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Yuri Buida: Дон Домино (Zero Train)

As US writers still write about their civil war and Spanish writers about theirs, I think that we can expect Russian writers to continuing writing about their past for many years to come. This one is firmly about the Stalinist past and, as a result, though there is something of a love story in it, it is generally fairly gloomy, as we would expect from a Russian writer. It concerns the group of people who live and work at Siding No 9, somewhere out in the wilderness. At the start of the book, many of them are starting to drift away but we soon learn the history. The Siding was primarily staffed by the children of Enemies of the People. It was made clear that they themselves are not enemies of the people because their parents were but… Their sole responsibility is to ensure that the track and siding are kept in good order so that the nightly zero train can pass through. What is the Zero Train? No-one knows. It has two locomotives at the front and two behind and has a hundred wagons but everything is sealed so no-one knows what is in it. There is, of course all sorts of speculation – prisoners, bodies, weapons, valuables – but no-one has seen inside it so no-one really knows.

The hero is Ivan Ardabyev, known as Vanya and Don Domino, the latter because of his love for dominoes (and, incidentally, the Russian title of the book). At the start of the book, we see him as the settlement is running down with people leaving. However, we learn about how he got there and what happened to him. His father was in the Cheka but was arrested and sent to prison. His mother moved to Kaliningrad and his father joined her when he was released. Ivan, like Buida, was born there. When he was ten, his father shot Ivan’s mother and then himself in front of Ivan, who was then sent to a state orphanage. He has now been sent here. Ivan is a dashing, strong man and adapts well to the work and is, eventually, promoted to train driver, though he still does not know what the train is carrying, despite listening at the wagons. He gets on well with the other people there – the red-haired NKVD Colonel who is more interested in chasing women than security at the siding, the couple Mishka and Fira and the other children of Enemies of the People. It is clear that he is in love with Fira but she is remaining faithful to Mishka, at least for now. When the siding expands, presumably because of the war, and it gets its own engine works, more people come in. Ivan meets Alonya at the 5th siding and brings her back. Together they have a daughter. However, Ivan is mystified by Alonya’s behaviour, as she goes out every night to watch the Zero Train (there is only one a day, late at night).

The spectre of the zero train dominates the whole siding as everything is geared towards it as well as the speculation as to what it is. It naturally has an effect on the people there. Ivan more or less toes the line but others do not. Mishka disappears one day and when the train crashes, Fira is suspected of foul play but nothing is proved. None of the siding staff are allowed anywhere near the crash so they do not get to see what it contains. Others gradually leave as well, particularly when the works close after the war and soon there is no-one left but Ivan. Ivan has been given instructions to blow the whole place up when the last person leaves.

The story is a clear allegory on Stalinism and its ultimate failure, its mistreatment of human rights and its great secrecy. We might argue whether we need another criticism of Stalinism but it is clearly going to remain in the psyche of the Russian people for many years to come and Budia will not be the last person to write about it.

Publishing history

First published in 1994 by Eksmo
First English translation in 2001 by Dedalus
Translated by Oliver Ready