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101 kilometres from Moscow, a writer-doctor lays bare the contradictions and intrigue of Russian life

101 kilometres from Moscow, a writer-doctor lays bare the contradictions and intrigue of Russian life
Image: Alexandra Zalivako

For cardiologist Maxim Osipov, moving out of Moscow meant the start of a literary career. He explains to The Calvert Journal how a tragic family history brought him to his small town, why all of Russia is provincial, and what it means to have hope in an indifferent world.

25 April 2019

Author Maxim Osipov spends most of his time in Tarusa, a small town a few hours drive from Moscow. His two-floor house is on a steep, rutted street, and the window of the room where he works looks out over a landscape dotted with rooftops that slopes gently toward the dome of an 18th-century church and the forested banks of the River Oka.

Tarusa is deeply interwoven with both Osipov’s writing, and his life as a writer. Now 55, he moved there from Moscow, where he trained as a doctor and had a 15-year career in medical textbook publishing. In an interview, he recalls an entry he made in his diary while still living in the Russian capital: “I am a doctor who doesn’t treat anyone and a writer who hasn’t yet written anything.” Eventually, in the mid-2000s, after a business dispute over his publishing house and the suicide of a close colleague, he took a job as a cardiologist at Tarusa Hospital. About the same time, he began writing; his first short story was published in 2005. “It gave me a push, some sort of freedom,” Osipov says of Tarusa. “It was a liberation.”

When I visited Tarusa in late March, the skies were leaden, the Oka was brown, and there were patches of snow on the muddy ground. But it was not hard to imagine more idyllic summer scenes. Proximity to Moscow means there are many dachas — second houses — and the local population more than doubles in the summer months. Visitors are also drawn by the area’s cultural traditions: Silver Age poet Marina Tsvetaeva and 19th-century painter Vasily Polenov both had strong ties.

Osipov photographed in Tarusa Hospital in 2006

Osipov photographed in Tarusa Hospital in 2006

A minor local celebrity, Osipov has written six collections of essay, plays, and short stories in the last 14 years (“I haven’t written very much,” he says). The first English translation of his short stories, a collection called Rock, Paper, Scissors translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson, will be released in the UK in May this year.

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In Osipov’s short story The Cry of the Domestic Fowl, the narrator says that to love the people and places that surround us, it’s necessary to “notice, recall, invent.” And it is difficult not to detect this process at work in Osipov’s writing and the anecdotes, details, and themes he uses: among the many characters of Rock, Paper, Scissors are a doctor travelling to a conference, a Tajik migrant worker accused of murder, and a mediocre priest who survives a heart attack. But the writer is clear that to see real events or people in his stories is to miss the point. “It’s not important whether it actually happened or not, it’s important whether it works artistically,” he says. “We are always — willingly or unwillingly — trying to introduce storylines into our lives that do not actually exist. So, when people ask whether I lifted something from real life or not, it’s completely unimportant. Because there are no storylines in life.”

While he says his “Tarusa period” began in the mid-2000s, Osipov acquired a plot of land and built a house here in the 1990s. His son, also a doctor at Tarusa Hospital, lives next door. Aside from literature, Osipov’s great love is music: his wife is a pianist and his daughter plays the violin in a Frankfurt-based string quartet. “Short stories are a bit like musical sonatas,” he says.

The first of Osipov’s works to reach a wider audience was In My Hometown, a brutally honest dissection of life in regional Russia, which many took as a literal representation of Tarusa. Published in 2007, the essay opens with the observation that “patients, like many doctors, communicate two feelings more than any other: a fear of death and antipathy to life. They do not want to think about the future.” Osipov goes on to recount, in one anecdote that provoked a local furore, how hospital regulations mean amputated limbs cannot be burned, leading to a situation when seven legs were stockpiled in the morgue until they could be buried along with a homeless man’s corpse.

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Combining medicine and literature means Osipov is regularly compared to other famous Russian doctor-writers, particularly Anton Chekhov and Mikhail Bulgakov. But he is irritated when I bring up the comparison, and rails against being categorised as a second Chekhov or as a chronicler of provincial Russia. He points out — fairly — that many of his stories take place abroad, or in Russia’s major cities. But he also suggests that all of contemporary Russia is provincial. “If, in New York, you dye your hair an unusual colour it’s likely no-one will notice; if they do, they will say: ‘that’s interesting, no-one has dyed it that way before.’ But in the provinces they will say: ‘oh no, that’s not what we do here.’ In this sense, Russia is all a province,” he says. “Moscow is only differentiated by the intensity of life. But what is this intensity of life if you look down on it from afar? It’s just so that a group of people can steal mineral resources.”

Throughout our interview, Osipov, who is rarely without his pipe for long, veers between loquaciousness and curt dismissal. He takes issue with most propositions put to him, almost as if it were a point of principle. Early in our discussion, he observes that a good thing about getting older is that you are no longer expected to have opinions about everything. And later, responding to a question about why he chose cardiology, he says: “There are a lot of questions in life to which one has to answer ‘it just happened like that’. I can explain to you why I bought this particular car. But why I became a writer, a cardiologist, why I got married — there are no answers to these things.”

While fortuitous, his choice of Tarusa was not random. The first member of Osipov’s family to live there was his great-grandfather, also a doctor, who re-located in 1946 after a prison stint and forced labour on the Belomor Canal, a Stalinist vanity project on which thousands perished. He settled in Tarusa because former prisoners were forbidden from living within 100 kilometres of the Russian capital, and the town was just beyond this limit. Osipov’s great-grandfather’s house, bulldozed in the 1970s by the Soviet authorities, often hosted gatherings of other local dissidents, which Osipov says he dimly remembers. While Osipov himself was born and raised in Moscow, his mother also lived in Tarusa, mostly in later life, and her funeral two years ago was held in the church that is visible from Osipov’s study.

The short stories in Rock, Paper Scissors circle around and around death, illness, and the accommodations these events entail. But there is no inevitability in Osipov’s writing, and he himself is committed to improving local life. He heads a charity that raises upwards of $60,000 for Tarusa Hospital every year, and is involved in a project to erect a monument commemorating its status as “101 kilometres” from Moscow and a refuge for former prisoners. Nothing is pre-ordained, says Osipov, rejecting any charges of fatalism. “All computer programmes freeze. It’s very familiar: there’s nothing happening on the screen and you have to re-start. But it’s not like that in life,” he explains. “If there’s a fire, there will be ash. If there’s a flood, it will be under water. But everything will not just freeze. The world of possibility is far larger than the world of what is realised.”

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