Zygmunt Frankel



Our ill-fated rat hunt in the school cellar was not some outstandingly creative brainwave but rather a natural extension of activities we had long been engaged in. Each of us had a rubber catapult and often carried it in his pocket on a stroll through the uptown park or the woods outside the town in case a careless bird perched within range. We all fished in the Ob and trapped birds, and I also had a past as a fur trapper in the steppes of Kazakhstan. In the all-male company of the downtown school, it transpired that it was a fashion to carry a knife, preferably in the leg of your boot if you had knee-length boots. I can't remember anyone drawing a knife in anger, but we all carried them, and felt the better for it.

Barnaul - and, I suppose, all Russian cities during the war - was not a safe place, especially at night. Poverty breeds crime, and not necessarily among the poorest. Murka and her gang sounded very romantic in that song, but if someone picked your pocket at the flea market or broke into your house at night it was different. Pure theft was comparatively unrewarding and risky; a thief caught in a crowd could be badly beaten before being handed over to the police. Armed robbery was more profitable; you could be stopped in a dark street and asked at knife point to take off your valuable coat or boots. People who broke into your house at night, usually through a window, could not rely on everyone in a crowded room to go on sleeping, so they simply brandished a knife or, more rarely, a gun, and told everyone to stay in bed and keep quiet. The police ("militsya") was usually of little help. There were rumours of a gang called The Black Cat ("Chornaya Koshka") whose favourite weapon was a glove with five razor blades attached to the fingertips, used on the face. There was a story of a square of sheepskin (which could be made into a hat or a pair of mittens) cut out of the back of someone's coat by a young boy in the crowded Barnaul flea market in winter. A woman selling pickled mushrooms raised an alarm, shouting that she saw it, but the thief managed to get away. The next day he came up to her, said "You saw it, did you?", slashed her across the face with a glove with the razor blades, added "Well, you won't see anything anymore," and disappeared into the crowd. There was also a story of a young student, knifed to death by a Black Cat gang in the uptown park one night for his coat and boots while a girl member of the gang loudly sang and accompanied herself on a guitar to drown his cries. It was difficult to judge how much of all this was true and how much invention or a rehash of old tales. A visitor from Novosibirsk told a schoolfriend of mine that they also had a gang called The Black Cat in that city. It might have been a popular name adopted by a number of independent gangs all over Russia, or cells of a single large criminal organisation, or just stories. There was never anything in the papers about thefts or robberies, obviously partly not to lower the morale of the population and partly in keeping with the old theory that the victory of Communism would automatically make crime disappear. There was, however, official confirmation of the worst and most vicious kind of banditry. From time to time, a printed leaflet with a man's photograph would be pasted on the walls, stating that so and so, a deserter from the army, had been apprehended, found guilty of desertion and armed robbery, condemned to death, and executed. If a soldier at or near the front was found merely separated from his unit without a really convincing explanation like written orders or testimony from his commander if the commander could be contacted in time, he would be court-martialled and shot the same day. The deserters who managed to get away from the front with their weapons - a rifle could be made compact by sawing off the butt and most of the barrel - had nothing to lose by adding robbery to their desertion.

The carrying of a knife was not a full protection against everything that might happen to you in a dark street, and the best policy was still not to spend too much time in dark streets alone at night, but it made you feel much better. Other weapons were a heavy disk cast from lead, the size of a large old-fashioned pocket watch, strapped to your palm, under the glove in winter, which added weight to your fist or provided a hard surface in an open-handed slap; and knuckledusters, also cast from lead, with four holes for your fingers and either a straight or a spiky business surface. But knives were the predominant fashion, and we would take them out of our pockets or boot legs when the teachers were not looking, for discussion and comparison.

The simplest, cheapest, and least prestigious were kitchen knives with a wooden handle, with some sort of sheath to prevent the point from hurting your foot if carried in the boot leg or, worse, groin if in the pocket. The length of the blade was a compromise between the minimum - about five centimetres to go through winter clothing plus another ten or so to reach the heart - and the maximum determined by the depth of your boot leg or pocket. A very popular knife in Russia was the Finnish one, known as "Finka" - a hunting and all-purpose weapon without a cross guard, mostly with a wooden handle (admissible in this case) wrapped with a narrow strip of bark to improve the grip. (In the famous reassuring poem to his mother, Yesyenin asks her not to imagine him in some tavern with a Finnish knife in his heart.) Mine was originally a kitchen knife, whose wooden handle I replaced with a thicker one, whittled and sanded to the shape of a Finnish one. Those who were lucky enough to have a relative or a friend who was a lathe operator could let him have some flat pieces of bakelite, perspex, aluminium, brass, and hard leather, and ask him to turn them into washers with identical outside and hole diametres. On the round shank of a knife, tightened with a nut, they made beautiful layered handles. Vitka Karabanov, always a leader, came to school one day with a real Caucassian dagger with the handle and sheath encrusted with brass knobs and coloured glass beads. It was so long that he had to drape his trouser leg over the handle protruding from his boot. His grandfather gave it to him. This, he said displaying it during the break, was real Damascene steel - he had honed it to razor-edge keenness - capable of cutting through a silk hankerchief in mid-air; just watch. He took the rag used for wiping the blackboard, threw it in the air, and brought the dagger from below to meet it. The dagger simply threw the rag upwards towards the ceiling without making a mark on it. With a puzzled face, Karabanov picked up the rag and took a close look at it.
"Of course," he said. "It's not real silk."

A few enterprising and mechanically-minded among us also had - and occasionally carried - pistols. What the NKVD never seems to have discovered was that there was a flourishing illegal arms manufacture in the Soviet Union in those years, and that Vitali Karabanov, Mikhail Sysov, Zygmunt Frankel, and my landlady's son Kostya were a part of it. Pistols - usually single-shot - firing the standard .22 rimfire cartridge (which had cut short the lives of twenty-three rats in the school cellar) were an exception; you had to have a mechanic or toolmaker friend to make one for you, drilling the barrel hole and building the bolt or hammer mechanism. The more common home-made pistol harked back to the muzzle-loading days and the duels in which Pushkin and Lermontov lost their lives. It started out as a length of brass tube from a discarded car or lorry radiator. Radiators have a whole bunch of them, soldered to the cooling plates, and with the right connections or a little money you could get a piece. One end would then be hammered shut, and a hole put through the flat hammered end to nail or screw it to the wooden stock. The front of the barrel would be fastened with several turns of wire. There remained the firing mechanism which was ingeniously simple. A small hole would be drilled on the left-hand side, a few millimetres from the closed end. A couple of bent-over nails in the stock below the hole held a match in such a position that the head was touching the hole. The correct amount of black gun powder - fairly easily obtained in areas where hunting was popular, shotguns numerous, and cartridges of the reloadable brass-case type - would be poured into the barrel, followed by a piece of newspaper tamped down with a stick, then a lead bullet, and another paper wad to hold it in place. (If you were out of gunpowder, you could always laboriously scrape the heads off a box of matches and use that as - admittedly inferior propellant. For the lead bullet, you had to roll a piece of lead between two iron plates until it became round.)

The firing technique was simple. You held the gun in your right hand and a matchbox in your left, passed the match box across the head of the match, and quickly aimed the weapon, holding it at arm's length as far away from your face as possible, before the burning matchhead lit the gunpowder. As wartime Russian matches were of appalling quality, several might have to be fitted one after another before the pistol finally went off. This slow and unreliable ignition was the reason that pistols were rarely carried for self-defence, and were used mostly for target practice in some secluded spot. Holding them at arm's length was advisable because they sometimes exploded. The cautious user would start with a small amounts of gunpowder, just enough to throw the bullet out, and then increase the portion until a reasonable compromise between safety and firepower was reached. It must be said, in favour of a soft thin-walled brass barrel, that an overdose of gunpowder would inflate the rear end into a pear shape or even blow a hole through it without sending fragments in all directions.

I had been looking for a piece of brass tubing ever since I first saw such a pistol, and finally Kostya, about my age, our landlady's son from her first marriage (her second husband, the father of two more boys, much younger than Kostya, was at the front), brought home two pieces, each about thirty centimetres long, one for me and one for himself. Kostya had been an awful pupil at school, and sent to learn a profession as soon as the law allowed. He was now an electrician, a repairman climbing the poles in the street with the help of two large prongs strapped to his boots and a heavy belt around his waist and the pole. (Because of the position, these repairmen were called "stolboyoby" - "pole fuckers".) When the pistols were finished, the gunpowder obtained, and the bullets rolled, we waited until our landlady, a teacher, left for work in the morning, and rushed into the snow-covered courtyard. Our pistols had been loaded since the night before. Side by side, we took aim at the outdoor lavatory door and fired. Both guns went off and the bullets embedded themselves with satisfying thuds in the wooden door. (They were not powerful enough to penetrate it.)

"What the bloody hell is going on?" Kostya's mother screamed from the lavatory, and emerged a moment later buttoning her coat. She had stepped in before continuing on her way to work, and now Kostya and I stood there with smoking pistols in our hands and very stupid expressions on our faces. The abuse centred on Kostya, but she promised to talk to my mother as well.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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