Almost Zero, Book One by Natan Dubovitsky aka Vladislav Surkov

CHAPTER X

The place might have been a storage vault, or an office, or a hotel room. From some angles it looked like a showroom or a disused design pavilion. Everything that could fulfill the desires of a well-read, semi-cultured, five-time lottery-winning assistant engineer of a mid-sized factory was stuffed into this area, its tackiness an assaulting to the eyes. Here were: European furnishings of Turkish-Hungarian quality, five or so Mitsubishis and Akais, Italian furniture imported from Armenia, canned beers, Amaretto liqueur, Rothmans cigarettes, brightly packaged pistachios, and boxes inscribed with Xeroxed foreign writing and packed with money.

Fedor Ivanovich silently poured liqueur into shotglasses, emptied an ashtray of its ash, and poured some pistachios into it before delicately leaving the room. Chernenko and Yegor plopped down into chairs. For about twenty minutes the two of them furiously ate the salty pistachios and swigged the sugary liqueur.

“What do you think, why did they let us go?” asked Cherenko Igor Fedorovich, the Chief, drunk.

“I guess they figured me for someone who knew something or mistook me for one of their own, and got scared,” replied Yegor.

“Almost. But not quite. At first they got scared. But then, to justify their fright, to analyze it logically, they decided that you were the right hand man of Mr. Akhmet, the chief criminal of Balashikha.”

“What do you think they were afraid of, what make them think this?”

“Theres something in your eyes, in your expression, that’s just so . . .” After a long pause, Chief slowly said, “Quiet, within you, always quiet, even when youre frightened or happy. With that kind of quiet you could rescue stupid children and helpless old people from fires, or you could be a guard at a concentration camp. That kind of fearless internal quiet could be considered detached, apathetic, indifferent. Anthon Palich always said to fear apathy. He fears those qualities in you. Ive always noticed this in you, but today, I see it. Now its not just a feeling I had about you. Its been confirmed by life. Your apathy isnt a product of weakness or stupidity, quite the opposite. Its the strength of your will. Your mind. You are indifferent and undaunted by everything, because everything around you is insignificant and meaningless. Only something truly grandiose can enchant you. Something so huge that perhaps the entire world will seem tiny. Thats what these men saw, how tiny they were through the curtains of your eyes, and that frightened them.”

“I was scared, myself,” admitted Yegor.

“No, no, thats your facade, but thats not you. Because of that Id like to offer you an opportunity to collaborate on something.”

“On what?”

“On very significant matters. Will you hear me out?”

“Im ready.”

I don’t know if this good news or bad—but communism will fall. For almost forty years, people doubted that Stalin was dead. They didnt believe it. They thought he faked his death, hid in a cabinet, and spied on us from a distance, gauging our fear of him. He giggled, he sharpened his Georgian knives. But then his body was found under a ladder, in a pool of piss. And spat on. And suddenly there was no more fear. The master dies, the lackey laughs. The problem is that, aside from the lackeys, no ones home. Thirty million lackeys are now on the loose. The guys at the top, with their self-important airs, sit in palatial czarlike chambers, they know—they have no authority. Only they havent broken the news to everybody yet. Theyre ashamed. But theyll break soon. And then it will begin.

“In a normal country there would be a civil war, but we have no civilians; it will be a war of the lackeys. Which isnt to say it would be worse than a civil war, but it will come to some very low points. The lackeys will begin to divide their old masterstrash, some waging war on Islam, others on the media, others on the financiers. The lackeys will be feral and bloodthirsty. They will live wretchedly, kill cruelly and die cruelly, they will share, and they will divide.

“I am gearing up to participate in this unpleasant event. Its important to collect as much money as possible, and, even more importantly, things that can make and keep making money. Well, it would be a stretch to go for oil or vodka, we dont know nearly enough about the product, although those are the strongest points of our economy. So we have to make do with less lucrative, more familiar things. Books, books, Yegor—thats our share, the share of the angels of high-end literature. Vodka, oil, that’s the economy; we can own the culture . . .”

“Lets drink, Igor Fedorovich, lets drink,” interrupted Yegor with a sticky glass in hand.

“For your information,” announced Chernikov, sipping and staring somewhere beyond the floor and beyond tomorrow, “for the longest time in our swamped little staff, something has been rotten. Left-wing circulation, deficit compositions, manipulation of pamphlets, trash dissertations, transcriptions of illicit video . . . The management knows but turns a blind eye. They dont touch it, theyve left the intelligentsia alone for some time. So the intelligentsia steals, and they steal very methodically, with tact and independence and grace. Which is exactly how the intelligentsia should be, independent and humble. They steal as a symbol of protest, to dig up and shake up and siphon from the foundations. Bandits and komsomols will devour the basic structure, but the foundations, of course, will be devoured by proletariats of the intellectual class.

“Of all these publishers circulating underground papers beneath the government, and the pamphlet bootleggers, book counterfeiters, and street peddlers, I am gathering an organization, which the mainstream would call the mafia, but our stream will call . . . I don’t know what. 

Our mission: to bring all the illegal business in our publishers—intelligentsia and these friends of mine—together under our control, and then all the publishers conducting illegal business across the country, and then all the legal business, too.”

“Well, in all of them. . .”

“Okay, most of them. Well make enough money, ideally hard cash, to buy them all within a few years when privatization begins, and it will definitely begin. We will create a gigantic publishing conglomerate—legally, and we will have so much influence on politics, and so much authority and power . . .”

“Well be magnates. Well be like the sun,” mused Yegor, feeling the liquor glow.

“Right now we have three streams of income. The first—almost legal. To move all equipment and staff to cooperatives, to initially and privately make books, and sell them. Right now, this literate country will go for it. Theyll go for Nietzsche, Platonov, Nabokov, Hemingway, Chase, King. Our native bestsellers will emerge, too. Business will boom.

“The second stream—completely illegal, a black market of literature. Left-wing circulation, unlicensed texts, publications without authorization or rights. Basically, intellectual piracy. And just like that, a monopoly, a stronghold on typography, special interest stores, et cetera.”

“This is so amazing, Igor, I could just kiss you!” cried Yegor, but he didnt know how to kiss another man, so he didnt.

“The third stream is . . . neither here nor there. Its legal, but frowned upon. Not sure that it will work, but its worth a shot. Literary counterfeits and pranks. The ‘lost appendices of King Learthat were ‘found. Sensationalism. We just need someone to compose them in Old English and Old Rusian. Like a made-up Nostradamus. Rediscovered journals of Hesse. Intellectual provocations aimed at pretentious idiots. Pseudoscientific theories. Friedrich Engels—a woman, the lover of Marxs wife. Shit like that. Premium pricing, in small circulation. All in all, a boutique of falsified gems.

“And I think a lot of rich and political guys will show up. Some of them might want to sponsor intellectual and creative people of raw talent—who isn’t a failed writer? Theyll have a bunch of young girls with them, starlets who want to sing and act. And well be there with movie scripts and songbooks. And then the boss, who will want to go down in history as a great poet. A dramaturge. A new-wave Griboyedov. Well have a whole crew of talented but awfully impoverished and alcoholically weak-willed poets. Well buy whatever they have thats been lying around, whatever poems and plays they dont need. Well buy them for cheap. But well sell them to the big bosses and executives for price tags that Tolstoy wouldnt even have dreamed of. Two hundred dollars an hour to bang on a typewriter at corporate parties. And well produce them under the executive name for the executive budget. Theyll be expensive productions. And the poet—thats for life. Then well always have to pretend to be poets for these bankers and execs and pass other peoples poetry off as our own. Well have constant clients. It will be like a drug for them. So, Yegor, a collaboration in this third stream of organized income is what I wanted to—”

“Im in!”

“—offer you. If youre in, then, firstly—”

“What, what do I have to do?”

“—you must kill Fedor Ivanovich.”

Without question.

“Right now. For bonding, Id say, and dedication . . .”

“No matter. Just . . . with a firearm. I couldn’t stab or strangle him.”

“Here is a gun. Fedor Ivanovich, Fedor Ivanovich, could you come here for a minute . . .”

The old man entered with a tray. First his tea set exploded, then his heart. One cup remained intact and into it poured the wounded Fedor Ivanovichs multicolored blood as though from a samovar. Strangely, the old fart didnt fall right away, but stood and stood for a long, long, long time. And that whole time, the shot sonorously echoed as if in slow motion throughout the room. Then he fell, unconscious, transforming into some kind of rag doll, and lay there, not splattered all across the parquets but modestly folded up.

Yegor pulled the trigger of his killing machine until there was nothing left to fire. Its remaining bullets shot out all around the room, Yegor shooting not at Fedor Ivanovich but into some dark abyss projected from his own loneliness.

A floor above, in apartment #50, a shitty apartment from which the police escorted a family of criminals about every six months only to see a new family of criminals move in a week later, a group sat around a table chugging wine. One of them wiggled his ears and inquired, “Huh, theyre shooting again? Killing again? Downstairs?” “Let them kill, probably deserved it,” another one retorted. “Who, man?” “All of them, now refill my glass.”

“Congratulations, brother,” said Chief. He walked up to Yegor, took out a pair of scissors from his pocket, and artfully snipped Yegors hair. “You now have a haircut that is ready for a new duty, withdrawn from a perishable world into an eternal war. Consider yourself accepted into the organization. And you can know its name—the Brotherhood of Black Books. You are now a Blackbooker. Keep the gun for yourself. You can take some cartridges from the kitchen cabinet. All right, now, pour some more liqueur.”

Natan Dubovitsky is the pseudonym of Vladislav Surkov, senior advisor to Vladimir Putin and considered the architect of Russia's "managed democracy"