Square and all the foreign diplomats were expelled. The country has been encircled by “The Great Wall of Russia,” and cut off from the rest of the world. The quality of life is only sustained by the export of oil and gas, and the only nation with whom there are friendly relations is China, which is the source of all the goods needed for private and industrial consumption, from Boeing aircraft to toilet bowls.

Sorokin’s literary experiment shows the reader a Russia, doomed to sink into the past, in a return to the dark ages, in which the Oprichnik-s of Ivan the Terrible held sway. (Ivan had set up the Oprichnik-s in 1565 to serve as his bodyguard. They developed into a sort of “high-priest” class that knew neither rule nor law, creating a unholy state within a state.) Sorokin is the first Russian writer to make contemporary use of this dark and sensitive era, a pathological episode in Russian history that, in Sorokin’s opinion, found a fertile field to grow on in Russia. “I think that all our ‘troubled times,’ revolutions, disturbances, and the sea of blood that has been shed in Russia are the result of the rule of the Oprichnik-s. This idea permeates the whole of our society, it lives in the minds of bureaucrats both large and small. The Oprichnik-s are the chosen ones.

In the Moscow of 2027, the “servants of the Tsar” ride around in red Mercedes limousines—made in China, of course—with dogs’ heads on their bumpers and brooms on their trunks. Just as in the time of Ivan the Terrible, these symbols signify that treason will be eradicated and swept from the face of the Russian soil. The novel describes a normal workday for a member of this corruptly brutal elite. He is the narrator, Andrej Komyaga.

It is a Monday, which like every other day, begins with Komyaga nursing a hefty hangover. After a vodka with sauerkraut juice and a dip in the whirlpool, Komyaga gets ready for work. An unpopular Boyar, one of the new-Russian nobility, is scheduled to be hanged from the main gate of his estate, and his wife—as per usual—raped, and his house burned to the ground. After attending church services at the Uspenski cathedral, Komyaga oversees the dress rehearsal for a celebratory concert in the Kremlin. In Orenburg in the Urals, he will have to take the customs officers to task. They are siphoning off a part of the profits that the Oprichnik-s make from the multi-leveled superhighway across which flows trade between China and Europe.

Thereafter, on the orders of the Tsarina who is addicted to love, he flies to Tobolsk to visit a seer, who will cast a spell on a young man. Having returned to Moscow, he goes to the square in front of the University of Moscow to witness the flogging of some intellectuals. He then goes to a concert given by a bard who sings songs about the licentious life of the Tsarina, to the accompaniment of a saw. Finally he reports to the Tsarina, who has just gotten up. After having had breakfast with her, he goes to dinner with his comrades, who not only take the time to royally enjoy the meal, and to relax in the sauna, but also to eliminate the Tsarina’s son-in-law who has fallen into disfavor, and have a few snorts of coke. Daybreak sees the unconscious Komyaga being carried home.

Within the narrow confines of the novel Sorokin presents the reader with a grandiose diorama of Russia. He mixes the 16th century with the 18th, and the Soviet period with the realities of the present day. Asiatic despotism, corruption and cynicism fit hand in glove with modern technology and Russian statehood. The Tsarina who is addicted to love has the traits of Catherine the Great. The seer lives in Tobolsk, just like Rasputin. In Sorokin’s tale, good citizens—just as in Stalin’s time—bring their written denunciations to the Lubyanka,  in front of which is a statue of Maluta Skuratov, the leader of the Oprichnik-s. This is the spot occupied by a statue of Feliks Dzerzhinski, the founder of the Ch.K. (the forerunner of the NKVD and KGB) during the Soviet period. Lampoons of the Tsarist family are circulating on the Internet, and Russian professors are completing their decoding of the aging gene. In pharmacies “light” drugs like cocaine are sold to help the Russian citizens at work and in recuperation. There are 28 million Chinese living in Siberia, and even the children of the Tsar prefer to speak Chinese amongst themselves. Pipelines for oil and gas exit Russia in all directions, and occasionally when the tap is turned off, the people in Western Europe or Japan lose their heating.

After his post-Soviet travesties, Sorokin now presents the reader with a very “Russian” novel that not only explores possible future tendencies, but also seems to be missing a clearly identifiable Russia, as it stretches between the past and the future, exploring a proclivity towards isolationism and a yearning for barbarianism, that seems somehow to be part of the make-up of Russian metaphysics. For this novel about the return to the Middle Ages, Sorokin has developed a style of speech that seems to come right out of the 16th century, but which, at the same time, seems to effortlessly integrate neologisms for the realities of the modern day.

Sakharov Press, Moscow, 2006, 200 pages

 
 
 

Published by

Sakharov Publishers, Moscow

Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne

Èditions de l’Olivier, Paris

Norstedts, Stockholm

Alfaguara, Madrid

W.A.B., Warsaw

Naklada Mlinarec & Plavic, Zagreb

Gondolat Kiadó, Budapest

Kitos knygos, Kaunas/Lithuania

Kalligram, Bratislava

Curtea Veche, Bucharest.

Like Publishing, Helsinki

Argo Publishers, Tallinn

Flamme Forlag, Oslo

Pistorius & Olsanska, Czech Republic

Kinneret-Zmora, Israel

Forlaget Vandkunsten, Kopenhagen

Geopoetika Publishing, Beograd

Folio, Ukraine

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York

Rights acquired by

Metaichmio, Athens

Atmosphere libri, Rome

“Sorokin’s novel packs a hefty satirical punch that will show American audiences why the author has been so controversial in Russia . . . Great fun, with a wickedly absurdist humor that occasionally reminds one of William S. Burroughs.”

—Booklist

“Perhaps no other postmodern writer demonstrates the angst around the reemergence of Russia’s slide back toward authoritarianism than the celebrated (and often reviled) satirist Sorokin. His latest assault, not only on Putin’s government but literary senses, is a caustic, slash-and-burn portrait of a man joyfully engaged in the business of state-initiated terrorism . . . It’s disturbing stuff, but as Sorokin’s razor-sharp caricature unfolds . . . the novelist’s keen argument becomes hard to ignore . . .[An] acidly funny send-up of Russia’s current state of affairs.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“Sorokin’s creations are at once fantastically strange and all too familiar. His pen drips with imaginative fury . . . [Day of the Oprichnik] holds its own with dystopian classics like Fahrenheit 451 and honors the traditions of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and other great Russian writers even as its characters burn their books.”

—Library Journal

Just barely out in Russian, Sorokin’s new novel has unleashed a literary debate and conquered the best-seller lists. His book is seen as a sharp, anti-Utopian political satire on the present-day situation in Russia. Sorokin himself calls it “a fantasy on a Russian theme,” adding: “It is my reaction to the modern Russia and our lives in it.”

Russia in the year 2027. The period of the Red, White and Grey turmoil, followed by the period of the restoration are over. It is now that time to put the rebirth of Russia on the agenda. The monarchy has taken power, and has officially declared that its guiding principles are: self-determination, Orthodoxy and tradition. It has already been a long time since foreign travel passports had been burned on Red Square and all the foreign diplomats were expelled. The country has been encircled by “The Great Wall of Russia,” and cut off from the rest of the world. The quality of life is only sustained by the export of oil and gas, and the only nation with whom there are friendly relations is China, which is the source of all the goods needed for private and industrial consumption, from Boeing aircraft to toilet bowls.

Sorokin’s literary experiment shows the reader a Russia, doomed to sink into the past, in a return to the dark ages, in which the Oprichnik-s of Ivan the Terrible held sway. (Ivan had set up the Oprichnik-s in 1565 to serve as his bodyguard. They developed into a sort of “high-priest” class that knew neither rule nor law, creating a unholy state within a state.) Sorokin is the first Russian writer to make contemporary use of this dark and sensitive era, a pathological episode in Russian history that, in Sorokin’s opinion, found a fertile field to grow on in Russia. “I think that all our ‘troubled times,’ revolutions, disturbances, and the sea of blood that has been shed in Russia are the result of the rule of the Oprichnik-s. This idea permeates the whole of our society, it lives in the minds of bureaucrats both large and small. The Oprichnik-s are the chosen ones.

In the Moscow of 2027, the “servants of the Tsar” ride around in red Mercedes limousines—made in China, of course—with dogs’ heads on their bumpers and brooms on their trunks. Just as in the time of Ivan the Terrible, these symbols signify that treason will be eradicated and swept from the face of the Russian soil. The novel describes a normal workday for a member of this corruptly brutal elite. He is the narrator, Andrej Komyaga.

It is a Monday, which like every other day, begins with Komyaga nursing a hefty hangover. After a vodka with sauerkraut juice and a dip in the whirlpool, Komyaga gets ready for work. An unpopular Boyar, one of the new-Russian nobility, is scheduled to be hanged from the main gate of his estate, and his wife—as per usual—raped, and his house burned to the ground. After attending church services at the Uspenski cathedral, Komyaga oversees the dress rehearsal for a celebratory concert in the Kremlin. In Orenburg in the Urals, he will have to take the customs officers to task. They are siphoning off a part of the profits that the Oprichnik-s make from the multi-leveled superhighway across which flows trade between China and Europe.

Thereafter, on the orders of the Tsarina who is addicted to love, he flies to Tobolsk to visit a seer, who will cast a spell on a young man. Having returned to Moscow, he goes to the square in front of the University of Moscow to witness the flogging of some intellectuals. He then goes to a concert given by a bard who sings songs about the licentious life of the Tsarina, to the accompaniment of a saw. Finally he reports to the Tsarina, who has just gotten up. After having had breakfast with her, he goes to dinner with his comrades, who not only take the time to royally enjoy the meal, and to relax in the sauna, but also to eliminate the Tsarina’s son-in-law who has fallen into disfavor, and have a few snorts of coke. Daybreak sees the unconscious Komyaga being carried home.

Within the narrow confines of the novel Sorokin presents the reader with a grandiose diorama of Russia. He mixes the 16th century with the 18th, and the Soviet period with the realities of the present day. Asiatic despotism, corruption and cynicism fit hand in glove with modern technology and Russian statehood. The Tsarina who is addicted to love has the traits of Catherine the Great. The seer lives in Tobolsk, just like Rasputin. In Sorokin’s tale, good citizens—just as in Stalin’s time—bring their written denunciations to the Lubyanka,  in front of which is a statue of Maluta Skuratov, the leader of the Oprichnik-s. This is the spot occupied by a statue of Feliks Dzerzhinski, the founder of the Ch.K. (the forerunner of the NKVD and KGB) during the Soviet period. Lampoons of the Tsarist family are circulating on the Internet, and Russian professors are completing their decoding of the aging gene. In pharmacies “light” drugs like cocaine are sold to help the Russian citizens at work and in recuperation. There are 28 million Chinese living in Siberia, and even the children of the Tsar prefer to speak Chinese amongst themselves. Pipelines for oil and gas exit Russia in all directions, and occasionally when the tap is turned off, the people in Western Europe or Japan lose their heating.

After his post-Soviet travesties, Sorokin now presents the reader with a very “Russian” novel that not only explores possible future tendencies, but also seems to be missing a clearly identifiable Russia, as it stretches between the past and the future, exploring a proclivity towards isolationism and a yearning for barbarianism, that seems somehow to be part of the make-up of Russian metaphysics. For this novel about the return to the Middle Ages, Sorokin has developed a style of speech that seems to come right out of the 16th century, but which, at the same time, seems to effortlessly integrate neologisms for the realities of the modern day.

 
 
 

Published by

Sakharov Publishers, Moscow

Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne

Èditions de l’Olivier, Paris

Norstedts, Stockholm

Alfaguara, Madrid

W.A.B., Warsaw

Gondolat Kiadó, Budapest

Kitos knygos, Kaunas/Lithuania

Kalligram, Bratislava

Curtea Veche, Bucharest

Like Publishing, Helsinki

Argo Publishers, Tallinn

Flamme Forlag, Oslo

Pistorius & Olsanska, Czech Republic

Kinneret-Zmora, Israel

Forlaget Vandkunsten, Kopenhagen

Geopoetika Publishing, Beograd

Folio, Ukraine

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York

Metaichmio, Athens

Atmosphere libri, Rome

Shanghai Translation, China

Kawade Shobo Shinsha, Tokyo

Ilia State University Press, Tbilisi

Editora 34, São Paulo

Stichting Uitgeverij Douane, The Netherlands

“Sorokin’s novel packs a hefty satirical punch that will show American audiences why the author has been so controversial in Russia . . . Great fun, with a wickedly absurdist humor that occasionally reminds one of William S. Burroughs.”

—Booklist

“Perhaps no other postmodern writer demonstrates the angst around the reemergence of Russia’s slide back toward authoritarianism than the celebrated (and often reviled) satirist Sorokin. His latest assault, not only on Putin’s government but literary senses, is a caustic, slash-and-burn portrait of a man joyfully engaged in the business of state-initiated terrorism . . . It’s disturbing stuff, but as Sorokin’s razor-sharp caricature unfolds . . . the novelist’s keen argument becomes hard to ignore . . .[An] acidly funny send-up of Russia’s current state of affairs.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“Sorokin’s creations are at once fantastically strange and all too familiar. His pen drips with imaginative fury . . . [Day of the Oprichnik] holds its own with dystopian classics like Fahrenheit 451 and honors the traditions of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and other great Russian writers even as its characters burn their books.”

—Library Journal

Just barely out in Russian, Sorokin’s new novel has unleashed a literary debate and conquered the best-seller lists. His book is seen as a sharp, anti-Utopian political satire on the present-day situation in Russia. Sorokin himself calls it “a fantasy on a Russian theme,” adding: “It is my reaction to the modern Russia and our lives in it.”

Russia in the year 2027. The period of the Red, White and Grey turmoil, followed by the period of the restoration are over. It is now that time to put the rebirth of Russia on the agenda. The monarchy has taken power, and has officially declared that its guiding principles are: self-determination, Orthodoxy and tradition. It has already been a long time since foreign travel passports had been burned on Red Square and all the foreign diplomats were expelled. The country has been encircled by “The Great Wall of Russia,” and cut off from the rest of the world. The quality of life is only sustained by the export of oil and gas, and the only nation with whom there are friendly relations is China, which is the source of all the goods needed for private and industrial consumption, from Boeing aircraft to toilet bowls.

Sorokin’s literary experiment shows the reader a Russia, doomed to sink into the past, in a return to the dark ages, in which the Oprichnik-s of Ivan the Terrible held sway. (Ivan had set up the Oprichnik-s in 1565 to serve as his bodyguard. They developed into a sort of “high-priest” class that knew neither rule nor law, creating a unholy state within a state.) Sorokin is the first Russian writer to make contemporary use of this dark and sensitive era, a pathological episode in Russian history that, in Sorokin’s opinion, found a fertile field to grow on in Russia. “I think that all our ‘troubled times,’ revolutions, disturbances, and the sea of blood that has been shed in Russia are the result of the rule of the Oprichnik-s. This idea permeates the whole of our society, it lives in the minds of bureaucrats both large and small. The Oprichnik-s are the chosen ones.

In the Moscow of 2027, the “servants of the Tsar” ride around in red Mercedes limousines—made in China, of course—with dogs’ heads on their bumpers and brooms on their trunks. Just as in the time of Ivan the Terrible, these symbols signify that treason will be eradicated and swept from the face of the Russian soil. The novel describes a normal workday for a member of this corruptly brutal elite. He is the narrator, Andrej Komyaga.

It is a Monday, which like every other day, begins with Komyaga nursing a hefty hangover. After a vodka with sauerkraut juice and a dip in the whirlpool, Komyaga gets ready for work. An unpopular Boyar, one of the new-Russian nobility, is scheduled to be hanged from the main gate of his estate, and his wife—as per usual—raped, and his house burned to the ground. After attending church services at the Uspenski cathedral, Komyaga oversees the dress rehearsal for a celebratory concert in the Kremlin. In Orenburg in the Urals, he will have to take the customs officers to task. They are siphoning off a part of the profits that the Oprichnik-s make from the multi-leveled superhighway across which flows trade between China and Europe.

Thereafter, on the orders of the Tsarina who is addicted to love, he flies to Tobolsk to visit a seer, who will cast a spell on a young man. Having returned to Moscow, he goes to the square in front of the University of Moscow to witness the flogging of some intellectuals. He then goes to a concert given by a bard who sings songs about the licentious life of the Tsarina, to the accompaniment of a saw. Finally he reports to the Tsarina, who has just gotten up. After having had breakfast with her, he goes to dinner with his comrades, who not only take the time to royally enjoy the meal, and to relax in the sauna, but also to eliminate the Tsarina’s son-in-law who has fallen into disfavor, and have a few snorts of coke. Daybreak sees the unconscious Komyaga being carried home.

Within the narrow confines of the novel Sorokin presents the reader with a grandiose diorama of Russia. He mixes the 16th century with the 18th, and the Soviet period with the realities of the present day. Asiatic despotism, corruption and cynicism fit hand in glove with modern technology and Russian statehood. The Tsarina who is addicted to love has the traits of Catherine the Great. The seer lives in Tobolsk, just like Rasputin. In Sorokin’s tale, good citizens—just as in Stalin’s time—bring their written denunciations to the Lubyanka, in front of which is a statue of Maluta Skuratov, the leader of the Oprichnik-s. This is the spot occupied by a statue of Feliks Dzerzhinski, the founder of the Ch.K. (the forerunner of the NKVD and KGB) during the Soviet period. Lampoons of the Tsarist family are circulating on the Internet, and Russian professors are completing their decoding of the aging gene. In pharmacies “light” drugs like cocaine are sold to help the Russian citizens at work and in recuperation. There are 28 million Chinese living in Siberia, and even the children of the Tsar prefer to speak Chinese amongst themselves. Pipelines for oil and gas exit Russia in all directions, and occasionally when the tap is turned off, the people in Western Europe or Japan lose their heating.

After his post-Soviet travesties, Sorokin now presents the reader with a very “Russian” novel that not only explores possible future tendencies, but also seems to be missing a clearly identifiable Russia, as it stretches between the past and the future, exploring a proclivity towards isolationism and a yearning for barbarianism, that seems somehow to be part of the make-up of Russian metaphysics. For this novel about the return to the Middle Ages, Sorokin has developed a style of speech that seems to come right out of the 16th century, but which, at the same time, seems to effortlessly integrate neologisms for the realities of the modern day.

 
 
 

Moscow, Fall, 1998: The TV reporter Artem Butejko, famous for his coverage of scandals, is shot full of holes in the entryway to an apartment building. An unconscious drunk is found a few meters away from the body. His fingerprints are on the murder weapon. There is a clear motive. It’s an open and shut case. But that is exactly what makes police inspector Borodin—known to his colleagues as “Pinkerton”—suspicious. The suspect, Alexander Anisimov (a classmate of Butejko’s), appears not to remember anything. His blood work shows a high concentration of narcotics. Anisimov’s wife claims that the pistol was missing from their apartment on the day before the murder. Artem Butejko had a number of enemies, including the famous TV political commentator Elizaveta Belajeva.

A gold mine in the Urals, 1880: Pavel, the son of a farmer, is run over by a team of horses, and taken to the Estate of the Count Peauriet. In a bag hung on a cord around the young man’s neck, they find a diamond of the highest purity. The Countess names the stone “the Pavel Diamond,” and has it made into a brooch in the shape of an orchid, which she plans to present to the future wife of her beloved grandson Michel.

Montreal, Fall, 1998: Elizaveta Belajeva—a woman with a spotless reputation, a faithful wife and exemplary mother— is at an international conference. It seems that there is no place in her life for unpremeditated emotions. But the former KGB officer and interrogation expert, the handsome Anatolij Krasavchenko is counting on precisely that. Even his charms fail to work on her, so he decides to use psychotropic drugs.

Moscow, Fall, 1998: Like she has done every night, Varya tolerates the suffering of the waterbed. An elephant herd tramples all over her reclining body for forty minutes. But lately, this unimaginative man has begun to kiss her every now and again in thanks. That means that everything will be alright. One of the most wealthy and influential men in the new Russia, the Deputy Finance Minister, Dmitrij Malzev, is going to marry her. As always, there is a portrait of a young woman hanging on the wall. She looks amazingly like Varya. She is wearing a plain white blouse with a brooch in the shape of an orchid. Finally, Varya can go take a shower, but she stops just inside the door to listen to a conversation between Malzev and his brother Pavel, who has gone to Montreal.

An Estate just outside Moscow, circa 1900: Count Peauriet has fallen under the spell of games of chance, and his son Michel is facing ruin. Michel is forced to marry a fat, rich merchant’s daughter, and the brooch remains ownerless. His jealous wife forces him to abandon city life, and to come live on the Estate. Michel would have taken to drink, if it had not been for his neighbor Baturin. With his encouragement, Michel takes up landscape painting.

Montreal, Fall, 1998: Krasavchenko is unable to discover anything useable. Elizaveta Belajeva has only been at her country house in the village of Baturino one time in the last twenty years, and that was to bury her dog there. Krasavchenko has been wondering who his client is for a long time. The client obviously doesn’t have to count pennies, and Krasavchenko decides to work a double-edged extortion scheme. Quite by accident, he’s learned that Elizaveta Belajeva had a lover. To keep her secret, she has to invite Krasavchenko to be a guest on her program. The things that he says on camera covertly give his client to understand that Krasavchenko also has something on him. What Krasavchenko does not know is that his middleman in Montreal is the brother of the client, the Deputy Finance Minister Malzev.

Moscow: Fall, 1998: Mrs. Butejko, the mother of the murdered reporter, is behaving very strangely. She refuses to answer even inspector Borodin’s simplest questions. Anisimov, the suspected murderer, says that years ago Butejko brought a brooch to school and tried to convince everyone that it was an old, valuable diamond. Butejko’s apartment, on the other hand, gives off an overwhelming sense of poverty.

Baturino, 1917: On the eve of the Russian Revolution, Michel Peauriet falls madly in love with Sonya Baturina, his neighbor’s daughter. He paints a portrait of her in a white blouse with a brooch in the shape of an orchid. His wife mixes arsenic with his food. Before his painful death, however, Sonya confides in him that she is expecting his child. Michel tells her where the brooch is hidden, but that very night Sonya and her father have to flee the Estate ahead of the advancing Red Guards. Their son is born during the crossing to Constantinople. She calls him Michel. The brooch remains buried at Baturino.

Moscow, Fall, 1998: There is only one thing that Varya really fears: water. When she was seventeen, this raven-haired beauty with blazing blue eyes had dreamed of a career in the movies. And she did catch the eye of a real movie director who invited her to his home for a screen test. It was only months later that she was finally able to free herself from the clutches of this dreadful psychopath, who was convicted on the basis of her testimony in a high-profile trial. But now she had the tabloid press on her back. They wouldn’t leave her alone, especially Artem Butejko, who kept mercilessly to her trail, intruding into her private life. Varya was at a loss, and threw herself into the river Moscow, but she was rescued by a policeman: Vasillij Sokolov.

Montreal, Fall, 1998: Krasavchenko’s extortion plan doesn’t go through. He has a compromising porno-video fabricated that could cost Elizaveta Belajava her job and her family.

Naturally, that is far from everything about the novel. It’s practically impossible to describe Dashkova’s novels in a word or two. Therefore, this is simply an attempt to provide a taste of how they are put together. In “On the Air,” every ten to fifteen pages, there’s another locale, another atmosphere: behind the scenes of Russian TV, a pre-Revolutionary Estate, the chic restaurants frequented by the new Russians, etc. She is able to create an atmosphere with a few simple brush strokes, but they are very much on target and organically a part of the story line. Another one of her strong points is her characterizations of the personalities in the novel. The female characters are, as always, highly differentiated and very different: the business-lady Elizaveta Belajeva, who experienced her first love at forty, and didn’t know how to stop herself, or Varya, whose beauty only brought her unhappiness in her youth, but who had now learned how to target it to get what she wanted.

It’s not until the end that the reader learns who the murderer is and where the brooch is hidden, leaving plenty of room along the way for speculation. Varya looks very much like Michel’s lover, Elizaveta Belajeva hated Artem Butejko, because he had exposed her mother as an alcoholic on television … This is one of those novels that you just can’t put down. The ending is surprising. It turns out that it’s the “naïve” Varya who discovers where to look for the brooch. She trades this information to a criminal in exchange for the life of the man who held her prisoner. Justice wins in the end, even though it is not the justice of law, but what other law could there be in Russia?

 
 
 

Published 2008 by Limbus Press, St. Petersburg

Suhrkamp Verlag, Germany

Actes Sud, France

Czarne, Poland

Like, Finland

Laguna, Serbia

Kastaniotis Editions, Greese

H2O editrice, Rome

Cappelen Damm, Oslo

Editura Allfa, Bucharest

‘Life rages on the train called Russia – right up to the last moment before the crash.’ Ex Libris

‘Sobering and provocative – shows us a clear picture of the country in which we live.’ Topos

‘A moving and true novel’ Afisha

Awarded the ‘Debut’ prize, 24-year-old Natalia Klyucharova’s novel was published online before the book was released, and had the critics raving. Some called it an intellectual provocation, others a farce or an encyclopaedia of Russian life. And all of them absolutely recommended the book.

Nikita travels to and fro across Russia on trains, looking for happy people; a journey like those described by Nekrassov in Who Can Be Happy and Free in Russia? and Gogol in Dead Souls. And all the people Nikita meets subject themselves to complicated experiments or seem trapped in a cruel laboratory where their survival skills are tested – recalling Dostoevsky’s experimentation.

Natalia Klyucharova presents a whole gallery of characters, many of whom are reminiscent of comic figures: a porn actress, a monk, a transvestite, a grey-haired Komsomol activist, a salon terrorist, a secret serviceman translating the neo-Marxist philosopher Slavoi Žižek… Not all of them manage to survive. A mother hangs herself because she can no longer look her hungry children in the eye; the porn model, who writes poems about Chechen freedom fighters, takes an overdose; a worker who can’t believe the state has left him in the lurch after his region’s mining industry is abandoned is the only one to stay on in his village – to die.

Others fight back, like Antonina, who tries to feed her two sons by selling her knitting on trains. She is a firm believer in a patent recipe from an American advice book: keep your back straight and smile – and things will work out alright somehow. Or the geography teacher Alexander from the village of Dudki, built around a lung sanatorium. He devotes years of his life to a one-sided correspondence with the authorities to finally get the fence around the sanatorium mended and remove a rubbish tip, where the patients’ children, born to the sleepy village beauties, play with abandoned needles and syringes.

Like St. Petersburg in Dostoevsky, Klyucharova’s Russia appears a phantom, inhabited by grotesque creatures. Nikita himself is a strange boy who is always fainting, just like that – overcome by life and an unbearable feeling of guilt over all the injustices he encounters on his journey. He leads us through the novel, yet remains a stranger. Perhaps his friend ‘Junker’ is right: Nikita is just trying to run away from himself, from the emptiness left behind by his love for Yasya with her colourful hair. Everyone we meet in this novel is somehow on the run.

Alya, the grey-haired girl with three fates, asks Nikita to tell at least one good story about Russia: was it ever good here, once? There is no answer. But there is a utopian place, an ark for those washed up – the village of Gorki. This is where little Vanya lives, a boy who can’t stop thinking, even in his sleep, in case he disappears. This is where the transvestite Grisha hides from the advances of the secret service. And this is where Junker runs to, who loves Schubert, good Italian red wine and snow-white shirts, who was born for the kind of deeds that have no place at this time in history.

Revolution is in the air. The shy programmer Losha hacks into the central computer of the secret service, FSB. The sensitive literature lecturer Roshin dreams of an uprising and publishes poems about bombs in the magazine Limonka. Junker reads the work of the early twentieth-century aesthete and terrorist Savinkov. Yasya has a vision that Eduard Limonov will be made a saint in a hundred years – just like Tsar Nikolai II was recently. Even though Limonov surely can’t hope for more lasting fame than Che Guevara, with his face on a million T-shirts. And Petersburg pensioners, appalled at cuts in their benefits, set out to march to Moscow to complain to the president.

Nikita joins the pensioners’ uprising. Mortally weakened by his hunger strike in prison, he dreams of revolution in Moscow: a huge crowd outside the White House, a fire in which unfair laws go up in flames, OMON troops facing the people in tense silence, and Nikita himself placing white carnations in the barrels of their guns, one by one. But once the state withdraws its troops, the shadowy figures and lemures of Russian history (and literature) appear, the wicked old women who never learned the words ‘forgive me’. Nikita falls asleep with a smile on his face, as if he had worked out the secret by the name of Russia.

 
Sample translation
 

1.

Nikita had one physiological quirk. He fainted often. Of course, he did so not from the sight of blood or from hearing a bad word, as various Turgenev ladies, but for no reason at all.

Sometimes in the middle of a conversation, sometimes from the strong Spring wind or from the subway station connections, which looked like spaceships. He was so awed by life. And this is how he experienced what was going on around him. That sometimes his organism couldn’t take the pressure. And turned off all by itself. This was the only way to make Nikita take pause and catch his breath, which was always baited.

Also, Nikita often had pains in various completely incongruous parts of his body. Ones which didn’t usually cause much trouble for other people. For example, his heel. Or his wrist. Or something completely ridiculous like his index finger. Pain also took him out of the daily stream, but in a milder way, leaving the picture behind clouded glass. Inside, a silence would appear, in which crickets ticked and cicadas spoke their weighty word. Nikita listened to the cicadas and looked out, smiling, into the world. As if from a distance. As if from a different type of life. And the train quietly rolled onward towards Tashikha…

Nikita came to. He felt the gaze of his country upon him, the cloudy eyes of the third class carriage. Someone’s neck was gathering fleas from a military coat, legs were stretching into the narrow passage between duffels, suitcases and rolling carts.

The country periodically tried splashing Nikita with boiling water, falling over and grasping the railings, to feed him dried fish and homemade pierogies, to smear him with a melted chocolate, make him drink vodka, leave him for a fool with a greasy hand of cards, which has naked chicks in place of queens.

The country was trying to make contact with Nikita. Become intimate with him. The country wasn’t letting him sleep, wasn’t letting him think, and wouldn’t leave him in peace.

The country yawned, snored, stank, ate, drank, climbed onto the top bunk, stepping on someone’s hand, gnawed on sunflower seeds, solved a crossword, scratched it’s balls, argued with the conductor who sat her down right near the bathroom, bumped around next to the screeching doors, was saying: “What is this station?” – “Look the guy is out again”. – “Didn’t look like he was drinking”. – “He must be a druggie”. – “They are all druggies these days, some stick it, some sniff it!” – “You should hold your tongue, mama, about the things you know nothing about, can’t you see a person’s not well…” – “Maybe call a doctor?” – “Why should I hold my tongue?! I stood in front of a lathe my whole life! Don’t try to shut me up – I’m an invalid!” – “Please keep it down, woman, the children are sleeping!” – “The children! They’ll grow up and will also sniff glue and tell the elderly to shut up!” – “Grandma, stop nagging! Let’s sing a song instead: IN THE FIELD THE TANKS WERE RRR-OOO-LLL-ING! THE SOLDIERS WERE ON THEIR LAST MARCH!..”

Nikita came to again, and stepped out for a smoke. The country was approaching station Bottom, swinging on the shocks and longingly stretching along the curving railway. Then it braked abruptly, and stopped at a streetlight.

– Hey, bro, where the heck are we?

– At bottom! – Nikita screamed back merrily and began to make his way towards the exit.

Station Bottom was damp and deserted. Only the dispatchers talked to each other

in their otherworldly tongue, and the invisible patrollers banged on the metal joints of the trains.

– Where are you going, whipper snapper? – the fat conductor’s voice was deep

and tender, and she looked like an oracle. – Are you looking to keel over again? Will I be the one to have to clean you off the tracks?

Nikita smiled at the oracle and shrugged his shoulders. It smelled like coal, rotting wood and the road. A thin drizzle tickled his face. And it was as if everything around knew some secret. Which was impossible to tell. Because there was no reason for it.

2.

In the train car Nikita was approached by a little boy. He clutched his knee and asked with a serious voice:

— Do you have a dream? – And without waiting for him to answer: — And I do have a dream: I want to fall into the bushes and live there!

— That’s it? – asked Nikita. – That’s really all you need to be happy?

The boy became thoughtful, stuck his fist in his mouth.

— Well, I would also like a train. I would ride and ride on it. And then… I would fall into the bushes! And would live there!

— And so what’s stopping you? – Nikita leaned down, trying to capture the fleeing attention of the child.

— Socks! – blurted the boy and, having gotten bored, continued to run along.

— Warm socksies, from sheep’s wool, giving them away for fifty roubles, twice as expensive at the market! – hollered, squeezing through the car’s cavity, a woman with a large checkered bag. – Real wool here, grab ‘em, girls, you won’t regret it!

At the far end of the car the voluminous saleswoman of socks engaged in an uneven match with the train conductor, whose thick deep bass drowned out all retorts.

— How many times do I have to say this! This is not the red cross! If you want to ride – you have to pay! We’re not a monastery but the Russian! Rail! Road! What do I care about your kids! Popped out a whole mess! I’ll take you off right now. Next time – I’ll call the cops!

Nikita grabbed his backpack and also begin making his way towards the exit.

On the empty platform the boy who wanted to fall into the bushes habitually slept on the bag of socks. No bushes could be seen anywhere near. Only some sort of eyeless buildings and a country road, stretching out into the darkness. One more boy, a little older, his hands in pockets, was skeptically eyeing the creaking lamppost. The woman was watching the departing train and for some reason smiling. Nikita liked this.

The train terminal building at the Kirzhach station turned out to be hammered closed. Nikita put the checkered bag on the wet bench.

— Well, looks like we’re spending the night here. We’re used to it. We’ll hold each other and won’t freeze, — the sock seller Antonina Fedorovna was saying, spreading plastic bags on the bench. – Go ahead, take your shoes off, I’ll give you some socksies also, so you won’t freeze your feet off.

— Mam, I want some tea! Mam, I’m all stiff! Mam, my stomach hurts! – whined the older boy Sema.

— Stop your crying! Smile! What did I teach you? Straighten your back and smile! Tomorrow we will get lucky!

— It’s always tomorrow! Nothing will happen tomorrow!

— Don’t you dare! Don’t you dare to even think like this! And especially say it! Look, Len’ka is the youngest, but he’s hanging on like a real man!

Len’ka was sleeping peacefully, his folded hands under his cheek. He definitely didn’t doubt that tomorrow is going to be better than yesterday.

— I also used to be like Sevka, — said Antonina Fedorovna. – Cried because of each little thing. My head filled with all sorts of thoughts: nothing will work out, my whole life will be like this… ready to climb into the noose! And then I read in some American book that the guarantee of success – is a straight back and a smile. And now, no matter what happens, I always remember: the most important thing – is to smile and not slouch. Then you’ll get lucky!

— And how is it going? – carefully inquired Nikita. – Does it work?

— Well so far not really, — easily confided Antonina Fedorovna. – But I don’t despair. Because I know, that someday – everything will definitely change!

Tonya Kiseleva grew up in a small mining town of Halmer-U. It’s beyond Vorkuta, further north, towards the Arctic ocean, down the narrow-gauge railway which connected the mine with the rest of the world once a week.

At seventeen, she got married to a driver. On weekends he drove her around the tundra in a ramshackled truck, on which he hauled garbage during the working hours. Then Seva was born. And then the mine got closed. The people, without hope that anyone will take care of them, began making way out of the condemned settlement.

Tonya’s husband wasn’t in a hurry to leave.

“People have lost faith completely! – he was saying to his wife. – How can they be like this! Our State – is the State of workers and farmers. And who are we? We are workers. Think for yourself: how could it leave us in the hands of fate? Leave us alone in the middle of the tundra? Of course not! You will see, they’ll give us an apartment somewhere in the south, and these rats who are now fleeing will be biting their knuckles!”

Nineteen-year-old Antonina believed both her husband, and the State. And following Seva she trustingly bore them Lenya, also.

“What an idiot!” – said her former neighbors in chorus, when she was riding back to Halmer-U from the hospital in Vorkuta. But Tonya only smiled mysteriously. She knew that ahead of her there is a large apartment, with windows facing the south sea.

She rode the train back alone. The grumpy conductor, formerly an inmate, was for some reason not in a hurry to begin making his way back. Then he sharply blew the horn twice. Tonya turned around.

“Hey, mama. You know what. I mean, you should get the heck out of here. Why are you stalling? There are only two more rides left. And then it’s finished. They’re closing down the line”.

— What do you mean, they’ll close it down? – Tonya was baffled – What about us? Who will bring the bread? They can’t do this! You’re mixing this up!

The conductor also called Tonya an idiot and put the train in reverse.

And here Antonina Kiseleva began to have doubts for the first time. A week from then she, herself not really knowing why, rolled the stroller with little Lenya to the train station. And watched the noisy Kapelkin family loading their possessions. The conductor who was helping drag the boxes and bundles into the train, looked in Tonya’s direction, and angrily spit onto the permafrost. After Kapelkins’ departure, they were left in Halmer-U alone.

— I would go to my husband: let’s leave! And in return I got cursed out. He even began to beat me. Earlier – he would never, even if he was a driver. Or he would lay around all day, his face to the wall, silent. Sometimes he’d fall asleep – and would grind his teeth something awful, in this silence… I was scared…

We only ate buckwheat. There was nothing else left. I would make a bonfire in the yard and cook it. They’ve turned off the electricity, and the gas. I would cook it, put the pot next to his bed, and it was all black from the soot. And the table I had to chop up for firewood.

I would put it down there, then gather the kids together – and would go cry next to the former movie theater, where my husband and I had met. I would go there every day. I would cry a river. Sevka would begin sniffling along with me. Len’ka would wake up in his stroller – and also start screaming. So the three of us wailed together like this.

And then the last train has arrived. I was standing at the station with the kids. I just came to look at a live human being for a while. I had no thoughts of any kind, no. I grabbed onto the stroller, and stood there looking. And he was looking at me. From the head of the train. His face was all black…

And in the settlement, a whole mess of wild dogs had gathered. Whole packs of them, roaming the streets. Abandoned by their owners. I’d be walking and they would be running right behind me, almost touching me. And it was as if they were trying to look into the stroller. You’d throw something at them, they would snap at you, fall behind, but not for long.

And so I’m here, standing next to the train. And all of the sudden these dogs begin howling. I turn around and see them walking at me, all of them. I run towards the train car. The conductor jumps out, is helping me lift the stroller and keeps saying: “Well thank god, thank god….”

[….]

3.

Cadet was drinking the expensive Italian wine again. Dry. Red. Cadet was again listening to Shubert. All that was missing was candles and a while silk blouse with a raised collar. Cadet, as was customary for a Russian nobleman, was talking about the fates of the motherland. Nikita’s knee was hurting. He was melancholy.

— Well, and where are you travelling all the time? What are you looking for? For Russia which we have lost? – Cadet was saying, as he poured the wine.

— For Russia… — responded Nikita, like an echo.

— So you can then sit around in immigration, listening to your wife Katenka singing “The fragrant clusters of white acacia” in the living room, while writing a novel called “Dope days”?

— I’m not leaving, you know that.

— That’s too bad. There is enough oil left for eight more years in this country. And that’s it. No one is working on developing new wells since the Soviet times. What to do?

— To live.

— More precisely, to survive. And I don’t want to survive. I, for one, like tasty wine, good music, I’m reading Richter’s memoirs here…

Cadet was a sybarite and an aesthete. And this friendship would have never happened, if Cadet didn’t all of the sudden turn out to be a decent human being. Although “decent” is not the most correct word. Nikita racked his brain for a long time, before he was able to dig this archaism out of his memory’s storage; he’s only seen it in books before. Cadet was, indeed, noble.

He lived in a world which had died a hundred years ago. In a world in which there were honor, conscience, dignity. For a long time, Nikita looked at Cadet as if he was some sort of a perfect being. His words and actions did not contain this usual human rottenness: to promise – and not carry through, to mess something up, and then hide your head in the sand, leaving a note on your behind: “It wasn’t me. It was already like this”.

Once, having had too much expensive wine, Cadet disclosed to Nikita his plans of hooligan diversions against small-caliber, but highly vile bureaucrats. Then he talked about the kidnapping of ministers, a preparation of a mutiny in the army, but then suddenly he halted his speech theatrically and went to open another bottle.

On that same day Nikita noticed on his table, along with Richter’s memoirs, the memories of the aesthete-terrorist Boris Savinkov. And smiled knowingly. Although Savinkov, with his superhuman snobbery and aristocratic unavailability, was never a kindred soul for him. As opposed to Ivan Kalyayev, the man of god, who crossed himself with one hand, and held a bomb in the other. And answered in response to the Jesuit questions of the atheist Savinkov: “And what about “though shall not kill”, Vanya?” – “I cannot go, because I love”.

[….]

6.

Here walks, across an empty autumnal amusement park, a seventeen-year-old Yasya. Her hair is dyed blue and standing upright. In her right hand there is a cheap cigarette. And on her left, on the black glove – there are two funny holes. On the index and the middle fingers. Yasya is thrilled by this. Because these holes allow her to flash “fuck” and “victory” in a very expressive way. These are her favorite gestures.

Yasya is belting “Alabama song” loudly. She’s cutting a seminar on “The Story of Peter and Fevronii”, and Nikita is cutting a test on the history of Rome. Just shortly before, Nikita tore off all of the little flags from the dancing stage, left over from some summer celebration. How he is stuffing these multicolored wet rags into the square facets of the aluminum fence, which surrounds the stage. It spells out “YASYA”.

Yasya takes the rest of the flags away from Nikita. She tries to compose the word “Love”. But there are only enough flags for “LO”. A sleepy security man appears.

— How did you get in here, punks?! I’m going to call the police! – he screams through the fence.

— “Oh, show me my way to the next whisky bar!” – screams Yasya in reply. – “We don’t understand you! We are from Chikago!”

Then they run out of the park and go to Yasya’s lecture together. It’s a lecture by the professor-postmodernist Yermolov about Sasha Sokolov. They like Yermolov, who gracefully ridicules the dumb students, they like Sasha Sokolov, whom they’ve read outloud to each other in the overfilled trams on their way to the university.

— Flags! – mischievously says Yasya, laying her head down on Nikita’s notebook and preventing him from taking notes about Sasha Sokolov.

— Flags! – from now on this means “I love”.

Sasha Sokolov moves to Canada. Yasya is not planning on moving anywhere.

She’s planning to go to the library after today’s lectures and to read the huge and dusty encyclopedic edition of “The myths of the world’s populations”. And then make out with Nikita for a long time in the men’s bathroom, where they go to smoke and recite to each other the books which they’ve just read. And then listen to Paganini through the headphones held together by scotch tape in the music-notation section and to write a letter to Nikita, who is sitting next to her and is groping around for her breast under her sweater with one hand, and with the other – is writing her a letter also, getting jealous of Paganini. And then – to ride around on trams. Or to borrow money from somebody, buy some port and to drink it in someone else’s staircase, toasting to Amenhotep the Fourth.

— And then we will get married and will move together to Mexico! We will rob banks like Bonnie and Clyde, and we will give the money to the poor farmers who grow beans and sing the tango, — says seventeen-year-old Yasya. – You will be wearing a big hat and a black mustache, and I will grow my hair out really long and will dance barefoot on the dusty road, covered in bead necklaces and multicolored skirts, and then…

And then they grew up.

***

A little boy came up to Nikita in the car. He grabbed Nikita by his knee and asked him earnestly:

“Do you have a dream?” And without waiting for the answer he added: “I have a dream. I want to drop down in the bushes and live there.”

“Is that it?” Nikita asked. “Is that all you need to make you happy?”

The boy put his little fist into his mouth, thinking.

“Well, also a train. I want to have a train. I’d ride it and ride it and ride it, and then I’d drop down in the bushes. And I’d live there!”

“So what’s stopping you?” Nikita bent down trying to focus the boy’s fading attention.

“The socks!” the boy muttered and ran along, having seemingly lost his interest in the subject.

“Socks, warm socks from pure wool! Only 50 rubles a pair. You’ll pay twice as much for these at the market!” a lady with a large checkered bag was shouting as she made her way through the narrow isle of the car. “Real woolen socks. C’mon, ladies, you’re going to like them!”

When she got to the end of the car, she battled with a train conductor, a big woman, whose deep and loud voice overpowered all attempts to argue with her.

“Look, miss, I told you, this isn’t the Red Cross, okay? You want to take this train—you buy a ticket. We’re not a charity organization, this is Russian Railroads! I don’t care how many kids you have! I’m going to take you off this train right now. And if I see you here again, I’m going to call the police!”

Nikita grabbed his backpack and began to make his way to the exit, too.

On the empty platform, the boy whose dream was to drop down into the bushes was sleeping on the bag with socks, as he usually did. There were no bushes to drop into, however, only some abandoned buildings and a country road running into the dark. Another boy, a little older, hands in his pockets, was skeptically looking at a lamppost that was creaking in the wind. The woman looked at the departing train, and smiled vaguely. Nikita did not like this.

The station building was boarded up. Nikita put the checkered bag on a wet bench.

“Oh, well. We’ll just spend the night here. It’s not the first time. We’ll just hug each other to keep warm,” Antonina Fedorovna, the sock peddler, said, putting some plastic bags on the bench. “You go ahead and take your shoes off. I’ll give you some socks so you won’t catch cold.”

“Mom, I want some hot tea! Mom, I’m cold! Mom, my tummy hurts!” Seva, the older boy, sniveled.

“Stop whining, and smile. What did I tell you? Stand up straight and smile! Tomorrow is our lucky day.”

“‘Tomorrow is our lucky day.’ Nothing’s gonna happen tomorrow.”

“Don’t you dare think that! And don’t even think of saying it! Look at Lyonya: he’s the youngest, and he acts like a real man.”

Lyonya was sound asleep, his hands tucked under his cheek. He had no doubt that tomorrow would be his lucky day.

“I used to be like Seva,” Antonina Fedorovna said. “A crybaby. If anything went wrong, I’d think that nothing was going to work out for me, that I was going to be unhappy all my life. Then I read in a book by an American guy that a straight back and a smile are the keys to success. Now, whatever happens to me, I always remember to smile and keep my back straight. Then I’m going to be lucky!”

“And?” Nikita asked cautiously. “Does it work?”

“Not really,” Antonina Fedorovna admitted readily. “But I don’t lose hope. I know it’s all going to change one day.”

Antonina Fedorovna Kisileva grew up in a small coal-mining town called Halmer-U. The town was located further north from Vorkuta, close to the Arctic Ocean, and the only communication with Vorkuta was via a narrow-gauge railroad that connected the mining town with the rest of the world once a week.

At seventeen, Antonina married a truck driver. On the weekend, he drove her around the tundra in his old truck, which he used for taking garbage to the garbage dumb during the rest of the week. Then Seva was born. And then the mine was closed down. Having lost hope that anyone would care, people began to leave the doomed town.

But Antonina’s husband was not eager to leave.

“People have just lost all their faith!” he told his wife. “Unbelievable! This is a country of workers and peasants. And who are we? We’re workers. Now, look, how can our country abandon us? How can it leave us alone in the middle of the tundra? Well, it just can’t! You’ll see, they’ll give us an apartment somewhere in the south, and these rats leaving a sinking ship will regret it. Mark my words.”

At nineteen, Antonina believed her husband and her country, and after Seva she ingenuously gave birth to Lyonya.

“You’re a fool!” her former townsmen told her when she was returning to Halmer-U from the hospital in Vorkuta. But she only gave them an enigmatic smile. She knew that a big apartment with windows overlooking a southern sea was waiting for her.

She was the only passenger on the train. The sullen engineer, a former convict, hesitated to start the train. Then he gave two short, sharp whistles. Antonina turned around.

“Uh, miss? Tell you what—you better get outta here quick. What are you waitin’ for? Two more runs, and that’s it. They’re closing the road down.”

“How do you mean they’re closing it down?” Antonina asked, surprised. “What about us? How are they going to deliver bread, then? No, this can’t be true. You must be wrong.”

The engineer also called Antonina a fool and started the engine.

That was when Antonina had her first doubts. A week later, she pushed the baby-carriage with little Lyonya in it to the station, not quite knowing why she was going there. She watched the Kapelkins load their belongings onto the train. The engineer helped them put the crates and bags into the car. Then he saw Antonina and angrily spat on the permafrost. The Kapelkins left, and Antonina’s family was alone in Halmer-U.

“So I told my husband, ‘Let’s leave!’ And he just yelled at me. He even hit me. He’d never done such a thing before, never, even though he’s a truck driver. He just lay there on the bed, day in, day out, facing the wall, not saying a word. Or he’d fall asleep and start gritting his teeth like an old lady. It’s dark and silent, and he’s gritting his teeth. Gee, that was scary!

“We only had buckwheat porridge to eat. I’d make a fire in the yard and cook buckwheat porridge. They turned off the electricity and gas, too. I’d put the pot with porridge next to the bed in front of him. And the pot’s all black from the smoke. I’d used the table for firewood.

“I’d put the pot down, grab the kids, and go cry my heart out near the old movie theater where I met my husband for the first time. Went there every day and cried and cried. And Seva cried. And Lyonya would wake up in his baby-carriage and cry, too. So we just stood there and cried, all three of us.

“And then there was the last train. I just stood at the station with the kids. I came just too see a living person. I didn’t think nothing like that, you know. Just stood there hanging on to the baby-carriage and looking at him. And he looked back at me from the cab—all black, his face was.

“See, there were lots of wild dogs in the town. Packs of them wandering the streets. The owners had left them behind. I was walking, and they were running along next to me, real close. And it seemed like they were trying to look into the baby-carriage. I kept throwing a stick or a rock at them—they’d snarl, stop for a while, and then start chasing me again.

“So I stood by the train, and then, all of a sudden, those dogs just started howling. I turned around and saw them walking toward me. The whole pack! I ran to the car. The engineer ran up to me and helped me with the baby-carriage, and he kept saying, ‘Oh, thank goodness! Oh, Lord!’

“And then he started the train up right away, so I wouldn’t change my mind.

“I stayed at his place in Vorkuta. He told me how he’d ended up in jail. Some story. See, he’s from Vologda. The county head had left the whole town to freeze. Yeah, you know, the boiler works broke down, and he pocketed the money that was for repairs. When winter came, people came to him to complain, and he’d just say, ‘Don’t worry. The situation’s under control. We’ll fix it in no time. Don’t worry.’

“So, this engineer had a daughter. Since there was no heating in her kindergarten, she got pneumonia and died. He went to the county head. As soon as he opened the door to his office, the official started saying, ‘Don’t worry,’ not even looking up. Those were the last words he said, though. Nikolay killed him with his shotgun. Shot him, and just sat there waiting for the police . . .”

“And then what?” Nikita asked Antonina Fedorovna, who fell silent for a long time. And then he noticed she was fast asleep, smiling, her back straight.

A freight train crawled past. The round sides of tank cars looked like the bellies of big animals—rhinoceroses or hippopotamuses—that were on their way somewhere in search of a better lot.

In the morning, Nikita bought the wool socks that he’d slept in from Antonina Fedorovna.

“See, Seva? What did I tell you about today being our lucky day? And you didn’t believe me,” she told her older son while she was buying bread and condensed mild in a charred kiosk. A month ago some tipsy customers had tried to smoke out a vendor who had refused to give them booze for free.

Lyonya shook hands with a bush he had found. Seva turned away and gloomily chewed some bread. Antonina Fedorovna tried to peddle some “excellent woolen socks” to the kiosk vendor.

“And then I started to go mad.” Nikita listened to the rest of the story in the evening, when the tireless Antonina Kiseleva, having walked up and down the whole town of Kirzhach and sold all of her socks, had returned to the station to wait for the next train. “I thought my husband was calling me and asking me to return, scolding me for leaving him. I could just hear his voice so clearly in my head. So I started to answer him out loud.

“‘Nikolay,’ I told him. His name was Nikolay, too. ‘I was scared for the kids, not for myself!’

“I even thought of walking all the way back, to take him away from there, or to bring him some food. Nikolay—the engineer, that is—started locking me up when he found out.

“‘You fool,’ he said, ‘your man’s a goner, but you can’t die—you’re a mother!’

“And I said, ‘I’m gonna run away all the same.’

“So a few days later he finally broke down. I mean, I was surprised myself. He sneaked into the railroad yard at night, put me in the cab beside him, and he drove the train to Halmer-U to look for my husband. I wanted to chicken out, and said, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t do this? Maybe I should just walk? It’s not right to steal a train like this!’ But he just brushed it off.”

“Did you find him?” asked Nikita. He sat on the platform leaning against the station building, trying as hard as he could not to faint.

“I’m not sure, really. I mean, the house was empty; the doors were all wide open. The apartment had been cleaned up. He’d even cleaned off that charred pot. We looked in every house in town. Nobody had locked them up when they left. We even looked at the mine, but we didn’t find anyone. I mean, I didn’t find anyone, and Nikilay didn’t find anything—I was looking for my husband and he was looking for his dead body. Even the dogs were gone. It was so quiet that even whispering sounded spooky.

“Then we left. But you know, when I was looking for him, I had the feeling that he was looking at me. Felt it in the back of my head. I even looked around, but didn’t see anyone. I still feel like he’s staring at me. Even now . . .”

“How come your train engineer let you go off with the kids to peddle socks?”

“Aw, I just ran off. I lied about going to see my sister in Kuban—that she’d found a job for me, and that she had a house. And so I just ran away. Never had a sister, actually.”

“How come?”

“I guess my parents just didn’t have time for that. Pops died at the mine, and Mom died three years later.”

“I mean, how come you left your engineer?”

“Oh, him . . . Well, he was kind of falling for me. And I’d left my heart in that abandoned mining town. But I felt sorry for him. He’s a good man, really. So I ran away. When he was walking me to the train station, he started talking about his wife all of a sudden. And guess what? Her name was Antonina, too. Yup, that’s just how funny life is sometimes—two Nikolays and two Antoninas.”

“What about his wife?”

“While he was on trial, she was holding up okay; but after they sentenced him, she flipped. Hanged herself. He only found out a year later, because she’d written him twelve letters before that. Good letters, you know—like, everything’s fine, I’m okay, we have heating now . . . Her neighbor sent them one by one every month, until there weren’t any more. Oh, here comes our train . . .”

-----------------------------------------

Here’s Jasia walking through the autumn amusement park. She’s seventeen. Her hair is dyed blue and tousled. She’s holding a cheap cigarette in her right hand. The glove on her left hand has two funny-looking holes, one for the index finger and one for the middle one. She’s ecstatic about these holes, because it’s equally easy to show the peace sign and to flip someone off. These are her two favorite gestures.

Jasia is singing the “Alabama Song” at the top of her lungs. She’s skipping the “The Story of Peter and Fevronia” seminar, and Nikita’s skipping a test on Roman history. He just tore off all the little flags on the dance stage that had been left there from some summer festival. Now he’s putting the colored wet rags into the holes of a wire-mesh fence around the stage. The flags spell out “J-A-S-I-A.”

Jasia takes the remaining flags from Nikita and tries to spell Love, but she only has enough for Lo. A sleepy guard appears.

“How’d you get in here, you truants? I’m gonna call the police!” he shouts through the fence.

“‘Oh, show me the way to the next whisky bar,’” Jasia shouts back at him in English. “We don’t understand you! We’re from Chicago!”

Then they run away from the park, and they both go to sit in Jasia’s class. This is a lecture by professor Yermolov—a postmodernism scholar—on Sasha Sokolov. They like Yermolov, who likes to make subtle jabs at dull-witted students. They also like Sasha Sokolov, and they used to read his novels to one another on their way to the university in crowded streetcars.

“Flags,” Jasia says slyly, and puts her head on Nikita’s papers, preventing him from taking notes on Sasha Sokolov.

“From now on flags will mean ‘I love you.’”

Sasha Sokolov moves to Canada. Jasia isn’t planning on moving anywhere.

She’s going to go to the library today after classes to read a huge dusty volume of The Encyclopedia of the World Mythology. And then she’s going to kiss Nikita in the men’s room, where they used to smoke and retell one another the books they had just read. Then she’s going to listen to Paganini in the scotch-taped headphones in the music store, and write a letter to Nikita, who is sitting nearby and grabbing her breast with one hand, while writing her a letter with the other, jealous of Paganini. And then—then she’s going to take streetcar rides. Or borrow money from someone, buy a bottle of port, and drink it in an apartment building hallway, offering toasts to Amenhotep IV.

“And then we’ll get married and go to Mexico! We’ll rob banks like Bonnie and Clyde and give the money to poor peasants who grow beans and dance the tango,” says Jasia. “You’ll have a big hat and black mustache. I’ll grow my hair long and we’ll dance barefoot on the dusty road, wearing colorful skirts and bead necklaces, and then . . .”

And then they grew up.

When they were nineteen, Jasia, who wrote bizarre vers libre on Chechen terrorists and Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, was invited to some radical event in Moscow.

Already on the train Jasia found out that she had lost all of her papers, and she could only remember somebody else’s poetry by heart. She contemplated this mishap for a while, then she recklessly shook her red-black-and white bangs and yelled:

“I’ve got it! A little lyric poem! It’ll blow them away!”

It was a truly radical event. Characters that didn’t need to read or listen to poetry gathered at the entrance to the basement room, where the event was taking place. They felt high and radical already. Andrey Rodionov, a poet, slept arrogantly right on the asphalt. Crybaby, a punk kid, sat next to him, sadly staring down into a bottle. The bottle was empty. Rakhmaninov, a writer with gold teeth and the face of a thug, collected change in a large flat cap from passersby. Several other literary people animatedly discussed what, where, and how much they had had to drink the day before, and whom they got into fights with afterward.

The public inside was somewhat more decent-looking. Young men with hair of various lengths and girls with pierced bodies sat under a huge photograph of Saddam Hussein and a small picture of Vladimir Mayakovsky. A round-shouldered boy who looked like he had just reached the age of puberty stood by the microphone and boldly recited some poetry:

“Dude! I want to get laid!”

The audience gave him a round of warm applause. The young poet bowed and continued:

“I love you—” he gave a theatrical pause. The audience was waiting, holding their breath. “—to fuck!” He finally exhaled to the public’s great satisfaction.

Then Shura, a bald-headed poetess, approached the microphone like a somnambulist. It was clear that Shura didn’t quite know where she was: she looked around like a hunted animal. For a minute she stood on the stage shuffling her feet. The audience was silent, waiting. The she saw the microphone and her face expressed a faint touch of intelligence. With a rock-star gesture, she quickly grabbed the microphone stand, opened her mouth, and uttered:

“I’ve got problems—”

After this, Shura fell silent, as if doomed.

“With amphetamines, a bottle of vodka, pot, fifty shrooms, and two tablets of Toren,” said Shura’s ex-husband, who sat near Nikita, in a loud whisper.

“I’ve got problems—” Shura began again and looked at the crowed in despair.

A well-known gay critic quickly handed her the book that was open to the poem about problems. Shura fumbled with the book, shuddered mournfully, and tried to put her hands in her pockets. She missed, and the book fell on the floor. Suddenly, everyone realized that Shura is not going down easy.

“I’VE GOT PROBLEMS!” she yelled, putting her hands up to her head, like Munch’s painting.

Jasia could bear it no longer. She crawled to the stage, picked up the book from under Shura’s boot, and began reading from it in a vicious whisper:

“I’ve got problems with articulation—”

“I’VE GOT PROBLEMS WITH ARTICULATION—” Shura echoed her languidly, entranced.

“I won’t speak, I can’t, I don’t want to, I won’t,” Jasia kept whispering.

“I WON’T SPEAK, I CAN’T, I DON’T WANT TO, I WON’T,” the bald-headed Shura repeated after her, with a faint hope that this nightmare might end soon.

In this manner they reached the end of the poem.

“Now shut your mouth, Shura, and go back to your seat,” Jasia commanded her, closing the book with a bang.

“NOW SHUT YOUR MOUTH SHURA, AND GO BACK TO YOUR SEAT,” said Shura in a metallic voice of a robot.

Jasia tugged Shura angrily by the cuff of her pants. Shura collapsed right into the arms of her ex-husband and into unconsciousness.

Several years later, Nikita came across a new book by the bald-headed poetess. The infamous poem about problems now ended with “NOW SHUT YOUR MOUTH SHURA, AND GO BACK TO YOUR SEAT.” Thus, Jasia, who’d never been published, found her way into the annals of Russian literature.

Another bald-headed poet stood by the microphone. This time it was a man. And unlike heart-breaking Shura, he was quite brutal. He spread his feet, and thrust out his belly, with a Nazi eagle emblem on his belt-buckle. The buckle divided his belly into two equal parts. The radical poet chanted grimly:

“Russia is a whore! Russia is a bitch! Russia is a fool! Russia is Minerva!”

The radical poet’s two bellies wobbled in opposite directions: when the part above the belt swayed to the right, the part under the belt moved left. The thick glasses that crowned his face, its open mouth baring two rows of teeth, were knocked askew by the poet’s patriotic pathos:

“Ah! True communists

Will vanish.

Don’t be afraid, you’re not a coward.

Man the barricades!

I’m a looney with syphilis,

With a foggy, healthy stare.”

Jasia was sitting on the floor yawning demonstratively, covering her ears with her hands. The radical poet gave the disrespectful girl ferocious looks, his nostrils swelling, and frothed at the mouth like some sort of mythical beast:

“A birch-tree hawk with Stalinist juice sprinkles

the precedent with his rays upon on the lawn—”

Suddenly, bald-headed Shura returned from her psychedelic journey, waved her hand weakly in the general direction of the creature, and said very clearly:

“DOWN WITH THE PRECEDENT.”

Jasia applauded. The beast choked on the rest of the poem, and turned red with fury.

“I see there are people here who are unable to appreciate—”

“True art forms!” Jasia finished for him.

Rakhmaninov, the writer with gold teeth who was drinking in the back row, roared with laughter.

“YES, TRUE ART FORMS!” bellowed the radical poet, and Nikita thought that the beast was about to grab his girlfriend and gobble her down.

“But despite the attacks from philistines” (Rakhmaninov, the writer, fell on the floor and continued laughing there) “I still believe that I have allies in the audience.” Everyone gave one another suspicious looks. “I call upon you, people of free will and uneasy civic conscience” (Rakhmaninov quietly whined, sinking his teeth into a leg of the chair) “to join our Holy Death Squad Brotherhood!” The beast fell silent and thrust his fat hand out in front of him, his face glowing with divine exaltation.

All of a sudden, the door opened. The audience that had been brought to a catharsis by the speech of the Holy Death Squad Brother turned around, expecting to see the resurrected Hitler there, at the very least.

Bigfoot, dressed in a leather jacket, stood there swaying back and forth. The jacket was too small for him—the sleeves reached only to his elbows. He was covered in hair. In his hand, the abominable snowman held a glass full of vodka. The vodka was dripping onto the floor.

“It’s the ghost of Russian radical thought!” Jasia said exaltedly.

The ghost gave the noble audience a long dull look. Then he turned around abruptly, felling a coat rack, and went out. Rakhmaninov, the writer, followed him on all fours.

Somehow, an overweight old poetess wearing a gauze scarf took the stage. It was unclear who invited this broad to the “radical” poetry festival, and why. The gauze princess looked at an imaginary horizon and began in a languid voice:

“I’m afraid of dogs, I’m afraid of cats, I’m afraid of mice, I’m afraid of roaches—”

A quiet hysteria was about break out in the back row. Crybaby, the punk kid, gave a restrained sob and put his head between his knees.

“I’m afraid to breathe, I’m afraid to speak, I’m afraid to sleep, I’m afraid to think—”

“No kidding!” Rakhmaninov commented. He stood in the doorway, holding the glass of vodka he had expropriated from the ghost of Russian radical thought.

“I’m afraid of my own reflection in the mirror—” even Shura, who was traveling in other dimensions, laughed at this line.

“I’m afraid of being raped—”

“Oh, I wouldn't worry about that,” Rakhmaninov and Jasia shouted together.

“I’m afraid of being raped by Lenin and Stalin!” the poetess concluded, and prepared to read more.

Jasia ran out into the street.

“Remember the scene in The Possessed, when there’s a disgusting clique of revolutionary nedotykomkas? And there’s one guy there who sits there clipping his fingernails. Greasy hair, the table’s full of fingernail clippings, and he just sits there and mumbles something about the good of all people. Remember that part?” Jasia had a very grotesque view of the world, and everything that she read, saw, or heard, her mind transformed and rendered unrecognizable. “So those jerks were much better than the jerks of today. Those jerks make you sick, and these modern jerks make you want to vomit, vomit, and vomit!”

Jasia was furious. Nikita was afraid the event would end in a huge brawl.

“Let’s just go,” he said.

“Oh, no! There’s no way I’m leaving without reciting my little lyric poem to them!”

She clenched her fists and looked angrily at the innocent poet Andrey Rodionov, who still slept arrogantly right on the asphalt. Muddy water was gathering around his sprawled out body. Raindrops made a pattering noise on the copy of Limonka, with which someone had thoughtfully covered his face.

Jasia was the last to come on stage. Nikita mentally prepared himself for the worst.

“You think you can just slap the word cock onto any mediocre compulsive scribbling and your text will magically become a masterpiece of avant-garde art? What? What are you staring at? I’m not reciting any poetry! I’m talking to you. I’m creating radical precedents, as it were!” Jasia began, taking a deep drag on her cigarette.

“You can’t smoke here,” the well-known gay critic said meekly. But this was futile. Jasia was already gaining momentum.

The audience was dead silent.

“So, DOWN WITH PRECEDENTS! They’re not worth talking about. Now, I’m going to say a few words to those who are really trying to write poetry. The world has changed a thousand times already, and you’re still playing the dulcimer and singing like Homer did. Your language was relevant two centuries ago. It’s the twenty-first century now! Each epoch requires its own words. Speak to the world in the language it understands. And our wonderful world only speaks the language of terror and violence! The language of direct and destructive actions, not words! Do you hear me, contemporary writers and poets?! There’s no longer need for words! The most ingenious masterpiece of today’s New Art was demonstrated to the public at large on September 11, 2001! Well? Now, who’s bold enough to repeat it, huh?!”

Jasia paused to catch her breath. The audience was still silent.

“Scared, eh? Aw, don’t be. Before I wrap it up, I’m going to read you a short lyric poem of mine.”

The audience uttered a sigh of relief. The writer Rakhmaninov drank his vodka in a single gulp.

“Skull, a punk friend of mine, entertains himself by making homemade explosives. And he’s good at it. Just recently he gave me a small bomb as a gift. It’s right over there, in my yellow handbag.”

The aging gay critic leaped away from Jasia’s bag like a lithe young panther. Jasia looked at her watch.

“Those who do not wish to acquaint themselves with New Art have thirty seconds to leave the auditorium. Starting now!”

Then something totally unforeseen happened.

“I knew that they were stupid, but not that stupid . . .” the instigator of the scandal said later in her own defense.

Panic engulfed the audience. Everybody jumped off their seats and rushed to the exit, blocking it completely. The scaredy-cat poetess slowly slipped down from her chair, clutching at her chest. The ex-husband of space-case Shura ran back and forth in front of the stage, pleading with Jasia:

“Please! I beg you! I’m too young! I still have time to become famous! Don’t do it!”

A few punks from the back row stood on each other’s shoulders trying to reach a window that was located at the very top of the wall, near the ceiling. Next to them, the writer Rakhmaninov stood cynically singing “No Future.” He was the only person who was not panicking. The fat-bellied member of the Holy Black Squad Brotherhood rushed to Jasia and began twisting her arms. He probably wanted to turn the terrorist over to the authorities. For this, he was immediately beaten up by Nikita and Rakhmaninov, who came to her rescue.

The mass hysteria was cut short by the well-known literary critic Kurochkin. He came up to the bewildered Jasia, frozen in the middle of the stage, shook her hand, and said loudly:

“My congratulations! Yours was the only truly radical and avant-garde number this evening. It was quite literally a bomb!”

The poets heeded the voice of the critic and abandoned their attempts to escape. They anathematized Jasia after this incident, however, and never invited her again. The literary career of the art-terrorist ended as abruptly as it had begun.

After the event, Jasia and a few creatures from the radical bestiary went to Patriarch’s Ponds to drink some port. Nikita sat on a bench, fainting now and then. The Holy Brother’s fists had done a number on him. A mild concussion and a drop of Three Axes elevated Nikita to a state close to nirvana. So in the morning he could only remember three episodes.

Episode one. Rakhmaninov tells Jasia:

“You’re young and stupid. Mark my words—you’ll have a baby and mature. You’ll forget all this revolutionary business.”

Jasia, who hated the the word mature, her mouth full of the port she is about to swallow, snorts. Rakhmaninov wipes his face off with a sleeve. Unidentified audience applauds.

Episode two. A young girl walks past, leading a white horse. Rakhmaninov makes an angry grimace and pushes the young equestrian away. He hands the girl a glass and helps Jasia into the saddle. In the dark, Jasia rides the pale horse around Patriarch’s Ponds. The teenage equestrian quickly gets drunk and falls asleep next to Nikita.

Episode three. Rakhmaninov’s strong shoulders, asphalt that keeps shifting under him, and Jasia’s loud whisper in his ear:

“Get a grip on yourself! There’s cops right ahead of us. Try walking by yourself!”

Looks like she cheated on him with Rakhmaninov, too.

 

Published by Ad Marginem Publishers, Moscow

“A Triumph of Metaphysics” can be seen as a continuation of Limonov’s book “By Way of the Prisons.” The author paints a picture of his experiences in model camp number 13 in Engels City, the former capitol of the Volga-German Republic, where he spent a number of months after his release from two years in prison.

That is where it became clear to him that even hell can have a presentable face, with roses and fruit trees, with impeccable hygiene and brightly shining white toilets, with an aquarium full of fish and music by “Rammstein” playing in the canteen, with exercise equipment and TVs, with a cultural program in the club and an in-house band, not to mention the small church where services were held on Sunday, led by a priest who was doing time for rape. This is the camp where they would bring the gentlemen from OSCE and the European Council when they came through on inspection tours.

But none of the visiting gentlemen know what humiliations the prisoners in this piece of paradise have to put up with: roll call three times a day in the searing sun, the daily cleaning of rooms and toilets that are already sparkling clean, marching to the canteen, the constant fear of punishment that could make a request for early release impossible, of beatings, torture, rape, not to mention all the other “little things” that are a part of life in the camps. Which of the visitors who ask the prisoners about the conditions of their confinement realize that they will never get an honest answer to their questions? Because an honest answer can cost you your life.

Here, where the legendary Edward Limonov was not permitted to play the role of a revolutionary in a dungeon, corresponding with his party, publishing books, and engaging in polemics with the president in open letters to the press, he became convict Edward Sawenko (his legal name, Limonov is only his pen name), who had been sentenced to four years imprisonment for violation of article 222, paragraph 3.

Here, in the realm of the metaphysical, one discovered that another invisible, parallel world exists next to the tangible, visible world. “One flees into this world when the real world no longer pleases him. Or when the real world has lost all its mystery, and given up all its secrets. The second reason is the one that applies to me. Having reached sixty, the visible world holds no more secrets for me. And in the reality of the camps, one gets as close to the invisible world as a monk in his cold monastery in the mountains gets to God.

The meager rations, the unendurable standing around at roll calls, like the merciless kneeling at prayer: early in the morning, at midday and in the evening. The suffering of the marches down the Via Dolorosa. The hard labor, the annoying squatting in the club, where the prisoners are driven like cattle, the battle to keep one’s eyes open, as one’s wretched spirit sways back and forth between sleep and reality. the oppressed, unfortunate flesh — all these monastic asceticisms are ideally suited to bring people closer to this invisible, unreal world. That is how I came to experience ecstasies and enlightenment in model camp number 13 without wanting to.”

 
Sample translation
 
 

Published by

Olma-Press, Moscow

Rights acquired by

Verlag Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Cologne

Gabo Kiado, Budapest

Ludmila Ulitskaya, a cousin of  Grigori Ryazhski, wrote an essay about her own family that can be used as a foreword to Ryazhski's novel, because, in many ways, it served as a pattern for his story. In her essay, she tells the tale of a desk that she inherited from her grandfather. She wrote her first stories sitting at this desk, and later Ryazhski took over the desk and likewise began his career as a writer sitting at it.

"A Well-run House" is the great saga of a family, spanning a hundred years of Russian history. Despite the wide sweep of its action, the narrative is tight, with an almost movie-like quality, and a sense of dramatic tension. At the same time, Ryazhski exhibits a careful touch with the fine nuances of character development and historical details. The action takes place almost exclusively in a house with the unusual feature of having two-storied apartments that was built in the center of Moscow in 1903 by the Jewish architect Semen Mirski. The novel revolves around the family that lives in the house, or more precisely, around Mirski's wife Rosa, whose profile strongly resembles that of the poet Anna Akhmatova. Rosa was born the year that the house was built, and as the novel reaches its closing scene in 2003, she turns 100 years old.

Times change and along with them the residents of the house. Some of them disappear into the camps, and others are cheated out of their apartments, and are replaced by yet others: The illegitimate son of Alexander Kerenski (the Prime Minister of the Revolutionary Government in 1917), a KGB agent, a member of the Nomenklatura (the Party Elite), and after Perestroika, by "New Russians" (the post-Communist noveau riche), a thief and a prostitute. The winds of historic change blow by, bringing the October Revolution, the death of Lenin, the Stalinist purges, World War II, Khrushchev's "Thaw", Gorbachev's Perestroika, the coup of 1991, but one thing does not change at all. It would be unthinkable to sit down at Rosa's table, if there were not a starched tablecloth on it, at which she still serves delicious Jewish pastry with her tea, and where visits from neighbors are always welcome. Rosa keeps the family together with her warm-heartedness and openness. She is the heart and soul of the house.

The fates of the residents are closely tied together, and their stories are complex. Only the reader knows about all the intrigues and is aware of all the secrets. Here are just a few of the threads from the warp of the loom of the story:

Rosa does not know that Semen, who is much older than she, is cheating on her, even with Sina, the housekeeper, whom Rosa had taken in off the street when she was fifteen. Rosa does not know that Sina—after she found out that she was pregnant—is the one who denounced Semen to the authorities and got him sentenced to fifteen years in the camps. Sina cannot deal with her feelings of guilt and goes back to her hometown in the Ukraine. After the war, Semen comes back from the camps at the age of seventy-five, and dies soon after; Sina comes back to see Rosa, bringing her daughter Sara to work for Rosa as a housekeeper. Sara falls in love with a sculptor, Fedor Kerenski, who lives next door with his parents. Sara is expecting his child, but Fedor does not admit his paternity, and Sara goes back to her mother, where she delivers a daughter, Angelina.

In the early 1990s, when Angelina grows up, she too heads for Moscow, because she hopes that she can earn money there to help her ailing mother and her twin boys Rinat and Petro. Her husband died as a result of his participation in the rescue action for Chernobyl, and her husband's Tartar family does not want to lift a finger for the "unbeliever." Without a residence permit, however, she cannot find a job, and all that is left to her is prostitution. The first time that she goes out on the street, she is taken home by Fedor Kerenski. All he wants from her is companionship, so that he does not have to drink alone. Kerenski decides to take Angelina on as his housekeeper. It is only after a while that he discovers that she is his daughter, a shock that he does not survive. Now Rosa takes in Angelina, closing the circle. Sara comes to Moscow as well, bringing Rinat and Petro with her. Rosa, who lost her only great-grandchild, calls the boys her "great-grandchildren." This is when she learns for the first time that Semen had an affair with Sina.

Rosa was also not aware that her new neighbor, the KGB officer Gleb Chapajkin, had sent the Jewish family who were Rosa's friends off to the camps so that he could get their apartment. Gleb's wife Alevtina—on Rosa's advice—is studying Fine Arts at the university and later becomes a professor. She meets Stephan, a charming young man, and becomes his lover. She does not suspect that Stephan has been in prison, and is nothing more than a refined thief, who is only interested in valuable pieces of art. Alevtina becomes his best source of information. She tells him about Mirski's unique private collection of Russian Avant-guardists and about the Picasso, "A Woman with a Guitar," that was presented to Semen by the artist personally. Even when times had been hard, the family never thought about selling even so much as one painting. Rosa would rather sit at her sewing machine for nights on end, sewing corsets and brassieres in plus sizes for the solidly built ladies of the Party hierarchy. And through it all, Rosa has always had a small boy at her side to raise: first her son Boris, then his son Vilen (named after Vladimir Il'ich Lenin) and then her great-grandson Dmitri.

Gleb discovers his wife's unfaithfulness, and decides to take revenge on Stephan. When he finds out that Stephan has made a million dollars selling antiques on the Black Market, and is planning to abscond with the money to Israel, Gleb smells an extra chance to help himself climb up the ladder to the peak of his secret service career. However, the KGB unit that storms Stephan's apartment after a meeting between Stephan and a group of American diplomats, who are his very good customers, only finds the charred remains of bundles of dollar bills in his fireplace. Stephan had asked the diplomats to record the serial numbers of all the bills before he burned them. Years later, he has the million paid out to him in the U.S.A. Gleb only learns how he pulled off this trick at the end of the novel.

Stephan returns to Moscow, and blackmails his way into an apartment in Mirski House. He makes friends with Rosa. Her great-grandson Dmitri is especially impressed by the elegant, self-assured Stephan, and learns of a new lifestyle through him. He joins one of the newly formed Mafia groups, and carries out a contract murder of one of the group's rivals. Stephan pretends that he has murdered the wrong person, and says that this mistake can only be made good with a huge cash payoff. Dmitri only has to take two paintings from Rosa's collection: the Picasso and a Chagall. On the day of Fedor Kerenski's funeral, Dmitri takes the pictures and hides them in Kerenski's apartment. He had gotten a key from Kerenski's mother, who, for a bottle of vodka, had been glad to provide a love nest for Dmitri and his lover Varya, Chapajkin's granddaughter. In the meantime, Gleb, who was retired because the new Post-Communist times had put an end to his KGB career, gets word of this. He confronts Stephan and, in a fight, shoots him with his old service pistol.

Angelina has to move out of Kerenski's apartment, because she cannot prove that she is his daughter. She wants to take some of his art work as a memento, and while she is in his atelier, she comes across the Picasso and the Chagall, which she returns to Rosa. This closes the circle once again. In 2003, when the family assembles around the table for the Jewish Easter celebration, Rosa says a prayer in Yiddish, from which it is clear that it is all the same to her which God—be it Yahweh or a human Jesus Christ—protects her family from evil. She then gets a call from the U.S.A. The news of the long-lost Picasso in her collection has leaked out, and she is asked if she would consider selling it for tens of millions of dollars, but Rosa declines the offer, saying that she has two great-great-grandchildren and wants to keep all the paintings in the house. "If you want to come and have a look at the painting, you are welcome," says Rosa. "I'll serve you tea and tasty pastries."

 
Sample translation
 
 
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