My parents got a separate apartment, when I had not yet gone to school, in a new building on the “circle,” as Victory Square was called in vernacular. In those days in the Soviet Union, apartments were given free of charge to those who worked at state enterprises. There were no private enterprises in the U.S.S.R.

But we lived in the new apartment quite a bit. Mother—in her words, a persistent heroine of domestic work—was not ready for an independent life. Having moved to a brand new two-room Khrushchev flat, she “failed” in all “subjects”: she did not have time to cook and keep order in the apartment, heaped up the table and windowsills with piles of unread notebooks from her students, and the bathroom was full of dirty linen. She had to do herself what she didn’t even think about when living with her parents. And my mother could not stand it; she persuaded her father to move closer to her grandparents. Those who wanted to exchange apartments were looking for a very long time, and they probably chose the worst option: a quarter called “Old Colony.”

Having made her choice, my mother still made a mistake. The “charms” of independent living—cooking, cleaning, and heating the stove—dragged along behind us. Replacing a brand new two-room apartment in a five-story “khrushchevka” with an absolutely uncomfortable six-room hut, my mother got a “water and slops” problem and a toilet in the form of a wooden shed with a hole in the floor. But “Teacher Nikolaevna”—the neighbors called my mother that—acquired the opportunity to stroll with all her brood on weekends to our grandmother’s. Even as an adult, I still do not understand how a mother, a woman with a higher pedagogical education, could spend hours clicking seeds and discussing neighbors, friends, and all kinds of diseases in the company of her his mother and sister, instead of devoting attention to her husband and sons.

Yes, indeed, you can pull a girl out of the thorp, but you cannot pull the thorp out of the girl. The lout, in the worst sense of the word, remained in my mother until her very last days.

The delayed domestic problems did not want to be eliminated on their own, and my mother decided to take the last step: she asked Grandmother if I could live with her. At that time, I was the only grandson, my grandmother easily agreed, and I returned to her. In the first grade, I went to the same school where my friends studied.

Long Fool…

I don’t remember who the first in our class was nicknamed.

“Mynya,” “Piha,” “Syava,” “Sesha”: all this was with me and my friends later. But before school and in the first grade, no one had nicknames. Nicknames appeared in the second. We returned from the summer holidays as experienced schoolchildren and brought with us what appeared, what we used in the summer: nicknames. There were no offenses among them. Nobody called me “long,” despite the fact that I was taller than my peers by a whole head. However, everything comes to an end.

Teachers say that children often, in order to attract attention, commit petty hooligan acts: pulling girls’ tresses, putting pins under boys, smearing seats at school desks with glue or paint and all that. I don’t know what prompted my classmate Luda Shilova to start calling me a “long fool,” but she was persistent in this desire the whole second grade. The nickname stubbornly did not stick, except for her—no one called me that—but I was tired of such increased attention from a classmate, and I complained about her to my mother. I would have been better off if I hadn’t. After this, two people began calling me “a long fool”: Lyudka and my mother.

“Kids got through to you at school,” said my mother, instructively. “You really are a long fool!”

My father, who nicknamed his children and our cousin, was more original. He gave each of us a nickname, individual and inimitable. I was a “loburika” (idler) with him, Pavlik was a “calf”—my brother suffered from childhood enuresis—and Sasha was “bulkaty,” because of his large, rolled-out eyes.

Our parents only called us by name in the presence of strangers. My grandmother and grandfather, my mother’s brother and sister, my aunt’s husband were not considered outsiders, but in the presence of Sashka’s parents, an exception was made for our cousin, and only me and my brother Pavlik were called by our monikers.


Pocket money was very rarely given to me. To say it more correctly, pocket money did not find me. It was almost impossible to get ten to fifteen cents from the mother for ice cream or lemonade. As soon as I asked for a trifle, my parent immediately began to curse, or even weighed cuffs. This attitude completely weaned me from asking for money from my parents. I earned my pocket money myself, by collecting coal on a mine heap or by collecting empty bottles after miner’s gatherings.

The first method was strictly prohibited by the mother. Coal mining was mainly done by raggers, occasionally by students and schoolchildren. Mother saw something shameful in this and believed that it would harm her reputation. She didn’t know about the second method, otherwise she would have forced me to deal with it under her control.

But sometimes I got a trifle either when my mother wanted to show her generosity to others, or when relatives gave money for goodies to their children, but at the same time gifted me. This happened very rarely, but sometimes it did happen, and this happened this time.

Near the school, my mother and I ran into my classmate Petya Andreev and his mother, the head teacher of our school. The women once studied at the pedagogical institute in the same course, but gradually their friendship frayed and did not go beyond fleeting meetings. They asked about each other’s health, family problems and were about to go about their business, when Petya suddenly said that the school’s drinking tap didn’t work, and asked his mother for money for a citro. I don’t know how much Petya was given. My attention was distracted by my mother’s exclamation that I would also like to drink. I turned to her, and she put three kopecks in my palm; exactly the price of a small glass of draft kvass from a barrel.

The big change was after the third lesson. Petya and I rushed to the park where the barrel stood, but did not have time to reach it. From behind the bushes came three teenage bullies. The whole school knew them, but there was nothing they could do about them. One of them grabbed Petya by the collar, the other grabbed me.

“Where are we rushing, shkets?” The question was specific.

To answer the truth is to be without money. Petya began to mutter something, I was silent.

“What about the little things?” The hooligans began to turn our pockets out and after a few moments Petya and my money moved into their hands. Letting go, they gave us a few kicks, and we trudged back to school, left without a tasty cold drink.

At home, my mother asked me whither I spent the money. Unable to lie, I honestly admitted that three kopeks were taken from me by hooligan-teenagers. Mother began to swear, but Father was even more surprised. He jumped up from the bed on which he was reading the newspaper, and, having weighed a slap on my head, shouted at my mother:

“So that you don’t give him money anymore. I ukalyvaiu, ukalyvaiu [work hard] and he gives money to thugs!”

At that moment, I was most of all surprised that my father, who, in general, spoke Russian correctly, avoided Donbass surzhik suddenly, and instead of the generally accepted word “work hard,” which means “I work a lot and hard,” suddenly said “ukalyvaiu,” from the language spoken by miners from local villages. I don’t know what my angry father’s dialogue would have resulted in—most likely I would have been flogged—when the gate creaked and Uncle Volodya, my father’s younger brother, entered the yard.

Uncle Volodya was a real miner. After serving in the army, he returned to his father’s house and went to work in the same mine where his father, my grandfather, worked. He jobbed as a workman, that is, directly to the person who mined coal. Uncle Vova was physically strong, played for the mine team in volleyball, and had a hot-tempered, unbridled character; after having a tipsy drink, he could easily take part in a street brawl. The unbridled nature of my uncle did not allow him to receive the title of “Hero of Socialist Labor,” which was given to the most honored people, but he was one of the first in terms of production indicators.

One day, returning from a May Day demonstration, he went to his friend and found him hanging up curtains. His wife did not find anything better than to get her tipsy husband to hang window decorations on a holiday. A humorous skirmish began between the two miners, but my uncle’s friend, being a little drunk, turned unsuccessfully on a stool and collapsed with him and the curtains on the floor. His wife rushed to “educate” him, received a rebuff, and after half an hour, my uncle and his friend were in the regional police department, where they swiftly received 15 days of prison for domestic hooliganism.

The holidays were over. The coming shift did not have the two best hard workers.

“Where are they???” roared the director of the mine.

Fulfillment of the coal mining plan for the mine was holy. The director was told everything. He called the chief of the district police department, and after a few minutes, the cop of funnel brought the unlucky hard workers to the mine. They changed clothes and went down to get coal. And the director called a curtain lover to his carpet and for a long time explained to her in a mining dialect how sheep differ from chicken.

Upon learning what happened to me at school, Uncle Vova grunted and asked the name of the offender. I told him.

“So I used to work with his father in the same team,” Uncle Vova frowned and left without saying goodbye.

The next day I went to school alone, without my mother. I was already passing by the mine club, when suddenly the bully came around the corner, having robbed me of three kopecks the day before. But he was not alone. Next to him stood a man like him. The bully handed me three kopecks and said:

“You, this, do not be offended! If anything happens, come, tell me; I will intercede!”

“He will intercede, intercede!” added the man. Under his eye, a blue and black bruise oozed. I realized that Uncle Vova carried out educational work with the father of the bully, and he, in turn, with his son.

Condensed Milk

We had dinner with the whole family in the evening. Father, if he worked the first shift, had breakfast the very first thing in the morning. Mother ate either with him or immediately after him. If my father worked the second shift, he had breakfast after us, since he slept until late. My brother and I had breakfast after our mother; she controlled this process with my brother, and I, as the older one, had breakfast uncontrollably; however, my mother sometimes charged me with the obligation to look after my brother. She served us breakfast, and, seeing that the process went on, gathered herself and went to work. My brother and I had to eat our breakfast and not be late for school. But in the evening, the whole family gathered at dinner.

I heard a conversation between my parents when I was in the next room. Actually, fragments of phrases reached me, but the meaning was clear; the conversation was about condensed milk. A woman who lived near of our grandmother and worked as a saleswoman in a grocery store told Grandmother that they had brought a large batch of condensed milk to them because the plant was being stopped for repairs and there would be no condensed milk for a long time. Father took this news without much inspiration; he loved Mother’s concoction, especially when she used boiled condensed milk as a filling, but he didn’t want to buy it for the future. On the one hand, he rightly believed that in the case of the erroneousness of these rumors, there would be a lot of condensed milk reserves and there’d be nowhere to put it. On the other hand, my father was stingy, and he was simply reluctant to put down much money on condensed milk right away.

My parents sluggishly discussed the need to purchase this product in bulk, and I was waiting for a convenient moment in order to wedge into their conversation. Finally, Mother noticed my absence at the table despite her instructions to go to dinner. She called me again, threatening all heavenly punishment.

The plan has already matured in my head; all that remained was to bring it to life. I went into the kitchen, sat at the table, and before my mother started raising me, I said the phrase:

“Svitko told me the news!”

“What?” My parents were wary.

“Serge Svitko, my classmate, was the son of a famous person, a butcher from a food store. The whole village knew this man. He chopped meat and could make the buyer happy by chopping off a good piece from the carcass, but he could also upset them by chopping off a piece with bone. True, nobody particularly looked for close friendship with the elder Svitko, but, nevertheless, the elder Svitko was a respected man, and the glare of this respect fell on his son.”

“What news did Svitko bring?” repeated my mother.

“There will be no more condensed milk,” I said as calmly as I could. “Father told him that the plant was being closed for repairs.”

With these words, I pushed the plate towards me and began to eat dinner so that my parents would see my mouth full of food and no longer ask questions. My parents looked at each other.

“How long?” asked the father.

“A month,” I lied, barely moving my tongue in my mouth. “But maybe longer.”

“Tomorrow, you have to go to the store right away,” said my mother. “Buy two—no, three three-liter cans.”

“Sugared,” my father said.

“Let’s put it in the basement, it’s cold there,” my mother retorted.

I realized that the problem with condensed milk had been resolved.

A week passed, a second, a third. The condensed milk in the shops did not disappear. Mother opened one can and allowed us to eat plenty. Strangely, when condensed milk was in short supply for me, I dreamed about it and licked cans during my mother’s cooking. When there was a lot of condensed milk, and I could devour it with glasses, it lost all attractiveness for me, and the can was left more than half-full. My father and brother also lost interest in condensed milk.

Quarrels began to arise between Mother and Father. They tried find out who was guilty of having bought so much condensed milk. My parents somehow forgot about me, and it turned out that my mother was to blame. But my mother was more aggressive than my father in arguing, and at the end of their showdown, it always turned out that my father was to blame.

Condensed milk in an open jar began to crust and sugar. My aunt suggested getting rid of it—giving one to a food bank, one to my father’s mother, the other to her mother, and at the same time she promised her sister that she would compensate her for the cost of half the can. Nobody was going to compensate his father for anything; he was put to shame and was clearly appointed the culprit of a rash purchase. Mother applied sugared and condensed milk in a cookery.

“Beloved Natasha! Do Not Torture Me…”

The first time I fell in love in first grade.

My passion was Natasha Tatarinova, a girl from our class. Almost all the boys were in love with her. It was not difficult to calculate her lovers; we all congratulated her on New Year’s and on International Women’s Day. Natasha also congratulated the boys. But not all, and not always. On New Year’s, she did not congratulate anyone from the boys. The rare, lucky people which Natasha gave greeting cards on the Day of the Soviet Army were in seventh heaven. The rest of the boys who did not lose hope, at every opportunity, tried to attract her attention. I was no exception.

In the spring, the bell-speaker of the mine club began to play the Peanuts’ song “Koi no Vacance.” It still plays in my soul. A charming melody tore through my baby soul. This love was aggravated by the fact that Natasha lived near me, and returning home was a double torture for me; a little charming woman walked in front, not paying any attention to me, and the mine bell threw a song to us after and tore my heart to shreds.

And I made up my mind. I decided to write her a note. “Beloved Natasha!” The first line took shape by itself. “Do not torture me.” After this phrase, some difficulties arose. “I don’t eat or sleep because of love for you.” This line aroused certain doubts in me. I looked in the mirror and found no signs of exhaustion and insomnia on my face. But the line was written, and then the crisis of the conclusion began. The note, no doubt, had to be signed. Otherwise, how would she know that I wrote it? I was afraid to put my real name and surname; if the note fell into the wrong hands, I would undoubtedly be ridiculed. I didn’t have a definite nickname in the class; the boys called me “Serge” and less often by my last name. Rare wits tried to make something out of a surname, but they did not succeed in anything that would stick. Summing up nothing, I printed my initials in capital letters—“SVC”—folded a piece of paper with a note, and put it in my pocket. Better I hadn’t done it. Returning from school, I, together with my friend Vitka Radchenko, went into the department store and already on the first floor, looking at mopeds and motorcycles, completely forgot about this note.

Then I did not know and did not even suspect that my mother regularly rummaged through my pockets in search of forbidden items, especially matches and cigarettes. In addition, she was interested in coins appearing in my belongings. Which of the children did not find the money? I will not say that Donetsk roads were strewn with coins, but I came across them quite often.

Mother once again turned my pockets out. She did this so that I did not see, but this find plunged her into prostration, and then into aggression. She uttered a wild cry and rushed to the table, at which I sat and taught homework.

“Ah, you long bastard.” A severe slap on the back of my head shocked my concentration. “I send him to school to study, and he does not want to study, but wants to get married!” Mother shouted a phrase from Fonvizins’ “Young Ignoramus”: “Father, get the belt, we will beat the love out of him!”

Sometimes, I recall a movie of those years about the first youthful love, Wild Dog Dingo, which calls with awe to the feelings of adolescents, not to injure their fragile souls. This is all nonsense. 15 minutes of flogging and I cursed this note and myself, a long fool who forgot the ill-fated scribble in his jacket pocket. I continued to like Natasha, but I did not dare to speak to her. My puppy love collapsed.

After the fourth grade, our paths diverged with Natasha, and I would have remembered her as a lovely adorable classmate girl who I liked so crazily in many, many years if fate had not brought us together on the Internet. I saw a photograph of a woman’s battered life, not at all like that little sweet pretty woman. I remembered school with her, classmates, teachers, talked about our families. I told her about the story about the note, but it seems that I did it in vain. After this confession, our conversations began to have a strange character; I realized that she began to talk to me in an unusual state and to speak obscure remarks close to delirium. Then she accused me of trying to hack her page on the Internet and get some secret information about her. I guessed that her strange behavior was caused by alcohol or drugs. She blocked me and our communication ceased. Goodbye, Natasha!


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
  8. Chapter 7: Again, the Transience of Being, Part 1
  9. Chapter 7: Again, the Transience of Being, Part 2