This was the very place. This little work camp that consisted of around 30 little houses spread about the Kirov main canal.
Here I met a young woman named Valya Popova. Her father was a strict former officer of the Soviet Army. He ended the war in Potsdam and was decorated. He was recruited with his family to relocate to the Hungry Steppe. Her mother was a humble housewife. Valya also had a younger sister named Tanya.
In the beginning we met outside the house on the bank of the canal and in the yard. Then, somehow one day, I was emboldened to enter Valya’s house. Her father had a cold attitude toward my visit. Apparently he thought his daughter was a little young for such an acquaintance, but her mother warmly received me.
That was our summer in this settlement. Every evening after a long day of work in the heat for many hours, I rushed off to see this young lady without feeling tired.
But then, the day of separation came. Our work brigade shut down all field work for the winter and departed to Chimkent. We wrote letters to one another and expressed mutual longing for one another. Impatiently, I awaited spring to start. I requested my foreman of the work brigade to return me again to the Hungry Steppe. Finally, the warm spring days arrived.
Spring that year started early. Already by the start of March, pears, apricots, and cherry plums were blooming.
On International Women’s Day, March 8, our work brigade well-outfitted with all the necessary materials and products arrived on the “one and a half tonner” at the Hungry Steppe and stopped at the old apartment.
I impatiently awaited the evening when I would be freed from work connected with the surveying and could see my beloved lady whom I missed all winter, a form which did not depart from my imagination.
Finally, the evening approached, and like a bird I flew to her house. When I knocked quietly on the door, her mother opened the door. She saw me and joyously shouted into the room, “Valya, Vitya came, come over here quickly!”
Out came a sad Valya, and without even being aware of it, we embraced each other. Her father was not home and that made our reunion easier. We talked freely. We asked how each other’s winter went and how we could not bear being alone. And then, as if they understood our wishes, her mother and sister went to another room. I pulled out of my pocket a large crimson apple and put it under her nose.
Then I took her by the hand which was also gentle and warm. We went out to the orchard and went toward the edge of the canal. Holding one another, we walked along the dam of the canal further out from the village to the places of our previous encounters.
Walking 2 kilometers, I took off my jacket and stretched it out on the grass at the very edge of the river. We sat on it and clutched one another tightly. Our young heartbeats, breathing, and feelings merged into one. Out of joy, we could not speak for some time and only more tightly clung to one another.
Around was the silence of the night. There was not one sound of the wind, but only the spring croaking of frogs. A bright moon shone its rays on us and on the surrounding nature as if it were illuminating our reunion.
No words can describe “first love.” It burned within me. Everything within me sang out of excitement. I wanted to yell into the depths of the night with some particularly high and gentle voice about my happiness. My feeling was that God Himself had given her to me as a reward for all that bitter suffering which I had to endure in the years of my childhood and adolescence.
She shared similar feelings. I completely felt her happy condition with all my being. I could not err. I understood that we were made for each other, that we could not live apart from one another.
That is summer went by in daily, tense work in the field followed by meetings on the canal bank with my beloved girl who became an inseparable part of my life.
By the end of May, the Hunger Steppe transformed from a spectacular carpet consisting of a multitude of tender spring flowers and green grass into a gray, lifeless, dark desert along which roamed herds of sheep, which sought out that sparse growth which still had not yet dried up.
Sometimes dust storms came. They usually took place after lunch. The sky grew cloudy like some dark curtain on the horizon. The darkness quickly approached. It appeared as if thunder would boom and raindrops would fall. But suddenly, darkness swallowed up the sky from end to end. The wind bore clouds of dust. All that dust traveled rapidly toward us. Then over a long time and deliberately, the dust fell on homes, trees, and people. The dust even flew inside homes. But then the sun came out again, as if the dust storm had never taken place. And life went on.
We worked entire days under heat at temperatures toward 45 degrees Celsius. Sunburn made us black. Our shirts became sticky from salty sweat. We did not know that extreme sunburn was harmful. We were slowly killing our bodies.
One time, a shepherd, a Kazakh from a neighboring village, came up to us on a donkey. Having looked at us with our sunburned skin, he said, “Hey, Russian fool, why you walking around naked? Your heart soon be bad. You cannot be in sun without clothes for too long. Soon you die. See, I sits on donkey. See, my robe is fat and warm, but me not hot. Me cold. Look, put your finger in your mouth and it will be cold.”
He was actually right. The robe he wore on his bare body, as well as the pants made out of sheepskins with fur inside, allowed him to sit whole days on the donkey while his flocks grazed. His body was constantly wet from sweat. In contrast to a dry body, which would not even notice it, a wet body could sense the slightest movement of air, which would cool off the body. Under conditions of an absolute lack of wind, we wet our pointer finger with saliva in our mouth and put it on our head. At once, the wet finger felt the coolness and could even determine the direction of air movement.
I already described dust storms that often blew through the Hungry Steppe. I remember the words of a song which they sang in those years. I memorized it and often sang it. Even when I was living in the boarding school, I had a notebook in which I recorded my favorite songs. The first words went like this:
“In our lives anything is happening,
Thunderstorms in clouds are flying,
The wind calms, the cloud floats away,
And again the sky turns blue.”
One of life’s storms flew over me, too. It was completely my fault. It almost cost me my freedom and would have banished me to “some very distant land.”
This is what happened. In the summer many people from work brigades settled in our village in the Hungry Steppe. These members of mechanized work brigades dug the ditches according to the specifications of us surveyors. During evenings and Sundays, people got together in the summer clubhouse which included a wooden ticket booth inside which the film projector guy sat and a small square surrounded by a fence.
The film projector guy himself collected tickets from people and allowed them to enter through a narrow gate. Whoever did not have a ticket could purchase one right from him. People went inside, sat on the wooden benches, and waited.
That Sunday, our work brigade chose to relax and not go to work. During breakfast, the guys decided to fool around a bit. At the table they served some bottles of “elixir of youth”, the name we gave in jest to Russian vodka. In reality, the name “Farewell to youth” more accurately applied to this terrible drink.
With good reason does the Holy Bible, which I also read along with other books, have a place that describes the consequence of taking this drink:
“Do not look on the wine when it is red,
When it sparkles in the cup,
When it goes down smoothly;
At the last it bites like a serpent
And stings like a viper.
Your eyes will see strange things
And your mind will utter perverse things.
And you will be like one who lies down in the middle of the sea,
Or like one who lies down on the top of a mast.
“They struck me, but I did not become ill;
They beat me, but I did not know it.
When shall I awake?
I will seek another drink.”
I must say that during my time of friendship with Valya, I almost never drank. But this time I stumbled.
By nature, I was calm, but in a drunken stupor, I was wild. That is what happened at that moment.
We three young people were quite intoxicated. We stumbled toward the direction of the summer club as we bellowed out with all our lungs a popular song of that time:
“Give her up, sailor. About her do not fret,
Do not call for help from the northwest,
This Miss is from a family of wealth,
This Miss is already someone else’s bride.”
The public in front of us stepped aside as we came up to the admission gate. The film projector guy asked for our tickets. Of course, we had no tickets. Then he told us to purchase tickets from him. In a stammering voice, I retorted, “What? Don’t you know who you are dealing with?”
And suddenly I snatched him by the belt. Obviously, I clearly remembered the tactics of street fighting in the orphanage. I pulled him toward myself. As he had not expected such an attack, I picked him up and threw him away from me. Then I jumped on him myself.
A commotion was aroused. I do not know how that brawl would have ended had not some sober guys from the neighboring mechanical brigade who knew and respected me seen us and broke up the fight.
They took me to the location of our brigade and tucked me into bed. For the moment, everything ended. I slept the rest of the day until evening.
Then a group of young people including the film projector guy entered my room. They demanded that I apologize to the film projector guy in a public act of humiliation. Then they showed me a document of accusation, a clean piece of paper with witnesses’ signatures. If I were to refuse, he could have submitted this document to the police in which case I would have had to serve 2-3 years in prison for a misdemeanor.
I naturally consented to ask forgiveness for what I had done because of this threat. Moreover I knew him well, as Valya and I often went to the movies. After this incident, I put away the bottle of vodka and made peace with him.
That was the peaceful end of that foolish history that otherwise could have ended in my imprisonment and thus the loss of my job and separation from my beloved girl. Yet again, the truthfulness of the Bible was demonstrated.
On our next date, Valya gently scolded me for getting drunk and asked me never to repeat it again. I sincerely regretted what had occurred and promised her never again to drink that poison.
So life went on: work by day and dates at night.
We had in our brigade a technician named Valentin Yakovlev. He was my senior by 10 years. He had served in the Army and experienced the war. He was single. Like me, he used to spend his evenings with one woman, a bartender. Late at night, after he came back from his date, he openly boasted to me about his good time with his girlfriend and described all his romantic adventures. It was unpleasant for me to listen to his perverted boastings. He taught me how to do it. I needed no academic training. In spite of it, I already knew all of the subtleties of human depravity. I controlled myself.
During one date with Valya, I refused to even think about spoiling her young life before her time, even though we did not have much time to preserve our childhood. She studied in school. She was still a girl, a Pioneer in her class. If something were to take place, it would have been a total disgrace. For this reason, we devoted ourselves to pure young love by restraining and protecting ourselves from one another.
Love which takes place among adults who have gone through much emotional heartbreak because of betrayals, jealousies, and treachery – such love can be only called a smoky curtain.
And so Valya finished the seventh grade. Now she had to think about her future education. We along with her mother discussed her situation. In the settlement the school stopped at seventh grade. Valya and I decided to go together to Chimkent to my sister. There we would attempt to enroll her in the medical technical school.
Whether my sister agreed to allow us in her home or not, I never even considered it.
So at the start of September, asking for time off from the boss of the brigade, we packed into two cases all her female items and set off for Chimkent on a truck. At that time, buses did not run between cities. The driver’s cabin was occupied, so we had to ride in the back of the truck and held onto one another as we shook from the bumps on the road. That is how we made it to Chimkent.
Late at night, we came to my sister’s house. I knocked on the door. My sister and her husband Ivan came out. I introduced them to my girlfriend. They let us into the house, and I explained the situation to them. My sister and brother-in-law approved our plan and permitted us to live with their family. They welcomed my girlfriend with great hospitality. Valya was a quiet and meek girl.
It reminded me of the words of one emotional people’s song. Rephrased to apply to us, I present the first verses of this song:
“Do you remember, my sister, how a strange girl
I brought to your house without asking you,
Sternly you looked her over at the young girl,
And suddenly you started to cry, but forgot to congratulate us,
But you forgot to congratulate us…
I surrounded her with warmth and care…”
And I really did surround her with warmth and care. We went to the head of the medical technical school. There, when they examined her documents, they enrolled her into the nursing program of the school without giving her any exams. She would have to study 4 years. I no longer went surveying and took up cameral refining of field materials.
One time, we remained home alone. Sister and brother-in-law went to church. It was a warm autumn day. We locked up the home. What happened next would be impossible to undo…
Losing strength to restrain ourselves, we gave in to one another and drowned in the intensity of pure youthful love. When we realized what happened, it was too late. We became husband and wife. We had restrained ourselves for so long, but now it was gone…
We quickly tried to cover the traces of physical evidence of our activity. We awaited the return of my sister and brother-in-law with anxiety. But all took place very quietly. And so began our conjugal family life. Along with unexpected happiness came worry. “So what will be next? What if?”
But now I was faced with joining the Army, and she had to finish technical school. But for the time being, everything went well.
 Proverbs 23:31-5. NASB.