In the autumn, Stella and I returned to school; a real city one this time,with many classrooms and teachers and a large gymnastics hall, about half an hour's walk from where we lived. It was a so-called "seven-year" school - "syemilyetka". Under the Russian system, full-length schooling - from the first grade till the high school certificate required to enter a university or a technical college- takes ten years, and the classes are simply numbered from one to ten. Upon the completion of the seventh year one could enroll in a technician's school (three years of study) and many did. Primary schools were therefore the most numerous ones, the seven-year ones, starting with fourth or fifth grade and ending with the seventh were fewer, and the ten-year ones, with seventh to tenth grades, even fewer; the nearest one was downtown, on the other side of the Barnaulka, almost an hour's walk from where we lived.
I started a grade higher than Stella, with her in the fifth and me in the sixth, and I think both of us heaved a little sigh of relief. The previous year, in the kolkhoz, sitting next to each other in the same class was a little too intimate. Now each had a class and friends of his own, meeting only during breaks, and walking to school and returning home together, but not always either. In winter, the boys would sometimes engage in a snowball battle on their way home, while the girls extended the walk to gossip. We were growing up, and sex was rearing its ugly head. There were a few particularly pretty or downright beautiful girls at school who were constantly being bumped into during breaks, and even received an occasional love letter or poem, sometimes unsigned, through an intermediary - a friend, of the same sex, of the stricken victim. The poems were often by Pushkin or Lermontov, or belonged to the lighter, valentine, kind: someone loves you, let your heart tell you who. The love confessions, mostly rejected, were invariably treated kindly, also quite often in poetic form; Tatyana's reply to Onegin - "But I have been given to another and shall forever remain faithful to him" ("No ya drugomu oddana, i budu vyek yemu vyerna") though inaccurate, was very popular.
My first love letter ever was addressed to Zoya Speranskaya, a quiet and gentle girl with curly blond hair, blue eyes, and a lovely kind smile, who lived a few houses away from ours. The letter was delivered by Vladik Krakovsky. It would have been simpler and more discreet to slip a girl a note without an intermediary, or simply gather one's courage and tell her, especially in our case - Zoya and I often walked home from school together - but a letter delivered by a friend was the established tradition, a bit like seconds in a duel. Waiting for an answer, I was rather scared at the thought of what was expected of me if my feelings were reciprocated. To the best of my knowledge there was no sex among pupils of our age. Only a few of the oldest and biggest seven-formers were rumoured to have had it, and that outside the school. It was enormously risky, sandwiched between the dangers of syphilis and pregnancy. I imagined that sixth-form lovers were expected to walk together a lot and kiss when nobody was looking, and I was excited at the prospect of doing this with Zoya but also rather scared of what it would do to my freedom, and also of the coarse jokes of my schoolmates - "Well, have you fucked her already, up against a fence at night?"; and it was with a mixture of sorrow and relief that I finally read a kind but negative reply, delivered by Vyera Sysova. Strangely, this correspondence did not spoil our friendship; Zoya remained nice to me and we often walked home from school together, sometimes falling embarrassingly silent for a while and then smiling mischievously at each other. It seemed that a confession of love, even if rejected, was a serious compliment for which a girl was grateful; and we were now more intimate, sharing a secret like that.
Among the boys, there was a strict pecking order. The dominant males were the tallest and strongest ones: Vitka Karabanov, Mishka Sysov, and Vanka Okolyelov; none of them an outstanding pupil, but all three, in addition to brawn and leadership, quite intelligent and with a sense of humour. Two or three others, of similar size and strength but duller, never managed to make the grade. Then there was the larger middle group, to which I also belonged, and it took some effort and know-how to stay there. For example the top buttons of your coat, sweater, and shirt had to be undone, showing as many collars as possible, even in the most cruel winter cold. It was all right , even fashinable, to raise the collar of your coat. The lowered flaps of your winter hat had to be tied at the back, forming a 45-degree angle from temple to below the ear, protecting the ears but leaving your neck free. Buttoning your coat all the way up or tying flaps below the chin branded you as sissy. Smoking helped. Those of us who did, taking it up mainly because it was forbidden, carried a little home-grown rough-cut makhorka loose in a pocket, together with a folded piece of Izvyestia or Pravda to roll the cigarettes with. Although skinny and not very strong, I managed to earn the coveted fist-stage GTO badge. GTO stood for "Ready for Work and Defense" ("Gotov k Trudu i Oboronye") , and to earn it you had to run a hundred meters within a specified time, jump a certain height and length, and, since the beginning of the war, also to achieve a certain score with a .22 rifle, throw a dummy hand grenade a minimum distance, acquire some bayonet practice, and pass an exam in chemical warfare and defence. The badge was a small enamelled one with a running sportsman, and the first stage was issued to successful candidates up to the age of fifteen or sixteen. After that, you had to get a second-stage one, which was larger and involved increased performance as well as a test of courage: either a water dive from the height of eight meters or a parachute jump, the latter a popular sport in Russia. Being a good skier also helped. This was the first winter when, at long last, I had a pair of proper skis. I had bought them at the "Universal Shop" where the only other sporting item at the time was a large heavy artificial fly with celluloid wings representing a dragonfly. The skis were there through some miracle of Soviet planning because they could have just as easily been sent to a shop in the hot south where snow never fell. They were of appalling quality and one simply chose two with the least number of knots. Being in the category of unrationed goods on free sale, they were very cheap, like the artificial dragonflies of which I also bought one. I knew enough about fishing to know that I would never catch anything with it, but it was a lovely art object for just a few kopeyeks. (The skis did not come in pairs and, later that winter, when I broke one of them trying mild ski jumps, and walked into the shop asking whether I could buy just one, the saleswoman counted the remaining stock and, finding she had an uneven number, agreed.) My good relations with Mishka Sysov seemed further strengthened through the fact that it was his sister Vyera who had been chosen to deliver a reply to my love letter to Zoya Speranskaya, and with Vanka Okolyelov because I was a friend of his hunchbacked, lame, and tubercular younger brother Shurka and often visited him at home. Shurka had a long, thin, intelligent face, and liked to talk about books. He also had a little business going. He painted pictures in oil colours on small glass panels and sold them at the flea market. You had to invest in this; glass was expensive and difficult to find, and oil colours, linseed oil, and turpentine even more so. But afterwards, paintings on glass, because of their transparency, especially if lighted from behind, could bring better profit than those on board or plywood. The subjects of Shurka's paintings were the traditional ones: a landscape, an elk at rutting time, a sled pulled by a troika. Shurka did not have much talent for painting and saw this as more of a craft than calling, to keep him in tobacco (he smoked in spite of his cough), books, and birds. He had a couple of large cages with bullfinches and redpolls hopping up and down and chirping. He had bought some of the birds on the market, and trapped some himself. He taught me how to build a cage, with a wooden frame, and with a couple of smaller trap-cages with sprung doors on the side, and when spring came I managed to trap a redpoll, a goldfinch, and - the biggest game of all - a beautiful male bullfinch of my own. Before one built a cage one had to get the materials, mainly the wire. Once, the summer before, fishing alone from the logs, I saw a boy about my age approach the raft. He lingered by a capstan to which one of the heavy steel cables was attached and looked around. There was nobody there but me. The boy crouched down, took out a file, and proceeded to saw away at the cable, about half a meter from the end, surreptitiously glancing around all the time. After a while, separate strands of wire started coming off, and he would lay them aside.
"What do you need the wire for?" I asked him.
"A bird cage, of course," he said, surprised at my ignorance. "It's difficult to find a cable with the free end still long enough for a cage. The fellows usually go at it as soon as a new raft is brought in. If you're caught, you're charged not just with theft but sabotage, and that's concentration camp and hard labour."
Once you had the wire, you put a lot of holes with an awl into the square wooden laths for the frame, being careful not to split it. (A small hand drill would have made the job easier, but nobody had one.) Another splitting problem came with the domed, as opposed to the rectangular, cage. You pushed the top ends of the wire into a large thick piece of bark, and it was awfully frustrating when, with the dome almost completed, the piece of bark, studded as it was with more and more wire ends, would split in two and you had to start all over again.
The small rectangular trapping cages were usually built onto the sides of a standard one, two or four to a cage, with the large central cage holding the captive decoy bird which hopped around and sang at the sight of the trees and the sky. The trap doors swung outwards and down, and the spring arm on top would be held in place by a piece of string and a stick, the lower end of it retained by a free horizontal perch across the entrance. There would be some seed inside the trap, and the bird released the mechanism by hopping onto the stick.
One never left the cage unwatched because it was likely to be stolen, a blend of crime and sport of the finders keepers kind, like the souslik traps in Kazakhstan. There was also more serious crime in Barnaul. It was risky to walk alone in a deserted street at night because a very widespread and profitable form of robbery was to take one's coat or boots. One day as we were leaving school, in a half-dark and crowded corridor, someone knocked off my Budyonka cap, seemingly as a jest. I plunged through the crowd to recover it but couldn't find it and no one has seen it. My friends told me that it will probably be sold at the flea market and that it was best to hold on to one's hat in a crowd. The loss of the Budyonka was a financial disaster and a humiliation. Made of flannel, it was cheaper than a fur hat, but it had still made serious inroads into our meagre budget when we bought it. For a while, until the new one could be bought, I attended school wearing my old dark-green Polish cap with ear flaps; nothing of the sort was ever seen there before, and children are both conservative and cruel. Even Zoya Speranskaya found some excuse for not walking home with me. The loss of the Budyonka finally proved to be a blessing in disguise, because my mother made an effort and Uncle Blatt also chipped in and I got a real second-hand but almost new Russian fur hat; of imitation fur, but most boys wore that, and I tied the flaps at the back and returned to my place in the rank of properly dressed young men.When the winter set in, we also bought, with the help of some clothing coupons, three pairs of "valyenki", the knee-high felt boots which were a basic necessity in Siberian winter. No leather footwear, except the fur boots issued to pilots, inaccessible and unaffordable to civilians, could protect your feet from frostbite. To be fully effective, the felt boots had to be oversize, with space for woolen socks or "portyanki" - large squares of cloth expertly wrapped around the feet.
The German army also seemed to have clothing problems. The first summer of the war had been disastrous, with the Germans reaching the outskirts of Moscow and Leningrad before the Russian autumn mud and the Russian winter, no less than the Russian army, put a stop to their advance. The map was watched with anxiety. People were very careful about what they said, but it was widely feared that as soon as the snow melted and the mud dried, the Germans would start another offensive, and if it was anything like the first one, more of the Soviet Union would be overrun and it might be all over. The propaganda, of course, while praising General Frost, an old and trusted ally, said that the initial German advance was due solely to the treacherous surprise attack; that as soon as Russia mobilised her enormous resources the fascists would pay dearly for their aggression and treachery. There were some signs bearing this out. Even the Russian soldiers in Barnaul, worse clothed and fed than the troops at the front, had felt boots and imitation fur caps or Budyonkas, while the dead or captive German soldiers in photographs and newsreels invariably wore their summer uniforms - no fit clothing for fighting in the snow near Moscow or Leningrad. They must have been sustaining at least as many casualties through frostbite as through battle wounds. Another sign of Russian resilience were a couple of large military factories erected within a few months on the outskirts of Barnaul. They had been evacuated from Ukraine and brought here by train complete - machinery, raw materials, and personnel, everything but the buildings. The lathes and the presses were erected first, and the operators started work in the open, in full winter clothing; only then did the walls and the roofs go up. With the military hospitals, several factories, and an officer and a cavalry school, the population of Barnaul has doubled. Many of my schoolmates were the children of the evacuated doctors, nurses, engineers, technicians, and workers. Many local boys my age - fourteen and fifteen - did not continue school but, having completed a machine operator's course, worked in the military factories. They were pale, underfed, and exhausted. The working day was long and there was also a "norm" to fulfil and compulsory overtime. There was no public transport and they had to trudge several kilometres to work and back on foot, come mud or snow blizzard. If you worked in a military factory and were late to work more than twenty minutes more than three times, it was the court and prison or labour camp. The attractions of a machine operator's course was a pair of boots and some extra clothing while you studied, and afterwards, the pay, a larger bread ration, and coupons. A pupil or an unemployed person was getting two hundred grams of bread per day; workers and clerks three or four hundred grams, and army officers six hundred. As the bread was underbaked and heavy, the portions were smaller than they should have been. At school, an additional small bun was distributed to each pupil during the mid-morning break. We also had canteen coupons which entitled us to a bowl of thin soup and an occasional couple of tiny smoked sprats at a nearby restaurant on our way from school. The queue at the canteen was very long, and the bread lines even longer. People took turns, and it helped if there was an old grandmother in the family or cooperative neighbours, because it sometimes took half a day until your turn came, and by then the bread would run out and you started again next morning.
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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