Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories by Maxim Osipov review – bleakly comic Russian tales

Maxim Osipov

‘There are redemptive moments here, and comedy, but mundane corruption and casual violence permeate Maxim Osipov’s tales.’

Born in 1963, Maxim Osipov has been publishing his clear-eyed tales of life in contemporary Russia since 2007. His widely admired stories have won several prizes there and this extraordinary collection is his first to be translated into English. In the title story, a provincial teacher tries to make sense of his past. Many of the boys he once taught are now dead (“drugs, war, ‘business’ …”), and the people who control the town are cruel, dishonest, paranoid; nostalgic for old Soviet certainties. The story’s small town is a microcosm of modern Russia, where corruption permeates almost every thread of the social fabric and power is often synonymous with theft.

Nobel prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich, whose own bleak reportage provides similarly forensic insights, has written a short preface to Rock, Paper, Scissors. With a nod to Osipov’s other profession as a cardiologist, she describes his prose as “an accurate, unforgiving diagnosis of Russian life”. The stories leave you thinking “how difficult it is to love humanity – wonderful, repulsive, and terrifying as it is”, but are also suffused with compassion.

The opening piece is set in a provincial hospital. It includes a micro-manifesto for writers: in order to love humanity and the wider world, they must “notice, recall, invent”. The details of Russian life are evocative – pelmeni dumplings, pickles and salted fish. It begins: “The Provinces as home: warm, grubby, ours.” It’s a scene-setting sentence to inspire confidence; readers won’t waste their time.

You can fall for Central Russia, Osipov writes in a typically double-edged comment, as easily “as a woman can fall for a loser”. Whether pitiless or pitiable, women don’t have a great time in his stories. If they’re not Machiavels with hairy moles, they are murdered by random strangers or chased by axe-wielding offspring. One relatively positive female protagonist is the nameless musician in “Polish Friend”, a whimsical story with speculative forays into the near future. “Who knows what will have become of the EU … by then?” Osipov writes gloomily.

There are redemptive moments here, and comedy, but mundane graft and casual violence permeate Osipov’s tales. The worst events are often described with devastating economy (“Some say that it was pills she took, others – poison”). One character, a doctor who makes extra money escorting sick people to the US, falls asleep thinking of synonyms for “pointless”.

These are engaging translations from a team with a very strong track record. Anne Marie Jackson helped introduce anglophone readers to the unforgettable tales of Teffi. Boris Dralyuk has produced pitch-perfect versions of stories by Isaac Babel, among others, and co-edited the phenomenal Penguin Book of Russian Poetry.

As a doctor and a writer of short stories, Osipov inevitably gets compared to Anton Chekhov, whose dark comedy is clearly influential, as is the Chekhovian idea that the writer’s task is not to solve problems but to state them clearly. After the power is switched off when a group of actors are forced to abandon their town, one quotes: “Mother asks you not to chop down the cherry orchard until she’s gone.” Osipov follows (sometimes literally) the rule of “Chekhov’s gun”: include only details relevant to the story. When an actor buys a revolver it spells trouble, especially when his wife is drawn to the charismatic leading man. And when a mercurial oligarch fires his rifle at crows from the window of his tower, it can’t end well.

Chekhov is not the only literary undercurrent in Osipov’s deceptively simple prose. Russian poets including Pushkin and Lermontov, with their fatal duels and years in exile, often bubble to the surface. The provincial teacher falls in love with one of his students because of her essays on Dostoevsky; teacher and student argue with each other by quoting Tolstoy or Akhmatova. The story “Moscow-Petrozavodsk”, set on a 14-hour train journey from the Russian capital to the northern city of Petrozavodsk, echoes Benedict Erofeyev’s Soviet-era novel Moscow-Petushki about a surreal, vodka-sodden train journey.And there are shades of Bulgakov, another literary doctor, in the theatrical “After Eternity”.

Poetry and music are redemptive lifelines for Osipov’s embattled characters. Learn poems by heart, one character’s mother tells him, and you can take them wherever you go: “They don’t weigh you down.” There’s something poetic in the stories themselves, in their well-crafted style, form and imagery. Literature, happiness, survival itself are minor miracles in Osipov’s collection. As the narrator of the opening story muses: “Dostoevsky is a thing of wonder, and the fact that we Russians are still here – that, too, is a thing of wonder.”

 Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories by Maxim Osipov, translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson is published by The New York Review of Books (RRP £11.99). To order a copy, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.