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Pavel Zhang And Other River Beasts


If Jude from A Little Life were mixed-race and lived in a near-future, high-tech surveillance state controlled by China, he would be Pavel Zhang, the protagonist of Vera Bogdanova’s provoking and profoundly moving dystopian debut novel.

2049, Moscow. After a decade of sanctions and economic crises, Russia becomes part of the Asian Union, headed by Beijing. Everything related to China is considered prestigious, while Russia is just a territory of natural resources and manpower. The Asian Union is a high-tech surveillance state, and every citizen in China is implanted with a chip that controls health, finance and every aspects of daily routines . It’s no surprise that not everyone is happy about the massive mandatory introduction of chips, and there’s a radical activist group, CounterNet, that organizes guerilla protests against “chipization”. Software for the chips is developed by the Russian branch of a Chinese IT corporation, where the protagonist of the novel, Pavel Zhang, is a young specialist with a promising future.


Two things poison Pavel Zhang's life in the spring of 2049. First, his dream job — as a curator for the chip software development project — goes to his competitor, Igor Lykov. This job was more than just a step up on Pavel’s career ladder: it now feels as if Beijing itself is falling out of reach. Moreover, when he’s volunteering at an orphanage near Moscow, Pavel runs across Krasnov — a man who raped him in childhood.


Pavel is an orphan: his Chinese father disappeared in unclear circumstances. Widowed, Pavel’s mother attempted to drown herself along with Pavel in the nearby river. Pavel managed to swim out, his mother died.


Pavel was first raped when he was 13 and lived in an orphanage. The sexual abuse, condoned by the orphanage authorities, was regular, and Pavel happened to be the only child to fight back: he collected evidence and sent it to both the police and bloggers. The Internet attention helped prevent the case from being covered up. The orphanage’s director and another worker were sentenced, but the pedophile was never found.


Pavel discovers that Krasnov escaped punishment thanks to family connections and that he still has access to children. The sudden encounter with his childhood abuser triggers long-suppressed memories from Pavel’s traumatic past, and he becomes obsessed with revenge. Meanwhile, he continues to work on the chip project at his company, Diyu. Ambitious and focused, he intends to bypass Igor so he can get promoted and transferred to China, his father's homeland.


Sonya, Pavel’s girlfriend, a shop assistant who’s preparing for medical school exams, also volunteers in a faith-based rehabilitation center for digital addicts and secretly participates in the CounterNet protests. At one of the group’s actions, Sonya is caught by the police, and Pavel has to bribe her out, threatening his career. Pavel cannot risk his plans for his girlfriend, and they soon break up. Pavel is unaware that Sonya is pregnant.


Knowing that Krasnov won’t repent or stop abusing children, Pavel confronts and murders Krasnov by drowning him in a pond.


Meanwhile, Igor Lykov – who’s Pavel’s competitor at Diyu and everyone’s darling -- is facing his own problems: local criminals linked to the city administration have their own plans for his small business – a local coffeeshop with an “infodetox” mission (no WiFi, yet real books to lend!). Igor plans to invest profit to buy a small house with a garden for his grandmother, who raised him. She won’t ever get there, though; she dies in hospital. Igor is arrested the same day at an important presentation about the chips. Someone, most likely the local criminals, planted drugs on him. Pavel holds the presentation instead of Igor and receives a long-awaited promotion to the Chinese head-office.


In Beijing, the Chinese do not regard Pavel as one of them, and China doesn’t quite match up to his dreams. Disillusioned, Pavel approaches the CounterNet. He hacks the Diyu data to reveal a shocking truth about the authorities’ true intentions . The state will not only control life of its citizens but also choose to end it if they wish. Pavel’s father, a leader of the CounterNet organization, was the first subject of this experiment: he died after chip implementation, after many years in prison. His death in the file shows up as a death from natural causes, but now Pavel knows better.  


Pavel seeks revenge for his ruined childhood, the abuse he suffered in the orphanage, for the family he failed, and his defeated dreams. He will fight for the freedom and the choice of every person – something he did not have – and nothing will stop him in his final act, not even death.


Vera Bogdanova has written a masterly crafted text that challenges its readers with acute social issues (sexual abuse, childhood trauma and its violent consequences, the government’s digital control, Internet addiction, and objectification of woman) and at the same time compels the reader to sympathize with the dramas, twists, and challenges in the characters’ lives. This rich, frank, and emotional text is at once deft and spacious, filled with air, sounds of lively, brisk, true-to-life dialogues, the novel’s characters, transient fine colors, shifting landscapes, vivid realistic details… all set against the backdrop of the flow of an ever-changing river. The result is a spectacular debut that defies genres and expectations, and is written in a clear voice that makes Bogdanova a woman to watch in contemporary Russian fiction.

Vera Bogdanova is overwhelmed with fears and concerns, and she is both compassionate and resentful to a degree that the reader has no chance to remain distant and reserved about the story she tells. Pavel Zhang truly amazes with its natural emotional force and with the beauty and charm of its carefully crafted structure.


This is a debut novel that feels like some sort of minor literary miracle. 

– Lizok’s Bookshelf, a literary blog by Lisa Hayden


The story of Pavel Zhang is a story of the long-term impact and consequences of trauma that takes root and flourishes inside, never easing its grip as it continues to attract new problems, new violence, and endless new evils.


For Bogdanova, dystopia is a setting for heated dispute about a traumatic experience, whether we inflict the trauma, or a traumatic experience transforms us, all as mythological monsters inhabit our hearts.

– Esquire


Pavel Zhang is rightfully a central figure of the novel – he is a hero of our time, torn between feelings and career, abused yet unbroken and uncomplaining. He has pulled himself from the bottom of the river by his own hair and does not want to go back, especially since he still feels the taste of sludge in his mouth.


Vera Bogdanova has touched numerous sore spots that aren’t pleasant to discuss but need to be discussed. Violence against the individual, social violence, unfounded hatred, the defeated dreams of a young generation. Despite its dystopian nature and its dark, grim reality, the novel is not devoid of hope. There’s hope, yet one has to be persistent in their search, fighting against the river beasts of sorts, and the most vile of all – the human being.

Book details

Elena Shubina Publishing (AST)

Novel, 2021

443 pp

Rights sold

  • French Actes Sud

Literary awards

  • Shortlisted for the National Bestseller Award 2021

  • Finalist of Litsei Literature Award for Young Writers 2020

  • Nominated for New Literature Award (NOS) 2021

  • Longlisted for the Big Book Award 2021

  • Longlisted for the Yasnaya Polyana Award 2021

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