Offended Sensibilities, now available from Deep Vellum Press in Carol Apollonio’s excellent English translation, is a noirish murder mystery enclosing a sweeping satire of a nation and society decaying both morally and materially, all while defiantly clinging to a vanished imperial past. The political situation in Putin’s Russia has remained volatile since 2018, when the novel was originally published in Russian, but the cultural climate Ganieva depicts is only more starkly recognizable in the wake of Russia’s monstrous and misguided war in Ukraine.
At the center of the novel is Andrei Ivanovich Lyamzin, regional minister of economic development, who dies soon after begging a ride from Nikolai N., a prole working in procurement at the construction company run by Andrei’s longtime mistress, Marina Semyonova. Nikolai dumps the corpse on the street in a panic once he realizes that Andrei is dead, and the next day at work, he finds, stuck to his windshield, a note reading “Murderer!” Andrei had been tormented by anonymous threats during the last several months of his life, and soon his widow, Ella Sergeyevna, and his deputy, Natalya Petrovna, are being harassed as well. An intriguing cast of characters rounds out the list of suspects, law enforcement, and hangers-on, including Katushkin, a muckraking internet journalist; Kapustin, the regional chief prosecutor; and Lenochka, Andrei’s assistant, who attends “man-catching lessons” and is introduced as a pulpy, New Age, wannabe seductress who, in the summer, “goes out walking without her underwear [so that] the terrestrial, feminine forces of Earth rise up and are absorbed into her being through the lower chakras.”
Apollonio revels in the gritty imagery of Ganieva’s text while imparting a delicious rhythm to her translation, as in “the spit-spattered entryway of the shabby hulking high-rise looming amid the wooden shacks.” Among the novel’s many gems is this glorious description, which you can almost imagine being read in voiceover by Humphrey Bogart:
Angelina’s mighty leg emerged from the slit in her dress, giving all the cameras the opportunity to rise lustfully along its full length from her Louboutin toe, up along the ankle, the soft knee, and onward and upward, to the titillating thigh that receded into the fold of her dress, like a gigantic beanstalk into a scarlet cloud.
Diverting as it can be to luxuriate in the mystery, however, the novel has a serious and sobering message as well. Homicide isn’t the only crime in this unnamed provincial Russian town where pretty much everyone is on the take. Andrei had been funneling jobs to Marina for years, and his widow Ella, a school principal, reports salaries of nonexistent teachers, among other illegal activities. Average Russians heading to vote are bribed (as well as threatened) with the availability of cheap groceries at their polling places. But everyone looks the other way. As Marina’s confidant Peter Ilyushenko, a cassock-wearing Rasputin who never finished seminary, puts it: “[S]o long as even one person is taking their cut, then it’s to everyone else’s benefit to do the same, do you see?” The guy is nothing if not pragmatic, encouraging his uber-wealthy patron to see that, “from a utilitarian point of view, if things are going well for you, then that means you are right, too. The end justifies the means.”
That end is to further enrich the rich rather than attend to any sort of public good. A huge puddle has defaced the town’s central square for three years. A big storm knocks out the electricity for half the residents and leaves a trolley stop “drowning in mud.” Last year’s asphalt, hastily mixed during a snowstorm to meet a deadline, resulted in repaved roads pitted with potholes. And while Marina lives in the “new, high-end apartment building,” the masses are housed in “Stalin-era apartment buildings with mildewed balconies.” One of those destitute residents, an old woman whose pension doesn’t cover her few expenses, is reduced to scavenging a “fistful of coins” to buy a roll in a cafeteria, where she snatches a used tea bag off of someone’s discarded tray. It is a damning portrait of a society that favors those at the top of the heap — whether financial, professional, or societal.
Even more scathing are the themes that directly relate to Russia’s ongoing military abuses. The novel explicitly references Ukraine only a few times, but these moments are memorable. A veteran who lost a leg fighting in the Donbas region in 2014 goes from politely trying to bum a cigarette off of Nikolai to playing the victim card, threatening him and cursing him as a “fucking shithole,” a Fascist, and a “faggot.” Later on, a woman complains about schools teaching lessons on Holodomor, calling it a “creepy tale about the supposedly artificially induced Ukrainian famine of the 1930s,” a misguided and ignorant view that reflects anti-Ukrainian prejudices.
Nothing is more disturbing, however, than one woman’s recollection of her dinner date with Victor, the lead detective on the case. Although they are dining in a public restaurant, where presumably some sense of decorum would hold sway, Victor — between bites of his pita bread — dispassionately details torture methods commonly employed by the secret police, including using a plastic bottle full of water to “whack [someone] on the kidneys” until the “son of a bitch [is] peeing blood,” and tying “the motherfucker up with rope, cover[ing] him with a wet towel, and just beat[ing] the hell out of him.” Given the Russian war crimes being committed in Bucha, Balakliya, and other Ukrainian cities, the lengthy scene is utterly chilling.
Looming over the decay, indifference, and sadism is an omnipresent nationalism centered upon a selective and skewed Soviet nostalgia. This boorish pride is present in the most mundane scenes, as when an elevator gets stuck and the emergency dispatcher chastises the caller by saying, “Our grandfathers went through the war, and you can’t spend a single hour in the elevator.” And it is present in more consequential situations, as when Ella is accused of being in cahoots with Sopakhin, a history teacher charged with violating Article 354, which outlaws the “[s]preading [of] knowingly false information to the general public about the activity of the USSR during the years of the Second World War.” (Ganieva, with a perhaps intentional irony, miscites the provision of the Russian Criminal Code, since Article 354 actually prohibits “public appeals to unleash an aggressive war.” Would that a president could be prosecuted.) The investigators lecture Ella on everything from the danger of implying that it was “the frost and blizzards that defeated the Germans” instead of the “great Soviet people […] the army […] [and] our brilliant field marshals,” to disputing the actual number of Soviets who died during the siege of Leningrad, saying that “[t]o speak openly of such gigantic numbers goes beyond simple ignorance.”
The regional governor’s speech at a sports festival could have been recited at the real-world Red Square spectacle in October 2022 “celebrating” Putin’s announcement of military conscription:
When others take up arms against our country, […] when filthy stories are told about us, about doping, year after year, when our athletic teams are accused of cheating, when we are banned from international competitions, we do not sulk and whimper like beaten dogs. We manage on our own! We have our own traditional, deep-rooted games. We have our own Russian boxing, our wall-on-wall fighting. And we’re masters at everything else, too! The supplest gymnasts. The strongest musclemen. We will not let anyone hound us. They do it out of fear, am I right?
The result is an entire town — and, by extension, an entire nation — in the grip of “persecution mania.” As Andrei confides to Nikolai during their brief ride together, “I have gotten scared of my telephone recently. Eyes everywhere, you know what I mean?” Ilyushenko goes further, wondering aloud to some of the guests gathered at Marina’s birthday party, “[W]hy this concern for security, this focus on invisible enemies like in the old days? They’re afraid of phantoms, but they’re going around terrorizing actual people, citizens. Me! They’re terrorizing me personally!”
Ganieva makes clear that this paranoia is not exculpatory, which aligns her with those who in recent months have argued, on social media and in mainstream op-eds, that everyday Russians are, along with Putin himself, accountable for the war, at least to some degree. The author, who was living in Moscow when the invasion began, soon fled the country, and has been characteristically candid about Russia’s actions and Russians’ responsibilities. In August, she told the German television news service Tagesschau that émigrés like her have no right to feel homesick or sorry for themselves as long as Russia “is an aggressor, acting like a terrorist state.” And she does not mince words regarding the role of average Russians, including herself, writing soon after the February invasion of Ukraine that she felt “ashamed of being a part of the Russian society that has for long nurtured this president and this government that simultaneously keeps nursing imperial ambitions and the desire to restore the lost Soviet ‘glory’ while being extremely negligent of its people and their rights and interests.”
The novel allows for the faintest glimmer — “thin shoots and sprigs” — of revolt, but any nascent uprising must be continually nurtured and tended, as young Iranians are demonstrating every day. The ubiquitous threat of force makes such cultivation unimaginably difficult, but Ukrainians, Czechs, Poles, Estonians, and others who have suffered under Russian rule have shown what can be done. Now the Russian people must decide when — or if — they are ready to decide, once again, what is to be done.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.