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Alexei Nikitin: Истеми (Y.T)

Back in 1984 five radiophysics students are sent to the village of Great Apple to pick apples. However there are no apples ready to pick yet so they have plenty of time on their hands. In the village there are two apple-picking groups and they are serious rivals. The students have been divided between the two groups. As there is nothing much else to do, they develop a game. This is a war game not unlike Risk, though Risk was unknown in Ukraine at the time. Initially it is between the two apple groups but soon they invent states, loosely based on real states and mixing up various people and events, placing them in relatively arbitrary eras and places. We have Slovenorussia and the Holy Roman Empire and the United Islamic Caliphates and the Khanate of Zaporozhye. It is all good harmless fun.

The KGB, however, are suspicious, so much so that, back in Kyiv, they arrest the five and raid their houses. The students are detained for two months, during which time the KGB agents get involved in the game and play with the students. The students are eventually released but, despite promises from the KGB, they are expelled from their university. Among other things this means that they have to do military service and one of them, Sasha, is killed in Afghanistan. The KGB had seized all documents relating to the game and instructed the students to hand over any more they may find. Alexander Davidov finds one but he loses it in various moves.

The book actually opens in 2004, after independence. Our narrator is one of the five – Alexander Davidov. He currently works for a US company selling an unpleasant brown fizzy drink (presumably a mocking dig at Coca-Cola and/or Pepsi). He does not like the job, the product or his US bosses

When he first set up his email account he found that alexander.davidov had gone and as he did not want his name followed by a number, he chose Istemi, one of the the characters in their game and also the original Russian-language title of the book. He half-expected someone to pick up on this but no-one did.

One day he is checking his emails when he finds that he has received an email starting Your Majesty, my dear brother and reproducing the missing document in full. Who sent it and why? His first port of call is one of the other students, Yurka Kurochkin. Kurochkin is now a member of parliament and deputy prime minister. He thinks Davidov is playing a joke till, a couple of days later, he receives a letter relating to a government deal he is involved in. The letter ends Y.T. Y.T. is something the students used during the game. After a player had made a move in the game he would pass it on to the next one, signing it Y.T. which means your turn. No-one else knew about this – as far as they knew.

As a large sum of money is concerned, at least as far as Kurochkin is concerned, he investigates further. Davidov is somewhat reluctant to get involved but then, when his boss offers him a promotion, he decides to ask for two weeks off, which is reluctantly granted.

The first plan is to contact the other three. One is dead. Or is he? One is in a mental facility and one is a somewhat embittered business man. He knows a lot about Kurochkin but not about the game. The KGB agent who interviewed Davidov in 1984 is also brought in.

Gradually Davidov finds out more. He has a few questions he wants answers to. Who sent the email to Istemi and why? Who betrayed them to the KGB in 1984? They think they know and he confronts the individual. Who sent the Y.T. letter and why? And how does this tie up with Kurochkin’s current activities?

Apart from this detailed investigation, there are various things going on. It is clear that the students were happier in 1984 Soviet Union than in 2004 independent Ukraine. A good part of this is because the KGB investigation and their expulsion from the university ruined the lives of four of them. The other key point is that none of the main characters are happy with their life. It is difficult for the young to find a good, well-paid job, while the older people have become disillusioned. Kyiv seems to be riddled with foreigners, either as spies or as business people out to make money from the young country. None of them, of course, have the interests of Ukraine and the Ukrainian at heart.

Nikitin tells a good story. Obviously, things are not as we or they expected but he also shows that, at least in 2004, Ukraine is not a particularly happy place and that the young country is struggling. Russia, of course, comes into the picture with the KGB arrests but, apart from that, we get a brief discussion of Russian classics, Dostoevsky in particular, and of the situation in Chechnya and not much else. Indeed, other foreigners are as much to blame for the malaise as the Russians.

Publishing history

First published in 2011 by Ad Marginem
First published in English in 2013 by Melville House
Translated by Anne Marie Jackson