During holidays people make fun differently. With us, before the war,
everyone got together to play cards. Sergey Fedorovich, an unfrocked priest
(during the war he would become frocked again), would always give something
tiny to me as a birthday present: spillikins or a bag of war toys made
from clay and painted green: tanks, cannons, pill-boxes, one could wage
toy battles with them. But before the war the most popular among boys were
pistols and sabres. Some important relatives used to come too - aunt Kvesia
with Foma Panteleevich. Somehow he was to be called not uncle Foma, but
Foma Panteleevich. He was chief accountant of a military plant, and Vania,
the husband of another aunt would often help him to put on the rubber shoes.
Once I embarrassed my mother. I unwrapped aunt Kvesia's gift, it was a
silk jumper, that was most valuable at the time, and shouted in disappointment:
"Fie! Fie! Look, mummy, that is not a gift, it is only fabric!"
All our guests hardly ever drank any wine, and after dinner men and women
with a clear head would sit down to play the "ninth wave". I
enjoyed standing close to uncle Vitia. He was with the NKVD (KGB), and
I now guess that he used to come because of my aunt. Once he gave us a
At the time everybody did that, so he asked the following:
"The first part denotes a dupe, the second - a vehicle, going
uptown, together they form my condition after such a magnificent dinner".
The guests could not make out the meaning, but I did. I was a smart boy,
though did not attend school yet.
- Full up, - I said.
- Right! - exclaimed uncle Vitia, took cartridges out of his revolver
and gave it to me to play with. But the revolver was attached to the holder
with a string, and I could not stray from the table. So I watched them
playing cards, took aim at the guests. "Bang! Bang!" Guests hummed
When I was a fresher at school and learning the alphabet we reached
the letter "b", I thought up of the word "beggar".
- There are no beggars in the Soviet Union! - Nina Petrovna, the teacher,
said loudly and distinctly. I did not know what answer to give and my face
turned red, even tears welled up.
- Who can give another word? - Nina Petrovna asked.
"Nationalization, must, people", - words came as if from
cornucopia from other children. Nina Petrovna was benevolently smiling.
And I sat at my desk pondering. A mendicant used to visit us frequently,
and my mother would prepare some crusted bread for him in advance. Once
he even brought a bun (communion bread) and wished me a happy birthday.
The old man must have been a professional, a remnant of the past. He wore
a clean fur coat with neat patches on it, a beard like a spade. His brow
was thick and he had a nose like a duck. He looked very much like Leo Tolstoy.
That is, I say it now, but at the time I did not know any Tolstoy whatsoever.
Only portraits of our leaders decorated with red flags were hanging on
Next day we studied the letter "o". I have prepared the word
"Osoviachim", but Nina Petrovna did not ask me. For "p"
I had the word "party", for "r" - "revolution",
but the teacher still ignored me. I gave up and did not think any more
Then, when letter "l" came, I was called to the desk and
unexpectedly got embarrassed. "Lard", - I blurted out.
Nina Petrovna did not say anything, but stared at me for some time,
and my face again turned red.
What fun it was going to the dacha: jokes, hikes for the mushrooms,
Aunt Olia (wife of uncle Vania) would often play jokes on us. In the
morning we went checking our fishing lines, and there were herring heads
on the hooks, and we thought that some big fish had eaten our bounty. Orange
cap boletus would turn up near the garbage place overnight, cucumbers from
the hothouse would appear on the vegetable beds, and we simpleheartedly
believed all that.
That was a happy time before the war. In the evening we would get together
on the terrace. We sat comfortably there listening to horror stories, looking
through the coloured window panes, hearing a far away thunder of a storm.
One such evening a skeleton marched towards us from the Neva river. It
was huge and white, its limbs and joints clattered while it inexorably
moved toward our frail veranda. A neighbour woman even lost consciousness.
And Aunt Olia shrieked with laughter, she had taken an oven fork, had gone
out of the window to the Neva, and came back with a bed sheet on the fork.
She had painted a skull and bones on the sheet with charcoal.
The beginning of war
We are playing war in a sand-pit. Sand-clots go far and, having struck
the land, burst like a cloud, much as real hand grenades in the cinema,
and if you manage to hit someone, it does not hurt at all.
In the evening you come tired to the dacha, drink some fresh milk and
sleep happily till the next fight. It is fun to play war during sunny June
days. You shake off dust, bathe in the river and start playing again.
People were coming from the landing pier, a woman with some bags took
a rest sitting down on a tree stump, looked at us and said:
- A real war with Germany has just began.
We stopped shouting, stayed a while nearby, then scattered home.
A month passed since the war began, and a new word passed around in
Leningrad - evacuation.
A train came to the garden nearby "Proletarsky works". My
brother and I carried our baggage to the carriage and got acquainted with
the children around us. Everything about was so new, so interesting.
When the train pulled out, I saw my father through the open door for
the last time. He did not wave his hand, did not run after the train as
others did, he sat near a fence crying. I suffered and looked around embarrassed,
lest someone would see him, hero of the civil war, in such a state. Train
wheels were bumping softly, some people were running after the train...
Soon after that my father would volunteer for his second war and would
never come back. But he had been watching us from a photo till then. He
had put his hand on a regiment field gun and is looking at us. And all
around him the whole regiment was watching us from the year of 1918. Hardly
any of them have survived. And from that last war we have no photo of my
father. The only image retained in my memory is that of him sitting crying
near the fence.
We were taken to the south of Tcheliabinsk province. Horses dragged
us wading in dirt for four days. Carts trailed from one hill to another.
Hawthorn was red along the road, and we picked its berries as we walked
by. In villages geese were cackling in the pools of water, and then the
road squeezed between wattle-fences becoming impassable. All the time during
which we made our way to the village, a fine drizzle was hanging above
us. We felt very uncomfortable. At last we arrived.
We were given lodging in an abandoned house by the river. We needed
to go for firewood, but we could not harness a horse. We had to bake bread
ourselves, but we did not know how to make dough. We did not even have
a lavatory, so we had to run into a sunflower thicket. My mother could
not collect herself, she was utterly perplexed. One evening I sat on the
door porch, tired and bewildered. The sky dried a little and an extremely
thin red band of the sunset trailed over the horizon. I felt sad and miserable.
When my father saw us off, he told me:
- Now, you are twelve, you are the eldest man in the family!
And I do not know what to do, I am not capable for anything.
There was only a primary school at the village, that suited my brother,
but I had to attend the fifth form. So I went with local children to the
neighbouring village of Mekhonka, which was three kilometers away. We got
up early. It was nice walking through woods and over hills under an autumn
September sun. I told the children about Leningrad, books, cinemas. Now
comes crossing over the river, and the school is high up on a hill. I did
well at school and would gladly give my solutions to problems to be copied
by my new friends. During last classes I apprehensively waited for the
time to go home. "Would they run again today?" - I thought. My
misgivings as a rule came true. They started right beyond the shaky fence
and ran to the village in a group.
I panted and followed them with all my strength, then lagged behind
and walked home alone. It was like this all month long: in the morning
hearty talks, stories, and in the afternoon - racing.
Then suddenly at the beginning of October cold winds started blowing
us in the face. I ran the first kilometer, the second, I was not tired
and felt that I could race farther and farther. The next day during the
last classes I felt impatient, I wanted to verify my abilities. But as
soon as we started, a strong and agile boy, Valka, blocked my way. And
only when all other children went ahead for half a kilometer, he let me
free and soon caught up with the rest. I could not do that, and again my
days became gray and dreary.
But once my patience wore thin. Jerking to the left and the right from
the path I would always encounter the agile Valka's chest. Then I sharply
stuck my fist into Valka's stomach, and while he crouched recovering his
breath, struck him twice more in the face.
- Where is Valka? - the boys asked me when I caught up with them. -
Ah... there, he has lagged behind someplace! - I said disdainfully and
waved my hand.
Since that time the children have not accosted me any more.
Let`s round it up
My mother joined a collective farm as a stocktaker, and being afraid
of making a mistake, used to take me with her to the fields. And she was
afraid to walk alone in the far-away fields. We counted together sheaves,
hectares, weights of haystacks. If our calculations did not match we would
again measure the length, and encircle haystacks with a cord.
Team leader Fedor looked at our notes, scratched his head:
- Let's, Simushka, round it up.
At the governing council tobacco smoke was penetrating all the cracks,
team leaders would babble loudly, but the deep low voice of the chairman
would rise above them: "Brothers, we have to round it up a bit more!
The information was sent with a horseman to the county Soviet, they
phoned then to the district Committee, and from there someplace else...
In a week's time I read in a newspaper that our province was the third
during the sawing time, it was a "prize."
Fighting bedbugs we somehow lived through that winter in the country.
In the spring, watching other people, we planted the kitchen garden as
we could. And we acquired a piggy Younka (we bought it in July). We fed
it mostly on stinging-nettle, and roaming about food refuse dumps it grew
like a dog, frisky and lean. And when uncle Vania arrived, aunt Olia's
husband, Younka tried to run away from him. He was not aware of the fact
that Uncle Vania had been in the Leningrad blockade, was evacuated over
Ladoga lake to Stalingrad, retreated from there on foot and now he was
appointed Manager of a plant in the city of Krasnoiarsk. Uncle Vania was
a big, strong man, and as we raised the pig together with Aunt Olia, half
of it belonged to uncle Vania. Uncle Vania killed and carved Younka deftly
and quickly. Then we decided to go on with him. First, it would be a city
again, second, food was very cheap there, our mother said, being with uncle
Vania was much safer, as our mother said.
We made our lodging in a long barrack, consisting of one large room.
Bed sheets divided it into cubicles, where families lived. Over the bed
sheets incandescent bulbs dimly glowed, and if you wanted to read "Spartacus",
you had to place a stool on a bedside table, climb there carefully and
read... read. In the country I had read only one book "Armour train
Gandzia" several times and now felt great hunger for reading.
Suddenly a flame went up, something burst out and it smelled of smoke.
Taken by surprise, startled, I fell down and hit the iron bedpost and hurt
myself. The oven had burst. It was fired with coal dust that would glow
for a long time, then would all at once ignite and sometimes would even
break the hatch with the hinges.
- War echo! - laughed uncle Vania behind a bed sheet.
- For some it is an echo, for others the war is not an obstacle, -
someone said behind another bedsheet, but nobody got the meaning of that.
Sounds were becoming resounding in the barrack for some time. Some
people got more fitting lodgings and would leave. My mother also went to
the chief quartermaster. She would come, wait in the line, then tell her
need. The chief would ponder, fumble at the papers, then would curtly answer:
- Cannot help you so far yet, come again in a week!
Then only we alone were left in the premise. Later those men from neighbouring
villages, who were not fit for the army were settled there. Heavy tobacco
smoke has been hanging since under the ceiling, we would shrink hearing
some unfit language and my hat got lost someplace. My mother went again
to the chief: "We have even lost a hat!" He was fed up. "What
hat, what are you talking about, why do you accost me?"
My mother stood there silently drooping her head. The chief was also
silent for a while fumbling with a pencil, then asked:
- Gousev Ivan Mikhailovich, shop foreman, is he your relative?
- My sister's husband, - my mother answered.
- Now then, - the chief burst out, - I offered him a two bedroom flat
in a cottage together with you, there was such an opportunity, but he refused
it. He took a separate one bedroom flat! Come in a week's time! My mother's
face turned white. The cottages on the Enisei riverbank! Hey, Vania, Vania...
Safe as a wall... Got afraid that we would eat too much at his place...
She chocked with tears, swallowed them and went away. Then our dreary life
in the barracks dragged on. Once a week my mother would sign in for an
audience with the chief. Getting another refusal, she would beg his pardon
for the trouble and would slowly go away. Once she told him that we were
the family of a man who was at the frontline and that he was her husband.
But the quartermaster did not heed, she bored him with her silent visits,
but he still fumbled with the papers and would softly say:
- Everybody has got a husband at the frontline!
Weeks passed by and by...
We lived like on an island among people of all sorts. A purse with
money was lost, it was a dreadful loss at the time. It was good that we
did not loose ration cards. Mother kept them in a bag at the bosom, but
still we felt miserable. Once at the next audience my mother said the usual
"Sorry for the trouble" and went towards the door which opened
right in her face. She just managed to avoid it. An astrakhan fur clad
man ran into the office, sat down on the chair without an invitation and
swayed his foot in a felt boot.
- Do you know, my good man, who I am? - he asked the quartermaster.
- Yes, - the latter said, - you are our new chief mechanic.
- Then why did you, Sir, assign me to a barrack?
- There are no vacancies at the cottages so far, comrade mechanic!
- replied the quartermaster.
- ...chief mechanic!
- ...comrade chief mechanic!
- Well then, my friend, - the felt boot swayed still more upwards,
- take your paper back! - and he threw it onto the table.
But the quartermaster was an experienced man.
- No, I will not! You have signed it!
And here they started a gentlemanly play: each would push the paper
away, but still they watched it attentively. All of a sudden a callous
hand stretched out from behind their backs and my mother being already
in the doors shouted:
- Thank you quartermaster!
- Stop! How dare you? Come back in a week! - both got to their feet
and rushed after her. - Imagine her pretending so modest and shy!
We got away and rushed with a suit-case to the new home. Never mind
that some other name was inscribed in the paper, the only trouble was that
a padlock was on the door. My mother thought for a while: "Bring me
a brick!" - she ordered me. Bang, bang! It turned out to be so easy!
Nobody among the neighbours managed to look out, when we got inside and
bolted the door.
We took a breath. "As well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb"
- said my mother. She ordered my brother not to let anyone into the room,
and we went to the hostel for our cot. At the time the superintendent,
a small and puny man came onto us like a hawk and grabbed the cot.
- I won't let you! I am short of them as it is! Won't let!
- Get away!
- No, I won't!
- Get away, or else...!
- What else? What else? I have a shortage!
- Get away, or I shall... I will ... break your head with this cot!
- My mother made such awful eyes that the frail man jumped aside, he must
have thought that the woman was able to lift the iron cot and bang it onto
his head. He jumped aside and waved his small fist from far away.
- And they call you a cultured woman from Leningrad! They call you
a lady from Leningrad!
Sifted flour bread
He was always kept behind closed doors. Father of the "Sifted
Flour Bread" worked at the bakery, his mother was saleswoman, that
is why he was nicknamed so. And when his parents left for work (we still
wonder, why they lived in a barrack), we would stay under his windows begging
to throw a crust of bread to us. We would dance, play some foolish jokes
and would get a chunk of bread for that. His parents learned about the
window and nailed it fast. Then my brother, who once visited them, recollected
seeing half a barrel of herrings in the corner of their room. Herring was
slippery, it could be squeezed under the threshold.
We would toil and toil under the window, then ran to the corridor and
wait, wait... when the herring tail would appear. The "Sifted Flour
Bread" used to play jokes on us, he would pull the fish back, and
no matter how tight you would squeeze it in your fingers, the food would
slip away. And when you manage to pull it out it may turn out to be a gnarled
And the "Sifted Flour Bread" would gaily laugh behind the
door... Sometimes he used to be fair though and would deliver a whole herring...
Order of meals
We did not eat at all in the morning. At school at one P.M. we had
some lunch with our children's ration cards. Local lads winced squeamishly
and would not eat all the soup.
So I used to take a seat close to one of them. Then we bought bread
after school and exchanged half of it for two glasses of flour at the market-place.
By seven o'clock in the evening I lit fire in the oven with my brother
and we started to cook some pottage. At nine our mother came home, rattled
at the washstand, and I at the time would ladle out the pottage and share
the rest of the bread. My brother and I scraped the walls of the pan in
Once, as soon as our supper was over the lights went out. I lit an
oil-lamp, we took our seats closer to the oven keeping silence. Then I
saw clearly the face of our mother: deep shadows lay in the wrinkles, she
sat on a stool with her hands limp and listless, her eyes were dull. She
did not give out her ration card for dinner, for she could get something
for it at the commissary for us. And she started swelling from hunger.
I cried with my brother:
- Mummy, mummy, give out your ration card for dinner, we would also
die without you!
We were lucky to loose our ration cards only once during the war, we
were lucky to have lost them only two days before the end of the month.
The first day we managed somehow, but the second day we could not help
it. My brother tore some pieces of a newspaper, threw them into a frying
pan, fried them in water and ate. I could not stand that and followed suit.
Then the door opened, a neighbour came in, stared at us for a while
and then shouted:
- What are you doing? What are you doing? - She looked in horror at
us, and at the remains of a photo in the paper... Then she came to, seized
the newspaper leftovers and ran away.
My brother got scared and said:
- It was you who swallowed it.
Then the door opened again, and we fell silent. The neighbour came
back again holding carefully in the outstretched hands a saucer full of
yellowish flour. Then she closed the latch of the door, crumpled the rest
of the newspaper and threw it into the oven.
We did not loose ration cards again, but by the spring of 1943 grew
My mother used to take a long look at her wedding ring, sigh and say:
"If I sell it, father would get into trouble! Let's wait a bit more!"
- We agreed :"Well, mum, let's wait!" - So we lived on.
March passed away, April came, there were no letters from father, and
my felt boots came agape. Next we were robbed. I went out for a minute
with a pail of slops, when I came back, saw that our mother's coat was
missing and the bed quilt. So our mother had to go for her work wrapped
in a cotton kerchief. At this very time they had a day off at the factory.
Mother would turn over restless all night in her bed, in the morning her
hands were not so swollen, so she took off her ring from the finger and
went to the store, where they exchanged gold for food. Soon she brought
from there a half pillowcase of flour, a measure of spice-cakes and a can
of condensed milk.
We sold the spice-cakes that very day for five thousand roubles and
bought ourselves new garments: shoes with wooden soles for me (what trouble
they gave me later), a quilted coat for mother and striped cotton-padded
pants for my brother. For the First of May holiday mother promised to bake
us a napoleon. Then this long awaited first of May came. A blue sunny morning
it was, we hastily shouted "hurray" at a school meeting and rushed
home for the napoleon. We froze at the threshold. Mother made dough while
crying, her tears dripped into the pie: the "killed in the battle"
notice had arrived for our father. Our father was dead. My brother and
I silently stared at the pie and only when we had eaten the last crumple
of it, did we feel like crying and suffered over our loss.
Having bought bread at the shop I hid a piece of it in my pocket. At
the door some freeloaders waited for us and menacingly demanded: "Gimme
a mouthful". Sometimes we had to fight.
At the canteen door some lads also waited, but those were at the very
bottom of our children's level. They watched, with their pathetic big eyes,
for those who did not eat all of their dinner, timidly stretched their
hands to the plate and drank the soup leftovers someplace in the corner
or at the threshold.
Those lads were of different ages, I think they did not attend any
school. Among them was a tiny boy. The sleeves of his cotton padded jacket
were much too long and hampered him, his cap sat deep on his nose. Once
I heard him musing, when he dreamily said to another lad: "If only
someone else were run down by a train."
Near our mess there was a railway track and recently we witnessed an
Uzbek from Central Asia falling down under the wheels.
The train passed a long time ago, but the body still lay near our windows.
Some children did not eat their dinner that day.
Bread was heavy and sticky, that is why sometimes during the break
one would let the winds blow. Every time boys would turn to Garik shouting:
"Hit him!" Fists struck at his back: "Hoity-toity, your
mother taught you..." In the end they would ask: "Tin or copper?"
If he answered "tin", then he would be struck on the head, if
"copper" - he would be turned around again. Ironically, everybody
knew that he could not have done it. Could not!
Garik would cry then. When he calmed, his eyes still were blue and
gentle. Was he to blame, that he lived at a cottage on the Enisei riverside,
that his father was not at the frontline, but was Manager of the works
and he did not eat that sticky clay-like bread?
Where is he now, Garik Bournysh? I would like to meet him now, beg
his pardon and take a look at his deep blue eyes. They may have stayed
like that up till now.
"Rations, rations!" - sledges of coal squeak behind my back,
and I recollect having in my pocket beautiful gold coupons with an inscription
"To the families of fallen heroes - extra alimony". I have to
get the food before the holiday.
As soon as I have time to spare I will run with a knapsack to our shop.
The shop is empty and quiet and I am afraid that they have already taken
- Well, no! - says the saleswoman and smiles tiredly. - Everybody received
some and you will get some food too. She has an axe in her hands and while
I recollect a pre-war butcher's shop, she is chopping something on the
floor. Then she throws a ragged gray chunk with white circles on the sides
onto the scale. When I take it into my hands it dawns upon me that it is
frostbitten sticky potatoes.
I dejectedly walked to the door.
- Hey, boy! - the saleswoman shouts behind my back. - You have got
some more in store. - She looks at the coupons. - There are two of you
with your mother, get it! - And she hands out to me two sticky lollipops.
An additional mess for administration was established beyond the factory
premises. In the morning and at dinner time Uncle Vania grumbled but still
visited it, but he gave to us his supper coupons.
The mess was far away from our barracks, I had to walk across a field
in cold and snow to the factory outskirts. But what joy it was to hand
in your pan and instead of frostbitten potatoes to receive something wonderful:
two big cutlets with white macaroni or goulash with genuine meat. Then
we got pancakes with butter, flatcakes, buns. I poured coffee or hot chocolate
into a bottle which I brought along for such an occasion. When I got all
this I rushed quickly home. My brother started the fire in the oven when
our mother was about to come back from her work. Once I hurried home. I
ran squeamishly, there was nobody around, only frosty silence rustled around,
stars were squinting and halfway home the lights went off in the district.
It felt eerie as if I was all alone in the world and would never reach
our smoky hut. Suddenly a desperate woman's cry broke the silence "Help!
I halted all of a sudden listening. The voice sounded once again feebly:
"Help!" and was heard no more.
It started snowing during classes. It was a curious sight to look at
bare children's footprints straying from the porch in all directions.
I had tarpaulin shoes with wooden soles and took my brother to school
the next day on my back. Some children jumped on one foot then on another
in turns, some spurted from one hummock to another, most of all we envied
two independent puny lads, who lived in slag heap caves near stock-hold
and came to school along the warm path where hot pipes lay. Still everybody
came, twelve barefooted children, for during the large break at school
we had a "school ration", a chunk of bread weighing 50 grams.
The principal phoned somewhere and made demands. Then he gathered all
twelve of us and took a local train that shuttled in the sideline and went
as far as the "Heap" stop. That's what they called the lonely
barn in the field. The janitor had orders to let only people with passes
Our principal had been a tall, slender and strict man, but half a year
later, when he came back from the war, he used a wheelchair riding about
the classroom and saw everything in our desks and under them. We spotted
him only by his shouts and gold teeth. He had been a tankman at war. The
principal struck with his wheelchair at the door and broke it. My brother
told me later that the heap was as high as the Kazbek mountain. It slowly
rotted and smoke was seeping out. First they warmed their feet in it and
then began choosing footware. During the war Americans did not discard
outmoded boots and sent them to us. Krasnoiarsk got a train-full of adult
shoes and Chita with a loadfull of children's sandals and shoes envied
us. The Krasnoiarsk heap was for the use of grown ups, but children could
use it too with some difficulties.
They announced at school that we should start training for a cross
country hike that would take place in a month and they gave us skis.
There was no spare time during the day: I had to hunt for firewood,
to stand in line for bread, but in the evening I found an hour and having
made a ski trek along a barbed wire fence (for we lived next to a prison)
went diligently up and down along it. Bloodhounds followed me from one
pole to another for they could not understand that I skied in a free territory.
Soon I got accustomed to their husky indifferent barking.
Sunday turned out to be a frosty sunny day, the coach waved the flag
and we rushed forward. I had never taken part in races before, plunged
into the run with all my might but soon grew tired.
I remember falling down and a girl for whose sake I had been training
all the time outstripped me disdainfully flashing at me her blue eyes.
We came to finish as follows: first came children of Siberian local
inhabitants, tall and strong boys. They came to school from far away, frozen
homemade bread rattling in their satchels. After them came children of
the factory administration with their sparkling skis, Bournysh and others,
then came children of doctors, engineers, foremen. Last came a group of
children whose fathers were at the frontline.
War was in the middle of its course, everywhere they practised savings.
So one December evening we were left without any fuel. We sat looking at
hoarfrost glistening on the walls and brooded where could we get some firewood,
for soon mother was to come from work and we were to boil some stew. Nobody,
evidently, gave us any coupons for coal, you had to find ways and means
yourself. I should say, that in the second year of our life in Krasnoyarsk
we got accustomed to our existence and we always thought up something to
get some fuel. Sometimes we would gather in two groups and would attack
the coal yard from two sides. While the guard hobbled to one group the
other did not waste their time. Or we found a woodshavings heap behind
the colophony rosin plant or would get a board or two at the construction
But at the time December frost set in and our sources depleted: wood-shavings
were burned at the factory and the coal heap was taken away by enterprises.
We attempted to dig up coal powder and sieve it but the results were poor.
It was also hard to get any boards at construction sites, they became scarce
Previously it would have been hard for us, but this time we did not
reflect long. We took a saw and went with my brother to the attic. We lit
a match and chose an auxiliary beam. We thought that if we took out that
beam the roof would not come down. But for precaution's sake we did not
do it above our room.
So we sawed and sawed, quietly, noiselessly and stealthily.
Victory Day got firmly embedded in people's memory, I remember it too.
In the morning we guys struck a bet, if one could eat a teaspoonful of
salt without chasing it with water. Salt, gray and rough, was plentiful,
it was hauled via Krasnoyarsk on open railway platforms.
- So, who is brave? - Sifted Flour Bread asked. He was holding a teaspoonful
of the nauseating salt in one hand and a chunk of bread about a quarter
of a pound in the other, so to say reward for the risk.
- Let me, - I said and hastily tried to swallow the salt.
- Get inside quickly, would you! Quick... But it would not, it stuck
in my throat and did not come either way. I felt that it would soon come
back and tried with all my might, otherwise - farewell to the chunk of
Now someone shouted from the corridor, loudly and gaily:
- Hurray! The war is over! Victory! Victory!
Boys rushed towards the voice and I just managed to jump round the
I was finishing the first year at a Mechanical College and right after
Victory Day we were sent to the country to establish a farm for our canteen.
So we dug soil with spades for potatoes, slept in the haystacks, left
over from the previous year and sang songs at night near a bonfire. Our
teachers sang, and director Ovidiy Yakovlevich sang too:
"Hey, homemade tobacco, We made friends with you. Watchmen look
around sharply, We are ready to fight, We are ready to fight!"
It was a glorious and hungry time.
One morning as soon as I washed my face Ovidiy Yakovlevich called me
and two more guys and led us someplace over the field behind a coppice.
There was a house behind the forest. The director explained to us that
we had to till soil there. As soon as we began Olga Nicolaevna, the director's
wife, appeared from the house, bade us to take our seats at a table in
the garden and gave us each a big plateful of millet porridge and a cup
of tea. With sugar, but not saccharine. So we began tilling and did it
Then we had a copious dinner, then supper.
When the war was over closer to autumn we were ready to return to Leningrad.
But it was not so easy to leave. One had to get a summon from there. Our
relatives sent it to us and our mother was released from her job. But director
of the college would not let me go. "You shall get education here
and shall live at a hostel". My mother darted to the director. "What!
You won't let my son go back to Leningrad! My husband gave his life at
the war, while you fattened your tummy here in the rear! Hey you!... -
She grabbed the ink-pot, which Ovidiy Yakovlevich ordered us to give to
him for a birthday present and smashed it on the glass on the table...
Then she ran to the military commissar. The military commissar had
been at war, he had lost a hand there. I remember his glorious name up
till now, Lieutenant-Colonel Koutouzov. He knew the life of a soldier at
the frontline and stood for us, for the families of those who had been
there. He made a telephone call to the director, I did not hear what he
had told him, I should only say that the war with Japan was ahead. So the
director, not looking up, silently dipped his pen into an ink-pot, it was
a simple one, and signed my petition.
"Home! Home! - wheels of the train clacked, Krasnoyarsk station
disappeared, melted in steam clouds. "Farewell, Siberia! Fare thee
well, hateful wild garlic! If it were not for uncle Vania, we would have
fought at the tickets office for a long time. He took off the receiver,
made a phone call someplace and they brought the tickets right to our barrack.
For by the end of the war uncle Vania was transformed into a trust manager
with sparkling shoulder loops.
The wheels are banging, our train moves through banners and band music
towards Moscow. The train becomes more crowded, after the Ural mountains
people settled under the benches and on the upper shelves. It was crowded
but nobody grumbled, for it was victory, everybody wanted to get home,
to the West, to the pre-war life.
Two men in black uniforms entered the coach and announced to the people
who fell silent, that there was no way through Moscow, Moscow was overcrowded,
and it should be obviated from the south.
Days dragged on, we changed trains all the time. The city of Riazhsk.
Sanitary service, hot water ran short.
Toula. A low dreary wooden station house, we occupied a bench and for
two days slept on it in luxury. Snow and rain. Kalouga. Glass and concrete.
Green poplars. Sun. That very day we boarded a train. My brother found
Viazma. Our only suitcase was stolen but I was happy. Why should we
bring with us potatoes to Leningrad, at home we would live as of old. It
had dragged my arms down. Bologoe. Night. Waiting room is overcrowded.
Damp snow is falling. But one is not allowed to stay on the platform. A
"Red Arrow" train with diplomatic coaches was soon due to pass.
We were taken for half an hour to a militia precinct. We had to change
trains at Rzhev, Torzhok, Likhoslavl, Vyshniy Volochok, Malaya Vishera...
Everywhere one had to shout, demand, buy bread for the coupons, make way
to the ticket-office, find the coaches on the railway tracks, show the
sanitary inspection certificate. The closer to Leningrad, the more difficult
it was to get into a waiting room, into a coach. Everybody was eager to
get to the city of Leningrad.
Everything happened as we had dreamed. In Leningrad two sealed rooms
waited for us with furniture and our clothes in them. Our relatives found
a job for our mother at a canteen. I went on studying at a college. And
the third room in our apartment instead of a professor, who died of hunger,
was occupied by aunt Klava. During the blockade all her relatives had also
One evening when we were taking tea in the kitchen she came in and
told us what they had endured here. So our troubles and scourges paled
before that. The doorbell rang. I went to open the door. A man in a gray
uniform overcoat with its collar up stood at the threshold, there was no
belt on the uniform...
- Good evening, my boy! - he said and took off his cap. - Come on in,
Otto! - aunt Klava appeared behind me.
I gradually realized, that it was the first live German fascist I had
seen in my life. For the first time I saw him not in the movies. It was
my father who did that, so I could see a fascist only after the war as
a prisoner. The "cold" Siberia, uncle Vania had helped in that.
There was a light bulb in the corridor, aunt Klava went to the kitchen
and I stood there gaping at Otto. He fumbled with his cap, his head was
bald as a ball and glistened. A drop on his long nose was glistening too.
He was not at all fearsome.
- Here you are, - aunt Klava came back and handed him a chunk of bread
of about half a pound.
- Danke, Madam Klavdia! - the German said, made a deep bow and left.
- He is a prisoner, for good behavior the guards do not escort him,
- explained aunt Klava. - They are restoring houses here, so we help them
a bit, - and she went out to her room.
I stood and pondered. My father was killed. Uncle Kolia died during
the blockade. He traded his pianoforte for bread, but it did not do him
any good. Foma Panteleevich, though he was the chief accountant of a military
plant, was also killed with a fragment of a bomb at the entrance to the
works. Aunt Masha, though had survived the most terrible year of 1941,
then ate some bad food and died. My grandmother, grandfather... we received
a letter from them while we were evacuated. Mother read the letter and
rejoiced: everybody is alive. But then we cleared the lines that had been
struck out by military censorship. We dipped all the blockade letters into
stinging-nettle sap, and read :"Grandfather is no longer with us,
he died of hunger". Then our grandmother died too.
I stood there pondering. How come? One should take a poker and strike
the Hun on the head... on the head... and here we help him with provisions.
Some winter days it is so murky all around that one can hardly discern
whether it is a hill before you or a dale and you would unexpectedly glide
down into it on the skis and crouch in apprehension. The horizon vanishes
and merges with the murky skies, one can only see the air all around, the
dim church of Our Savior of Kovalevo and gray cars gliding noiselessly
along the dam like mice.
An invisible flock of jackdaws flies somewhere above you barking like
puppies. A stem looks like a pole, a pole - like a man.
At noon clouds would come over in layers and the first sunbeam would
strike the land through the blue stripes, it would turn rosy and glide
on the sparkling surface of snow and the red down cap of a woman skiing
in front of you would suddenly light like a river beacon.
Everything around turns as clear and vivid as a picture transfer after
the upper layer had been rubbed off. A hundred year old willow at the foot
of the hill displays its every limb as a black pattern on the background
of the snow whiteness. The white church of Our Saviour of Kovalevo spread
its low chapels to all the four sides and thrust forward its only apse.
Thunder hummed over the sky as if wind rattled iron sheets on the roof
one after another: these are "Annushka" aircraft, that had expected
good weather for so long, now fly to the four winds: Kholm, Borovichi,
At the Kovalevo hill near the church there is a green tomb. Each time
I pass here I read the inscription that I like very much : "Let's
pray, the orthodox, for the soul of old woman Alexandra". Then I glide
down from the hill. The woman, that had skied before me, had long ago turned
to some other place, I took off my sun glasses and saw a pompous bullfinch
below on an alder-tree.
Its breast is red, its collar is like mink, it looks very noble. The
bullfinch, when it wants to pick at a bud, pulls its head out of the collar,
it would turn its neck one way or another... and then it would leave...
its autograph at the edge of my ski.
In the forest or the "Gre-Zo", as my son calls the green
zone around the city, snowflakes fall quietly even if there is wind in
What can one see in a forest on a winter's day? Much!
Many oaks did not shed their yellow leaves, they hang from branches
like tired working hands after toil.
Winter this year is fine, with abundant snow, for a long time we have
not had such a lovely winter. Hares make deep trails in the snow. Most
busy are cross roads of cuttings. At night they must be as "populated"
as is Gagarin Avenue after an evening shift at the factories.
This year the harvest has done well in the province, cabbages were
not left under the snow and hares moved to suburban forests, closer to
gardens, hay routes. Hunting is not allowed in the green zone.
Once we saw an elk. The cutting led deep into the field recently made
by land reclaimers. Suddenly land trembled under the snow and an elk dashed
across the cutting fiercely, as a tank in a movie, its sides heaving heavily...For
a long time afterwards snow sticks were falling from the trees, troubled
by such a burst.
I made a ski trail at these cuttings and went along it in circles making
the trail better and better. The field is spacious, all the horizons are
open to the four winds, but in the forest one can better feel the joy entering
the body, overflowing it.
Birches, oaks and all of our Novgorod modest woods stay still, frozen,
only occasional snowflakes keep falling from the skies. If the snow is
endless and thick, the ski trail rustles under your feet as if you walk
over silk. You put forward lazily one foot after another and have enough
spare time to strike the head of a dry iris with the stick. The iris would
spring straight and spray around black seeds over the white snow as if
they are fragments out of a hand grenade.
If it does not snow, the ski trail becomes hard and sparkling like
two rails leading far away and it does not rustle then. Then I bid farewell
to two birches that grow close to an alder whose violet buds start swelling
getting ready for the spring. I take leave of the only fir in this "Gre-Zo"
that can hardly be seen in the thicket so it is of no interest to thieves.
Then I move on to the hay route that is ironed by tractors with steel sheets
that make it nearly as smooth as asphalt.
On Sundays it is quiet there, night snow lies on it like down and I
glide on it noiselessly and easily. But everything, either good or bad,
has its limits. Now the sun, like a pale yolk spread over the shrubbery,
casts blue shadows onto the land and the field wind has abated having stuck
its gusts in some crevices.
It is about time to head home. Our Savior of Kovalevo behind me pales
and turns into a bleak blot. Moon rises behind your back, you would turn
around to greet it then move on. The sky near horizon is gray, somewhat
higher it is blue, violet. The moon has passed all such phases, stuck in
violet and shines reluctantly. It is bleak, not cleaned, its edges are
broken. Pale-yellow, rosy colors of the sky overtake me and move from the
north along the left and right horizon towards the city. An oval orange
cloud stuck to the TV broadcasting tower like a dirigible moored to it.
Frost grows bitter, power houses in the city exert all their might,
the cloud grows, the red crack of the sunset is about to snap closed. Suddenly
lights go on in the houses and the green neon boats over the "Sadko"
hotel start floating somewhere.
The most difficult task for me now is to cross the Moscow-Leningrad
highway. On day without wind the car smoke falls on both sides of it like
blue mist. That is why before crossing it I have to inhale deeply and working
the sticks quickly and holding my breath I pass through the dangerous zone.
Then one can take one's time, look back, watch the puffy clouds crawling
towards the moon, but the moon would not yield, it keeps them at a distance.
When I approach my house I hear the grieving howl of a dog that had been
let out to a balcony and then it grows dark. The clouds overtake the moon
and only their edges glow sharply and vividly. Let it be so. There are
lots of mercury and magnesium lamps in the city that would not yield a
bit to the moon. Hello, my own city!
I wait impatiently for spring each year because morels grow in our
We city folks are accustomed to walking about the woods picking summer
mushrooms, berries, sorrel. But if it were not for morels I would not be
able to have a good look at spring. I did though a chance to see an early
April forest that was not yet alive.
I hike on skis there while there is still snow choosing patches of
snow here and in shady forest clearings.Sometimes I wade about pale violet
heather that had long awaited light. My skis would splash water all over,
and I can feel under my feet bony frozen ground, but soil in such places
already smells of spring: it smells of smelt, of fresh cucumbers.
Once my wife and I decided to walk the northern slopes of the rivers.
Nearby crooked rivulets and brooks joyously hurried somewhere. But we roamed
about snow soaked with water, green and rough like sandpaper. At one place
we climbed an arch snow bridge and managed to cross it. The ski soles after
such hikes become white as a sheet of paper. One could use it for putting
down your daily impressions. Have you ever had a chance to watch the skies
closing for the night? Sometimes you wander about the woods and snow becomes
so soaked that you do not have time enough to get home by day time.
When you head towards home without hurrying you can watch the blue
getting higher and denser. Then it would freeze for a moment, shrink and
suddenly having negotiated the zenith would quickly close the last crack
of the sunset. Stars would blink and play in the sky.
In the spring woods one is not scared at all, it is much more fearful
in a night city. You should only watch branches, that stick out. And beasts
would not get close to a modern man for a mile.
When you walk home in the city after such hikes you enjoy the quiet
and warmth all over the place, the asphalt is clear of snow. People look
at you in surprise, but I try to ignore them. At first it is hard, but
then you get used to it.
Never during these hikes could I find morels at the edge of the wood
though mushroom guides state that in spring they grow nearly under the
snow. Maybe it is so in other places but here round Novgorod morel season
begins much later. When you are getting ready for such a hike it is important
that you get no reprimands at your job, that the bus driver stops in the
middle of a long two kilometer stretch. One should hunt morels with a quiet
and calm soul.
My forest is situated at the very edge of the asphalt road, when you
enter it after a three-week spell you can hardly recognize it: it was dirty
and unkempt, gray patches of snow here and there, black dead leaves were
munching under your feet.
And now hundreds of sticky leaves are trembling under the sun like
small children's holiday flags. Tender snowdrops whisper at glades exactly
like schoolgirls wearing white aprons before exams.
Rows of rare grass sway under the wind. Their sharp green pikes are
aimed at the sky and bumble-bees like jet fighter aircraft drone above
Some larger herbs are scrolled like tubes and they seem to be standard
bearers. March music is about to strike and they, having spread their banners,
will lead the troops. I wander about the forest slowly and quietly and
see bird cherry trees. If their buds are swelling, that means tomorrow
they will flash their white teeth, so it is time for morels. The main thing
is not to fuss and rush like mad from one tree stump to another. It is
your feast today! Meeting with spring!
Then at a hillock somewhat to the left from an old aspen I spot the
long awaited mushroom. Behind it on a large cinema-house-like glade there
are some more black curly caps. I hurry to them, and the closer I approach
them the more numerous they become. As if carefree spectators haste to
take vacant seats in the hall.
Sometimes it is vice versa: before the cap does not turn black, does
match its color to the leaves shade, they would never stick their heads
out. They seem to be rectangular and squated. Here one should use all his
wits, each hammock, each little stump, each crevice should be thoroughly
inspected. Sometimes you pass the same spot going back and... there they
are, little morels, that have lost vigilance, become careless, and you
could take them from the rear before they hid again!
But their term is short, short is their honeymoon! A cuckoo has counted
only two weeks of life for them with its voice cleared by spring brooks.
As soon as lily of the valley starts blossoming, as soon as its catkins
bells are shed over the dale, then comes the end of morels.
They stay uncombed, disheveled, they sway pondering under the breeze,
their puny feet give way and they fall into the first pikes of sedges,
into the flat leaves of flowers looking like small saucers. A queer violet
flower, "Crow eye" sadly ponders over them. Careless forest violets
reflecting the blue skies flock together to visit the sick ones.
Nothing doing, one has to yield to new spring forces: "bathing
plants" that spread their yellow balls all over the woods, to blue
pikes of veronica, to lilac rose-bay growing at the forest's edge. Life
But tiny morels do not heed, one leaned to the tree stump and clings
to it trying to hold its ground, another has an ancient cap, that looks
silvery, but its firm root is as strong as that one of an oak.
Egoistic bird humming is heard all around. A chiff-chaff is setting
pace for a walker athlete: "Tee-ta-ta! Tee-ta-ta!" A finch does
not even imagine what a VIP it is, its trill is hasty with a curly facsimile
at the end. A turtle-dove is cooing mysteriously and worries us sinning
I would not attempt to make any comparison for nightingales, it has
been done a thousand times, they sing smoothly and rhythmically without
any haste whatsoever. It is the same way at the end of the month as it
was at the beginning.
And tender spring sun sparkles over you, over the whole Novgorod land.
If you put your ear down to the soil you can hear the herbs rustling when
they make their way towards light.
Once during a weekend I sailed in my "Kazanka" boat on the
Pola river watching fairways and ignoring the world around me.
The engine hummed evenly. The river being tired of twisting made a
straight way for about two kilometers. The sun hid somewhere behind a steep
bank, first evening shadows lay across the water, it was about time to
think about stopover for the night. I turned off the engine.
Crakes at once began squeaking vying with each other as if blowing
into some flutes, dogs started barking plaintively some place far away,
and a stern woman's voice was clearly ringing : "Wash your back! Don't
be afraid! Wash it!"
I felt averse to move, to moor and the boat slowly rotated going down
the stream. Bushes hung on the cliff as if cut from brown paper and pasted
on the banks.
The engine gradually cooled off, gas evaporated from the carburettor.
Then various odors enveloped the boat. It smelt of hot midday tar, of blooming
flowers, of conifer needles. It seems that the forest covers the river
with an invisible blanket for the night.
Then amidst a steady pine smell there oozed one more unexpected and
somewhat troubling odour. It either got weak or enveloped the boat again,
as if at certain places fragrant brooks flowed from invisible ravines,
then other smells would fade and shyly gave way to it.
Round the river bend a jet launch bubbled for a while. My boat swayed
a bit, and a red moon like a caterpillar stretched and climbed out of the
water. Several times a night a butterfly came to me flapping its wings,
but I would not chase it away and sat there brooding. A blackbird circled
my boat either vividly appearing against the background of the sky or disappearing
for a moment in the shadows of the clouds. Somewhere over the horizon a
railway train rattled away.
In the morning a pert bird awakened me. It sat on my tent yelling its
head off. I had to scare its shadow from the golden tarpaulin and open
the flap. A duck that had survived the spring hunting season was swimming
across the river. It must have forgotten all about the deadly shooting!
I moved, stood up and began waving my hands, but it only turned around
its little head and swayed over the waves like a black-and-white float.
Small fry sneaked around the boat. Having noticed a crumb of bread
they rushed to it and fought like small boys playing soccer. A water beetle
glided on the film of water. One of the small fry popped up and pecked
at its foot. The beetle jumped up and sped away in long strides, reached
a half submerged leaf of a water-lily and froze there in bliss. I assembled
my spinning tackle and for an hour lashed water with its line. Then I took
notice of a small sand islet looking like a child's pyramid and started
a fire there to cook fish soup. Standing knee-deep in the water I watched
small gudgeons poking about my feet. After the meal I spent some time tuning
the engine and having noticed TV aerials on the bank, I waded across shallow
water and went to a village to buy some milk. The village was called Beriozki.
In the afternoon it started raining. I fixed my tent over the ribs on the
boat and watched from inside a greyish cloud with brown singed edges turn
about above the woods. It was nice to listen to sharp raindrops on the
tarpaulin, to watch iridescent bubbles blowing up with light jingling all
over the river. The rain turned into a fine drizzle, but I had to be at
my job by Monday.
So having wrapped my overcoat about me I speed on in the now familiar
area. One more nice river will stay in my memory. The pool of the river
that I had passed the day before can be seen in front of me. I intend to
pass it without stopping, for I have to get to my job tomorrow, but here
I recollect the scent. My hand involuntary turns the rudder and I climb
up the bank getting wet all over and cursing myself for it.
On the meadow the rain falls straight down slightly swaying under the
gusts of the wind. Orange panicles of grass bend to one side under the
weight of rain beads, but some herbs keep straight and drops glide down
from them slowly, endlessly, as if appearing from nowhere. On clover leaves
raindrops stay vivid like silver lenses, like mercury. I see pikes of rose-bay
flaming despite the rain, a field full of ox-eye daisies, here and there
lilac colored ears of "cuckoo tears" are scattered, but I cannot
find what could emit such a tender, troubling scent. From where does its
slow but constant flow come?
I wander baffled in the grass, step on the red drops of wild strawberries,
pick absentmindedly one after another. A small frog leaps up from under
my feet: it is unusual, green like a "Nezhin" warted cucumber.
It is so tender and affectionate that I long to put it into my pocket.
Then I stood still. A peculiar flower grew under a bush. It seemed that
a dozen white dragon-flies flew toward its head, one more moment and they
would alight on its slim stem. It was old, a bit faded at the bottom, but
it tried all it could despite the rain: the scent was tender, not comparable
I did not hurry any longer, wandered about the forest edge and after
I had gathered a bunch of flowers I went slowly to my boat, wrapped the
flowers into a plastic film and then started the engine.
The rain was over, clouds still moved on by inertia, then stood still
stretched like a thin torn table-cloth. My boat sped on the dark and quiet
river. Soon I emerge from a short June night as if from a tunnel. A thick
cloud occupying half the sky drifts along my boat. A rosy band is squeezed
under it. It gradually grows wider, becomes lilac and later red. Dawn either
hides behind trees or appears more vivid and strong in clearings running
to the river. Then in the next gap comes the sun. It is sleepy, it nearsightedly
squints at the world, then it would push at the cloud and drive away its
black rags from the sky.
Sometimes one can spot an outline of a heron on the wet meadows. The
important bird ponders and when the boat nearly gets flush with it, it
would clumsily run on the grass, would push itself into the air with hard
jerks and having braced its long legs like landing gear of a plane, it
The lake surge beats the bottom of my boat, the bushes, marking the
river bank get smaller and sparse and soon open like gates onto the endless
horizon. At the horizon a white beacon sways on the waves, a ribbon of
white mirror surface sparkles far away. I turn my boat towards it, but
it evades me. Then it dawns on me: the sun stealthily strokes water over
there. But waves become calmer and my boat jumps from one to another at
Some objects appear far away, they are either gulls or a fisherman's
sail. Yes it is a sail, one can see it flapping in the wind, catching the
sun. A cloud stays still in front of the boat. Then again rain thuds on
the boat. After a minute a bank appears with its tree groves, roof slates
of big buildings. The sun crawls over them, picking villages in turn, letting
out flashes from windows like searchlights.
I was tired and sleepy at my work. From time to time my colleagues
approached my drawing board and sniffed at the night violet - liubka. We
joined forces and found out the name of the flower. Our stern chief also
cast glances at the liubka but did not make any comments.
I roamed the woods without avail. What mushrooms could be there in
the middle of November? It was in vain that I started that outing. Oaks
near the Third Troubochka must be the greatest in Goubarevsky woods, they
are like pillars in St.Sophia cathedral. Leaves from the oaks had fallen
down and curled from the first frosts. My feet sank to the ankles in the
soft multicoloured carpet. Gradually oaks became smaller and were replaced
by alders and aspens. Fine drizzle kept falling without recess. I chose
a large fir-tree and settled under its shelter.
Smoke from my fire went up in a thin flow among the branches of the
tree. It was cozy and dry near the trunk.
The woods had got soaked and turned black. From slanted branches large
transparent drops fell down. Vague endless rustling reigned all over the
forest. I like to listen to rainfall, even in autumn. One can lazily ponder
or even muse and dream freely from all the city cares.
After a while I get out of my shelter and perceive that smoke did not
drift away. It stays like a thin immobile ceiling just about as high as
a man's height. Firs poke their limbs through it, and raindrops on the
needles glisten from the fire like chandeliers with many multicoloured
sparks. I feel averse to put out the fire, to destroy this fragile beauty.
But it is time to move on. Conifer needles lie as a thick carpet slightly
recoiling under my feet. They have been washed clean by endless rains.
The sad soaked forest stays black all around me, its branches sag to the
ground. Aspen bark glows its yellow color, moss is gray with moisture.
I went along a forest lane towards Kounino village. In summer such
lanes are dotted with sun patches on the background of shade from birches,
it is nice here in summer time. But at this time the lane was lone and
dreary. The trail ruts were full of water, and it gleamed murkily. The
drizzle got heavier. Gusts of wind with snow lashed at it. Sometimes wind
abated, the rain straightened and my cheek got warmer. Impregnated in my
blue rubber overcoat I kept walking. My hood made the vanishing horizon
Kounino Lake gleamed its gray indifferent waters. That is, only part
of it, that is separated from the aspen woods by an ancient decaying dam.
I did not feel like passing through the village, meeting people, speaking
to them. So I turned towards the lake. It had been always shallow, its
banks were overgrown with rosy vegetation, but that year it was flooded
overfull and water lilies sank to the bottom.
Bright mown grass, gray from the rain, submerged into the water. The
lake was deserted. Only thousands of raindrops covered its surface like
mosquitoes. I had my spinning tackle with me, but I did not feel at all
like angling, and I slowly climbed the left bank, which was not so steep.
Lone sparse oaks kept watch among the blackened helmets of haystacks here
and there. Small houses of a village on the opposite bank flocked together.
Dark-blue monotonous clouds pressed on it from above squeezing them to
the ground, and only some small bath houses managed to run away to the
river. Some of them were active now and wind swept the chimney smoke close
to the ground. The grass seemed to be seething with mist. I felt an urge
to get into such a bath-house, into its warmth. If I could only get onto
the upper shelf, make fresh steam and wallop myself with a bunch of birch-tree
leaves till exhaustion. Then I would sit on a bench cooling and picking
loose leaves stuck to my skin. The road turned to the Volkhov. I started
my journey on a bus, but decided to go back by steamboat. I like going
in circles. On the left side ancient elms were drooping their manes to
the ground and Sivers' canal was raging. Its water boiled like lead, staying
higher than the low banks and I could not make out why it did not flood
the meadows. A huge self-propelled barge like a three-storied house moved
against the wind. Waves struck at its blunt bow, rose to the sky and fell
with a resounding cannon report. On the other side of the road there was
still tender chocolate dirt of a pond, that had been recently drained.
A man with skis waded about it. "What are you doing here?" -
I shouted to him. By way of reply he displayed a bunch of wriggling carps.
Some fish, trying to dupe their destiny, did not go to the catching sluices,
and now the man gathered them. Soon frosts would set in, boys from Kounino
would come here covered with hoarfrost, but he outstripped them.
A black disheveled crow, drenched through, as everything around, flew
by, it gave a double croak... and it began snowing as if obeying its command.
The snowflakes were large like the palm of a hand. And the land around
transfigured at once. Trees turned white, the tired broken down road glistened
and seemed to get younger. Rowan-tree grapes reddened, sparse yellow birches
with some leaves still on were burning like bonfires and right in front
of me stood a velvet black alder bush with many stems. Where did it come
from? Just now the forest had been naked and tired, its limbs drooping.
Approaching the river the dam got higher and higher and the trees with
their white tops could hardly reach my feet. I stopped at the bridgehead
on old stones covered with red and brown moss. To the left of me the boiling
Sivers' canal emptied into the Volkhov, cutting the Gorodishche hill in
two. Its water having met with the murky river stayed black for a long
way. Beyond it the Miachino rivers could be seen in crooked loops, patches
of flooded lakes were visible. Water splashed onto the banks and drenched
snow receded revealing the yellow clay riverside.
Beyond the lowlands, behind the white St.George cathedral, after the
sparse pines of the Skit, Ilmen Lake raged merging at the horizon with
the blue clouds. The sky merged with the lake so tight that one would not
be able to squeeze a nail into the crack. Though a small white boat appeared
from there all of a sudden. It splashed and tossed there like a plastic
toy boat busily plowing the river. It stopped snowing as suddenly as it
had begun. The dirty dark cloud shifted to the west and suddenly three
sun rays stuck into the ground like lances. For a moment sparkled the St.
Sophia dome, windows of the "Russia" hotel went aflame but the
rays now climbed the TV tower, paused for a while at its top and then moved
to the second layer of the soft clouds that glowed with rosy tints.
Streams dashed down from the dam, green grass glistened again, it smelt
fragrant and clear. The boat I had seen earlier was coming to the pier
sideways, like a crab. It turned out to be a cosy "Moskvich"
type. They would not moor it for me and for one more fanatic angler, we
just jumped on board. The propellers started churning in the water, the
gap grew wider and wider, water was boiling there... There was no one in
the cabin, I sank into an armchair, closed my eyes and thought of the hot
soup and Ukranian beer that awaited me for dinner at home.
SAILING TOWARDS DAWN
The number of motor boats in recent years has greatly increased in
Novgorod rivers. I am scared by "Progresses".
Every morning they rush along the river one after another, their windshields
flashing at the turns. Once you hear their howl you have to dodge them
all the time. It is impossible to use a row boat on the river in the day
time, and I made it a habit to sail on the river at night.
I bought a small one seat boat called "Veterok" and installed
in it a seat with a back rest and oars. On weekends I take a small bag
under my arm and go to the country to find the sources of small rivers
such as the Veryazha, the Visherka, the Nisha... They all flow towards
Ilmen Lake, Novgorod, where they merge in the river Volkhov and take their
tired waters to rest in far away Lake Ladoga.
In the evening I choose a place to inflate my boat and watch the stubborn
sun that does not want to hide behind the horizon. It either sits between
the branches of an oak or clings to every branch in any unreliable spot.
At last its sullen round shape rests on the verge of the woods.
The last motor boat speeds along the river leaving behind a foamy trail,
but I am not in a hurry, I wait until waves stop beating at the bank, till
patches of foam disappear. Then I sail on shining clear impeccable water.
Most of all I enjoy sailing in June, during white nights.
Through the transparent drapery of the forest from the summer settlements
flows a soft song: "A musician under a tree in the woods is playing
a waltz". I raise the oars so that complete silence will settle. Amber
colored water drips from the oars, blue shadows on the left and right of
the horizon approach the sunset, as if two greedy hands trying to catch
it. But the sunset easily and leisurely escapes their embrace and stays
like that all the night long, greenish in color, swaying slightly at the
I installed the oars so as to sit facing forward and see all that is
in front of me. Sometimes a seagull, silent and light as poplar down, flies
by, flapping its majestic wings. Around midnight nightingales fall silent,
peewits fall silent, and if a snipe flew by, it would be silent also. Only
the landrail as once starts in the evening then squawks till morn. But
one does not pay any attention to a landrail, soon growing accustomed to
its sounds. Silence without it is no longer silence. Then, when everything
around has fallen silent, when even mosquitoes stop buzzing, fog starts
flowing from the side rivers and brooks, and flows at first slowly and
stealthily, looking back, then faster and faster, taking the shape of columns,
ribbons and patches. And soon you are moving not only on the river, but
are sunk to the waist in a damp murky warmth.
Once I wanted to see how it forms, so I began moving upstream of such
a brook. Little pikes awoke and began jumping at the bow of the boat. Weeds
rustled along the sides of the boat. In front of me the brook suddenly
ended in a tiny lake. I climbed out of the boat to the bank.
As if a lid was taken off a pan, a steaming pool of water surrounded
my feet silently. From this pool, flowing banks of fog, growing with each
meter, slanted downstream. From the hill I could see how the river was
filled with fog, the rivulets were not the ripples but some crooked bands,
as if somebody were bandaging the earth. During such investigations you
sometimes miss the round, orange moon that rises in the sky as if a small
balloon was lost from someone's hands. It ascends, stands motionless not
far above the land, and begins cooling bit by bit.
A merry tongue of flame from the moon trembles on the water as a small
bonfire on the bank. You feel an urge to get closer to it, land there and
have a chat with folks sitting by the bonfire.
I also like to watch a plane from Moscow coming to landing at midnight
over the Veriazha. All of a sudden a bright star appears and starts falling
rapidly. At the giant arch it flashes its lights, and for a long time a
roar resounds throughout the vicinity, causing the leaves on young willows
to start trembling.
One is always worried when a full moon seems to stand in the way of
the aircraft, making it look like the plane will pierce the moon as a knife
cutting through a ripe melon.
In June the sky is at its darkest at one o'clock.
Everything is so unreal and uncertain. You are sailing and in front
of you an iris is blossoming from nowhere. No, it is not an iris, it is
a gull sleeping on the water. It has relaxed and fallen asleep. I feel
tense, it may at any moment burst the silence...
At such moments it is easy to get lost, to lose one's way in the intricate
system of our numerous rivers. Once, at the Kholynya flood, I could not
for a long time find a way to the mouth of Mshaga. I strayed in the shrubbery
and weeds, going hither and thither in the shallow waters. And all of a
sudden a delicate orange little lantern, appeared nearby; it was a bug
somewhat bigger than a mosquito, floating in front of the boat. Sometimes
it rushed forward, and then as if reflecting on something, would freeze
at some place blowing still greater its cold light.
Maybe it is a variety of some intelligent bugs I thought, and made
my way in its wake of light. Soon the banks appeared. I heard the hum of
the Moscow-Leningrad motorway that does not cease rumbling even at night,
and gave a sigh of relief.
By dawn the mainstream of the river is clear of fog. Fog clings to
the banks, and makes you tired. You float as if in a trance or in a delirium.
The banks become wider, a looming haze flaps before your eyes, and you
nearly fall overboard. It is the proper time to watch some visions.
In such cases you should land promptly. The earth is still warm, keeping
the daytime heat. You fall asleep in the nick of the time, fall into it
deeply as if into a well, and then just as suddenly you would wake up after
half an hour. A single star is shining above your head, staying at the
same high point where it was since the evening. Sometimes you could get
even luckier and glimpse the swift trail of a meteorite appearing from
nowhere. In the white night it appears a bright green colour as a flare
from holiday fireworks lagging behind.
Then I would make a camp fire. After coffee I am again full of vim
and vigor and take a constitutional on the dewy gray grass.
Meadows are still and sleepy. A wild rowan tree turned to the dawn
and hangs above the earth as a thick yellowish cloud. Proud irises sparkle
as yellow flames, smelling of nothing but dew and fragrance. An ox-eye
daisy has opened its wondering petals, and the ubiquitous buttercups have
dotted the landscape.
Closer to dawn as you get ready for a day's work, aromas grow stronger
and heavier, and you sail through pools,bands and zones of smells. A snowball-tree
blossoms are somewhat peculiar, its fragrance is condensed and tangible.
It seems that if the dawn grows lighter you will be able to see fine dancing
powder in the air. A fine aroma of shrubbery is moving towards you. Black-and-white
at night it blossoms for miles around. I row without haste, very slowly,
sometimes letting go of the oars altogether. The boat slowly rotates turning
toward the dawn and I hurry to put down what I see on the pages of my notebook,
or look again at the sullen and unwelcome skies.
Then the heavy scent of poplars appears, overwhelming after the rain.
During white nights brief showers occur. The moon afterwards looks shiny
and clear, everything sparkles and shines at night.
By dawn I always try to head towards the sunrise. The young and steady
dawn floats before me on the sleepy water. I row hard trying to catch up
with it, but in vain.
I most of all enjoy catching up with the dawn on the right tributary
of the Volkhovets, the Pravoshnya. Water has just flowed off the meadows
and the banks stand clear and sharp. At a wind in the river you can see
the cupola of Kovalevo church, pink from the dawn, peeking over the horizon.
The church very much belongs here on the background of various herbs. How
nice that it has been restored! In order to watch the swift progress of
the boat I row close to the bank.
I could have glided forever, easily and swiftly, by the grass sliding
backward. By the morn, everything in sight is rose-coloured. Yellow irises
on the banks are pink, snags left over after the flooding are also pink.
Even the musk rats that are abundant at the Volkhovets dive into the pink
water. Only the crescent to the left of the sunrise is green. It is so
thin, sharp and jagged in the clear water, that if you attach bait at its
green sharp edge, you could catch a rosy perch against the background of
the boiling dawn.
And I am racing, racing after the spectre of a rosy dawn, and I shall
never catch up with it.
I wish I could be sailing thus forever!
TENTS ON THE ICE
My vacation fell during the winter and I decided to spend it in a tent
at lake Ilmen. The fortnight hike turned out to be pleasant. I have since
made the same hike several times. Best of all and most vividly I remember
one night. Inside a large geologist tent without flooring I installed a
smaller one, drilled holes in the ice and placed an aluminum garden chair
It is nice to sit on it at a slightly crackling candlelight, when plastic
floats are immobile on the black water in the holes, when you turn on the
portable radio, listen to it and watch its green light go bright or fade
to the tune of a soft melody.
In another corner a gas stove was glowing with its bluish flame. From
time to time water began bubbling in the kettle. I put some tea into it
while watching the floats and lazily took it in small gulps from a blue
dotted enamel cup. Sometimes the white float began trembling like the tongue
of a bell. A large half pound roach was nibbling. Its scales were rough
like a grate, in the candlelight it seemed black-and-white as a checkerboard.
At three o'clock in the morning a green little eel-pout got caught. I got
out of the tent, stood there and listened to the ice crackling, its sound
moving further on along the crack. Night March frost was bitter but in
the daytime it eased a lot.
All around me there was the lake and lake, ice and ice. Somewhere beyond
the black horizon without a single light people were sleeping in their
log cabins and nearby were sleeping my friends. But here at the lake reigned
a wonderful silence.
I looked at the sky. My own Novgorodian stars the size of apples or
silver coins were looking down at me. For a long time I stayed there not
able to quit the starlit Ilmen night. And only when I got thoroughly covered
with hoarfrost I entered the warmth of the tent.
Now some words about pikes for I like to catch them. At the turfy Rdeysky
lakes they are short like firewood logs, at the Lovat river they are long
and swift like the quick floating clear water. At Ilmen lake the pikes
are greenish gray in winter. We use bait to catch them. In the morning
when only a thin strip of dawn just appeared I relit my gas stove and after
breakfast went to check my tackle.
The pan, left in the cold, got frozen through but in the water tank
under the ice formed on the surface were swimming sleepy baits. The moon
having stood its watch got tired and pale, but is still lingering in the
low faded sky. I hastily break the ice in the hole which was newly formed
during the night, the line comes easily. Nothing! The second hole is also
empty and in the third suddenly a sharp tug strikes the hand... the heart.
I am ready for it, but still my breath gets caught. For these very gambling
seconds one endures the cold on the ice, for them one undertakes the whole
In winter the struggle with even a large pike does not last long. You
manage after all to pull it through the hole. A mountain of water and crushed
ice rises above Ilmen lake and then like a piston a huge fish pops out
onto the ice. Its eyes are burning, its jaws are clacking. It jumps on
the snow, stands on its head and is wriggling in a helpless wrath. It seems
that if an iron pick got between its teeth it would break it in a second.
Then it seems to be exhausted and still. But it is only a break. Then
new acrobatic tricks are resumed, new flares of wrath, it stands on its
tail, on its head and bends in an arch as if a steel spring is installed
inside the pike.
At last the bright spots on its sides look like new silver coins starting
to fade, the red and yellow tail gets weaker and the dry snow envelops
it all around like a coat covering the scales altogether. And all its mighty
charm is then lost in this thick and cumbersome coat of snow. Then there
is a strange thing: nearby on the snow there are always several tiny sparlings.
They must have kept its company and were taken up by the water pressure,
by the general upsurge. Trust, devotion to the end. Sometimes it happens
Two water tanks are cut in the ice. The first is filled with baits
chasing grub, the second contains wary immobile pikes. The holes for roaches
are sprinkled with fodder, the tent is fixed safely on the stretching lines
frozen steady in the ice. It has already bravely withstood one snow storm.
And the main thing: a trail has been made within a great rectangle where
I roam checking my tackle. Days pass by, I do not have to make more holes.
My well established household starts bringing catch. Then one fine cloudless
day when a record number of pikes was caught some subtle worry starts creeping
into my soul. Do I really need that much fish? What is there over the horizon,
where is a hay convoy of sleighs heading with their runners squeaking?
In the riverbank shrubbery I make a hiding place for excess luggage,
let the baits go back into the lake, harness myself into the sleigh and
roam towards the unknown. Light rolls in waves over the snow surface, which
has been smoothed by winds. Every snowflake, every ice fragment is emitting
and reflecting beams, rays and sparkles. The light flows from beneath,
from the sides, creeps under the dark sunglasses. In order to have a rest
I walk for a while with closed eyes. Sometimes I look back at the crooked
sledge trail behind, smile and walk on the lake in silence.
For a long time an unfrozen strip of the Volkhov source shining like
steel will be staying behind. Once in the winter we came along it in a
boat and struck the "bottom" at the shallow place, it turned
out to be a tank turret. Now it is placed in the Novgorod Kremlin, small
and not frightening. It liberated Novgorod in January of 1944. It is not
at all like the modern fierce tanks and children take delight in crawling
over its armour.
For a long time the Skit (hermitage) can be seen behind with its sparse
red pines. Fierce Ilmen winds each year strike out some old huge ones from
their ranks. The same winds polish the snow till it becomes smooth like
asphalt. You walk on it like the pavement. There are hardly any ice-hummocks
on the lake and the sledge slides on smoothly and steady.
Gradually the light blue horizons are fading and getting narrower.
Sweat is flooding my eyes. One after another I throw my fur coat, fur hat
and mittens onto the sleigh, but I am still hot."Drink, drink, drink",
- the sleigh runners behind my back are squeaking.
It is about time to camp. I fix the tent and cut the hole in the ice
so as to drink the real Ilmen tea and not the tasteless melted snow water.
It becomes warm even hot in the tent because of the sun, gas stove and
the endless number of cups of tea. I am stretched out on a cot taking a
rest. Then all of a sudden you can hear the twitter of a tomtit. All around
are endless horizons, you can imagine yourself even at the North pole,
but it managed to spot you with your belongings, it hops around and squints
its beady eye at the dinner crumbs left over.
It is about time to move on. Packed snow is green in cracks, the ball
of the sun having touched the snow becomes red hot and nearly hisses.
I stay for the night at Arkadsky bays. Across from Red Reli the marsh
gas somehow always accumulates under the ice. Late at night having made
a hole in the ice I set fire to it. With a small bang a blue flame springs
up as tall as a man's height. Shadows from my camp become longer and creep
away. The flame strikes high, nearly licks the low gauze clouds, they seem
to nearly catch fire... Great is the wasteful power of fire.
In the morning having hardly opened the tent flap I can see right in
front of me the stern gaze of a fox that is double red because of the rising
sun. Strange are the ways of man, my first move was to hurl a firewood
log at the trusting beast.
It jumped aside and made for the Baklan river, where the river joins
Sinetsky bay, there live strange perches. At first I could not make out
anything. The line would easily go down into the water, would jerk as regularly
as a watch, but my hasty tugs were fruitless. I made another hole, the
result was the same.
Then I stretched down on the snow and having put the overcoat over
my head began peering down into the water. All around the silver bead of
the bait there stood small perches as if transfixed. Light from the adjacent
hole pored like a searchlight beam onto their red tails and striped backs.
From time to time either one or another fish would resolutely make for
the bait... and... without taking it into its mouth would turn around like
a hockey player and strike at it with it gills. The rest of the perches
excitedly flapping their fins were watching the bait that having jerked
several times would now stay still. All of a sudden one of them lunged
at it and swallowed. My hand instinctively jerked but I was too late. The
perch spit out the bait, it went in an arch and struck a fellow perch on
the nose. It seemed to me that other perches looked at their pal with certain
respect. Suddenly they disappeared as if swept out by a gust of wind. Like
gray shadows with fins tight and without paying any attention to the bait
ruff was passing rank after rank. I felt uneasy watching their close ranks
and without waiting for the end of school I got cold and plunged into my
The next day at the mouth of the Lovat I woke to the sound of an awful
noise as if my tent was ripped to pieces. Thinking of the crushing ice
I put in haste my coat on and jumped outside.
A one engine plane was taxiing towards my camp. A young pilot got out
of it and ran up to me.
- Hey, fisher, could you help me some, - he was shouting while approaching
me. - I have covered all the lake, visited Vzvad and Oustreka, but nobody
seems to have any zanders. We've got a wedding party tonight. No, no we
don't need pikes!
- Dear friend, - I began, for I longed to talk to a man - if you came
last year... But he would not listen to me. The engine roared, the plane
slided on its runners on the snow and soon having dipped its wings in a
farewell gesture took to the east towards Valday lake.
I stood there watching the buzzing spot and recollecting last year's
zanders. Their back rainbow fins looked like hoisted sails. Their tails,
greenish with orange pattern were flapping tiredly on the ice. Their bodies
as if cooling off hot metal were getting oxide tints. Zanders lay on the
snow and their bodies trembled.
I have not caught such beauties ever since. But near the Iron island
I caught a bream. It was hard and long to pull it out through a large hole.
It weighed about three kilos and had marvellous gold scales. It lay panting
on one side and a thin treacle of blood was oozing out of its mouth as
if it were an old knocked down boxing fighter. I put the bream into a water
tank. First thing in the morning I went to see it. Roaches and other fish
caught the day before were gaily swimming in the space available, but the
old one felt bad. As if suffering from asthma he was working his fins fast
pushing the stale water through, his gills were frantically struggling.
But still he could not cope with it and from time to time lay on his side
leaning to the thin crust of ice that formed during the night. Believe
it or not, but I hastily enlarged the hole and despising myself for dithering
threw him into the clear lake water.
Near Iron island there is a second reference-point of the lake, the
lighthouse. Like the pines of the Skit it is falling into decay. New shoots
of pine are springing to replace the old ones, but the beacon, if it does
not collapse by itself after automation has been introduced everywhere,
would be cut down to scrape metal. Its tension wires have become loose,
one of the cables is broken and I am somewhat afraid to climb the iron
mast to the top. But what a view there is of the surrounds! Like a white
band the Lovat is meandering on imbibing a great many rivers and rivulets.
In the distance on the hill there are sturdy cubes of fishermen's houses
in the village of Vzvad. Beyond Vzvad is Staraya Russa covered by a smoke
veil like a hat. From Russa towards Shimsk is stretching a band of asphalt
highway and black spots of cars are shuttling along it.
And one does not feel like angling any more, one is inclined to move
on further. One would like to pace the lake around its winter banks.
Sometimes a local angler would get up from his bucket, would approach
you, wonder, sympathize with you and would give you a handful of worms
or share a piece of bread with you. I would thank him and roam on. Most
beautiful is the lake nearby Korostyn. The banks there are high and precipitous
which is not typical of Ilmen, and when one cuts a hole in the ice the
sound is echoing from layers of yellow and brown coast slabs. The cape
at Korostyn is littered with trees, their limbs are hoarfrosted, and the
tent is placed on the ground. Having heard the thud of my axe a boy, called
Seriozha, slid down the slope on his skis. His hat went down onto his eyes,
two yellowish curious snivels like birchtree buds were flourishing under
- How do you do. Who are you, uncle? A winter tourist? Please, do not
abuse the oak tree, - he is asking politely.
I turn around and see a wrinkled chocolate coloured trunk under the
bows of which I intend to camp. Its bark is carved with inscriptions: "
Here were...", two large nails are sticking out, bows at the bottom
are broken. The oak is trembling with its dry leaves and is whispering
something to us.
Forklike poles are left here from the summer. Having cleaned the fireplace
from snow I start a modest campfire. I impatiently wait for the water to
start boiling and the perch eyes to turn white. The fish soup must smell
of smoke. Then I am eating it with Seriozha.
- What are you going to become? - I ask him a usual adult question.
- Soil reclaimer. My uncle is also a soil reclaimer.
- Why not an engineer? - I ask out of habit.
- They are working here as hired hands, they are used to being sent
here for a month from factories, - Seriozha answers gravelly.
I have no sweets on me, modern boys do not care for sugar and I hand
him a gift of a plastic bait that has just been put out by our factory.
Then I make my way towards the mouth of the Shelon. The new bridge
is looming high in a frosty veil. The banks of Ilmen change before my eyes.
It is either tall silo towers at Griaznaya Kharchevnya, multistory township
of Borky, industrial premises of the drainage tubes works at Pankovka or
a sand-pit at Oustreka.
I turn to Shimsk before reaching the bridge. At the outskirts of the
settlement there is a regional bathhouse. I am lucky, having washed off
seven sweats I sit for a long time there sipping beer. It is hard for a
relaxed and rested man to start tramping again. One longs to take a bus.
I fight myself and again my old sleigh is squeaking behind my back. Now
my way is towards Mstinsky Nos, where I have my store, I have there tins
of milk and some meat. I do not manage to cover the way in a day and stay
for a night somewhere in the middle of the lake. There is no trace of a
bank in sight, not a single spot.
Warm lights of houses are flickering someplace beyond the visible limits.
You get out of the tent in the evening, the gas stove is humming with its
blue light inside, and you are standing for a long time watching the night
becoming dense and dark blue. And only after you have seen in the black
sky dotted with stars an aircraft puffing flames from the jets and silence
settles again, you get inside your tarpaulin house. One sleeps there differently,
forgets that you have a flat in the city, have a family and the chief technologist
department at the factory. Morning wakes me up with patches of sunlight
on the tent, sometimes on the contrary with howling wind. March in Novgorod
mostly consists of two halves. The first is sunny and frosty, the second
displays snow, thaw, even rain. Though the weather may turn whimsy during
the first half. Once out of nowhere wind starts blowing from the north
when the sky is clear, the snow starts whirling under your feet. In such
cases you freeze the stretcher lines in the ice, cut with a hand saw snow
bricks and pour water over them. Sometimes you would encircle the tent
with such a snow wall leaving only an entrance. The walls of the tent are
humming, the snow bricks got frozen over and safely protect you from wind
gusts. It is warm and cosy inside the tent. Sometimes you would look out,
a snow storm is on, the ice pick stuck in the ice can hardly be seen. I
am already through with Bounin's "Quitrent", Chekhov's "House
with an Attic Storey". Among the modern authors - Youry Kazakov, there
is little spare room in my sleigh.
But the wind is still strong and I start recollecting verses.
"Having crossed the legs Velimir will stay alive." I know
only this line from Khlebnikov's poems and only because it is carved on
a pine in the village of Rouchiy, not far from the Ilmen, where he was
buried. But the snow storm still rages on. That is all right. We shall
survive. With good poems it is easier to wait for its end.
In recent years I took to summer hiking, but fighting mosquitoes someplace
in the Polist marshes in the Pskov region or following the route from the
Varangians to the Greeks somewhere in Smolensk land one would sometime
recollect those winter days, greenish as if washed sunsets, crystal ringing
silence. Recently I went on a mission to Borovichy. Our small plane struggled
against the wind and for a long time we stuck above the lake.
- Take a look at those tents on the ice, they may be hydrologists?
- a neighbour nudged me. Near the mouth of the frozen Msta, where I had
caught pikes, there were two orange colored tents. From the Skit a sleigh
trail was leading there with bluish shades of the ruts.
And I realized that those were not hydrologists but most probably my
pals: Fedya Sapozhnikov who worked with me in the same shop and Victor
Ivanovich Gorsky, chief of the construction sector. During the autumn they
asked me about that when they were preparing for this hike. My heart ached
and I recollected the answer of Sadko to the sea tsar and his daughters:
"I have no use for your wealth, all this leisure and repast I would
swap for a quail cry in the rye, for a squeak of a Novgorod wheel wagon."
And I thought of going again on this frosty and sunny trail in a year or
two. This time not alone. People from my factory take to such hikes more
and more often, twice my brothers came from Leningrad, recently I got a
letter from Seriozha Khorev, he is now an undergraduate at high school,
during summer vacation he worked as a soil reclaimer. Seriozha promised
to join our hike tour. And the main thing is that my son is growing up.
For a couple of years he has been designing a pneumatic sleeping bag which
could be slept in according to his ideas without a tent. Farewell my own
lake Ilmen, farewell and good morning tomorrow.
Our family has been living in Novgorod for a quarter of a century and
all those years we go picking mushrooms at one and the same place - the
tangled Goubarevsly woods. Though the forest is hard to access, it consists
mostly of alder and ash trees, sombre firs and pines on marsh islands,
but each year this plot between the Vishera river and the canal is still
dear to us.
We know there each oak that brings good harvest, under which in June
there appear white boletus, our own tree stumps littered with edible mushrooms,
slopes of ditches covered with chanterelles, osier-beds full of coral milky
caps and many other secret nooks.
Many an adventure has happened in the forest and the Goubarevsky woods
have gradually been revealing to us their real nature, their past and history
that expanded and grew with the trees and now would not let us go, irresistibly
Sometimes a pal would take us with him to some White Mount at the Msta,
to the German Colony or Dogs Hills. One would roam there in the pretty
healthy woods, well groomed and ringing, where you can see each mushroom
for a mile around and would pick much more boletus and cowberries, but
it was not the real thing.
Pine trees are tall as masts, but they are not the ones I had leaned
against when got tired, birch trees are not whispering the same way. My
birches have leaves that sparkle like Ilmen lake in sunny and windy weather.
And there is always shouting: "Hey! Where are you?" We are accustomed
to silence in our woods.
Formerly this close to the city plot was not often visited by Novgorodians
maybe because there were no ways of crossing the canal, and one had to
look for a boat or swim across it pushing in front of you a basket. The
Vishera canal, though not wide, is still deep enough, our ancestors must
have built it to last.
Not so far ago they have placed an obsolete iron barge across it, but
there are no more people in the area. It is not only because there are
now many cars and perhaps one does not feel like going for mushrooms nearer
than a hundred miles away. Also it is not convenient to wade from the car
for an hour across the dirt and quagmires to our forest. My wife is always
grumbling that it is her last hike, that next Sunday she will join a group
of people from the factory. But here comes the "next Sunday",
she recollects the many voices shouting around when you have no time to
waste watching a boletus, and we march again to our own patrimony towards
silence, to our Goubarevka without trodding down grass and egg shells under
our feet. How nice are the first July hikes for glorious auburn chanterelles,
for boletus with their caps pulled down close to eyebrows in August, for
coral milky caps, rosy from the rising sun in September. Best of all are
memories of hikes at the end of October after the first snow.
Rowan tree leaves beyond the window turn white, droop under its sticky
weight, clusters of berries left over by starlings would suddenly glisten
with stark bright light. Then we would not wait for a weekend, take a day
off work and having written a false note for the children at school our
whole family rushes to the Goubarevsky woods. The first snow would never
fall for two days running, how can it take so much cold for its forming?
The next morning as a rule is clear, a little bit windy, and when we pass
Savino village, merry sun drops fall from roofing slates.
There is a cutting in the pine mossy woods. The coppice during these
years has become sparse, the trunks are larger, whole bunches of pinelets
have disappeared, dried out and fallen aside. To the right of the cutting
one can come across "bitter" mushrooms, the goal of our hike
here. They stand knee-deep in the snow, they are tanned like Indians and
bent orange sedges nearby look like scimitars. Merry sunny rustle reigns
all over the forest, it smells of cold and ledum, though the smell is faint
and not oily. You may roam about the woods for the whole day and your head
would never get dizzy.
Cowberries are shining brightly as if covered with varnish, cold for
them is only the better. Lily of the valley has stretched its red berries
in an arch. Ferns are in chaos, their carved, still green leaves fall apart
under the snow weight. Under great bilberry clusters, under their sad violet
lanterns there are our mushrooms. When you pick a bitter mushroom, if it
is of a medium age with the brims turned up, a teaspoonful of cold snow
water would spill onto your hands. Young bitters, the size of a quarter
or a silver rouble are light brown with a little pompon on their head.
Worms do not touch such mushrooms, but the older ones are thoroughly carved
by them. It may be because their vim becomes feeble, their milk sap is
no longer bitter with age.
But the feet of all bitters are equally long, their pipe stems, bluish
from cold, root deep in the moss. But still, when you are pulling them
out, they desperately cling to their own land, to the grass roots, they
call sedges for help, and the double bladed sedges try to scratch your
hand. If you go farther away from the cutting into the forest, where firs
stand dense among former wartime dugouts, then you can come across under
their canopy in a relative warm nook a couple of tiny mossiness mushrooms,
late in the season, bluish and shrunk from the cold. Once in this place
we had noted in the autumn a small puffy fir tree, we came to it on New
Year's eve on skis with an axe and carved it out with the soil. The tree
at home in the warmth sprouted tender light green shoots, but when in the
spring we planted it under our windows, it began withering and gradually
Then we go to the other, left side of the cutting. We call it the russule
side. Because one can always see the newly born russules glowing like red
lights through patches of snow. One gets an impression that they have just
begun growing right under the snow.
My daughter calls them the snowdrop russules. It is well known, that
raw russules are not edible, they are bitter, but when permeated with cold
and snow become wonderfully sweet, and Vadka to the horror of his mother
eats whole two caps having sprinkled them with salt. We have noticed that
pickled and fried mushrooms under snow are much more tasty than those before
snow, and that is one more though not the main reason for our late autumn
At the left side of the cutting there also grow flat-cap mushrooms,
pale gray tender mushrooms, that do not stand snow and fall to one side,
but we still put them into our baskets. And gradually the baskets begin
to heavily drag our arms down.
Sometimes we come across a tall pine-tree with a crooked trunk. Near
it my Tamara, then a very young girl, nearly stepped on a snake. What a
cry she emitted all over the woods! The memorable carving on the bark has
swelled over, but you can still discern the year under the resin. We look
at one another, smile and walk from the pine to the right towards the marsh.
It gradually is grown over with pines, dries out, bur still there are
patches of cranberry shrubs. The year before last I quarreled with my mother-in-law
from Leningrad at this marsh. Having gathered a bucketfull of cranberries
she ordered that we are to go straight. I, who knew the vicinity, pointed
the other way. What marshes and woods have they got near Leningrad, in
Karelia! They pick only caps of the mushrooms, and only the young ones.
Meat is plentiful in the city. "Come back to live there" - grumbled
But no fat Petersbourg soup would tempt me. Our children have become
native Novgorodians, and my mother, whose maiden name is Kapoustina was
born and grew in Opechensky Posad at the Msta. She came to live in Leningrad
quite a grown up girl. And when I came back to live in Novgorod I just
restored the status quo.
But let us resume our way on. In the middle of the woods there is an
elongated sullen island, that looks like a ship. It is called Dismal island,
I do not remember where such a name comes from, but we like it.
In the middle of it like masts there are two huge pines, at the bow
there stands a rotten landmark. Once I pasted on it a picture of Mona Lisa
from the "Ogoniok" magazine, and the sturdy glossy paper untouched
by anybody hung there for several seasons.
Nobody has come to pick mushrooms on the island for about ten years.
Before that our trails crossed those of a mysterious man:he would either
leave behind a cigarette butt, or a piece of a cucumber. Once I came across
a piece of newspaper with his address on it, got impatient and found him.
The person was an old man, on a pension, he was ill, but we had a long
and nice talk with him about the Goubarevsky woods.
Matvey Grigorievich died long ago, but as a farewell gift he had shown
to us another patch of nearly forgotten land. We call it Smaller island.
There, according to Matvey Grigorievich, once had lived a strange blockhead
named Grisha. He had picked cranberries at the marsh and nearly all the
money begot in such a way he passed to senior citizen homes.
There is no log hut any more on the island, there are only stumps left.
My children call them Grisha's stumps, and all the four of us would always
sit down there for at least a minute.
At Dismal island we take a Thermos out of the knapsack, place on a
newspaper hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, apples and having stepped onto the
bank of half filled trench, would take tea to the tune of soft foreign
Not far from the island is situated the same protective Vishera canal
and beyond it on the Moscow-Leningrad highway there is motor car camping.
To get here one has to cross not only the canal, but wade across the marsh
and a wide ditch. Formerly someone from the camping tried to place a couple
of poles across it, but the water in the ditch is peculiar. The bridge
would instantly rot and break down. Then I would sit with my wife at the
island without any special purpose, speak about many various things, about
our household chores, that would never be through, look at the tops of
the trees against the blue sky and it seems that our ship is leisurely
sailing towards the wind. Vadka in the meantime climbs with nuts in a fir-tree
where he has got a squirrel acquaintance, and Lena roams around the island.
Among young ashes one may find, even after snow, several puffy like buns
wonderfully clean orange cap boletuses. From Dismal island along the rim
of the marsh we walk to Oukleykina pustosh. That is also a marsh but it
has a sturdy and safe base. There grow sparse huge pines with crowns like
clouds. Here one may also find bitters, but they are harder to discern.
The trunk bark would scale down and lay on the moss like false caps.
Here we fill up our baskets and then would sit idle on a snag for a
long time and inhale the somewhat bitter smell of ledum. The sun would
either disappear behind clouds or would emerge again and look at us, and
we would still be sitting and listening through silence to the chirping
The snow has not melted yet, and though the twighlight is still far
away it is getting darker in the woods between the trunks:it is about time
to get back to the road. Our the way is along a gas pipe-line rampart.
Some fifteen years ago the forest here was usual, but one fine year
urged by newspaper calls, the Oukleykina pustosh was crossed by a wide
cutting in the most fruitful cowberries places. First it was convenient
to walk along the rampart, but then alder trees took swift on the clay
And now you have to speak aloud wading through it, for if you keep
silent you may encounter an elk, which happened once to me. I could hardly
jump aside. The elk passed along me like a train engine, his sweating flanks
covered with ruby ticks.
Once a niece of ours, Olya, came to visit us with her husband who studied
at a military academy at the time. The hilarious student did not waste
time and strode along leaving all of us behind. I gave him a piece of advice,
to read verses, but he replied that it was not in his vein and all the
way he would practice his command voice, shouting:
"Close ranks! Attention!" And my tender niece who knows by
heart many poems by Bounin: "A bird has its nest, a beast has its
burrow...", dearly loves her husband. We would linger for a while
nearby a modest Red Army soldier grave at the canal. Sometimes on memorial
days, on Trinity or V-Day some invisible hand according to an ancient creed
would pour some wine into a glass. Then we would also place some heather
branches taken from the woods, and would stay there keeping silence.
But some years ago the monument disappeared, though the fence is still
there. Here in the Novgorod region (this year I roamed over Kalinin region,
and the same thing happens there) they nowadays are making the graves larger.
The soldiers remains are taken from the places they had perished and were
buried and are solemnly transferred closer to villages and towns, near
to asphalt roads. The granite stone and the mound planted with birches
is now situated across Savino village. But one would not dwell there brooding,
all the time roaring motorcars pass along and you practically cannot get
on a bus there on Sunday. Buses with their half flat tires drag along.
We got accustomed to it during the rest of ten kilometer lap of the way
consider a must for us to walk. We thank the transportation authorities
The highway, straight as a searchlight beam, leads us on. To the left
and right and behind us in the background are looming huge immobile bursts
of orange, yellow and brown oaks. A bit closer, somewhat lower in stature
is smoking the capricious pattern of willows, and quite close to the road
is the low under-brush of ashes. Motor cars loaded with gifts from villages
and the forest are streaking by like bullets heading for the city. In the
spells between them one can hear the rustling of falling leaves.
Far ahead there is a growing alley of poplars. At the start of our
life in Novgorod we planted them there free of charge on Saturdays. Now
these poplars are giants. We are glad to see the fruit of our toil.
Above the alley there are heaps of horizontal clouds. Glistening beams
of the invisible to us sun are permeating their stories, and the lake to
the left of us is melting and burning. They breed carps in the lake and
hunting is prohibited.
The lake to the right from us on the northern side is always sullen,
as if made of lead, it wrinkles sullenly. We walk the left side of the
highway. Balalaika music is getting closer and closer. "Can you hear
it?", - asks Tamara smiling to her distant recollections. "Yes,
I can", - I reply, though one cannot see neither the master of the
balalaika, nor his log cabin. An artificial lake has spread over the place
where it stood, and for several years fat and nutritious carp have swam
in the water. There was a time, when during our hikes, when we would always
sit down at the door of a lonely old man in a green frontier guardsman
cap, who was called Kolia Finn. And then walking further to our house we
heard for a long time the incredibly cozy hum of his balalaika. Now we
have no place to take a rest, to wait for a while, and we have to drag
along without a respite.
The new carp ponds begin getting historical. I nearly got drowned in
one of them. When I got to the surface, my canoe had disappeared Instead
of it only a car wheel tube was floating. I had picked it for luck near
the church of Kovalevo.
It grows dark, the oncoming cars turn on their lights, and close to
the Blue bridge at the turn of the road there are scattered some cabbage
heads. We pick up some of them. Shops are already closed, and in autumn
there is always a shortage of vegetables there.
Bitter mushrooms of the fourth category are fit only for pickling,
and they should be boiled beforehand. But next year we are impatient for
an October snow so that we could once again start our hike for the most
simple but bitter mushrooms which are as unpretentious as the drone of
Having made up our minds to move to Novgorod from Leningrad, we had
decided with my wife first to go and see the city. We went to the market.
During 1956 the market place was not located in a huge lonely and dark
hangar at the outskirts of the city where it is now, but was situated near
the Kremlin at the Peasant's Square.
At the market place there was a traditional belfry made of red brick.
A hunchbacked fool named Lesha always pestered folks with a question: why
had they erected an expensive tower for parachute jumping, but nobody uses
it? Most of all I was stricken with abundant produce at the counters. Firm
succulent cranberry was sold not by some meagre glass but by two-pound
and one-pound jars. One could taste pot-bellied cucumbers of an outstanding
flavor as much as one wanted. They are kept during the winter in barrels
under ice in ponds.
There were dried mushrooms of all types on long, short and any length
of strings, they also sold them in bulk by weight.
One could even choose mushrooms with closed eyes by smelling them.
There were rows of butter, milk, cottage cheese, honey, and the honey did
not turn blue when touched with a chemical pencil.
There were also meat rows, where butchers with white oversleeves were
always ready to bargain.
But most of all I was delighted with the fish. There was an abundance
of light-blue pike perch, green burbot, sullen toothy pikes, yellow bream
sparkling in the sun. I was pleased not only with the abundance, but by
the fact that the fish from lake Ilmen were lying there on the scales still
alive with feebly moving gills and were trying to get off them. And choosy
buyers took long to look through heaps of sleepy fish.
That was one of the reasons that urged us to move to Novgorod. My wife
and I worked as technicians at the time, our room was spacious and echoing,
our souls rejoiced. We slept on the floor and soon begot a son. That is
why during my first vacation I decided to make some money by catching fish.
I would like to inform the reader: do not expect any thrilling topic,
that would reveal our selfish inclinations. I have never failed to sell
the catch. And we used the money to purchase the thing we had dreamt of:
a used, but very nice sofa with drapery in green flowers. The cushions
and arm rests were to be taken off at night and put down in the corner.
And as soon as we arrived in Novgorod I bought a boat. Boats in Novgorod
were fabulously cheap at the time. For a new Finnish boat, I paid only
four hundred roubles (at old prices). It was sold to me by Borya Ozerov,
a carpenter with red brick coloured cheeks, round faced wearing round iron
spectacles. Sometimes we would meet in the street, smile to each other
and part without speaking a word. The second boat, a "chelon"
(not a "cheln" or Novgorodians will correct you), long as a pike,
with a primeval but fail-safe little engine L-3, was lent to me by a friend.
Having fixed a tent on it on ribs, I used it to haul fish to Novgorod.
Now I am at the mouth of Sivers' canal and am putting three 'darrow'
lines with seventy hooks each across the canal. Worms are in a bucket,
I had picked them up at the ancient Kremlin wall.
They were clear cold days at the canal at the time. I perceived that
the Novgorod autumn in general may be divided into four stages. Till the
second part of September it is Indian summer, then the weather gets worse,
every day it is raining a fine drizzle, and then somewhere at the end of
the first part of October there appear gaps in the clouds, the skies become
clear and colder. And then comes the fourth stage: endless November rain
till the river freezes. That of course is an approximate tentative description
of a Novgorod autumn. I was in the third period and camped nearby the mouth
of the canal.
The canal was dug by the people of the Novgorod province at the beginning
of the last century so that one could obviate the rough Ilmen lake and
pass from the Msta river right to the Volkhov. Governor Sivers was in charge
of the job, so the canal was called Sivers'. The current in the canal is
steady and strong, the deceived Msta all turned into the dugout route,
and when I was hauling the lines in the exhausted roach-fish could hardly
move. Breames gave up quickly too and hung at short leads like mirrors.
Pike was another matter. As soon as you touch the line you can instantly
feel it at the other end. And you go over and over the rope, without paying
any attention to small fry: perch, ruff,that for a while hangs over the
boat like sparkling fir tree decorations.
The closer you come to the pike, the more vivid becomes its power,the
angrier its black back swerves. The short lead recoils poorly, and pike
never surrenders without a fight and often gets off the hook.
I take my booty into the stew made of a strong tar net.
My camp is situated at the Chisty Donets. When they were digging the
canal the earth was thrown out on both sides. Two high ramparts were produced.
Small channels were dug to the lakes nearby and if one takes a bird's eye
look from a plane one perceives a picture of a pine tree.
There is a straight trunk and at the ends of short branches, small
sounds, small meadow lakes are bursting with abundant greenery: the Kunino,
the Chisty and the Glukhoy Donets, the Spas-Boloto.
And having negotiated such a sound I land at the inner side of the
rampart. Here I have my reliable "chelon" safely moored with
two ropes and the stew fixed to a post. Sometimes a fish would strike with
its tale, the stew would jerk, and again silence reigns all over the place.
In between checking the darrows I like to take a stroll along the rampart.
There are wise two hundred year old willows growing there and their bushy
white beards hang drooping from their trunks. I have encircled one of them
with a rope and it measured over five meters around ( it would be correct
to call them black poplars, but let them be Novgorodian style - willows).
Below the willows there is under-brush: snowball-trees and bramble.
I swallow bluish blackberries, cold as dew drops.
Once I woke up to see that my chelon and Finnish boat had frozen into
the first ice near the bank. The Chisty Donets is encircled with a ring
of ice. The lake stands as if decorated with a silver chasing. The sun
is about to rise, heating the gray horizon, and narrow leaves are silently
falling on the soil, ice and water.
From that day on frost became regular at night, bream and other daytime
fish were caught less, and when I started "working the night shift"
the long awaited burbot appeared. I have got a reliable windproof lantern
and I check my darrows several times a night.
The moon in the sky is in its last crescent phase, and in the middle
of the night it disappears having prodded the shrubs with its horns. It
gets quite dark... Somewhere behind the lantern the stars are blinking,
but I have no business for them. From the stern of the boat I drag my darrow,
and the lantern lights only a narrow disk of water the size of a plate.
Burbots on the far hooks stay still, but as soon as the yellow light
falls upon them, they start flapping. I take them with a landing net, move
the rope on, and the burbots at the bottom of the boat keep flapping and
wriggling like snakes. Their flanks reflect light like green blots and
seem to me as if made of marble. They smell of cold and slime.
Sometimes a snipe flies up to me, I do not know why it has not left
for its motherland, and again whispering silence flows round the boat.
Sivers' canal is mostly relaxed at night, but still do not let bliss interfere
with business. One should keep watch at night too.
Water in the canal has been steaming since last night.
Mist flowed as tall as man's height in the morning along the stream.
It was turbulent at the whirlpools. When I rose at the stern to stretch
and have a rest, I could see a still red light from the bank lighthouse
at the Msta and the upper surface of the mist. I went on with checking
my darrows, the end of the line disappeared in the mist, burbots came one
after another and always appeared suddenly in the murky yellow light. The
hooks were deeply embedded into their bellies, and I had to grunt and swear
while pulling out the hook.
The sides of the boat were frostbitten and having cleaned my hands
after the next burbot I felt the water becoming warmer towards morning.According
to my expectations I was about to hit land. I stood up to see it better
and suddenly saw above the mist a green eye silently and frightfully approaching
me and inexorably getting larger and larger. It was the topsail light of
a steamer. Its prow emerged in the yellow light of my lantern sharp like
a sharp razor. I was about to jump away but then struck at my oars as hard
as I could. Having razed with its port side at the stern of my boat and
having pushed it so that I nearly fell overboard, the steamer stuck into
the clay riverbank. "The Guardsman", - I read on its steel bow.
- Hey, which way is Novgorod? - someone shouted from the steamer.
But I stood in the boat as if transfixed, and my feet were trembling.
I also liked (when we had already gathered the required sum of money and
I decided not to turn fishing into heavy toil) to come quietly to the Chisty
Donets, push the boat forward by two or three strokes of the oars, lie
down at the stern and having raised a hand with a lantern above water,
watch the fish sleeping in the autumn night. The water is clear, as if
you are hanging in the air. The lake bed is littered with brown leaves,
here and there braving the cold are tufts of some herbs and spikes of sedge.
On an autumn night fish sleep in a different manner. Perch crowd with
their heads stuck together. They might have had a conference on how to
prepare their dwellings for the coming winter and fell asleep in a ring
without going back home.
Some wretched small fries, I don't even know their name, either gudgeons
or tiny chubs lay on their sides in rows. I struck a palm on the water
... and they dashed around as if silver coins were spilled from the pocket.
Once I met a zander. It stood with its head stuck in silky weeds. Water
magnifies everything and it seemed to be old and bald, a crown of green
down was shivering at its head. I felt an urge to comb it. Carefully I
tried to dip my right hand into the water, the depth was not much, and
suddenly I perceived that there is no zander. Was he really there? Only
a small cloud of gray mud was falling onto the bed.
I found ides under islets of fallen ash leaves. You carefully divide
the leaves and can watch for a long time the shiny reddish fish. They look
like freshmen soldiers ready for a leave of absence.
Having glided for a long time on the mysterious night lake, you get
cold, and then hurry to your tent to take tea in the warmth of a gas stove
Or you would make some tea mixed of blackberries, guelder rose and
red bilberries. I pick blackberries and guelder rose right here at the
rampart, and for red bilberries I have to go to the Savino forest. Herbs
in the forest turned dry, leaves had fallen from the trees, and one can
see from afar a single orange cap boletus. Mushrooms must be lonely in
a naked forest. They stay trembling under man's eyes.
I make some sort of soup from orange cap boletus, and cook the zander
as follows. Before my outing I buy at the market place violet colored potatoes.
They should be pealed having stuck the hands overboard. Small fry would
instantly gather round the rinds.
I pour some water into the cauldron, then the potatoes. They should
boil for a while, then I add the zander cut into pieces. The pieces glisten
with beads of gelatin. There among the potatoes are boiling two eggs. They
are big and yellow, I can't recollect that they crack in boiling water.
Then I would add five grains of black pepper, an onion, some salt and a
laurel leaf. I don't grudge for dry roots, they cost fifty copecks for
a bunch at the market place, nowadays that's five copecks a piece. And
when at last the potatoes are steaming on the plate (and I always take
along with me a China plate with a green band on its rim.) I don't fail
to pick all the bones from the fish, then add cut hard boiled eggs and
place above it a good chunk of Vologda butter, which smelled at the time
My wife ordered me several times to wrap up our enterprise, but I didn't
feel like leaving for the city. To gather hay for the mattress I did not
go downstream the Msta towards Ilmen, where they gather great amounts of
hay, but upstream to the village of Kholynya. My hay smells of meadow sweet
and timothy-grass. I used to sleep in tents at the riverside many a time
but I never could relax altogether. Some cell in the brain, some curved
line is on watch, does not sleep and listens for some possible danger.
Though what danger could there be at the Sivers' canal?
In the boat one relaxes altogether. One sleeps profoundly. Only in
the middle of the night one can feel rather than hear the sound "tut,
tut, tut". That is a towing steamer tugging at some rafts or barges.
A clear and distraught echo is striking the banks. You know that you are
beyond the rampart and out of danger, but the sound increases, grows wider,
stronger and is about to tumble over you and crush everything. It seems
as if by some miracle the tug boat has got into the Chisty Donets.
You get more comfortable and warm from the seaming danger, and you
fall asleep much more profoundly. I should admit that sometimes I was disturbed
by some "deuces", so I call either the strange little dogs or
some little raccoons with huge eyes, that visited me as a gang at night.
They grunt and pick at the garbage. If you move and open the flap of the
tent a little , they would squeal and jumping high would gaily get away.
And I also used to sit at the riverside and throw little stones into the
waters of the Sivers' canal. It was the time when I did not check my darrow
lines at night any more. If you turn your head to the left, the canal lies
straight as a thoroughfare, it is oriented from West to East, and the sun
at the end of it sets down straight into the Volkhov.
And far away on the red waters there appears the "The All Union
Headman Kalinin". And when its slow wheeled bulk reaches you night
descends upon everything and lights go on at the steamer, on all its decks.
The steamer passes by, bright,transparent, and quiet music is flowing
along with it. Nowadays these tunes are considered ancient "A modest
blue kerchief", "How I like the depth of your gentle eyes"
and so on.
After "The Kalinin" (a year later it would be scrapped for
metal waste) only the moon remains in the sky and for a long time a lazy
wave is striking the bank. And you are still sitting and watching the narrow
dead leaves floating in the moonlight like slender boats towards Novgorod.
Some two years later "darrows" were outlawed, and inspectors
found a very simple way to fight them: they would cast from a raft or from
a barge a welt of barbed wire on a line, and it was abundant in the Novgorod
region at the time, and pulled, dragging the darrows from the poles. It
is June now. I am just back from my vacation, we have spent it with my
son on a boat. We spent one of the nights at the place where my favorite
station was. Much water has passed since that time in the canal. After
the Finnish boat I have had a motor chelon, motor boats "Kazanka"
and "Progress". But I gave them up after a while and sold them.
Instead I bought myself a rowing boat and again as of old I paddle along
on the water. My son cast some fishing lines from the bank, but I didn't
feel like fishing and fed some twigs into the fire. Poplars along the canal
have become whiter, their gray manes were drooping from the trunks. The
Donets got overgrown with weeds,only a small span of water was glistening
among the herbs.
Sophisticated motor boats were passing by, cutting the water to the
bottom, rapid "rockets", gliding boats of the "Zarya"
type. In order to get some clean water one had to get to the middle of
the canal, two bands of a yellowish turbidity were incessantly flowing
along the banks. My son has caught a medium size fish. The fish unwillingly
has become used to its new conditions of life and caught the bait under
the noise of engines.
I cast a glance along the canal. As if twenty years ago the sun was
setting right into the water.
There is no time for rest.
I had gathered a basket of coral milky caps, sat down under a pine
tree, leaned against its trunk. It is rough, warm and friendly. Its top
is humming. If you take a look upward, patches of blue sky could be seen
through its branches. And right in front of me there is our lake Ilmen.
It is bluer than the sky.
What a scope!
On the banks of the lake are meadows. They are low and because of that
it seems boundless. The first settler, who came here from forests and fields,
must have taken the lake for a sea.
The lake is always in movement, all the time at work.
In winter, as soon as December frost sets in, it gets
covered with black ice and white patches of snow, as if going to sleep,
but it does nor sleep long. Towards New Year, whatever the cold may be,
a great unfrozen patch of water forming towards the Volkhov starts steaming.
Anglers then drag their boats towards the February river and are speeding
over irresistibly sparkling water.
Ilmen is watering the insatiable Volkhov all winter long, it gets tired
and shallow. But in the springtime the river gives back its due. As soon
as the ice breaks on the Volkhov, the flow nearly stops, the blocks of
ice start floating backwards. And for a week or so the Volkhov is toiling,
it waters lake Ilmen and fills it up to the brim.
The lake does not relax in summer-time either. It would stay calm for
a spell during a short June night, then you can hear and see the willow
shrubbery rustling and babbling, tonges of ripples crawling over the smooth
water which becomes tense and darker, white-caps appearing upon it, and
the horizon becoming distinctly visible.
But by noon the lake would get noisy and ranging, as if an endless
Sometimes the Ilmen takes a day off. It happens seldom, but still it
I remember a July noon. Silence. Everything is still.
It is hazy, light is trembling all around, it seems that the lake has
risen into the sky, or vice verca, the sky has melted in the lake. Then
landrails would squeak thirteen to a dozen in the grass at night, and the
sun would set down right into the water.
In May at the factory check-point there sits an old man. He has got
morels heaped on a newspaper spread before him, they are fleshy and juicy.
- Where did you pick them? - I ask.
- In the woods.
So it is in the woods! And I went to the Savino forest.
Clearings are sprinkled with greenery. Space beneath oaks is naked
and dry, only powder from last's year leaves is tickling in the throat.
I could hardly find a couple of morels. Here they are small dwarfs in my
palm. Their caps look like brown thimbles.
The next day I went beyond the village of Novaya Melnitsa. I wandered
among birches and alders, went up and down, stopped near pines and looked
under firs. Morels should be growing here, but there are none. I found
one and it turned out to be like those two from the Savino forest.
The first May weekend I went spring fishing and dragged the boat to
the lake. It was sunny and silent. I go as far as the village of Voitsy.
The banks all around are meadows. Near Voitsy remnants of a birch copse
are slinking towards water like a shy elk to its watering place. And the
place has a funny name:Konyachok. That is an ancient name given after horses.
I roam leasurly about the forest, the spring birches look like powdered
with dill. I sat down on a stump and listened to birds singing. A red bird
flies from one branch to another asking: "Twit wit?"
I looked down and saw a fat, fleshy morel right near my foot. I put
it into my hat, got up, started scanning the space around and beheld a
platoon of morels marching out of the bushes.
I walked in the thicket and blundered among trunks. Bird cherry trees
blossoms fell all over me. And then I heard a voice:
- Who is picking here my morels?
I stood up. That was the old man, who had been sitting at the check-point
of our factory with morels on a newspaper!
We got talking as old acquaintances.
- Why are there no morels neither at Savino nor at Novaya Melnitsa?
- I asked.
- Why not? They are there, but they are feeble, there is not enough
nourishment there, and those, - he pointed his finger to my hat, - grow
only here, near Ilmen lake, because the lake spreads silt during flooding
all over the forest! That's why, pal!
Fierce north wind is blowing in the morning and in the evening, during
the daytime and at night. Steady and strong. As if somewhere beyond the
horizon a powerful fan is constantly working.
Ragged gray clouds are floating in chains, sometimes the sun appears
for a spell and then goes out. My spirits are low, and though it is far
from evening, it looks like night fall.
Silence reigns beyond the riverside shrubs, but wind penetrates them.
My campfire is nearly out, I do not feel like taking tea. If the bad weather
has overtaken you at the island, there is no way out, the boat may be flooded.
Grass, bushes do not sway any more, they humbly creep on the ground and
one thinks that they will never get up and stand straight.
Then one would suddenly wake up at night, as if someone nudged you.
All around stays bright, strange fearsome silence, the lake does not rumble,
branches do not scratch my tent, only some birdie is squeaking feebly.
The sky is clear, washed out, but the grass is still lying, it does not
dare to believe in the silence, to get straight. Timothy is down, some
stems are bent in an arch, and even sharp sedges like swords are clinging
to the soil.
Then some nameless stem would stick out from the tangled grass and
freely sway, then a rosy umbrella of some flower would raise its head,
blue pikes of veronica stick in the sky, yellow balls of other flowers
go on like electric bulbs. Soon the whole meadow would sparkle with dew
drops in the first sun rays.
And Ilmen lake, having put out its ripples during the night, is shining
as if covered with a light silk.
Once I intended to cross the lake. As soon as I started a dragon-fly
out of nowhere appeared over the boat. It would jerk to the side from time
to time, but then would come back and at last it alit upon the tarpaulin
in the boat.
First it came down on its long straight legs, then the joints broke
and its wings went down. The dragon-fly was a beauty, its blue-and-green
back was iridescent, its wings were orange speckled, but it had had hard
times in the city. Either boys or sparrows must had chased it. One leg
was strangely bent, a wing was slightly torn, and its head was trembling
from time to time, as if in a nervous tic.
The engine roared, waves heaved, the city smoke lingered behind. One
could breathe much easily.
So we sailed together, up and down with the waves, up and down. The
water was quivering like young birches in the sunshine. Sometimes the dragon-fly
would go up, but having scanned the horizon and making sure that the route
is correct, would come back to the warm tarpaulin. Its head would jerk
less often, the tail triumphantly stuck up and it contentedly rubbed its
At last sand rustled under the keel. The engine went out and I heard
birds hubbub on the bank.
The dragon-fly rose, its wings glistened, it took off, made a circle
over the boat either in farewell or examining the locality, then made up
to the sky like a candle and soon disappeared in the blue skies.
Water in the lake was receding and big and small pools were left on
In one such pool there gathered a host of small fry.I dug for them
a passage to the lake and hid myself behind a bush. Water in the passage
was slowly streaming, but the young fish somehow did not leave the pool.
Soon water in the lake began splashing. Perch were getting fat. Presently
they ousted the small lake fish close to the bank. Escaping from predators
they went in a thin string along the bank. The most timid among them nearly
rubbed their bellies on the sand.
And who would not get scared if,in a yard from you, river brigands,
striped like tigers chase one another? A humpy red-finned beauty was leading
the convoy, smaller ones were trailing behind, altogether they were about
Sometimes a small fish would get too nervous and dash for the bank,
flounder in the shallow water, then plunge to the depth... One of the perches
would detach from the school, a short struggle would ensue and the convoy
would resume its decorous march.
Now the small fry have found my passage from the pool and some of them
without much ado turned into it. The whole school followed.
Perch, abashed, stopped at the mouth in a semicircle, then either one
or another of them would come forward as if taking the floor at a conference.
Then a reckless young dishevelled perch, having "taken the floor",
dashed directly from the podium through the passage into the pool. The
rest followed him. The humpy one, disgruntled, trailed behind.
Again perch were picking at the small fry, and those, escaping, would
cling to the bank. The pool was of a considerable size, while the fish
were going around it, I managed to fix a large grid net across the passage,
and the small fry went through it into the lake. The last one was coming
a little gudgeon, it was losing its scales, must have suffered from the
teeth of a buccaneer.
As soon as it disappeared in the depth of the lake I closed the passage
and stirred up the water. After catching all the perch with a landing net
I made a fish soup for dinner. As for the humpy one, I disemboweled it
and wallowed it in dry bread crumbs then fried it in margarine.
Once, travelling along Ilmen, I must have got to the very heart of
it, land was not in view anywhere. Fish were not biting well. I sat there
and watched the sun cooling and getting red. When it dipped in the water,
it became red all around, hissed as if a red hot stone were thrown into
a barrel. And only clouds were catching light and glistened tender and
Then at the other side of the lake swelled a huge orange moon, and
a trembling light path came toward me from it. While I pondered whether
I should head toward it or not, the moon detached from the horizon and
rapidly ascended into the sky.
Ilmen is fed from a host of rivers and rivulets. I was going at full
speed along one of them, called the Lopanka.
The river was winding, the boat skidded at the turns, and snow-white
water-lilies were swaying on the waves.
The lake was about to be close at hand.
Then I had to stop quickly: there was no river any more.
The mouth was blocked with a sand bank and willow bushes were standing
there in a thick wall.
I fought my way through the bushes. The lake was swaying in front of
me, basking in the sun.
"How can it be? - I thought bewildered, - only last year, though
strangled with shrubbery, the Lopanka was babbling and murmuring over the
striped sand here. What happened?"
The lake was lightheartedly laughing, churning foam and sand into waves
and young willow shrubbery spread far into the water, swaying with the
The engine, as it had happened more than once earlier, failed at a
very improper time, and I drifted, driven by wind, into a bay, overgrown
Having fixed the engine, I got out of the boat and began steering it
out. In front of me on a snag, white with droppings, was sitting a gull.
I approached it closer and closer.
All of a sudden above it hovered a second bird with a fish in its beak.
The one on the snag glibly swallowed it, and the mother doing a circle
above me was wildly crying.
When about three metres were left to the overgrown fledgeling, it lazily
took a look at me with its black with a yellow rimed eye, spread without
hurry its wings and deftly and confidentely took off. Though in the vicinity
there were plenty of various sticks and bushes, it was clinging to this
snag. It was flying around and yelping loudly and shrilling, very much
like his mother.
When I got away, it at once took its accustomed place, and its tender-hearted
mother was bringing again a tasty titbit to her beloved son.
It was raining, I went to bed a bit earlier, but must have badly fastened
the tent to the boat, that is why I woke to the singing of mosquitoes.
Sleep left me.
I opened the tent and went out. It was a bright July
night. Rags of mist were leaving grass glistening with dew and slowly
floated over the immobile water.
A black-and-white gull with a fish in its beak approached me and gave
a frightened cry.
Over all of this bliss a lonely star sparkled in the sky like a dew
I can still see that night before my eyes.
One quiet day a duckling swam toward me from the bushes.
It must have lost its parent somewhere and made for me. It was fluffy,
happy and trusting. It was about three to four days old.
I was feeding it on small fry. I would strike a pan on the water, would
put Kriaka into it, and it would whirl in it incessantly dexterously swallowing
I had to arrange a nest for it in the boat at night. Next day it would
closely follow me everywhere and interfered with my spinning exercise.
If it was not given fish, it would angrily squeak and if it was put away
into a box its cries became heart-rending.
Towards evening, when I was tired of playing with it, I took the duckling
far into shrubbery and using oars, took off from the bank, but the engine
would not start, and having raised my head, I saw the yellow ball hurrying
towards me with all its might swaying on the water.
My vacation was approaching to its end, I had to go back home that
day, and I was reluctant to take Kriaka with me, I was afraid that my bashfull
children would strangle it after all.
That is why, having given up the engine I deftly took to the oars and
The duckling, invitingly shouting, was swimming along for about three
minutes. Then it lagged behind, strained all its meager strength, flapped
its wings on the water, getting closer for a while to the boat, but then
lagged behind still more. And I would mercilessly work the oars. At last
Kriaka realized, that he would not be able to catch with the boat. It somehow
shrank, its head drooped, turned to me with its side, its beady eye gave
me a reproachful glance and it slowly swam to the half submerged willows.
Having clenched my teeth I was still driving my boat away...
Who, from where, why?
After a long Ilmen wave, after a long travel over the lake with the
engine crackling behind my back, one should choose a high sloped bank,
throw an old sheepskin jacket on the grass and lie on it for a while.
What bliss, my goodness!
Highest of all is meadow-sweet, its inflorescence seems to be small
fluffy clouds, over it like gliders hang dragon-flies, and somewhere nearby
a land rail is crying, each time louder and louder, as if a happy child
is roaming over the meadow with a handmade flute. Its creaking sound comes
closer and closer.
I stood still. I felt an urge to see the enigmatic bird.
And it must have got curious: who is here, where is he from, why? The
creaking gets quite close. I could see the grass swaying without wind.
I rose a bit, but to no avail! I could not catch a glimpse even of
its tail. And again the creaking was rending the silence, but now it was
At night I woke to some tender patter, champing, sighs. I looked around
and saw not far from my boat elks standing in water high up to their bellies!
Their silhouettes were dark against the rosy dawn. Their ears, resembling
saucers were trembling.
I clapped my palms. It was a beautiful sight when they took off out
of the water, turned around and made away! The thud of their hooves rolled
over the meadows, then the young aspen grove began cracking and craking.
All day long slant veils of rain were swaying over the lake intermittent
with sun rays. I hid in my tent and, when cast a glance at the calm lake
for a while, saw a heron nearby. It roamed in the shallow waters taking
in turn one foot after another out of the water.
Its feet were slender, it looked absent-minded. If you put spectacles
on its sharp awl beak, it would resemble a person from Chekhov's short
Now this sharp awl jerked, small fry sprayed all around, the heron's
neck jerked too, an instant sting and the fish, having glistened in the
air,disappeared in the beak .
And again the heron was wading in the shallow water, it looked so tender-hearted,so
positive; sometimes it would get rigid, point its beak to the water, and
the in coming wave was slightly swaying. The stupid small fry had already
forgotten about the danger and were frolicing under the heron's beak, their
scales glistening in the sun.
I was dining in the sunshine, the lake was heaving at my feet. All
of a sudden a butterfly landed on my hand and began walking up and down
my palm. Its proboscis would curl and uncurl, its wings were folded. I
touched the wings with a grass stem, stroked them. It would not fly away.
Then it took off, but returned and again kept walking on my hand.
I dipped the stem in sugar, pored some water on my palm, stirred, and
the butterfly at once dipped its proboscis into it, then unfolded its wings,
stayed still and turned into a blue flower.
I was walking along the bank of the Ilmen looking for rare patches
of sorrel. All of a sudden I halted.
Behind the bushes I heard a child's voice:
Silly, why did you get out of the burrow, you are hot here! After it
rains the sun is very hot! I shall take you now into the water!
A fair-headed, freckled girl had taken an exausted worm on a little
spade, took it to a pool of water and here she caught sight of me.
She ran up to me, squatted under a poplar, where I was standing and
- Uncle, what is it?
The trunk near the roots had an incrustation.
- How did you get here?
- I am with my daddy and mummy, our tent is behind the bushes. Uncle,
what is it?
- They are some fungi that grow on the bark, - I answered not quite
A wonderful girl! I had spent all my vacation at Ilmen and a beard
had grown on my face, I looked more like the villain Barmaley than good
Dr.Iboleet, but the girl was not at all afraid of me.
I recollect a man at a bus stop with a fierce dog. There were many
people around, but near to him was nobody. Then a woman cried: "Oh,
Vasenka!" A two-year-old tot approached the bulldog. We could not
collect ourselves, when he took the ferocious dog's nose into his rosy
fingers. And while the mother was running toward her son, and the dog managed
to lick the hand of the tot as the dog's master dragged it, with its dingling
In spring and summer schools of sparlings roam about the lake. Their
scales glisten in the sun. Then we, anglers, ask our wives for curtain
lace, make nets out of it and roam the banks in great numbers. We draw
water, looking at it hopefully. But this year all our toil is in vain,
sparlings have disappeared somewhere. Old men from Ilmen would soothe us:
"That has happened before, they would catch all the big ones, the
rest would scatter all over the lake, hide in the nooks, and the lake keeps
guard of them for some years. When the sparlings grow big enough, they
flock together and again start swimming around to their own peril.
Black kite and sandpiper
It is huge. It occupies half the sky and it would flap its wings once
and then glide on. Its wings are like a black shawl with a dishevelled
fringe, its tail is neat, like a swallow's, only several times greater.
The black kite was flying from the lake. It flapped its wings once or twice
and was already above the meadow.
All of a sudden, from above, two gulls began falling upon it choking
with cries. It seemed that they would now seize the black bird, but no,
they got out of the dive, soared up and again with great might began fallig
upon the kite.
The shrill cries of the gulls must have distracted the ferocious bird
and it did not notice a nest with chicks in the grass. It made two decorous
circles over the meadow and went away.
While the gulls were defending their descendants a small sandpiper
hovered helplessly over the land squeaking in a worry. It was good that
the gulls distracted the black kite! The sandpiper would have not been
able to get at it with its pitiful groans.
When hunters come back empty-handed, they would often kill a sandpiper
for its cries are heard far away. It is hard for a sandpiper to survive
such a life!
There is a hillock on the banks of the lake. On it there lays in the
bushes a huge old pine trunk brought there during flooding. When I sail
past it, I would always land there and break off a piece of bark for my
children to carve boats from.
That time I also made a stop there, climbed a path to the hillock.
Formerly its boughs were sticking around as if the spine of a prehistoric
beast, but now they have gone, they rotted and anglers used them for campfires.
Young aspens and willows sprouted from beneath the trunk, near its top
a green fir tree was happily growing.
I wanted to get some bark beetles for fishing but would strip its bark
to no avail. Bark beetles must had eaten all the edible substances in the
trunk. Previously, when I did that, various spiders and swift black ants
would scatter all over the place.
I kicked the old trunk in dispair. My foot penetrated the trunk as
if it were moss and silence envelopped everything. Only a mossy greenish
capricorn beetle with clots of dust on its paws came out from its depths
to the light and wallowed away like an old grand-dad in felt boots.
I just stood there looking at the huge giant: wood fungi grew all over
the trunk like balconies. It seemed to me the house that had served its
term and was of no use to anybody. Its inhabitants had gone away to new
In the middle of September, when the sun is hot in the daytime, I roamed
over the riverside meadows. The city was far away humming, rumbling, emitting
smoke. Here the haystacks were yellow. Thrushes, having flocked together,
were picking rowan berries. Rivers either dried up altogether or became
extremely shallow, and you could walk everywhere.
Now cranes began crying in the sky.
When they were passing over me heavily flapping their wings, I heard
beside their usual call some plaintive crying, squeaking.
I have never heard that before and thought that some other birds may
have joined the crane flight and watched the chief crane flying at the
head. Tiredly flapping its wings it led the flock towards the midday sun,
tangled among torn clouds. But it seemed to be leading unsure and queer.
It would stray either to the left or right, and the flight, jerking, turned
the accurate triangle into a broken ragged line.
Somewhere from the haystack crackled two shots.
The formation broke altogether, they flocked together making havoc
in the air. Young hunters were shouting gaily:
"Oh, Oh!" They shouted just for the fun of it, just to scare
the cranes, for they were over three hundred yards away and it was forbidden
to shoot cranes. After some confusion the crane formation took shape again,
All of a sudden in the direction where they were heading, something
roared, rumbled, and an airplane took off towards them. Crane calls were
drowned in the engines howl, the flight dispersed altogether, cranes were
long rushing about in the air, but could not make the formation. And when
they recovered a little after all, the leader led them gliding backwards,
to the calm waters of Ilmen lake.
I thought, how many cities like this do cranes encounter on their way!
And each year their route becomes longer and more difficult. The squeaking
I had heard belonged not to some strange birds clinging to the flock, the
young cranes were crying from exhaution. That is why the old wise crane
leader took them for a rest earlier than usual.
Let there be more lakes like this on their route!
Once after winter fishing at Ilmen I was coming home in the evening.
A hard ski-track was rumbling under my feet. Then our destinations diverged
and I went cross-country.
There was little snow on the lake, the skis glided smoothly.
I headed for the coast, to Skit island and further on...
Once upon a time only monks lived there. Only pines are now left on
the island. From afar the island looks like an old house: red tree tops
look like hay on the roof. In summertime there are many people here, it
is a tourist base. Now everything is clean and clear all around, snow is
untroden, blue sky can be seen through tree limbs.
I halted under the pines for a rest, and a flock of jackdaws and crows
came there. They were fussing on the boughs, shouting, preparing for bedtime.
One of the big crows chose the largest limb.
As soon as jackdaws would alight at the bow, a crow would jump and
croak nearby and would push them off with its huge beek. The jackdaws would
take off yelling indignantly.
They cannot make peace even among themselves. Those who are braver
and more pert, who cry louder, take place higher to the top, choosing more
convenient south limbs. Those who are shy and weak have to take small limbs
near the soil.
What times have ensued! The factory would provide a plane or a bus
and soon would invite: "Come on, folks, anglers to the ice!"
You would be sitting all day long poking your nose into an ice hole, and
in the evening they would seize you by the hand and take you home. But
sometimes you get tired of rattling vehicles. Then you would get up early,
take skis and an ice-pick on a belt and go walking towards Ilmen.
Best of all I enjoy such hikes in March when ice in the Volkhov melts
away and churches on the banks look like knights wading up to their shoulders
in cotton clouds. When you get out of the mist the sun is blinding your
eyes and bullfinches are scattered on the snow like tangerines. You would
lean on the sticks to take a rest and listen, listen to the icelets ringing
like crystal bells in the stream.
Towards lunch you would leasurely reach the fishing places. You would
spend a couple of hours angling and then it starts freezing again, the
sun turns red and sinks towards the horizon. Beauty all around you becomes
tenderer and softer. When you are going home the ski-track rustles under
your feet, as if you are leafing through an old fogotten book. As if someone
is painting the sky with a brush, the blue beckomes thicker before your
eyes. The place, where the sun would set, turns into a rosy strip and it
would stay there for a long time.
It is good, when you use a vehicle, but sometimes it is better living
Dozens of yellow poisonous rivulets flow to the Volkhov from the city.
They do not freeze in winter. Jackdaws and crows feel at liberty there.
Picking at one another, they wade at the shallows like rats and look for
Once the word passed around: small fry perishes in the Volkhov. When
you came to a gully, you could see small fry lying on the ice like seed
The March that year was warm, babbling. Busy starlings had come to
our land, lark song heaved into the sky, a beautiful accurate bird, the
gull, arrived here.
Gulls, tired of the long flight, alit upon the river and swayed like
paper toy-boats on the waves. But there is nothing to feed on at home,
the Volkhov is empty. The gulls started to cry with worry, looked around,
saw the crows, fell beside them and started picking the dirt.
They get stained and dirty, being squeamish and disgusted.
But nothing doing, one has to keep the wolf from the door!
In winter some patches in the middle of the icebound Ilmen do not get
frozen, these are polynias.
They cut woods on the banks of the rivers, and the Msta, the Shelon
and the Lovat take to the lake turbid suspension instead of clean water.
Silt sinks to the river bed and rots. Ilmen Lake suffocates and because
of that it makes breathing holes in the ice.
The anglers should not get excited by the possibility of using motor
boats in winter and rowing champions should not be glad because there is
enough time for training in summer.
The Zalogs overgrew before our eyes. There are no schools of striped
perch any more, the famous Arcadsky bays are becoming shallow. And a number
of rivers, rivulets and brooks which feed the lake are now blocked with
silt and sand!
Possibly, morels would fall into decay at Konyachok without the spring
floods and there would be no place for sparlings to go during hard times.
The trusting duckling Kriaka would never swim out of the willows, and still
harder times would come for migrating cranes.
I do not mention villages, that earn a living at the lake. Barges and
boats get stuck on shallows more and more often and soon it would be hard
for the city itself, with its houses and factories.
Before it becomes late, we should remember our debt to the Ilmen. We
should urgently start treating the sick giant. Let hydraulic suction dredges
take in silt-sapropel from the lake bed and spread it onto the fields.
Then we should plant and plant woods on the lake's banks and on the banks
of rivers and rivulets before it is too late!
One summer I had to fly on a mission to the small city of Kholm. The
plane was old and creaking and the wind was against us. Sometimes our "Annoushka"
nearly stopped over some place and I had a good chance to look at the mossy
planes of the marshes, meadows, groves and the black grates of a monastery.
I also saw rivers oozing from the marshes to all the four winds, hats of
islands, big and small.
It is Rdeisky land, Mokhovshchina, - my neighbor from the left leaned
to the window,- at Rdeisky Lake pike are the size of a nuclear submarine,
and berries are plentiful. On top of hillocks white mushrooms grow, and
below - icy mushrooms. Best of all at those places where formerly people
lived. Now birch-trees grow on the formerly plowed land. We pick there
three hundred mushrooms on a hectare, honest! There are also treasures
to be found, - his hot breath reached my ear,- at Lebedinets. I heard from
Kostia Kourlapy myself, that there is a burial mound, from an old pine
a chain goes deep into the moss, at the end of which there is a keg of
gold. There is no way to bring a tractor there, they have already lost
two of them. Take for example Svinaev island, they say that after the local
brigand Kiriusha robbed the Rdeisky monastery, he hid the treasure there.
When he started to walk away, a thunderbolt struck from the clear sky.
When he turned around he saw a huge stone the size of a house smoking at
the place. My fellow traveler rattled away without stopping and whispered
about peasants who fought thieves, he insisted that at Mezhnik island are
hidden military treasures, which are somehow called "three Zees",
and at deisky lake, under Catherine the Second, when they reduced personnel
at the monasteries, the whole vestry outfit was submerged by the monks.
It was written in the papers under the Tzars! He recoiled when my breath
also became hot. That year onions were abundant at the shops, and Novgorod
pilots introduced a new service: before take off they would give each passenger
either a onion from a basket or a cucumber from Kholynia as a precaution
against air sickness. Now my neighbor sat straight. - One thing hindered
the development of this land: lack of roads and marshes. The war also.
And people are not simple on the islands. I have had a hard time with them,
other officials too. Take for example Ratcha, before helicopters appeared
there one had to walk to the place for two days. When I sat down to dinner
there. The Sorokins gave me fried snakes in the frying pan. I had to bang
my fist on the table:"Are you laughing at Soviet power?" There
is no other way to deal with the folks. Then they explained to me that
those were loaches, they were as long as a gun barrel, honest, larger than
eels are in the Lovat. Then I got accustomed to them, the meat is red and
sweet, when I came there I would always ask for it. Do you suppose it is
easy to be an official there? No, tovarich, you are wrong. You have to
wriggle like an eel in the frying pan when you have to meddle between the
authorities and the local folks and you find yourself between an anvil
and a hammer. Take for instance Fedia Lossev at Mezhnik! Or Kliapenok from
Groukhovka. Everybody moved away, but he, stubborn devil, would not, he
had expected something special. He was offered "Krasny bor" farm
at the Novgorod province and Gogolevo at a Pskov side: those are good state
farms, salary is raised year in and year out. But he took it into his head,
that they would soon allow individual farmers to work these islands. Our
authorities tried to convince him that there was no way back, there would
never be private land ownership. No way! I do not mention some other folks.
Even Yakov Nikiforovich Kapoustin, the collective farm chairman from
Lipovka, now that he is on pension asks for a tractor to be sold to his
sons. They must have saved so much money but do not know where to spend
it. To me it is all the same now, I am on a pension! Let others be bothered
I took the pensioner words to heart. And now I spend my vacations only
in the Marshes. I went there alone, with my family, took there my wife
and children, and also my friends. I walked along the banks of the rivers
Polist, Khlavitsa, Redia.After I invented marsh skis I would cross Mokhovshchina
marshes at any point. From the Novgorod side at villages of Tchekounovo
and Navolok, from the Pskov land near Bezhanitsy and Podberezie. I even
went once from the Kalinin side at Lebedinets. Rdeisky land is situated
at the joint of these three provinces.
When you walk from one island to another, moss recoils like waves under
marsh skis and you hold two ski sticks with rings on them. You use them
like oars pushing hummocks away and a blue island that seemed to be stuck
at the horizon starts turning bit by bit, moving towards you and turning
from blue to green, yellow or black depending on the season. Once I did
not wait till summer and went there skiing in March, my island welcomed
me all covered with hoarfrost. The most difficult thing is to get there
because nearly every one of them is surrounded with straits, swamps and
bogs. But once you get there it will welcome you with happy rustle at the
tops of the trees. Then you hastily take off your knapsack and start slowly
walking around your new possessions, inspecting the gift given to you by
destiny for an evening, for one night. You would choose the place for a
house so that horizon and space could be observed all year round, would
dig the soil for a kitchen garden with an axe, would descend to the meadow
and would choose a place for a well. Sometimes I feel like settling down
on one of these islands and then I wander about the marsh looking around.
A tired traveller feels good on these islands. One can dismember the
head of a pike caught in a ameless lake, can drink the juice from cranberries
that had been picked nearby at the foot of a hillock and then sit beside
a campfire deep in thought. Or if you are lucky you could be sitting on
a bench near a log cabin leaning your back to its rough warm wall and listen
to a cuckoo voice washed by a momentary spring rain or watch the tired
sun going down to moss like into a feather-bed. And when mist emerging
from nowhere crawls over the soil you may imagine that the native pines
scattered over the marsh are sails of the Ilmen boats moving towards you
and the island is an ocean liner with you as captain there.
Next morning as soon as the sun singes a curious squirrel at the top
of a pine tree you start moving on. And again you come across some islands,
either steep and high like ancient tall caps, or round and oval. Late in
autumn they are like spiky perch swimming in shallow water. Some of them
are large, about three or four hundred hectares, even aircraft could land
there, others are small like sleeping hedgehogs covered with pine needles.
Some are long like snakes and light with birch-trees that gaily gathered
there from all over the place, or dreary, littered with fir-trees, they
all are scattered all over the mossy Rdeisky land. As if a fair of giants
was held there of old, then another great power chased them away and they
left behind their plates, trays, caps, pans and other giant's utensils.
Many islands are deserted, but here and there there are some inhabitants,
they call themselves zhikhary. I heard many interesting things from them.
In winter I had visited libraries, archives, studied the land's history.
It appeared that the islands were inhabited by peculiar folks, different
from those living outside. They dreamed of a free life without orders and
the surveillance of authorities. They led a self-sustained life,had their
own salt pits and blacksmiths at Domsha. Each family kept several cows
and countless other domestic animals.
Here settled such people that relied upon their own force. They were
free and proud folk, ready to toil for themmselves from dawn to night.
They were runaway peasants, other people that for some reason or another
did not find a place at Big land. There was a local brigand, Kiriusha,
(the official was right) who did not as much rob people as protected them
from the encroachments of local authorities. Swamps would not let them
them inside easily. Khan Batyi would not get there, the Polish would sink
here without the help of Ivan Sousanin, Napoleon obviated the land. Though
military settlements were partly installed here, Polistovie only gained
by it. The system introduced by Arakcheev acted like a sieve, soldiers,
who did not agree to do both military service and peasant's toil, ran to
the islands with their families. The marsh is huge, thirty by forty kilometers,
and people would disappear there like needles in a haystack.
Since that time liberty spirit reigned over Mokhovshchina. They would
pay ten roubles of taxes once a year and get away with it. Once I came
across the village of Koukalevo, where nobody lived any more. Hundred year
old log cabins covered with moss still stood there in close ranks: whitewashed
stoves, a modern icon in the best corner decorated with paper flowers,
sometimes swallows would fly rustling inside. A partly destroyed roof stirred
my curiosity, it was a double roof and people could hide inside. In the
street while jumping over a hole I noticed a secret underpass from one
house to another. Later on I learned that runaway peasants found shelter
here under Nickolas the First and Arakcheev. It was a glorious feat to
desert the Army at that time. They were also called "strangers"
and they had secret hiding places all over the land.
Then the revolution took place and new life began. Then the Great Patriotic
War...Fascists were all around the place but here red flags were still
hoisted up on the village Soviets. Several guerrilla brigades were formed
there and Mokhovshchina fought till the last man for its islands. Only
in winter of 1942 the fifth German punitive expedition managed to sweep
the land and burnt it to the ground. But after the war people came back
and restored all of the one hundred islands. Somehow general economic trends
of life took its effect. Some people migrated to settlements and townships
outside Mohkovshchina: Kholm, Staraya Russa, Dedovichi, Soushchevo and
so on. But to settle at a new place as well as they had lived here they
needed money, the more so for young couples.It became a tradition to get
hired at the collective and state farms around the marsh for the summer
as shepherds. People had been used to summer country life, to the warmth
of cattle and a salary of about five to six hundred roubles was of a certain
importance. Once after a long hike over the mossy flatland called Orelie
I met such newlyweds and listened to their talk about life. They stood
close to each other, the Eltsovs, husband and wife. He was thick with curly
hair like Pushkin, she was slim and blue eyed. They were from Loknia, they
decided not to wait for an apartment that the state might present them.
They had found a house to be sold and were now working here at a collective
farm as shepherds. They hoped to raise the money necessary for that during
the summer. They were happy with their honeymoon.
What do the folk that stay there on the islands dream about? What are
the hopes of inhabitants of Rdeishchina, how do they hope to restore the
land which has fallen into decay?
Upper Polisto marsh. Many a transparent lake is there, distilled among
peat banks, many a river source is there. Each island is a discovery. At
Domsha Caucasian bees, brought here by people, are buisily humming. Riadokha
is all covered with curly virgin hazel-groves. Svinaev island saggs in
the middle under the weight of a huge boulder the size of half a house.
Rumours have it that thieves' treasure is hidden under it.
I should like to tell the history of a small island of about fifty
hectares large in the heart of Polisto marshes. Picking worms there in
turf beds we found Chinaware fragments and a silver rouble dated 1924.
An image of a worker embracing a peasent's shoulder and calling the latter
to a factory is etched upon it. We even came across a Neanderthal man lance
point, made of a roughly hewn stone smelling thousands of years old. At
the edge of the island we met its old residents: Aunt Olia and Uncle Fedia
Astafiev-Lossev and learned the history of Mezhnik island, so to say, from
the first source.
Aunt Olia's family comes from plowing soldiers. In the 1830s count
Arakcheev established military districts at the edge of Polisto marsh.
Before that peasents lived happily and gloriously and never bent their
heads before anyone. The tzar was far away; pay quitrent of five roubles
for each soul and be off with you for a year. Then a military drum-roll
rattled and scribers read out the decree: you are military settlers as
of now. It meant working land as a peasent and keeping two soldiers at
the house, building roads, reparing bridges, draining marshes and mastering
"military drills and regulations".
They began moving peasents from their villages to military settlements
so that it was more convenient to control them at "Attention!"
command. They did not establish settlements at new places but took a rich
village as a basis and reformed it so that straight streets would be at
right angles. If a well stood in the way, it was filled up with earth.
In spring, on the sixth of May the regiment commander (it was Evdokia,
his wife's birthday) decided to hold agricultural musters in addition to
those that were held on tzar's, count Arakcheev's and other commanders'
birthdays. He stood with his staff at a podium, settlers were to pass before
him on their horses. Everything was to be according to military regulations,
horses were to have manure bags under their tails, a harrow was to be placed
at the right side of the cart, at the left side: ploughs, rakes, forks
and scythes were to be staked upright in the holes. At the aft of the cart
on a special shelf two soldiers were sitted in gray uniform with overcoats
across their sholder. It was springtime, larks hastened the time, a day's
work was worth a grat deal, but they were obliged to get their uniforms
in order and to get ready for the muster. They ploughed in uniforms, and
companies were to compete for the earliest sowing.
Then a cholera epidemic ensued because the wells were filled up and
they had to bring water from a pond. The mutiny first started at Staraya
Russa, and here settlers scattered all over the place. Villages were deserted,
grown over with weeds and nobody was left to experiment with. Since that
time the vicinity has been called "settlers' land". It is located
between the Novgorod village of Poddorie and the Pskov lake of Polisto.
Aunt Olia's great-greatfather had settled in a backwoods village of
Kondratovo. There he was confronted with a government innovation: order
to plant potatoes. The greatgrandfather started to oppose it. But the offical
was wise and experienced, the memory of the previous settlers mutiny was
fresh in his mind, so he did not summon soldiers. "Do as you wish".
After the speach he ordered to unload potatoes bags at a clearing, grunted
under his mustash and went away. Peasents were mistrustful folk, they did
not want to be misled so they stealthily took a bucketfull or two of the
"vegetable" and planted it here and there in their kitchengardens.
Some five years later all the villagers were planting potatoes. But
not so the stubborn great-grandfather. The grandfather was of the same
mold, he dreamed of being free from the community. He soon found a vacant
island of about a hundred acres and settled there with his four sons. After
some time in winter a tax-collector from the Novgorod province arrived
there. "We belong to the Pskov authorities", - the grandfather
told him. Next year came a Pskov tax-collector. "We belong to Tver
authorities", - the wise man intimated. The island bordered all the
three provinces,so he tried to benefit by the fact. First geese plume pens
scratched, then iron ones, papers were tossed from one table to another...
At last a land surveyor from St.Petersbourg came to take stock of the land,
to chart it on the map of the whole of Russia. My uncles by that time matured,
became rich and began demanding their share from my grandfather. The grandfather
grew weak and could not give a lesson to them with a whip or a shaft.
They had common stock of cattle on the island (they did not need any
herding, because bogs are all around), fifty sheep, three flocks of geese,
hens, some pigs. There were many young ones in the household, including
us children. The old man found wives for his two sons from the Pskov lands,
but my mother and aunt Frosia were from Novgorod province. The Pskov aunts
prevailed over their husbands to get the island prescribed to the Pskov
province, but ours did not yield either.
The land surveyor worked, chartered plans of the land, visited some
other islands and at night was tired of the women quarelling over the land
division. So he burst out and said: "Dig a boundary from prow to aft,
I shall prescribe half the island to Pskov, the other half to the Kholm
district. Everybody was satisfied with such a decision, but those in favour
of Pskov planted juniper along the boundary, and ours planted rowan in
When it came to give name to the island, the land surveyor said: "Since
you have dug a trench and divided the land, so let us call it Mezhnik..."
Even before us, since ancient times, people from the islands melted
lard and hauled it in linden vats to Novgorod and even to the capital.
And the lard was called Russian, for we lived near Russian Lake. Each day
we made a vat of some 30 kilos. And lard was also taken from other islands
to the big land.
Then Soviet power was introduced. And one of the new men here soon
become my husband. He came out of the skies in the proper sense of the
word. As a rule officials and officers came to our place in winter by sleighs,
but then total collectivization was ordered and they could not report positively
about our lands. So we heard a plane humming and a man clad in a leather
jacket fell from it. He held a brief -case in one hand, and a parasole
in the other, it is called a parachute. He called in people from other
islands and began rallying them to join a collective farm. "You shall
sail your island-ships to a happy life". My grandfather was rather
glad because he thought of bring his sons of a bitch together by that means.
So he said:
"You, good man, came here out of the skies sing very nicely about
a new life, but who is to give account of the mess you started? It is easy
to speak about new life, but would you take part in the work yourself?
Stay with us here!"
Fedia fell silent, touched the "Red Banner" order at his
chest, then gave to the old man such an answer: "Myself, I am a Baltic
seaman, I love my flotilla as much as your granddaughter Olia, if you give
her to me as a wife, I will stay here."
I listened to that and got red in the face. But my grandfather gave
an unexpected answer: " If you change your name to ours, Astafiev,
you may marry her." In the afternoon he took Fedor to the aft of the
island, he had a favourite nook there: a bench, sunset, other islands trailing
behind Mezhnik and yellow rush was like foam behind the ship. They spoke
for a long time, and I could only guess what about. Our grandfather had
his own notions about strenghtening the family. The eldest grandson, the
cleverest was to go studying agronomy, the next was to become an engineer,
who would handle mowers and separators, two girls were to become a teacher
and a medical attendant, the rest of them according to his views were to
stay with the land and cultivate it. He chose wives for his sons not according
to the looks, but watched them mowing the harvest, baking pies, cleaning
the house. So all my aunts were full bosomed, thick in the body like stoves,
they matched our uncles. My granddad used to say that he was gong to breed
the Astafievs so that they would work the land forever. That is why he
chose Fedia. He had a shrewd eye, so had I. Aunt Olia gave a hearty laugh,
when we sat in her house at the bank of Polisto Lake. Uncle Fedia was absent,
he had been summoned to the military registration and enlistment office
to be hailed as a war veteran.
One more thing, - said the grandfather, - a Russian woman must not
yield a man in durability, for anything may happen to the breadwinner,
he may be killed, and she has to pull the family through. How many a time
our land was encroached upon! And we were called "Russian beauties".
Whenever we came out of the marshes to some village on a holy-day for husband
hunting, women usually said: "Here they come, beauties from Russian
Lake, not at all the worse for the wear". Sometimes we managed to
abduct a fellow.
Grandfather was loath to let women go beyond the islands, he would
rather get men into our land. They did not feel like guests here, for we
built them a house within a month - altogether.
Once you would come out in the morning, the more so when it was frosty,
smoke from chimneys floated all over the islands and our flotilla drifted
towards sunrise. Fedia, my husband, was chairman to all of us. My soul
used to be so happy!
Destiny did not fail my granddad with my husband. Fedia managed to
get milk processors for each island. Then we made windmill drives for them
and hauled butter to the main road not only in winter, but also in summer
by waterways. We cleared a ditch between lakes Domsha and Ostrovisty and
then sailed down the river Khlavitsa. Fedia managed to get mowers, threshers,
a winnower. Two fellows among us were rather smart and they longed to become
mechanics. Fedia encouraged them in their quest. He accorded to anyone
as much freedom as was possible, you may keep as many cattle as you can,
sow as much as you can here at the islands, you had only to meet the state
quotas for sales.
We staked poles with flags at each island . A red flag meant a gathering
at Mezhnik for a meeting, a green one meant sowing time, a yellow - harvest
time. The main thing was that again, as of old, lard flowed from within
the islands. We sold three times as much provision as was sold on the average
in the district. We used our peasants' brains, and the results were not
so bad. So our collective farm "Red Seaman" was getting strong.
There were some vacant islands around, people came and asked to settle
there. Fedia liked best of all peasants of an average income. He used to
say that such people through generations rose like cream in a jug of milk.
I remember two of them, they were quite young but could not get a job
as street cleaners in the town, so they asked for an island for a family.
Fedor offered them an island in a dale between two hills with a spring
that did not freeze even in winter. He stipulated, that we would build
a house for them, would give them land and some ten cows. They would have
to hand in six kilos of butter every day, otherwisethey were free to live
as they wanted, like at other islands. The family turned out to be hard
working, they managed very well and soon the island was named after them:
Shurukhaikin. Later on they had children and we had a midwife available
We even had our own teacher, Ivan Ivanovich Lunin. He was polite and
gentle. We were short tempered, but he was calm and delicate. Fedia insisted
that for proper development of islands we needed all sorts of folks.
So we lived on. One day an aircraft resembling a mower flew over us.
Fedia looked at it and said: "I don't like its looks, it doesn't look
like ours. What do you say Olia? It is time to haul lard, I shall float
along Khlavitsa to Podberezie. Three days later an official from military
enlistment office arrived for our men. "Wow on us, war with fascists,
but we shall win".
"Make the count!" - Lunin ordered. "First, second...
twenty sixth, the last", - reported the lads. All of them were tall,
strong and twenty years old. Then "Quick march!" order ensued
and they went over Rdeiskaia Chist to the gathering place of Chekunovo.
The rest of us ran to the prow of our ship to bid them farewell. I squeezed
a note in my hand and still remember its words.
"I am off to fight the Germans, take good care of our sons. Fedor".
At the time all our previous sins and quarrels among Russian people seemed
so insignificant before that awfull scourge, that I put them out of my
mind. I think other people did the same.
So the war began. Our land became a guerilla stronghold. The Germans
managed to get here only in 1942 when marshes were frozen. They burned
down all the houses on the islands. I had hard times with my children,
but when Fedia came from the war wounded, we decided to restore the collective
Then followed the story by Fedor Pavlovich, he had just came back from
the enlistment office.
...We roamed the edges of the marsh looking for our people. My boys
helped me, they poked their noses everywhere, tried to repair some equipment.
They found a small tank in the marsh, brought it here in three days using
logs and we used it for ploughing. People came to us, mostly women with
children, they worked from sunrise to sunset. I recollected the ways of
our ancestor, grandfather Mikhail Ivanovich Astafiev, how he had chosen
wives for his sons. Some men, wounded as myself, went to look for our hiding
place and found the stores intact. We swapped rye for seven heifers, went
to Poselianshchina and got some ten bucketsful of potatoes. Though they
were tiny, but were suitable for planting. Then we had good luck, we found
four cows on the islands, either fascists lost them while retreating, or
the cattle strayed in spring and came here to our islands. Some collective
farmers came back with their cattle, they managed to keep them through
the war by some miracle.
So we started our life. A group of boys went fishing at Russkoye Lake,
others went berrypicking and mushroom collecting. Once we managed to kill
an elk, weapons were abundant all around.
I had with me the collective farm stamp. I had carried it with me in
my knapsack during the entire war. We had more rights then for a happy
life, reasonably arranged. I shed my blood for it, and the men of those
women who toiled from sunrise to sunset had suffered enough. I thought
that our life would be marked by the stigma of war, that everything would
be counted afresh from the war for all our future life.
In autumn we gathered a good harvest, for the land had been fallow
for three years. We had toiled hard. We had thirty head of cattle, had
laid in a supply of fodder, have made a store of mushrooms, berries, pickled
and dried vegetables. So the winter passed well. Then I went once to the
authorities, and was told: "We do not know now where you belong to.
For better management, from parts of Leningrad and Velikie Luki provinces,
new provinces of Novgorod and Pskov were formed, and the boundary again
is across Mezhnik Island. And frankly speaking, we have no time to spare
for your thirty head of cattle. Be off with you." In March we gathered
a meeting. I said: "Dear folk, collective farmers, they do not care
about us, but we should remind them about us!"
Before the war I nursed a plan to haul butter not down the Khlavitsa
River, but down the Porusia river, that issues from Russkoye Lake, straight
to Staraya Russa. We had had four flat bottomed boats ready. Lucky for
us they were intact, so we repaired them a little and during flood at the
end of April took our products to the town. We floated for three days and
on the fifth of May cast anchors near the former house of author Dostoevsky
at the Pererytitsa. Across the river at the square near Resurrection Cathedral
there was a meager market place in spring: some oilcakes, flat cakes from
potatoes rinds. People approached us and asked what we had for sale. Women
were in drab clothes and worn out shoes, children were blue in the face,
it was hard to survive during occupation. We also had five orphans like
that at Mezhnik. When I saw those children looking at our food I said to
the store-keeper who was about to take in all our stock (and the lorry
was waiting for it):
"Hey, man, step aside for a while". I pulled out a bayonnet
and began cutting ham into pound pieces. "Take only one piece, so
it would be fair for everyone". Olga was cutting butter in a bathtub
at the time. We used floats of a hydroplane for it. Some people held their
hats out, some held out a hand resembling a young burdock. I kept repeating:
"Take only one piece each, folks". Then some official came running
along the bank. "Who gave you the right to hand out the provision
unaccounted for? Stop it!". I replied: "Go to hell! Don't meddle!
When we started the collective farm, nobody paid any attention to us. We
have got three more boats full of butter." And I pushed him aside.
The crowd began grumbling. It is awfull when a hungry crowd starts grumbling.
I cannot render it in words, one should have heard it oneself. People whispered
around: "Marsh people from Russkoye Lake brought in Russian butter."
That very day I went home with Olia and children and on the ninth of
May we started sowing. Then leaflets started falling from the sky: "Victory!
Hurray! We looked up and saw an aircraft flying away. A pilot from Staraya
Russa was ordered to disseminate them over the city, but he also took care
of us, he came here on his own. So we finished sowing and celebrated the
Victory Day together with all the Soviet people!
Well then... First nobody had wanted to deal with us, but then when
they saw the results, three provinces contended over us. Even Kalinin province
claimed us, but soon we became totally belonging to Pskov... I was demoted
from the chairman position for food squandering, and was told to be glad
that they did not file a law suit. Well, I could see myself, it was time
to quit, during the war I became nervous and jumpy, I felt being unable
to be diplomatic any more. Soon afterwards my wounds opened up, I developed
a stomack ulcer and spent a whole year in a hospital. During that time
two chairmen were demoted. One turned out to be a druncard, the other overdid
the quota two or three times having used the last resources. There were
some articles about him in newspapers, but next year our collective farm
did not have any seeds for sowing in spring. We had to walk for corn to
the railway station in Chikhachevo. So people began deserting the island
each in their own way. I left the island with Olga last in 1952.
So I sometimes ponder, if I were chairman, if I had enough strength,
could I steer the ship onward? To answer myself honestly, no I could not!
I might have dragged the collective farm up to the sixties, but it would
have failed nonetheless. The matter was not in the competence or effectivenes
of chairmen, but the circumstances of life were such.
I and Olga did not loose hope and wrote letters not only to our son
but also to other lads we kept in mind.
Last summer Vanka Vasiliev visited with us. His father was a hero,
and he himself is a charismatic chap. Instead of playing hooky during vacation
he caught snakes and took them to an Academy, where they paid him some
five hundred roubles for them. Then I read an article in a newspaper about
my nephew, Kolka, he was inventing something interesting. He wrote me a
letter: " Uncle Fedia, I live well in the city, but I do not like
it here and wait eagerly every summer when they send me to a collective
farm." I made note of that too. "Look here", Astafiev-Losev
takes an old newspaper from behind an icon on the wall. It was the "Country
Life" dated January 18, 1981. "Have a look, here is a decree
to the effect, that one may own cattle over the prescribed quotas, and
implements would be lent to peasants by the state. I understand it to be
tractors? If they allow to make fodder not only at the private lots but
also at the waste lands, that is at our islands, one could not do without
a tractor these days. We could not only rent it, but would have bought
it with all the implements and the cart. We would have taken it to the
island in winter. I have made calculations. Each family would get an island.
They would need no roads whatsoever. Butter would be hauled to the highway
by a helicopter. Everything has been calculated, we need only an order..."
I sit with granddad Fedor in the garden.
- Come in for supper, - aunt Olia calls.
- Wait a bit, Olia, let me finish, - Fedor Pavlovich waves his hand.
- Recently I took a plane to Bezhanitsy for a veteran meeting. A boy sat
next to me. - Mummy, mummy, have a look at the island! If only we could
live there! - His mother cast a glance: "It looks like a cottage cheese
pie!" I also look at Mezhnik, rowan trees, planted by granddads along
the ditch, are in full bloom and it looks like white foam at the bow. Our
island floats on. There are many others around it. Island-ships are floating
all over the Polisto marsh, waiting for their new captains.
The village of Bolshie Svoroty sits on a wedge at the confluence of
the rivers Kounia and Bolshoy Touder. It is probable that some Novgorodians,
vikings and varangians sailed along the Kounia heading for Kiev and the
Greeks, and some up the Touder went to the Volga, to Persia. Hence the
name Bolshoy Svorot (big turn).
The village has been there for a thousand years and is still there
breathing. The house, I shall inhabit, is the last one in the village,
it is situated at the very cape. During ice drifting you are like captain
of a ship. It seems that not ice is drifting towards you along the rivers,
but you are going with the house upstream. Ice is rustling, willow bushes
sway and disappear for a while under water. I have got the key to the house
in my pocket, the owner of the house now lives in the town of Kholm. In
spring of 1979 my fortnight vacation fell on February and March. I had
at my disposal my skis, the pine and birch forest, and the Kounia river
with its roaches and perches.
Nowadays there are three houses in the village. One is inhabited by
Valentina Sidorovna with her cow Olga, which gives milk as thick as sour
cream in a city. Two houses are hostile between them. Valentina's house
is neutral. It takes a lot of stamina, self-control and diplomacy to keep
neutrality for many years, not to sway to one or the other side. Valentina
is like a bar on the gates between Tania-Vania on the one side and Lionka
on the other.
Tania is seventy-five years old, Vania is seventy. They are of small
statue, both are rose cheeked and have gray weak-sighted eyes. As a result
of a long life together they look like twins. Vania is rather weak. When
I come to visit with them, he can hardly hold the glass of liquor in his
hand, though he never missed the mouth. "If only I miss it, I would
go straight to the casket!" - Vania laughs happily. His feet are still
strong. It is quite the opposite to Tania, her arms are strong, but the
feet are weak, so they go fetching water together. Tania turns the winch
with a chain at the well. Vania carries half a bucketfull of water on a
yoke. Helping each other they got used to the life. Last year they sold
their cow, but still keep a pig and plant potatoes.
There are several abandoned houses in the village, two of them are
for sale and the last but one house is occupied by Lionka, that is Elena
Petrovna Ivanova. She insists on being called that way for her son is a
lieutenant-colonel with the police. But still the villagers do not heed
and call her Lionka in spite. Lionka calls Tania-Vania back burbots. They
had such a nickname once in the family. Lionka, like a magpie, would beg
for anything she spots with you. Once she saw wax for my skis, she wanted
me to give her some, when I put on my tarpauline shoes, bring her some
tarpauline. And you had better not come to the village without a flask
of alcohol, because she needs it for rubbing in her feet. She collects
everything like Pliushkine and stores it in boxes in the wardrobe. She
has got all sorts of odd things: neck crosses, files, a medical syringe,
a wheel from a toy car. "Everything will come handy in the household",
- Elena Petrovna considers. I can understand her reasoning. In order to
survive during hard times, to raise three children she had to compose her
family economic blanket out of small pieces because husbands of nearly
all Russian women perished during the war. Nowadays there is no need for
that, but the tendency got there firm and solid. I always bring her some
discarded brouches, dog-collars, once I even gave her a bird-cage and Lionka
gladly accepted it. "I shall keep there my chicken", she said.
This time as soon as I came to Bolshie Svoroty I did not even have
time to arrange my things in the house: tea, sugar, biscuits and so on,
before Lionka came and begged: her cellar is full of water, could I help
her bail it out. Then she asked to clear snow about her log house. I am
not a very diligent man, I would do everything at home and the factory
as it came along, but here she watched me like an overseer. I seemed to
have cleaned the porch rather well but she gave me a rake after a spade
and ordered to clean the grass. I had to rake until it were well brushed
and clear of snow.
As soon as I finished the job I leaned on the rake and looked around
satisfied with what I had done, then Lionka suggested that I repair the
- No, - I replied firmly, - you have got a son, a lieutenant-colonel
in the police. Does he visit you?
- Each week, - proudly responded Lionka. - Tania-Vania's daughter comes
to her once a fortnight.
- Then let him make the repairs, - said I and went to start a fire
in my cabin.
I know her son. As soon as he appears here he starts bringing water
home from the faraway well. He fills all the kegs, barrels and buckets.
I made a hole in the ice near the house, but still his mother makes him
bring it from afar. She considers water from there more tasty, and water
in the hole is snowy and it is nowadays dangerous. Her son adores her and
meekly performs all her orders. It is a strange sight to watch a police
lieutenant-colonel with a yoke on his sholder loops.
Once Lionka asked me to find her a man, and I rashly promised. After
that I could not spend a single day at Svoroty without constant reminder
about it. That is why during this visit I take my skis and go to the far-out
village of Rakovo to a lonely old bee-keeper Petr Karpovich. Recently he
had proposed to Tonia Louzhanikha from Zamoshie, but to no avail. He consented
to have a look at Lionka after some consideration. As soon as he managed
to make new teeth in Staraya Russa, he would come to her.
I am not sure, maybe they would make a couple. Petr Karpovich is seventy-five,
Lionka is sixty-seven, but she is still rosy-cheeked, black-eyed and her
skin is smooth. Every time I come here I solder her earrings or install
new stones. She has got a big lot of them.
Lionka is a buisness woman by nature. She sold six haystacks to the
Gipsy Sioma, who lives in Babiakhtino, as if they were twelve. She devided
them in half and made them fluffy. Sioma came with his cart with the mind
to take it in two rides, but it was not enough for one. He said that if
Lionka took some business into her hands there was nothing to do for a
Gipsy. He waved his hand and left. When Vania-Tania learned the prices
that she asked for potatoes and cucumbers, she cried out:
- One ought to spit in her face for that.
When I was toiling at Lionka's house she told many stories about Vania-Tania.
Before the war he used to haul barrels of vodka in his cart. He would slide
a hoop on the cask, make a hole there, drain some liquor and place the
hoop back. After that he would sing the song "Those were merry days."
If he had drank stolen liquor, why should he sing such songs? She knows
everything about them, she learned all their ways. The year before he had
stolen her paint brushes, and Tania-Vania broke her window pane with a
stick before the elections. The week before the "burbots" did
not let her use their bathhouse even though they had plenty of spare hot
water and it was warm enough there they pored the water out into the snow
and let the heat out.
Do not be deceived by their weak looks, Tania would scratch with her
nails, Vania would kick out. Though the night before I had asked him if
I could use the bath and he had consented. But when I came with my clean
underwear he would not let me in, and Tania-Vania stood nearby.
Lionka rubbed her eyes and sobbed. I honestly felt sorry for Lionka.
- Let me start a fire in Kolka's bathhouse, - I volonteer (Kolka is
the landlord of my house). How much firewood would I need?
- Not much, five armfulls.
- Will you give me half that is dry, the other half I will bring from
- No, I have got too little, you better take some beams off in his
But I refuse to dismantle my host's barn.
- Where are you going to spend this evening? - Lionka changes the subject.
I am startled by the unexpected question, but answer firmly:
- With the Kouzmins.
- Dear me! - she clasps her hands. - Don't go there, I have told that
much about them! Besides he stole spikes from my harrow.
I had spent the previous night with Lionka, today it is the Kousmins'
turn and I do not yield to her pleas. I would like to stay out of it like
Valentina Sidorovna. In the evening, having shut the damper of the flue,
I go to Vania-Tania to watch TV. And now Vania-Tania would complain about
Lionka was the fifth in turn to handle the bathhouse, that meant only
three times during winter. Vania and Tania took care of it twice, Valia
being rather corpulent did that twice, Lionka is the fifth. But she is
not so laborious, and has skipped her turn twice. She tries to get a free
ride, is that fair? So they spilled out the water and let the heat out.
Serves her right.
I listen to the old people inattentively. A most interesting programme
is being shown on the TV. Some poets are speaking. But the old people got
exited, colour stood high on their cheeks:
- She has got no firewood? Do not you mind the woodpile, she has got
a barnfull of it, it would last for a hundred years, and she has got three
more woodpiles in the woods. She is just being greedy as usual, but one
cannot take everything to heaven!
Poets still recite their verses. I hardly listen to what Tania-Vania
are talking about. They speak about their pension. It was small, only twelve
roubles, so thank the government, they have added eight roubles, but still
it is too little. They were collective farmers when they went on the pension.
I am on tenter-hooks: I fear to offend the old people with my inattentiveness
and long to listen to the moving verses.
The old couple does not heed the poets. A year ago the collective farm
was transformed into a state farm so they asked to be taken there for some
time because the pension would then be thirty-eight roubles. But the director
did not take them, he would have to account for them, but they could hardly
render their worth. They are now like dead souls. But we are not dead,
we have been on pension for fifteen years, only cannot now keep a cow.
When they were asked, they did many jobs for the state farm. They went
hay mowing and Vania repaired carts, even at night using a lamp when the
job was urgent.
He, Vania-Tania, is a war and labour veteran, Tania-Vania is a labour
veteran, maybe there is some authority to write to for a pension increase.
They would not last long and would be soon gone.
- Taniusha, would you get the casket.
While Tania walks on her stiff legs to the cupboard, I listen to the
verses. The audience consists mostly of students, I watch their intently
- Poets tell so many lies,- Vania-Tania suddenly declares.
- Not telling lies, they just fancy so much, - Tania casts a side look
I give a sigh and fumble with the old fragile sheets of paper in the
casket. These are collective farm orders for some job or another. "Mir"
collective farm, January, repairs cost two working days. Hauling the grain
harvester combine from the field - 1.5 working days. Making ropes, sleighs
and yoke repairs, shoeing horses, then something to do with cart shafts
and so on. In February Vania threshed barley, again shod horses, sharpened
saws, cut firewood and hauled it to the road, then again hauled the combine
to some other place, made some crates, repaired hothouses, carts, hauled
some implements some place. It all cost five working days.
In April he cleaned shrubbery, burned dead grass, repaired bridges.
In May he went for fuel, for oats. In May again sowing grain, then resowing,
cutting twigs. In June he repaired roads, dug ditches, holes, took the
mare to the stallion - half a working day. In June he repaired scythes
and made haystacks. Then still more jobs. In August he rooted out tree
stumps, worked on hay, harvested wheat. In September again hauled the combine
back to the field. In October ploughing potatoes. In December he hauled
timber to the woodcutter, repaired window frames, cleaned cattle stalls
and so on and so forth. All in all he earned 450 working days during the
I put down into the casket the labour certificate of Kousmin Ivan Antonovich,
not only a mechanic, a cattle breeder, a cow milking man, but a jack of
all trades, an ordinary collective farmer.
Vania-Tania's hands are wide like spades, they are black and too large
in proportion to his lean small body. Tania has got two fingers missing
on the left hand an one on the right, so her hands look like claws. "Fie!
- Tania recollects laughing, - when I was heavy with Zhenka I went out
into the yard and put a hand on a log. Vania without looking back stuck
his sharp axe into the log. My God, I did not feel any pain when I saw
my ring finger falling onto the ground and the middle one hanging on a
string of paw. I bandaged it back to the hand, but the next day, when I
gave birth to Zhenka the medical attendant cut it off altogether. My mother
feared that we would not live long together for there was no place for
a wedding ring, but we still have managed somehow." All that was now
long ago. I did not ask Tania about the second hand.
They have various recollections about the war. When they wanted to
evacuate Lionka, she jumped out of the window and broke her leg. But still
she was taken away.
She recollects about her father. When the Germans bombed the village
all the family fell to the floor, but her father went out to have a look.
So his black coat was pierced through with bullets. A military clerk sat
at his desk, when the German had flown away and everything was silent,
his head fell on the table and the man was gone. Her father before the
evacuation had buried at night all their most valuable belongings and did
not have time to tell them where. So everything was lost: a samovar, blankets,
pillows, all that must be rotten by now. She had searched for them many
a time. The neighbours made a coffin for her father, but military men were
put to a common grave. "When you enter Svoroty there are two graves
under the pine-trees, have you seen them?"
Tania recollects about her brothers. When they were leaving the village
their mother gave each of them a small copper icon. Three of them, when
the mother turned around, threw them away, but Grisha, the youngest, who
was not yet a Comsomol member, picked them up and put them into his shirt
pocket. The first three brothers were killed in August and September, but
when Grisha went into fight the bullet stuck in the icon. He was awarded
a medal for the fight. During the next attack the bullet struck the medal,
so Grisha came back from the war alive. He died recently in the city of
Riga from blood hypertension.
Vania, when he gets a bit tipsy, takes me to look at some photos framed
on the wall. Here he is in front of a banner, that is a girlfriend from
the city of Orel. Vania gives me a wink and Tania's lips turn stiff. Here
he is in a hospital, but he was not lucky, for he was not wounded, but
they operated on his prewar hernia.
Only Valentina Sidorovna never spoke about the war. I like her best
of all for her staidness, modesty and discretion.
Once I mentioned Karpych to her as a marriage prospect.
- Fie! Why do I need him? I prefer independance, - she would reply.
From the Kouzmins I always go to her to have some milk. Her cow, Olga,
has the most delicious, the fattest milk I have ever tasted. It becomes
frosty, stars are bright in the sky. The nearly full moon sits among them.
I walk across the hard packed snow. It is solid and rough like recently
This year Valentina made a firm decision: as soon as Olga brings a
calf, she would sell her. The Kouzmins sold theirs, so she has to sheperd
her every day, but Olga is not accustomed to being kept on a chain. Some
five years ago she sold another cow and went to live with her daughter
in Riga. But she felt dreary there. Though they lived near the sea, it
was stuffy there. "It is the Soviet Union, but still it is not like
homeland". So she came back here. When she got off the train at Loknia
station she heard nightingales singing and asthma did not bother her any
longer. So she cried a bit and went back to her Bolshie Svoroty, recollects
Valentina Sidorovna, usually a tacit woman. Lionka also went for a year
to her lieutenant-colonel of the police, but her chickens did not get on
well with her daughter-in-law's bantams. She did not want to cut the throats
of her chickens, so she came back. The Kouzmins' son asked them to come
and live with him, he has got a large appartment. They can get out of Svority,
but would not. "Is it bad to be a landlord, to live independently?
- Vania asks and gives a definite answer, - No, not at all bad!"
Having taken some milk at Valentina's I go home. It smells somewhat
sour, somewhat of manure, I do not know how to render the smell, but it
is wonderful. There are many more stars in the sky, the moon stands higher
above the horizon, in a couple of days it would be a full moon. Somehow
local folks call it a crescent, despite its size. There are no dogs in
the village, bantams fell silent long ago, light went out in the windows
at Valentina's. As soon as I left, the Kouzmins turned off the TV set.
A green night is all around and the village of Bolshie Svoroty sleeps peacefully
My house is the last one along the street, it is gloomy, mysterious
and quiet. Its silhouette is dim and fades onto the background of precipice
studded with fir-trees. The moon hides behind a cloud, and when I open
the door it always seems that there is someone in the house sitting at
the table and watching me closely. I hastily strike matches and break them,
I light a candle, go arond the oven and then bolt the door. It is most
unpleasant after visiting Lionka, she would always tell me some horror
stories that had taken place in the house. " I know it for sure, nobody
endures more than a week in the house, you will quit it too", - says
she, pursing her lips. I would resist her stories, but she still managed
to dupe me into one that was not so awful, according to her notions.
Some five years ago Fedor, the owner of the house, a huge man, unexpectedly
died, after that a calf died, a month later - Fedor's wife Lucia. Two nuns
settled in the house, but they died too, after that the team leader let
a lonely woman to live in the house. Whenever she came there from work
she found the table moved to the middle of the room and two glasses and
a decanter were placed on it. The woman warned the police. A young policeman
with a gun hid under the bed. Then either he dozed a little or his senses
failed him because he said he saw, from under the bed, the table in the
middle of the room and a man and a woman sitting at it speaking some godly
matters. He did not recollet what they were talking about for he is not
well versed in scripture and the Bible.
When they finished talking and rose from the table, they said:
- Now let us pray to God, young man, get out from there, please, and
The policeman got out from there red in the face.
- Well...I do not know how to pray.
- That is all right, do as we do, follow us.
The policeman gazed at them and was stunned. They were praying, and
on both sides of them were icons of St. Nicolas the Miracleworker and of
Our Lady, and the people were a spit image of those saints.
They did not believe him at the police station and gathered a comsomol
meeting to expell him from the organisation. As soon as they started voting
a thunderbolt struck and the chairman of the meeting disappeared. After
such talks I always expected the table being moved to the middle of the
room. But it stood in its place, so I hastily climbed the chair and lit
an icon-lamp. Though I do not believe in God I felt better when the lamp
was lit in the house.
I woke as if someone nudged me exactly at midnight, as if some force
made me open the eyes. I knew that the lamp would start smoking, blinking
and go out. It must be the quality of oil that Lionka bought in a shop
in Kholm, but then why would the lamp go out at twelve o'clock? I had lit
it at nine and at ten, even later, but it would always go out at twelve.
Window frame shadows lay on the floor during the blue night. I kept
vigil listening to the house squeaking, thinking about future fishing,
tomorrow's hikes. But even thoughts about women would not help, for I knew
that some night show would start in the darkness and I waited for it holding
my breath. Something narrow, whitish and sprawling either swelling or shrinking
crawled from the corner of the house and faintly gleaming in the moonlight
began whirling around the stove that somehow was situated in the middle
of the room. I had tried grinding my teeth and clenching an axe in one
hand (though I knew that an axe is of no use against ghosts) and a candle
in the other to get up on my trembling feet. But every time this giant
worm or caterpillar disappeared. I tried to light the icon-lamp again,
but in a couple of minutes it would go out.
So after some time I decicded not to spoil my vacation and fell asleep
trying not to look from the stove to the floor. I dreamt naturally of some
horrors, some snakes, tigers and my job where I could not put into production
my skirollers. The stove was hot, every half an hour I had to turn around,
so I woke, turned and saw nightmares again.
Every morning there was a call at the door: "Hey, are you still
alive?" - Lionka would inquire. - "Alive", - I answered.
- Have you seen any visions? - she asked looking me straight in the
- No, nothing, - I somehow concealed my fears from her.
-Well, well, what have you got there in the cupboard, brandy?
- No, that is oil in a brandy bottle.
- You are kidding, let me see. Fie, that is oil all right!
Once my nerves gave way and I threw a boot at the worm. At the very
moment, as if someone fired a gun, there began banging at the door. "Who
is it?" - I asked with my voice hoarse with fear.
- Open up, bandits! - they shouted behind the door.
The hook made from a nail was wildly dangling at the door, the candle
flickered in my shaking hand. "They would force the door all the same",
- I thought and opened the door.
Two of my friends from Leningrad, Zhenia and Vitia, were on the threshold.
They brought some half smoked sausage, I had some cucumbers with me, so
we rekindled the stove, fried potatoes that I had picked at the sandy hills
round the village and we sat there talking. Next day we made a visit to
Kholm and talked some more. Two days later, without a hike on skis and
without any fishing they left. I swept the garbage from the house and went
on living there. I now slept on a sofa, having shifted it close to the
stove. The stove during these days stayed hot all through. Its design was
such that smoke floated for half an hour along its chimney before it escaped
outside. The white vision did not show up any more. My friends and I exposed
it, for in the middle of our heated debates on literature it started suddenly
profanely miaowing, asking for sausage. It turned out that Lionka's cat
took to sneaking in through the hole under the stove. The cat had lived
once in this house.
I stopped the hole and the visits ceased. The icon-lamp still kept
going out but I did not pay attention to it any more.
A chain of night March frosts settled in, the hard packed snow kept
on strong till night came. I visited some of the neighbouring villages.
In many cases only foundations of houses survived on meadows and clearings
were overgrown with alders. I marked old birch trees with inscriptions
with a ballpen: Medovo, Osipovka, Zakharyino. Two persons still inhabited
the village of Grivastoe. Zinaid Ivanovich Sokolov, whose daughter, having
a new child each year, would bring to him a carload of grandchildren for
a week to look after. And an old woman called Verochka. I asked Lionka
why the old woman wore such a diminutive name.
- Why an old woman? - Lionka was offended. - She is just as old as
me, she is 67.
I went to the Big Toropets highway that was badly in disrepair, gathered
a sackful of empty bottles and so replenished my budget depleated by my
guests. During winter truck drivers had thrown the bottles down into the
snow. Now they started to stick out from the melting snow and sparkled
in the sun. I took them back to the shop. After that I struck a bargain
with Lionka for an armful of firewood and heated the bathhouse. Before
that I had washed my linen in an ice hole at the river and it became white
and fresh after drying in the sun during windy weather. It smelled of spring.
I made friends with the cat Mourka and fished small fry for her. Later
on when brooks would spring from high hills, roaches, ides and breams would
come up the Kounia river. Nowadays I had to be satisfied with ruff. All
round the village there were forests and snow not marred by man and tractors.
My skis glided like skates on ice along the cuttings, woods edges and meadows,
among the trees in the forest.
After such a hike it was good to make some tea, brewing it in a China
tea-pot for about ten minutes on a hot stove.
Light blue evening descended on earth, filtered through the windows
into the house. After tea I would put on an old coat, stick my feet into
soft felt boots, which were mended by uncle Vania, and sit for a long time
in front of the stove, looking into the fire. I watched the wood disappear,
the charcoal piling up and visioned kingdoms erected and crumbling in the
flames. Then blue tongues of flames licked them and when only a patch of
coal was left I closed the chimney. Then I walked around the stove for
a while for sheer fun.
It was also good to sit near the warm wall of the house in the sun
and watch the vista of the Kounia which is as straight as Nevsky prospect
in this place, looking at drops falling from icicles and a patch of snow
gliding down from the roof.
Once in a while a person needs to live for a spell in a people and
God forsaken village such as Bolshie Svoroty.
The Polistovo marsh is huge. In its heart there is Russkoye Lake. From
it the river of Porussya issues. At the place where the river joins the
Polist River, at its mouth in the town of Staraya Russa, there is a wooden
house that belonged to Fedor Mikhailovitch Dostoyevsky on the embankment,
which is named after him.
I dream of getting to the lake as soon as I have some spare days. I
leave for the marsh, but each time give in to some difficulties. I tried
to get to it from every side - from the Rdeisky monastery, I followed the
narrow-gauge railway as far as Byki, I went in Pskov province from the
village of Gogolevo, but all in vain. Bogs and thickets safely guard the
way to Russkoye Lake.
That year in July I walked there for three days from Krasnyi Bor but
turned back. And each time I retreat with some joy: some day I shall see
that mysterious lake of fabulous beauty and richness.
According to rumours great pine-trees adorn its sandy banks. Fish,
not bothered from the very beginning of mankind, keep biting all the time.
I am somewhat scared by hearsay that only bass live there. They have conquered
the rest of the fish in the lake and now eat each other getting fat and
reaching the great weight of five pounds.
"One should take only one worm along and after having caught the
first fish go on only with gills. One should go there with an open heart
without any burden," - the old man Andrei from the village of Usadba
says to me.
So my knapsack weighs not more than five or six kilograms. A homemade
tent from cape fabric, "Smena" photo camera, tea, bread, sugar,
a carpenter's axe with a long handle. Of extra load I have only an empty
perfume flask with a glass stopper. It is said the water from Russian Lake
does not turn bad and heals any disease, so I would like to take some for
a test. Sure enough, approaching the lake in my jogging shoes my right
knee stops aching (an old salt deposit).
Once in October I began discerning crane cries from the lake, long
like echos, but I again got exhausted and stood deep in thought on a hillock.
Then from the north came clear and strong the smell of Antonovka apples
that was sweet and thrilling. Later on I learned that once four brothers
had lived there on Mezhnik Island and nowadays only orchards were left
Sometimes I annoy myself with my longing for the unknown, maybe everything
said about the lake is only a myth, a fable? My wife frets, as soon as
I get my leave I always go to that land. Once I even took her on the journey,
but we did not reach unanimity. Though she always gladly keeps my company
when travelling over Valday Hills.
Besides old man Andrey who visited the lake last in 1918 and by a miracle
got away from bandits who hid there I have met nobody who had reached the
place, so hard is the way there. An engineer from "Lesnoye" sovkhoz
advised me to use a tractor to get to the lake. A friend of mine, a pilot,
told me to rent a helicopter. There are many who can give advice in theory,
but when you ask them to keep you company, they refuse making all sorts
During that journey I reached only Lakes Domsha and Ostrovistoye because
I got bogged down in quagmires, had a hard time to get out of them and
turned back. So now I wade without haste keeping a steady pace. It is of
great importance during a journey not to storm the distance, one should
choose such a pace (mine is two kilometers an hour) so that one could think,
ponder, exist and not wade thoughtless like a bum, dragging one's feet
and having only a stopping place in mind. I assure myself that next year,
from a new starting point at the mainland, I will reach the lake. The main
thing is not to hurry through the marshes.
Sometimes I look back and see clouds overtaking me, then fine rain
showers over my cape. But I go on, my cape is safe. I took it along while
picking berries in bogs of Chukotka, walked along rice fields near Khasan
Lake in the Far East where swarms of ducks live, I used it wading the moss
of Karelia peninsula. We were taught from childhood to love marshes. An
old woman from the village of Semiritsy on the Msta River took us cranberry
picking. When I got older I went alone to catch pike at Siniavinskyi quarries,
later on admired discarded turf-pits at Zhikharevo near Leningrad. So all
my life was closely linked with marshes.
It feels fine to walk in a pine-tree forest, treading the dense conifers,
like asphalt, but after a day on such a carefree path, pressed from all
the sides by pines, the journey begins to bore you. One craves a free space,
one longs to see the vast skies, the distance open to all sides and among
them blue forests, woods, copses,"groves" as local people call
You wade at leisure from one island to another, moss heaves like waves
under your skis, you hold two sticks for skiing in your hands. You use
them like oars pushing away the hillocks, and the blue island that seemed
to be frozen at the horizon starts slowly turning, moving towards you and
becoming green, golden or black, depending on the season. The most difficult
task is to enter it. For nearly every one of them is surrounded by sounds,
troughs and swamps like an ancient fortress encircled by moats. But if
you manage to get there it would greet you with a merry rumble in the tree-tops,
you haste to take off the knapsack and walk at leisure around your new
possessions, surveying the land that has been donated by destiny to you
for an evening and a night.
The islands are quite varied: some of them are steep and high like
old hoods, others are round or oval. During late autumn they look like
schools of perch swimming in shallow waters. Some of them are so huge they
could serve as an airfield for planes, others are tiny like sleeping hedgehogs.
Yet others are long, like snakes, they are light and happy among the birch-trees,
standing around them in a circle. On Riadokha hazel grove is abundant,
on Domsha grow huge aspens, with fierce Caucasian bees. Badgers inhabit
burrows and sandy holes that had been dug out by those who sought hidden
In spring-time huge lilies of the valley shine there like sugar peas,
in summer-time chanterelles glow. So the islands are quite different. Some
dwellers inhabit them: seven people at Vysokoye, five at Kokachevo, three
nice old women live at Shapkovo. One of them is so old that she can hardly
sit on a bench. One may come across some people on other islands, that
are closer to the mainland, but as you come closer to Russkoye Lake everything
around becomes deserted. But once life was vibrant here. On Tougachevik
there had lived a former czar's soldier, Ilia, with his wife who had nine
children, on Tokmach - two Chud brothers, on Petina Babochka - a runaway
serf Ferapont. Soldier-peasants hid here from the Arakcheev regime. And,
as it were, on Mezhnik Island in the heart of Rdeiskaya Chist there lived
brigand Kiriusha, who robbed his subjects sparingly guarding the islands
from other thieves. If anyone bereft on the mainland wanted to take residence
at the marshes he would allot an island for a living. So people could make
a living on the islands. They visited each other, made friends and relatives
among them. All of the Mokhovshchina was a self sustained world. On Nesvinaev
Island the village of Smerdomitsy is still alive and kicking among the
settlements which are dying away. There are ten houses there and the local
folks keep fifty heifers which belong to the sovkhoz. I chanced upon Smerdomitsy
on Saturday and after a short talk with the chief man there, Ivan, was
invited to the local bathhouse.
It was good to take a bath after a long week's journey, to wash away
the sweat of the road! Then we sat in the yard at the round table, took
tea from saucers, ladled honey with spoons and talked at leisure.
Alekseev also has not visited Russkoye Lake, but had heard about it
from his father. The water there is so transparent that one can see huge
two-pound she-perch nibbling at moss deep down on the sandy bed. In the
neighbouring lake of Mezhnik connected with Russkoye by an ancient moat
live he-perch black as burnt logs. As Ivan put it, only in spring "do
they visit with their sweethearts" and having done their job they
soon go back to their quiet bachelor's life. Here fishermen place their
nets and by the evening they raise them full of glistening milt.
Hunting is also good here: woodcocks are creaking like new rubber boots
under the evening Venus, there are plenty of ducks and geese. On Mezhnik
Island the land has been ploughed all around by wild boars and now white
mushrooms of every age abound there. On vacant islands hunters, anglers,
berrypickers make their bases, build there tiny huts and shelters.
It is nice to be sitting in the evening on a bench near such huts,
feeling their rough warmth on my back, listening to the cuckoo cry being
washed out by a momentary spring shower, watching the tired sun descending
upon moss as if into a feather bed. Later on, when out of nowhere appears
fog, creaping low on the earth, one would imagine sparse pine-trees, standing
here and there on the marsh, to be sails of boats from Ilmen-Lake, moving
towards you. One may dream that the island is an ocean liner and one is
captain of her.
Many an invader tried to conquer the islands using force, but it was
to no avail. Batyi came and got bogged down. Poles drowned here even without
Ivan Sousanin and such places as Maloye and Bolshoe Kozhmino are now called
Guerrilla's Shelter. Till now there is a two-inch caliber cannon half sunk
in the moss, two helmets hang on the branches and a great number of used
gun shells appear from the earth each year. I would gather them into a
pile but next year they would emerge again all over the place like acorns.
The main topic of all the talks with local people here is about the
war with fascist Germany. It is deeply embedded in people's memory.
Maria Fedorovna from Vysokoye would tell you about its beginning. Her
husband Misha left for the war and when the fascists approached, her family
hurried towards Babochka-Los. She harnessed herself into the sledge, her
son Kolia, aged seven, pushed from behind, two suckling twins sat in the
sledge blinking their eyes, behind the sledge tied to it waded the blind
mother-in-law and the cow Dochka, their basic property, the mainstay of
their life. The snow had just covered the earth, it was December, they
were afraid that Rdeiskaya Chist would not let them into its womb. But
it did and sheltered them there all the war long, women shared all the
Evdokia Petrovna from Frunino recollets the middle of the war. Fascists
were lodging at her house. "Tell us the fortune by card reading, mother!"
they ordered. She dealt the cards, ten and ace of clubs showed towards
a blond one. She dealt them again, and once more misfortune befell him.
They were not accustomed to telling lies on the islands and she told him
the truth. An hour later a black-haired Hun burst into the house with a
cry "where is she?" and pointed his gun at her. It turned out
that they went out scouting and our sharpshooter killed the blond one.
Bullets tore through the icon of St.Nicolas on the wall behind her. At
the same time firing sounded outside the house. It was ours, Soviet. Hurray!
Guerrillas entered the village...
Evdokia Petrovna descends into the cellar for cucumbers.
I stare at the icon. True enough, the upper part has bullet traces
and the soot covered St.Nicolas looks at me with his wise colourless eyes.
We take tea, the cat clings to the guests and I listen to the quiet curt
stories that sound like the humming of the electric current meter on the
Sometimes I am afraid approaching the islands. It seems that someone
is watching you from the thicket with his sharp beastly eyes and if only
your attention diverts he would spring upon you with a cry "why did
you forget about us?" But it was great joy to meet a newly wed couple
working as shepherds at the place called Orelie, to listen to their quick
speech. They stood side by side, man and wife the Eltsovs. Here they were:
he was a curly haired strong man, she was a slim blue-eyed woman.
They were from the Loknia railway station, they made up their mind
not to wait for an apartment from the authorities and found a house for
sale. Now they were shepherding the sovkhoz calves and expected to gather
the necessary money during the summer. They were happy with their honeymoon.
Once he went into the direction of Russkoye Lake, on the Vysokyi island
he shot two wood-grouses at dawn and climbed a tall pine-tree. He saw something
flat and vast in the distance. Some half a year later I met a group of
youngsters on my way. I heard the song "Wind tears horizons",
bushes parted and five young men with a beautiful girl appeared on the
"Someone called Kostrov spoke on the radio telling that he could
never get to Russkoye Lake. So now we shall leave graffiti on the walls
of Rdeisky monastery and next year we shall find the lake. Come with us,
I thought we would walk at our leisure, talking, and I would teach
them and tell them the stories about the islands. But they lagged behind
on their own timetable and went ahead like elk though laden with knapsacks
over their heads. They wanted the islands only for the sake of climbing
the next tree and watching from there the cupolas of the former holy cloister.
At last during the third day of our journey we spotted the cupolas. Once
some dare-devils pulled down the crosses, tore off the gilded roofing.
So now we went toward the bare planks of the roof. The young men sped on
and I lagged behind for several kilometres. Then I walked about the monastery
and ancient faces stared at me from the murals.
At halts the young men cut off the sod before making fire, before leaving
put it back again, chose only dead wood for fire. On the 7th of November
they fished out of their huge knapsacks a bottle of fizz, a box of chocolate
and then sang the songs "It is not easy to keep warm in a tent",
"The old compass has been checked out" and many others, both
merry and sad. I joined them whenever I could.
This time I went on alone and have not yet got to the lake.
All around me hung thick light drizzle. Each hole, each footprint and
gully are filled with water before your eyes.
Though the earth is flat but water flows someplace, shares excess amounts
so that to spread it evenly all around. During thousands of years so much
peat has accumulated here on the green oilcloth of the surrounding landscape
like a huge but not quite flat pancake. It can be very vividly seen when
you approach the edge of Mokhovshchina. You suddenly realise that forests,
grain fields and villages are some where below and you are walking downward.
One may rightly call Polistovskie Mkhi an upper marsh.
Clouds carry abundant heavenly rain. The marsh looks like weak tea
in a tea-pot. Then it would ooze for a long time streams of clear water
giving birth to rivers flowing to all the four cardinal points. They are
the Shelon, Polist, Redia, Belka and many others. The water in them is
You can verify that when crossing the Shelon near Shimsk. Only the
Uda River stands apart in that list for it drains into the famous Sorot
River. I would like to point out the Khlavitsa River. I am lucky for I
chanced to see its birthplace. Once looking for Kornilovka Lake I got lost.
In such cases one should not make a fuss, rush about the hillocks yielding
under your feet. One should carefully follow the maze of bogs, standing
on a moss hillock, one should carefully think over the next move, like
a chess player. Then I noticed a trail, though it was wet it was firm and
steady and I happily walked along it towards the forest. The trail became
deeper, I had to wade along it ankle deep, and it led me into the forest.
I got lost in my thoughts and went as deep as my knees. The trail turned
out to be a lively brook with a moderate flow. Then I walked along its
banks consumed with curiosity at how it was getting stronger and deeper,
twisting among pine-trees, making noise and getting angry at weirs, then
spilling down in tiny waterfalls into ponds as big as a cart wheel. And
multi-coloured russulas were reflected in its clear and quiet water. Then
it became about one meter deep and I had to jump from one bank to another.
Small fry fish blinked and glistened in the water.
I go on with my retreat, my journey home. In spells between rain the
sun shines over the flatland and everything squints, blinks, evaporates,
grows. Cranes fly over me in shafts of light, they cry sadly and shrilly,
they disturb my soul. In front of me in the forest there is a beacon. I
am walking towards it for about four hours, but it is still far away, as
if moving away from me with the same speed. In the evening, still failing
to reach it, I come across a patch of black soil. There are only three
pine-trees there, two camomiles and one bluebell, there is no more space
for anything else there. It is strange to see field flowers here after
long wandering in the moss. I get up early in the morning. The edge of
the sun has just appeared over the forest, but it has already spilled its
light on a squirrel on the top of a pine-tree. The squirrel is redder than
pines, it is redder than the sun itself. It climbs down the trunk towards
me, its beady eye observes the disorder of my camp. I left two eggs in
the grass and at night heard someone picking at them, but I was averse
to get out of the tent, and now only the shells are left there.
It is sweet and easy to sleep among Polistovie marshes.
Once I lacked stamina to get to a dry island and made a camp on a hillock
which looked like a wild boar's back. The moon floated towards Russkoye
Lake swaying in the gullies of clouds, dim stars shone through the cobweb
of aircraft trails that did not melt in the sky. The tired dawn was about
and someplace beyond the horizon tense routine life was bubbling.
I forget all about it while being in the marshes.
One other time I chanced upon a dry ploughed island called Svinaev.
Once there was a village of pagan or old faith folks. Even people from
the mainland knew little about the marsh folks. Sometimes a dishevelled
man clad in homemade cloth pants and a shirt would appear from there, would
swap honey and cranberries for scythes and needles and disappear again.
It was said that they worshipped a stone that had fallen from the sky and
was the size of a log house. I soon had a chance to see it. On its moss
covered sides there were some black scratches, some writings, a gray lizard
the size of an elbow lazily slipped away.
Not far from the stone there was a waggon with its sledge runners half
sunk in the soil, once they had grazed cattle there. I got down on a bunk
cot and went to sleep, after the swallows whose nests were all over the
coach ceased chirping. I woke from some creak. A landrail was squeaking
right near my ear across the wall. It was like a rasp file working on rusty
metal. I hammered on the wall, the landrail stopped for a while but then
resumed his noise. I went to sleep to its chirp, in my dreams I chased
the bird all night long, and despite the toil I woke alive and kicking
and now look forward to spending one more night on Svinaev Island.
Another night was spent on the bank of Krouglenkoye Lake. The tent
sinks in the moss and the lake water seems to be spread all over you like
a huge stretched dew drop. There is no wind and the match flame burns steadily.
The lake fringed with July amber cloudberries looks like a mirror in a
precious frame. Pikes at Polisto marshes never fight near the surface,
the struggle goes on somewhere in the dark depth and the surface is always
calm amd smooth.
At Polisto land lakes are situated in clusters: two, three or even
more. The Rdeiskiy group consists, for instance, of nine lakes, Goritskoye
- of four. Then follow Domsha, Ostrovistoye, Kornilovka and all of them
keep their eternal union with small ducts.
The way towards the main goal consists also of a journey from one lake
to another with angling and fishing here and there and later on with a
fish soup at the campfire. The curious thing is that the closer you get
to the cherished lake, the bigger, fatter and more delicious becomes the
perch. What would it be like in the lake?
The journey also consists of looking for some suitable camping place:
in which forest, under which pine-tree one should better halt?
Near the lakes, not far from the marsh edge, from villages one can
always find a patch of land that was chosen and used for many years for
that purpose by local people. Sometimes it is a wattle mat, nearby there
is a similar patch for a campfire. At Kokarevo someone had brought a wagonload
of hay and it stayed there and became a hillock overgrown with timothy-grass
and other herbs. At Dolgoie Lake, Vania Grounevich, from the village of
Yazvy, has spread on the moss a half-rotten boat, at Rogovskoye Lake men
from Gogolevo made a trestle out of pine boards.
Strange as it may seem, one feels the lake nearby by the earth elevation.
There appears a thin line of lonely pine-trees over the horizon, a band
of dim water flashes. When I came to Pavel Sergeevich I was guided by a
spurt of smoke. The fish soup was already cold. While he reheated the fish
jelly he told me several stories, among them why one should not sleep under
- Once we sat here, at this very place, - recollects Pavel Sergeevich,
- and here appeared a cloud.
- It will cover us in a minute, - said the tractor driver Kolka Stepanov,
- let us run under the pine-tree! - They ran there with his dog Morka,
but I stayed behind and covered myself with a plastic sheet. The rain pattered
at me like geese feet, though the cloud was not at all big, and then a
thunderbolt struck. Suddenly the dog whined: "Oh, oh, oh". I
opened the sheet, the sun was shining, but Kolka lay still without a stir.
I began giving him artificial respiration.
After half an hour I felt under his armpit and it was cold, so Kolka
was dead. Last year I cut the pine-tree down, for thunderbolts struck it
I like Pavel Sergeevich also because he takes children along with him
whenever he goes berrypicking as my grandmother used to do. This time he
had with him Kolka Golubev from Friunino and the city boy Robert from the
railway station Dno. His eyes the colour of blackberries were scared when
he stared at the murky lake, perch, wilted fir-trees.
On the verge of the marsh there are still some little villages, mostly
old men inhabit them. At the Lovat and Kounia rivers live mostly old women,
but here old men. They feel most lonely here, it is hard for them to lead
such a life. If I roam at my leisure in the vicinity rumour flies ahead
of me. When I enter a village boys cry: "Here comes the matchmaker!"
The old men ask me to a dinner and plead: "Find me a match, please!"
I produce addresses and pictures of the prospects.
At Sosnitsy it is the old man Kudriavtsev. He is one hundred and five
years old, he sits on a porch and strokes his rich beard: "I have
been getting my pension for forty years and keep it at the savings bank.
Now it is thirty-nine roubles, so if you multiply it by the number of the
months, my lad... So everyone would marry me. My sons, grandsons and great
grandsons are also on the pension.The family is strong. I wrote a letter
to a scientific institution about how one can live long: one should keep
a diet: two pints of milk a day and two raw eggs. That is the way."
You may write a letter to Andrey Mikhailovich Shorokh at the village
of Ousadba. He still pastures horses, he has got a boat, nets... He can
mend shoes, can also make barrels, he is a jack of all trades. He is not
at all old, just over eighty.
At Gogolevo uncle Vania Kounitsa, 78, is a famous hunter. He always
gladly welcomes you, serves you tea. After that he places on the table
a box full of diplomas for good work and gratitudes for killing off wolves
and good results in getting firs. But while I wrote these lines there came
news that he had got married.
Most of all I liked grand-dad Ignat. "Hey, kid, come in for a
chat!" he called me when I was passing the village of Voronovo. I
sat for half an hour at his kitchen, but he was out. I peeped into the
parlour and saw him sewing on his freshly ironed shirt a medal "For
Victory over Germany". The clasp on it had been broken. He is a very
slow man, but everything in his house is done well and safe. He showed
me his stores and supplies, his dowry. Five dozen lamp-chimneys, nowadays
he does not need them, but who can tell... In the cellar he has a lot of
pickled vegetables and various jams. He has become a good housewife and
has smoked ham, kegs of salted mushrooms... Then I took a picture of him.
Other old men also have their household well kept, they keep cows,
bees, tend kitchen-gardens. Their children live separately.
Many a story and rumour is told about the land round Russkoye Lake.
A tale about a mysterious Vasily in bast sandals who saws rye on one of
the billows and wanders about the woods all by himself. When you wake up,
he may be there saying a prayer "Holy Father..." or "Love
Thy Neighbour...". A tale about a narrow gauge railway towards the
lake made by the Germans during the war with broken bridges over black
rivers. A story about a settlement of dugouts somewhere near Kozhmino,
the land stayed unconquered during occupation. About a huge aircraft from
the war-time lying to the north of Karlashinskaya Sita. Whose was it? About
mysterious boat-spectres made from aluminium floating about the lake swept
by the wind, but nobody has caught one yet. About a tank near Zamoshie
that is sinking deep into the bog. Nowadays only the turret is visible
from under the moss. Because of these stories the so far unattained lake
is still dearer and nicer to me, but I belive in getting to it. Meantime
I just roam about the marsh. I am thrilled with the thought that in our
times of urbanity and crowds I wade here alone, nobody has sat on this
stone before me, no one lay on that hillock, never picked the amber-yellow
cloudberries. These thoughts make the vicinity irresistibly attractive.
However one may come across something foreign here: a red balloon brought
here by the wind from a Mayday demonstration in Pskov or Novgorod, for
the marsh is at the boundary of the two provinces.
All seasons are nice in the marsh. In May it is strewn all over with
large bluish cranberries like overripe cherries, surviving the winter,
glades of blooming cloudberries like a field sifted with snow, and larks
are shouting their heads off. Huge pike are so greedy that if you use a
twig instead of a bait they would devour it. The marshes are sweet also
in June. An alluring breeze sweeps over the flatland chasing away mosquitoes,
cowberries replace cloudberries and again everything around is white with
bloom, perch come instead of pike. July is good there with its bilberries
and August when stars the size of an apple shower around you. I visited
this land also in December. Then you take off your knapsack and drag it
behind you like a sledge over the black glistening ice. I camped there
in March, the night is then green towards dawn, but best of all I like
autumn there in September. The green moss is again covered with cranberries,
the islands are all in red and yellow flames of maple and aspen-trees,
and at daybreak elk are moaning and roaring and digging their hoofs into
the soil. This primeval land is all around you, you can check your abilities
and strengths here. Not everyone can strive for the North Pole, fly in
a rocket round the globe,climb Mt. Everest. In the heart of the marshes
there is Russkoye Lake.
I hope I shall reach it. See you again Russian Lake!
FOR THOSE IN LOVE
THE COTTAGE IS A CASTLE
They have been in love from their school days, and if the recently
adopted law about 16 year old were in force at the time, they would have
been married even before he was drafted to the Army. The more so, they
were both born in the country and as distinct from city dwellers were able
to produce not only children, but could milk a cow for them too.
They lived in Tsarapkino not far from Rose Mull, but all of a sudden
a "Yankee" appeared there, acquired a land parcel, cleared it
from dilapidated log cabins and disregarding the local mentality started
erecting at the place his dream palace soaring upward towards the Sun and
Yourka Nikolaev was from the vicinity. He had worked as a civil engineer,
then fate took him for a while to California. However having retired on
American pension he got homesick, dreamt of birch trees and Russian stove
and decided to live for the rest of his life at his first homeland.Well,
naturally Petkas and Vaskas with whom he had once gone together to school
got angry. How come, where is justice? Yourok had not even been a Young
Communist League member, he did not get better marks than Cs at school!?
So once during a feeble rainstorm with a single puny thunderbolt his
anticommunist and capitalist dacha burnt down to the ashes. And the fact
is, that together with this compound that had bothered the village dwellers
so much were ruined two adjacent houses belonging to Olga and Victor. And
nearly half a village suffered the same fate for as I told you the rain
storm was feeble and weak.
So when Victor Kozhevnikov came back from the army Olia told him: "We
should build a new log cabin. I am sick and tired of jealousy, they even
envy you and me and spread about us various lies, though I have been waiting
for your return honestly and you will be soon able to verify that. We should
build our house at some faraway place maybe in the woods. So that even
a path to our dwelling could not be noticed easily."
Spring at the time of this talk was in full swing around their village
and further on beyond the horizon with white teeth bird cherries that looked
like brides in full bloom. But Victor despite of that agreed to start their
new life not very far from the village and quickly made a hunter hut (for
those in love a cottage is a castle to the tune of nightingales songs).
Their feet stuck out of it, and they moved to another abode made of fir
tree branches and for some time the newly wed couple lived in a witch house
from a fairy tale. So they called a log cabin made by someone sometime
ago in a thicket far away from people's curiosity.I once had a chance to
stay there overnight and read some newspapers leftovers on the walls: "...standard
of living is declining in the Netherlands...", "the mankind genius
is leading us forward..", "the number of doctors in the Kremlin
is growing...". Some uneasy feeling crept over me when I lay there
thinking :" What if luck fails us again?"Victor dragged with
a tractor there a caravan booth to while away the time in when they are
constructing their new house. But when they left for the village for their
few belongings and came back they found the plywood from the cabin gone
and as a warning was burned down by someone. One could see in that destruction
the hand of their neighbors from the village, they had been told not to
stick out their heads and live as everybody did, to lead the life similar
to everybody, not to stray away from the community ( from the collective
as the saying goes), live as their grandfathers did, like in a Gulag camp
(prison).But the young couple did not yield easily. They brought from Tsarapkino
leftovers of the sheet metal from the roof and tried to make their new
abode fireproof. But their fiends still bothered them, fired several times
from the bushes at the hut and nearly punctured my boat when I came to
visit them and several times poured gas over potatoes at the virgin kitchen
garden that was arranged nearby. And the newly selected brand of potatoes
could not survive such treatment. So the young farmers responded with a
dugout with double roofing and could be got only with a bunch of grenades
or by direct bombardment.
So I gave them a piece of advice, abandon this place and establish
a new one five kilometers from Tsarapkino. When leaving my dugout near
Novgorod I blocked the entrance with earth and masked the whole affair
as a grave. But the couple chose another way. They packed their belongings
and marched over sandy hills and ivy thickets towards White Water sometimes
even using marsh skies. Sleeping overnight either in barrels or some sheds
they even spent one night at an abandoned riverboat shivering from cold.
Near one village they even opened a cobbler's shop in order to earn some
money for the rest of their itinerary.
And though Victor did an excellent job for he had been a cobbler in
the army their shop was again destroyed. The villagers lost the service
for there was no substitute to the job. However the ethnic purity triumphed
- no stranger could hammer away at their place with impunity!On the way
they met some people resembling their dream. There was an old man who subsided
on fish only and was the more wise for it. Then they came across a single
house with a TV aerial that had been built by a lonely woman in mittens.
Then during their progress forward there came time when they could not
hear whining of saws and timber logging trucks and they were surrounded
by such mediaeval silence that they got nearly deaf. Amidst this serenity
there was an exclusive virtual forest lake named after poet Zabolotskiy.
One steep bank of it was grown over with pine trees and thickets through
which stuck their horny heads some forest creatures and my settlers. The
other bank was red with cranberry so that my young friends did not get
sick with scurvy. What mattered most - there were no empty beer cans. "So
there will be!" - said my voyagers snapping the ring of the last one
off.Having heard such words some beasts got away from under their tired
feet like grasshoppers from tarnished weeds. They did not know that police
had taken away a shotgun from Kozhevnikov while the family roamed in quest
of a promised land.When the first snowflakes started whirling around (you
remember "white snows are falling as if gliding on a thread")
Victor and Olga were not discouraged. White Waters, probably since the
ice age, spread around them in a stable state. Thanks to the Commies for
that. Who can survive when Chernobyl, ozone holes and hothouse effects
spread all over the Planet? Only such people as them and old faith confession
adherents that take refuge here.The spouses spent some three hours and
erected a sort of wigwam resembling the one that I described in "Novyi
Mir" magazine #9-93, though somewhat larger for "they comprised
but a small family". They used for that not tree bark as did the Manse
and other mysterious people in the far North but plastic film pellicle
which they had gathered aplenty at abandoned chemical warehouses while
roaming about Russia. Now we should be grateful for that to the Perestroika.They
subsided mostly on fish. Victor made a raft and later they placed traps
and fishing tackles through the ice.
Nature was benevolent to them, maybe it was due to the hothouse effect,
but before the New Year's eve the snow was gone and hundreds, even thousands
of chanterelles resembling the red headed Choubais came to the light. Unfortunately
among them there were none of the mushrooms resembling some other notorious
politicians. They all took a secret hiding awaiting for change in the weather.What
else do pioneers need? The more so that some rabbits got caught in the
traps from time to time. When severe frosts came in February the husband
made a dugout in a couple of days.One should never whine but rely on his/her
own resources and take those pioneers as an example.Then not far away from
there Victor erected another hut on piles. Olga took that arrangement somewhat
skeptically. And Victor emulated that by constructing a log cabin by spring
time in a fortnight. He also made a stone oven in it. Makeshift. For he
promised to his princess in summer to make some adobe bricks and burn them
in a homemade kiln.Why do I describe their life so vividly? Because I get
news about them from a hunter who first moved from Rose Mull village to
Rdeiskie marshes and then closer to them. In 1998 I also count on moving
there from the hateful city. A son Nikita was born to them, and they will
vacate the dwelling for the winter for they did not manage to persuade
a midwife and a wise old woman to move there and plan to spend the cold
weather time in the nearby village. It will take them some seven hours
of walk through wilderness in special footwear with boars hooves. For they
warned me, that nobody including writers should venture coming there otherwise
for at least two miles in order not to attract to the lost paradise some
envious persons from mass media or otherwise.Let it be a blasphemy, but
if I were the Planet's Chief Editor I would have changed some of the God's
commandments transient from Homo Sapience to Homo Vulgaris like "I
am the Lord thy God..." and "Thou shalt not make unto thee any
graven image...". I would introduce one like "Thou shalt NOT
ENVY..." , for as I gather various plagues and scourges have appeared
at our sinful Land because of its absence.