Alisa Ganieva: Оскорблённые чувства (Offended Sensibilities)
Alisa Ganieva’s first two novels published in English were mainly set in her native Dagestan. This one is set in a provincial Russian town where virtually every character is in some way or other involved in corruption. It is no surprise that there is corruption in Russia. Indeed, it would probably be no surprise that there is corruption in most countries, but here it is on an industrial scale.
We meet Nikolai early on. He works for a construction company, which is doing very well, primarily because his female boss, Marina Semyonova, is having an affair with Andrei Ivanovich Lyamzin, the regional minister of economic development.
He is driving home one day when what seems like a drunk accosts him at the traffic lights, begging for a lift. Nikolai tries to ignore him but when he throws a handful of money through Nikolai’s window and he clearly will not move, Nikolai takes him in. However it is raining hard and Nikolai fails to see a deep pothole and his car is caught in it. He gets out to push and opens the door for his passenger to help. The man falls out, seemingly dead. Nikolai knows if he calls the police he will be blamed so he dumps the body in a deep pothole and flees. Stopping for a cup of coffee, he sees Andrei Ivanovich Lyamzin, the regional minister of economic development, making an announcement. He recognises the man. He is the the owner of the body he has just dumped.
Nikolai will sadly soon go the way of his victim. However, our attention moves to the survivors: Marina Semyonova, who is suspected of her lover’s murder, Kapustin, the prosecutor who wants both his share of Marina Semyonova’s illicit money and of her body, Ella Sergeyevna, the grieving widow, a school principal, who was well aware of her husband’s infidelity and Lenochka, the dead man’assistant who may be out of a job.
The dead man’s deputy, Natalya Petrovna, gets the job on an acting basis but soon a video of her debaucheries is making the rounds, which rather stymies her career progress.
Meanwhile we learn that Ella Sergeyevna has been up to no good. She has several teachers on her payroll, all of whom have won awards but who do not, in fact, exist. She and her accountant share the proceeds. However, when the police arrive it is not because of that but because Sopakhin, the history teacher, has, with her approval, put on a school play which denigrated the great Russian soldier, implying that the Germans, in World War II were defeated by the cold and because they were outnumbered when, of course they were defeated by the brave Russian soldier. The detective in charge states that schools have spread rumours that 20 million Soviet citizens perished in the war when, of course it was only eight million. (In reality it was probably 27 million, according to this article.)
As for Lenochka, Gone now, all of it, Lenochka’s whole existence crumbled into dust, nothingness. and she is left alone, with no boyfriend and only her alternative philosophies to guide her till she starts an affair with one of the police officers investigating her late boss’s death, Victor. She is demoted to a lower-grade and, moreover, a job without access to the perks she used to have working for the big boss. She may seem like a victim, and, to a certain degree she is, but she did very well as assistant to an important man. She also listens with a certain amount of glee when Victor describes in some detail how suspects are made to confess.
Other characters also behave badly, from the maid who steals from her mistress to the dispatcher who ignores the same maid when she is stuck in a lift as well as a slew of other dirty deeds.
The town is normally in a poor state, dilapidated, rubbish strewn all over the place, nothing working but suddenly it is all cleaned up. Patients are moved out of the hospitals and replaced by healthy party officials feigning illness and praising the quality of the care. The reason is the visit of someone known only as The Guest, presumably Putin. We continue to make strong progress,” he would state approvingly. “The economy is on the rise. We have passed the worst of the crisis. The gold reserves are growing.” A stooge asks him How much longer will we have to endure the reeking breath of the monsters encircling Russia? Isn’t it time to launch a response?.
Meanwhile yellow journalism is to the fore, there are more mysterious deaths, protests (e.g. about building on the park) are brutally suppressed and the government makes sure that only the correct view of history is taught. For example, the Holodomor (the huge famine in Ukraine from 1932 to 1933 caused by deliberate Soviet policy not only did not happen but the population of Ukraine during that time doubled.
There is also a ban on criticising religion, the law on offending the sensibilities of religious believers. Article 148, Part 1, which is used, like other laws, to get at those they do not like. And if they do not like you? They’ve come up with lists of activist citizens, yes, that’s true. And they’ve gone around to their homes to warn them. To the tune of, ‘If you spend too much effort advocating for your rights, we will send you off to prison, to be a fuckboy.
No-one comes out well in this book. The state is totally corrupt and brutal and its actions exist only to benefit those in power. Even the seemingly innocent victims like Lenochka and Nikolai are tainted and happy to benefit from the corruption when they are in a position to do so. How much this is an accurate portrait of contemporary Russia, I do not know but, I suspect, it is only mildly exaggerated, if at all.
First published in 2018 byACT
First English translation in 2022 by Deep Vellum
Translated by Carol Apollonio