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Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novelized screenplay Just the Plague, written in 1988 and first published in 2020, is based on real-life events when an epidemic of pneumonic plague was averted in December 1939. Three people died, but it could have claimed many more lives. Ostensibly about a medical plague, the real plague is the Stalinist police state which, with its trials, executions and banishments, had got completely out of hand. This is a hard-hitting, precise and powerful evocation of the time, with obvious relevance to the present state of Russia and the present pandemic.
The manuscript was politically unpublishable for many years, and it was only when sorting through her papers during the coronavirus lockdown that Ulitskaya came across it again. She found it highly topical, and comments, ‘They say that if a rifle is hanging on the wall in the first act, it needs to go off in the last act. I have written many things over the years which did not get published, but suddenly found this rifle could still fire, and not blanks either. The script is right up to date.’
The protagonist, Rudolph Mayer, is a microbiologist, who works on developing a vaccine in a lab in Saratov. Due to his own negligence he becomes infected with the deadly disease moments before he is summoned to Moscow to present a report on his findings. His concerns about not being quite ready are brushed off. Mayer says goodbye to his girlfriend and baby daughter and boards the train. He falls ill upon arrival at a hotel, having created a chain of potentially infected people along the way.
What follows is a historically accurate account of the urgent measures taken by the Soviet authorities to contain the spread of the lethal virus. All efforts are thrown into tracing Mayer’s journey from Saratov to Moscow, locating everyone with whom he came into contact. Shortly after, ominous black cars disperse in various directions in the middle of the night, to collect the potential victims of the virus. Unspoilt by justice of the Stalinist regime or clarity of information, people immediately assume that they are being arrested. Some already know what to pack to take with them, their relatives are in shock but not surprised. One of the characters willfully denounces her partner in fear for her own life. Another character - a military official - shoots himself.
But even life defined by fear and violence leaves space for the generosity of human spirit and the ability to sacrifice. Doctor Sorin immediately recognizes Mayer's symptoms, and isolates with the dying patient, knowing that he would very soon die too. He writes a letter to Stalin pleading for a release of his wrongly imprisoned brother. The doctor’s final gesture is as poignant as it is pointless: it is highly unlikely that the letter will ever get to its mighty addressee, for reasons not exclusively related to the plague.
Eventually, with impressive speed, all the dots are joined and potential carriers are placed under quarantine in hospital. The story ends when quarantine is lifted. It’s early spring and the church doors open for the Easter service. It’s a new life, and life, whatever it might be, goes on.
Ulitskaya’s prose is known for its minimal introspection, and her literary voice is similar in tone to John Steinbeck, Doris Lessing and Julian Barnes. She appears detached and 'stays behind the camera', yet Just the Plague is not simply an exhibition of human reactions to a crisis. What we observe makes us ask ourselves about our own reactions. What is essential to me right now? Do I seek comfort in being controlled? Am I prepared to take responsibility or make a sacrifice? In a world where we work so hard to minimize suffering or discomfort of any kind, can we remain compassionate? Of course an epidemic of a deadly disease is not unheard of in human history. And now that we are in the midst of it, perhaps this is our chance to truly comprehend its effect on us, our future, and on our future relationship with authority. Today, when we are all affected by something we know so little about, it’s hard to find a more topical read.
‘Ulitskaya’s idiosyncratic, fragmentary structure succeeds in capturing the oppressive atmosphere of that time precisely’ -- Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
‘In some societies, it can be a comfort when it is just the plague [i.e. when the plague is reason for detention]. These and other scenes in the German edition are rendered with terse, immediate and disturbing effect, thanks to the translation by Ganna-Maria Braungardt’ -- Süddeutsche Zeitung
‘A sarcastic and macabre hymn of praise to the Soviet secret police, who stopped the plague from spreading, thereby showing how widely it had already poisoned society’ -- Ingo Schulze
‘A grimly good book’ -- Frankfurter Rundschau