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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Alexei Nikitin

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To purchase Y.T.

Title: Istemi
Author: Alexei Nikitin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2011 (Eng. 2013)
Length: 133 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Y.T. - US
Istemi - UK
Y.T. - Canada
Istemi - India
Istemi - Italia
  • Russian title: Истеми
  • Translated by Anne Marie Jackson

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Our Assessment:

B : solid little novel of late-Soviet/post-Soviet conditions

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Yorker . 11/7/2016 .
Publishers Weekly . 29/2/2016 .
Wall Street Journal . 15/4/2016 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "The story -- at times hauntingly evocative, at other times truly confusing -- never feels quite stable, but is held together by the narratorís nuanced character." - The New Yorker

  • "The perversion of an innocent game into an occasion for treachery serves Nikitin as a metaphor for the realities of post-Soviet Ukraine" - Publishers Weekly

  • "A smoky noir atmosphere, enhanced by Anne Marie Jacksonís close-clipped translation from the Russian, suffuses the hunt for the identity of the emailer (and for whoever informed on the students in the first place). But the mystery plot, which comes to a sublime anticlimax, is less memorable than Mr. Nikitinís gritty, jaded depiction of post-1989 Ukraine." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Istemi (now published as Y.T. in the US) is narrated by Alexander Davidov. It is 2004 and he is stuck in "a tiresome, uninteresting job" promoting: "American fizzy drinks" in Ukraine (at least: "The pay, mind you, is not to be sneezed at") when he gets an e-mail that's a blast from the past. It brings him back to his student days, in 1983-4 -- and the events that brought those to an abrupt end.
       Back then Davidov and a few of his friends got caught up in an elaborate role-playing game, in which there was an entirely different world-order, where each of the players ruled one of the great powers: a Holy Roman Empire, a Slovenorussian Confederation, the United Islamic Caliphates, and the Khanate of Zaporozhye. It was a relatively short-lived distraction: the authorities got wind of what they were doing (and naturally interpreted it as subversive students: "quantitatively simulating the partition of the Soviet Union") and the kids were detained for two months. They were kept and interrogated separately, but of course there wasn't much to squeeze out of these kids. Instead, the interrogators soon tried a different approach: they joined in, carrying on with the game and playing along.
       Eventually the kids were released, and that was the end of the game (and some of their academic careers) -- until twenty years later, when Davidov gets the ultimatum. Contacting one of the other players, Kurochkin, the one who has made it big -- "a big fish in our rather small pond" who had made it to real-life First Deputy Premier for a while, and still sits in parliament -- he finds out that he too received the ultimatum. They recognize it as authentic -- insofar as only someone very much in the know could have written it, as it includes the tell-tale sign-off: 'Y.T.', meaning 'your turn' ("to confirm that we'd made our final decision").
       Davidov tries to piece together what happened in the past -- trying to figure out who was responsible for the authorities taking an interest in the game and its players -- and who was now resurrecting this long-forgotten episode. Back in the old days, the harmless game had proved to be not quite so harmless; almost equally absurdly, its present-day revival-out-of-nowhere amusingly has similarly enormous life-changing ramifications for the (now non-)players.
       Looking back, Davidov admits: "It's a long time since I've been able to believe myself". The past is an almost could-this-really-have-happened-? hazy -- and for the most part better left dead past. Davidov's life was thrown off-track (if not entirely off the rails) under the old regime, but he hasn't fared much better in the new. He had had a go at it -- "I had worked for four private firms, in three of which I had been a founding member" -- but each time he had tried to make something of himself by founding a new business it was taken away by corrupt, more powerful figures -- "bandits, cops and outright bad guys". Unable to play by the rules he didn't understand (or which were so totally stacked against him), he took the easy route left open to him -- working for the company selling American fizzy drinks. But others -- notably Kurochkin -- knew how to work the system. Only -- occasionally there came a curveball, like that ultimatum-out-of-nowhere, suggesting a different game was (still) being played .....
       Istemi can feel almost subdued, as Nikitin doesn't mine the imagined game of world domination anywhere near as much as he could. Yet his story is still an effective commentary on late Soviet and then post-Soviet conditions in Ukraine, offering a surprisingly wide-ranging look at life in Ukraine in recent decades. The arbitrariness of aspects of the resolution to the stories -- as Davidov does get the answers to his questions -- adds to the novel's punch, as life does prove to be very much a game, with haphazard rules and unpredictable (strategic as well as random) moves .....

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 March 2016

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Istemi: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian-writing Ukrainian author Alexei Nikitin (Алексей Никитин) was born in 1967.

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