Zygmunt Frankel



Towards the end of the school year, a new decree was announced. (Nobody ever asked whether such things classified as decrees, laws, rules, guidelines, instructions, or orders, what ministry they came from, and whether they were regional or national or temporary or permanent. They were "from above"; either signed by Stalin or as good as.) This one announced that, in view of the shortage of manpower caused by the war, no pupil, however good, will advance to the next class at school unless he or she spends a full month during the summer vacation helping with the harvest on a farm.

Marching to the station with Maria Trofimovna, our young physics teacher who was coming with us, we knew that it was going to be a tough but possibly also an enjoyable month, away from home and parents and close to the girls. (Stella, being a year too young, was not coming.)

We were allotted half a car on a passenger train, with real seats and windows, and I felt like a civilised traveller again. The trip took about two hours; not that the kolkhoz was that far, but the crowded train was slow, stopping at every little station. We were taking good care of our bundles and blankets lest they be stolen. Finally we got out at our destination, or almost, because it was another hour's walk along a dirt road to our kolkhoz. When we reached it, tired, hot, and dusty, we were put up in a classroom of the kolkhoz school, where we were to sleep on the floor, wrapped in our blankets, the girls on one side, the boys on the other, and Maria Trofimovna in the middle. We were then taken to the kolkhoz canteen where eeach of us was given a shallow plate of cooked wheat grain with a little oil sprinkled on it, a small slice of underbaked black bread, and a cup of weak tea. Breakfasts and suppers were another small slice of bread and a cup of tea. This, with slight variations and an occasional plate of coup, a scrap of meat, or a smoked sprat, was to be our standard three-times-a-day meal, the mid-day one brought to us in the field. We were not going to gain weight that month.

In the afternoon we investigated the kolkhoz. It was a medium-sized one with poor low houses. There was a small muddy river on one side where one might bathe somewhere upstream where the water might be clearer, and a small wood some distance away where the kolkhozniks told us some berries might be found unless they have already all been picked. The kolkhozniks were friendly, and Vitka Karabanov, Mishka Sysov, and Vanka Okolyelov looked with interest at the village girls.

The first couple of days were murder. The kolkhoz specialised in sugar beet, and also had a processing plant with a refinery, turning out coarse, slightly damp, brown sugar. We were told that our payment at the end of the month, in addition to so and so many rather worthless roubles, would be a couple of kilograms of sugar, a treasure on the black market if one decided to sell it.

The sugar beet fields stretched to the horizon in most directions. Tractors with something like multiple ploughs were going over them, the blades uprooting the beets. Equipped with buckets and advancing in a line, we were supposed to collect them and dump them in tall conical piles. A tractor with a trailer would later take them to the processing plant.

The beets lay sometimes on top and sometimes under a shallow layer of earth, with their leaves showing. The constant bending down soon became a torture on our young but scholarly backs. Maria Trofimovna had a double problem. She worked like everyone else to set an example, and also had to cheer us up and to egg us on whenever someone sat down for an unscheduled rest. The kolkhoz Brigadir, a strict unsmiling man, would visit us on horseback every couple of hours. On his first call he sent us back over the ground we had already covered because too many beets had been overlooked. From the second visit on, it was the pace of our work. Everything had to be done according to "norma" - the fulfilment of a plan conceived somewhere higher up for tough grown-ups used to heavy labour, specifying a certain number of standard-sized piles per day, and we were dragging way behind that. No norma, no payment and no sugar, he said. Maria Trofimovna tried to pacify him by saying that it was our first day and that we would certainly get into our stride soon.

The lunch break was a welcome relief, even though it was short and we resumed our work still quite hungry. At the canteen that night, some other mobilised workers told us that the official "norma" was something impossible except for a superhuman Stakhanovite, and that the trick was to pile up a conical mound of earth when the Brigadir was not there and then cover it as fast as possible with the first layer of beet before he arrived. Knowing that the volume of a pyramid was the area of its base multiplied by one-third the height, and that the volume of anything increased as the cube of its linear dimensions, we calculated that a mound of earth of half the finished size would spare us one-eight of the work. Maria Trofimovna looked the other way while we piled up such a mound, with the rest of the team standing by with full buckets of beet to camouflage it as soon as it was ready. The Brigadir arrived at a trot shortly afterwards. He dug with his hands into the mound and discovered the earth below.

"They must have told you about this last night" he said. "It's no go. If you don't manage the norm it only costs you money and sugar. If you do this, it's sabotage, and we bring in the N.K.V.D., and instead of a month here you could be doing much harder work in the snow in the north for a few years. Don't let me catch you at it again."

Downcast and exhausted, we piled up regulation mounds for the rest of the day, and returned from work half-dead, aching, and depressed. Karabanov, Okolyelov, and Sysov held a war council. Conical piles of earth were obviously out, but a low spherical mound would not be noticed or at least could not be proved; and neither would a handful of earth with each beet.

The next day, using this modified method, we got a little closer to the norm. And, by the end of another day, although our backs still ached badly, the pain seemed a little more bearable; we were getting into our stride. The tough and handsome trio of Karabanov, Okolyelov, and Sysov also started paying outrageous compliments, half pornography and half Pushkin and Lermontov, to the canteen manageress, a fat, plain, coarse, and middle-aged woman, with the result that our portions grew a little bigger and we were slightly less hungry. Their only fear was that she would take them at their word and exact carnal tribute, in Karabanov's words to put their pricks where their mouth were, in which case they decided to cast lots, one of them sacrificing himself for the good of the community.

By the end of the first week we have revived enough to light a little fire behind the school in the evenings and sit around it telling jokes, singing songs, and - when Maria Trofimovna was not looking - smoking makhorka cigarettes rolled in Izvyestya or Pravda. Then some village girls invited us to a "vyecherinka" - an evening party or gathering - and, having rested a little after work and combed our hair, we went.

A vyecherinka is mostly song and dance, held outdoors in summer. Each house had an integral wall-long clay bench outside on which a dozen or two boys and girls could sit side by side, cracking sunflower seeds. A balalaika, a guitar, or an accordeon would be brought along to provide the music. After a while the village boys and girls started dancing; mostly not in couples but one by one, going a solo round with their arms on their hips or crossed on their chests, the boys who could performing some kozachok steps on the way, finally returning to the bench, stopping in front of the dancer of opposite sex they had chosen for their successor, and inviting him or her with a bow to take the floor. Some people danced better and some worse. There were, we discovered, two reigning champions, a young man called Seryozha and a beautiful young girl named Marusya. There was no formal competition for the title; it was bestowed by popular acclaim, and could in due time be lost to a better dancer if such arose. It was a pleasure to watch them dance and they were frequently called out. Seryozha did one turn with high kozachok leaps on the glat overhang of the roof of the house, and we waited for him to miss the ledge or drop through the boards but he didn't. One of the village girls invited Karabanov, then another Sysov and a third Okolyelov. They were a little clumsy but made up for it in bravado and did not dishonour our school. I panicked slightly. I had been taught the waltz and the tango by Antosia before the war and she had told my mother that I had a natural sense of rhythm and would make a good dancer when I grew up, but now the verification of her hopes could be fast approaching. Outwardly idle, I was memorising the steps which were quite simple, tapping the time with my feet.. Then a blond blue-eyed village boy invited our exotic Alla Druzhinina and I prepared for the worse. Would she boycott me for having rejected her love, or was hope, in Pushkin's words, not yet altogether extinguished in her heart? When she began to slow down I tried to wave her on but she stopped right in front of me and with an exaggerated deep bow, a sweet poisonous smile, and a wave of her hand offered me the floor. I swallowed, took a deep breath, and stood up. The girls from our school applauded. If they were remembering my bravery at the winter hair-cropping, so was I. This was the third or fourth time in my young life that I was discovering a rather complimentary thing about myself, the previous cases being my swimming the deep part of the river at Zawadow, the dive under the raft on the Obi, and that hair-cropping: that however much I might hesitate or be downright scared about something, once I got up to do it, the debilitating part of the fear was gone, leaving me to carry out the task calmly and competently. Could it be that this was the stuff heroes were made of? Could I be sharing something with Old Shatterhand, Amundsen, and Chkalov?

I went around the circle hesitantly at first, then getting into my stride and even performing a passable imitation of one of Seryozha's more difficult steps, ending with a courtly flourish in front of Marusya, and then sat down rolling a makhorka cigarette and bathing in the warm glow of achievement and participation.

Later that evening, one of the young men of the village showed up with a kolkhoz horse harnessed to a long empty hay cart and the merrymakers started piling into it, with their legs dangling. They were going to the woods to build a bonfire and dance some more, and we were invited. Maria Trofimovna wouldn't let the girls go, saying that they were very tired after a hard day's work, but probably thinking of what might happen to them in the wood under the influence of the full moon and the music. She did, however, give us boys the permission, on condition that we wouldn't return too late.

We returned in the small hours and very quietly crept under our blankets. It had been great fun in the woods, jumping over the fire, sitting around in a circle, and dancing. From time to time a village couple, as well as Vitka Karabanov with a kolkhoz girl, drifted off into the dark, and were greeted with saucy remarks when they returned. Someone had brought a bottle of vodka and it managed to last the round, the girls refusing politely and the men taking only a small sip so that there should be enough for everyone. They were mostly singing "chastushki" ("little pieces" or "bits") - short four-liners on just about any subject, with a standard two-line refrain: "That's right, that's right / Perfectly correct". Although an old tradition, new lyrics for the "chastushki" were always being composed, but to become a classic they go through the filter of popular acclaim and most failed to make the grade. The rare ones that did- some dating to before the Revolution - become treasured national possessions and can be heard at vyecherinkas from Ukraine to the Far East and from the Arctic to Afghanistan. Many are love songs ("Give me, give me a revolver/ with a green handle/ and in the morning you will find me in the garden/ dead"); others indecent ("We have fucked and haven't perished/ and go on fucking and won't perish/ syphilis we haven't caught/ to the hospital we won't go." ("My yebali nye propali/ I yebyom nye propadyom/ sifilisa nye poymali/ v gospital my nye poydyom".) There were lots of patriotic chastushkas, especially since the German attack, as well as some political ones which could land you in a labour camp if overheard by the wrong ears, and also downright, practically surrealist nonsense: "Ekh, one/ pluck out an eye/ still, your place is not like our place/ the further into the forest the more firewood/ Uncle Vanya, be well". ("Ekh, raz/ vyrvi glaz/ vsyozh u vas nye kak u nas/ dalshe v lyes, bolshe drov/ Dyadya Vanya, bud zdorov.").

The next morning Maria Trofimovna had problems waking us up. Our beet norm took an enormous plunge that day, and during the lunch break we fell asleep again. After supper we plopped down on the floor as soon as we reached the school building and slept again. I woke up a couple of hours later to a nudge from Karabanov.
"Of course."
"Just a moment," our teacher said. "They're not having another vyecherinka tonight, are they?"
"Yes, Maria Trofimovna; they have them every night. Aren't you and the girls coming?"
"Karabanov, do you know what time you got back last night?"
"Slightly after midnight, wasn't it, Maria Trofimovna?"
"Four fifteen a.m.; I heard you and I looked at my watch. This can't go on."
"All right; we promise we'll be back by midnight, Maria Trofimovna."

Not knowing how much authority a young female teacher was entitled to over fifteen and sixteen year-old boys during the summer vacation after working hours, she was obviously hesitant about forbidding us to go in case we saddled her with open mutiny. Sysov and Okolyelov tactfully and hypocritically stepped in, pretending to take her side and promising to look after the younger boys and making sure we wouldn't be so late this time.

We did get back shortly after midnight, to pacify Maria Trofimovna and establish a precedent, and then began to extend it by half an hour or so each following night. Our beet norm stayed where it was and the Brigadir grew threatening. By the end of the second week Maria Trofimovna sent a telegram to school: "Cannot control the boys send the voyenruk at once".

Our Voyenruk ("Voyennyi Rukovodityel" - the military instructor) arrived the next day. Since the outbreak of the war, there was one in every school, teaching the older boys military drill, bayonet practice, target shooting with a small caliber rifle, and throwing dummy handgrenades, while the girls learned nursing. The officer was usually young, invalided out of more active duty by a comparatively light wound; ours had a scar on his left forearm and some slight, hardly noticeable disability of the hand. With his officer's uniform, cold blue eyes, and curt military manner he was an entirely different proposition from Maria Trofimovna. (Is it possible that she was trying to kill two birds with one stone: reestablish discipline and have the handsome Voyenruk with her?)

He had a talk with us that night: no more vyecherinkas until we and the norm have recovered; under the blankets by ten p.m. sharp. He compensated us to some extent by telling us frontline stories by the little fire at the back of the school building that night, and the next morning accompanied us to work, supervising and working with us in spite of his hand. The war council of Karabanov, Sysov, and Okolyelov has decided that we would lie low, work hard, up the norm, and pretend full cooperation until some light, perhaps with a little help from us, showed at the end of the tunnel. At the canteen that night, the handsome young officer drew interested glances, and we introduced him to the canteen manageress, Marusya, and a couple of other pretty girls from the village who immediately invited him to a vyecherinka. We stood there looking completely disinterested. He couldn't, he said; those vyecherinkas were the very reason he was there, because the war effort and the bringing in of the crop was of the utmost importance, wasn't it? Of course, if the boys behaved and fulfilled the norm for the next few days he would have no objections to letting them attend under his supervision.

When he finally did, all of us got back at four a.m., the Voyenruk leading the Indian file in the dark, shushing us to keep quiet. He had counted without Marusya, the champion dancer and one of the most beautiful girls in the village, who had taken a fancy to him and had disappeared with him into the bushes almost as soon as we reached the wood. From then on the norm remained treasonable, the Brigadir apoplectic, and Maria Trofimovna livid. After a month we returned home with our little bags of brown sugar which had not been denied to us after all, looking as if we had been let out after years of hard labour under inhuman conditions, and our mothers wrung their hands over us and began to nurse us back to life.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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