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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 38: Tridtsat’ Vosem’

The beat-up fuselage touched down on schedule at Karagaly airport between rows of former warriors, frontline Sukhois, MiGs, and Yaks, brave veterans, wounded and grown rusty in Angola and Afghanistan but recalled to duty again. These old warplanes summoned their courage, like brave old men and, with their last strength, which barely sufficed even for home war, bombed the towns and mountains of non-Russian Russia. They didn’t smell of the front, but more like old men exposed to the smoke from grandma’s kerosene stove, summer twilights, and the sad comfort of the last years and days of a dilapidated empire.

An unnaturally calm taxi driver who looked like Al Pacino drove the arriving passenger to the central square, where Yegor found himself among unnaturally calm people dulled to a stupor by the daily spectacle of explosions, lumps of flesh on billboards, demonstrative gunfire in broad daylight at federal office workers slinking to dine in Cafe Makshashlik, gunfire at the children of policemen, and simply at any children. Amidst these carefree citizens in this strange town, one-third destroyed, one-third worn-out Soviet, one-third neo-Arabic, Yegor immediately felt like a rat in a trap.

It became so alarming that he felt the urge to pray. Minarets of half-active mosques under construction poked out all around. He wanted to pray so badly he was ready to go into a mosque but remembered he’d have to take his shoes off — he was too lazy to do that — and the urge subsided. At least the urge to fall to his knees had dissipated. Still, he was in no hurry to call Strutsky. Yegor decided to have a bite in order to calm himself.

He went into the Makshashlik, a local fast-food outlet trading in kebabs and kutabs at a rapid rate. It had a tiled floor, walls with plastic gold and filmy mirrors, was relatively clean, but a bit sticky, smoky and crowded, and strewn with napkins and toothpicks. It was full of people, but there were free spots. The service staff were agile but at the same time horribly proud and haughty. They gazed with contempt, didn’t give change. However, they cooked and served the shashlik on paper plates properly.

The customers, for the most part, resembled Al Pacino, although faces with Slavonic characteristics were seen. There were almost no military, but most were armed. The expressions on their faces displayed various intentions. The readiness to become brothers was immediately visible, but at the same time, the desire to open fire in a brotherly fashion was also felt.

Washing down the shashlik with the most delicious fake mineral water, Yegor noticed the liberal-bomber Ratsov in civilian clothes among the reticent company of machine gunners.

“Yegor, what are you doing here?” Ratsov roared across the room.

“I flew down for some hunting,” Yegor shouted back, not rising from his place. “So how are you? Well?”

“Greetings,” Ratsov howled above the heads of the patrons. “I came down for the day to buy some explosives. They boys here sell good stuff.” He indicated his companions. “Almost pure. You know yourself, buy in Moscow, and you get seventy percent soap or plastic or window grease. The explosion yields only ash and stench, zero effect. And they charge twice as much. That’s why I stock up down here. It’s a bit far and scary, but the product is real.”

No one paid the least attention to him. His colleagues kept quiet, as if saying with their silent faces: “Well, it’s nothing, maybe he’s bragging a bit but, honestly, our explosives really are better. That’s how it is here. There’s nothing to say. It is what it is.”

“Are they at least aware of who you’re blowing up in the Moscow markets?”

“They’re aware of my convictions. They know I’m exterminating the swarthy.”

“But they themselves are not exactly blond.”

“Ratsov’s suppliers nodded, wordlessly confirming: “No, we’re not blond. What’s true is true.”

“This is business, Yegor, not ideology. They don’t have their own military factories. Our army drives product to them, which they’ve used to fight for two hundred years. Globalization. World without borders and war without borders,” Ratsov roared to the whole cafe, his white, cottage-cheese face contrasting against the background of his black-bearded, dark-eyed partners.

One of their telephones rang with a Lezginka ringtone. The partner raised it to his ear, listened wordlessly for three minutes, and suddenly rose and left the cafe without saying a word. Everyone at the table left with him, just as wordlessly. Ratsov also left, without turning around or saying goodbye.

Yegor fell to thinking: “What a shame! Here this greasy cretin, a little professor’s son, could live and get along quite well following in his father’s footsteps in some super-profitable academic department. He has no reason to hate his fate, his people, or himself. And because of nonsense, on a whim, to satisfy his cheap vanity, in order just not be like everyone else, because of some poorly understood hate towards the foreign-born — and he’s married to a Gruzinka — this Ratsov goes straight to the devil, wherever there is rebellion and war.

“He buys explosives from the local scumbags and then carries it by plane or car across half the country. For that alone you can get ten years. And that’s not enough! He goes with his snotty Ku-Klux-Klanners — each one of whom would take off at the first sign of danger — and mines Azeri hideouts, blows them up, and a bunch of people get buried. For that, you get life. And it’s all for nothing, for fun.

“And me? I procrastinate, curse, and howl like an old woman. They killed, possibly, the woman I loved. The woman I love. Most likely, they killed her. Most likely, I love her. And they screened it especially for me. And what do I do? I sit here thinking how I didn’t love her and she didn’t love me. She’s not worth taking revenge for. That’s my thought, and it seems true, but you sort through it, and it’s one-quarter truth and three-quarters cowardice.

“Just to do nothing, just not to be, to pretend you’re dead from fear, in order not to resist. And what, in reality, is worse? To reconcile oneself, to cry patiently, when everyone not too lazy to do it is screwing you up the ass? And to believe that’s the better way, to believe that someone has to be the first to stop taking revenge, to stop killing, to break the cycle of hate. To reconcile and, by that act, to renounce death.

“Or... no! Or... grab a gun and shoot all this trash. Not far from here, Xerxes lashed the sea. Maybe it was stupid, but it worked. And what’s the difference: ten years, life, death? Death is like falling asleep, it’s good. Although... what do the dead dream? Who knows? It could be something worse than the garbage here. Here you just squirm, you just think about things. And it’s always the same: the more you think, the less you understand, and the even less you do. Release me, dullness! Leave me alone, fear...”

Having thought things through to this point, Yegor for some reason, coming out to the street, dialed the Chief’s number. It seemed it had not even rung yet, and Igor Fedorovich was already saying, “Hello, Yegor.”

“Hello, Chief. I just wanted to find out, was it you who killed Crybaby?”

“Is this Yegor?”

“It is. They lured me south by means of this Russian security officer, in order to feed the local animals.”

“Why would I need to do all this?”

“I killed your father.”


“He raised you from the age of three. You told me yourself. And for all these years, I broke off from you and didn’t share the profits. You can’t forgive me for that, either. You did so much for me, introduced me to people and more, and I didn’t bother to say thank you.”

“This is a meaningless conversation. Trivial thoughts. I am not going to lower myself to your cowardly babbling, Yegor.”

The Chief hung up. Yegor began to feel ashamed. He called Strutsky and was soon with him at his home, explaining everything, crying. A little later, he was riding in Strutsky’s jeep towards the worn foothills of the ugly cracked mountains.

Proceed to Chapter 39...

translation © 2019 by Bill Bowler

Proceed to Challenge 875...

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