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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

There came a time when our native expanses were suddenly perestroika’d (restructured) and glasnost-icized (publicized). The Soviet fortress cracked and crumbled. Wild winds howled and blew through all the cracks. The serfs inside stirred, coughed, cracked their bones and, little by little, yawning and gawking, began to pour outside, stretching towards the scent of the West. They began thinking up a new paradise for themselves that looked like Paris. They also thought up supermarkets instead of the Soviet socialist nonsense and no-man’s land that is the all-planetary collective farm, as promised by Lenin, who yesterday was still a light in the darkness and these days is called, with loud lip-smacking, a bastard and bloodthirsty delusionary.

Minds grew confused. Of those born to flunkey-hood, now cast out into freedom, some fell into comatose submissiveness, some into the most vulgar nihilism. Party bosses cursed the Party. Komsomoltsy (Soviet Boy Scouts) ran some kind of dark banks and exchanges. Corporals became killers. Heroes of Soviet Labor quietly sold off the defense and oil industries, hiding dollars in washing machines and dacha toilets. In their spare time, they held meetings where they cursed reformers and shed tears over the past greatness of Red power. Having had a good cry, having wiped away the tears, drool and snot, they drove off to cafés, got together with fast-talking, shady characters, and melted down our little defense industry, our dear little homeland, our glorious, beloved fatherland. And then they cried some more. They sold off, cried, sold off some more. Good! It was good.

Yegor greeted the changes without a change of mood. It was amusing to live under any regime, because life is not very smart and seems unreal and inconsequential no matter who’s in power.

Yegor, Igor Fedorovich, and Yvetta left the office one day to buy some beer and Polish chocolate buns at the German market. Halfway there, Yegor began to feel slightly uncomfortable, without knowing why at first.

Something kept crossing their path behind them. It suddenly came up alongside and overtook them. Behind their backs, some smooth dudes in plaid pants sniffled. Some of the pants were store-bought, some were sewn together from blankets and curtains. Some of the other dudes wore jeans with the “Pyramid” label, the most fashionable brand then for the course of two or three weeks, of unknown manufacture and, after momentary general acceptance, gone, it’s not known where, stuffed into the trash and forgotten.

A couple of times, sweatpants with drooping knees and fake Adidas flashed. There were too many of these fellows on the sidewalk. It was suddenly crowded with them. And they encircled Yegor, Igor Fedorovich, and Yvetta, stopped them, and looked them over.

Yegor was frightened silly, so that he did not feel the fear itself. These were young thugs from the first democratic wave. Igor Fedorovich tried to run, but got tangled up among the gym pants and jeans, received a quick but persuasive blow to the throat from the side of a hand, and calmed down.

“Well what do you know, Chief? Here we are,” grumbled someone in plaid. “Boot sends his regards. Now we’re going into that schoolyard, right there, to shoot you. Don’t worry, it won’t hurt. In the back of the head. You won’t even notice. Just don’t make a fuss, don’t make noise. And this is who? What’s he doing here?”

“Doesn’t matter. He’s just a colleague at work, an editor. He had nothing to do with it.” Yegor was struck by Igor Fedorovich’s unexpectedly cold-blooded tone. “Don’t touch him.”

The one in plaid took a long look into Yegor’s eye. Yegor looked into himself. It was empty in there, and unexpectedly calm, like the countryside at noon.

The one in plaid walked off a couple of steps. The sweatpants and jeans crowded around him, except for three who stood guard over Chernenko and Yegor. The dudes whispered and cursed among themselves aggressively and passionately.

Then a rosy-cheeked blond in apparently genuine designer running shoes separated from the crowd, slowly slouched towards Yegor and said, “Excuse us, we didn’t recognize you at first. There’s been a misunderstanding. Give our regards to Uncle Akhmet.”

He turned to Chernenko. “And you, you jerk, you’re lucky you’re strolling around with such a respected person or you’d be lying with a broken skull on the school trash can. You’ll end up laid out anyway, scum. Without a doubt. But not today, OK, not today.”

The rosy-cheeked gangsta shook Yegor’s hand and led the boys off into the very schoolyard where Igor Fedorovich could have been shot, having turned out to be not only a specialist on Wallace Stevens, but also a Chief, a jerk, and scum.

“Yegor, we are not going for beer. Come with me now,” muttered Chernenko. They returned to the publishing house, passed by, went into an alley and entered a building constructed in Stalin’s time as a palatial communal residential building that was now occupied by people of various classes and occupations.

There was only one door on the fourth floor. Chernenko spoke into the intercom: “Chief, Chief,” and the door opened. It was the first time Yegor had seen an intercom that actually worked. The door was opened by a disheveled, gray-haired, happy old man who resembled Einstein having just received the Nobel prize and shaved his moustache.

“Yegor. Fedor Ivanovich.” The Chief hastily and inattentively introduced them.

Proceed to Chapter 10...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 846...

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