4 January 2022
Teresa Cherfas reviews Just the Plague by Ludmila Ulitskaya. Translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon. Paperback 144pp ISBN-9781783788057 (Granta Books, London, 2021)
Ludmila Ulitskaya is, arguably, Russia’s most famous living novelist. Just the Plague is a 1988 screenplay that was never produced, which Ulitskaya unearthed from her personal archive in 2020. The resonances between it and the current Plague were too loud to ignore and it found a publisher in Russia that same year.
In the Afterword to the English edition, Ulitskaya notes that she scarcely changed a thing for publication: “a few words, a comma here and there.”
She also states that she first heard the story, on which the screenplay is based, from her acquaintance, Natasha Rapoport:
Her father, a pathologist, played a part in the story, as it developed in Moscow in 1939. He was the doctor who examined the bodies of those who had died of the plague.
Yakov Rapoport was an eminent doctor and pathologist. He had written notes about the real events that inspired Ulitskaya’s screenplay. His daughter, Natasha, had come across them among his papers in the late 1970s.
Rapoport is best known as one of the Jewish doctors accused of plotting to kill Stalin at the apogee of Stalin’s paranoia in late 1952. I met him in Moscow in 1989 to film an interview about his experiences then, but the events of Just the Plague weren’t on my agenda. He owed his survival to Stalin’s death in March 1953. Almost overnight he was released and allowed home, as were thousands of prisoners all across the USSR. He died in 1996.
As in many countries in the 1930s, research was being conducted In the Soviet Union into the development of an anti-plague vaccine. The centre for this work was the Saratov Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology. The scientist in charge was Professor Adam Berlin. Together with two colleagues, he had been testing the virulence of the plague by injecting himself with weakened doses of the plague bacilli to assess the danger without vaccines. In 1939, he was summoned to Moscow to report on progress. So far everything had been going to plan but then something went wrong, and Berlin arrived in Moscow sick. The plague had escaped the laboratory with him and the threat to life was real and palpable.
In Ulitskaya’s screenplay, Berlin becomes Maier and the bare bones of the plot can be outlined in a few sentences. Travelling by train from Saratov to Moscow, Maier books into the Hotel Moscow, visits the hotel barber for a shave, and attends the conference. He begins to show signs of acute fatigue at the conference and is sent back to the hotel in an official car. Shivering and unable to breathe, he is seen by an old doctor who sends for an ambulance to take him to hospital. While the medical doctor on duty is examining and questioning Maier, he finds among his papers his pass to the ‘Anti-Plague Institute’. The doctor takes the precaution of isolating himself and Maier in a locked room at the hospital, and quickly extracts as much information as he can about his patient’s contacts since leaving Saratov. He calls his boss to warn him, but both he and his patient die of the plague, alone in the locked hospital room.
What gives the events of Just the Plague an added frisson is that it was Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, that is called in to Track and Trace. No other organization was better placed to find, arrest and isolate contacts. At a time when a knock on the door in the early hours, or the quiet rumble of the “Black Crows” in the street outside, froze the blood in your veins, it was almost a relief that this visit was “just the plague”. In the event, only three people died. The third was the barber, who had given Maier too close a shave in the Hotel Moscow, and these were the three bodies, whose autopsies Rapoport attended.
The cause of death in each was identified as pneumonic plague. They are the only characters drawn from life, apart from the Jewish pathologist, Goldin, who of course is Rapoport. The parallels with Wuhan 80 years later, are unavoidable, but where one immensely brave and responsible doctor in a Moscow hospital in 1939 sacrificed his own life to contain the plague, the authoritarian Chinese regime failed to act in time. Covid-19 had escaped from Wuhan to Europe in a matter of days. Of course, the role of the NKVD in the Soviet Union was very particular to its time and circumstances – no international travel for ordinary Soviet citizens, no social media, and no fake news and conspiracy theories with which to contend.
Ulitskaya peoples her screenplay with a range of characters and social and political types: a poor peasant woman, whose boots are falling apart, party officials and party idealists, an experimental agronomist, station-keepers and train conductors, scientists and communal flat dwellers, even a female People’s Deputy from Turkmenistan, who encounters Maier at the hotel reception desk. On the train back to Ashkhabad, she starts to feel sick and counting on extended family and friends disappears into a web of invisible shelters before she ever finds her way home. There is a sense of slow and foreboding movement across the expanse of the Soviet Union, evoking the bacilli that may or may not be spreading as people traverse the expansive land. Her descriptions of the snow and cold, muffling the sounds and voices in the darkness of night, ramps up the tension.
To quell any public hysteria, the NKVD comes up with an explanation for their actions: an influenza outbreak. In 1939, the Spanish flu epidemic was not such a distant memory. You can read the text in a heartbeat and its subject matter reverberates today. Ulitskaya’s literary reputation alone makes it worth reading.
But what has heightened interest in some quarters is the reaction of Natasha Rapoport. She now lives in the USA, and when she saw that Ulitskaya had published the screenplay under her own and not their joint names, she could not remain silent.
On 14th March, 2021, to all intents and purposes she accused Ulitskaya on Facebook of plagiarism, outlining her own version and chronology of what happened; how she learned about the story from her father, thought it would make a sensational film, carried out research to flesh out the details and texture – Berman’s daughter was still alive as were medical personnel at the hospital where he had died – before eventually bringing the story to Ulitskaya in 1987. Her post has been shared 532 times.
According to Rapoport, the two women collaborated on the screenplay over several meetings, but the film was never made. She claims that Ulitskaya offered her a considerable sum of money for sole ownership of the story and script that they had worked on together. Rapoport declined; she felt insulted not only on her own behalf but her father’s too.
Twelve days after her original Facebook post, Rapoport uploaded photographs of her own typed copy of the screenplay, broken into episodes. She simply invited people to compare it with Ulitskaya’s text. Meduza, the internet news site, did just that and found many similarities.
Rapoport herself has declined to take it any further. Ulitskaya is not on Facebook and has never directly answered her accusations. The writer Dmitry Bykov, acting as her proxy, argued on her behalf that the writer’s craft is not in the originality of the story but its literary execution.
Ulitskaya’s acknowledgment of Rapoport in the English translation would appear to be a legal get-out clause, a way of dealing with doubts and deflecting her critics.
Just the Plague is an intriguing read, and whatever the truth about authorship, the parallels between the rumoured origins of today’s pandemic and this true story are breathtaking.