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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 31: Tridtsat’ Odin

Yegor showed up at the Diamond precisely at seven. He had just sat down and had not yet even had time to survey the personages chomping on iceberg lettuce at the next table, personages somehow widely but not entirely definitively known for appearing in thick glossy magazines.

A wheelchair loaded with a very thin, long-faced, long-nosed, long-armed man of around thirty-five, wrapped in a shawl of the tricolors of our native flag, rolled directly towards Yegor from the entrance doorway. The man was completely motionless. His dark, unblinking eyes expressed amazement. His posture resembled a dried-up shrub.

The wheelchair braked sharply beside Yegor. The beautiful woman pushing it said, “Hello, Yegor. I’m Captain Warhola.” She was dressed in the stunning uniform of an officer of the FSB Border Patrol. The uniform was extremely flattering, definitely custom-fit and, judging from the unique elegance of her silhouette and the irreproachably stitched seams, ordered, at a minimum, from Yves St Laurent. The epaulettes were chic. The stars were obviously the work of a jeweler, discreet but expensive, not something from the commissary; not even gold: platinum.

Those in power were generally dressed by the invisible guiding hand of the market. Under democratic conditions, they grew marvelously better-looking and displayed some not-bad taste.

This radiant Amazonka, without invitation, sat in the chair proffered by the waiter, turned the wax façade of the disabled person’s deadened body towards herself, and began to shine her blinding-hot beauty directly into Yegor’s face, as at an interrogation.

It was Sara. He couldn’t believe it, wiped his moist forehead with a napkin, and looked, and understood: it was Sara.

“You are Warhola? You’re a captain in the State Security Service? What nonsense! Sara, stop it, come here, let’s do this like friends, as always. I’ll call the Chief right away. I’m not up for jokes. And who is this mobile corpse here? So you’ve been lying to me all this time, you bitch. You’ve been spying on me for the Chief, or for his firm?”

Yegor would have gone on and on, but Sara interrupted him. “This is not a corpse. This is my husband, Abdalla. He is now a Russian citizen and has even been decorated. He came from Yemen, fought against us in the South. I took him prisoner and converted him.

“We got married and he began to fight on our side. He was wounded, very seriously wounded. Now he’s like this: paralyzed, can’t speak, can’t hear, can’t see. He just cries sometimes. I had no one to leave him with today, so I brought him along. He won’t get in our way.

“Get me some pineapple juice. Why are you standing? Don’t ask me anything. I don’t need a menu. I am not Sara. I actually am Captain of State Security Services Yana Nikolaevna Warhola. Abdalla became a Catholic. Not Orthodox, because I am Catholic. Why are you making faces? I don’t understand why you Russians, a Christian people, relate to Catholics like strangers but treat Muslims like long-lost relatives.”

“I’m not making faces. I’m just amazed.”

“My great-grandfather was a White Czech, and then served in the Soviet secret police.”

“As a Red Czech,” returned Yegor.

“That’s how our family fit in: Cheka, NKVD, MGB, KGB, FSK, FSB... I wasn’t spying on you, or maybe just a little bit. I just asked Igor to find a guy for me, and you fit the bill. It was good with you, it’s true. But I’ve known Igor a long time. My father was his curator when Igor still worked at the publishing house. He came to our home, brought me candy. Didn’t taste good. My father, General Warhola, still provides him cover. You’ve heard of him? Well, I help him, too, sometimes.”

“You are too young and talk too much for a captain of State Security,” said Yegor, who was beginning to get angry at his own bewilderment. He didn’t understand what to believe and what not to believe, and his confusion made him angry.

“I’m a good officer, Yegor. I have three combat crosses. So my rank is not due to my papa. I earned it myself. And as for talkativeness, don’t flatter yourself. You have not received any information, only insignificant facts of a reference nature. You yourself know how many attractive things in this world have not the slightest significance. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the information we receive is husk, slag, dummied.”

Her husband burst into tears, drooling. Yana quickly wiped his mouth with a napkin, pulled a gigantic pacifier out of her bag hanging on the wheelchair, and stuck it in. Abdalla calmed down, sucked on the pacifier, and grew as quiet as a stone, as if he’d died.

“OK, Sara, if you let me call you that. I haven’t come to hear about your service to the fatherland or to find out that the Chief was a snitch in our office.” Yegor’s rage had peaked, stabilized, and buzzed evenly beneath his words. “You were at the screening at ‘Our Own.’ I was not mistaken. It was you.”

“It was me.” Yana Nikolaevna drank some juice. “Igor asked me to help you. I know what’s upsetting you.

“The ‘Our Own’ Club does not exist. You were there the day before yesterday and saw for yourself. But what does exist is a gang of very rich, famous and influential citizens who worship extreme spectacles. More exactly, not extreme, but prohibited.

“The ‘Kafka’s Pictures’ studio makes films that resemble ordinary, mid-quality popular movies. But the scenes of violence in them are not simply naturalistic but the most natural possible. For example, they filmed Hamlet where the king, the queen, the prince and Laertes were actually killed in the film. I mean, the actors who played them were killed. During the filming. Right in the film studio, in costume with sets.

“Two of them, Laertes and Hamlet, were fatally ill volunteers who gave permission to be wounded with poisoned blades in front of the camera in exchange for payment to their close relatives. The other two were tricked. Until the last moment, they thought they were only filming a movie. I saw this film. Gertrude had a very surprised look when she began to realize that the poison was really working.

“These films are advertised in narrow circles as avant-garde art and shown to closed audiences. Fashionable motherfuckers come to the screenings, not suspecting that they are watching scenes of real murders. The pleasure of death provides the organizers with a special satisfaction, almost openly.”

“That means, Crybaby” — Yegor could not say “is dead,” “perished,” “was killed” — “is no more?”

“Impossible to say for sure,” answered Warhola. “Sometimes they let them live, pump their stomachs, treat them after the filming.”

“For what?”

“In order to... use them in other films. Sometimes they have a shortage of new actors.”

“Who is this director, A. Mamaev?” asked Yegor in horror.

“We don’t know exactly. ‘Kafka’s Pictures’ is located down south in the mountains. He works there somewhere.”

“Would it be possible to find this studio?”

“Down south, anything is possible with money,” said Yana Nikolaevna.

“Listen, Sara. You’re saying if you had enough money, you could find the studio where they torment and kill innocent people for fun. But if you’re really a government agent and know of the existence of gangs of rich perverts, why don’t you and your dear State Security apparatus just round up all this scum tomorrow, around seven o’clock or seven-thirty in the morning? What’s preventing you?”

Yegor wailed quietly at Warhola, so the celebrities munching on lettuce wouldn’t hear. “Maybe you don’t have enough money? How much? Tell me!”

“Don’t shout. Cool down, honey.” Yana smiled. “First of all, you yourself are in the covert security service. You Brothers of the Black Book are called Chekists by ordinary people. Second, we know plenty about your Brotherhood. Much more, by the way, then about the filmmakers, but here you are, free, and nothing happens to you.”

“Then why am I free? Arrest me!”

“Cool down. Chill out,” murmured Yana, turning Abdalla’s back towards her and smoothing the hair behind his ears, as if he were an enormous, affectionate dead cat. “One: we know the truth about you, but we don’t drag it into court. Judges need proof, not truth. And moreover, we have power. Real power is not useable, like the atom bomb. We direct without interfering. We maintain order while staying invisible. That’s two. As the Chinese say: ‘Power is a dragon in the fog’.”

“I don’t know what’s up with the Chinese and dragons, but there’s plenty of fog to go around. You don’t interfere because you yourselves are constrained” — Yegor exposed and condemned her — “by money, blood and now, it turns out, by sex.”

“Don’t be rude, honey. Our interference would be catastrophic. We know so many shameful secrets that, if we took action, the whole ruling rabble of this country — and not only this country — would burst and deflate, emitting dirt and rot. Society and the government would melt and ooze away. No matter how sad it sounds, corruption and organized crime are structural components of the social order, like schools, police, and morals. Remove them, and you get chaos. So enjoy your freedom, Chekist.”

“Where is Mamaev? You smoke? I didn’t know that. Where is Mamaev?”

Yana Nikolaevna lit up and spoke out melodiously, like Sara. “I smoke. Mamaev lives somewhere in Moscow and has a place in St. Petersburg. But he spends three or four months a year at his studio down south. Now I will disclose a state secret. I do this because Igor asked me to and because I... well, in short, it felt good when I was with you.”


“The South is under control of the Khazar Khanate and has been for around a thousand years. All these national republics, parliaments, courts, portraits of presidents and premiers, municipal regions, elections, and police are a fiction, an imitation. Under Soviet rule, the local party organs, councils, busts of Lenin, steering committees were just such imitations.

“In point of fact, both then and now, and during the Tsars, the South was ruled and is ruled by the Khazars, a small, classified nationality inhabiting the far side of Mt. Elbrus. They set the borders, settle disputes, and distribute money and responsibilities among the ethnic groups and clans. They are so cunning, martial, and stubborn that even the Chechens respect them.

“They are not strong enough, of course, to ignore Russia and decide everything for themselves. Two hundred years ago, Russia and Khazaria signed a secret agreement that is still in effect. According to the agreement, in exchange for subsidies and military support, the Khanate pretends to be part of the empire/union/federation and does not support our geopolitical competitors.

“Down south, the Khazars know everything and everyone. If you get along with them, they will give you Mamaev. He pays them for protection. Otherwise, he could not survive.”

“This is some kind of delirium, some Slavic-Mongol symbiosis,” screeched Yegor. “You give him to me. He spends time in Moscow. You said so yourself.”

“From five hundred thousand to a million. Dollars. Not a big price. Reasonable. You can scrape it together. But we don’t know for sure where or when he spends his time in Moscow. So, head south, to the Khazars.”

“And how will I find these remarkable people?”

“Fly to Karagaly,” answered the captain. “Then phone Major Strutsky. He lives there, knows everyone you need. Tell him I sent you. He’ll take you where you need to go and arrange a meeting with the Kagan. That’s a kind of Khazar Putin. All the southerners have them. If you make a deal, Mamaev is yours. If not, you come back.

“There’s plenty to do here. So think it over. Is this trip really necessary or not so much? Those cinema lovers are dangerous fellows, big shots with bad manners. Do you have to hook up with them? And the south is no resort spa. They shoot.

“Excuse me if I’m speaking out of place, but Crybaby left you a long time ago. You gave me flowers the last time we met. I thought maybe something might be starting to happen between us. You had never given me flowers before. You thought I was a fool, a sex toy. But it turns out I wasn’t a complete fool.”

Sara rolled Abdalla to the side and moved closer to Yegor.

Proceed to Chapter 32...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 868...

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