At the end of 1942 my mother was released from Akmolinsky Labour Camp for Wives of Traitors of the Motherland after her 5-year-long sentence and remained in exile on the territory of Karlag (Karaganda Corrective Labour Camp) in the capacity of an ‘ex-prisoner’. Being an electrical engineer, she was assigned to the Electrification Department of the Karlag Administration, which was based in Dolinka village of Karaganda region, about 50 km away from the city of Karaganda. With its huge territory, Dolinka represented Karlag’s centre which included regional divisions and a plethora of forced-labour camps.
The postal service was fully functional, so my mother was aware of our situation. The top Karlag authority was the Head of Political Department, an NKVD general. Mother somehow obtained an appointment with him (which was unthinkable) and begged him to grant her parents and her son (who were dying in Koptevka) an entry to Dolinka. This was truly unimaginable. And definitely a first in Karlag.
It took a very long time for my grandparents and me to get from Koptevka to Dolinka. Probably, about a month. I have no memory either of the journey or what we ate on the way. We arrived at Karabas Station of Karaganda railway. It was March of 1943, still a winter there. My mother was waiting for us in a huge horse-drawn sled. I was immediately wrapped in a sheepskin coat. I couldn’t recognize my mother at all – she was a complete stranger to me.
The first thing I came across in Dolinka was a crowd of women who gathered around us to have a look at me. I was the first child to be brought to Dolinka and all the women had children on the outside. I remember well those women, leaning towards me.
I was ill upon arrival at Dolinka and was immediately taken to hospital. I was diagnosed with both tuberculous infiltration (which I had probably contracted from the neighbour’s boy in Koptevka) and typhoid fever. The problem was that the treatment for tuberculosis involved a high calorie meal plan, whereas patients with typhoid fever were put on an extremely strict diet. I spent a long time in hospital but eventually recovered. All the doctors were ex-convicts, who apparently were very good.
We settled in a two-room, mud brick house. One of the rooms was occupied by my grandparents, while my mother and I took the other one. The room was heated by a coal furnace and all the furniture we had consisted of the beds, two hand-made tables and a hand-made wardrobe. We had electricity and running water. The toilet was outside, at the far end of the yard.
Two electric hot plates made up the essential appliances of the house. They were used for cooking, boiling and heating up. The heating element got burned out from time to time. It was impossible to buy a new one, you had to ‘get’ it. Mother could get around this. Being an electrician, she taught me the basics of working with electrical appliances and repairing them.
We kept a pig and some hens in the barn as a source of food. Apart from this, we grew potatoes in a small vegetable plot outside Dolinka. My mother used to take me with her there to help her plant, weed, earth up and dig out. I also had to carry water from the well. Then the potatoes had to be dragged home. Mother used to overstrain herself because it wasn’t always possible to get a horse cart. We stored potatoes under the beds.
Our house was located on the territory of a power plant (a restricted area with barbed wire fencing) that had a checkpoint and a certain time limit for getting back home. The servicemen would go in and out escorted by the guards. All of them used to know my mother very well and treat her kindly.
Once I stayed out longer than usual playing football with the boys and got detained on the way home. I was put in a concrete holding cell. My mother spent a long time looking for me. On another occasion I left my coat on a football pitch, which was a big loss given that clothes were scarce. There was a small river nearby, where I used to go bathing. Mother was a good swimmer (she had grown up by the Volga river) and she tried to teach me to swim but to no avail. I learned to swim much later, by myself.
Once my grandfather brought back a heron which had hurt its leg and which he had found in the street. The heron had stayed with us for a few weeks until its leg healed and it flew away. However, keeping it created some problems. As soon as it saw a fly sitting on someone’s arm or leg, it would peck it so hard that it would leave a bruise for a long time. It lived in my grandparents’ room and I avoided it.
Another ex-prisoner, Lena Fogelman, used to live next door. She was younger than my mother but they became life-long friends. She had lived in Voronezh before the arrest and that was where she got a flat and moved after political rehabilitation. Then she moved to her sister in Moscow. They used to stay in touch with my mother until her death. Generally speaking, my mother was not the one to make a lot of friends, she had very few of those. I must have taken after her in this. Although according to my mother, father had been a very communicative person, he had been the life and soul of any party. He had had a lot of friends.
There was not much one could do to pass the time in Dolinka. In the summer, I would drag a Studebaker wheel rim by a thick wire along the streets. I could spend an hour doing that. And in the winter I used to go running after the horse-drawn snow sled, grab hold of the back, get on top of the runner and enjoy the ride. It could last for quite a long time. The important thing was to jump off and run away when the sled stopped.
I spent a lot of time running around in the summer and my knees were constantly grazed.
I had learned to read back in Moscow, but there were very few books in Dolinka.
My mother wished I could draw (like my father). She even hired a private teacher for me for some time. But I didn’t take after my father in this respect; he was a wonderful artist and I was hopeless. However, it turned out after some time that I was into technical drawing. I learned it by myself and I was good at it both at school and at university, albeit very slow.
From 1943 it became standard procedure for pupils from the age of 7 rather than 8 to start school. I couldn’t go to school at the age of seven because I was ill. Mother really wanted me to leave school at 17 so that I could have one extra year before being drafted for the military service. (And later on she was proven right.) That’s why my mother helped me to prepare for school and the following year I was able to pass the second grade dictation, reading and Math. I passed everything with flying colours except for writing (my handwriting was illegible) but I was admitted.
I took an instant liking to Math-related subjects at school but all the others put me off and made me feel bored. History was contaminated with constant class conflict. Geography was full of useless figures. Plant biology was dressed in michurinism and then there were also Lysenko and Williams.
Mother would be constantly trying to convince me that I needed to do well at school to be able to graduate from a university with a degree in any field of engineering. She never ruled out the possibility of me facing the same trying times she had undergone herself: a prison and an exile. An engineer can always take care of himself, just as she had done. My mother was sure that I loved studying. She was wrong. I didn’t like it, I was able to do it right.
Schoolchildren were supposed to create photomontage. Photomontage consisted of a sheet of Whatman paper with magazine clippings glued on it. It was timed to coincide with a particular date and put on a school wall. I was often tasked with it because I was good at it. The secret of my success was that grandpa helped me. He used to be a bookbinder and he knew how to arrange the clippings, glue them neatly, fold the sheet, carry it to school and not to botch it up on the way.
We never kept Stalin’s portrait at home. My mother considered him to be a moustashed scumbag and a murderer. I couldn’t think for myself, so I just agreed with her. She taught me very well what to say and what not to say at school. The radio was an inevitable nuisance for me. The only thing that stuck in my memory was end of the war announcement in the morning on 9 of May, 1945. Everyone was rejoicing then, including me.
We led a poor life. There were people around who lived in much better conditions. One of my classmates even had a bike. One of the women my mother knew was head of Dolinka Radio Station (surely, she was employed by the NKVD, People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs). Once she invited us over. There was a piano there and a boy of my age who sang ‘tilli-tomba, tilli-tomba, tilli-tomba, sing a song’.
However, there were people who were very badly off. Schools would pair up stronger students with low-performing ones, so that the weaker could get some help. I was also in charge of a boy like that. I used to come to his place and help him with the homework. Once his family invited me to stay for lunch. They treated me to an awful looking and smelling slop which I rejected politely. I remembered it for a long time though.
The settlement administration enjoyed a good life in their brick residences. Their children didn’t attend schools, they had private teachers and tutors. Once my mother and I met her boss’s daughter in the street (her father was an NKVD general). The girl was slightly older than me and she was accompanied by a governess. Instead of saying hello, she curtsied.
We were halfway through the war and it had been less than 30 years since the Revolution. It was not a long time, and the fact that the surviving families remembered a lot of the old ways, not the Soviet ones, was not surprising. However, what was truly remarkable is that high-ranking NKVD officers wanted to teach and raise their children in the ‘non-Soviet way’. And being far away from the centre only facilitated that.
Those generals found the best teachers, got them out of prisons and helped them settle in the vicinity. This was true not only for the teachers but for governesses as well. They taught the children to speak a few foreign languages. Therefore, a curtsey was just a small memory trace.
I still enjoyed being alone, all by myself. I really disliked being under pressure, when somebody wanted me to do something I didn’t feel like doing. Once it took a while to persuade me to take a horse ride. On another occasion it was a biplane flight in a small U-2 in a local airfield. I passed both times. Naturally, I was feeling a bit apprehensive, but mostly it was an act of protest.
There was something of a park near Dolinka – poplar trees with paths between them. That was where we used to walk. In general, all the vegetation in Dolinka was irrigated artificially. Mostly, they were poplar trees. There were irrigation ditches all over the place. However, water for the authorities’ flower gardens and trees was delivered in cisterns. In the summer all the school children were sent to the pioneer camps. I hated that ‘collective life’, the loudspeakers on the poles that never went silent, and the whole atmosphere of the camp.
From time to time we were sent to pick up raspberries. More often than not it was boiling hot and we didn’t feel like either picking them or eating them. In the end, after about two hours, our baskets were weighed. I always brought very little, much below the norm.
My mother used to go on business trips around Karaganda camp, checking power lines and leaving instructions on how to fix the problems she had spotted. Apart from the camp, Karlag included a huge property: industrial and construction areas, as well as experimental agricultural stations. Once mother brought me along on her visit to one of those. There were a lot of watermelons. I saw people trampling the watermelon pulp to make wine. They also used to grow pumpkins over there. We would boil them.
On a couple of occasions my mother took me along to Karaganda. She had to get a special permission for such a trip. We travelled in a cargo bed of a truck, out in the morning and back in the evening. The huge mine wastes on both sides of the road were glowing at night. Karaganda, covered in coal dust, was a miserable town that left a grim impression.
My mother and I went to Karaganda to see motor races on a vertical wall. The spectators were seated at the top. I can’t remember the taste of Moscow ice-cream but I still remember the one I had in Karaganda. The ice-cream man put a waffle cone in a cylinder case, filled it with the ice-cream from the milk churn, topped it with another waffle and then pushed it out of the case by pressing on it. You had to lick the ice-cream off by holding the two waffles in your hands.
1947 marked the monetary reform. All the bank deposits below 3000 rubles remained unchanged whereas everything above it was reduced at the rate of 1:10. 3000 was a small sum and my mother surely had more. NKVD had given their cronies a heads-up and they split their savings into 3000 deposits. A kindly soul at the Karlag Administration warned my mother and she managed to salvage her money too.
Grandmother passed away in 1947. Her death was a big blow for my mother. At the funeral, she crumpled to the small burial mound on the grave and for a long time nobody could make her get up. She and my grandmother had been very close. Mother became very sickly after my grandmother’s death, which eventually led us to leaving for Norilsk.
My uncle lived and worked in Norilsk after his release from the camp. The plan to design a new, more modern, industrial plant was underway there. My uncle had a business trip to Balhash to find out how the only, and the biggest, copper-smelting plant in the USSR operated. Balhash was in Karaganda region and he came to see us for a few days. That’s how I met him.
He got a pass for us to enter Norilsk (we also had obtained a permission to leave Dolinka). Norilsk was an absolutely closed town at that time. I remember that pass very well: it had a red line crossing it from corner to corner.
We got to Norilsk in the autumn of 1949. I don’t remember our journey to Krasnoyarsk, we probably travelled by trains. We had to take a steamboat in Krasnoyarsk and go down the Yenisei as far as Dudinka. There were screw steamers and paddle steamers. It used to take a screw steamer five days to get downstream to Dudinka and seven days back. A paddle steamer would cover this distance in eight and twelve days, respectively.
We boarded a screw steamer ‘Spartak’ at the beginning of October. It was the last journey of 1949 Yenisei navigation. I was going to be late for the beginning of my 7th grade.
A train ran from Dudinka to Norilsk (112 kilometres) along the narrow-gauge railroad. We were travelling across tundra, it was a very slow journey which lasted 12 hours. It was cold with the snow on the ground.