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Near Zero

by Natan Dubovitsky

translated by Bill Bowler

Near Zero: synopsis

Yegor Samokhodov was happy as a youth in the Russian heartland but now, in Moscow, in middle age, he is estranged from his wife and daughter, and his low-paying job as an assistant editor is going nowhere. Looking for a way out, he joins a criminal gang, the Brotherhood of the Black Book. The Brotherhood is involved in forgery, theft of intellectual property, black-marketeering, intimidation, extortion, bribery, murder, etc.

Yegor’s girlfriend, Crybaby, invites him to a private screening of her new film, although she cannot attend. Yegor goes, hoping she may show up, and is horrified to discover he is watching a snuff movie where Crybaby is slowly murdered. After the screening, Yegor finds that Crybaby has disappeared. He sets out to Kazakhstan, to find and kill her murderer, the film director Albert Mamaev.

The story is set against a panoramic backdrop of Russia during and after the collapse of the USSR. Yegor’s quest brings him into contact with a cast of characters from a broad spectrum of Russian life, culture, history, politics and government.

Near Zero header links
Translator’s Foreword Cast of Characters Table of Contents

Chapter 4: Chetire

Nikita Marievna, the journalist, was also on time for her meeting with Yegor and was, naturally, the spitting image of Vladimir Mashkov.

“You going to feed me, young man?” She was around forty.

“I am.”

The waiter-waitress walked up, an indefinitely gendered creature in pants, her shirt untucked, with the unisex name Sasha on a tag pinned to an indefinite chest. It spoke quickly and compassionately, with a voice neither male nor female, about the appetizers and specials.

“I’d like something light. What would you recommend?” Nikita Marievna, who was a bit plumper than Mashkov, dieted by all means known to science, folklore, and non-traditional quackery. She dieted tormentingly, monstrously, cruelly, passionately, but with all this, nonetheless, gained weight.

“We have nothing light. We used to serve udders, but the public ignores udders. The only extreme item on the menu is lamb’s tail. Well, abalone, that’s also not for everyone. I could recommend abalone with beefheart sauce and Peruvian jalapeno. That’s usually served with chives, but we’re out of chives today and abalone without chives is just not the same. That’s it.” The waiter-waitress commiserated: “As everywhere, a boring menu.”

Nikita Marievna repented: “I don’t mean ‘light’ literally... I mean low-calorie and without toxic ingredients.”

“What’s toxic to one person is helpful to another.”

Nikita Marievna was somewhat nonplussed by this partially relativistic answer. “Arugula with bottarga, perhaps,” she thought out loud, poking the menu with her nearsighted face.

“Salted and smoked. Bad for the kidneys and liver,” grieved the waiter-waitress.

Nikita backed off. “Tomatoes with mozzarella?”

“Tomatoes are red vegetables. They can provoke an allergic reaction, like everything red. Mozzarella is pure cholesterol,” Sasha the waiter-waitress warned in the tone of a medical reference text.

“Beef filet, if it’s not too fatty.”

“It’s fatty, definitely fatty, heavily marbled,” Sasha assured her. “It increases your uric acid and aggravates podagra, for God’s sake.”

“Sea bass.”

“Fish contains elevated levels of mercury. Over time, consumption of fish can disconnect your central nervous system.”

“Disconnect?” Nikita Marievna was dumbfounded.

“The central nervous system. Although fish is better than meat, of course. And kasha is better than fish. And cucumber is better than kasha. And water is better than cucumber. Air is better than water. However, if you like, have the fish. If your central nervous system disconnects, you’ll still have the autonomic.”

“It’s too late to abstain. We’ll give dinner, as they say, to the cop.” Nikita surrendered.

Yegor, who had been hungry even before Agoltsov left, ordered for himself with a certain annoyance: arugula with bottarga, tomatoes with mozzarella, and a filet of marbled beef.

Sasha took the order without commentary and went about her business.

“I have long wanted to ask, Nikita Marievna, how your childhood friends addressed your father? As Uncle Masha?”

“Papa’s name was Marius Solomonovich. That’s what they called him. And, by the way, you’ve asked me that about three times, that is, every time you drink yourself into your well-known drunken anger. You ask and then forget. So why are you suddenly asking when you’re sober? You’re bad today, bad.”

“But why Marius? That’s not a Jewish name.”

“Roman. Marius was for the people and against the oligarchical power of Sulla.”

“Marius, it seems, was himself a power broker.”

“He was a commander and defender of the people,” the journalist quietly hissed, “but Sulla was a power oligarch, like our secret policemen these days.”

“The people called Sulla happy: ‘Felix’.”

“Exactly. Steel. And it wasn’t the people who called him that. He thought up that name for himself.”

“I’m not going to argue.” Yegor pulled his plate closer. “But Sulla, I’ll say in closing, nonetheless prevented civil war. So, why are you named Nikita? That’s also not Jewish. Have I asked before?”

“You’ve asked before. It’s in honor of Khrushchev.”

“So that’s it. But you’re a girl. I mean, you were.”

“And am. In my soul. But my father hated Stalin and made a god out of Khrushchev for halting the repression. So in his memory—”

“We’ll, it’s still better than being named The Thaw or, say, Gagara in honor of Gagarin...”

“You’re making fun of me.” Nikita Marievna dug around nervously in her bag. “But he didn’t name me Twentieth Party Congress and for that I’m thankful. Can I taste your salad?”

Yegor could not stand that type of gastronomic familiarity, but restrained himself. Nikita poked her fork in the arugula greens.

Yegor continued: “Sergeyich, our poetry-writing governor or, to use your words, our Nero from Yaroslavl, read your article about him and his politics in relation to the chemical plant. A well written article, in his understanding, but not entirely fair. The plant, he agrees, stinks a little. A slight odor, some smoke and particle emissions. But a positive dynamic of oncological pathology from tar and dust, especially among children, has not been established in his opinion. The argument is simple: the plant has been in operation more than a year now and nobody has noticed anything of the sort.”

“I say in the article, ‘The fragrance of the winds has been altered.’” Nikita chewed on the last of the salad.

“You know I’m not a specialist. Talking to me about fragrance and carcinogenics is putting pearls before swine. I’m talking about something else. Sergeyich is asking, from the heart, that you simply write another article he could publish under his own name that would be a rebuttal to yours. A brilliant and triumphant rebuttal, it goes without saying, that proves you are incompetent and lying.”

“Let’s give it a try!” The journalist did not so much ask, as declare while she watched Sasha bringing the mozzarella. Yegor, despite his rather dirty work, was sentimental and fastidious to the point of mania. He cursed to himself and pushed the plate towards Nikita. She continued joyfully, “A cynical proposition. Therefore, well paid. So how much money for me to screw myself?”

“Twenty thousand dollars or, as patriots say in such circumstances, fifty thousand rubles.”

“The chemical plant is run by the niece and her husband. The governor, the niece and the husband who’s attached himself to them pocket $140 million apiece annually. The treatment facilities would run them half that amount. It pains them. Let the kids croak. And he’s offering me twenty thousand to whip myself, like the sergeant’s wife in Gogol. Cheap and boring.” Nikita was calmly indignant as she annihilated the mozzarella.

“The expected reaction.” Yegor smiled. “Sergeyich asked me to make you familiar with the alternative variant. Freedom of choice: the basic value of democracy.”

“When I have a choice, I usually make a mistake,” Nikita Marievna answered. “However, spell it out. What does our Sergeyich really want? And give me the real price.”

“Sergeyich knows that you are one of the most authoritative journalists in the country. He wants an article, signed by you, to appear next week in the same newspaper, completely refuting what you have already written, praising the achievements of the chemical plant in producing artificial wool, and praising Sergeyich himself for the rise of industry and for defending the environment and children’s health. By the way, by flooding the market with artificial wool, the niece’s husband probably saved millions of Arctic fox from destruction. Or foxes. Which is correct? And sables, too.”

“Those who can afford sable are not going to be wearing your plebeian wool.”

“Not my wool. Sergeyich’s.”

“All the more. This fake felt, as far as I know, is used to line water boots that poachers wear.”


“All hunters in Russia are poachers. What does your wool king imagine himself to be? How do I explain the change in my own position?”

“He considers you intelligent. You’ll think up something. For example, new circumstances have been discovered; fresh facts have appeared. Or you could announce that the previous article wasn’t yours. It appeared under your byline by mistake, which the editor, excusing himself, will confirm for an additional payment—”

“The hell with additional. What’s the base payment?”

“We are not proposing to give you cheap American pieces of paper, but something more reliable: valuable land in a prestigious location.”

“Two square meters in Vagankovsk cemetery?”

“No, Nikita Marievna, that’s the third option, in case you refuse the second. And the second is this: for the panegyric to the fake felt industry under your authorship and for wise management of your byline, they’ll carve out for you” — here Yegor grabbed the ripening plate with the marbled beef — “You should stay away from meat, Nikita Marievna. Uric acid will doom you to gout, and cholesterol will give you strokes. So now, they will carve out for you two acres of land on the shore of Cold Lake. Have you heard of it? Russian heaven, Shangri-la, a fairy tale place by the water.

“It’s also a nature preserve.”

“Not all of it. Parts of it are not preserved and are completely commercial.”

“In the water protection zone?”

“Don’t worry. Everything will be legal. Ironclad.”

“It’s a long way to go.”

“The road will reach it sometime next year. The Germans are building it. More exactly, Ukrainians, but with German technology.”

“Or Tadjiks with Ukrainian technology.”

“It’s no use being ironic, Nikita Marievna. It will be a half-hour drive from Moscow. Well, in your car, an hour, at most.”

“There’s no communications there, nothing—”

“Everything’s already there. It’s just that nobody knows about it. Your neighbors will be... well, those you always mention in your columns about corruption.”

“If they’re going to be my neighbors on Cold Lake, it means I’m getting what I deserve. But how—”

“The provincial bank gives long-term loans at preferred rates,” Yegor interrupted. “And if you keep working with us, you won’t have to pay it back. It’s all legal. Trust me.”

“And what have I done to deserve such happiness?”

“Given us hope for long-term cooperation. Our Yaroslavl Nero seems to have big plans, of imperial magnitude. He needs to publish intelligent articles and to give intelligent speeches. Who’s going to write them for him? Plus, your support will generate sympathy for him among the, shall we say, disappointed social stratum.”

“I’ll think about it.” Nina dug around in her bag again.

“We need your answer now.”

“Let me taste the beef.”

“Don’t change the subject. Yes or no.”

“You’re being mean.”

“So it’s yes?”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Eat. There’s some left. And the last thing. Two members of Parliament, Deputies Don and Donbassiuk, want to organize the next debate. About the regulation of milk production or something.” Yegor checked the crib sheet he had taken from his pocket. “Don will be for the government position. Donbassiuk, against.

“Same for gambling industry regulation. Don is for complete banning. He’s taken money from the owners of striptease and dancing clubs. They’re hopeful. The flow to him is increasing. Donbassiuk is for insignificant limits. He’s been hired by the casino owners.

“And the two of them divided up the brewers and the vodka distillers. Don is lobbying for a universal ban on beer drinking except at home and in bars and restaurants. He’s getting money from the vodka makers. But Donbassiuk is for the complete and final banning of advertising and sales of hard liquor to persons younger than twenty-five. He’s financed by the brewers. That’s it.”

“There will be a debate for the legislators. The bills are complicated, especially industrial regulation. It will take at least three weeks to write their lines. And Yegor, how do these Tom and Jerries split up the bribes? Or do they not split them, and whoever grabs something keeps it?”

“No, they do it all in a brotherly way. They’re pals. One goes to the brewers and threatens them with the rise of the vodka makers. He promises to defend them, to work through the mass media and the Duma to block harmful legislation. He takes, let’s say, five hundred thousand from the brewers.

“At the same time, the other one visits the vodka distillers, frightens them with the brewers, and proposes the same menu of legislative intercession. If they don’t play ball, he signals his pal to introduce actual anti-vodka legislation. In short, they stick it to the clients.

“Then Don and Donbassiuk conscientiously combine their honoraria and split the total in two. In this example, they get a million and a half total, seven hundred fifty thousand a piece. They are generous guys. And as you know, honest, though dumb, which may be the same thing.

“But we’re not part of the sharing arrangement, meaning, for each debate, as always, you get fifty thousand. The usual word count and, don’t forget, in folksy language; lucid. Otherwise, they’ll complain. And let’s say within three weeks. They will still have to memorize the script and rehearse the roles before Parliament goes into session.”

“I hate power!” Nikita hissed in a revolutionary whisper. “All these governors, legislators, ministers, spies, cops, ‘a thirsty crowd standing near the throne.’ Executioners of freedom, genius and glory... Hang them all. I hate them.”

“It’s not power you hate but life, as a whole. Life is not the way you would like it to be.”

“And would you want it the way it is? Injustice, violence, rigidity—”

“Those are general qualities of life, not just of power. I also dream of a different life, but I don’t want to destroy this one, as you do, just because it’s not what I want or imagine. I feel sorry for life. I want to be its good neighbor or even to live with it, to perfect ourselves together. And you want to break it. For what?

“Life is cocky, but all the same it’s tiny and flaky and, in its essence, absurd. It dared to have a high opinion of itself and yet crammed itself into a temperature range of ten degrees, into some rift in physics, from which it threatens the darkness, calls to God in a thin voice, and conquers some kind of microscopic little heights in the face of infinite death. Stupid, unskilled, courageous life.

“I feel sorry for life, for mine, yours, all of ours. It sharpens itself, leaps up in order to seem taller. But count to one, and it’s gone. Stupid and beautiful. I am for life, and you are against it. And power, it’s just the first thing that came to hand.”

“Yegor, your paean to life would be relevant if I didn’t know that you are, excuse me, a gangster.”

“It’s no use, Nikita Marievna. I was a gangster, but I’ve stopped now.”

“And having stopped, you’ve become indulgent towards life.”

“I have become so, Nikita Marievna.”

“And do you seriously believe you can work your way to a governorship, a ministry, a legislative position, without corruption?”

“I think it’s possible, though rare. I also think that the corruption among your editors, and in the family, and in the monastery, in the ranks of road pavers, in the ministries, in parliament, everywhere, it’s in about the same proportion.”

“The family? Yegor, why drag the family in?”

“For the family gangster. Yes, and simply because it’s true. I’m for the truth.”

“You’re getting old. You’ve gone senile from elderly conformism,” howled Nikita in full voice.

“First you reproach me for being a gangster, now for being a conformist. No matter which, you’re not satisfied.”

“A gangster in Russia is a conformist. I’ll have it all for you by the deadline. Until next time.”

“No dessert?”

Proceed to Chapter 5...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

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