The Siberian Dilemma

The Siberian Dilemma

An Arkady Renko Novel

Book - 2019
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Jan 10, 2020

Arkady was an Investigator of Special Cases, and if a bear running loose in the heart of Moscow was not a special case, he didn’t know what was. Victor, his partner, was an excellent detective when he was sober.
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The natives made their living by trapping or shooting sables through the eye, leaving a pelt smooth and intact. General Renko nearly matched the hunter’s marksmanship. With a rifle, Arkady was lucky to hit a tree.
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As an investigative journalist, Tatiana was the natural target of thugs: a stab in the leg with a poisoned umbrella or sometimes a shot in the back of the head.
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A dozen years earlier he had investigated the death of a colleague floating in Havana Bay.

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Jan 10, 2020

“I have an assignment for you. Nothing could be simpler. Next week you go to Irkutsk, pick up a would-be murderer named Aba Makhmud, take him to a transit prison where you will prosecute him, and see that he gets a good, long sentence.” “‘A would-be murderer’?” “He’s a Chechen, a terrorist. He tried to kill a prosecutor…“
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Five o’clock was the hour when many Russian men got thirsty, especially men who had reached the retirement age of sixty-five and had little else to do. Of course, they weren’t totally retired. They washed cars, collected bottles and cans, or tutored unappreciative students. On holidays they brought out their good suits and caps and chest boards full of medals, then curled up with the cat and drank.

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Jan 10, 2020

Riot police were allowed early retirement at forty-five, and in recognition that the state would collapse without him, the president had the option of living forever. Imagine that. Living forever with Putin.
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A providnitsa was a person of some consequence. Riding on each passenger car, providnitsas collected tickets, fed the stove, tended the samovar, settled disputes, and kept third-class passengers out of first class.
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Siberian Express. The train started in Beijing, stopped in Irkutsk, and finished in Moscow.
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“He killed more of the enemy than of his own men, but it was close,“ …
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“What does a factotum do?” “Well, he does everything. That’s the point. Anything and everything: driver, translator, hunting guide. A factotum can even arrange romantic liaisons. At your command,“ Bolot beamed.
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“Is it dangerous to walk across a crocodile? Maybe so, but worth it if there is a pot of gold at the other end,…“

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Jan 10, 2020

“If a man has confessed, what does evidence matter? I’ve told you a hundred times that the best evidence in the world is a confession. And among colleagues, cooperation. Each man pulling his own oar,“ …
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They drove in silence and mutual contempt along a street deep in winter ruts.
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Prisoners in transit might wait a day or a year in suspense. A cell designed for four prisoners might hold twenty men with a single pail for slops. The heat, even in the dead of winter, was so stifling that men sometimes passed out on the floor. Misery had an epic quality.
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The prison was a place where bodies crawled over each other and mixed their sputum and bacilli, and it occurred to Arkady that the warden was as much a prisoner as Aba Makhmud.

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Jan 10, 2020

Irkutsk was a city of two minds. It was a modern Soviet city and a quixotic collection of old wooden houses amid colorful onion domes. A vast public space was taken up by the park where Lenin Prospect met Karl Marx Square. Pedestrians moved with deliberation through drifts of snow, and even the ponies in the park leaned into the cold.
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…the prisoners in their cells were watchful and silent, turning as a group like fish in an aquarium. It was the sweat of bodies and the funk of stale cigarettes, the rotting smell of addicts and the fruity, ever-present bouquet of human waste and buzz of flies that made life sad. It was the triumph of hopelessness.

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Jan 10, 2020

He tried calling Tatiana, but it was like playing a slot machine that never paid off.
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“…Lake Baikal?” “I haven’t been there yet.” “I read about it. Deepest lake in the world. Holds more fresh water than all other lakes in the world combined...”
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Irkutsk was a university town full of students circulating from coffee shops to their first classes of the day. Walls were plastered with notices for chamber music, karaoke, flamenco. What impressed Arkady was the number of Buryat students. Many of them had made the leap from herding reindeer to an urban lifestyle in one generation.

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Jan 10, 2020

He paused to contemplate an ice creature that was half tiger, half beaver, with a sable in its mouth, “It’s Babr, an imaginary creature,” a voice said, “It’s on Irkutsk’s coat of arms,“ …
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He loved to waltz and occasionally dropped one of his many medals down his partner’s décolletage. A search for the missing medal was always the highlight of the evening, to hear the old man tell it.
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It was as if she were standing between a leopard and a jaguar, two variations of the same animal.
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“Tatiana is fatally attracted to dangerous stories, and you are attracted to her. It makes for inevitable consequences,…“

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Jan 10, 2020

Siberia was a land of Mongolians before most of them were slaughtered by the Cossacks. So mix together Mongolians, Slavs, and now Chinese, and the population changes.
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In December of 1825, three thousand troops rose up in St. Petersburg to abolish serfdom and overthrow the tsar. Nine thousand loyalists fought back and won the battle in Peter’s Square. Over 120 of the rebels, many of them aristocrats and intellectuals, were exiled to Chita and forced to work in the silver and salt mines from six in the morning to eleven at night. Ever since, Chita had been known as a prison city, a uniformly ugly city of factories and shabby wooden houses built, in good part, by prisoners and the children of prisoners.

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Jan 10, 2020

Like all Siberians, the people of Chita half foundered on their expectations. Some opened their chains and irons and lived the bitter lives of exiles. They felled the taiga to build their ships and mined the hills for gold, uranium, and precious stones. Finally, oligarchs arrived to drill for oil.
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“It’s Chita. Anything can happen. ‘Not yet ready for tourists, the guidebooks say,“ …
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It was no use trying to rekindle a fire that was damp. He was tired.
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“You’re being cynical.” “I hope so. I hope I’ve learned something from my years in Moscow.” “This is Siberia.” “Siberia, the home of the gulag,“ …
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“Bears are omnivores, so they taste like their last meal,” Bolot said, “Berries are good. But if they’ve been eating salmon, they smell like low tide on a hot day, …”

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Jan 10, 2020

He told tales about murderers and thieves who understood how important it was to defend even a shred of honor. Some were heroic, others pathetic, all full of rue. One man had amassed a fortune in cigarettes. The moment he stepped out of the prison gate and was a free man, his treasure was worthless. The stories tended to be obsessed with perceived insults, letters from home, days left to serve.
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All I ask is that people follow their conscience, not their fears.
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“How old were you when she died?” “Ten.” “Too young.” “Everyone is too young when their mother dies,“…
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“Napoleon lost Russia because he didn’t bring along enough supplies,“ …

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Jan 10, 2020

“Is that why you admire Decembrist wives?” Arkady asked, “Because they chose to leave everything behind for love?” “And because they made something good from a terrible curse. What I don’t understand is why some of them left their children behind. Can you imagine?” “Maybe those mothers knew their children would be loved and cared for in St. Petersburg, but their husbands would have nothing,“…
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Through a door in the back they passed rows of metal lockers to a small restaurant and bar, “They have Chinese, Mexican, and Ukrainian,” Saran said, ”but I can promise you, they’ll all taste Chinese,“…

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Jan 10, 2020

“So, in case I meet a bear, what should I know?” Arkady asked, “It’s best to shoot from a distance of one or two hundred yards,” Bolot said, “If you can, aim at the hump on his back so the bullet will pierce the lungs. That’s a quick kill. If the bear charges you, shoot at the two lungs and keep shooting until you’re sure it’s dead.” “And forget all that bullshit about shining a flashlight into a bear’s eyes to scare it away,” Georgy said, “It doesn’t work,“ …
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“I brought along bags that are supposed to keep animals from smelling food,” Georgy said, “It might work for other animals but not for bears,” said Bolot, “Their sense of smell is unbelievable, at least a thousand times better than ours. They can smell a carcass from twenty kilometers away,“ …

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Jan 10, 2020

“Remember, a bear can run faster than you can, and where there’s one, there may be two or, more dangerous, there may be cubs. Either way, if you wound it, you kill it,“ …
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“Look for scratches on trees. They love stretching and clawing; they’re like cats that way, “Bolot spoke with authority, “In lean years bears hibernate in haystacks or fallen trees. When hungry, they’re alert to anything passing by. Then there are ‘ rovers ’: bears that keep searching for a place to hibernate. And the female bears have their cubs in these caves. They let them out for periods of time in the spring before herding them back into the cave, “

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Jan 10, 2020

“A fisherman is on a frozen lake. He moves around, listening all the time for the ice cracking beneath his feet, ready to jump back to thicker ice if necessary, but sometimes he’s not quick enough. The ice breaks. He falls in.” “So, what’s the dilemma?” “I heard it from my wife, Irina. If he pulls himself out of the water onto the ice, he’ll freeze to death in seconds, a minute at most. If he stays in the water, he’ll die of hypothermia in five,“ …
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Bolot was insistent that they cook the bear meat for several hours, way longer than Arkady and Tatiana thought necessary, “Bears often carry parasites,” Bolot explained, “You don’t want to catch trichinosis, trust me. Happened to two friends of mine. One of them got severely ill, the other, severely dead,“…

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Jan 10, 2020

…a bear doesn’t see you, don’t disturb it. If the bear does see you and stands up, he may just be curious. Back away slowly if you can. If the bear follows you, stop and stand your ground, …
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“Do you know how many trains pass here every day?” Tatiana asked, “I forgot my timetable, “He smiled. Besides, every Russian knew that timetables weren’t worth the paper they were printed on. Trains could be days late, not just hours. They came when they came and they went when they went

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Jan 10, 2020

He didn’t care what she said, only that she was there. Darkness and cold came together. Arkady felt he was dying like mercury in a thermometer, slowly and by degrees.
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A nurse the size of a shipping hazard peered over him and smiled. Some of her teeth were missing, some were gold, and the sight was so unnerving that Arkady hoped he wouldn’t give her cause to smile again.
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It was called Shamanka, Shaman’s Rock. The story was that an eagle had traveled between the spirit world and the human one. There it lay with a Buryat woman, who conceived the first human shaman, from whom all other shamans were descended.

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Jan 10, 2020

Bears are walking bacteria carriers from all those dead animals and carrion they feed on and the roots they dig up, so the wounds they inflict tend to be pretty filthy. Teeth or claws, it makes no difference.
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When the bear attacked you, it took your soul. Well, one of your souls. You’ve got three. The first is in your skeleton and vanishes when you die. At the same time, the second one transforms into someone or something else: a person, an animal, another living being. You’re not dead, though, not yet, Arkady thought, “So you’ve still got those two. It’s your third soul I need to find. It travels the world, sometimes in dreams, sometimes not. That’s the one you’re missing, and without it your body can’t function normally or heal itself,“…

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Jan 10, 2020

Bolot was an iceberg, all bright surfaces and hidden depths, and like an iceberg he rotated now and then to show a new face.
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I journeyed into the underworld, where the Smallpox People cut out my heart and boiled it, and the Master of Madness stripped me of skin, the Master of Confusion stripped me of muscle, and the Master of Stupidity stripped me of organs. I was a skeleton wandering in the dark, not sure what I was seeking but somehow aware that I’d know when I found it. Then the Masters rebuilt me, and a silversmith made me eyes that could see new worlds, and a blacksmith pierced my ears with iron fingers to allow me to hear the plants talking. Now, if I wanted to, I could twist my head off,“…

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Jan 10, 2020

one day it will be, and that’s the day we’re working toward: the day when the people who come to power represent the interests of all segments of our society. Not the Russia we have now but another Russia, a better Russia, a Russia committed to human rights, the rule of law, and a strong civil society.
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“…This is Aba, a friend, and this is Bolot, my factotum.” “Your what?” “ My associate,” Arkady said. Bolot looked pleased at the promotion.

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Jan 10, 2020

“…Cape Ryty’s the Baikal Triangle,“ Aba scoffed. Bolot wagged his finger, “Supposedly, evil spirits live there. Locals won’t go near it. Even if their cattle wander off, they won’t go after them. Boats go missing. Just the other day, one called the Yamaha. Clear day, good cell phone coverage, experienced sailors …” He clicked his fingers, “Gone! Vanished. They never found a thing. Not a single piece of wreckage. As if it had been swallowed up by the lake itself. There was another one when the crew came back with thick beards and said they’d been gone for weeks, but they’d only been out for the afternoon. …”

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Jan 10, 2020

Murders between oligarchs had been commonplace in the nineties, when the Wild East was well named and the economy rapacious.
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Lisikhinskoe Cemetery was the largest in Irkutsk, a vast necropolis rich with gangsters, artists, and poets. The city had been home to dozens of cemeteries before the Revolution but now this was the only one that survived. Pallbearers struggled under the weight of the coffin. Arkady knew there wasn’t a body in there, so either the pallbearers were more accomplished actors than he would have given them credit for, or the undertakers had miscalculated the number of sandbags it would take to simulate the weight of Boris Benz.

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Jan 10, 2020

“Zugzwang,” a chess term meaning that any possible move would be fatal.
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The authorities wanted a seventy percent turnout and a seventy percent vote for Putin.
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“I thought mirages were only found in deserts.” “A meteorologist explained it to me. Something to do with layers of air that distort the light off ice,“…
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“The Decembrists were not idle in exile. They established schools, a foundling hospital, and a theater for the local population. They saw what I have seen, what every true Russian can see: that here, in Siberia, lies the soul and the future of Russia,“ …


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