Sasha, Eat It!

What woman does not dream to see her child strong, vigorous, and healthy? Such, probably, does not happen. My aunt—my mother’s sister—was not an exception. Especially after my grandmother had a dream: two swans freely and quickly swam along the river, and a little exhausted duckling chases followed by them.

It is now I understand that the swans were my younger brothers. They crossed the Styx long ago, and I continue to flounder in the river of my life, despite my illnesses and hardships.

My aunt then decided that the late duckling was her Sasha, and began to intensively treat him during her lunch breaks. It must be clarified that she worked in a mine department, located not far from my grandmother’s house. My aunt went to eat with her mother; this allowed her to save time and money. Feeding grandchildren was itself considered a grandmother’s duty, but the aunt brought down this monopoly, and began to feed her son herself. Feed, but not cook!

It happened like this. In the summer, we had lunch together at a long homemade table in the courtyard. Auntie poured her offspring a full large bowl of borsch, placed it opposite her son, and next to her, on the other hand, laid a twig.

“Sasha, eat it!”

A five-year-old child took a spoon and began to slurp borsch. Such a bowl of borsch was beyond the power of every adult; Sasha quickly became saturated and began to whimper.

A twig entered the case. The aunt began to whip her son on the back and hands. The kid began to choke, and vomiting overtook him. Neither the aunt nor the grandmother was embarrassed. The grandmother quickly took a scoop with a broom and carried the excreta to the dog. The aunt clicked the twig on the table, and the child, choking and sobbing, ate the borscht to the bottom.

After eating, the “compassionate” mother took her son to the bedroom, laid him on the bed, and did not leave until he fell asleep. He was not allowed to get up earlier than an hour later, and a sharp-sighted grandmother, who also considered fatness a sign of good health, was watching the feeding process vigilantly.

Dinner went in a similar way, but Sasha was allowed to go to bed at the same time as us. By the end of summer, Sasha was incredibly bloated. The child stopped participating in children’s games and looked with longing as we ran into the “latki,” chased the ball, played hopscotch and hide and seek. When we arrived at the forest belt and climbed the trees, he sat on the hillock and lost sight of his thoughts.

However, at school, the fullness of our cousin came off. By the fifth grade, he became an almost normal child with barely noticeable traces of excess weight, and by the tenth grade, he became like everyone else.


We almost always treat hard to explain phenomena with suspicion, sometimes even with fear. For the first time in my life, I came across this when I was about eleven years old.

Our grandmother was a deeply religious woman. She did not miss a single service in the church, but one religious holiday. Naturally, she had many acquaintances, believers just like her.

We are all mortal. Someday death will happen to each of us, but when it happens is hard to say. Older people are more prone to death than younger people. Therefore, we were not surprised when my grandmother said that one of her friends, a believer just like her, had died. We remembered this old woman; she sometimes went to our house and then went to church with grandmother, or went to rest when she returned from the church.

Grandma decided to go and say goodbye to her friend. She took Sasha with her, inexplicably. She could leave him with mother, his or mine; she could leave him with her grandfather; she, in the end, could leave him with me. But she took a five-year-old child with her in farewell to the deceased. When they arrived at the house of the deceased, preparations for the funeral were in full swing.

Suddenly, it turned out that the deceased did not have a cross. Everyone remembered that she had it, but it could not be found, although they rummaged through the whole house. And our grandmother, without hesitation, removed the cross from Sasha and put it on the deceased. Then there was a funeral procession in the cemetery, where the old woman was safely buried.

The nightmare began later. Sasha began to wake up at night, scream, and, scratching the wall, climb up somewhere. This went on almost an entire week. My aunt started scandalizing with the grandmother, but nothing could be changed; who would permit the deceased to be excavated from the grave, who would remove the cross from the corpse? How then to wear a cross which for several days was on a dead woman in a grave?

Sasha continued to climb on the wall, the scandalizing became more intense, until someone we knew advised aunt to take the child to a priest. The three of us led Sasha: grandmother, aunt, and mother. True, the mother did not go to the church itself; she was afraid that her students or colleagues would see her. The Soviet school, as you know, was a stronghold of atheism, and my mother was deathly afraid that she would be suspected of involvement in religion.

They were there for a long time; they left in the morning, returned after dinner. From their conversation, I realized that the priest scolded the grandmother, forced her to buy a new cross, consecrated it, and put it on the child. Sasha stopped waking up at night and climbing the wall.

Good Shubin

The whole village knew him. However, the village was small, and in it, everyone knew everyone. But he was special. His scorched and scarred face shocked those who saw him for the first time. However, it was not possible to get used to it from the second or the third time. He was unsociable, although he did not shy away from people. Women simply avoided his ugliness, and when men began to pester him with questions, he got up and left by himself.

He appeared in the district on August 23rd, after the Beria amnesty. It was said that before the war he worked at the Abakumov mine, and it seemed that he has relatives there, that he sometimes rode there on a bicycle bought at the Petrovsky Market. No one could confirm these trips. And who needs it? There were rumors from the military commissariat that he was a demoted lieutenant colonel, a tankman. But underground, in coal dust, neither scars nor shoulder straps were visible. At first, he worked in a sinkhole with a jackhammer, then he graduated from combiner courses and began to cut coal with equipment. He worked with my grandfather in the same team. My grandfather did not try to find out any special secrets from him. Simply, as is the custom in the Donbass, once a month the miners noted a paycheck, dumped on a three-ruble note, bought vodka, beer, sausage and bread in a deli, went to the landing and drank slowly, discussing mining matters. Nobody got seriously drunk; the miners were dedicated people, they didn’t tolerate booze, but they took 150 grams of alcohol in honor of the paycheck.

When conversations from main affairs began to turn to personal ones, he got up and left. My grandfather, who did not like to wash bones either to his superiors or to women, often left with him. Once he was dragged to some meeting on the occasion of Victory Day, and everyone was stunned; the “iconostasis” was still the great. But the gallant colonels drove him away from Khrushchev, and Nikita Sergeyevich did not notice the little man in a old jacket, hung with orders and medals. He didn’t go to the festivities anymore; he avoided the November and May parades, trying to ask for a job. Frontline soldiers died out from wounds, work, and drinks. They became less and less common. They again remembered him and demanded to appear at the solemn meeting. My grandfather, also a frontline soldier, but short-lived and held prisoner, did not use his authority. My grandfather was seated among everyone in the hall, and tankman was put on the podium.

The ceremonial meeting took a long time; more than an hour. It was already dark on the street and it started to rain. The miner’s canteen on the occasion of the holiday was closed earlier; bachelors and lonely people were forced to go for “pasture.” Grandfather went to the grocery store to buy himself a “bastard” and there he ran into him—he bought cheese and cookies—the bread was already over. He lived not far from us; the mine allocated him a room in a barrack located between Svyazistov and Novotroitskaya streets. Grandfather invited him to dinner. He unexpectedly agreed, took a bottle of vodka, wine and a chocolate bar, and they came to us.

Guests rarely visited us. The grandmother was delighted, got busy, covered a festive tablecloth, and we sat down at the table. The serving was simple: for men, a huge bowl of borsch; for women, a little bowl, and on the second plate, fried potatoes with cutlets and herring. The guest put his vodka and wine on the table and handed me a chocolate bar. We started a meal. When they got drunk, they sang songs: the miner’s “Dark Mounds Sleep” and the military “May Cold Nights.” Everyone sang the miner’s song, even the grandmother with here daughters. They were the wives of the miners, and the aunt worked as a normalizer and went down underground along with the men. Only two sang the military song—the guest and grandfather—and the father, uncle, and aunt’s husband quietly sang along. They were boys during the war, did not participate in battles, and did not have voting rights at a meeting of frontline soldiers. And then he either said or asked my grandfather:

“You, Nikolai, fought here?”

And the grandfather told him everything. How they chopped coal to the last, how the Germans soldiers came, how Soviet commanders dressed up the miners in new robes and issued them rifles without cartridges, promising to bring cartridges later. How, nevertheless, they were sent without patrons to the patrol. How Germans appeared on motorcycles. As a sergeant, he was a cadre soldier, he ordered the bayonets to join and go to hand-to-hand combat, because the cartridges were not delivered. Like three of the seven miners, the bayonets did not join, because they did not know how to do it, but the bayonets were not thrown out, but they took them like finks; like thieves, with their tip under the elbow. How the Germans shot into the ground in front of their feet. How they stopped. How, threatening them with execution and swearing, the sergeant rushed at the Germans alone. How he was caught laughing Germans and broke his face in the blood. How then they took everyone to the prisoner of war camp.

Then the grandmother intervened and told how the neighbor ran in and shouted to the grandmother:

“Sanka, the Germans captured your Kolka.”

The Germans were dumbfounded by so many prisoners of war; they had nothing to feed them, and there was no place to place them. They barbed a field near Maryinka—at that time in a small Ukrainian village—drove prisoners there, and allowed the local population to bring them food. Almost everyone was local. The grandmother immediately took the basket, realized that, laid on the bottom of the grandfather’s civilian pants was a shirt, anklets, and on top a cut loaf of bread, a dozen eggs, and a bottle of milk, so that clothes were not visible, and ran to Maryinka, which was a little over ten kilometers away. Rare sentries allowed local people to pass almost unhindered to prisoners of war, and, despite the crowds of prisoners, the grandmother was lucky; she quickly found her husband. Grandfather quickly changed into his own clothes, gave the food to his fellow countrymen, and he and grandmother moved to another exit, not to the one through which his wife entered. But there, unexpectedly, the German closed their way to them, and, speaking something in his own language, poked at his grandfather with an automatic machine gun. He and grandmother were frightened, but could not answer anything; they did not know the German language, did not understand the question, and, looking at each other and the German with bewilderment, shrugged their shoulders in bewilderment. They were lucky for the second time; an interpreter came up.

“Why is this man with you?” he translated the German question.

“So I…” mumbled the grandfather.

“This is my husband, a miner. We brought the products to our brother-in-law,” the grandmother chattered briskly.

“Where is your brother?” the German asked.

Grandfather had already stepped out of his stupor and waved his hand in the direction of his comrades. Those, apparently, watched as the grandfather left the camp, waved their hands, and one of them, a mountain foreman who graduated from college and knew the basics of German, shouted in broken German:

“Ja-ja, ich bin es!“

Then the master suffered for his literacy. The Germans noticed a peasant, forced to help with the transfer, and even made a boss in the mine; they tried to restore the mine and mine coal for the needs of the Reich. But the occupation did not last long. Six months later, ours came and freed Petrovka. They arrested this peasant for collaboration and after eight years, he drowned in a forest zone near Perm and did not return.

The prisoners all arrived and arrived. The German looked at grandfather, and from his look, it became clear that he had no desire to engage in further investigation. The grandmother quickly sputtered a finger, pulled a silver ring from him, and handed it to the German. He suddenly laughed, pulled out a small chocolate bar from a duffel bag, and handed it to a woman who was at a loss. The grandmother began to shake her head in the negative, but the German barked at her, put the chocolate in her hand, took the ring, and with a gesture, ordered him to leave the camp. The couple returned home. When ours came and liberated the area, my grandfather was again drafted into the Red Army.

Grandfather and grandmother fell silent, looking inquiringly at the guest.

“I come from Krasnogorovka, crest,” said our guest.

Krasnogorovka, a Russian-Ukrainian village, was founded by Ukrainians who fled from the Poles, and Russian serfs who fled from their nobles. It was located northwest of Petrovka and was well known to us.

“I graduated from the eight-year-old school, worked at Abakumov mine until they took me away to the army,” he continued. “My father was a tractor driver, and he taught me to drive. In 1942, I was 18 years old and I was fulfilled; they drafted me into the army, into the tank force. I graduated from the courses, was sent to the 383rd division, the miners’, as the platoon commander. Then there was a company, then a wound. The tower was jammed; where to fight with such a tank? I decided to drive the car into the repair zone itself. Let the guys rest. “Tiger” covered. Right in the stern of a sadanul. As his observers missed, no one could answer. Well, there was no ammunition; only the skin from the face was torn down. Four months in the hospital. The skin was transplanted with shreds from the back. Then I returned to duty. Put on the battalion. In May 1945, we were located near Berlin. The boy came to us; German, about ten years old, maybe older. By order, we had to immediately send him to the filtration camp, but it became a pity; skinny, skin and bones. I fed him with my hands. When we asked him to give something, he rushed to run. We got used to him, stopped watching him; he threw a grenade into the tank hatch. And there is ammunition, and there is a crew, and there were people nearby. The tower was torn down, six were killed, and I don’t remember how many shell-shocked people. I was tried, demoted, sent to a camp. For some reason, they left the awards. I asked a fellow countryman, he brought me to their mother. He helped her when I was in the camp. And now he does not greet me; the chairman of the trade union committee on Abakumov mine has become important. But it helped, and okay, I don’t need his ‘how are you.’ It was he who had to distill the tank, so we are even.”

“What about the kid?” The grandmother could not stand it.

“I don’t know.” The guest shrugged and was about to leave.

Grandfather pulled out cigarettes from his jacket pocket, they took one at a time, lit a cigarette, and went outside. I stayed at home.

I didn’t hear when my grandfather left for work in the morning. I was not just a youngster, but a snotty spy, and I did not go to school yet. My grandmother was a housewife and let me sleep late.

The roar of a siren woke me up. Usually, the mine horn sounded at strictly defined hours, informing that the next shift was time for work. Its roar at inopportune times meant that an emergency had happened at the mine, and residents of nearby houses ran out to the mine yard to find out what was the matter. I wanted to run there, too, but my grandmother hit me with twigs and ordered me to sit at home. She herself didn’t go either; she knew that no one would say anything until the authorities allowed them to, and the authorities did not hurry to give such permission in an emergency.

Time passed, weary and slow. The neighbor’s boy Vitya returned and said that a methane explosion had occurred at the mine, rescuers arrived, raising the dead and wounded to the surface. On which site this happened, he did not know. The grandmother gasped and sank down on the bench. Then my aunt returned from work. She said that the explosion occurred on my grandfather’s site, but who died and who was alive was unknown; rescuers only communicate with the leadership. Time passed; my grandfather did not return. Father came and said that they had begun to raise the victims to the surface. Grandma and aunt howled together and began to pack up to go to the mine. They almost immediately rushed to the mine yard, and after half an hour, my grandfather came, alive and well. He missed his wife and daughter and asked Vitka to find them and say that he was safe and returned home. It turned out that in the morning, the head of the site sent his grandfather to the forest warehouse to pick up and prepare logs for the supports in the face. Grandfather was a good carpenter at the same time; the boss entrusted him with all the woodwork.

Grandma and aunt returned. Grandma put in front of her grandfather a pan with fried potatoes and a three-liter jar with liquor. I remember how my grandfather ate, I remember his hardened fingers interspersed with black coal dust, and I remember as grandmother and aunt sat next to him crying, saying, “Alive…alive…alive…”

Rescuers pulled out the tankman on the third day. To reach him, rescuers dismantled the blockage for more than two days. They did not take them to the morgue. Grandfather put together a coffin for him, which they then upholstered with red cloth for the upper half and black for the lower one according to the miner’s custom—as they always buried the dead in the mine—and put it in the assembly hall.

They began to look for his relatives, recalling that he often talked with Korovin. Grandfather was called, and he told the head of the mine about the Abakumovsky chairman of the trade union committee. The chief called the chairman of the trade union committee, gave him a mine service car, and ordered him to bring an Abakumov miner. A few hours later, they arrived. The Abakumov miner said that he knew where the mother of the deceased lives and would help take her son’s body to her, but he will not meet with his mother. They began to think who could do this, but they did not find close friends except Korovin. Grandfather was sent home to change clothes. The chairman of the Abakumov trade union committee arrived with him. The grandmother poured borsch for them, and the miners took out a bottle of vodka. They remembered the tankman, and the guest said in a stifled voice:

“He was a good commander…”

Mute silence reigned.

“What did the tribunal do with the kid?” The grandmother could not bear it.

“Shot! He saved this kid from mob law! But not from death… ‘Let the tribunal judge, let the tribunal decide!’ shouted…so he shouted…one tribunal judged both. The bastard Sieg Heiled at the trial and shouted ‘Heil Hitler!’ Shouted. A Hitler Youth, he turned out to be. They wrote that he was 14 years old and spanked. Let it be decided in the next world.” The miner, with bitterness, threw a spoon on the table and came in with nodules. “But Shubin could not be helped out. He angered the members of the tribunal. They wanted to execute him. He was spared that; following the results of the battles for Berlin, he was presented with the title ‘Hero of the U.S.S.R.’ He was a tanker from God! From a kilometer into the embrasure of the bunker, a shell could plant a shell. Tanked like a toy. He could approach to the Tiger with direct maneuvers…eh, Shubin, Shubin…”

So I learned the family of the tankman: Shubin. Just like the miner god: “good Shubin.” I don’t know his first name. Rest in peace, good Shubin!


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
  7. Chapter 6: Score