9 March 2023
Teresa Cherfas reviews Kilometer 101 by Maxim Osipov, edited by Boris Dralyuk, translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and Alex Fleming. Paperback 296pp ISBN-9781681376868 (New York Review Books, New York, 2022)
Kilometer 101 takes it name from the statutory requirement for Soviet political prisoners that forbade them from resettling within 100 kilometres of the capital or other large urban centres. Perhaps the town that most famously fitted the description in relation to Moscow was Tarusa, on the Oka River. Painters Vasily Polenov and Viktor Borisov-Musatov, poet Marina Tsvetaeva and writer Konstantin Paustovsky all lived here at different times. In 2004, Maxim Osipov, a qualified cardiologist, left Moscow for Tarusa to work in the local hospital.
The very first essay in this compilation is subtitled: ‘In Lieu of a Foreword.’ Written in April 2017, one passage in particular serves as a codex to the whole collection:
My concerns today are exactly the same as they were some thirty years ago: First, not to sink into the mud, to sully my conscience; second, not to land in jail; and third, not to miss the moment when one ought to leave, forever.
The short stories and essays in Kilometer 101 read like a primer for that moment – the building blocks of conformity, institutional anti-semitism, growing nationalism and hate crime, and explores recurring meditations on the meaning of home, of what it is really to belong, of whether to stay or to leave.
A postscript to the final story in the collection was written in Yerevan just nine days after Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine – 5 March 2022. Osipov had clearly not missed the moment to leave forever when it came. Neither was the significance of the date (Stalin died on 5 March 1953) lost on him or his compatriots sitting in an Armenian cafe that day. They raised a toast: ‘That one croaked, and so will this one.’
In a later Facebook post of 17 April, Osipov expanded on his thoughts and feelings about leaving in an essay titled: Cold, Ashamed, Relieved. It was shared 125 times from his post alone and has since appeared in German, Spanish, English and Dutch publications. He now teaches Russian literature at the Netherlands’ University of Leiden.
The town of Tarusa was not virgin territory to Osipov when he decided to move there. His maternal great-grandfather, accused of having been implicated in the plot to poison Maxim Gorky in 1933, had settled at the hundred and first kilometre in Tarusa after his release from camp in 1946. Osipov has history there. But in the essays, he refers to it as the town of ‘N,’ in what can only be an homage to the great 19th-century Russian novel Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol. And as in Gogol’s town of ‘N,’ Osipov’s Tarusa is a mirror held up to reflect an image of Russian life that is every bit as grotesque and absurd as the Russia of Dead Souls; a Tajik patient is sent to Moscow ostensibly for better treatment only to be allowed to die so that his body parts can be farmed for replacement surgery; in another passage, a piece of legislation makes it illegal to incinerate amputated limbs:
Irresponsible one-legged citizens don’t bother to collect their amputated limbs, so that our morgue recently accumulated seven severed legs. They had to wait for a homeless man to be buried (at the state’s expense, no witnesses) and hide the legs in the grave.
In this Russia, ‘power is split between money and alcohol, i.e. between two manifestations of Nothingness, emptiness, death.’ Alcoholism is everywhere. It plays a part in the life of practically every family: ‘It’s also the constant, unremitting dialogue with alcohol, which absorbs a person’s whole life. It’s like a dialogue with one’s own fatigue, lethargy, laziness, depression. … It’s a dialogue with the abyss – and the abyss is getting wider and wider. Work, love, and every human attachment – everything tumbles into it.’ As Osipov remarks: ‘I never see any real, active evil. Just emptiness.’
It is a Russia where ‘practically every family has had a violent death in the recent past. Drownings, exploding firecrackers, murders, disappearances in Moscow.’
As far as medicine goes, nothing describes its practice in the town of ‘N’ better than the doctor’s advice from Gogol’s 1836 story The Nose: ‘Keep washing your face in cold water, and I promise you that even without a nose, you’ll be just as healthy as if you had one.’ That’s more or less how things are still done today, Osipov tells us.
Whilst Osipov doesn’t hide behind Gogol’s overcoat, he might yawn at the comparison with Chekhov – Russian country doctors and masters of the short story both. The first of the essays in this collection even begins with an observation borrowed from Chekhov (but unattributed): ‘The two most obvious feelings in the patients here, and many of the doctors too, are a fear of death and a dislike of life.’ Deeply revealing about Russia when Chekhov wrote it, it is shockingly relevant to Putin’s Russia, more than a hundred years after Chekhov died. As Osipov drily observes: ‘in a single decade Russia changes a lot, but in two centuries – not at all.’
Osipov’s style in this collection is redolent of a literature from another age peopled by characters from this one. It is a very seductive combination. It takes its time, it is thoughtful in its characterisations, careful, not clichéd, particular, subtle in construction and keenly observed. His characters’ stories and experiences stay with you long after you turn the page, perhaps because they are so true to life. Indeed, it’s never absolutely clear which are fictional and which really exist. The fine line between Osipov’s fiction and his essays is blurred, undefined, making his short stories as haunting and lingering as his notes of a country doctor.
The story ‘Luxemburg‘ is a case in point, where the lines of fiction and reportage are beautifully interlaced, resonating deeply with the existential questions, which have marked the Russian intelligentsia’s self-searching over decades. ‘Luxemburg’ (a town two hours east of Moscow by train and named for Rosa Luxemburg) tells of small-town anti-semitism, which one day escalates into the shocking desecration of a grave, and yet, paradoxically, a freedom not found anywhere else. Who hasn’t encountered that paradox of Russian life, where nothing is allowed and everything is possible? Over a beer in a café, the author and his old friend talk about whether to leave:
And what I sometimes ask myself, keeps me here? The force of habit? Inertia? Not just that. It’s a matter of mutual understanding – of small details, brief glances, indirect remarks. I call over the waiter: ‘Young man, can I smoke on the patio? It’s too cold on the street.’
The waiter looks at me for a while:
‘See, Sasha, that’s what I mean.’
The stories pose the same question that runs like a swollen vein throughout the entire collection of Kilometer 101 – to stay or to leave.
Another story called ‘Cape Cod’ is about a young Russian couple, Alyosha and Shurochka, who first meet on the campus of Harvard University on a scholarship programme in the Gorbachev years. Having little money, Alyosha asks Shurochka on a date to Cape Cod where they gather pebbles on the beach and give them names from Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Times. They return to Moscow to find that Shurochka is pregnant. Fearing his son will be drafted to fight in Afghanistan, Alyosha’s father urges them to leave, and Alyosha, fearing the same for his own son, leaves for America with Shurochka to raise their child. Alyosha becomes Alex, becomes fabulously wealthy by dint of his Soviet education in applied mathematics (he applies mathematics very successfully, it turns out), but in the end emigration has left him disappointed. Back in Moscow on a visit, his father, who had never once been abroad, said to him: ‘Emigration is a disaster, a mental illness.’ ‘And staying here? Is that not an illness?’ ‘It is, just a different kind. (…) You still need a homeland for something.’ To which Alyosha’s unspoken thought is: ‘For something, yes. But what?’
The final story, ‘The Whilst,’ is set in an academic institute in Moscow. Completed just months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it presaged the awful compromises, loyalty and lip-service demanded of academics in support of the regime. One of the main protagonists, Seryozha, is dismissed from his position for not toeing the line, after which the only job he can get is teaching Greek to Estonians. It’s not hell but it’s not exactly heaven. He spends his time doomscrolling the internet hoping to read that the post-Soviet answer to Stalin has croaked too. Osipov describes Seryozha’s state as ‘the extended sleep of emigration’ from which he might one day emerge and go back, even though his position at the department has long since been filled. (It was in the postscript to this story, written from Yerevan, that Osipov tells us he met Seryozha and that they drank the toast together.)
It’s too soon to know whether the estimated 1.1 million Russians who left after February 2022 will go back and what it will take. Their number is as significant and of an order of magnitude as great as previous Russian emigrations. Whether or not Maxim Osipov himself has really left forever, Kilometer 101 is a stunning collection of insights that breathes life into those cold statistics.
You can hear Maxim Osipov in conversation with Robert Chandler discussing Kilometer 101 at Pushkin House (5a Bloomsbury Square, London, WC1A 2TA) on Wednesday 29 March 2023 (7 pm – 8:30 pm). For more information and tickets, see here.