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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 42: Sorok Dva

The mysterious device that the secretive trucker had given Yegor provided the means for Yegor to understand, in general terms, what happened afterwards. But it was uninteresting to think about how he got from the South up to Perm or how he got from Perm into the truck. This all seemed like tertiary and technical details. And therefore, Yegor did not try to remember more.

He went out to Ryzhik’s living room. In one corner, the master of the house was scrupulously watching the weak TV signal of a most boring football game.

In the other corner, among the crowd of Ryzhiks of various ages, of old men and children resembling Ryzhik, supervising personnel hugging Ryzhik and shaking his hand; among the animals and fish shot and caught by Ryzhik, among friends and acquaintances surrounding Ryzhik, the boorishly laughing mug of Albert Mamaev stuck out, young and handsome.

Among the photos piled up on the unused piano, this one, black and white, was sharper and bigger than the rest. Albert and Ryzhik, old sergeants, sunburned, cocky and self-satisfied. Close up. Army insignias, medals with illegible inscriptions.

“Who is that?” asked Yegor of the photos.

“Where?” Ryzhik replied instead of the photos. Distracted from the football game, he got up from the divan and headed towards Yegor. “Ah, that one. Alik Mamin. Nicknamed Mamai. We served in Afghanistan together. Strange guy. He dreamed of becoming a film director. In civilian life, we started a business, but we weren’t able to work together. He can’t work with anyone.”


“He’s too aggressive. He killed without necessity. In Afghanistan, they almost court-martialed him for shooting peaceful civilians. OK. A battalion commander. And as a person, he wasn’t so bad. Brave and smart. He read books in English, all sorts of poetry. Not a bad guy, but a scumbag. Why do you ask? Do you know him?”

“I know him. Now I know him. When’s the last time you saw him?”

“Three or four years ago. I don’t remember. Why?”

“Do you have his address?”

“I have it somewhere, probably. If not his address, his telephone number.” Ryzhik grew thoughtful. “But why do you need it? Why?”

“No particular reason.” Yegor clenched his teeth. “I just need it. Let’s watch football.”

“Well OK. Let’s watch.”

Ryzhik indicated a chair and handed Yegor a bottle of beer.

Trampling around deep in their own territory for eighty minutes, our team somehow accidentally trampled their way in a shapeless crowd to the other goal. Senselessly shoving the ball carrier in the side and chest for another quarter of an hour, they got him to the goal posts and with great difficulty, proved it was a goal to the nondescript referee who was falling asleep.

Ryzhik roared out something about the Battle of Kursk and Gagarin, but Yegor felt so unbearably good that he flew out into the garden and, exhausted by the frightening joy, dropped onto a bench at the very beginning of the really magnificent alley of imported linden trees.

Evening was coming on and, from the opposite entrance, beams of the setting sun poured down the alley. Ryzhik had truly laid out the garden like a genius. A black spot loomed in front of the setting sun. After a couple of minutes, the spot grew into a dark splotch, as if the sun was pushing forward a small, undiscovered planet.

Yegor watched and gradually made out a dark human contour inside the splotch. This person quickly approached and, if Yegor had not been so happy, he would have thought it was approaching too quickly.

The figure became completely visible. It was dressed in black and seemed to take the form of a monk. Yegor was too happy to be surprised and, moreover, already knew from the classics that monks are met with more often than common sense, that is, you meet them at least once in a while.

The person in black reached Yegor and was about to continue on to the house, after just saying a quick “Hello” in passing in a clearly female voice.

“Hello, sister,” Yegor joyously greeted the nun. “Are you visiting us?”

“Depends on who you are.” The sister stopped.


“No, I’m going to visit the others for now. But happy to make your acquaintance.”

The nun’s voice seemed deafeningly familiar to Yegor.

“Nikita Marievna! It’s you!”

“I was. Now I am Sister Epifania.”

“But you never left the Jewish faith!”

“In the synagogue, Yegor, it dawned on me. There was a voice. From somewhere out of the chandelier. It said, go, cut your hair, seek truth in Christ.”

“Well, yes. Neither Greek nor Jew. True, it could happen to anyone. And where are you going?”

“I’m making a pilgrimage to the holy places. Not far from here is a miraculous source. And I stopped by here to ask for a piece of bread.”

“Yes, yes, Ryzhhik will give it to you. But I’ve seen the source. It’s filthy.”

“You didn’t see the source, only the filth.”

“Well yes, yes. Cut your hair... It’s a means of fearing death. Like football. I understand you, although... But no, I understand.”

“There is no death, Yegor.”

“How do you know that?”

“Knowledge gives only knowledge and nothing more. The unknown gives hope. Faith. Love.”

“Then we must destroy science, technology, civilization, and culture. In order to know nothing.”

“What are you saying, Yegor! Cities and books were burned precisely by those who knew what they wanted, who had the arrogance to know how the world must be built.”

“But why, Nikita... Sister Epitaphia... Epiphania, why are the lindens and roses visible through you? Or does it just seem so?”

“No, that’s all correct. Don’t eat anything, don’t read, don’t heed anything achieved by violence. And you’ll begin to grow transparent. And stop thinking about death, start contemplating love, and you’ll become like light. It’s easy if you try.”

“Easy, easy. It is truly so. Tell the governor and the Chief I said hello.”

Nikita Marievna walked off quickly towards the house. No matter how joyful Yegor was, he still noticed her feet did not touch the ground and he realized he had not seen her face.

“Yegor, excuse me, but who were you talking to?” asked a somewhat stunned Ryzhik, bringing Yegor out of his trance like the ring of an alarm clock. To Yegor’s amazement and joy, Ryzhik turned out to be sitting next to him on the bench with both arms full of beer bottles and dead lobsters.

“With Nikita.”

“With what Nikita?”

“Well, with the nun.”

“There is no nun Nikita here. What are you talking about? Eh, Yegor, we’re not in good shape here. You need a doctor. I’ve been sitting here with you for a half-hour and listening to you debate with your own shoes. Yes, you’re all screwed up, brother, in the most medical way.”

“I’m not screwed up, brother, I’m... in the process. They put a straightjacket on my brain, but my last thoughts managed to leak out. Take them, while I’m still understandable:

“You see all this around us? This is not life; it’s a layout. It’s a rough, non-working resemblance of life, hollow and empty inside, and from the outside, cobbled together from whatever was at hand, from completely unsuitable material, from rot, dust, trash, in essence, from death.

“We sculpt life from the local carrion, from whatever is plentiful at hand and doesn’t require us to go far to find, the way ancient forest dwellers made sanctuaries from birch branches and pine bark, and desert tribes from sand and dung.

“But that’s not what is most important. It’s not that you can’t make life from death, or light from dust. It’s not that eternal life does not come from us. What matters is that there is abundant proof of the existence of eternal life. That’s what’s important. That’s what we lay out, what we imitate.

“And that means: we see it. It’s not so remote. It’s in our field of vision, at least, and in order for it to succeed and to happen to us, we must stop using death to achieve it. We at least need to stop killing and torturing each other. It would be good, of course, if we could also stop deceiving, and acting basely, and being cowards, and gloating, and envying, and coveting... But that’s for later. Those are details, and it’s impossible to do everything at once. But this: not to kill, not to torment. That’s not so difficult.

“Let’s say I thought I could not earn money without a gun. That’s not the way it is. You can earn it, and gain power, without destroying anyone. It’s possible, possible. You just have to stop. You have to live in a new way. Directly, right now. And if everyone can’t do it, then at least I can. It’s impossible to achieve immortality if you yourself create ruin. From life must come only life. It can’t be that we want immortality but cause death ourselves.”

After a moment’s speechlessness, Ryzhik opened his mouth. “Well, you’re on fire, Yegor. I’ll be right back. Hold on. Hold that thought. Be patient for five minutes. Don’t go crazy.”

Ryzhik ran into the house and was absent, it seemed to Yegor, for quite a while. At the end of the alley he sort of saw some kind of smudge again. But then Ryzhik returned. And the smudge, barely shimmering, disappeared.

“Here, this is for you. He meant for you to have it. I’ve figured it out. It’s his style. In the old days, he loved to shoot off fingers. They tossed him out of Intelligence because of his brutality. It was in Afghanistan! Can you imagine what he did! It’s the same as being convicted of depravity in a bordello. And then, after the war in civilian life, the Afghans would not accept him. We worked with all those nut jobs, but he seemed just too cold-blooded for us and for our business.

“Here’s his address, everything, phone numbers of a couple of his acquaintances. From three years ago, it’s true, it’s old, but that’s what I’ve got. Take it. You have the right. He pulled me from a wrecked chopper below Herat, but what he did to you was not right. Kill him.

“It’s true he’s a seriously weird dude. He might take you out. But either way, you’ll feel better because now, with all that’s happened and everything he’s done to you, you can’t do nothing. You’d be screwing yourself. Here’s Mamai for you. Settle things with him, then pull yourself together and live without death, like you just said.”

Yegor thought and thought, took his time.

Ryzhik waited, waited, and said, “As you please.”

He laid the piece of paper folded in two on the bench, covered it with a boiled lobster, for the wind, and strolled off down the alley, whistling for his wife to join him for company.

Yegor waited until they had gone a proper distance. Once he was convinced they were not turning around and were not intending to turn suddenly, he looked to both sides, like a thief, quickly grabbed the paper, and hid it in his pocket.

His head immediately cooled off, his joy subsided. He became tranquil and warm, as he had felt in childhood when his grandma, in the darkness, out on the little terrace, had gossiped about the neighbors with the lady next door, when the summer evening was tender, and comforting and warm, and dark, like the world when first created. His soul grew calm, unraveled and simplified itself to the line of revenge on the bend of fate.

He knew what to do, knew what was to be. He was charged with a leaden grief, uncontrollably heavy, and stretched out like a blade towards the target, by the strength of its own weight condemned to fly with increasing speed and with a screech, directly to the center of the enemy. Mamaev had to croak.

The next day, Yegor was already in Moscow.

Proceed to Chapter 43...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 878...

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