Memoirs of an Old Pessimist
Chapter 2: Kolyma (1939-1943)
It took us twelve days to reach Vladivostok from Moscow by rail. We then spent another three days on board the steamer Felix Dzerzhinsky, headed for Nagaevo Bay. The steamer was famous: built sometime at the start of the century in the Glasgow shipyards (according to a bronze plaque mounted on the wall near the captain's cabin), its colossal cargo hold had transported countless bands of prisoners to the camps. My stepfather had been assigned to work in the Northwest Industrial Mining Administration of the Far North Construction Trust in Magadan. He was to direct a sector called Sportivny at the Vodop'yanovo mine site.
The site was seven hundred kilometers to the north, in the direction of the Kolyma River. We rode out in a truck — which was, at the time, the only means of long-distance transportation in that region. On either side of the road lay low hills, draped with the sparse vegetation of the forest-tundra. Tall mining towers for sifting gold stuck up in the hollows. Narrow wooden planks ran up to the towers on every side — as if a gigantic spider had spun its web between the hills. Hundreds of prisoners dragged wheelbarrows laden with dirt along these wooden tracks, overturning them onto moving conveyor belts. The belts wound their way up the planks and dumped the dirt into large funnels atop each tower, where the soil mixed with water. The rocks and gravel remained on the grids, while the rarified soil rolled down the chutes along with the water. The gold, being heavier than soil, settled at the bottom. This desolate landscape was animated by rows of barbed wire and observation towers surrounding the camp. And so it was for the duration of the journey.
The Khattynakh camp — center of the sprawling Vodop'yanovo mine site, where we arrived late in the summer of '39 — was a conglomeration of wooden houses and huts, occupied by the site's civilian employees and their families. The Sportivny sector, with its three mining towers, was five kilometers from the village.
And all around it lay pristine nature, untouched by human hands: hills, overgrown with dwarf pine — that northern cedar which spreads its branches on the ground, bearing cones full of small, but very tasty pine nuts. In spring, the hills took on a pinkish hue, as entire fields of cranberries, which had survived the winter, emerged from the melting snows. And another regular detail of this idyllic landscape: a glum little horse dragging an oblong object wrapped in a red blanket, flanked by the bent figure of the accompanying driver. That's how they carted back the corpses of prisoners who had fled in the spring and froze to death in the winter.
We young fellows had the run of the place. In the winter, when the temperature dipped to -50o Celsius, school was canceled, and we were completely free. We skied, built caves in the hulking snowdrifts, and even heated them by burning paper and hay. I remember one time when the temperature dropped to -69o, but the air remained dry and the sun shone brightly. We had a snowball fight, but had to keep rubbing our faces with snow to avoid frostbite.
In the summer, our main occupation was digging for gold. There was a lot of it. When the rain washed a layer of soil from a mound of earth, gold flakes gleamed beneath it, and the same flakes glistened in rain puddles. We looked for gold in crevices of slate and underneath rocks, tearing up clods of dirt. Once I found a nugget about the size of my pinky, weighing thirty grams. But the primary method was panning. We used special trays, with bottoms beveled on every side and grooves in the middle. We poured dirt into them, mixed it with water using scrapers, and removed all the rocks and pebbles. When the only thing left was a layer of sand, we carefully washed it, and particles of gold remained in the grooves. There is something astonishing about the strange mystical force that attracts man to gold. Once, they blasted a big chunk of dirt and discovered a vein of gold in the crater. People rushed to the pit from all sides and, pushing and shoving, commenced clawing pieces of metal from the earth. Why, one wonders? We had to take the gold to the gold bank, where we were paid — if I'm not mistaken — a ruble per gram (ten cents for convicts). But the money had a purely symbolic value: there wasn't a thing to buy with it.
There were no stores. All the necessities — groceries, clothes, soap, cigarettes — were distributed not even by ration cards, but according to some list or another. The groceries consisted of dried potatoes, various grains, frozen apples (one had to dip them in cold water, and then they'd develop an icy crust), and, very rarely, meat — venison, horse, bear... Vitamin deficiency was mandatorily treated with a disgusting potion from pine needles, which seemed to me worse than castor oil. The potion supposedly cured scurvy. And this, when there was a heap of vitamins all around: lingonberry, cloudberry, blueberries, nuts, mushrooms... For some reason, though, no one was interested.
I was essentially left to my own devices. My stepfather spent most of his time at Sportivny, my mother worked in the camp clinic, and I wasn't their concern. My stepfather's position allowed him to take on an orderly — that is, a domestic servant selected from the ranks of criminal, rather than political prisoners. It was they who — if not directly, then indirectly — served as my teachers. There was nothing worthwhile that school could teach me.
The first was a Tartar named Usein, a counterfeiter. Although he didn't manufacture forged banknotes himself, and engaged only in their sale, he pulled down ten years in the camps for it. He and I lived in perfect harmony. But one day my mother, returning home from work, discovered a horrible scene: the room was cold, I lay with a high fever, Usein was snoring on the floor, and someone's feet stuck out from under the table. Usein had found a bottle of alcohol my stepfather had hidden, called friends over, and made a feast. Apparently I was fast asleep and didn't notice a thing. For this offense, the poor soul was sent back to the camp barracks.
The second was Kostya — a handsome young man, modest to the point of shyness — who embroidered napkins and presented them to my mother as a sign of adoration. His entire family — father, mother, and brothers — were executed: the gang robbed cars on Altai roads. As a juvenile (he was not yet sixteen), Kostya was given ten years. His sentence ended in '40, and we parted with him as with a close relative.
And then there was Boris. He was a gang boss, a hood, but had clearly turned bitch for the administration, since a real thief in the law wouldn't stoop so low as to work for a director. He wore silk shirts and enjoyed unquestioned authority among the thieves. When he'd left and our house stood empty, he simply propped a broom up against the door, and no thief dared come near.
Such were the life and customs of that region.
In autumn 1941, my mother and stepfather's contractual terms were nearly complete. In order not to interrupt my studies, it was decided that I'd be sent to Moscow toward the start of the school year, along with one of our acquaintance, who was also set to return there.
We arrived in Magadan sometime in the middle of June, and a few days later war broke out. Due to foolish inertia, we decided to continue our journey. But when we arrived in Vladivostok, it turned out that train tickets to Moscow were no longer available. We had no choice but to go back.
I spent several days in Vladivostok while awaiting the returning steamer. By comparison with Hattynakh and Magadan, the city seemed a European capital. I ran from shop to shop, frittering easy money on all sorts of pins, quills, thermometers — from which we extracted mercury — and other trifles we couldn't get our hands on in Kolyma. I returned on the same steamer, the Felix Dzerzhinsky, in a first-class cabin. Once back in Magadan, I found lodging in the barracks of a transit camp and arranged for my return trip with a truck driver. I took great pride in my independence, and was sorely disappointed when I glimpsed my agitated mother, who'd found me after running around the barracks for hours. We returned together — not to Hattynakh, but to a new location.
Yosif Lvovich had by then received a new assignment — directing the Chekai mine site. This site had been established very recently, after the discovery of a rich gold deposit. It was located twenty-five kilometers from the road, so one could only get there in the winter by sleigh — and in the summer, when rain eroded the soil, by tractor or horse. The site was small: around five thousand prisoners and about a hundred civilian employees, including the guards (according to my very rough estimate at the time). And again — hills, towers, barbed wire...
I only write of what hasn't irretrievably fallen into nowhere through the leaky sieve of memory, and has instead lodged between the holes — of what now arises in the mind's eye like a vague phantom of things once seen.
Babushkin. He was a huge, radiant, good-humored man, a former pilot. He'd served time for some criminal deed and, upon release, was hired as a camp guard. He'd drink a mug of denatured alcohol in one gulp, take me in his arms, toss me up to the ceiling, and I'd giggle with delight. Many years later, after my mother had died, my son was born, my relations with my stepfather were somewhat restored, he told me about Babushkin: he was a bailiff, that is, an executioner.
Nekrasov. He was head of the camp guards. He'd tell how he and his buddies, stone drunk, would tumble into the barracks at night, lift some convict they didn't like from the plank bed, take him outside, and beat him mercilessly. I heard this story while pretending to be asleep, when a group of my stepfather's co-workers sat around our table, drinking.
One couldn't, of course, expect a school in Chekai. At the start of the school year, I trudged up to the road with Vitaly Kandinsky, the only other boy my age at the site. We then caught a truck to the village of Yagodnoye — the center of the Northwest Industrial Mining Administration.
The boarding school, there, was of the urban type. The students came from all those villages of the Administration's vast territory that lacked schools. The student body was heterogeneous. There were the children of civilian employees — like me and Kandinsky — and of prisoner-criminals, whose families decided to settle near by. These latter determined the general atmosphere that prevailed at the school: life was regimented according to the laws of the criminal camp. Our dormitory, where about twenty boys slept, had its own gang boss — a hefty, overgrown fellow. A group of hangers-on bustled around him, "spinning tales" for his entertainment and providing other services, including of the nighttime sort. The staff were also mainly criminals, who got their jobs after serving their sentences.
The school's teachers were probably of a high caliber — doctoral candidate, PhDs, associate professors who had all been political prisoners. But school didn't interest me, and I was a miserable student. It seems I didn't understand what relation all this book-learning bore to the reality — a reality beyond the pale of true human culture — to which my mother, my stepfather and I all belonged... Why do I need all these arithmetics, grammars, histories? Literatures?
I read little. There were no libraries, no bookstores, and besides, Comrade Gaidar and his Kibalchish had robbed me of any desire to read. At some point I got my hands of Dumas's Three Musketeers and didn't like it one bit. That fraternity of swashbuckling bandits seemed to be governed by a criminal code with which I was long familiar: the same strict moral precepts demanded by gang membership, the same smugly contemptuous attitude towards all outsiders (rubes), the same reverence for bosses (King Louis), and the same disregard for human life — which meant you could stick people on sabers as easily as chickens on a spit.
Someone slipped me a copy of Turgenev — Torrents of Spring, I believe. And once again — utter bewilderment. The nature, the life, the people — all of it was quite unlike what lay before my eyes. But first and foremost, the language: it seemed dry, pretentious, and unnatural. People didn't speak that way. The people around me expressed themselves with obscenities. We children spoke in a half-criminal jargon, and profanity hung in the air. This seemed like normal human speech; without cursing, it would have lost its emotional pungency and eloquence. (Once, already in Moscow, in conversation with some of my classmates, I shot back with a vulgarism; my civilized interlocutors gawked at me in amazement. I blushed and couldn't utter a single unprintable word for a few years thereafter.)
I'm probably modernizing my recollections a good deal, projecting the results of later self-reflection onto the past. But in the cultural vacuum of my consciousness during that period, I could find nothing analogous to the things I'd read — there was nothing for them to latch onto.
My stay at the boarding lasted a little less than a year. During this time, my family's life took another turn.
After one year of operation, the Chekai site, which, as I'd mentioned, was situated atop a rich deposit, came in first in the extraction of gold — either in the Administration, or in the whole of Kolyma. The following year, the gold reserves had been exhausted, and production declined sharply. According to that era's rules, a culprit had to be found: my stepfather was relieved of his duty, and his case was transferred to judicial authorities.
So, in the spring of 1942, my mother and stepfather came to fetch me from Yagodnoye, loaded my meager belongings onto a truck, and we traveled down that same road to Magadan. Along the way, I threw my student's grade book into a roadside ditch.
The capital of Kolyma region was then simply a large village, consisting mostly of two-story wooden barracks. The main thoroughfare (the only one, I think) came up against a hill, and we settled in one of the barracks resting on the slope of that hill. This avenue served as the center for the city's cultural and administrative life: a solid stone building housing various governmental institutions, a school, a hospital, the residences of Kolyma's senior officials... There was also a small shop, where crabs, sea sculpins with heads two-thirds the size of their bodies, and all kinds of little fish were sold without ration cards. Fish plus American white corn bread — these provided a serious boost to the scarce food rations. Before the war, the small Magadan zoo was inhabited by two polar bears; then their meat was distributed by ration cards. In general, we didn't have the kind of famine they later had in Moscow.
My life in Magadan differed little from what came before. School still didn't interest me. Come summer, I ran down to the sea as soon as I could — thankfully, it was just about a kilometer from the city. I've never in my life seen such huge tides. They left behind entire lakes, entire lagoons of water that bustled with small crabs, stirring sea stars, scurrying little fish, and jellyfish with undulating tentacles... As for the winter we spent in Magadan, nothing of interest remains in the memory but boring school lessons and skiing in the hills.
In the city was chockfull of loitering criminals who'd been released from the camps.
Once, returning from forced volunteerism on Saturday (or Sunday), after the whole school was dispatched to harvest fodder turnips on a collective farm, I saw a tuft of smoke rising at the end of the street. A fire — interesting! I raced ahead, only to find a mournful scene: the smoke was coming from our own second-floor window. It later came out that a bunch of thieves lost a card game in the adjoining flat, and, having picked the place clean beforehand, torched it. Our flat burned down, too.
The next day at school, I was called to the blackboard. Naturally, I couldn't answer any of the questions assigned for homework.
"It burned up," I answered proudly.
"Golomstock! Out of the class!" yelled the teacher, taking my response as an insult.
I left the class and almost wept at the injury: after all, the grade book had really burnt up.
But most of all, I grieved for my burnt-up foreign stamps. I had pasted them onto the pages of some old, useless book. The collection was poor. But those places of origin — Great Britain, France, the United States, some country called Columbia, Tuva, Peru, Liberia, the Congo — were alluring signs of another world. That world was mysterious, strange, incomprehensible, but, in any case, different from the one in which I was forced to live, and from which I instinctively longed to escape from my earliest childhood.
The mournful episode with the fire also played a positive role for my family. Since the beginning of the war, all of my mother and father's contractual terms of work in Kolyma were cancelled, and escape was only possible with special permission. The fire, which destroyed all our possessions, provided an occasion to seek permission for a return to Moscow. By that time, my stepfather's criminal case had somehow been resolved of its own accord, he hadn't received a new appointment, and, it seems, there was nowhere to settle us. In short, permission was granted.
In the summer of 1943, we said goodbye to Kolyma, and left behind this "wonderful planet, where there are nine months of winter, and the rest is summer."
Despite the meagerness of the education I received there, the experience of Kolyma was, I believe, an important first stage in the formation of my character, my likes and dislikes, my outlook — that is, my personality. I won't describe all the terrible things I had witnessed in Kolyma: they've been described quite well without my input. Later, in Moscow in the '60s, the famed literary critic Leonid Efimovich Pinsky, himself a former prisoner of the camps, lent me four typewritten volumes of Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, which he had compiled along with the author. I read them almost without pause, day and night. I remember the same places where Varlam Tikhonovich had spent his camp years (the Northwest Industrial Mining Administration, Yagodnoye, Suchan, Serpantinka...), the same scenery, even the names of the camp directors that had stuck in somewhere in my mind all this time, some of whom I even had the honor to behold firsthand. I saw much that someone of my tender age shouldn't have seen: fugitives baited with dogs, a guard shooting a prisoner he didn't like before my eyes, the legendary camp murderer Fomin being led to his execution... Back then, of course, all this failed to form a coherent picture in my mind — failed to reveal the true essence of what was happening and, instead, settled into the recesses of my memory. I only grasped the political foundation of these events, their intimate connection with all that transpired in the country, later, in Moscow.
Chapter 3: Moscow (1943-1946)
From Magadan to Vladivostok, we sailed on the American steamer Stepan Razin, given to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease Act. We then took a train to Moscow. Stations, remote halts, wild crowds of people — women, children, disabled veterans, some legless, some armless — storming the trains and cruelly shoved from the footboards by the conductors. All of this is intimately familiar to those who traveled by Russian railways during the war.
I fell seriously ill along the way, so we were forced to stop in Sverdlovsk. And here I met my father for the second time after his release.
My father had been sentenced to five years in the camps for "anti-Soviet activities" in 1934 — when things were still rather "vegetarian," as Anna Akhmatova put it. He served his time on the construction of the East-Siberian Railway, somewhere near the Chinese border. He was released in 1938 and dropped in to see us on Lubyanka Street on the way to Kalinin. I don't recall what we spoke about, then, but I've never forgotten the words, nor even the tune, of the song he sang to me:
We cannot work little by little,
And cannot love only a bit;
We lay the road ahead of schedule,
Pleased to be used as the State thinks fit.
I suspect he wrote it himself. (I seem to remember that he played in the camp orchestra.)
To this day, my father remains a puzzle. What prompted this educated man, a member of the old intelligentsia and now a political prisoner, to say he was "pleased to be used as the State thinks fit" and to sing (if not compose) a rousingly patriotic song about selfless labor in the camps? Fear, I think — fear inspired by his origins, his past, and the colossal state apparatus of destruction, which it was futile to resist. Fear had made him keep a low profile even before his arrest. And later, when the Germans were nearing Kalinin and he fled to Sverdlovsk, fear drove him to take up the discreet post of accountant for a bath and laundry trust. I remember that shortly before his arrest, father burned a whole stack of tsarist bank notes in our stove. I bawled and begged him to give me those beautiful, brightly-colored pieces of paper, but got nothing. It seems that he burned that non-proletarian origin out of himself in much the same way, and with great success.
Our meeting in Sverdlovsk wasn't particularly warm. I hardly remembered him, and his paternal feelings had almost completely withered in the interval. We parted, to meet again only twenty-nine years later.
In the summer of 1943, we arrived in Moscow, a starving city that had only recently fought off the German bombing raids. We again settled at grandmother Lina Grigoryevna's room in a communal apartment on Lubyanka Street. In a few months, my stepfather, now a Major, was sent to Germany to help dismantle their factories. He disappeared until war's end, having started a fling with some woman over there. At various times, the little sixteen-meter room with a small cubbyhole — which was only large enough to accommodate grandmother's bed — housed up to seven people: my mother, my stepfather, his daughter Vera, my cousin Lev (whose parents had sent him from Grozny to study at the Petroleum Institute), grandmother, grandfather Samuel Grigoryevich, and me. Each morning, grandfather would open an issue of Pravda and see letters from workers addressed to Comrade Stalin. He'd then utter the sacred words, "I do not read other people's mail," pointedly turning the page. (To this day, I cannot open a letter meant for someone else, even my own wife.) I slept on suitcases pulled from under grandmother's bed. After grandfather's death, I slept on sofa pillows, while Lev slept on the springs, or vice versa.
In the autumn of 1943, I enrolled in 8th grade at Moscow High School #312. The kids, here, was more interesting than in Kolyma, and I immediately made friends with two of my classmates — Yury Kogan and Yury Artemyev. It may very well be that these friendships initiated my ascent from savage to Homo sapiens.
Among the three of us, Yury Kogan was the most intellectually advanced. He lived in the building adjacent to ours, No. 5, above Mayakovsky's former flat (now a museum dedicated to the great poet). Kogan took a serious interest in contemporary history and politics, and pored over books on the history of diplomacy, intending to build a career as a diplomat himself (alas, it was known even then that the Institute of International Relations didn't accept Jews). He knew something about the situation in the country, told us about collectivization and the famine in the Volga region in the early 1930s, about the political trials of 1937, about Comrade Stalin's personality, and many other things. (Where he'd found this information, I simply don't know.) In his case, all these horrors seem, by and large, to have been a matter of abstract, purely academic interest. In my case — they were superimposed on the experience of Kolyma, found emotional confirmation in that experience, and came together to form what one could call a three-dimensional view of Soviet reality. To some, this may seem implausible — a desire to demonstrate one's exclusivity — but it's a fact: even as a schoolchild, I'd already begun to hate Stalin, his entire camarilla, the Komsomol, the Communist Party, and the Soviet state as a whole.
Artemyev also lived nearby. His father had been arrested in 1937, disappearing into the camps, and Yury lived with his mother on Kirov Street, in a room at the former Hotel Lisbon that had been converted into a giant communal flat. Awkward, phlegmatic, and a bit on the heavy side, he looked like a typical young Russian landowner out of a Turgenev novel ("the hair, a colorless mess — and a pancake for a face," as I described him in one of the epigrams we exchanged from time to time). Often, when class was in session, one could glance through the window and see Artemyev slowly trudging to school through the yard. Confronted with the teacher's indignation, he'd just nod his head in repentance and set off for his desk.
Our shared love of music brought us even closer. Yury and I would spend our last kopecks on records and play them on an electric motor I'd inserted into an old phonograph case, which also served as our ashtray. The record hissed, the motor grunted, but I have rarely had such a keen experience of music since. For Artemyev, music was also a scholarly concern. He'd befriended Mikhail Marutayev, then a student at the Conservatory, and together they worked out some theory of composition that I found completely incomprehensible. Marutayev would pick out a chord, then they would calculate what should follow, and then a second chord would sound... To my great surprise, something musical emerged from all this.
Artemyev and Kogan were a year older than I. In 1944, they reached the age of conscription, and, in order to avoid this, enrolled in the school for working youth. They intended to complete the last two grades in one year and go off to college, which then granted a reprieve from military service. Subsequent events brought about significant adjustments in our relationship.
Sometime in March or April of 1945, early in the morning, the telephone rang in the hallway of our communal flat. It was Artemyev. He suggested we take a walk. There was nothing unusual in this, but something — either the tone of his voice, or the early hour — put me on my guard.
We wandered around Moscow for a few hours, passing along the Kitay-gorod Wall, the quays, and going as far the Sokol Metro Station. He talked the whole way.
The previous evening, he'd been summoned to KGB headquarters on Dzerzhinky Square and offered the chance to cooperate — that is, to inform on his friends, including me. Yury played the fool, expressed doubts, put forward arguments... He was then taken to a window, shown the cars parked in the courtyard, and told that if he didn't comply, they'd go and pick everyone up right away. "You're a good Russian! What are you doing getting mixed up with Jews?" the KGB office asked. Yuri was forced to comply.
And then he told me about it the very next day!
In order to free himself from cooperating in this manner at least in the future, Artemyev enrolled in Moscow State University's Geological Prospecting Department — although he was primarily drawn to philosophy. Upon completing his studies, he spent most of the year away on expeditions, far from the unblinking eye of the secret police. I never asked Yury about the nature of his activities, but, from time to time, he himself informed me of his reports: "Golomstock expressed doubts about the validity of Marx's theory of surplus value... Golomstock admires Ilf and Petrov's The Golden Calf..." Things of that sort. From the authorities' standpoint, these were signs of disloyalty, but not serious enough to put someone away. Apparently, somewhere at the top, some official put a checkmark next to my name on the list of persons under reliable surveillance, and therefore posing no threat. I was not engaged in anti-Soviet activity, not involved in any secret student. I just blabbed too much. And I was being monitored. Our yard-woman,1 Martha — who was on the best of terms with my grandmother — said that they'd come to her, asking who my associates were, who visited our flat, whether she'd heard me say anything anti-Soviet. One of my mother's patients also warned her of what a dangerous position I was in. And I'm convinced that if it weren't for Yury, I'd have spent many years in the camps.
For nearly ten years, I lived in constant fear of arrest. For nearly ten years, Artemyev's activities, which he despised and hated, placed him under severe stress. Only in 1954 or 1955 was he was able to declare to the KGB that, for whatever reason, he could no longer cooperate. I seem to have recovered, by then, and gotten over my fears. Yury Ivanovich didn't quite make it to fifty; it turned out he'd had a weak heart.
Yury Kogan was also summoned, and also forced to cooperate. But he was offered a different field of activity. The school for working youth, where both Yurys studied, also provided an education to the children of certain prominent foreign communists (the son of Martin Andersen Nexø, in particular). Lively and sociable as he was, Kogan had befriended these classmates, and now he was called upon to monitor them. He disappeared from my life after that point; we no longer saw each other. It seems he didn't want to involve me in his observations.
As in Kolyma, I studied poorly. The technical subjects — physics, mathematics, etc. — didn't interest me, while literature and history, as they were presented in school, inspired nothing but boredom and disgust. I couldn't even appreciate Pushkin until after graduation. During class, I would read Dostoyevsky, Leonid Andreyev, and Andrei Bely under my desk. If these authors were mentioned in our textbooks at all, it was only in the notes, and only as "reactionary" writers. In the last two years of my studies, I was expelled three times — for my very moderate successes and immoderate behavior. My success was to work my way up from an F to a C. But my behavior was another story! I was a quiet kid, but somehow I drew the teachers' ire.
Once, during a chemistry lesson, I was reading Dostoevsky under my desk, not bothering a soul — until someone launched a galosh at me (our class was fairly boisterous). I calmly picked the galosh up off the floor, laid it on my desk, and was about to continue reading, when our chemistry teacher, turning away from the blackboard where she had been writing some kind of formula, saw the ill-fated footwear on my desk. She rushed to the principal and announced that Golomstock had committed an outrage. I was expelled from school. My second expulsion took place under similar circumstances. During recess, as usual, an orderly entered the class with a tray bearing our prescribed breakfast (some sandwiches or cookies, I don't recall); the boys all suddenly piled up on top of him. The teacher, entering class at that moment, seems to have been almost blinded. The only thing that seemed to leave an indelible imprint on her retinas was my figure, standing off to the side and taking no part in the pile-up. And again: the principal ... my outrage... expulsion. The third time was more serious. Our school was dispatched to aid a collective farm at harvesttime. In the barracks where we were housed, someone stole something from somebody — and it seems that this very someone claimed I had done it. I felt slighted down to the very depths of the soul; I'd had enough. I got on the train, and went home — that is, I voluntarily abandoned my military post. And if my grandmother, who had a good relationship with our head teacher, hadn't resolved these conflicts, I would hardly have made it to matriculation.
One time, our school's Komsomol activist approached me.
"Do you have Fs?"
"Will you fix them?"
"I don't know."
"That's alright. Write up a statement."
Could I, in 1944, have said that I didn't give a damn about our Komsomol? Some could. I didn't dare.
I graduated from high school in 1946. Two options loomed in my future: college or the army. I had got to know something about the Soviet army during our school military assemblies in the summers of 1944 and 1945, and this fate seemed no better than the camps. They drilled us, fifteen-year-old boys, as if we were adult soldiers. Nighttime hikes over many kilometers, burdened with full equipment, digging trenches, crawling on our bellies through puddles and mud — all this exceeded my physical capabilities. But worse than the physical exercise and perpetual hunger, was the general human environment. At chow time, a ravenous crowd would burst into the dining hall; everyone wanted to grab the seat closest to the cauldron and snatch up the best portions. I'd usually enter last and get the worst leavings, or nothing at all. And if not for the meager care-packages from home, I wouldn't have survived. One day, someone from our detachment lost a rifle — or perhaps someone had stolen it. The poor old sergeant advised him: "Go and steal one from the neighboring division." In the real army, the loss of a weapon meant a date with a tribunal and firing squad. This was all strongly reminiscent of Kolyma.
Admission to college proved somewhat complicated. Anti-Semitism had not yet reached its apex, but was already gaining momentum, especially in institutions of higher learning. On my father's side, I was a Karaite, and this circumstance could have saved me from many later troubles.2 But when it came time to issue my passport, they determined my age by my teeth, as it were. The record of my birth, along with all the archives in Kalinin, had been burned before the Red Army retreated. In the passport application under "parents' nationality," I listed my father as a Jew. Now I find it hard to explain why I did this. In his book Babi Yar, Anatoly Kuznetsov relates the following episode: on the morning that Kievan Jews were being led to the site of their extermination, the Karaites, who had spent the entire night praying in their synagogue, joined the doomed column. Perhaps the rejection of Jewishness would have been a betrayal of my mother, and of the people to whom I myself (if only half-) belonged.
And so began my wanderings before admissions committees. The staff at Moscow State University's Art History Department simply refused to accept my documents, saying that on this particular year, they would only accept medalists and veterans of the war (which was a bold-faced lie). At the Geography Department, they allowed me to take the entrance exam. Despite my fantastic ignorance, I knew how to get through exams. Once, on a physics test, I was asked about the laws of electricity; I hadn't the faintest clue. But I spiritedly began to expound on the caloric theory, and — not having had time to finish the historical portion and move on to a direct answer — was interrupted, receiving a positive mark for my efforts. And here, too, I passed the history exam, geography exam, and something else. The only subject left was literature — about which I felt confident. I answered the questions quite reasonably, but the examiner (a certain Sorokin, as I now recall) disapprovingly shook his head at my every utterance. Finally, he asked me to recite a poem by Heine in German, which was, for some reason, the only work by a foreign author that had made it into the Soviet school curriculum. I began: "Auf die Berge will ich...," but faltered in the middle. Sorokin grinned with satisfaction and gave me a C.
A few days remained before the admissions process was to conclude. I was advised to apply to the Financial Institute. They accepted practically everyone. So I was forced to learn a profession which was deeply alien to all of my inclinations and aspirations.
1 A yard-man (dvornik) or yard-woman (dvornichikha) is a concierge-cum-janitor who tends to the pavement and yard in front of an apartment house. The police and secret services often used dvorniki and dvornichikhi as informants.
2 The Crimean Karaites are an ethnically Turkic community whose members adhere to a unique form of Judaism that originated as early as the 7th century. Unlike Rabbanite Jews, Karaites were exempt from oppressive anti-Semitic laws during both the Imperial and Soviet periods.
Translated from Russian by Boris Dralyuk