Forty Trampled

Attempts to give me a nickname resumed in third grade.

Probably everything grows in childhood. I was no exception. Along with the length of my body, the size of my foot grew. To get ahead of this process and save herself from the frequent purchase of shoes for her son, my mother chose a radical path: she began to buy shoes two or three sizes larger. She didn’t care that I slapped my legs like a penguin of flippers, that I could break my legs in the gym class, tripping in the braided gumshoes. The main thing—saving money—had been achieved.

But the features of my gait in gumshoes did not pass by the attention of my classmates: brother and sister Valery and Valentina Zagryadsky. Finding out that I came to physical education classes in gumshoes of the 40th size, they gave me the nickname “Forty-Threadbare.” The nickname did not take root. But brother and sister still remember it, even many years after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and their move to the United States.

And After a Couple of Years, My Turn Came

Despite Mishka’s spanking, we still desired to learn how to smoke. My friends were not malicious hooligans or inveterate villains; it was just that among teenagers, smoking was considered a kind of outrageous heroism. Football enjoyed some popularity, but then there was no systematic approach for working with children, and football did not become an obstacle to smoking.

Summer holidays were coming up. I came to Mishka, but he was not at home. Aunt Nina, Mishka’s mother, said that he, along with Serge Dokukin, our third friend, went to the forest belt. I rushed there. Finding a fun company was easy. Mishka hung upside down on a tree, and Seryoga cut a whistle from a hazel. They were delighted with my arrival; the three of them could have played pretty well in the “Latki” on the trees, but Dokukin laid aside a hazel and, approaching me, said: “Valera taught Mishka to smoke for real.” Mishka nodded his head, jumped from a branch, and, digging under one of the bushes, pulled out a cigarette butt and matches. We watched, fascinated, as Mishka put a butt in his mouth, lit a match, and brought it to a cigarette. The tip of the cigarette butt smoldered, Mishka pulled smoke into himself, and then blew it out in thin streams through his nose. It was noticeable that he had become proficient in this matter. He was not shaken by a cough; he spat out the butt and handed it to Sergey. He began to gather smoke, but could not stand it and coughed.

Now was my turn. But Mishka took a cigarette and said: “You need to smoke ‘tightly.’ You collect smoke in your mouth and say,”—with these words he put his lips to a cigarette—“E…”—he sucked in air—“Mom is coming!” I began to look around in fright. The company with smoking teenagers, even if they were my closest friends, was fraught with flogging. But my friends laughed, and Mishka said through laughter: “Yes, no one goes there! It’s necessary to say so. ” He again gathered smoke in his mouth and, tightening “E…”, said sharply, “Dad is coming!” while exhaling a cloud of tobacco smoke from his mouth and nose. I took a cigarette from him, scored smoke, but I could only half say “E…” As soon as I began to breathe in tobacco smoke, it closed in my throat, my lungs were seized with spasms, and a strong cough did not allow me to pronounce this sacred phrase to the end. There was no pleasure. We began to play “latki.”

The Crime

I did not want to lag behind my friends, and at home, I made new attempts to learn how to smoke. Grandfather’s cigarettes lay unattended, and no one ever counted them.

An open pack of North attracted my attention, and I took advantage of this. To my omission, I did not find a better place than a wooden toilet in the garden. The smoke that curled from the toilet, in turn, attracted my grandmother’s attention. She patiently waited until I left the building, entered there, and, smelling tobacco smoke, convicted me of an offense. An insidious old woman approached my pleas not to talk about this mother selectively; she promised not to give me away, but as soon as my mother appeared at the gate, the secret that overwhelmed my grandmother’s soul came out and became known to my mother.

The Reprisal Followed Immediately

Three people took part in my execution: mother, grandmother, and aunt. Actually, only mother flogged me. My aunt stood in the doorway and blocked my escape route. The grandmother walked around and wailed: “Kiss your mother’s feet; she will forgive you! Kiss your mother’s feet; she will forgive you!” Her shining village Nizhny Matryonovka’s patter still rings in my ears: “Kiss your mother’s feet…”

I wasn’t Pavlik Morozov, and about 15 to 20 minutes later, I began to kiss my mother’s legs.

She cooled down; her screech turned into an ordinary scream. Mother several times has quilted my ass and, exhausted, has sat down on the sofa.

But the torture did not end there. On the way home, my mother bought a pack of cigarettes, and when we entered the apartment, she shouted, “Eat, long fool!!!” and rushed at me. Taking one cigarette after another from the pack, my mother began to shove them in my mouth. I tried to dodge, but my mother called for help from my father. In the hands of a hefty, well-fed muzhik, I was practically helpless. Mother pulled my lips open and shoved the cigarettes in. I spit them out; she whipped me in the face and continued to shove the cigarettes. The feeding procedure stopped when the pack was almost empty.

My mother forbade me to go to my grandmother. She locked me in the house. I opened the window, climbed through it into the courtyard, and walked until she returned from work. We moved recently to this quarter, I didn’t have friends, and my parents didn’t buy toys for me.

The only entertainment was the swing that I built on the poplar from the old mine cable I found in the barn.

Once, having rolled on the swing in a stupor, I remembered the pack of “food” cigarettes. Earlier, I noticed that my mother had not counted the remaining amount. I boldly took one cigarette, hid in the bushes, and smoked it into ashes. My consciousness floated, it became fun, and the stress was gone.

But I did not become a heavy smoker. As a high school student, cadet, officer, and even while retired, I smoked, but I did so without much enthusiasm. Many of my colleagues, odious smokers, could not make a pack of cigarettes last a day, but I could stretch the pack not only for two to three weeks, but even for a month, and absolutely not forcing my body to suffer.

The only time I had trouble was when I was in intensive care; a common cold caused complications in my elderly heart, a shake changed my addictions, and I quit smoking completely. The craving for nicotine left my body. But then, I was a kid and did not think about bad habits.

My imprisonment did not last long. Mother was tired of taking my younger brother to my grandmother herself; freedom and an old duty returned to me.

New Friends

Life in the Old Colony was par for the course. The housing, of course, was miserable; a passing two-roomed flat without water and sewage in a six-flat hut. The lack of central heating contributed to dancing with firewood, coal, and ash. True, the water column was in the yard, but it was necessary to take the slops out far. The house was in a lowland, its foundation and the lower part of the walls were wet and damp in winter and summer, and the residents agreed that they wouldn’t pour the slops near the house.

Autumn came, and with it, classes at school. Learning was gaining momentum, gaining momentum and Mother’s exactingness. At first, she forbade me to go to my grandmother after school on working days, then on Saturdays and, finally, on Sundays. I stopped going to Grandma’s altogether.

Zealous Anna Vasilievna filled my diary with frivolous remarks that grew into “fours” in behavior for a week, a month, and, as a result, for a quarter. The situation was aggravated by my deviation from the November demonstration that I already mentioned.

Mother not only flogged me with great pleasure, she also punished me for not letting me go for a walk, and then sank even to the point that she forbade reading fiction. For me, a lover of adventure novels and science fiction, this was a blow to the heart.

But there is no evil without good. Excommunicated from fiction, I began to look into the sections of mathematics intended for the following classes. To my surprise, they were not only not so complicated, but even interesting. I want to warn you right away: I did not have to become a great mathematician, but friendship with the exact sciences helped me to argue with my father about the bicycle, enter the military academy, and often helped me out in difficult situations.

My friends rode down the hill on a sled, drove the puck on the ice, and held snowball fights, and I sat in the home prison leafing through the scientific and technical books to which my parents were sympathetic. Mother weakened her control, I got the opportunity to read the magazines Technique: Youth and Model Designer. My mother’s cousin-sister, who worked in the mine library, kept books of interest to me and allowed me to take home magazines from previous years, which were no longer in great demand. Although much was not clear to me, my interest in scientific and technical literature did not disappear then and has not disappeared now.

Vaccine Against Theft

Winter and spring had passed. The coming summer brought me relief from school life. The comments in the diary ceased to pour in, and although my mother still found reasons to flog me, she now did it much less often. My parents did not find anything serious, and I took the slap behind my unbuttoned shirt or hair parted for granted. And then my mother decided to give me a “vaccine against theft”: she put three rubles in the pocket of my jacket and began to expect me to take it.

In the morning, my new friend Alik Sirotenko came to me. He showed me 15 kopecks that his grandfather gave him. The problem was that this money might not be enough for two ice creams; fruit, 7 kopecks per cup, was not always on sale, and the next milk price was 9 kopecks and there was little money for two servings. We decided to run off to the park and look for an empty bottle there. In case of success, we could count not only on milk, but even on 13-penny cream. Remembering my mother and the fact that she’d given me my jacket because the weather was cold, I pulled my “bobochka” on myself, instinctively put my hand in my pocket, and was dumbfounded; a bill fell right into my palm. Trembling from excitement, I took it into the light and appreciated the dignity: three rubles. It was wealth!

Of course, I should have thought where this money came from in my pocket, but at the age of ten, I was a simple-minded child, and such a thought was not born in my mind. With a triumphant cry, I showed the bill to Alik, and we rushed to the department store. First of all, I got a wonderful metal designer that had long attracted my attention. The remaining money was enough for two expensive 22-penny popsicles, two bottles of soda cream, and two five-penny cups of seeds.

My money ran out quickly. I took the remaining trifle by the right of the owner of the banknote to myself.

At home, my parents were waiting for me. My mother tore the box with the designer from my hands and began to look for a price on it.

“One ruble and 88 kopecks!” Her strict teacher’s voice minted words as a sentence. “Where did you get them?”

“I found…” I answered.


And then I realized what a mistake I made. To answer that I found money in my pocket was to knowingly imagine myself as a liar or a fool. I kept silent.

“So where did you get that money?” My mother’s voice began to fill with malice. “You stole it!? From who? Me?”

“No!” I answered and shook my head, stunned.

“You’re lying! You stole it! From me! You have nowhere else to get it! Father, come here!” She called Dad.

He entered the room frowning and muttered displeasedly:

“Better come clean, we’ll flog you less…”

“We will flog you until you confess!” Mother repeated to me, then she took the twig that came from where she came from and began to whip me on the ass and legs. I roared and shouted that I didn’t steal any money, but my enraged mother didn’t want to hear it and just frantically repeated, “Admit that you stole from my wallet…admit that you stole from my wallet…admit that you stole from my wallet…”

I repeat: I was not Pavlik Morozov. After a few minutes, I could not stand the flogging anymore and slandered myself, agreeing that I had stolen money from my mother’s wallet. Mother continued the execution, but with less zeal. A few minutes later, the flogging stopped, and my parents, cursing, went to different rooms. Tears of resentment and pain choked me.

I do not know who put this money in my pocket. None of my relatives and friends have ever given me such gifts. My father, by and large, was apathetic to my upbringing. There was no one to give me money except my mother.


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
  10. Chapter 8: Old Colony, Part 1