The Wanderer

Meet Degi Dudayev. It's not easy being the son of independent Chechnya's dead president.

VILNIUS, Lithuania — We had agreed to meet at the airport, but no one is waiting in the arrivals hall. Out in the street, Vilnius is covered in fog, or maybe a fine mist of snow. Then, right at the curb, a black Saab comes to a sudden stop. The fine profile of its driver betrays the likeness of his father, and I walk down to meet him.

He exits the car -- tall and thin, with a fitted gray overcoat, a black polo shirt, and black loafers that have been shined to a high gloss. He greets me politely, extending his hand like a European. Yet it's unmistakably him: Degi Dudayev, the son of the late Dzhokhar Dudayev, president of briefly independent Chechnya, and persona non grata in today's Chechnya, once again under the control of Russia, where even talking about him could result in a fatal visit to the lion cages at the zoo. "I'm 2 inches taller than my father, but overall, yes, I look a lot like him. You can imagine what it's like to always be compared to your father and measured against him," he says with a smile whose politeness betrays either grief or sarcasm.

We get into the car and drive from the airport into the city. Outside the windows, the monotonous landscapes of the Vilnius suburbs flit by, gray-paneled apartment blocks, people in dark clothing. Degi is 29 years old. Nine of those years he has lived in overcast Lithuania, a zone of transit through which thousands of Chechens fled to Europe during -- and especially after -- the two wars with Russia over their homeland.

Musa Taipov, editor of the Chechen news site Ichkeria.info (which is prohibited in Russia) is a supporter of Chechen statehood, a politician in exile, and an expert on his compatriots abroad. Taipov says that only in France, where he lives, are there more than 30,000 Chechens. In Vienna, there are close to 13,000. "The authorities in European countries try not to publicize the number of Chechen refugees, but I studied this for some time and made contact with officials, so I can tell you that today in Europe there are no less than 200,000 Chechens." The leading countries are France, Austria, Belgium, Norway, and Germany. Chechens seldom stayed long in the Baltic states, usually moving onward. But the younger Dudayev stayed put at these crossroads.

His father died in a missile strike in 1996 in the midst of the first bloody war with Russia. Many expected Degi to take up his father's mantle, but the time never came. He never left a mark on Chechen politics, never headed any kind of government in exile, never started a foundation in honor of his father -- and in the three days I spent with him I tried to understand how he lives as the son of a man who, in some sense, changed the course of Russian history.

Degi drives with confidence, having buckled his seat belt (in Chechnya such obedience before the law would be counted as a sign of weakness). I ask him whether he is bored here, and in any case, why Lithuania? He tells me it's because his father led a division of strategic bombers in the Soviet air force that was stationed not far from here, in Estonia. That was from 1987 to 1990, just in time to catch the birth of the political movement for Baltic independence, a movement that helped spur the Soviet Union's breakup -- and helped inspire the move for Chechen independence that would come after.

The elder Dudayev had a very good reputation as a soldier. In the Estonian city of Tartu, he was given command of a division in decline, and in a few years he made it exemplary. He was seen as a kind of troubleshooter, a manager of crises. He rose to become a general and made close friends with Estonian and Lithuanian politicians during the nascent independence movements. He reportedly refused orders to shut down the Estonian parliament and television networks, and in 1990, when his unit was withdrawn, he resigned and returned to Chechnya. In the local media, he became known as "one of the three," along with Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the separatist leader of Georgia, and Vytautas Landsbergis, who fought for Lithuania's independence from the Soviets.

The Baltic states looked on him fondly. In the Latvian capital, Riga, there is now a street named after Dudayev. In Vilnius, there is Dudayev Square, which with classically Baltic irony abuts the Russian Embassy, as Degi points out.

After leaving our luggage at the hotel, we go for lunch. Lithuania around Christmas is cold, some 10 to 15 degrees Celsius below zero. Degi parks the Saab, and we enter a small restaurant in the old city with green walls and black-and-white photographs reminiscent of a Parisian cafe. Our freakishly tall waiter lights a candle, and in the half-darkness of snow-covered Vilnius we begin to talk about Chechnya and its war.

"Even when my father was alive we would often move around. We lived in Siberia, in Poltava [in Ukraine], and in Estonia. But if in those days we had the feeling of being at home everywhere we went, now it's the opposite: no father, no home, nowhere. I'm like the eternal stranger and really don't live anywhere. I visit my mother in Tbilisi, my brother and sister in Sweden, go skiing in Austria, and swim in the sea in Greece. I could have long immigrated wherever I wanted -- Sweden, Holland, Germany. For a few months I lived in Paris, trying to size the place up. But no, none of it was for me. What keeps me here is.…"

He goes quiet, as if choosing just the right words. "Here I can still hear the Russian language. In Europe, I always get the sense that I'm at the edge of the world, always moving further from my home. I start to panic, thinking I'll never return, and because of the Russian language I got stuck here." What does Russian mean to him? "Only someone who has lost his homeland can understand that," he says with a sigh. "You won't understand. When you don't hear your native language, you start to feel a kind of hunger for it." And what does he consider his homeland? "Chechnya. Russia," he says.

Who would have thought: the son of Dzhokhar Dudayev missing Russia and its language? His father fought a war against Russia, and now his son misses the motherland and dreams of going back? Degi doesn't see it quite that way. "My father did not make war with Russia," he tactfully corrects me. His father, he says, understood that Chechnya had nowhere to go without Russia. He treasured Russia's literature and served its military well. He was the first Chechen general in the Soviet Union's armed forces and one of the country's best military pilots. "But he wanted a partnership [with Moscow], which would acknowledge the right of Chechnya to be its own state, the same as in Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Lithuania, Latvia, and so on," says Degi. All those who wanted their freedom received it in those years. All except the Chechens.

As we're talking, the words of a friend, a Chechen, come back to me. I recall him telling me about the awful strife that began when Dudayev took office -- that when the trolleys stopped running, it meant the Russians were moving in troops. And so it was at the end of 1994 that the trolley buses in the Chechen capital of Grozny stopped. The Russian forces had cut off the electricity lines, foretelling the economic blockade that would marginalize the small republic. The tram lines through the city were literally torn apart after that, piece by piece, the tracks and cables hauled away. "My father did not want a war, but you see, that's how it happened," says Degi.

I ask him, if his father were alive and saw what his battle had turned into, would he regret what he had done? For a long while, he's silent. He holds a cigarette in his hand and looks into the distance. "You have to understand, I cannot judge my father," says Degi. "Everything was surging and roiling at that time. The entire republic wanted freedom. It was a euphoric time.… My father had support in the Kremlin. [The nationalist Vladimir] Zhirinovsky came to visit him. Senior officials in Moscow would invite him and say, 'Keep at it. Nice work. Don't quit now.' That created this illusion that victory was possible. At least maybe a victory like Tatarstan would later achieve -- an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation. But as it happened, Chechnya was goaded into war. And Russia was goaded into war. They could have come to an agreement and turned their neighbors into loyal friends instead of enemies, as happened in many cases afterward. Russia would have been stronger for it."

Degi figures that Moscow saw the Chechen question as a geopolitical problem. "If you look at a map, Chechnya is situated in such a way that you can't just cut it out. It is tied in with the rest of the Caucasus and with the rest of Russia irrevocably. We could not draw a new border and break off from Russia while being surrounded by Russia and essentially a part of it. To separate Chechnya would mean breaking off Dagestan, Ingushetia, Stavropol. So the question for Russia was probably not whether to lose Chechnya or not, but whether to lose the Caucasus or not. And taming the Caucasus is the Russian empire's oldest pastime. That's probably why they ended up leveling the place."

They finally bring us the meat we've ordered, but it gets cold: I ask question after question. In looking for the answers he returns to the past, and the contrast between the past and the present is so sharp that he literally begins to feel ill.

Just imagine what he's lost: Once upon a time he was the son of the president. Yes, the president of a tiny country, but a country fighting an empire. His father had audiences with Saudi kings and Turkish politicians. Pro-Western leaders from the Baltic states sent his father aid money. Meanwhile, Degi, the golden boy who had almost everything, rode to school with bodyguards. And for a while, the army of one of the world's biggest countries was powerless before his father's bunch of desperate warriors, across whose coat of arms a wolf had come to rest.

"That crest is on my shoulder, a tattoo, even though I know that Muslims aren't supposed to get tattoos. Before they bury me they'll have to burn it off my body. But by then it won't make a difference," Degi says, laughing, as he snuffs out his cigarette in the ashtray. That wolf is a symbol of Ichkeria, as the Chechens called their briefly independent state, and now punched into his skin with a needle, a stamp of loyalty to the cause his father served. "That flag and that crest hung only a few years. They were taken down, but they'll stay with me till the end."

* * *

To paraphrase the poet Daniil Kharms, "You could have grown to be a king, but you turned out to be nothing." Fate has been cruel to Degi: The son of a father killed in battle, he turned into a wanderer; meanwhile, the son of another assassinated Chechen leader got everything. "I remember Ramzan Kadyrov," Degi says, speaking of Chechnya's current leader, who inherited power in 2004 when his own father, a rebel turned pro-Moscow ruler, got blown up during the second Chechen war. "He was this kid who didn't talk much and ran errands for his dad, a folder under his arm." Today, Kadyrov has a fleet of sport cars and, a former boxer, rules Chechnya with an iron fist -- yet is very much beholden to his boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As we sit, Degi smokes one cigarette after another. His jitteriness, his profile, his perfect manners, and his unshakeable sadness start to remind me of the actor Adrien Brody. Degi tells me that he remembers how he arrived in Chechnya while in the first grade and lived in Katayama, a neighborhood with alleys full of lilacs. He was so happy to be in a place where people spoke Chechen, the language of his father. Soon after, the war started. He lived in the presidential palace, but with round-the-clock security. Degi tells me that he practically had no childhood, but was happy nonetheless: He was among his own; he was home. Those last years of his father's life were Degi's favorite, he tells me: how they would go shooting at the range together, how his father taught him to use a firearm, the conversations about life, and life itself, on the edge, the peak, on the ascent. "For all the fancy houses and expensive cars and European capitals I've seen, I'll never be as happy anywhere as I was in our Katayama," says Degi, flicking an ash.

I ask him: Has he ever thought about the paradox that it's Kadyrov who has continued the work started by his father? He nearly chokes on his food. I ask him to hear me out: "Look, your father played fair. He was a Soviet officer who knew the meaning of honor and integrity. He said openly what he wanted. Ramzan does exactly the opposite: He says what Moscow wants and pledges allegiance, but the laws of Russia do not hold in Chechnya. There is no highlander democracy and no Russia state. Chechnya has become a little sultanate."

Degi laughs. "Sorry, I just remembered how someone once advised my father to impose sharia law in Chechnya. He laughed and said, 'If I cut off the hands of every thief, I'd have no Chechens!' I know, you want to understand what I think of him. Let me formulate the thought.… When people ask me what I think of Kadyrov, I answer, 'Kadyrov managed to do what others would never be able to do,'" he says, with the double meaning thick as syrup.

I ask about the legacy his father has in Chechen history. Is he the man who pulled his people into a slaughter, or is he the ideologue of independence? Degi again falls silent for a while. The questions are unpleasant, painful, ones I'm sure he's thought about a lot. "I think that however much the times might change, however many years might pass, my father will remain who he is, a symbol of freedom, which often bears a very high price."

Bearing the weight that fathers leave behind is more than some men can bear. Dzhokhar Dudayev's eldest son, Ovlur, moved his family to Sweden and refused the surname he was given at birth: Ovlur Dzhokharovich Dudayev became the Russified Oleg Zakharovich Davydov. "I'll never be able to understand that," says Degi curtly. His sister, Dana, got married and took her husband's name. Degi, the youngest, remains true to his father's name. Even though it brings him no shortage of problems -- security services watch his travels around the world with a magnifying glass -- he carries it with pride, like a family crest.

* * *

Like the candle at our table, our conversation begins to flicker to an end, and we walk out into the dark of Vilnius, illuminated by Christmas lights. Degi, a gentleman, offers his arm. "Hey, why don't we go see Gamsa?" he says, turning to me. "You wanted to talk to someone from those times, someone who knew my father, my family, me -- and nobody knows that better than Gamsa. He just got here a few days ago. It must be fate."

We get into the car and go to the hotel "to get Gamsa." A tall Caucasian is waiting impatiently in the lobby, glancing with interest through the window. He gets into the car and starts cracking jokes in that inimitable Georgian accent. His face seems familiar to me, but for the life of me I can't place it.

"You know, Yulia," he says to me, "I have this urge to go to St. Helena. When I'm there I have this feeling like I've come back home. I probably died there in a former life." I had the same feeling, I tell him, in Istanbul, when I looked through the windows on the Asian side into the Bosphorus and started to weep that I will never get to see my paternal home. Turning around in his seat, Degi teases: "Well, don't the two of you make a pair, huh?"

Our shoes squeaking in the snow, we walk from the car to the Radisson, whose Skybar on the 22nd floor offers a view of the Vilnius cityscape at night. That's where I learn that Gamsa is actually Georgy, and only later that he is Georgy Gamsakhurdia, the son of Georgia's first president, the man who gave his country independence. Over a drink my photographer whispers, "The only thing this table lacks is the son of Qaddafi."

Their fathers were friends who dreamed of creating a united Caucasus, who plotted together and helped one another. Gamsa's father, Zviad, helped Dzhokhar Dudayev with the legal issues of carrying out the referendum that declared Chechnya's independence and secession from Russia. With their histories linked, it's perhaps not surprising that they shared a similar fate: Gamsakhurdia was killed in 1993, Dudayev in 1996. It's an odd fraternity, these two exiled princes of the Soviet Caucasus.  

While Degi and I are talking, Gamsa's phone rings and he walks away to answer it. He comes back to the table glowing. "Boris called. He asked me what I managed to come up with. When are we going to get into something, huh?"

"Boris" turns out to be Boris Berezovsky, the Russian oligarch who would die a few months later in his own London exile in late March. "Where did he get the money and the strength to get into anything? Russia's state TV keeps saying that he's poor as a church mouse and lives off people's charity," Degi quips. The force of their laughter makes the table shake so much the glasses start to dance. "Boris is poor?! And does the state TV say babies come from storks? Hold on; I have to go tell this to Boris!" says Gamsa.

The following morning, Degi picks me up at the hotel. We sit for a quick breakfast, and the waitress asks him in Russian: "What kind of coffee would you like?"

"White," he answers. I give him a quizzical look.

"Ah, right, white means with milk. Black means without milk. That's how the Lithuanians say it. You know, I speak six languages, lived in various countries, and in my head it's like a stew of different traditions, cultures, expressions. Sometimes things get confused, you know? Like when you wake up and aren't quite sure where you are and who you are. That happens to me sometimes."

As a child, he lived in Russia and he spoke Russian; then his family arrived in Chechnya, where they spoke Chechen; then Georgia, where he learned Georgian; then an English college in Istanbul.

"The first year I stayed silent because all the lessons were in English, and where would I have gotten English from? But man, did I start talking in that second year!" says Degi. Then it was off to the Higher Diplomatic College in Baku, Azerbaijan. "Turkish and Azeri are almost identical, so they were easiest to learn." And now it's Lithuanian. "Now that's a language not for our ears. But I'm like a polyglot already. Wherever I live for a bit, I start speaking the language," he says nonchalantly. 

We pay a visit to the empty office of his company, Veo, which installs and sells solar generators and panels. "Before I worked in logistics, then decided to get into alternative energy. We partner with Germans, who are ahead of everybody in solar energy right now." There's gray wall-to-wall carpet on the floor, some computers and office equipment -- everything in dull, northern tones. He rents an apartment nearby in a newly built high-rise with a mirrored exterior. One wing is inhabited; two others are empty, with gawking concrete eyes. "Because of the financial crisis they dropped the construction. Call it Baltic pragmatism," he laughs.

The apartment is a high-tech studio with windows from floor to ceiling -- but it's cold and lifeless, and there's no sun coming through the window. It seems he hardly ever spends time here. It is a temporary container for his things, for sleep, but in no sense is it "my home, my castle," says Degi. There doesn't seem to be a single item that reveals anything about the inhabitant. His words come back to me: "no father, no home, nowhere."

On his silver MacBook we look through an enormous archive of family photographs. There's a young Dzhokhar Dudayev after his first flight on a fighter jet, standing at attention with other soldiers. In the picture, everyone looks straight ahead, but he is the only one whose torso is turned and looking to the side. (In many images, his posture recalls the words of Napoleon: "It's not I who goes against the current, but the current that goes against me.") There's Dudayev receiving various decorations and awards as general; then he's in Grozny and the shots turn to politics, fancy suits, burning eyes, and awed crowds of listeners. In the black-and-white shots, there's little Degi in his dad's general's cap. He's being held in the arms of the Chechen author and Dudayev's comrade, Mariam Vakhidova, with a caption that reads in English: "Little general." On Degi's laptop, the biggest file of photos is called "Daddy and me."

There are lots of pictures to go through, but he can't sit still for long. We get up to leave, and Degi quickly opens and shuts the door, turns out the lights, and runs down the stairs. He walks quickly, always writing something on his smartphone, as if afraid to stop. I point this out. "If you stop, you start to remember, to think, to reflect, so I try to keep moving: business, friends, the gym, the airport. Chechnya is like a taboo," he says. "Yesterday, I spent a few hours talking about Chechnya and fell out of whack. That kind of pain, you understand … it never goes away."

* * *

We decide to spend the day on the road, driving out to the Trakai Island Castle. Out on the highway there are old pines and firs, with their heavy caps and branches dusted in snow. Suddenly he says: "Tell me about Chechnya, what's it like there now."

For a long time I tell him, in detail. He has not been back since 1999, since the start of the second war. He listens in silence and then utters thoughtfully, "You know, maybe it's good that that's the way things are."

At the castle, Lithuanians bundled up against the cold scurry through the streets, but Degi wears a light knitted jacket with artificial fur. "No, I'm not cold, really," he says. "When we lived in Siberia, mom would wrap me in coveralls and send me to sleep on the balcony. She was a creative person, what can I say?" At the lake near the Trakai Island Castle are market stalls, and I look in to buy some presents for my kids. Degi, learning that I have two sons, starts buying up toys -- a rubber-band gun, a wooden battle ax, a sword, and a slingshot that could probably take out an elephant. I protest.

"Don't argue; they're boys!" he says. "They need to get comfortable around weapons early on. All the more because, you know, the times are leading toward a big war." I look at his face, which has gone suddenly serious. "You have to train men from childhood."

He tells me that in the third grade he carried an old TT pistol in his backpack and would disassemble and apply oil to his bodyguard's side arms. The love his father had for guns is legendary. Having become president, Dzhokhar Dudayev gave the right to bear arms to men (and boys) between the ages of 15 and 50. When the Soviet Army withdrew, leaving behind its military bases and arsenals, they were looted by the locals with great enthusiasm. As Viktor Baranets, a former Soviet colonel, puts it in his book The General Staff with No Secrets, the Kremlin wanted to divvy up the weapons in Chechnya 50-50 with the locals. President Boris Yeltsin even sent his defense minister to negotiate a deal with Dudayev. He didn't make it in time. By 1992, about 70 percent of the weapons had been snatched. By the start of the first war with Russia, the republic was armed to the hilt. Degi recalls a gift from his father: an Astra A-100 pistol, made in Spain. "For me it's better than any Stechkin or Glock for accuracy and size, and it has no safety switch and it's easy to install a laser sight."

In the evening we meet up again with Gamsa. I get out my audio recorder, and as insurance, Gamsa pulls out his own. "My father," Degi begins, "was friends with Gamsakhurdia, and a year after the referendum and Georgia's secession from the USSR, Zviad was in conflict with the Moscow-backed leader of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze. The Gamsakhurdia family wound up in grave danger. Zviad asked for asylum in Azerbaijan but was refused. In Armenia, they took him in, but under pressure from Moscow they were supposed to give him up. Any day they were meant to put him on a plane from Yerevan to Moscow, where he would be arrested. Or killed. So my father called up his personal head of security, Movladi Dzhabrailov, and sent him to Yerevan with a simple order: 'Don't come back without Gamsakhurdia.' He went there, burst into the office of the then-president of Armenia, [Levon] Ter-Petrosyan, took out a grenade, and pulled the pin."

"Yep, that's how it went," Gamsa says, picking up the story. "He said he would only return the pin when our family had landed in the airport in Grozny. And there he sat for a few hours [holding the live grenade] across from the president of Armenia until he got the word from Grozny that everything was fine, that we had landed. The president's guards wanted to arrest him or execute him, but Ter-Petrosyan said he had done a manly thing and let him go home. Can you imagine, Yulia, the kinds of days those were? Days of men and action!"

Degi remembers the moment when the Gamsakhurdias landed in Grozny. "Gamsa walked down onto the tarmac, raised his brows, and took a look around. It was just like that scene from Home Alone when the kid understands that he's going to be home for Christmas … without his parents. He was a chubby kid, calm-looking, but when I saw him I knew immediately that this kid was going to raise hell."

Then boys, they shared a few years of friendship in Grozny, battered by the Russian bombardment and deafened by the wail of military aircraft. It was a childhood spent between four walls and under constant security. "We didn't really have a childhood," says Degi, remembering an episode from those days. "Gamsa stole a bottle of cognac, and we drank it between the two of us. I was about 10; he was 13. And to save ourselves from Alla [Degi's mother], we climbed into my father's ZiL limousine and fell asleep in the back seat. Everybody was looking for us, thinking we'd been kidnapped. We had just gotten hammered and passed out! That was our little rebellion."

After arriving in the Baltics, Degi went to study IT. "What else? I was always sitting in a locked room and hanging out with the computer," he says. But it's clear that something in him needs that feeling of being close to death, that feeling that comes only in times of war. He snowboards and races motorcycles, pushing his Honda CBR1000RR to almost 180 miles per hour. Gamsa chimes in. "When things get really bad," he says, "I go up there [to the mountains], to some isolated spot, and I throw grenades into the gorge. What calms me down is that rumble, the explosions."

The two sons remember how their fathers, sitting by night in the kitchen, would draw out their grand plans on pieces of paper: A confederation of the people of the Caucasus, a new civilization -- with a highlander's code of honor, etiquette, respect for elders, and the freedom to bear arms -- all rooted in a secular state, with a constitution and democracy. "Our fathers dreamed of creating a completely new entity on the political map of the world," says Degi. In 1990, he remembers, his father returned from a summit in the Netherlands, where all the nations of the Caucasus had been represented, and brought with him a sketch he had made of the new Chechen flag and coat of arms: nine stars representing the nine tribes, or teips, of Chechnya, and a wolf laying down with a sun in the background. "Hard to imagine how his chakras opened in the Netherlands, of all places," Degi jokes about his father's inspiration.

In some sense it could be said that Gamsakhurdia succeeded where Dudayev did not. Perhaps it's just an accident of geography: Georgia was separated from Russia by the great Caucasian ridge; in Chechnya, the hand of the empire, or rather its rockets, faced no encumbrance. As for the sons, while Degi tried to flee the past, getting into business, flitting around the world, keeping his memories on the hard drive of his silver laptop, Gamsa really did go on to raise hell. He is an active member of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's team. At one point, the Kremlin put Gamsa on an Interpol wanted list after Kadyrov accused him of supporting terrorists hiding out in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. A few weeks after our evening of drinks, back in Moscow, I receive an SMS from Gamsa: "Get this: During a meeting with his security men in Grozny, Ramzan put a million-dollar bounty on my head. What, is that all I'm worth?"

"You probably know that for a Chechen to leave his homeland, something extraordinary has to happen," says Taipov, the politician in exile in France. "In 2004, when Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated and his son [Ramzan] was appointed leader, that is what happened. Everyone who was a patriot in the 1990s and stood up for independence -- and that was for the most part the intelligentsia -- they all understood that there would be no mercy. We were free, and they were not, you understand? That's why in 2004 we saw the second wave of emigration, the biggest in the history of the Chechen people. Everyone who was free fled."  

"A young state makes lots of mistakes," says Gamsa. "Misha [Saakashvili] also made mistakes, of course. You can't get by without them. But in the end he managed to build a state based on the rule of law; he laid a foundation. Dzhokhar also made mistakes, but he managed to create the basis for a democratic society, a moral basis that was then fiercely destroyed." Degi tells me that, despite the brutality of war, his father categorically forbid torturing prisoners. "He put it this way," says Degi. "'How can you blame a soldier sent here by his motherland, drafted and ordered to go? He was thrown into the meat grinder; he was following orders, so why act like beasts and tear him down?' Once he beat the hands of one of his field commanders with the butt of his gun for debasing Russian POWs. If my father saw how one Chechen allows himself to degrade another today.…" A heavy silence falls over the table.

We are sitting in a bar called California, near a noisy group of Lithuanian basketball players drinking Irish coffee ("the drink of British spies," laughs Gamsa). The bill arrives, and Degi grabs it like a hawk lest, God forbid, Gamsa should try to pick it up.

When he walks over to the cashier to pay, Gamsa turns to me: "That's because he lives here, while I am just visiting. This is how he treats me as his guest. Caucasian hospitality. Dzhokhar raised him right. He's got honor and etiquette, like an officer, you understand? I think that's why he keeps himself apart from everything, because he sees filth from a distance and gives it a wide berth."

I return to the hotel past midnight. Vilnius shimmers with snow and lights. Outside my window, like a white mountain sits the main cathedral, a Catholic cross, mounds of snow, people headed home. And somehow I understand why Degi never became a real émigré, never left it all behind, never devoted himself to his memoirs or to opposition politics. This is why he got stuck in sleepy Lithuania, on this patch of snow, in this transit zone, longing for the Russian language and loving Russia and his little Chechnya honestly and unconditionally, like only a man who has lost his home can love it.

Aleksei Maishev/GQ Russia


The Big One?

Is China covering up another flu pandemic -- or getting it right this time?

We are at a mysterious fork in the road. One path leads to years, perhaps decades, of spread of a new type of influenza, occasionally making people sick and killing about 18 percent of them. It's not a pleasant route, strewn as it is with uncertainties, but no terror seems to lurk on its horizon. The other path, however, wrenches the gut with fear, as it brings worldwide transmission of a dangerous new form of flu that could spread unchecked throughout humanity, testing global solidarity, vaccine production, hospital systems and humanity's most basic family and community instincts.

There may be some minor footpaths along the way, heading to other alternatives, but they can't be discerned at this moment. At this writing, 108 cases of H7N9 flu, as the new virus has been dubbed, have been confirmed, and one asymptomatic carrier of the virus has been identified. Twenty-two of the cases have proven fatal, and nine people have been cured of the new flu. The remainder are still hospitalized, many in severe condition suffering multiple organ failures. As the flu czar of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Keiji Fukuda, tersely put it to reporters last week, "Anything can happen. We just don't know."

On this tenth anniversary of China's April 2003 admission that the SARS virus had spread across that country -- under cloak of official secrecy, spawning a pandemic of a previously unknown, often lethal disease -- Beijing finds itself once again in a terrible position via-a-vis the microbial and geopolitical worlds.  In both the SARS and current H7N9 influenza cases, China watched the microbe's historic path unfold during a period of enormous political change. And the politics got in the way of appropriate threat assessment.

On Nov. 16, 2002, the first human case of SARS staggered in search of a doctor the very day that top Communist Party leaders were meeting behind closed doors, naming Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao the new leaders of the world's most populous country. Determined to experience China's first peaceful transition of power in living memory, without public strife between political factions, the party leaders vowed that nothing could rock the ship of state until March of 2003, when the National People's Party Congress would convene and officially anoint Hu and Wen. In the meantime, "stability" was the nervous watchword.  President Jiang Zemin and his close Shanghai allies were jockeying to maintain control of key assets, including the military, while Hu and his backers hoped to squash the Shanghai billionaire bloc that they felt had amassed too much wealth and power.

Fang Lin, a country bumpkin who had made his way to the Shenzhen metropolis near Hong Kong and found work in a restaurant that served exotic animal meats, was the first November SARS victim. By December 2002 that first case of a new, mysterious respiratory disease had expanded into a full-fledged epidemic in Guangdong province, and Dr. Zhong Nanshan and his colleagues at the Guangzhou Institute of Respiratory Diseases were overwhelmed. Amid health-care worker panic and great mystery regarding the cause of the outbreak, Zhong led a valiant clinical effort that was largely unknown to the outside world, even nearby Hong Kong. Indeed, Guangdong provincial and party authorities and their Guangzhou municipal counterparts did not even officially notify Beijing of their outbreak until Feb. 8, 2003, after it was winding down. One of the Guangzhou patients fled the province on Feb. 21, checked into the Hotel Metropole in Hong Kong's Kowloon district, and passed his virus onto a cluster of travelers staying on the same hotel floor. Those individuals, unknowingly infected, went on to spawn outbreaks in Hanoi, Singapore, Toronto, Hong Kong, China's Shanxi Province, and from there to Beijing.

Even as the WHO and health departments around the world struggled over the next five weeks to understand and control the new pandemic, the transitional government in Beijing was mum, denying any claims that SARS was of Chinese origin and that it lurked around the country, including in its capital. After retired People's Liberation Army surgeon Jiang Yanyong courageously leaked information to Western reporters about dying patients in a Beijing hospital, the fresh Hu/Wen regime, newly ratified by the People's Party Congress, secretly on April 17 decided to publicly attack the epidemic. Three days later the nation's minister of health -- a Jiang ally -- and Hu's colleague, the mayor of Beijing, were unceremoniously sacked, placing shared blame on both factions of the Communist Party. The government publicly acknowledged the epidemic, and the People's Republic set course on an all-out war against SARS.

I covered the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong and throughout mainland China, and there are more than a few aspects of the current H7N9 situation that provoke feelings of déjà vu. As was the case in 2003, Beijing now has new leaders, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, who assumed office on March 14, 2013. As was the case with SARS in 2003, information regarding the new H7N9 flu did not start to flow publicly until after safe installation of the new leadership. And during the months between the Communist Party's closed meetings that selected Xi and Li and March 14th, the country was rocked by scandals, including murder and billions of dollars' worth of financial shenanigans, pitting one Communist Party faction against another. Both the SARS and H7N9 outbreaks unfolded in atmospheres of political intrigue and secrecy.

Today, with the future path of the new influenza still uncertain, Beijing faces conundrums similar to those it confronted after publicly admitting to SARS. May Day, one of China's biggest travel holidays, is approaching. Travel restrictions might be warranted to prevent nationwide spread if the virus is now thought to be geographically confined, and if further evidence shows that people can act as carriers and transmitters of H7N9. But the economic and geopolitical consequences of clamping down on social mobility are profound, particularly now that China's economic growth is slowing.

In 2003, Beijing warned the public to limit travel, but did not actually barricade the capital and set up health checkpoints in all of the nation's train, bus, shipping, and air travel stations until it was too late. I watched tens of thousands of fearful migrant workers and students -- impelled by rumors of forced quarantines targeting those without permanent Beijing residency papers -- flee the capital by trains over the days between the April 20 admission and May Day holiday, taking the SARS virus to every region of the country. Having lost control of geographic spread, China had no choice but to assume the entire country was infected, and create an extraordinarily expensive, nationwide response. I witnessed construction of Xiaotangshan SARS Hospital, a 1,500-bed quarantine facility erected in only eight days, complete with isolation rooms, dedicated sewer and water filtration systems, negative air pressure flow, and state-of-the-art nursing stations. That astounding feat was repeated all over the country, with quarantine hospitals built in five to 10 days in every region. As I traveled around China by car, I was stopped roughly every 50 miles by police and subjected to thermometer checks. Any individual anywhere in the country that evidenced a fever was immediately placed in one of the newly erected quarantine facilities, and would remain there indefinitely -- no visitors allowed. In Beijing, such fever stations were ubiquitous: Anybody with an abnormal temperature was immediately packed off to a military-run quarantine site or Ditan Hospital for Infectious Diseases, where even the doctors and nurses were on lockdown, forbidden to see their families for weeks. Knowing that the virus was spreading inside of hospitals, terrified physicians and nurses jumped out of windows and patients hid in their homes until May 15, when the central government declared it a high crime, punishable even by death, to hide or spread SARS cases.

That is how by July 5, 2003, China stopped SARS -- with a nationwide find-the-fever campaign that could not possibly be executed in a country that places civil liberties above the rights of the state. I have often thought about the fever stations I encountered in the mountains of Shanxi, where coal truck drivers were compelled to submit to fever checks while people in bio-containment space suits sprayed antimicrobials all over their vehicles' cabs. I've tried to imagine such fever stations positioned along America's superhighways: Visions of angry drivers pulling shotguns on public health nurses and highway patrol officers always dance thru my head. Few countries could today manage a nationwide fever/quarantine campaign akin to China's SARS effort.

Indeed, I'm not sure the China of 2013 could pull off the feat it executed in 2003. Thanks to Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, and dozens of other Internet-posting possibilities, very little about this flu outbreak has remained secret for long. Any perceived violation of patients' rights or individual dignity is getting a virtual shout-out. And though President Xi and top health officials have already noted that travel over May Day might be unwise, and Hong Kong has signaled anxiety about the pending tsunami of mainland visitors, possibly bringing H7N9 their way, it seems unimaginable that today's government could close the perimeter of any major city, let alone Shanghai, the epicenter of H7N9, with population of some 23 million people.

The path not taken?

Staring down that fork in the H7N9 road, Beijing's options are limited to waiting, watching and hoping that the path the new virus takes more closely resembles the route of H5N1 ("bird flu"), with the microbe circulating in birds for decades, occasionally causing terrible illness (though usually death) in isolated human victims, but never erupting into a full-fledged human epidemic. The other path -- what might more closely mirror the 2009 H1N1 "swine flu" pandemic -- is almost too terrible to think about.

In 2008, a type of influenza that had circulated in pigs for decades underwent some key mutations as it passed through commercial hog farms in the American Midwest. A few isolated cases of nonfatal human infection turned up, among pig farmers and kids that visited county fairs in the United States. Late in 2008, more medically ominous, yet still isolated, cases turned up in children in Texas and California, offering hints that the new form of H1N1 could spread from person to person (rather than pig to person). Dutifully reported by health officials, the cases were logged by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But it wasn't until the virus jumped the border into Mexico, probably via infected travelers or farmworkers, that the global swine flu pandemic was born in March 2009. And BOOM, it spread around the world with breathtaking speed, despite every kind of control measure officials in given countries could dream up -- including grounded flights from Mexico, forced quarantine, and school closures. No vaccines were available for more than six months, and the world's richest countries bought rights to all supplies manufactured before 2010. Most of the population of the planet never received an H1N1 vaccine, and the lions' share that did get immunized had already been exposed to the pandemic, or even toughed out the flu.

So that H1N1-like path in this forked flu road is frightening because the world's capacity to respond to a true pandemic hasn't really improved since 2009/10. In China, many of the find-fever-and-quarantine policies of SARS were executed against H1N1 patients, but proved ineffective, as that flu was far more contagious than the SARS coronavirus. But Beijing had clearly learned lessons from SARS: Within hours after the WHO declared H1N1 a pandemic, Premier Wen held a high-level meeting devoted to influenza control, and just two days later an unprecedented disease-focused Politburo meeting on H1N1 was chaired by President Hu.

What spared the world catastrophe during that swine flu outbreak was the relative weakness of the virus; many human populations experienced it as no more virulent, even less so, than normal seasonal flu. Biologically, the H1N1 experience showed that an animal influenza can adapt to humans, mutating to be able to latch onto receptors in our lungs, but fail to carry the genetic firepower to sicken and slay most of its Homo sapiens victims. That's the hopeful news. But politically, the take-home message from H1N1 swine flu was more foreboding: Solidarity between countries and economic powers, corporations, even many health authorities will yield in a pandemic to nationalism, company and private interests, and jockeying for power, profit and influence.

The H7N9 flu now evolving before Humanity's eyes in China has killed 18 percent of the 108 people with lab-confirmed infections as of April 22. That's a lethality about nine times the mortality rate of the Great Influenza of 1918-19, which claimed at least 50 million lives by lowball estimate, and up to 100 million based on extrapolation from colonial-era records in India and African countries. (There is no consensus regarding how many people perished in China in 1918.) More worrying, only about 9 percent of the confirmed H7N9 cases in China have walked out of hospital, cured of their infections; one has been asymptomatic; and the remainder are still hospitalized, many suffering multiple organ failure and illnesses from which they are unlikely to recover.

Reflecting on his experiences with SARS in the April 16 South China Morning Post, Zhong, the Guangdong doctor, said of H7N9 flu, "It's too early to rule out the possibility of human-to-human transmission. We think the virus is still adapting, so such a possibility exists. SARS was not as transmittable in its early stages but it evolved and got stronger. We can only say that based on the evidence so far, no human-to-human transmission has been detected. But that does not mean it is not possible."

In a 2011 paper published in Health Affairs, the head of China's CDC, Zijian Feng, warned that despite "tremendous progress" in his country in the post-SARS era, "To advance the detection and control of emerging infectious diseases, China must now invest far more in pathogen-based surveillance. An enhanced disease-detection system in China will help prevent and contain outbreaks before they cause substantial illness and death in China and other countries." In other words, improvements had been made, but a genuine early-warning system to detect outbreaks and prevent epidemics wasn't yet realized.

In the weeks since H7N9 was first publicly reported in China, Zijian Feng and his CDC colleagues have struggled with disease detection and surveillance, evidencing genuine difficulty in identifying pieces of the flu puzzles that are key to assessing its threat to human beings. For example, until April 17 the agency repeatedly stated that there was no evidence for transmission of the virus between human beings. People, the Chinese CDC insisted, were getting H7N9 somehow from birds. But on April 17 the agency admitted that at least three clusters of human-to-human transmission had likely occurred, including the first known cases of the virus in Shanghai. The CDC's Zheng Guang then said, "people infected with H7N9 can transmit virus...they could possibly infect others." Worried about the public response to that news, Zheng hastily added, "People don't need to panic, because such limited human-to-human transmission won't prompt a pandemic."

Most troubling, Zheng added, "Forty percent of the patients had no contact with poultry or environments where birds were located," and most of those categorized as "having contact" merely bought or ate poultry in exactly the manner that tens of millions of Chinese do daily.

More than 88,000 birds, both wild and domestic, have been tested in China for the H7N9 infection: 39, at this writing, have tested positive. None of the birds has been ill. If this is a bird virus, it is unlike any avian influenza seen before.

In contrast, the H5N1 avian flu whipped through poultry populations like a conflagration, spreading and killing up to 100 percent of exposed animals within days. In 2008, I visited farms in Bangladesh that had been hit by the virus, hearing tales of overnight obliteration of flocks. One farmer led me to his computer, weeping as he shared photos of his suffering chickens, their coxcombs and feet purple with hemorrhage, heads bowed, feathers molting. That bird flu is so contagious that farmworkers can unintentionally infect entire commercial flocks merely by carrying the virus on the soles of their shoes, from one contaminated poultry center to a virus-free one. H5N1 is a real avian flu -- spectacularly infectious and deadly as it spreads among birds.

In nature, H5N1 viruses carry a set of gene mutations that render them fully adapted for bird-to-bird spread, and, conversely, ill-suited to spreading to or among humans. In 2004, University of Iowa team tested duck hunters in the United States for evidence of bird-flu infection. At the time, an epidemic of another type of avian flu was circulating in mallard ducks -- no hunters had illness, and only three showed hints of exposure in their blood.  A National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology in Vietnam survey of people infected with H5N1 found that few worked in the poultry industry. Most were peasant families that slaughtered and consumed a chicken that had been sick -- the direct blood exposure presumably involved a very high dose of H5N1 viruses. When an individual in Guangzhou, China, came down with H5N1, local health officials rounded up birds from the patient's live animal market and tested all the market workers: While about 10 percent of the birds were sick with the virus, only 1 out of 110 humans working in the market had any blood evidence (in the form of antibodies) of exposure to H5N1. In 2005/6, when H5N1 was epidemic in birds in Thailand, health officials tested hundreds of hospitalized respiratory disease patients for the virus; none was infected. Similarly, Cambodian health officials tested more than 300 villagers for H5N1 when an epidemic spread among their poultry, killed 60 percent of the birds and one man; none of the people, other than the deceased farmer, was infected. Italy's Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie reviewed all practices used to stop spread of H5N1 within poultry flocks, concluding that in the absence of an effective vaccine there were few means to stop the virus from spreading like wildfire -- among the birds.

Overall, the evidence from H5N1 is that a true avian flu is brutally contagious and deadly to vulnerable bird species, but rarely infectious to, or between, mammals. Isolated H5N1 cases have been found in dogs and felines (including domestic cats and tigers) that attack or eat infected birds. Some Indonesian studies have found isolated H5N1-infected pigs. And since 1997, 640 people have been diagnosed with H5N1 disease in 15 countries, 377 of whom have died. There is significant dispute regarding how many additional people may have suffered mild or asymptomatic H5N1 infections, but most flu experts agree that H5N1 is among the deadliest viruses on Earth today, killing roughing 60 percent of humans it infects.

In contrast, the new H7N9 virus is officially designated by the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization LPAI, or "low pathogenicity avian influenza" because it causes no apparent life-threatening disease in birds. The new Chinese virus seems to have transitioned from avian flu to something else: an infection of minor consequence to birds, but often lethal for human beings.

1985, researchers showed that two key mutations in bird flu viruses occurring simultaneously could switch them to forms capable of spreading among mammals. When H5N1 appeared in Hong Kong in 1997, local flu experts took some comfort in discovery that the virus had not made those mutational changes, so spread among people was unlikely. And since that time the WHO has nervously monitored strains of the virus emerging worldwide, looking for evidence that these mutations had been made. Thankfully, they have not. But in 2012, two labs working independently -- one in the Netherlands, the other in the United States -- controversially deliberately made those mutations in H5N1 under controlled conditions, confirming that a bird virus with those gene switches could spread from one ferret to another, through the air coughed between them.

The H7N9 virus now circulating in China has those mutations. As Ron Fouchier, the Dutch researcher who did the ferret experiment told me, "This virus really doesn't look like a bird virus anymore; it looks like a mammalian one."

Whence came this new flu?

Usually, an influenza that newly jumps from birds to pigs, or people, emerges in rural settings, spreading among farm chickens or ducks. And typically the first human cases are village children that frolic among family fowl. When scientists isolate the new virus from such infected individuals, it's usually a clear recombination of two or three old flu strains -- a sort of genetic swap that resulted in a mosaic of bits from other viruses. The most important mosaic pieces are those for the H (hemaggluntinin) and N (neuraminidase), the proteins influenza uses to infect target animals, and spread inside their bodies. Virologists designate flu viruses according to their H and N types, but the crucial mutations that determine whether or not a virus can spread among people can only occur in certain types of Hs and Ns.

Or so we thought. H7N9 was supposed to be one of the exclusively bird forms of flu, unable to spread to mammals. That has, of course, proven wrong.

According to the WHO's Chinese Influenza Center, the new H7N9 is a recombinant of a type of influenza (H2N9) that has been spreading for a few years among wild aquatic birds in South Korea and China, an H7N3 found in wild Chinese ducks in 2011, and an H9N2 identified last year in Chinese brambling birds. The new virus is, therefore, a triple recombination.

When these three influenzas blended, the two "mammalian" mutations somehow occurred. One, dubbed ingloriously E627K, changed the virus's temperature tolerance from 40 degrees Celsius -- the normal temperature of a bird body -- to 33 C, typical human body heat. The other mutation, Q226L, switched the virus's hemaggluntinin protein from a form that latches onto a bird's respiratory tract, which is rich in sialic acids, to a type that locks onto galactose-rich receptors found in the throats and lungs of human beings. (These are the same mutations that Fouchier and a separate lab led by Yoshiro Kawaoka at University of Wisconsin inserted into the H5N1 virus, transforming it into a mammal-to-mammal spreader.)

There is a missing link. For the new virus to have acquired these key mutations, it must be infecting a mammalian species of some kind, besides human beings. It had to have picked up those mutations inside a mammalian host. But to date no infected pigs or other mammals have been found, according to the Chinese CDC.

This is a mystery. And here is another: Nearly all known bird-to-human flu jumps have occurred in rural settings, unfolding on and around farms. But not this H7N9: This may well be the first truly urban influenza in history. No infected rural flocks or farmers have been found in China. This outbreak started in one of the most modern, densely populated metropolises in the world: Shanghai.

The SARS pandemic of 2003 had its first index case -- a term epidemiologists use to define the starting point of an outbreak -- Fang Lin, identified Nov. 16, 2002. From his isolated illness grew the outbreak that five weeks later raged across Guangdong province. This H7N9 outbreak may have four index cases in Shanghai -- three of them, members of the same Li family. In the Li household lived three men, a father aged 87 and his two sons, aged 55 and 69. On Feb. 14, the elder Li went to Shanghai's Hospital No. 5, suffering breathing difficulty. He was examined, and sent home. Ten days later the elder returned to the hospital, suffering from pneumonia, and was admitted.

Two days later, on Feb. 27, the local hospital admitted 55-year old Li and its emergency room treated a 27-year-old butcher suffering "flu" who had no connection to the Li family. Recognizing it had two family members with pneumonia, the hospital notified the Shanghai CDC. Over the next four days, the third Li family member and the young butcher were all admitted to Hospital No. 5, now suffering Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS).

There was considerable concern that the Li family had SARS, or perhaps the new SARS-like coronavirus that was discovered in late 2012 in Saudi Arabia. ARDS is the key symptom of SARS, and is its usual cause of death. The local CDC used a SARS test that came up negative, but only the Beijing CDC could execute lab work for the novel Saudi coronavirus; the Shanghai CDC would not send samples to Beijing, however, until March 20.  This delay would prove damaging, and hard to understand.

Hospital workers all over China fretfully recall the rapid spread of SARS within medical facilities in 2003, and the high death toll the virus took among doctors and nurses. As the condition of the Li family worsened, health-care workers in Hospital No. 5 demanded protective gear, such as N95 masks, to keep them from acquiring the unknown disease. They were rebuffed.

Meanwhile, events were unfolding that were rattling national nerves. Air-pollution levels in the Chinese capital and about 10 percent of the nation exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's maximum allowable standards nearly 40-fold; thousands of pig carcasses floated down Shanghai's central Huangpu River; thousands more dead ducks, carefully wrapped in bags, floated on other rivers; numerous chemical pollution incidents sent Weibo users into frenzies. The national atmosphere was agitated, but official government reaction was mute, amid China's high-level government transition.

On March 4, the elder Li died of the mysterious disease.

The following day, March 5, the National People's Party Congress convened in Beijing, officially anointing Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang as president and premier of China. The do-not-rock-the-boat period was finally at its end.

And on March 6, someone posted on Weibo, "Ask the hospital to tell the truth." The anonymous posting went on to detail that a Shanghai family shared a terrible flu, and a 27-year-old man with similar symptoms had recently checked in. The Weibo user appeared to be a Hospital No. 5 employee, as he or she noted the lack of protective gear for doctors and nurses and expressed personal fear.

Over the next 24 hours the conditions of 55-year-old Li and the young butcher dramatically worsened. Both would soon succumb. When the butcher's family got a Hospital No. 5 bill for 100,000 RMBs -- roughly $12,500 -- for their son's failed treatment, cries of outrage surfaced on Weibo and a Shanghai municipal blog site. One blogger who goes by the moniker "Fisherman" indignantly commented on the payments demanded of the butcher's family, and noted that none of the remaining patients was under quarantine. Doctors and nurses are "terrified," blogger Fisherman wrote, as no protective gear has been provided. The Shanghai CDC and administration of Hospital No. 5 posted their own reactive accounts on Weibo the following day, essentially confirming the four mysterious cases, but ignoring complaints over the costs of care and staff safety.

Yet no national alarm bell was rung: Beijing CDC had yet to learn of the unfolding mess in Shanghai. And when a 35-year-old housewife was admitted to a hospital in Anhui Province, suffering identical symptoms, doctors there had no idea what was transpiring 300 hundred miles away in Shanghai.

By March 20, the Shanghai CDC had exhausted its battery of clinical and laboratory tests. Samples from the Li family and the young butcher tested positive for influenza A, but negative for the dreaded H5N1. Unable to figure out what kind of flu virus might be responsible, samples were forwarded to the WHO Influenza Collaborating Center in Beijing, part of the national CDC. After ruling out SARS and the novel Saudi virus, for several days the Beijing lab struggled to identify the influenza, never imagining it could be a H7N9 subtype -- humans had never faced such a strain, and no standard H7N9 lab test existed.

On March 30, the Chinese scientists extracted and identified H7N9 in three patient samples. As Westerners celebrated Easter the official Chinese news service, Xinhua, on March 31, announced:

"Avian influenza has been detected recently in humans in Shanghai and Anhui Province, and two of them have died, the other being in a critical condition, the National Health and Family Planning Commission said. The victims include an 87-year-old male in Shanghai who got sick on 19 Feb 2013 and died on 4 Mar 2013, a 27-year-old male in Shanghai who became ill on 27 Feb 2013 and died on 10 Mar 2013 and a 35-year-old female in Chuzhou City, Anhui province who became ill on 9 Mar 2013 and is now in a critical condition."

According to the Xinhua release, 88 close contacts of the three dead had been scrutinized, and all were well. But that wasn't exactly true. One Li family member was still in Hospital No. 5, battling pneumonia.

For several days, Chinese health authorities insisted "so far it is still a bird virus, not a human virus," and no human-to-human transmission had transpired. But on March 31, the WHO's Beijing representative Mike O'Leary insisted, "if three people in one family acquire severe pneumonia at the same time, it raises concern" that spread between people has occurred.

By April 2, the official case toll had reached seven, spread across three provinces along the Yangtze River, and the search was on for the virus's host. The total number of infections now stands at 109, and cases have been confirmed as far north as Beijing, and south 800 miles to Zhejiang, in cities with a combined population of more than 70 million people.

Which path will H7N9 take?

Much about this virus remains too strange to permit easy prediction. Markets are jittery, especially in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Airline, chicken and hotel stocks are down, and China's commercial poultry industry has lost some $3 billion since April 1. Financial forecasters feel nervous.

The absence of a genuine epidemic in birds -- less than 0.005 percent have tested positive for infection -- means this is no longer an avian flu, if it ever was. The host species for H7N9 has yet to be identified. Whatever animal harbors the virus, it must be an urban-adapted creature, and ubiquitous from China's nearly tropical south to its wintry north. And because of the presence of those two crucuial "mammalian" mutations, it must have an internal ecology permissive to mammal-infectious forms of flu -- which would seem to exclude birds, insects, amphibians -- all but mammals.

A few infected -- but not ailing -- birds have been found in Chinese markets, implying that the mysterious host can pass its influenza onto birds, and that it inhabits marketplaces. The University of Wisconsin in 2006 did its now classic "Trojan Chicken Study," sprinkling a powder visible only with UV light on one chicken at a county fair and watching the powder -- a surrogate for flu viruses -- spread over four days from the feet of that Trojan. In the end, the UV light revealed that 8.5 percent of the people working around the fair had the Trojan Chicken's surrogate virus on their hands. The study revealed that direct physical contact by one species to another (in this case, chicken-to-human) isn't necessary to spread virus. The "infected" chicken feet could just as well have been mouse paws, cow hoofs, or pig snouts.

The age distribution of H7N9 human cases is striking -- quite unlike any other flu outbreak. Flu generally infects males and females equally, but H7N9 has struck twice as many males as females. (In the over-60 age group, three times as many males, versus females, have been infected.) Bird flus tend to afflict children in large numbers because the youngsters play among ducks and chickens. More than 80 percent of confirmed H5N1 cases, for example, have been in youngsters under 17 years of age. But very few kids have come down with H7N9, and by far the majority of cases have been in adults over 60 years of age. It is unlikely this is due to a unique vulnerability in the bodies of over-60 males. Rather, this may be another clue to the identity of the mysterious viral host -- behaviorally, elderly Chinese urban men are engaged in some activity that puts them at greater contact with the unknown carrier creature.

A few infected pigeons have been found, but Chinese cities are not havens for flocks of plaza-hounding pigeons, as is the case in Paris, Rome, or New York. Because pigeon meat is prized in China, most such birds are caged and sold for food; only one infected wild pigeon has been discovered to date. Chinese agricultural officials have tested pigs, some of the floating hog carcasses, and fresh pork -- all reportedly were negative for the virus. No information regarding other urban denizens, such as rats, cats, and mice, has been provided.

Two weeks ago, Weibo users in Nanjing posted gruesome photos of sidewalks strewn with dead swallows that had bizarrely "fallen out of the sky," as one micro-blogger put it. Officials insisted that whatever killed those swallows, it wasn't H7N9. On April 21, the Vietnamese government put Long An Province on special alert after more than 5,000 swallows similarly dropped dead out of the sky, and tested positive for the other bird flu, H5N1. Chinese officials have not indicated whether those Nanjing swallows had H5N1. It would be ominous if the H5N1 and H7N9 viruses were co-circulating in China, as it would both confuse the investigation and present the possibility of yet another deadly recombination of the influenzas. On April 22, German agricultural officials announced that H5N1 had broken out among turkeys in that country, prompting Hong Kong to place an immediate ban on all importation of poultry products from Germany.

It's not yet clear what the incubation time is for this virus, which makes tracking the host all the more difficult. Investigators have been monitoring hundreds of individuals known to have had contact of some kind with identified flu patients, and three possible clusters of human-to-human transmission -- including the Li family in Shanghai -- are now subjects of special scrutiny. But triangulating people and a mysterious host is tough when the time lag between exposure and first symptoms is unknown.

To date, only one asymptomatic human carrier -- a 4-year-old child in Beijing -- has been found, and just a handful of patients have had mild flu disease. Nine of the 108 identified cases have been cured -- 99 have either died or still suffer some influenza. These startling clinical numbers point to a very dangerous, lethal virus -- but one that is still hard for people to get, or to spread to other people.

So a forecaster might reasonably conclude that H7N9 is likely to follow a H5N1-like path, causing only occasional but frightening cases in people, and never spawning a human pandemic.

But there are reasons to believe the numbers of human cases, especially milder ones, are wildly wrong, directing our eyes to that dicey H1N1-like path.

The Chinese are using a state-of-the-art nucleotide test, known as RT-PCR, to test people and animals for the virus. The method is highly specific, and if any viruses are in a drop of blood, the test will find them. But such PCR assays will not come up positive if an individual or animal was exposed -- even ailing -- but successfully fought off the infection and cleared the virus from its body. To find those people or animals, investigators need to test for the presence of anti-H7N9 antibodies in their blood.

In the absence of mass antibody screening, Chinese investigators are instead trying to find milder cases by relying on interviews with the close contacts of patients, asking over the phone, "Have you had any of these symptoms?" Given what transpired with SARS in 2003 and swine flu in 2009, few individuals are motivated to mention mild symptoms -- they don't want to be locked in quarantine. (On Monday, a woman identifying herself only as Gu crashed a flu press conference in Shanghai and demanded that authorities tell her where her father is. Gu said her mother died of H7N9 on April 3, and her father was diagnosed with flu and placed in quarantine on April 13. Since then, Gu declared to the press gathering, she has not been allowed to communicate with her father or get medical updates from his physicians. In a country where public denunciations of politicians can get one locked up Gu's actions signal desperation, and echo the sorts of cries for help I encountered from families during the SARS pandemic.) And since the Shanghai butcher's family revealed the enormous debt incurred by his treatment, many Chinese are also reluctant to report ailments. The government now says that all H7N9 flu care will be free, but many Chinese recall the under-the-table payments demanded by some hospitals and physicians during the SARS epidemic, and remain deterred. Indeed, Anhui provincial authorities this week said that only 80 percent of treatment and hospitalization costs will be covered, and the remainder of H7N9 care must be paid for by patients' families -- a tall order for intensive care costs in any country.

People's Liberation Army Col. Dai Xu insisted via Weibo and on China's CCTV that the fearfulness felt by the Chinese in the face of H7N9 flu is part of an elaborate American conspiracy -- one first executed in the creation of SARS: "The national leadership should not pay too much attention to it," he wrote. "Or else, it'll be like in 2003 with SARS! At that time, America was fighting in Iraq and feared that China would take advantage of the opportunity to take other actions. This is why they used bio-psychological weapons against China. All of China fell into turmoil and that was exactly what the US wanted. Now, the US is using the same old trick. China should have learned its lesson and should calmly deal with the problem. Only a few will die, but that's not even a one-thousandth of those who die in car crashes in China."

Famous for his nationalistic comments, Xu reportedly gained 30,000 Weibo followers in the 24 hours following this comment. He also drew criticism, to which Xu responded that his detractors were working with "American devils," adding, "It is common knowledge that a group of people in China have been injected with mental toxin by the U.S. I will not retreat even half a step."

Just as the virus stands at the fork of a bifurcated road, so does the Chinese Communist Party. Though hardliners within the party may share Xu's extremist views, the leadership this week took a remarkable step down a different, enlightened path, sending H7N9 test kits and viral samples to Taiwan. If China hopes to avoid the shame it experienced after covering up the SARS epidemic a decade ago, the government and the party will take the high road -- that's the one that shares samples with Taiwan and timely information transparently with the entire world.

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