ONCE that creature had thudded to the floor and finally gone quiet, she had waited for her rage to subside and her breathing to return to normal before washing everything off at the hand basin in the toilet—the place she always washed. It was, perhaps, inadvisable to destroy all evidence of contact with the rapist—she realized this herself—but she simply couldn’t suppress her desire to be clean. She put her ripped tights and smock into a paper bag and slipped the knife inside too, sheathed in the pages of a magazine. She then put on her only dress and coat, tied her scarf around her neck, gathered some books—her only possessions—from the storeroom, locked the door, and set off toward the police station. And yes, before leaving she also turned off the lights. Her sang-froid would later be used against her, as evidence that she had either invented the signs of the victim’s attention to her or exaggerated their seriousness.
At the station she tells the desk sergeant that approximately one hour earlier she killed a middle-aged man during an attempted rape. She produces the contents of the package and hands over the keys to the pelmennaya, the dumpling shop where she is employed as a waitress.
She watches the commotion spread through the station, sees the police officers run downstairs and their car drive off toward the scene. They lead her up to the first floor and tell her to sit down at a table. A young officer sits down opposite her. He is in an amiable mood:
“You may call your lawyer.”
She doesn’t have one yet.
“That was a joke.” He had been joking; how could someone like her afford a lawyer?
Ibragimova Ruhshona Ibragimovna, born 1971, Tajik citizen. Place of birth: Leninabad, now known as Khujand. Education: university graduate.
The officer breaks away from the protocol. Yes, she’s a graduate. Literature, Moscow State University. The officer is clearly amazed; he himself has probably only scraped through two years of correspondence courses in law.
She knows article 51 of the constitution: no one shall be obliged to give incriminating evidence, etc.
“Have you been detained before?”
“No, this is the first time.”
“So how do you know that?”
She shrugs: she had read it.
“The constitution?” Well, well, well.
He asks her to take him through what happened. His tone is compassionate; if the facts all tally with her statement, he’ll take her evidence and release her on bail.
Had she seen the man before? Yes, she had; he used to stop by the house to see her boss. She doesn’t know his name. Today he arrived at the pelmennaya at about six p.m., asked for Ksenia Nikolayevna. When he heard she wasn’t in, he bought a large beer. Besides them, there was no one there. After draining his beer, he suggested physical intimacy; she rejected him. Yes, the rejection was firm, but not offensive—she hardly said a thing.
“’Cause there are these types of rejections,” the officer explains, “that seem like a rejection, but then…you know…. Women like strength in a man.”
She looks at him fixedly. Yes, she likes strength, but that—that was not strength. The officer, it seems, doesn’t quite understand.
“Come on. Let’s move on. To the point.”
When the man stood up and walked toward her, she went into the kitchen. Why? It was her instinct. She hadn’t planned it. Where the knife had been—yes, that she remembers, but as for how many times she stabbed him, or where—nothing. Had she wanted to kill him? She had wanted him gone—one way or another.
One more question: with an education like hers, why does she work as a waitress? Ruhshona doesn’t see what that has to do with anything. Fine then. Had she worked previously? Yes, she had taught Russian literature at a university in Khujand, but only for a while.
“But who needs Russian literature there?” the officer asks, puzzled. “They’re all….” He had wanted to say Asiatics.
No one needs it—Ruhshona couldn’t agree more. Don’t need it at all.
So where had she worked after that? In Moscow, teaching the children of the rich: Russian language and literature, English. If that could be considered working, with what she had studied. So why had she gone into unskilled work? She had had her reasons.
“Did you want to feel closer to your people—your sisters by blood?” he asks.
“Exactly,” Ruhshona replies. “Closer to my sisters. And my brethren.”
“Brothers. My sisters and brothers,” the officer corrects her. Hah. A lit graduate—as if.
The desk sergeant hurries into the room, asks the officer to step outside. He returns a minute later. Things are not as simple as they had first appeared. Had she known the victim was Pavel Andreyevich Tsytsyn, head of local government? No, but she doesn’t see why that should change anything—he was still a common rapist. This wasn’t murder—it was self-defense.
“A very effective self-defense,” the officer smirks. Six knife wounds: to the stomach, the face, the groin. As for her? Not a scratch.
Does she regret her deed? Stupid question—she had had no choice. In the kitchen things had escalated quickly.
“And you couldn’t find a more amicable solution?” The officer’s tone has suddenly changed. He fixes his eyes upon hers. This is what he has seen his superiors do in their interrogations.
Ruhshona’s eyes are black—like the rest of her people’s—and if she looks inwardly with them, you won’t catch anything. But then, the shutters in her eyes click open, and her eyes blaze for a moment, like a cigarette lighter, then close again, the flame extinguished. For a moment, the young officer feels uneasy. “Come on. Just stay calm. Fill out the report, then run to the pelmennaya,” he thinks. This whole thing is making his head spin—best leave it to the police in the city to deal with. An al-ter-ca-tion cau-sed by sud-den hos-til-it-ies, he concludes, his tongue stuck out in concentration as he writes. He then speeds through the final declaration: “I hereby attest that this statement is a full, truthful, and accurate account of my testimony. Sign.”
No, she isn’t going to sign that.
“Want me to correct your spelling mistakes?” Now she’s the one joking.
They take her into the cell and lock the door; she looks around, figures out which way Mecca is, and waits for the silence to take root within her. Then she prays, soundlessly.
Allahu Akbar. Subhanaka Allahumma, wa bihamdika….
What do today’s events mean? She must delve deep within herself and wait; the answer will come, as it always does, complete. Or not; her internal silences can last years. In which case: humble acceptance of all that he has willed, and thanks. For now, she’s just exhausted, bewildered: why had it fallen to her to put an end to that odiousness? And proud, too: proud that she has risen to the challenge; that she has overcome.
The Most High had given Ruhshona endurance, freedom of thought, and an unusually good memory. And yet another virtue: the ability to face danger head on. This has been clear to everyone since Ruhshona’s childhood; if you ever tried to scare her, she wouldn’t flinch—quite the opposite—she would lunge forward, right at you. She staunchly protected her personal space, and when anyone invaded it, she could do serious damage. And for that reason, everyone—children and adults alike—gave her a wide berth.
The Most High had also endowed her with the beauty of the woman she was named after—Ruhshona-Roxana, wife of Alexander the Great. Tajik women are often considered elderly at thirty-five, but Ruhshona is still very beautiful.
As a teenager, Ruhshona studies at a Russian school. It is there that she writes such wonderful pieces that she is awarded a gold medal of excellence. Dostoevsky’s Nikolai Stavrogin can be viewed as a Russian Hamlet; he displays the latter’s rage and ennui, and a great deal of pent-up energy. This essay impresses; she is offered a place at Moscow State University. Here, she also lives at a distance from others, and discovers the works of Andrei Platonov: dreams of a fierce and beautiful world; being overwhelmed with joy at the sight of a locomotive; the possibility of overcoming death itself through machines. She writes her dissertation on Platonov, on his castles in the air. It’s this very ability that Ruhshona values above all else in Russians and in the Russian language, her mother tongue: the ability to erect constructs out of nothing.
And then great change arrives: her Leninabad returns to its former name of Khujand, every other change is for the worse. Her father is killed, a chance victim of the fighting: he had gone to Dushanbe on business and never returned; Ruhshona can’t get home for his funeral; her brother calls her in Moscow to tell her about other deaths. It’s as though the sheer number of victims helps him come to terms with his father’s loss.
“Stay in Moscow!” he shouts down the line—the connection with Tajikistan is awful.
What can she do in Moscow? There’s no need for specialists in literature here either. “I lost my father in the process of life,” Ruhshona thinks to herself, and in saying that phrase—so typically Platonov—she decides that she no longer loves his work; overcoming death through locomotives and other machinery is simply a philological pursuit—death’s omnipresence is no accident, no unhappy mistake. Everyone fears death, just as they fear misfortune, yet death is inescapable, which means it is real. We did not think it into being. At this very moment Ruhshona begins to see death as the most important thing that can exist within a person. And she views those who don’t carry death within themselves—who don’t live by it—as empty, like wrapping paper, like sweet wrappers. Hollow, soulless people. She can pick them out at a glance.
The short-lived enthusiasm brought on by the changes passes Ruhshona by: she can see that these changes are spiritually unsustainable; that everyone is now ruled by hollow men, by sweet wrappers. The capital’s most important library has been plastered with giant chocolate bars: one of these a day helps you work, rest, and play. These chocolate bars, their giant posters, they are the main by-product of these hollow men and the way they run the country. We all want something sweet and tasty, as Anna Karenina says. “Well, Mother Russia, you’ll get your fill of sweets, but it’ll make flunkeys of your children,” thinks Ruhshona, and leaves Moscow.
Eventually she arrives back in Khujand, with a knowledge of Russian literature apparently unsurpassed by any of her compatriots. She could have applied to the Institute of Education—now a university—but they don’t pay. They don’t pay anywhere, and there is no demand for her private lessons: it isn’t the time for literature; there’s a war going on; one hundred thousand were killed in 1992—the previous year—alone. The opposing sides are known as the Vovchiki and the Yurchiki, “The Yurchiki are the communists,” her mother explains, “named after Yuri Andropov, would you believe? Their support comes from the Kulob region, from here in the North, and from the Uzbeks and the Russians. The Vovchiki are from the Pamir Mountains and the Gharm valley, led by democrat reformists.”
“But why such a Russian name—isn’t it the communists who should be the Vovchiki?” Ruhshona asks.
“No, it’s not Vovchik as in Vladimir. They’re Wahhabites—somehow they got Vovchiki from that.” Her mother is clearly confused. “And we still haven’t found a husband for you,” she adds. So that’s what she’s really worried about: Ruhshona is already twenty-two.
The task of finding a suitor would normally have fallen to her father or her brother, but her father is dead, and her brother will be moving to China any day now. He has his own family to think of. Besides, how could he find her an Alexander with no one around but Vovchiki and Yurchiki?
And soon enough there won’t even be any Vovchiki left—at least that’s how it seems. Ruhshona’s sympathies, if she had to choose, would lie with the Vovchiki: partly because they are The blessed, fallen in battle—virtually decimated during a false ceasefire—and partly because there aren’t any of them in Khujand anyway. Ruhshona begins searching for something, and she searches for it in religion, something she seems to have been born with but had never given much thought. She travels to Gharm, to Samarkand. She picks up Arabic easily, but her encounters with those who describe themselves as Muslims disappoint: with them, the tribal takes precedence over the spiritual; they give their Adat—their traditional customs, the laws of man—precedence over the laws of God, Sharia. What she wants to tell people is that life should be lived as prescribed, in accordance with the laws laid out by the Most High, not with tradition; sin and crime are one and the same thing. Jihad, however, has freed the Vovchiki from their laws. Besides, who wants to listen to a woman?
Her brother sends money to her and her mother, but they still go hungry. Ruhshona despises the idea of economic migration, but when your mother has nothing to eat, migration is no longer a question of economics. So to Moscow again, this time without illusions and without any great hope. There she hardens, tires, for ten years—admittedly rather full ones. She gets jobs with families, works with their simple-minded children for two, three, four years at a time, and then moves on to the next family, neither bad nor good. The only time she has to herself is when the children are in school, and even then their mothers, who don’t work, fuss about day in, day out, keeping their Roxanochka busy. She even stops learning Arabic. These are apathetic, listless years, but it seems they served their purpose.
Her most recent employers: a small, stocky, smiling man and his endlessly panic-stricken wife, who requests that no one remind her of illness, death, or other unpleasantness, as though they are contagious. The TV is constantly on: “For strong, healthy-looking hair and nails….” Insomnia. Homer. Taut white sails, Ruhshona wants to retort, but she knows that she won’t find a kindred spirit here—no one will know the poem. Ruhshona’s memory still retains hundreds of Russian poems—but for what? The poets who wrote them now seem to her like distant relatives, ones she had ceased to love long before their deaths. “Poor poets,” she thinks. “Life didn’t go your way.”
The child she is looking after is told lies—constant lies—by his parents, even though he no longer asks any questions. “The meaning of life,” his stocky father teaches him, “lies in life itself,” citing some bogus French philosopher as proof. He’s proud he stopped being self-conscious about his small stature. When? When he got rich. “So you never actually came to terms with it,” Ruhshona thinks, without sympathy. “You spend your life giving orders like a little lord, but you have no real power over your own life: you’re a freeloader. A couple of quotes, that’s all your universe is built on.”
And then the summer before these events, this family brings her to their dacha, one not on the outskirts of Moscow—like her other families’ were—but in the very depths of Russia. It’s here that Ruhshona learns that her mother has moved in with her brother, her apartment has been sold, and Ruhshona now has nowhere to return to, and no reason to return. Day in, day out, Ruhshona sees the cool sky, the river, the sunset, and suddenly she understands: life is such a simple and austere thing. And all of these little decorations, this tinsel we wrap our lives in—music, philosophy, literature—are completely unnecessary. There is some form of truth to them, but they themselves are not the truth. The truth can be put very simply.
On the one hand, there is the Most High: the First, the Everlasting, the All-Merciful, Giver of Life and Bringer of Death—Ruhshona knows all ninety-nine of his names—he is supreme, unknowable, master of all thoughts. And on the other hand there is us: insignificant. There are many of us, and we are capable almost exclusively of ill. The gulf between him and us is boundless: we are, by far, closer to ashes, to the dust underfoot, for we are mere creations. He is One. He is Allah, the Eternal Refuge. He neither begets nor is begotten. And no one is equal to him.
Ruhshona speaks to her boss, gathers her things and moves in to the pelmennaya. Her brothers by blood, the other Tajiks, waste no time in stealing all the money she has saved, but she only discovers this much later—money no longer means anything to her. Physical work awaits her here, as does silence—and the daily, hourly attempts to divine his will. The name of Ruhshona’s faith, translated from Arabic, means submission.
Translated from the Russian by Alex Fleming. This is an excerpt from a longer story to be published as part of a collection by New York Review Books in 2019. © Maxim Osipov 2009, 2012, 2015. Translation © Alex Fleming 2016.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.