I was the “Poor Relation”
Our simple mining family lived humbly, but quite well by Leninsk standards. Most of the cabins housed eight families each, but ours only had two families. We also had a vegetable garden where we grew cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, herbs, and the sweetest strawberries I have ever eaten.
We lived under normal conditions, but there were no amenities: no running water, no drainage system, and a wooden outhouse that stood 20 meters from the house. There was an entranceway near the door, with a hall and a pantry. Beyond this was a wardrobe. In the corner stood a washstand. We would pour water into it by hand. Below there was a dirty bucket to catch the drain-water. When the bucket was full we would dump it down the outhouse. The outhouse was a wooden structure with two receptacle holes. One for our family and the other for the neighbors. Everything died in the deep pit below, whether my secret notes, or the crap which, as far as I can recall, was never pumped out. I still can’t figure out where it all went. At night, especially in the winter when it was 30 degrees below zero—or colder—we would use the bucket from the washstand and cover it with a rug. Then in the morning it was my job to dump it in the outhouse before school.
Once a week my mother would heat some water on the stove so that I could wash my upper body. I did, however, bathe in a zinc tub until I was around twelve and could not fit in it any more. I would have a thorough washing at our neighbors’ sauna only about once per month.
The water pump was 100 meters from the house. We would fetch the water from there with two buckets attached to a yoke. It is possible that some of my younger readers do not know what a yoke is. It is a crossbeam that one would balance on one’s shoulders, with one bucket hanging from each end so as to distribute the weight evenly. At first it was my brother Yura who fetched the water; but then I did it too, once I got older. In my laziness, I would often complain that I wasn’t in the mood, but they forced me to do it. This was our drinking water—once it had been boiled.
The cabin consisted of a parlor and a kitchen, 20 and 12 meters long respectively. My brother and I slept in the kitchen by the stove on a wire-mesh bed with an iron frame, while our parents slept in the parlor. There was a table in the kitchen, as well as an old Soviet Biryusa refrigerator, which would rattle and hum loudly at night.
During the coldest winter nights, when temperatures would fall to minus 30 - 40 degrees, my brother and I would take turns getting up and stoking the fire with more coal. In the evening we would bring in enough from the coal shed to last for the whole night. We had to get up every hour so that the fire would not go out. We would sleep with our feet to the stove. It was warmer that way and quicker to throw in more coal. Like the other miners, my father was entitled to two truckloads of free heating coal per year. Once, when I took my children to visit Leninsk (it was summertime) my son Pasha saw a coal shed and was surprised. He could not figure out what it was for.
In the parlor there was a black-and-white glossy TV set, a table (in the center of the room), and a chest of drawers. The latter was also glossy and made at the local Leninsk-Kuznetsky furniture factory, where I made some of my first money after the sixth grade. To the right there was a couch and to the left was my parents’ double bed. When my father would beat me with his belt, I’d crawl under that bed. There were no doors between the rooms, so we could hear everything our parents did.
As I mentioned earlier, our TV received a single channel: Channel 1. To get Channel 2 you had to set up a massive antenna. Our neighbors had one, but my dad was never much of a handyman. He would spend the day in the mine and come home to relax; he wouldn’t touch a screwdriver. My hands, as they say, grew out of my backside; I could not put in a screw and there was no other way to put up an antenna. Ultimately, then, we had to watch whatever they were showing on Channel 1. I remember a lot of the shows well. I especially liked White Beem Black Ear, a movie about a dog. Watching it made me cry into my pillow. Probably all of us Soviet kids cried. Tikhonov was an excellent actor. After watching this movie I fell madly in love with dogs.
Next to our house there was a huge poplar tree, which had been planted by Grandpa Timofey. All of us Tinkovs loved that tree. Unfortunately it was chopped down when the cabin was demolished in 1986. Between the garden and the house there was a bit of bare ground where my brother and I erected a chin-up bar, which we used for working out. This was a great help to me once I joined the army: being able to do pull-ups and pull-overs was essential to your reputation.
In summer, Leninsk-Kuznetsky was a great place to be, but the winters and springs were hell on earth. Few districts had central heating; coal was used instead. A gray carpet of smoke was spread over the city, visibility was low, and the snow was layered with gray. Akin to tree rings, the streaks of soot in the snow banks left a record of snowfall. Once, before New Year’s (I was in tenth grade at the time), a friend, Edik Sozinov, and I decided to have a steam bath. We ran out of the sauna and jumped into a snow bank. But the snow was only white on top. Underneath it was layered with black. We went back into the sauna all dirty. Quite the washing!
In the spring everything would start to melt. There were dirty black puddles all around. You could not wear your dress shoes out. If you put on a white shirt in the morning, by evening the collar was so dark that you would have to put it straight into the laundry.
We had to whitewash the house twice a year. What the hell! First, we would move everything into the parlor and whitewash the kitchen; then we would move everything into the kitchen and do the parlor. Finally, we would have to wash the lime and chalk off the floors. What a nightmare!
* * *
Even as a child, I began to understand that money was a good thing. My mom did not give me much pocket money and there were plenty of temptations around.
“Mom, you must love Yura more than me because you only ever send him to get the milk!”
“Okay, Oleg, I’ll let you go next time.”
My brother and I would argue over who would get to go buy the milk. You could fill a three-liter canister for 86 kopeks. Whoever went could use the change to buy something small—like a chocolate—or, as I would do, save it to buy something bigger and better later.
I earned my first 50 rubles after the sixth grade. The mother of my friend Slava Kosolapov was the director of the furniture factory. Some of the machines there were used for gluing pieces together. The glue smelled terrible. Slava and I were hired as helpers—gophers—at the factory. We also ended up working at the local pasta factory, which for some reason also produced mineral water. The crates, which were meant to hold twelve bottles, were always coming apart and it was our job to nail them back together. The pay for that job was also 50 rubles.
I could have bought pet fish or pigeons with the money; instead, I spent most of the money on food straightaway. Every morning I would go to the bazaar and buy walnuts, peanuts, deep-fried meat pasties, and fruit from the Uzbeks (they were knows as “Pita-Breads” to us Siberians). Pomegranates cost one ruble each, and raised-dough meat pasties 16 kopeks. Mother never bought any of these delicacies, which were sold only at the market and not in the store. I loved and still love to treat myself to good food.
In terms of food, the shops in Leninsk looked very sad—with rare exceptions. Younger readers can have no idea what these shortages were like. Goods could be bought if you knew someone in the store. “Make me some red fish” or “take out your boots” were expressions that meant “help me buy something”. Slang expressions like these were born out of the Soviet system of distribution.
There was a shortage of sausage throughout the USSR, but not in the Kuznetsk Basin! Miners would take a thermos, some bread, sausage, and garlic underground for lunch. The Soviet leaders understood this and kept coal-producing regions well stocked with sausage. It didn’t taste too good, but at least you could find it in the stores. The Kuznetsk Basin is an explosive region. It’s no coincidence that miners played an important role in Yeltsin’s victory. Later, however, they opposed him, thumping their hardhats on Gorbaty Bridge in Moscow. And under Putin they came out to protest against low (and late) pay more than once.
Indeed, people would come to Leninsk all the way from Novosibirsk, over 200 kilometers away, to buy sausage and butter. We, on the other hand, would make the trip to Novosibirsk for junk food like corn curls, candy, cream soda, and Pepsi-Cola, which was our favorite. In 1971 the Americans convinced our communists to start importing it and in 1974 the first Pepsi bottling plant opened in Novorosiysk. Plants were opened in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Tashkent, Alma-Ata, Tallinn and Sukhumi. Later, the Novosibirsk Beer and Wine Brewery started making Pepsi too. The bottles were labeled “Pepsi-Cola Strongly Sparkling Beverage. Manufactured in the USSR using Concentrate and Technology from the Company PepsiCo”. It cost 45 kopeks for a 330-ml bottle. Soviet pop cost 30 kopeks for 500 ml, but everyone wanted to drink cola. Some smartass decided that the miners in Leninsk-Kuznetsky had no need for it, and none was delivered to the stores from Novosibirsk. Some profiteers tried to sell it for one ruble per bottle, but the SPTCD (Social Property Theft Control Department) clamped down on that. People were of the opinion that selling imported clothing was okay, but profiteering in food and beverages from the stores was somehow unseemly.
Even today I prefer Pepsi to Coke. Pepsi symbolized freedom and sparked an interest in life in the West: if American soda pop was so delicious, then maybe the country was not so bad after all…
A good business to be involved in during Soviet times was bottle collection. Between 1983 and 1985 I was actively engaged in this line of work. When the miners got their bonuses, all the money would go into a pool, either by default (or by code). The money was used to buy cases of vodka, bread, and sausage. The whole gang would sit in the park and drink until they could not stand up. They would vomit and a third of them would stay until morning, passed out on the benches. I would pick up the bottles after them and take them to the bottle depot, where they were worth 12 kopeks each. As with a lot of other places at the time, there was always a line-up at the depot and we had to wait for empty cases.
In the summer, I would stay home while my parents were at work. Workout started at 5:00 in the evening and I would need to eat. The only food in the fridge was butter and rendered pork fat. I would tie fishing gear to my bike and ride to the river to catch minnows. At home I would clean the fish, fry them up, and, by way of dinner, would eat them with cucumbers and tomatoes from the garden. I cannot say I went hungry, but we never ate pickles and I often had to find my own food.
My father instilled in me a love of fishing. We often spent the whole day at the river. He would wake me up at 5:00 in the morning—and those were the only days on which I was happy to get up so early (nowadays, the only time I can get up at 5:00 am is if I have a flight to the Maldives at 7:00). Father and I would take the 6:00 am No. 10 bus to Dachnoye village and, from there, would walk another 5 km. The amount of carp we would catch was commercial in scale—sometimes we would leave with 8 or 10 kilos. Dad taught me how to put the worm on the hook, how to cast the line and to sit quietly, focusing so as not to scare away the fish. I was not a bad fisherman. Nevertheless, I later I abandoned the pastime. I hope to get into it again when I retire.
* * *
We always had some sort of animal around the house. We went through almost every pet you can imagine: we had a hedgehog, white rats, pigeons, dogs, and cats. One cat, a Siamese, followed us home from a fishing trip and stayed. Another cat, a grey Tartar, went missing while we were on vacation in the south.
Over the years we had three different dogs. I would take one of them—a white one—with me when I would go to get mom from work after dark. Two of them went missing and never came back. I would not be surprised if they had been stolen and eaten by drunks. This was a common occurrence in Leninsk. We did not tell the police, because we were afraid that our house might be burnt down. The third dog—a sheep dog—was stolen. We got her back, however.
Above all, my father and I loved pigeons. In Siberia these birds were traditionally kept by ex-convicts—“trusties” as they were called. (On a side-note: in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the word “trusties” has a different meaning. It refers to drunken rich kids with connections.) Good pigeons were highly valued. The higher one of these birds could fly, the more expensive it was. The most expensive ones were those that could fly so high that all one could see of them was a dot in the sky. A pigeon’s value was also based on whether it could do flips. Front-flipping birds were higher-priced than ones that could do back flips only.
In Soviet times pigeons cost anywhere from 3 to 30 rubles. Ex-cons earned an income breeding them, and there were twenty to thirty pigeoneers around the city. My father wasn’t a “trustie,” but he still loved pigeons and, by taking them as pets, we entered a fairly closed circle.
The trusties would sell the pigeons and, as a rule, if a bird flew back to its seller, it was not returned—the idea being that this was your own fault for letting it escape. There were cases where pigeons were sold in Kemerovo, only to fly the 80 km back to Leninsk. You would have to get the pigeon to stay put by clipping its wings and then letting the bird get accustomed to its new home before the feathers grew back. A few times our pigeons flew back to the trusties; I went to ask for them back, but they would not return them.
“Look, you screwed up,” they said. This was my first experience with ex-cons, their methods and their principles. Later I started raising my own pigeons. I tried to sell them at the bazaar, but the local mafia would not let me do it. They bought the birds from me for 3 rubles apiece and said, “Get out of here, kid.”
People would fly their pigeons in the evening before dinner. The keeper whose flock flew the highest was the coolest. That is how we entertained ourselves. Once, some friends of my father’s brought us pigeons from Poltava in the Ukraine, birds that were thought to be of very high pedigree. Our Poltavian pigeons flew so high that all you could see of them were points, up in the sky. Some people did not like this.
The pigeons lived in the attic, getting in from outside through our storage area. One night our mother heard a scuffle and started screaming, thinking that we were being robbed. It turned out that some burglars had broken in, prying open our door to look for our Poltavian pigeons. My father grabbed the ax and opened the door. One of the criminals had taken a pick out of the coal shed (we used it in the winter to break up ice and coal) and threw it at my dad. It missed his face—but not by much—and got stuck in the floor.
There was a fight, but we did not call the police. The next day, while I was at school and my father at work, my mom, who has always been feisty and on the ball, put the pigeons in a basket and sold them. We could not figure out to whom she had sold them and none of them ever came back. Thus our pigeon-keeping days came to an end. Sometimes I still dream of setting up a pigeon-house in my father’s memory, when I have the time.
* * *
We certainly did not have a telephone in those days. Thus, when I wanted to talk to my friend Edik Sozinov, I would go to his house, which was five kilometers distant, following the railway embankment most of the way. When I got there I would knock on the door.
His grandma would open the door and say,
“Edik’s not home.”
“Well, when’s he getting back?”
“In the evening, probably.”
What could I do? I would walk the five kilometers back home again. When I arrived Mom would say,
“Oleg, Edik was by to see you.”
That was our mobile network.
The closest telephone was at the mine. When my father’s health first took a turn for the worse, I ran there to call the ambulance. This was a city with a population of 130,000 and there were only a couple thousand phone lines. My uncle Vanya, for example, a section director at the mine, had one. There were payphones that cost 2 kopeks, but these were usually broken, the receivers torn off.
I really was a kind of “poor relative,” then. I remember the envy I felt when, as a child, I visited my cousin, Volodya Tinkov. Again, his father, my uncle Vanya, was a section director at Kirov Mine. He earned 700 rubles, which was crazy money at that time. My father earned 250 rubles. Volodya owned the coveted game, At the Wheel, which cost 10 rubles. I asked if I could play, but usually he would not let me. This felt unfair to me. Why could he play with it, but not me?
Twenty years later, he asked me for a job. I got him a position in my Novosibirsk restaurant. I reminded him of this story. He asked,
“Oleg, can’t you pay me more? I’m your cousin, after all.”
“Come on, Volodya. Remember At the Wheel; remember how you never let me play?”
Here is my advice, then: Always let your relatives play with your toys!
I often took trips to Tyumen. At first my parents would take me, but later, in my pre-teen and teenage years, I would go alone. Mom would put me on the train in Leninsk-Kuznetsky, the steward would look after me on the way, and Grandma would meet me in Tyumen. I spent several entire summers there and, consequently, I know the city very well. You might call me a “Tyumensky kid.” My cousin, Sergei Abakumov, six months my junior, lives there. His parents were quite well off. They had a Lada 1600 car and a garage, lived in a co-op apartment building and had a summer cottage. They were in the uppermost strata of the middle class. Back then, Soviet people would head north to make extra money on the side and Sergei’s parents did the same, earning piles of money in Chekurdakh, a village in Yakutia. I thought, how could this be? Why does he have everything? He had his own room and a stereo system and my uncle used to let him drive the blue Lada. At first my cousin would sit on his dad’s lap and steer. By age 13, however, he was driving by himself, with me sitting in the back. For me, the smells in the car were amazing—particularly as I never rode in a car in Leninsk. Poor relative! Of course no one was trying to make me feel bad—not at all—but when Sergei parked that car all by himself, I could not help but be jealous.
I remember the first time we sat at Grandma’s place and waited for Uncle Vitya, Sergei’s dad. He pulled up in the car and when he said, “Hop in, let’s go!” a shiver went down my spine. I was getting into a car? As we drove away I realized that I wanted more than the back seat of that Lada 1600 with its Tyumen license plate. People often ask me what got me started. It was the will to live and not just to wander about, aimlessly.
I did not dream of much though. As a teenager I wanted to buy a parka jacket so that I would look good. I wanted cologne so that I would smell good. Everything was connected with sexual desire. I wanted girls to like me. It even happened that, a couple of times, my father was called in to my school because I was harassing the girls. Once, I pulled a girl’s skirt up and half the class saw her panties. To this day, I cannot stop myself from checking out women. In order to get female attention I would put on my dad’s red, pointy shoes, which were two sizes too big, and go to the disco at Gorky Park. The shoes had heels, though, and it was (nearly) impossible to walk in them.
All of us wanted a better, brighter life in those days. In school we would draw Adidas and Sony logos in our notebooks. Mere money, just as such, was no attraction; it was the West in general, which was associated with a life of excess. Money was only a tool.
In the highly popular Soviet movie, Crew, there is a scene involving а sound and light system set up in the apartment of а flight engineer named Skvortsov. Leonid Filatov played this character. After I saw the film, I began dreaming of discoballs and strobe lights.
I always knew how to spend my money. There was food, but also imported jeans and shirts, vinyl records, mohair scarves, and mink hats. Although I was born in a small town—or rather a village—I was attracted to the good life. I do not know where I get that quality.
Once every couple of years my parents would save up 1000 rubles and we would get on the squeaky iron Novokuznetsk-Simferopol train. We would board at Leninsk-Kuznetsky station and ride for four days to the Crimea. Before we left, mother would go to the savings bank and get a letter of credit for the money so that it could not be stolen en route. We would get cash once we arrived in the south.
I liked trains a lot. We would boil chicken at home and eat that on the way, along with eggs and cream soda. After each of our three daily meals, we would drink tea with lumps of sugar given to us by the steward. We passed through Novosibirsk, Omsk, and Tyumen. In Volgograd you could see the massive Motherland sculpture through the window. At the stations we would jump out of the train and buy sunflower seeds and grapes.
Upon our arrival at the resort town of Yevpatoria, the local grannies would pounce on us, offering accommodation for 10 rubles per night. Later we started going to the same elderly Ukrainian lady every time. We would pay 300 rubles in advance for the 30 days! The guesthouse accommodated 5-6 families. The south is an extravaganza for a Siberian boy. It is hot when you wake up in the morning. Fruit and berries grow outside, in the garden. We would get up, breakfast, and then go to the beach for the whole day. We would eat lunch on the beach or in town. The sea in Yevpatoria is very clean and warm. I fell in love with the town; it is no surprise that when I was in university and made some cash, I went straight to Yevpatoria with my girlfriend.
At my villa in Forte Dei Marmi, Italy, I have a picture of Rina and I on the beach with the kids. It is just like another photo, this time of my parents, my brother, and I, taken in the eighties in Yevpatoria. The sand, the sea, the folks. I associate both towns with childhood, the sea, and good times.
A miner’s son, in a town like Leninsk-Kuznetsky, grew up assuming that he too would work in the mines one day.
Literature and Geography
My behavior at school was always rated as ‘unsatisfactory.’ I took first place when it came to the number of times my parents were called to the school. I was a terrible student—although I got okay grades, especially in the humanities. One of my favorite subjects was literature. I liked Russian less so, a fact that readers of my blog can confirm.
My favorite literary hero was Chatsky from Wit Works Woe. I shared his world-view and approach to life. “The silent enjoy bliss in the world”: I understood this perfectly. It was as though Chatsky’s words were mine. It is true, after all, that wit works woe, that ignorance is indeed bliss. Russia does not need or want wit. It is a country of silent people. Perhaps, to some extent, everyone on the planet is. Chatsky, though, is sublime, a fantasy…
In one of my school essays I wrote that Chatsky’s words could be applied, easily, to the situation in the Soviet Union. My reasoning went like this: Chatsky was not like others, he wanted to effect change in the country and in the end society rejected him. Like him, I did not want to be like anyone else. If the rebel Chatsky was a literary hero, then why did I have to agree with everything that people said?
I told my teacher “You teach us to follow the example shown us by true heroes. At the same time, you tell us that we have to be the same dull individuals that these heroes fought against.”
She did not argue. She only reminded us, sometimes, of the letters K-G-B and, once or twice, kicked me out of class for my freethinking. One way or another, Chatsky is still my hero.
Of course I felt great respect for Pushkin too, who also fought the system. I’m really fond of Lermontov’s lines about him:
A poet has died! Captive of honor.
He fell, slandered by rumor.
Nonconformism, battle, protest. A young man must be a revolutionary. I liked Bazarov from Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Rakhmetov who slept on nails in Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done?. I liked all the revolutionaries and Decembrists. Later, after I had finished school, I realized that the socialist revolution was wrong.
The first book I read in earnest was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I related to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, because they were both slackers, just like me. These are my heroes. I enjoyed Mark Twain and Jack London and, to a lesser extent, the Russian classics—Chekhov’s short stories, for example. Later, when I was 14, I listened to Vysotsky. I thought his lyrics were amazing; I got him. Only a great person and poet can write in a way that is accessible to a teenager.
My fondest memories are of my homeroom teacher, Lidia Irincheyevna Baturova. She was also our chemistry teacher. Consequently, I was fond of chemistry, too, and of concoctions.
My favorite class was geography. I would even draw maps of the Soviet Union. And I always used to watch the TV show, Travelers’ Club, created by Yury Senkevich. Traveling is something I do an awful lot of now. I cannot sit still in Moscow for more than a couple weeks before I want to go someplace else.
I must have loved geography—it felt like my heart was coming out of my chest at the thought of freedom of movement through space. Were it not for Perestroika, I would have gone crazy from being stuck in the Soviet Union. When I served with the border guard, I wanted to jump on a foreign ship and sail away, which would have been a violation of national border laws. I wanted to see the world through my own eyes and not through the eyes of Senkevich only. I loved to look at maps and read the names of faraway countries. I dreamt of going to Africa, America, and Australia.
Our school was limited to grades one through eight; thus 1983 was the last year Lidia Irincheyevna Baturova was my homeroom teacher.