This is an excerpt from Just the Plague by Ludmila Ulitskaya, a gripping novel based on real events in the Stalinist Russia of the 1930s, written in the late 1970s and rediscovered by the author during lockdown, translated by Polly Gannon. Order your copy here.
Reflection in the mirror. A barber’s hands deftly manipulating a straight razor above Maier’s cheek. The barber’s voice:
‘Another ten minutes and I would have been gone. You’re lucky.’
Maier coughs, wants to cover his mouth, but he is wrapped in a sheet. The barber pats him on the shoulder and lifts up the razor.
‘Go ahead, cough for all you’re worth.’ Maier says apologetically:
‘I seem to have caught cold on the train. I sat in a draught.’
The barber wipes down the blade till it gleams.
‘Some people are surprised that I still use a straight razor blade. They don’t realize that the shave is closer, cleaner. And that it simply looks better. Lift your chin, please. Just like that.’
Maier throws his head back, and the barber touches the blade to his neck. Suddenly, Maier breaks out in a hacking cough. The barber has no time to move his hand away, and a tiny red line appears on Maier’s neck.
‘Good lord!’ the barber exclaims. ‘This is a first for me. You jerked your head, that’s why!’
He sprinkles eau de cologne on a napkin and hastily presses it against the wound.
‘Don’t worry!’ Maier says, reassuring him. ‘I started coughing . . .’
‘Just a moment! I have some alcohol too. It disinfects better than the cologne. Just a moment.’
‘Never mind. It’s nothing at all, please don’t worry about it,’ Maier says.
‘Nothing, you say!’ The barber is beside himself with worry. ‘It has never happened to me before, that someone passing through my hands ends up in this condition. If only you knew who I have shaved in my time – you wouldn’t believe it! I worked at the Kremlin!’
He points at the sky.
‘With this very razor! Everyone knows me. I’m Kotikov. Veniamin Alexeevich Kotikov!’
Blood trickles from the cut. The barber rushes around, removes one napkin from the cut, and replaces it with another one.
‘Why are you so upset, Veniamin Alexeevich? I always shave with a safety razor at home. I’d cut myself every day if I used a thing like that. Calm down, please, everything’s all right.’
Meeting of the board of the Narkomzdrav, the Commissariat of Public Health. Eight of the top brass are listening attentively to the report. One is wearing a military uniform. This is Colonel Pavlyuk, from the NKVD. Maier is concluding his talk.
‘Now, as you can see, it is clear that the choice of this highly virulent strain was completely justified. And although the study, from my point of view, has still not been carried out to the end, it is essentially complete. Soon, we will have the first samples of a new vaccine at our disposal. It is effective against all known strains of the plague.’
Esinsky asks a question:
‘Tell me, if you would, Rudolf Ivanovich, how long do you expect it will take to move the vaccine into production, and how difficult is the technology of production likely to be?’
Maier rubs his temples as though he has a hard time grasping the sense of the question. It seems to be more than he can cope with.
‘In order to finally . . . We need around a month and a half to be absolutely sure of the preparation. Around three months will be required for testing, then production of a sample batch; and the rest doesn’t depend on me. Or, rather, it depends on the financing of production, on its organization. Technology . . . in terms of technology, nothing fundamentally new will be required, apart from enhanced safety and security measures.’
Grigoriev, the chairman of the board, looks at his watch.
‘Comrades! Today we are here on a matter of exceptional significance; an event, I would say, with significance for all humanity. The development of a vaccine is one more step towards the full victory of Communism throughout the world, one more proof of the triumph of Comrade Stalin’s policies. We congratulate Rudolf Ivanovich. Thank you for your work, for your report. I would request that you come to see me at two o’clock. We will have to work out a plan.’
The members of the board begin to stir, then relax, and slowly start to disperse.
Esinsky goes up to Maier.
‘Rudy! Congratulations! Brilliant work.’ Maier just rubs his eyes and says nothing. ‘What’s wrong, are you tired?’
‘More than you can imagine.’
Colonel Pavlyuk approaches Grigoriev, chairman of the board.
‘Vsevolod Alexandrovich, we’ll be having a conversation about this work. I think it needs to be transferred to our agency.1 Think about it. For the time being, the plan should be halted.’
Grigoriev gives an understanding nod. Esinsky looks at Maier again.
‘What’s wrong with you, Rudolf? Should I call a car?’
‘I seem to have caught cold on the train. I’m afraid I may be coming down with pneumonia. That’s how these things always end with me,’ Maier says, forming the words with difficulty.
‘Wait, I’ll call for a car to take you back. Where are you staying?’
Photograph © romana klee
1 The NKVD was the state security agency under Stalin.