Historical fiction | Soviet Union

The Soviet lockdown

At the end of the 1930s, a plague epidemic was averted in Russia. Lyudmila Ulitskaya's novel about the era reads as a parable of our time.

A historical black and white picture. Some people are standing in a town in front of a large building and two towers.

Moscow in the 1930s


Rumours were the only credible source of information in the Soviet Union. I remember how in April 1986, even under Gorbachev, state television affirmed that there was no danger to the population, and we, teachers and parents, tried to get our children home from schoolyards and playgrounds amid terrible rumours about the Chernobyl meltdown.

Nor was there any official warning for the population in December 1939, in the middle of the bloody winter war against Finland, when word spread that the plague had broken out in Moscow. My grandparents and my mother, then eleven years old, learned of the danger through acquaintances. Lyudmila Ulitzkaya wrote the screenplay “The Plague” about those events in 1978. Understandably, it was never made into a film in the Soviet Union.

What exactly happened at the time of the plague outbreak only emerged after the collapse of the Soviet regime, when part of the archives were briefly opened. Lyudmila Ulitskaya wrote her screenplay in the 1970s purely on the basis of the rumours of the time, as she has since explained in interviews. What stands out is how closely the “gossip” correlated with the truth in a totalitarian society.

“The physician Simon Gorelik informed the secret service NKVD. They organised a rapid contract tracing and disaster was averted”

In reality, the infected microbiologist Abram Berlin (represented by the character Rudolf Mayer in the script) arrived in Moscow in December 1939 on a business trip from Saratov. And the city was saved by the doctor Simon Gorelik (in Ulitzkaja’s play he is called Sorin), who diagnosed pneumonic plague, quarantined himself with the infected microbiologist and informed the secret service NKVD.

The latter organised a rapid contact tracing and disaster was averted. Only three people died both in real life and in the book: Berlin (Mayer), Gorelik (Sorin) and a hotel barber. What Ulitzkaja could not know at the time remained outside the script. The writer portrays Mayer as a courageous researcher working on a vaccine to save humanity from the deadly plague. In reality, as recent studies have revealed, Abram Berlin participated in a top-secret programme for the Soviet government: his team was involved in developingbiological weapons. Macabre details of their “scientific” work included how the programme’s experiments were tested on Gulag prisoners.

“Rumours were the only credible source of information in the Soviet Union. What stands out is how closely the ‘gossip’ correlated with the truth”

Rumours that subsequently circulated about the events of the time, however, included talk of a letter that the doctor Simon Gorelik had written to Stalin before his death in quarantine. In the last letter, Lyudmila Ulitskaya has Sorin ask for the release of his arrested brother. In reality, almost all the doctor’s family had been sent to the Gulag: in 1937 his sister and her husband were arrested, in 1938 his brother followed, and in 1939 the husband of his daughter Mirra was executed with a shot in the neck.

Also not included in the novel is how the several secret service agents were decorated with high orders for the successful operation and the efficiency of their work in fighting the pandemic. A very special “award” was also given posthumously to the real hero of the story Simon Gorelik.

Months after his death, Gorelik’s widow, the nurse Emilija Jakowlewna, was arrested. She died in prison. The Goreliks’ room in their “Kommunalka”, the Moscow communal flat, was given to the NKVD executioner who had investigated Emilija Jakowlewna’s “case” himself. Her daughters Mirra and Lea then lived room to room with their mother’s murderer for years.

“The collection of those who had to be quarantined was disguised as an arrest, so the security forces didn’t have to explain the disappearances”

The appearance of Ulitzkaja’s book owes its large following to recent unpleasant developments: The hysteria of the Russian mass media around the new deadly Corona epidemic last spring, the images of military trucks full of coffins and the photos of mass graves, which reminded the writer of her old script during the lockdown.

The unfilmed story matched the current events. And the manuscript from the drawer was brought back to life. In the German translation, “The plague” was given the new title “An epidemic in the city”. In collaboration with the author, the translator Ganna-Maria Braungardt has shortened and modified the original text in some places.

In any case, nowadays, in the midst of worldwide, often failed quarantines and lockdowns, this text reads differently than it did at the time it was written. Western readers may get the impression that it is about the advantages of a totalitarian society in fighting a deadly epidemic and that the text is an unintentional tribute to the Soviet secret service that thwarted the pandemic: Only the NKVD was able to save Moscow, a metropolis of millions, from disaster at the time. But the author certainly did not have such a “regime-loyal” interpretation in mind when working on the script. 

Lyudmila Ulitzkaya was really writing about a completely different plague which beset the city and the whole country: fear. Pure animal fear of one’s own state is the main character of this book. Only one detail says everything about the atmosphere in the city dripping with terror: the collection of people who had contacts with the infected and had to be quarantined was disguised as an arrest. In this way, they avoided having to explain the disappearance, and with it avert any outbreak of panic, leaving no space for questions arose among the relatives and neighbours of those people who had been picked up. 

The script ends with a revealing punch line. One of the survivors comes home and reassures his wife, “Dina, it was the plague. Only the plague!” His wife asks with relief, “Only the plague?” The sarcastically macabre happy ending almost hurts.

The German-language novel “A Plague in the City” by Lyudmila Ulitskaya is highly topical today, almost half a century after it was written. The plague of fear is back in my country. The people of Russia want to finally bury the angst of their own state. Meanwhile, the survival strategy of the thieves and murderers in power is to maintainthis fear through repression. 

Translated by Jess Smee