Saturday, 18 February 2012

A voice from our mutual past

I got an email with this subject line a few days ago and then saw the sender's name with a mixture of joy and awe. My old fellow student and friend whom I hadn't met in twenty-five years. 

We met in our first university year, starting a casual conversation at a freshmen welcome party, and very soon we became good friends. At that time, my childhood friend Alyona and I went apart, with new acquaintances and networks, and I was in urgent need of a new best friend. Why Marina needed someone I don't know, but we obviously needed each other. It so happened that in a year of 114 girls and 6 boys, three of the boys were in our group, and we had fun together, without any romantic interests. There were not many opportunities for students in the early '70s in Russia to have fun, but there was one cafe, and a skating rink, and we had a student theatre. Marina and I shared many interests, books, music. But our friendship went through a real trial in the beginning of our second year when we were sent to a collective to help the progressive Soviet agriculture to fights its four enemies: winter, spring, summer and autumn. Actually, I don't know how winder, spring and summer were managed, but every autumn, students from all universities and colleges were sent to assist with harvest. If anyone calls it anything else than forced labour, you don't know anything about the Soviet Union. If you observe that we lost a month of our study time, it is an absolutely correct observation. 

The students didn't have much to say about it: if you refused to go you'd be immediately expelled, with a note in your files that would close any path to education for ever. You could try to get a medical certificate about having some horrible disease, but the other students would view it as betrayal. So we packed our bags with warm clothes and arrived at the departure point. Warm clothes in this case implies coarse padded black jackets that you may have seen in war movies. Educated families wouldn't normally possess this kind of clothes, but in those days you could anything somehow, with some extra effort.

The collective farm we were sent to was about sixty miles from Moscow and it took two hours by a local train. From the station we had to walk for half an hour, with our bags. We were led to two barracks where we were to live, fifty girls in each, iron beds in rows without any space between. Marina and I fought with the others for two beds in a corner; we would have to crawl over other beds to reach ours, but in the corner we had a teeny tiny bit of privacy. We could put a comb and a book on a beam and mark our territory. The disadvantage was that one of the beds was right by the radiator where the whole barrack tried to dry their wet working clothes that smelled rotten cabbage. It wasn't much of a drying since it was plus four centigrade indoors, even with fifty hot bodies. We slept with our clothes on, including the padded jackets and rubber boots. It didn't matter since there wasn't any bed linen. In the next barrack, it was twenty-eight degrees, and I am not sure it was better. 

The work we did was rather inefficient. The first week we harvested beetroot. A stout female overseer showed us how to pull them from the soil and pile in rows. After some metres we would retreat, chop off the leaves with a knife (which we had been ordered to bring from home) and pour into huge sacks. When the sack was full, you tied it up and left by the side of the field. At the end of the day the woman came back and counted the sacks. This first week we never earned our keep. 

Meals we served in another barrack. For breakfast we had brown bread, porridge and weak tea, for lunch cabbage soup and pasta – with some luck, there was a hint of gravy in the pasta. Dinner was porridge and tea. We tried to complement the diet by going to the local grocery to get whatever was available there, which was bread and jam, huge tin cans of jam that we managed to open with our knives and ate direct from the can with soup spoons. We brought bread with us to the fields for snack. It got slightly better when we were finished with beet and were moved over to carrots. We feasted on carrots as if they were the sweetest of sweets. 

We worked from nine to six with a lunch break, and you would think that we collapsed afterwards, but we didn't. We washed as well as we could – there was no running water, just a couple of wash basins outside the barracks for the hundred of us – and got together with our bread and jam cans; made camp fires, danced in our padded jackets and rubber boots, fell in love. It was essential to have a friend like Marina by your side. 

We had free Sundays, and if you had been diligent and filled your sacks and hadn't defied curfews, you were allowed to go home. Walk to the station, two hours on the train, then a reward of a warm bath and decent food, then back by train and a walk in darkness and cold. We also went home for an night without permission, to meet our lovers in Moscow, and Marina and I would cover each other at curfews. 

Then the rains came, the fields became pools of mud, and all the carrots we hadn't picked were there, rotting. We were transferred to a cabbage cellar. There were mountains of cabbage by the entrance, harvested by some other students. We were told to build human chains into the cellar and throw cabbages to each other, like heavy bowling balls. We trampled cabbage mountains with our muddy boots. We knew that it would rot away long before it would be transported to grocery stores. 

The cellar was farther away from the barracks than the field, and we had to walk in pouring rain. With some female charm you could persuade a male truck driver to give you a lift. To avoid going back and forth for lunch we negotiated with the commander to skip lunch. Instead, we had our bread with cabbage leaves on top. 

My fellow students began to catch colds, went home and some never returned, including the Head Girl. I was told to take over. One of my tasks was to wake up the barracks in the morning, do head count and report. I was exhausted and almost wished I could get sick. But I didn't, and I could not pretend I was sick because it would mean betraying my fellow students. Marina and I were the only ones who endured the whole month, and only because we were smart. Every day two girls were selected for kitchen duty. It implied getting up an hour earlier, set tables for a hundred and clean the tables afterwards and wash up. Same for lunch and dinner. Washing up was done in huge basins of hot water with mustard powder instead of detergent, which was non-existent even in normal life. Rubber gloves had not been invented either in the Soviet Union, and after washing up our hands were red and coarse. We stole fat from the kitchen to use on our hands. No wonder everybody hated kitchen duty. But Marina and I realised that between meals you were free. After washing up you could run back to the empty, silent barrack and sleep or read. While everybody else walked in pouring rain to the cabbage cellar, Marina and I worked in the warm kitchen with dry clothes on. We knew that people had survived in this manner in Stalin's labour camps. 

To be continued.


Philip Nel said...

Wow. That's quite an experience -- unlike anything I've ever experienced, to be sure. Wonderful and remarkable that the two of you are back in touch. I look forward to reading Part II.

And I suppose you already know this, but (in case not) I'll add that you have the material for a successful memoir here.

Julia said...

Philip: That memoir was published last year.