Close to Zero visits a rural “assisted living facility” that may or may not be housing subjects of a sinister government experiment.
The security guard at the assisted living facility’s checkpoint, obviously not a local but someone who had been sent by the same program that had arrived with the document from Onishchenko regarding the quarantine, spent a long time inspecting the guest’s passport, then put it in the scanner, and even for some reason pressed the scanner’s cover down with his hand; Close to Zero could see the raw skin on the knuckles of the security guard’s hand. Then the security guard called someone, and within a minute Close to Zero was already shaking hands with a smiling man in a jacket without a tie—he looked like either a program director or just a man with a high degree of self-esteem.
“First, I want to understand how much they told you about what we need from you,” the director began as they walked along a cobblestone path, heading to the facility’s dining room.
“Well, not too much,” Close to Zero suddenly noticed how clean the air was here. It’s nice to get paid for your vacation in the countryside. “People from the provinces, the modernizational majority, need to be brought up to date, to be taught how to conduct polemics, explain what the country needs, something like that.”
“All correct.” His companion seemed satisfied with his answer. “But there is an important nuance, and I want to ask you—do you mind if I speak informally?—I want to ask you to make sure that everything that you see and hear here will never go outside of this fence. We’re not asking you to sign anything, we’re adults here, but you understand me, yes?”
Close to Zero nodded. They entered a dining room—it really was a dining room—but one of gargantuan dimensions— after passing through it, they ended up in a room with a television and a big vase with what looked like real sunflowers. They sat in two chairs next to a table, a woman brought them tea and an ashtray—yes, you can smoke here—and the director, looking Close to Zero in the eyes, started to talk: everything is as it should be, the mobilizational majority is gathering here; among other things, it needs lectures about current politics and about the art of polemics—oral and on the Internet, and Close to Zero is an experienced online polemicist, the types of which are hard to find. But there is one important nuance: these people, well, they’re not quite… ordinary. To call them people with mental handicaps would probably be quite right, they are basically normal, but it just so happens that their cultural baggage differs (he said, “by several orders of magnitude”) from the cultural baggage of the average Russian—this was probably too much of a streamlined definition, but the director decided not to frighten his guest by telling him that the group now at the facility had just last Friday finished their study of the grade-school primer with Samuil Marshak’s poem, “Now you’ve learned your ABVs, all thirtysomething of ’em.”
“But why am I going on?” The director grabbed Close to Zero on the knee. “Here they are coming to dinner already; you’ll see everything now for yourself.”
The group filed into the dining room, maybe a hundred or so people, both men and women. Their ages, as it seemed to Close to Zero, varied from thirty to fifty. They were also dressed differently, but normally, we all pretty much dress like this, and Close to Zero, distracted by observing the faces and outfits, hadn’t immediately noticed that the people who walked into the dining room in pair formation holding hands—man and woman, man and woman—this was strange in and of itself, but the look on their faces was so peaceful and serene, it was obvious that they felt no embarrassment that they were going to dinner as if they were in kindergarten and they themselves were little kids.
This odd crowd took their places at the table, a bell sounded, and three fat women in white smocks started to run around the room, placing big aluminum crockpots onto the tables, with “Course No. 1” written on them in red paint. Close to Zero noticed that one man or woman with a red armband sat at every table, obviously in some official role, and everyone sitting at the table would hold out their plates to them, and they poured the soup for everyone using a big ladle, and the process of pouring the soup looked very strange too—whether they were seriously worrying that they wouldn’t get theirs, or just having a little fun, the people were laughing and shouting, poking at each other with their elbows, pulling each other’s hair (more often men did that to women), someone was crying—and Close to Zero thought that they must be mental patients.
“So you see—ordinary people from the country,” the director laid his hand on his shoulder. “At first I couldn’t get used to them either, but then I got over it, even made friends with them. They’re very nice, really. You know that yourself—the modernizational majority. And if they are like children—then it’s your job to make sure that they grow up more quickly.”
Close to Zero was silent; the director was silent too, looking into the face of the future lecturer, as if doubting whether he would get through this, then he took Close to Zero by the hand, as if to say, “Okay, take the day off, we’ll work tomorrow.” A woman came up to him, took him to Building 14, a little two-story structure where on the second floor a two-room apartment had been prepared for Close to Zero. He took a shower—the towel had some words on it: “Dreams Come True,” along with a logo of a state-owned corporation—then got under the blanket and fell asleep.
His dreams, of course, were nightmares.
And the director couldn’t get to sleep that night. He poured himself some whiskey and walked out of his room—in Building 12, across from 14—sat on a bench, and had a drink. The most detestable thing was that there was no particular need for this modernizational majority right now, and not only now; they’d done just fine without them in ’07. They found enough of them to fill Luzhniki Stadium, and if needed, there were enough to fill all of Tverskaya from Manezh Square to the Belorusskaya Train Station. He had this feeling that there—the director even gestured to himself, over there—they had simply decided to play with this idiotic invention, they were so fucking interested in seeing what would happen if they injected that shit into children. It would have been better to give them to some childless foreigners, really—but now, this was sure to end badly. The director raged, went to get more whiskey, then looked at the sky, pulled out his phone and called the woman in charge of the female dormitory.
Close to Zero had not asked anyone about anything, but long ago he figured out that he was dealing with people whose development had for some reason remained at a grade-school level—meaning it had halted, but not stopped completely. Every meeting with the kids (and he called them that—kids) left a weird impression on him; he liked talking to them, telling them about the president, the prime minister, Russia, and, for crying out loud, modernization—to see how they listened attentively to him with mouths agape, trying to remember everything he said. The phenomenal memory of his students was something he himself could envy, but they were obviously jealous of him—so intelligent and all grown-up—and even though he understood that there was something unsavory about it, he grew to like himself too. In the evenings, drinking alone in his room, he would think that that if such kidults—and there were no such creatures on the planet who fit this definition better—had appeared from somewhere, then it would make more sense to turn them into, well, I don’t know, some sort of universal soldiers or suicidal terrorists. An army of fearless suicides, ready to take over the world—that would be great, but this way—well, why them, who needs them? Close to Zero smiled; yesterday he had given Katya and Masha an assignment—these girls could draw pretty well for their age—to design a poster for the dining room: a flag with the slogan, “Forward, Russia!” They drew it, and the poster was like a grown-up had done it, but the slogan came out as, “Fardwor, Russia!” He brought the poster to the director, who laughed, then asked him to leave the poster with him; he would show it off in Moscow and entertain a certain someone with it.
The director was the only person Close to Zero communicated with in this facility. There was also, of course, the boy Kostya, who had stayed after the lecture one time for classroom duty (he had to water the flowers, wipe the blackboard, and sweep the floor in the auditorium) and suddenly asked Close to Zero, who also hadn’t left yet after the bell rang, if he had a mother. Close to Zero answered that yes, he had one, and the boy said that he did too. More to himself than to the boy, Close to Zero countered: that’s strange, I thought everybody here was an orphan. Kostya knew the word “orphan” and explained that in fact, kids here have no moms or dads, but he just had no dad, his dad died when Kostya was young, but he had a mom, she just drank a lot, and once, when Kostya had gone out for a walk, he got lost, and he was picked up by a police officer, and for three days Kostya stayed at the police station, and his mom never came, and then they sent him to the orphanage.
“How many years ago was that?” Close to Zero asked Kostya, who appeared to be thirty-five years old. Kostya didn’t get the question, and said, “In winter,” and Close to Zero forgot about that conversation. However, after that, he started to pay more attention to Kostya than the others, to ask him how things were going, to say things especially addressed to Kostya during lectures, personally addressing Kostya, but only now it hit him—damn, what if he meant this winter?
Fardwor, Russia! by Oleg Kashin
Translated from the Russian by Will Evans
Restless Books, 2016
“A brisk read that will nevertheless leave one with a disquieting picture of contemporary life in that cursed country.… The book is a hilarious and heartbreaking portrait of a country whose demons rarely pause in tormenting its populace, as its author found out before it was even published.”
“In Fardwor, Russia!, Kashin succeeds at depicting the absurdity and corruption of 21st-century Russia.”
“Compelling and gruesome… Excellent translation… Its plot is rewardingly absurd… Enjoyable.”
“The journalist Kashin has made his fiction debut with a highly topical satirical fiction… The feeling of listless absurdity that the author captures in his novel doesn’t summon any anger, but better than anything else reflects the prevailing atmosphere.… A documentation of our times, dressed in the circus costume of fantasy, written by one of our era’s most eloquent and inquisitive witnesses.”
—TimeOut St. Petersburg
“An enjoyable satire… A fine little novel.”