Just the Plague, by Ludmila Ulitskaya

When one lives in an autocratic state like Stalinist Russia there are worse things than being quarantined on suspicion of having caught the plague.  Based on a true story, Ludmila Ulitskaya’s 2020 novel Just the Plague (published in English in 2021) started life in 1988 as a film script produced as an unsuccessful application to film school, and has now been turned into a novel.  Ulitskaya rediscovered the manuscript in 2020, during the Covid lockdown, and realised it had resonance today.

During the harsh winter of 1939, microbiologist Rudolf Maier is working on a plague vaccine.  He is ordered to present his results to the Moscow authorities, and in his haste to comply manages to infect himself.  He travels by train, checks into an hotel, has a shave and attends the meeting, thereby coming into contact with a large number of individuals.

He becomes increasingly unwell and is taken to hospital where a doctor diagnoses pneumonic plague and isolates himself, Maier, and later the barber.  The virus has a 24-hour incubation, so the authorities need to act quickly because its spread in the crowded city would have catastrophic consequences.

The NKVD is tasked with rounding up everyone Maier came into contact with, which it does with an efficiency usually employed on those deemed to be opponents of the regime.  Citizens taken into custody are put into a ten-day quarantine, an outbreak of influenza used as a pretext on the grounds it will cause less panic than would occur if the population knew there was the risk of plague.

In a society full of people ready to inform on each other, and the Great Purge having provided the NKVD with ample experience, the exercise of listing names and sending a van generally proves to be fairly straightforward.  There is much shuffling of paper, but it gets results.  Unfortunately, when one of the ominous black police vans turns up outside an apartment block in the middle of the night, it is easy to assume that its occupants’ motives are not benign.  The natural assumption is arrest and show trial, followed by execution, rather than a move to save lives.

The same goes for the ‘Very High Personage’ to whom the operatives answer, i.e., NKVD head Lavrentiy Beria, who is second only to ‘the Big Boss’.  Seeing every unfortunate event as an attack on the socialist system, he jumps to the conclusion that the outbreak is the result of sabotage, and the detained must be liquidated.  Fortunately, a doctor is able to convince him the danger was caused by an accident, not malice, thus sparing innocent lives.

In this paranoid atmosphere the nigh-time knock on the door creates unintended consequences.  A man shoots himself with the NKVD outside, assuming he is about to be arrested and considering suicide preferable.  A party loyalist denounces her husband to save herself, she thinks, unaware he is merely in quarantine. He is arrested as soon as the restrictions are lifted and led away without a murmur, knowing his likely fate.

On the whole though, while their relatives, who are kept in ignorance of the situation, are frantic, the quarantined are grateful they are not being held on political charges.  As one says afterwards, ‘it was just the plague,’ as opposed to the more deadly alternative.  This was one encounter with the NKVD that ended well, to their relief.

For all the efforts in rounding up and isolating those suspected of having been infected, one person remains untraced.  A Turkmen People’s Deputy who was checking out of the hotel as Maier was checking in had started to feel unwell, and on impulse decided to break her journey back to Ashkhabad in a shop in a market run by fellow Turkmen, and had not arrived at home when expected.

In the zero-tolerance NKVD, the failure to track her down is a huge matter of concern for the operatives seeking her, as the price of failure can be very high for them personally.  We assume she was not infected, but her individualistic behaviour evades the surveillance state, leaving the reader wondering whether in the circumstances her spontaneity was good or bad.  Even if lucky this time, it demonstrates how hard it is to contain diseases once they start to spread – a lesson in all pandemics.

A large cast of characters is shown in a range of situations as the effort at containment proceeds.  Ulitskaya casts sidelights on the society of the times, such as the follower of the prevailing pseudo-scientific Lysenkoist approach to genetics who thinks he has bred cold-resistant geese, only to find them frozen to death overnight.  Still, they do make a nutritious meal, so all is not lost.  More easily followed as a film would have been than as a novel, the narrative jumps around, and the list of characters at the front is very useful when trying to keep track of everyone.

In an interview which forms an afterword, Ulitskaya says she hardly changed anything in the original screenplay for publication.  This was not a story that was known about in Russia when she wrote the script; she was aware of it because the father of her acquaintance, Natalya Rapoport, had performed autopsies on the victims’ bodies, and the two women had discussed it.  From this basic fact she had weaved the fictional narrative.  She adds that, as in the novel, only three people died in the 1939 outbreak – the researcher, the barber who shaved him, and the heroic doctor.

After publication Rapoport, professor emerita at the University of Utah, said they had collaborated on the script together and Ulitskaya had plagiarised their joint work for the novelisation.  In the afterword, Ulitskaya claims the pair had only a single conversation about the episode, and apart from the central facts Rapoport conveyed to her, the rest was the product of her imagination.

However, in her 2020 non-fiction work Stalin and Medicine: Untold Stories, Rapoport has a chapter on the episode tellingly called ‘It’s Just the Plague’, and she similarly uses the phrase to juxtapose detention as a precautionary measure with detention as a prelude to being purged.  Rapoport’s chapter and Ulitskaya’s novel recount the same events, and it may well be there is more of Rapoport’s input in the novel than Ulitskaya is willing to concede.  But Ulitskaya has transformed the bare facts as reported in Stalin and Medicine into a layered portrait of life in Russia in the late 1930s.

While it is hard to admit of such a ruthless organisation, the NKVD were correct in moving quickly and decisively.  Whether such an operation could succeed today is less clear.  China imposed a draconian lockdown on its population during the Covid-19 pandemic, but the virus proved more slippery than did the 1939 Russian plague, and for all their power over the population, the Chinese authorities were unable to prevent its spread.  The Soviet secret police were operating in simpler times.


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