With Maxim Osipov, almost every story seems to herald his escape from Russia ★★★★☆


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All stories, short stories and personal notes of Maxim Osipov in Kilometer 101 was written, apart from a single postscript, before his escape from Russia. Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, the writer and cardiologist traveled to Armenian Yerevan – from where he lived in de Volkskrant disturbingly beautiful report: ‘You tremble and feel ashamed, but you also feel liberated. (…) You are ashamed precisely because you feel liberated.’ Osipov now lives in the Netherlands: until after the summer he is associated with Leiden University as a guest lecturer.

At the time of writing, the author had no idea what turn his life would take. Yet almost every text in the now-translated collection seems to foreshadow current events in one way or another. Not that Osipov predicted the war – it overwhelmed him as much as many of his countrymen. However, through his characters, the author accurately reveals the problems and dangers of Putin’s Russia; the very problems and dangers that now keep so many Russians silent or going along with their dictator’s propaganda.

Just like in his acclaimed collection of short stories The world cannot be broken (2021) Osipov rarely writes directly about politics. Above all, he shows how suffocating bureaucracy, corruption and authoritarian authority can dull citizens. Without condoning anything, he makes it possible to understand what it’s like to live in a country where you can’t trust the government, in a country that does things you don’t like to be around. But also: how easily people, often out of a kind of not knowing any better, just do what they are told: denounce friends, fire colleagues, enlist criminals to fix difficult affairs.

There are plenty of poignant passages, especially with today’s knowledge. In the short story ‘Luxembourg’, written in 2019 (so long after the occupation of Crimea), the main character Sasja has a persistent addiction to online chess and spends days behind her screen. “Only Ukrainians sometimes say when they see a Russian flag next to his name: ‘I don’t play with occupiers.’ What should you answer then? Sasha doesn’t agree with what is being done on his behalf, but what has he done against it? Just withdraw into the private sphere.’

When his lodger, a German journalist, is allegedly expelled due to a misdemeanor (the correspondent for de Volkskrant unfortunately knows all about it), Sasya thinks that it is a pity and completely unjustified, but it does not even suit him so badly: he wanted to live in his apartment in Moscow again and was already looking for an excuse to show the man dying .

At the farewell party, one of the Germans says to Sasja: “Your problem is that an era never ends with you.” Osipov expresses it even more beautifully in the shorter, autobiographical second part: ‘A lot has changed in Russia in five years, but nothing in two hundred years.’ In concise notes, he describes the life of a hospital doctor in the provincial town of N., which is clearly modeled on his former hometown of Taroesa. The city is 101 kilometers from Moscow; just far enough away for ‘undesirable individuals’ who were not allowed to settle near large cities during the Stalin era.

The author’s great-grandfather, also a doctor, once came here as an exile, and Osipov’s quirky anecdotes show that essentially not much has changed. The Russian healthcare system is still astonishingly ineffective, life is hopeless for many people. Alcoholism is a widespread problem. ‘With patients, but also with many doctors, two emotions prevail: fear of death and aversion to life. They do not want to think about the future, leave everything as it has always been. They do not live, but serve their time’.

These observations are less telling than the rest of the book (and then similar passages in The world cannot be broken), but just as sharp in their characterization of Russia – and just as naturally peppered with references to literary predecessors, from Lewis Carroll to Marina Tsvetaeva. Impressive is Osipov’s ability to remain cheerful, to see beauty in his work and his existence. Life in N. is not easy, corruption also prevails here, but it works. There is no reason to go. And besides: “The soul refuses to believe the worst (maybe it’s a lack of imagination), and where would you go with a mother who needs help.”

For example, emigration is a theme in almost every text, as a threat, a deficit or a dream. In the first part, a character has been worried for thirty years that he will miss the moment ‘when you have to pack your bags for good’. A young Russian couple wants to move to the USA ‘like all normal people’, where at least you don’t have to think about everything all the time. A young man changes his beautiful, noble name after discovering that his father once denounced a group of fellow students and sentenced them to years in prison. The son travels to New York, where he experiences a new kind of emptiness: that of the outsider, the emigrant who does not know the country, does not speak the language.

It is the existence that Osipov, it now seems, must also get used to. While you read Kilometer 101 the realization grows that he has always accounted for this somewhere.

Maxim Osipov: Kilometer 101. Translated from Russian by Yolanda Bloemen and Seijo Epema. Van Oorschot; 368 pages; €25.

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