The Mill

Maxim Osipov

Artwork by Elephnt

We had it worse during the war. And the years that followed weren’t exactly a bed of roses, either. No, we’ve never had it so good as we do now.

The town’s name is Liebknechtsk, but by force of habit many still know it as the Mill, even though said mill was shut down some years back—it’s now overrun with grasses and maples. Japan-Sashka’s house is run down, too: its owner, Sashka Oberemok, was a local who ran off to Japan. Or maybe it wasn’t Japan—either way, we’re splitting hairs: of those of us still in town, Uncle Zhenya’s the only one who’s ever been abroad. He served in Poland in the eighties.

“Uncle Zhenya, tell us about your time abroad!”

After all, you have to find something to talk about. You can’t just sit there.

“Well, they started kicking up a fuss . . . ”

“Who’re they?”

“Whaddaya mean, who? The Poles. So we went in, set up a few missiles . . . ”

“And the Poles?”

“The Poles, God knows ’em! You think they’d give us a report? Look, our job was to hold a position—we had four military districts there. So we pitched up, spread out . . . ”

Events here are rare and poorly remembered. It’s been almost three years since the Liebknechtsk Integrated Paper Mill, a so-called city-forming enterprise, closed down. Condenser paper, cable insulation paper, filter paperboard, corrugated cardboard boxes . . . the mill had dozens of different product types. Of course, there had been some problems with the market, but they kept on working; the cylinders turned, the fabric conveyors looped, the paper mass was dried. This was peerless equipment, made back in the GDR.

As to who owned the mill, no one had ever given that much thought. After all, everything had been state-owned. And then it belonged to the labour collective; to the workers. And what do workers need? To pocket their wages on time, or at least without too much delay—very few can actually wrap their minds around all these different forms of property ownership. Anyway, directors came and went, and life, of a kind, carried on, they kept on working. They built new homes—and not only for themselves, but for the local teachers, and the doctors, too.

And then, after some time away, Sashka Oberemok came back into town and made it clear just who the boss of this mill now was. Sashka could quite happily knock your teeth out, then follow it up with a broken or dislocated arm—which is, by the way, exactly what he did to a certain Tatar; for some reason Sashka had never liked Tatars. But not only them. Not long before that run-in, Sashka had also dealt a heavy blow to a young waitress, a girl he’d studied with; she had, perhaps understandably, not been too thrilled about serving a former classmate. They said he broke her nose. And let’s put it this way: she wasn’t about to go complaining to anyone about it.

Sashka built himself a big house—red-brick, with towers—so that everyone would see just how far he had risen. Almost a million roubles in debt to the electricians alone—that’s the sort of house we’re talking about. People said his family would move here too, though no one ever caught a glimpse of them. Be that as it may, Sashka well and truly had risen: he was a deputy now, a local deputy—not a federal one yet, but the man was still shy of forty.

To begin with, things went well for him at the mill: he took out a loan, gave the boys a bit of a bonus. He spared a thought for himself, too: new businesses appeared in town, all of which belonged to him, Sashka. But then things took a turn for the worse, and the mill stopped earning. The boys started kicking up a fuss, just like those Poles. Though truth be told, they never did stop working.

A city executive came to town, listened attentively to what the workers had to say.

“I understand you,” he said, “and this situation you’re in. But it’s not only you—timber-processing complexes everywhere are going under at the moment.”

So what was the point of all this fuss, if it was happening everywhere? As we say, we had it worse during the war.

Then one of the women piped up:

“But Mr. Oberemok wasted millions just on beautifying his house!”

The executive sighed.

“Was that beautifying—or beatifying—his house?” with which he promptly closed the meeting. Before leaving, he made one enigmatic remark:

“You all have rights; you just don’t know how to use them.”

The above-average levels of phenol in the local water was an issue that, the executive said, the workers had raised correctly—it would be discussed in parliament. He was already in his car as he said this, sitting sideways, shaking off his boots: the winter had been long, snowy. And he promised, by the by, to help out with the fuel oil—the entire town’s heating depended on the mill. And one final thing: as he drove past the church, he was seen crossing himself.

At that point Sashka, too, was on the executive committee. He chewed his way through the assembly. He was always chewing gum, or at least had been for the past few months: he’d quit smoking, they said, that was why. And, before what happened over the May public holidays, once the trial was over (percentages, loans, in short—complete bankruptcy, so much so that people started to pity Sashka: despite everything, he was still one of us) a man showed up in a pinstripe jacket, his hair slicked back into a ponytail. A crisis manager. He brought Sashka money—just under a million dollars—to, you know, go quietly, and transferred the mill over to its new owners, along with the affiliate businesses. But Sashka—apparently enraged by this man’s presence—took the chewing gum straight out of his mouth, and pressed it into the man’s chest pocket. This happened in his waiting room, his secretary saw it all. He didn’t take the money. Instead, over the May holidays he gave some cash to a few of his boys, and they shredded all of the fabric in the paper machines. None of it could be glued or sewn back together, nor in any way replaced. He only gave them about five hundred roubles each for the job, but his boys were glad even of that. And that was that. The machines, ruined, still stand there to this day.

“But how could you, Uncle Zhenya?”

Uncle Zhenya was one of the guys who shredded the fabric. What else was he going to do? It was boss’s orders.

After that, an entirely different group of men arrived—no ponytails—and Sashka made off to “Japan.”

What else is there to remember? Sashka would shoot at his neighbours’ goats from an upstairs window if they ever strayed onto his property, but he never hit them; he probably just shot to scare them. His portrait remained—enormous, about three meters tall: Alexander Yurievich Oberemok in an ermine robe. And his date of birth. Everyone knew the year Sashka was born anyway: he had a tattoo of his name on one knuckle, on the other the year of his birth. But the portrait is a poor likeness. You can see for yourself—they say there are still photos of Sashka online.

Almost three years have passed. The town lives. It’s nothing to rave about, but still, we’ve never had it so good. The state supplies our fuel oil, the boiler house works, and homes have heating—hot water, even. Some of the boys from the mill have found jobs in security, some in taxis. Uncle Zhenya’s registered at the job center. And so the mill, Sashka Oberemok—that’s all in the past. And the present? In the present, a young woman, Alya Ovsiannikova, lies hooked up to a ventilator in the intensive care unit of Liebknechtsk’s hospital. Every day her husband comes to the hospital, but he isn’t allowed inside, and he doesn’t ask the doctors for anything, either. Alya’s husband’s name is Tamerlan; her doctor’s—Viktor Mikhailovich.


Viktor Mikhailovich is held in good regard. Firstly, he doesn’t drink, and secondly, he is a man of advanced years; experienced. He is careful behind the wheel and keeps his car in good condition: it is always clean and in good working order, it has been so for the eight years that Viktor Mikhailovich has lived in this town.

“Today’s cars are no less complex in their composition than human beings.”

When Viktor Mikhailovich talks about his car, his face lights up: “This car holds seven different types of liquid alone: brake fluid, cooling fluid . . . ” he knows what all of these seven liquids are, and he refills and changes them precisely when he should.

He had initially been recruited to Liebknechtsk because of his certification in intensive care and anaesthesiology, at a time when the town could still offer him an apartment. Had he not moved there, they might as well have closed the hospital: it wouldn’t have met its licensing requirements, and the entire mill complex would have had to go God knows where for treatment. They do hardly any operations here, and anaesthetics are administered by an anaesthesiology nurse, but naturally nothing is possible without that license.

“If it’s necessary, it’s necessary; quite correct. The men who made these laws must surely know better than us.”

Viktor Mikhailovich is paid a part-time wage as an intensive care physician in addition to a full-time wage as a therapeutist. The latter is his primary occupation, although over the course of his life Viktor Mikhailovich has tried his hand at a number of different disciplines. He holds certificates in many specializations, including public health management. His indicators are some of the best in the entire province: the health plan is being implemented—exactly the right number of patients, staying exactly the right length of time; the mass health examinations have been carried out; and his department is even in good working order. He himself is never absent during working hours, and he is always sober, even on public holidays. Visiting hours are normally between 6:00 and 8:00 p.m. Naturally, no visitors are allowed into the intensive care unit.

His preferred treatment method is anything that can be administered through an IV drip: this is both easier on the grannies—they feel they’re getting the treatment they deserve—and adaptable to the needs of the health plan. Simply lie back, take in the medicine for a while, and then you can get back home to your TV. In six months’ time, come in for some more repairs. He once heard someone call them “dripairs.” They’re good for any illness; the grannies he treats here have the full gamut.

“What else do you want? As far as I can tell, a diagnosis of ‘old age’ has never been reversed.”

Yes, the grannies come to him—who else do they have? There are two other district therapeutists, both women, but they’re never at work beyond lunch. They’ll say they’re being called out, but no one is fooled by these calls of theirs. Both are of retirement age: the hospital is starved of staff, but that’s the case everywhere nowadays.

“Doctors used to have to come here on placements,” Viktor Mikhailovich explains, although he prefers not to elaborate on general topics of conversation.

In the past, Viktor Mikhailovich had notions of what was bad and what was good, but with the years he’s got used to it all—to life, to himself. Like anyone else, he tries to avoid unpleasantness. If he is asked to prescribe one medication or another, to run a particular test, or to send a patient into the city, he will ask:

“So that’s your need, eh?” But as a rule he always complies: if you don’t, they might dash off a complaint. And while complaints in themselves are nothing terrible, the smooth road is always preferable to the one with potholes.

His working day runs from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. After that, any questions go to the duty doctors. Viktor Mikhailovich dislikes being pestered with questions: so-and-so and such-and-such—how can we treat it?

“Look on the internet. There is a lot of information there.”

Viktor Mikhailovich doesn’t use computers himself. And the new ventilator the hospital received—the one sent to all hospitals as part of a recent presidential modernization program—remained unassembled until only last week. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks is his favorite saying. Another favorite: get your head out of the clouds.

Ovsiannikova is critically ill. Critically ill patients—especially young ones—are sent to the city, if they make it that far. If not, they are sent across the road instead, to a red building behind the garages. Every unfavorable outcome causes some level of distress, particularly if it involves a person of working age. Of course, with the elderly, it isn’t so complicated: at seventy, eighty, why bother resuscitating?

Whenever a nurse informs him that you-know-what has happened, Viktor Mikhailovich will resort to the same stock phrase: that’s the patient’s right. He will fish out the records and set about filling them out. But he won’t go to look at the body—hasn’t he seen enough dead people?

Ovsiannikova, however, is a special case. Viktor Mikhailovich has calculated that she will live just over another month. Five weeks, to be precise. Although her brain has been damaged irreversibly, her heart still beats, and the ventilator supplies her with breaths. Her condition, as they say, is critical.

“Critical, but stable,” Viktor Mikhailovich tells Tamerlan, Ovsiannikova’s husband—if he can’t get the nurse to speak to him instead. No one likes to have to deal with the relatives.

Ovsiannikova was brought to the hospital to give birth last Friday. It was urgent; there wasn’t enough time to get her to the city. Births are a rarity in this hospital, so not particularly well coordinated. Viktor Mikhailovich didn’t oversee the birth: there’s always someone else capable of running around and barking out orders. He only saw Ovsiannikova towards the end of the working day, after she had given birth. The child had already been taken off into the city, but she had been moved upstairs. He hadn’t wanted to give her a bed: call the city hospital, get them to send their emergency response unit—all I have is a therapeutics department. But in the end he took her in: if she hadn’t held out until their ambulance arrived, who might he have had to answer to? After all, Viktor Mikhailovich was a certified intensive care physician, and here was a young woman whose blood pressure was up to three hundred, whose body was in convulsions—as soon as one seizure ended, another would begin.

As he walked up and down the stairs between the two floors, Viktor Mikhailovich started to feel a pain in the nape of his neck. Ovsiannikova was given one drip, and then another, and Viktor Mikhailovich administered a number of different treatments while waiting for the city’s medics to arrive. Initially, Ovsiannikova’s blood pressure would not drop, but then, after she vomited, it dropped completely. This happened just as the emergency response unit’s yellow Volkswagen pulled up, these new mobile ICUs another result of the government’s modernization program.

He should, admittedly, have called them sooner. But Viktor Mikhailovich calls for backup in only the most serious of cases: in they drive, casting their aspersions, trying to teach him medicine. And that would be fine, if it were only his authority that took the hit, but you can never leave while they are still in the department, and on top of that you have to host them, put out a spread as they say. And Viktor Mikhailovich almost never drinks, no: he has hypertension.

Some newbie stepped out of the ambulance—a redhead, about thirty by the looks of things. Viktor Mikhailovich had never seen him before. He was wearing a down jacket and a short doctor’s coat, a set of keys dangling around his neck.

“Right, hit me,” he called out to Viktor Mikhailovich from the doorway.

Hit me? Is that any way to address a colleague?

“Well, high blood pressure, convulsions,” he replied.

“I see. Eclampsia then. And your treatment?”

Viktor Mikhailovich was finding it hard to keep his composure. “Did we bring down the blood pressure? Yes we did,” he thought to himself, “So why are you looking at her records? Next you’ll be wanting me to get out the used ampules too!”

“How could it be eclampsia if she’s already given birth?” he asks—aloud, this time.

“It happens. In the first forty-eight hours. Hold on—she’s not breathing!”

Viktor Mikhailovich doesn’t quite recall what happened next: his legs turned to jelly, his eyes clouded over. But he did help; he participated. The youngster inserted the tube, fitted out the ventilator, and initiated artificial respiration. By the way the young man’s hands seemed to spin as they pressed the ventilator’s flashing buttons, Viktor Mikhailovich knew he wasn’t going to hold out long.

“You youngsters have it easy,” he said, “You know foreign languages. In my day we had to figure it all out for ourselves.”

What was so funny about that?

They finished up, took off their gloves and went into the staffroom. It had been a hard day; time to relax. Edik or Erik, Viktor Mikhailovich didn’t catch the young lad’s name. He filled the man’s shot glass to the brim, but gave himself only a few drops.

“So what now?” Viktor Mikhailovich asked. What he actually meant was: can you take her? It was clear the youngster wouldn’t. “And if she wakes up? We should probably immobilize her arms, no?”

The youngster shrugged, “That’s hardly likely. Her brain’s probably already gone.”

That was that then. Nothing to be done.

“So who is she? Looks like a well-raised young lady to me.”

Who knows? By the looks of things, yes. Best not to give such matters much thought.

“And what’s your normal demographic? Grannies mainly, I’ll bet?”

Who else?

“Grannies, yes. And the working class.”

The youngster laughed again.

“The working class. I thought they only existed in books nowadays.”

They sat for a while, chatting about this and that, nothing work-related. Like when they’d actually get some proper roads. Oh, yes, on that note, there was something Viktor Mikhailovich had been wanting to find out for some time:

“Is it true that those Volkswagens of yours have a boxer engine?”

The young man looked at him, his expression unreadable.

“Online,” he advised, “look it up online, I’m sure it’s all there. As for her,” he said, nodding in the direction of intensive care, “call me.” He gave Viktor Mikhailovich his phone number.

How can anyone drive a car and not have the slightest interest in its cylinder configuration? Although tired, Viktor Mikhailovich stayed even later, filling out the records. Best to do it straightaway, by Monday it would have slipped his mind. So, eclampsia. Why not. He looked up its code: O15. No other extraneous thoughts. Otherwise you’ll drive yourself mad. Burn out emotionally.

At the start of this week he called—the youngster from the city.

“How is she—I don’t suppose she woke up? Oh. So that’s it then?”

Of course not. Viktor Mikhailovich is going to try to keep her going. For forty-two days.

“Forty-two? Why forty-two?”

Oh, young academician, is it possible that you could be ignorant of something so simple? Forty-two days is six weeks. Death in the six weeks after childbirth is considered a maternal mortality; after that it isn’t. That’s the system. What, don’t they write about that in your internets? Get your head out of the clouds. And done.


Alya Ovsiannikova was born in 1991. Her mother died in childbirth; no one knows what happened to her father. Uncle Zhenya is her only relation, so it’s his name that she bears as her patronymic: Evgenievna. But asking him about her parents is a pointless pursuit—Uncle Zhenya doesn’t even remember his time in Poland, where he served. It’s not that he drinks so very much—only as much as everyone else—but something has changed in him lately. Tamerlan thinks it’s because he broke the machines at the mill that time. But he also says that Uncle Zhenya is a truly good man for not sending Alya to an orphanage when she was little—the nineties were tough on everyone. It had never even occurred to Alya that she might have ended up in a home.

What’s her first memory? Oh yes: Uncle Zhenya bathing her in a basin in front of a hot fire-burning stove. They used to have to stoke the stove regularly; Alya’s job was to tear the bark off the firewood. Of course you can also pack the stove full of newspaper, but bark’s much more fun to burn. What else? Alya used to have a knack for finding mushrooms; she had a special book about it—she learned to read at kindergarten—and she still knows all of their names.

How did she get by without a mother? Another one of Tamerlan’s questions. She hasn’t known anything else. Tamerlan often asks her questions she doesn’t quite know how to answer. Alya isn’t used to talking about herself. And all the people around her—her neighbors, teachers, classmates—also speak little, as though they find it difficult. For the most part, people aren’t rude, they’re shy—at least that’s how she sees it. Alya isn’t rude either; she’s soft-spoken, although towards the ends of sentences she does sometimes raise her voice unexpectedly. She also holds her head high, as though in some act of defiance, but then again, that’s just appearances.

At school she was neither a good nor bad student, nor particularly interested in her grades—especially after a run-in with a math problem about a caterpillar in a well: If the caterpillar climbs three meters during the day, but slides down two meters at night, when will it get out of the well, if the well is five meters deep?

Alya ponders this caterpillar’s movements as she sits in her darkened room. Uncle Zhenya is already back from his shift, she can hear the sound of onions frying from the other side of the net curtain. This means it’ll be buckwheat kasha with onion for dinner. Uncle Zhenya calls her.


She pictures that little caterpillar: one meter at the end of the first night, two at the end of the second, two plus three is five . . . So it’ll get out of the well on the third day.

The teacher is checking the class’s workbooks, Alya shows hers. Five, five, everyone except Alya has come to the same conclusion. To Alya’s surprise, the teacher says:

“Excellent, top marks for everyone, except you, Ovsiannikova—you get a three.”

“But Olga Yurievna, if it’s wrong then why not a two?” Alya asks chirpily.

Olga Yurievna doesn’t want to mar her gradebook with twos—the mark of failure. The school has an inspection coming; they now make regular checks of gradebooks. She checks the back of the textbook in case; it also gives the answer as three. Oh dear, must be a typo. Ovsiannikova should have thought for herself, not simply copied from the book. She doesn’t actually believe that the rest of the class are idiots and that she’s the only one with brains, does she?

Alya almost never cries—she doesn’t really have much to cry about—but when she does, her forehead breaks out in red blotches. And even so she is beautiful, with her slender figure and long fingers, everything about her—her mouth, her eyes—elongated. Her hair is light, golden; her friends envy her her hair. Tamerlan says it’s a shame there isn’t a single photo of her as a child in the house; all they have is school photos, official ones, and in those no one looks like themselves.

Their home (or half-home—it has only two rooms), her school, the snatches of countryside that form the backdrop to the local tarmac and chimney stacks: as a schoolgirl Alya has never seen any other landscape. Not far from her school, there is a lone, abandoned monument: Karl Liebknecht, Knight of the World Revolution. His statue is stooping, with round glasses and a small head, and Alya finds it appealing, somehow. She sometimes comes out here just to stand beside it for a while. But then she discovers that Knecht doesn’t mean knight, but slave, servant—and not even one of the revolution. She tells her friends about her discovery, they laugh: God, what rubbish her head is filled with! They already have admirers, suitors—boys, in a word—whereas Alya goes straight home after school, or, if she takes a detour along the way, she does it alone: she has no close friends. The girls tease her, tell her to wait for her Karl. So be it: she’s bored of her peers. All they know is drinking beer and swearing.

How did she end up in the police force? A vacancy came up, and Uncle Zhenya had stopped earning by then—they were both living solely off the benefits Alya received as an orphan, and even those were to end when she turned eighteen. Besides, the uniform—a dark blue skirt and a light blue blouse—had caught Alya’s eye. The police clerk’s tasks are limited: just sit and type out some columns of figures, then you can carry on reading. Her desk is by the window, the sun is shining, a hair falls down onto the page; she picks it up, pulls at it . . .  

Why didn’t she leave town after finishing school, Tamerlan asks—was it the money? No—how could she have left Uncle Zhenya? Besides, she had never been anywhere else, other than into the city, and there everything’s just the same as it is in their town, only bigger, with lots of cars. Plus: if she’d left, how would she have met Tamerlan? Alya knows this is why he asked the question.

Tall, thin, and stooping, he had appeared at the police station during the May holidays, his arm wrapped in a bandage. It was clearly causing him a lot of pain: he kept wincing, touching his bandage, wiping the sweat from his forehead. He said that he wanted to file a complaint; he had a hospital certificate to support his case.

“Who did that?”

“Oberemok,” Tamerlan replied, “Alexander Yurievich Oberemok.”

By this point he was no longer speaking to just the officer on duty: the others had overheard and sidled over, and Alya had snapped her book shut. Everyone knew who Alexander Yurievich was.

“But why?”

It emerged that Tamerlan had refused to take Oberemok’s cash and destroy the mill’s machines—not only that; he had tried to prevent others from doing so, too. He asked the officers to initiate proceedings, on whichever article they saw most fit.

The police were not aware of the particulars of the vandalism at the mill, but a complaint against Alexander Yurievich? That, of course, was something quite out of the ordinary. The young man had, presumably, been drinking over the holidays? There was normally a spike in accidents then. No, Tamerlan didn’t drink. He had expected such questions, so he had had the doctors test him for that, too. Another certificate. His trousers were torn, grubby. He was a pitiful sight.

“Are you sure you don’t want to rethink this? This is the director of the mill—your boss. After something like this . . . ”

“Just take my statement—it’s your job.”

“Fine, if that’s what you want. Go on, write.”

But Tamerlan couldn’t write: his arm was either dislocated or broken. He is left-handed.

“Come here,” Alya said, “I’ll write for you.”

And that’s how they met. Then Alya took him home and mended his trousers. Uncle Zhenya came home late that night, and he was in no state to be asking questions. By the end of the May holidays, they had given notice at the local registry office; Alya did the writing this time too. As they waited for the wedding, Tamerlan’s arm healed, and, for reasons already explained, no one was able to pursue the first complaint Alya had made on his behalf. Their wedding was a modest one, quiet; Tamerlan had no relatives in town. Everyone shouted “Gorko!” and Tamerlan kissed the bride.

What surprised Alya the most: Tamerlan has no tattoos. Alya had seen very few men undressed, but Uncle Zhenya, for example, had an eagle on his chest, his blood type, various other things.

“What, did you think we’re born with tattoos?” Tamerlan mocks her.

Also: he doesn’t drink vodka—no vodka, no wine, no nothing. Not that he’s a particularly religious man, that’s just how he was raised. He confesses: there was one time when he did drink—a lot—but the morning after was terrible. His neighbor had been selling his car, a Volga Universal, a pickup (Alya doesn’t know about cars). The car had caught Tamerlan’s eye, but he had no money, so the neighbor made a proposal: have a drink with me, and I’ll give it to you half price. He was desperate to get a Tatar drunk. But he also kept his word. Having the car has been a big help to them, especially now there’s no work at the mill. Tamerlan uses it as a taxi, and to transport various goods to shops. He transports whatever he’s given, he never turns down a thing.

They live with Uncle Zhenya, have done for the past year and a half. He has started getting money from the job center—more, even, than what he was earning towards the end of his time at the mill. Every evening Tamerlan meets Alya at the police station. They have plans: to build something; buy soft furnishings; go away somewhere. Neither of them has ever seen the sea, and they want things—all sorts of things, things Alya hadn’t even thought to dream of. But neither soft furnishings nor the Black Sea preoccupy her a great deal: everything will come in its own time. After all, she’s met her Liebknecht, without even having to seek him out, or wait so very long. And then she gets pregnant.

Alya, strangely, never gave this possibility much thought, while for his part Tamerlan had probably started to want children—he was already thirty. In any case, this isn’t something they had discussed. But watching Alya’s stomach transform, touching it—that turns out to be even more exciting than dreaming of any old sea. The same goes for choosing names. They haven’t sought any advice from the hospital; Alya went there once, for an ultrasound, but they told her something she didn’t understand. So she asked them not to say whether it was a girl or a boy—she didn’t want to find out yet. Pregnant women often have their own little quirks. And so time passes, right up until around the sixth month, when Alya’s arms, legs, and face start to swell, and Tamerlan takes her into the city to see a doctor, and she is hospitalized to protect the pregnancy. Alya speaks of it as the worst experience of her life.

First of all, they riddled her arms with needles—to insert the drip—which is fine, Alya would have been able to bear that, but for some reason they took her clothes and, more importantly, her phone: the chief physician was against pregnant women using mobile phones—something to do with signals, some sort of waves—whatever it was, Alya didn’t understand. And no visitors were allowed, either: they were all concerned about infections. Alya sat on her bed and cried, she had never cried so much in all her life, and then she decided to speak to the chief physician. The old man was sitting in his office, scary, bald, tanned . . .

As Alya tells him her story, Tamerlan hugs her, kisses her forehead and her eyes.

 . . . tanned, like completely brown. And all around her, his whole office was plastered in huge religious icons, red and gold—she had never seen so many in one place before. Not to mention certificates, gold and silver as well. She speaks to the guy in a normal voice, so that he can see she’s not crazy, that she just wants to go home, that she needs her things and her phone. And he tells her she won’t get anything; she’ll have to lie there for twelve to fourteen days. That’s their system. And when she does eventually cry, he laughs and tells her to take it up with the police. But then she remembers that she is the police, and then they give her her things and her phone, and they promise to send her her medical certificate and discharge notes, and she takes the bus home because she doesn’t want to wait the hour and a half that it’ll take for Tamerlan to come and collect her. Besides, he probably has his own things to do.

There are many other things that she doesn’t tell Tamerlan, things that happened to her when he wasn’t there. Life goes on for another five or six weeks, and these aren’t bad times, but she has already started to feel quite unwell. And then she suddenly goes into labor, which is also unexpected; they thought she still had one month to go.

And so an ambulance takes Alya on ahead, and Tamerlan follows behind in the Volga, and when they wheel her out of the vehicle he’s able to catch a glimpse of her. She is looking at him—the look of a short-sighted person who has suddenly dropped their glasses. But Alya has never been short-sighted.


We already know what follows. A girl is born. Alya Ovsiannikova’s condition is critical, but stable. Viktor Mikhailovich has calculated that this is how she will remain for five more weeks, although he himself has his doubts: it’s difficult to keep a person alive on a ventilator, and it’s also impossible for over a month to go by without a single power cut hitting the hospital.

So life, for the moment, goes on. Uncle Zhenya wanders around, pestering his boys:

“Buddy, got smokes?”

They never refuse him.

“Uncle Zhenya, tell us about those missiles you set up in Poland . . . ” But most of them know the situation he’s in, and simply hand over the cigarettes.

In the evenings Tamerlan cooks food for himself and for Zhenya, and every morning he sets off on his one-and-a-half-hour journey into the city, to the children’s ward (they don’t take enquiries over the phone). By 3:00 or 4:00 p.m. he heads back to Alya, or, more precisely, to the doctor: don’t she need any medicine? How’s she doing?

Viktor Mikhailovich is hurt by Tamerlan’s constant questions. Hasn’t he already explained it all? Nothing is needed. And even if it were, there are directives: relatives cannot buy medicines or care products for patients. Her condition is stable.

Today is a short day, a Friday. When Viktor Mikhailovich heads home at the end of the working day, Tamerlan is waiting for him in the street.

“How’s Alya? Is there any hope?”

Viktor Mikhailovich gets into his car, sits sideways, shakes the snow off his boots, and then turns to face forward in the seat:

“There’s always hope,” he says. “As long as one’s living, there’s always hope.”

translated from the Russian by Alex Fleming