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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 36: Tridtsat’ Shest’

They walked almost an hour, one of them growing weaker with each step; the other, a dwarf deprived of height.

While they dragged themselves, Uncle Kolya told how the Chairman of a local collective farm ruined by reforms, provoked by lack of money to the espousal of harmful ideas, had proclaimed the little stream a Commercial Miraculous Source in the name of St. George.

The Chairman renamed the steam in honor of the holy warrior because “George” sounds similar to “Chechnya.” He started a rumor that the waters provided miraculous protection from bullets and could cure the unprotected.

For four months, all the mamas in the area brought their lop-eared little soldiers, watered them, sprinkled them, washed them in the waters of Yegor’s Source, washed their clothes in it, collected water for themselves from the bubbles under the flowering bushes, and sent it south.

The Chairman collected certain monies from the pilgrims, with which he supported the work-weary old ladies and hardworking drunks of his collective farm. But soon there were funerals in the homes. The corpses and cripples had returned after the first battles. No miracles had occurred.

They had managed to place an iron barrel into the source, built a crooked wooden bridge, and screwed an enamel mug on a mo-ped chain into a willow growing next to it. The spot became civilized, dirty. The water got rusty and was covered with dead flies. The water didn’t help the mamas, didn’t save their kids, let them down, and people stopped coming.

The mamas and the cripples set off to the Chairman’s home to question him as to why, for their last rubles, they had not been provided with the necessary quality of high-priced curing, resurrecting, and saving. The Chairman, a perceptive fellow, jumped through the window before they arrived and hid in the gooseberry bushes, so they began to question his housemate, an agronomist lounging in front of the TV. They questioned him at great length, silently, with heavy breathing, the mamas with logs picked up in the courtyard, the cripples with their crutches, prostheses and other new limbs.

The agronomist answered by calling the guard and the cops. The mothers left, the agronomist healed, but the Chairman was so upset that he was not seen in public again. He went guerrilla in the gooseberry bush and administered the collective farm from there. The agronomist would bring milk and caraway seeds to the bush for the Chairman’s sustenance and papers for his signature.

The Chairman signed an order removing the title of Miraculous and the name of St. George from the source, and another order regarding the commencement by the collective farm of external economic activity. He turned his attention to the export of frogs and earthworms. He wanted to export the frogs to France, the worms to who knows where, and he bargained aggressively, viciously even, in his vehement correspondence with the transnational giants.

The transnational giants, controlled by bureaucrats, reacted callously, not seeing any profit in it for them, and the Chairman switched over to the oil industry. He opened a line of credit at GosBank and hired geologists. The geologists banged away around the farm for half a year, but found nothing of use to extract. Not only did they not find oil, they also failed to find even any kind of industrial clay, not even medicinal mud to relieve herpes. In the earth by the source, they uncovered only the already well-known earthworms and some ancient bones.

The energetic Chairman crawled out from under the gooseberry bushes and took the bones to the local museum. The local historians determined that what had really been uncovered was an ancient Sarmatian or Bulgarian animal burial ground, that the bones were truly historical, but had no value to the museum and were worthless.

The Chairman, in his grief, went to the movie theater but, in the middle of the film, in a fit of inspiration, ran out to the street and returned home to the gooseberry bushes with the intention of investing in the film industry.

When Yegor returned now, years later, he found his source befouled, simply dead. He wouldn’t touch such water and, in order kill his thirst, lay down near the shady bushes and fell asleep.

He woke up soaked through from the evening dew that had formed on his bandages and eye lashes. Three sturdy citizens of about his age were eyeballing him, and Uncle Kolya was pointing a finger at him. In the center stood a peasant in jeans and a light jacket who looked like a middle-aged, well fed, seriously drunk Ryzhik. On his left and right were two equally well fed twins with identical pump-action weapons. The one on the left was in uniform, a police major; the one on the right, judging by first impression, was a frequently and vigorously prosecuted gangster.

“Yegor?” asked the one in the middle.

“I am,” said Yegor, realizing that this guy not only resembled Ryzhik but was in fact Ryzhik himself. “You’re Ryzhik.”

“Help him up,” ordered Ryzhik.

The twins politely pulled Yegor to his feet. He got nearer to Ryzhik. They hugged carefully, cautiously, insofar as the one-time friends did not know who each other had become after so many years of not knowing each other. They sat in a jeep, drove to Ryzhik’s big house, washed Yegor, and gave him drink and food.

“I escaped to Moscow after school,” Ryzhik told Yegor, “to the Professional Technical Institute. I became a furniture painter in a factory. Then capitalism arrived. I began to trade furniture, then houses and land. But I still visit the country. My mother is here with me.

“There are about eight old-timers left and, in the winter, their relatives cart them off to the cities. During one such winter, when no one was here, the Chairman of our collective farm sold our Lunino to visiting filmmakers. They filmed an action movie here, Chapaev 3. They needed to shoot a scene where the revolutionaries destroy and burn a village to the ground, a kind of contemporary view of the hero of the Civil War. So our village became exterior props. That’s what they call it. They burned Lunino down for the movie.”

Chapaev 3? That means there was a second. I didn’t see any but the first. Never even heard of them.”

“They’re crap, Yegor, you know. I didn’t see them, either. But I came here in the spring, brought my mother; we get out of the jeep, and there’s no village, just the chimneys, like in Khatyn. Someone should have written about it, the scum. Although, write to who? There’s nothing but graveyards around here.

“We drove to the main house but didn’t find the Chairman, only the Agronomist. In the heat of the moment, we gave him a beating, for nothing, my driver and I. Made no sense. Then I purchased this land. And in order to sow and plow, I also bought a John Deere and Caterpillars, sat some imported Chinese on them, and now harvest 70 tons a year. The council awarded me twenty Hero of Soviet Labor medals. There you have it!”

“Well done.”

“And I completely restored Lunino, but in miniature, half-size. The club, homes, store, barns, trees, all as it was, but half-scale. I bred dwarf chickens, horses, and cows. And to complete the scene, I hired Lilliputians from the regional philharmonic, and even put makeup on a few of the former residents. You saw, Uncle Kolya is like real.

“I’m sorry for the village, but it’s cheaper this way. I don’t need Lunino for business and, for nostalgia, half-size will do. I restored the main house according to pre-revolutionary drawings and photographs,. And I finished the park. Tomorrow morning, take a look at my alley of lindens.

“The double bassist transported some ancient lindens from Germany, you wouldn’t believe it. On Unter den Linden they don’t have trees like this. In Baden-Baden, the trees are junk compared to mine. And these lindens are scaled one-to-one, life-size.”

“But how much did you pay the Chairman for Lunino?”

“A hundred dollars. Yegor, you wouldn’t believe it. Crap.”

“OK, fine.”

“There’s a peasant for you. He made it under the old regime. IQ minus 20. He never saw dollars like that ever, the ignoramus. He would have sold it for fifty, for five. I just didn’t have smaller denominations. Now he works as a hired hand on my gooseberry plantation. A sucker, the kind the gypsies swindle at train stations.

Proceed to Chapter 37...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

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