I learned to count even before school. And there was a reason. Vaska, a ten-year-old idiot, told me and Mishka how he had fooled his two six-year-old brothers. It was a carol. His younger brothers were given three rubles, Vaska five, and each one paper. The cunning Vaska exchanged his five for rubles and, explaining to his brothers that two bills were better than one, pryed three rubles from them, giving each two rubles and receiving, respectively, two rubles of pure “richness.” I guessed that not understanding the numbers was bad, and through interrogations, I gradually learned to count.

My mother hastened to take advantage of this and began to send me to shops for small purchases.

There were enough shops in the village. They were not far from our house: a bread, dairy, vegetable and two grocery stores.

Milk Can

Milk was sold by the bottle and sour cream by weight. My mother did not trust me to buy sour cream; the saleswoman could under-weigh it or sell it diluted. Such cases happened all the time; swearing was a common noise in the store, but the clerk claimed that this sour cream was delivered from a collective and state farm. The milk was brought in aluminum cans with a capacity of forty liters, and the saleswoman poured it to customers using liter and half-liter scoops. Water was also sometimes added to milk, but this was less common. Typically, the saleswoman diluted products during the lunch break, evicting everyone from the store and closing the door with a hook. The difference in products sold before and after dinner was quite noticeable.

My mother sent me for milk, as a rule, between nine and ten in the morning. At the same time, she strictly warned me not to take from the “merged” can, but to wait for the opening of a new one. I came, looked through the counter into the can, and estimated the amount of milk. The saleswoman was always nervous, and she began to swear. But neither she nor I had anywhere to go, she gradually fell silent, and I patiently waited for the moment when the opening of the new flask was approaching.

My can was a three-liter. The saleswoman filled it with milk, took the ruble from my sweaty palm, counted the change, and gave it to me.

First Fall

On that fateful day, everything was almost as it was always. I bought milk and returned home. My path lay through the second lane between the streets of Novotroitskaya and Svyazistov. It was a dry, sunny day. The track, driven by cars in a narrow road, seemed harder than stone. I walked along its edge and recklessly stepped on a protruding brow. Covered with dried mud, it turned out to be a fragile lump of ash, crumbled into dust, and I, losing my balance, collapsed into a rut. All the milk was on the ground; the can was empty. I watched with longing as the dry road dust quickly absorbed the milk puddle, and with a cold in my chest and a stone in my heart, I went home; they were waiting for me there, and I could not return. Seeing me, my mother and grandmother were numb. I began to make excuses, my grandmother screamed, my mother grabbed the string bag hanging on the fence and smacked me on my ass. Barracks onlookers, hearing screams and anticipating the show, hung on the fence. But my mother didn’t want to disgrace herself in front of her neighbors—she was in a hurry to cook dinner—so she asked my grandmother to change my clothes, washed the can, gave me a ruble, and sent me to the store a second time.

Second Fall

Looking carefully near my feet, I returned back via the same lane. And it ruined me again; I missed the appearance of my enemy Sashka Bessarab. He was several years older than me, and although I was taller than him, Sashka was larger and stronger. He quietly went to me from the side where I did not look, and I literally thrust himself into it.

“Sucks!?” Bessarab angrily screamed.

By the intonation of his voice, I realized that he would begin to mock me. And I was not mistaken. He clenched his fists and imitated the blows on my nose and cheekbones. No, he did not hit me, but one of his fists whistled millimeters from my nose, and the other he braked a centimeter from my cheekbone and then pressed it to me, making a rotational movement. I moved back. Bessarab made a fierce face and repeated the imitation of the blows. I took another step back. Absorbed in watching my torturer, I forgot about the rail dug in those places. He stuck out from the ground about ten to fifteen centimeters, and this was enough for me; backing away from Bessarab, I tripped over him and flopped my ass on the grass in a big way. Next to me, having doused myself with a fountain of milk, my can landed. Sasha laughed, turned, and left. I trudged home. My grief knew no bounds.

Seeing me—again dirty and without milk—my mother and grandmother brutalized me. They began to run after me around the yard, screaming, and it was very difficult for me to shirk their bags and string bags, with which my mother tried to get my back and ass. Numerous beds, broken by my grandmother in the garden, allowed me to get away from their attempts to take me to task. They did not want to hear my explanations about the spilled milk. Onlookers, hanging on the fence, began to comment on our movements and give advice. The women, unable to grab me, flew into a rage and began to ask the boys to help them catch me. But my street friends, who themselves repeatedly suffered beatings from their parents, having learned what they wanted from them, answered with a whistle and hooting.

Finally, everyone was tired, and the running stopped. The onlookers parted. Dinner was approaching, and the problem with milk had to be urgently resolved. Mother and grandmother switched roles; my grandmother went to wash the can, and my mother brought out clean pants and a shirt. Dodging the slaps that my parent awarded me, I changed clothes, took a can and a ruble outstretched by my grandmother, and rushed off to the store. The saleswoman was surprised at my appearance. Deciding that this time they brought her unusually tasty milk, she deliberately opened a new flask and, before pouring it to me, poured a few liters to herself.

Third Fall

I returned via the same lane. Like Chingachgook the Great Serpent, I looked around and under my feet and around, searching for Bessarab. But trouble came again, and from an unexpected source. The path ran along the fence, behind which was the garden of the family living in the respective house. They had a huge dog, a Caucasian shepherd, sitting on a chain in a booth. On hot days, she lay with her tongue out and occasionally lapping water. What made the owners let her off the chain that day, I do not know. But the vile creature, not barking, almost silently ran up to me from the back, and, resting its front paws on the top of the fence, barked at the back of my head with all its strength. In surprise, I jumped forward, stumbled on roots sticking out of the grass, and, with all my might, flopped my face in coal ash dumped in a small pile near the road. The can of milk flopped next to me, and the ash quickly absorbed the liquid that spilled out of it. I looked sadly at the leaving brooks and realized that I should not return home. The thoughts in my head were confused; fear seized my soul. I picked up an empty tank and sat on a bench near someone else’s gate.

Without milk, I could not return. I had a stash the size of a ruble with a trifle; I collected empty bottles in the boarding after the miner’s festivities and handed them over to the reception center. The money was stored under the roofing material of a coal shed located on the side of the front garden. I climbed over the fence and, hiding in the raspberry bushes, crept up to the barn. Money, fortunately for me, was in place; my parents could not track it. I raked them all out and went back, but the grandmother noticed that someone was walking on the raspberry, ran out onto the porch, and began to scream. Mother jumped out of the summer kitchen. They grabbed the rolling pins and ran into the front garden, but by then, I had already climbed over the fence and disappeared into the alley.

Not a Fall, But a Fourth

The saleswoman in the store at my appearance became like a somnambulist. Now I think that at that moment I could demand anything from her, and she would unconditionally do it. But I needed milk, I handed her a can, and began to count the money.

I could not return home on the old path. Bessarab on the one hand, and the dog, which could jump over the fence in its low part on the other hand, blocked my passage to the house from the beginning of the street. Therefore, I decided to go from the opposite side: along the neighboring street—Novotroitskaya—to the mine stadium, and then turn left and make a path along the forest belt from the back to Svyazistov Street.

The plan was almost a success. An inconspicuous path curled along the landing from the highway to the high-voltage line that ran along my street. Pedestrians were rare here, and the uninitiated might think that there are no paths for people. I had walked almost half the path when I heard some fuss in the depths of a forest belt, among the bushes. Curiosity exceeded common sense; I went to the sound, parted the branches, and saw a woman lying on a blanket, a man atop it. The lady also saw me and, screaming heartrendingly, began to push away her “rider.” He jumped up and, pulling on his pants, with a cry of “Peeping, you bastard!” rushed to me. I rushed to run. The branches of the bushes hit my face and the can, I ran as fast as I could, but the hoarse breathing and swearing of the unsatisfied male indicated that the pursuit was not lagging behind. I don’t know how it would end; most likely, I would be severely beaten, but I was lucky. The path led me to the trail that led to the pond, and there I came face to face with Vitka Lysenko, Valera Postov, and Vaska walking between them. Vitka and Valera rode bicycles, and Vaska told them something. Fleeing the chase, I darted to my friends. The man stopped, assessing his chances in a fight with two adult young men and two teenagers, but Vitka and Valera immediately realized what was the matter and, dropping their bicycles, rushed to him. Now the peasant tried to run away, but Vitka managed to put him on the bandwagon, and Valera charged him with a puff in the nose. The man plopped flat on the ground. Vaska, who came up to him, imposingly, like an Oblique from Gentlemen of Fortune, kicked him on the sides a couple of times. Only after that did my friends begin to ask what happened.

I looked into the can. It was empty. I told everything as it was, and showed it to friends. Vitka went up to the man and, giving him a good kick in the ass, said: “Hey, you, dude! Give a ruble to a kid for milk!”

Without rising, he pulled a bill out of his pocket and, protruding his hand back, not looking, extended it to us.

“Take it!” Vitka nodded to me with her head.

“And so you know, you never touch our boys anywhere else!” added Valera. “If it happens again, we’ll put you on the knife!”

Of course, the threat was not real. The guy was frightened, and, agreeing, shook his head in a defeated manner. We got on our bikes and left. Vitka washed the can under the column, Valera shook the leaves and cobwebs off me, and we drove to the store. When we entered the room and I handed the seller a can and money, she was seized by a stupor.

“You’re buying it for the fifth time!”

“Not enough,” Valera answered diplomatically.

The saleswoman gave us our milk, but before we left the store, she pulled out one of the full flasks and drove it to her back room.

When we drove up to the yard, my mother was already standing near the gate.

“Where were you?” She looked suspiciously into the can.

“Aunt Zin!” Vitka helped me out. “We asked the riders to guard him while we ran to the store.”

Mother treated both guys well and did not curse. My adventures that day were over.


I still can’t come to an unambiguous conclusion; whether my mother was afraid that I would really become a thief, or used my alleged theft of money from her to kill me and relieve some of her stresses. But any money that came to me without her control, and discovered by her, was instantly declared stolen from her, followed by flogging “until you confess.” When I found money or handed over the found empty bottles, I was forced to hide this trifle, because if she found it, I would not only lose this insignificant pocket money, but I would also be beaten, offended, insult and humiliate.

That day, my mother sent me to the grocery store for bread, salt, and sugar. I safely passed the “neck” between the yards of Bessarab and the Caucasian shepherd, walked to the beginning of the street, and got to the deli on Pravda Square. I don’t know if all the inhabitants of this square are truthful or just the saleswomen, but I’ve never been deceived and fooled in this store.

I made the necessary purchases, gave the money, and took the change back. I don’t remember what weakened my attention, but one of the coins I received from the saleswoman fell out of my hand and rolled away in an unknown direction.

My chagrin knew no bounds. I crawled all over the floor, looked under the shelves, but there was no coin in the slots or under the chests. According to a popular proverb, it fell through the floor. Perhaps it did.

The lunch break was approaching; father and Uncle Vitya Zhigalko were to come. I had no time to continue searching. I came from the shopping and went home. Mother shouted “Where are you hanging around, little fool?” She nervously grabbed a string bag from me, took a packet of salt from it, and began to sprinkle it with borscht in a large bucket pan. There were three men: my grandfather, father, and Uncle Vitya Zhigalko. Everyone worked in the mine underground, and if they managed to rise to the surface in the afternoon, they were hungry. Going by the amount of borscht eaten, our aunt did not lag behind them either. I put the bread in the old leaky pot, which was used instead of the breadbox, and put the sugar in a wall cabinet, where spices and loose things were stored.

Mother salted the borsch and remembered about the surrender. I handed her the coins. Usually, she immediately put them in her wallet, but now she suddenly decided to count them. The lack of two cents led her into a rage.

“Not enough here! Where’s the change?” She looked at me.

“I lost it.” How else could I answer?

“You’re lying! You hid them to buy…” she thought for a moment, “…matches! Return the money!”

If I had a hidden trifle, I would give all without hesitation. But at that moment, I did not have a dime. I already anticipated what would begin now.

“I lost them…” I answered my mother in a trembling voice.

“You’re lying.” My mother got furious. “I will beat you until you return the money and tell me why you bought them. What do you want to set fire to?”

I let down my guard and did not expect this. They walked in from both sides of the table, my mother grabbed my hair with one hand, took the string bag with the other, and began to whip my ass and legs.

“Return the money, return the money, return the money…” she repeated and repeated it.

I didn’t know how long the flogging would have lasted, but Uncle Vitya Zhigalko came for lunch. Seeing the violence, he stopped and asked what was the matter.

“He stole the money,” my mother answered him.

“I work, I work long hours,” the father intervened. “And he steals money!”

“Not stolen, but lost,” I roared out.

Zhigalko knew my mother’s tough temper, but did not stop:

“How much?”

“Two pennies!” I cried through tears.

“Nikolaevna!” my uncle exclaimed. “And for two pennies you beat your son like that?”

“Not for two pennies!” the woman retorted. “The principle! That he not become a thief!”

“Here, you can have 20 kopecks, just stop beating him.” Zhigalko pulled a coin from his pocket and handed it to my mother.

My mother did not expect this, and, leaving me, grabbed the money from Zhigalko’s hand.

“You are corrupting him!” she cried out, but she let me go. “Bring me yours!”

Since then, Zhigalko has become my mother’s worst enemy.


For all installments from In the Shadow of the Belt, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Introduction
  2. Chapter 1: Early Childhood
  3. Chapter 2: School? This is Just the Beginning, Baby…
  4. Chapter 3: Cognizing Life
  5. Chapter 4: Football as it Is
  6. Chapter 5: My Friend Sasha Bichukov