A scientist in southern Russia tests a mysterious growth serum on livestock, attracting the vindictive dwarf brother of a Moscow billionaire. A string of brutal and mysterious murders follows, and the Russian state finds a new, and much more sinister, use for the invention. This is Fardwor, Russia!, the first novel of Russian journalist Oleg Kashin, recently published in English translation by Restless Books.
Kashin is one of Russia’s most prominent journalists internationally, not least due to the grim consequences of his work. In November 2010, Kashin was beaten half to death by two men wielding iron bars. Kashin believes that the attack was connected with his reporting for Russian daily Kommersant; newspaper staff saw it as an act of revenge by Pskov region governor Andrei Turchak, whom Kashin had insulted online. In any case, Kashin’s assailants made sure to break his fingers as a message. Five years later, the names of the journalist’s attackers came to light, as well as the man who had organised the hit — Aleksandr Gorbunov. Journalist and author of “Fardwor, Russia!” Oleg Kashin during an open debate at the Mayakovsky Central Library in St. Petersburg, September 2014. Photo CC: Okras / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved. Kashin completed the manuscript to the novel just two months before he was attacked. Its title (Vperde, Roissia! in Russian) is a corruption of a 2009 article by Medvedev, “Forward, Russia!”, in which the president made vague overtures to anti-corruption and liberal reform, lauding a “modernisational majority” as the solution.
It was a hollow promise for change from above, in the name of a group which didn’t yet exist, without the will or the means to challenge the rotten core of the state and the corruption which corroded it. And after Putin returned to power in 2012, Russia’s liberals had precious little resolve left. Fardwor, Russia is an absurd and bleak reflection of that process of disenchantment.
A long shadow
Upon arriving at a nondescript regional town in the south, professor Karpov’s invention attracts the attention of the unscrupulous director of the local scientific institute, where his father had held sway. The scientist holds experiments in his garden shed. With the help of the serum, rats grow into the size of cats overnight, and cats into tigers. Circus dwarf Vasya then grows to a strapping height, and falls into the media spotlight. Unwelcome interests ripen; Karpov’s invention will not remain his own for long.
Scientific minds see the innovation as nothing but a route to personal growth, if not quite as literally as Vasya. Director of the institute Elena Nikolayevna, for example, has a simple plan. “She had to have ‘something’ when she went to Moscow, but she didn’t have that ‘something’”. But Karpov does.
Kashin completed the manuscript to the novel just two months before he was attacked in November 2010
Rusak, a patriotic butcher (they are more a rule than an exception in Kashin’s world) appears on the scene. As the owner of the Holy Rus’ meat processing corporation, he fears for his profits, and his Cossack friends dutifully swear to put Karpov away.
They in turn are beaten to it by Mefody Magomedov, the reclusive, hedonistic dwarf brother to Kirill, inheritor of their father’s business empire. Karpov’s hut is burnt down while Mefody flees, making off with Karpov’s wife. Back in Moscow, Mefody presents himself to his oligarch brother Kirill — a much taller man, but none the wiser. Mefody’s brother does not recognise him, though he insists on his identity.
With the help of Rusak and Slava, the shady conglomerate Olympstroi puts paid to Karpov’s innovation. Not so much a company as a “vacuum for professionals”, the firm can countenance no competition — potential, real or imagined. It’s a story from the shadiest recesses of business, the state, and organised crime, and one all too familiar to readers of the Russian press, all the stronger for its realism.
Karpov’s story ends in the looming shadow of the Sochi Olympics, among others. His serum is referred to as “Ivan Ilyin”, in honour of Putin’s favourite 19th century nationalist philosopher. After all, it lengthens the shadows of small men.
Meet the modernisational majority
By his own admission, Kashin has uncannily personal loathing for one of his creations, a character called Close to Zero, whose arrival follows Karpov’s arrest and detainment by the security services. This character’s biographical details are a clear reference to Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s principal “political technologist”, while his moniker refers to the 2009 dystopian sci-fi novel commonly attributed to Surkov.
The novel changes setting to an isolated assisted living facility elsewhere in the provinces, kept under strict quarantine. Its inmates are the “ordinary people from the provinces — the modernisational majority”. The institute’s director needs Close to Zero’s help in instructing them in “internet polemics,” among other things. “And if they are like children,” concludes the director “then it’s your job to make them grow up more quickly”. “...and if they are like children, then it’s your job to make them grow up more quickly.” Hospital corridor, Semenovka, Mari El Republic, Russia, 2012. Photo CC: UB_Scalar / Flickr. Some rights reserved. As a nosy Kommersant journalist will later attempt to reveal, these inmates are adults with the mental age of children. The state has helped them grow up, with a little help from patriotic pseudoscience.
In closing, we are reminded of Karpov’s first, ill-fated meeting in that institute in southern Russia. “If we want to get a specific result, we must want to get this result,” insists Elena Nikolayevna, selling one of her quack innovations to a presidential envoy. There’s the sensation, likely shared by Russian readers, that she’s not only referring to the institute’s laboratories.
Inspired, but not inspiring
Fardwor, Russia! is as compelling and gruesome as it is at times difficult to follow. Kashin clearly relishes the opportunity to satirise the Russian establishment, but many of the references — not to mention the humour — have been lost in translation. For example, many Russian-language words and phrases appear without accompanying explanations. A glossary could have helped, though a need to explain satire perhaps undermines its impact.
This is not the result of Will Evans’ excellent translation, but of its subject matter. Indeed, the appeal of the novel to an English-language audience may lie more in the story of Kashin himself, as a cause celebre for media freedom in Russia. The absurdities mount, and true to a Russian tradition of satire and magical realism, its characters appear morosely indifferent. The reader empathises with them. Although its plot is rewardingly absurd, Fardwor, Russia! seems more an opportunity to stitch together a series of send-ups of modern Russia with a plot that rapidly loses coherence.
The appeal of the novel may lie more in the story of Kashin himself, as a cause celebre for media freedom in Russia
There’s a reason for this, too — the majority of Fardwor, Russia! is lifted from a Soviet-era work of science fiction, Patient AB by Lazar Lagin. Lagin’s 1948 novel is set in the imaginary capitalist state of Arzhanteiya, where Professor Popf’s invention — for wholesome, socialist purposes, no doubt — is stolen and commodified by the rapacious capitalist Primo Padrale.
“If I write bullshit, it’s a quotation,” once wrote Kashin on Twitter. The recycling of Lagin’s plot may be the backbone of the entire work. Kashin’s novel appears to follow Lagin’s, until the appearance of Olympstroi, Close to Zero and the “kidults”, at which point its plot begins to feel forced. Unless this is a cunning Surkovian literary device, it does Fardwor, Russia! few favours.
Both Kashin’s investigation and this tale have met a morose end. “You have complete and absolute control over the implementation of laws in Russia,” wrote an enraged Kashin in an open letter to Medvedev and Putin, “and yet you still live like criminals”. For Kashin, the bleakest sign of Putin’s Midas touch was the fate of the investigator of his case Vadim Sotskov, who was transformed from an eager and enthusiastic young professional into a uniformed cynic. “There’s the law,” as Sotskov put it, “and there’s the man in charge, and the will of the boss is always stronger than any law.”
Kashin’s first novel is an enjoyable if confusing work. Perhaps it’s not the plot that’s lost in translation, which for its faults is also riotously bizarre, but the necessity. Kashin’s political satire is so specific that Fardwor, Russia! may not appeal to those with an interest in modern Russian literature per se, but only instead to close watchers of Russian politics. Or, indeed, of Kashin himself.