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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 40: Sorok

Yegor went, understanding that misfortune awaited. He no longer doubted whether his sense of alarm was well founded or phantom. He knew for sure that someone had organized some intricate and tempting punishment for him. He knew he was being drawn into a snare and had already been snared. He no longer wavered about whether Crybaby was worth this fatal effort or not. He knew now for sure that she was not. And still he went, the way war goes, forgetting why it started, knowing only submission and stubbornness.

Elbrus shook him off herself several times, now into a shallow crevice, now into a freezing stream with water like that in his source, now onto a pile of rough gravel. Once, his bag with the money slipped from his hands and rolled under an overhang. He searched for a long time to find it in the thick, thorny bushes. He walked until it grew dark, walked in the dark, and arrived when it began to grow light. On the other side of the mountain, he was met by three short, long-haired, stout fellows wearing machine-gun belts.

“Khazaria, the name of the world,” Yegor greeted them as Strutsky had taught him.

“The strength of the world is the Kagan,” replied the stout fellows. “Urus Yegor?”


“You want search for Kafka’s Pictures?”


“Give money.”

Yegor handed over his bag. The stout fellows counted the bills in turn. Then one of them pulled a bundle of forms out from under the machine gun belt that crossed his thigh and tediously filled them out with a well-chewed parker pen. His colleagues looked over Yegor, who was pretty banged up, and conversed in the same tongue in which Strutsky had shouted into the radio, apparently, in Khazar.

When the pages were filled out, the stout fellows took turns signing one of them, exclaiming, “A billion manat!”

Finally all this bureaucratic red tape was finished. The required sum was credited, and the Khazars led Yegor out onto a rock ledge where a gilded Mi-8 glittered in the fresh light of the morning sun. They blindfolded Yegor, sat him in the chopper, and took off.

They landed and removed the blindfold in a large village that stretched along a very narrow, very deep, and because of that, shadowed gorge. In place of the sky, the mountainous crest of the winding crevice stretched out far above, oozing cold azure. Below, a furious little river wound among the homes of red and white brick, reflecting the outline of the crevice. They made their way along white cobblestones that formed a natural bridge, without encountering any people.

“Where is everyone?” asked Yegor.

“War,” said one of the Khazars.

“Always war,” said another, grinning. “Man war. Woman basement.”

“Where are the children?”

“With women.”

On one of the houses, a tin sign hung under the roof with a neon light that glimmered in the morning shadows. The sign read “Makshashlik.” The restaurant was completely empty except for a powerful Caucasian shepherd dog and a giant fly, furious like a falcon, chasing after each other, knocking over chairs and tables, and biting each other.

The stoutest of the stout fellows shouted at them, calming them down. They passed though the hall and opened a sticky door to the kitchen. In the kitchen, aunties in neglected aprons prepared an extremely odorous meal over boiling pots and smoking braziers. The stoutest fellow shouted at them, and they disappeared. It was impossible to see anything in the thick haze, poorly lit by a dim wall lamp. The room was a hellish murk of smoke and steam mixed with the smell of garlic and overcooked onion.

The Khazars sang out like a choir: “Kagan, hey, Kagan!”

“Well?” The Kagan, hidden from view by the culinary mists, answered in a gentle voice that rolled like fading thunder at the end of a storm.

Urus Yegor. A billion manat. Direktur Mamaev.”


“Kafkaz Pichkurs.”



“Well, well. Uh-huh.”

The Khazars nodded their heads, bowed, and dragged their guest to the exit. The audience with the Leader of the Delta, the Mountain Range, and Trans-Caspia had finished. They took Yegor to the second floor into an ascetic cell. The ram’s wool bedding gave off the strong aroma of soured stew.

“Bed. Sleep,” the stoutest fellow advised.

“Where’s Mamaev? Where’s Kafkaz Pikchurs?’” Yegor was about to demand.

“Sleep. We go after. When night. Now sleep.”

Proceed to Chapter 41...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

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