All of the school graduates before us were assigned to platoons as privates, junior sergeants, sergeants, senior sergeants, and even elders for those who were distinguished graduates. So each of us already knew how we fared on our examinations and prepared our caps, sewed onto them emblems, and awaited orders on the day of dispatch.
So the order came: “For the mission of strengthening discipline, release from school only enlisted men.” Clear and concise. We threw all of our prepared hats with emblems and spread out to the various military enlisted districts to strengthen discipline.
They sent 20 of us without an escort to the passenger train headed for the Far East military district. The special document of conduct bored the address of our final destination: “The city Vladivostok, Voroshilovsky Region, Station Manzovka. V/4 32824.” I wrote my final letter of farewell to Valya and asked her to answer when she received news of my new place of service.
We traveled 9 days to arrive at our destination. Along the way we behaved ourselves seriously without any outrageous youthful behavior, rather like true soldiers. We crossed the Volga, the Ural Mountains, and Novosibirsk. The scenes through our windows changed, as did the types of homes. In one place stood wooden homes, in another clay homes stood. People’s accents also changed. We traveled along the endless expanses of our country. After Novosibirsk went the crowded Siberian taiga. Then appeared the beauty of Baikal.
All day we traveled along the banks of the beautiful lake, constantly entering and exiting tunnels carved into the rocks. The way was curvy and barely visible when the front car entered into the dark hole of the tunnel. When it exited, the rear car had still not exited another tunnel. Along the whole bank of Baikal were built 48 tunnels. Merchants sold a delicious fish called “smoked Baikal omul” at the stations. But we could not afford to buy anything. We just could inhale the pleasant smell of the omuls. Passengers bought and ate this delicious fish. We ate dried pike given to us as a ration for 10 days. They also gave us tea for free.
I remember a Russian folk song:
“Glorious sea – holy Baikal,
Glorious ship – a barrel full of omul,
Hey, Bagruzin! Pinch me!
Let us swim to the excellent place nearby!”
During the times of the czars and the years after the Revolution, they sent exiles here to the Far East and to Lake Baikal. This song was composed by one exile who ran away from prison and floated across the lake on a barrel full of omul. And we were going to the Far East on a passenger train, not knowing what each of us should expect beyond Lake Baikal.
After Blagoveshchensk, we saw through the windows swamp and rare, bare taiga. I became anxious: did I make a mistake in choosing where to serve? Is it possible that what Arsenyev had written was all fake? Farther on we passed short hills grown over with light bushes. I became utterly depressed here.
At night we approached the station Manzovka. We came out of the train and asked the train station warden where the military base was located. We set out on foot in the darkness toward our place of duty. Our base was located 4 kilometers from the station. We crossed a large military airbase with parked, armed military jets. We were yelled at by a guard. Finding out that we were looking for the base, he showed us directions. Soon the silhouettes of large hangars surrounded with barbed wire appeared out of the darkness. I remembered the prisoner barracks in Karlag. Were we actually going to spend 3 years in this camp behind barbed wire?
The warden of the armory met us and took us to the battalion headquarters. The next day we were separated into squads of the fighter air battalion. New duty began for me.
Our battalion flew the newest MIG 17 fighters. Each contained weapons of 3 cannons and 1 machine gun. I was named mechanic of the air weaponry with a monthly salary of 500 rubles. This was good money for that time. Soldiers who finished ShMAS, the school for junior air specialists, only received 50 rubles a month. It was a stark difference.
At first it was quite difficult to work. The main part of the battalion consisted of mobilized men, sergeants and officers, while we were simply enlisted men. They did not want to submit to us enlistees, but the entire responsibility for the mandatory work on weapons belonged to us. Before every jet sortie, we mechanics recorded our signatures affirming a given jet was ready to fly. They dressed us warmly since it was winter. They gave us fur coats, pants, warm gloves, caps with ear flaps, and mittens made out of dog fur. They fed us well in the battalion. Generally we worked on servicing the flights and cleaned the weapons after training rounds.
Everything took on its own routine. Here I admitted my error in choosing this place to serve. That wonderful nature which Arsenyev described was in some place far away. Just as the director of the school had told me, I got trapped in such a deep hole that all went completely contrary to expectations. Around the little village of “Khorol 1” were situated 6 military bases. The whole area was littered with small, almost bare, hills that had an occasional blooming of nut trees. From the coast which was somewhere like 200 kilometers away, a fierce snowy wind blew constantly upon us and gave us nowhere to take shelter. It mixed snow with dust and beat on our faces. Summer up until noon, from the sea came “exhaust” – complete fog. Only in the fall did it become warm and quiet, but not for long.
Even if at times I got rest and recreation, then apart from the village, where some soldiers from all of the 6 bases were in search of the only café where you could drink something, there was nowhere to go. I tried not to go to the village during my R and R. I took skis, went to the hills, and spent my time skiing on the slopes. I spent most of time reading books which I took from the wealthy battalion library. During 3 years of service at Primorye, I read nearly 140 books. I wrote many letters home and preserved responses in my suitcase and often read them over and over.
There came the hour when I committed a fatal error that could never be corrected even in spite of my desire. There was a time before I brought Valya to live in my sister’s home. After a business trip when I was home and Valya lived on the Hungry Steppe, sometimes I visited a girl named Natasha who lived near us in Chimkent. She was 3 years younger than me and also was a kindly, attractive girl. I fooled around with her and pretended to be in love with her, which was never a reality. I was simply trying to show her respect. Naturally, any young girl would have been touched by such a tender relationship toward her, especially a lady who was not taken. Apparently, Natasha in her mind had plans for me in the future.
But all my attraction to her was shallow, a way to kill time. My true love burned in my heart for another lady with whom we had a temporary separation. When I took Valya to my sister’s home and started to live with her, I had completely forgotten about Natasha and simply said to hello here out of politeness when I saw her. Natasha never bothered us. She also became acquainted with Valya and almost saw her every day.
So during my third year of duty, suddenly I remembered Natasha. Not thinking of the consequences, I wrote her a letter and recalled our meetings and asked her to write me back. After she received my letter, Natasha went to Valya and read her my letter. And then the irreversible happened. I know, I felt it, that Valya with here whole pure girlish soul and heart loved me. She was confident in the perfection of our mutual love. She lived in expectation of the time when we would be together once again. She like me also dreamed about our future and patiently bore all adversity and deprivations of our separation. She believed in me so much. But then this letter came!
It was a horrible blow to her. She was a faithful girlfriend. Being in separation, she had resolutely rejected all the advances of potential boyfriends who swarmed like flies around a tasty cake. She was not a beauty, but an attractive, quiet, and modest girl.
Because of this letter, everything in her soul was turned upside down. Love was extinguished. Her dreams about future joy were shattered. Everything about her became dark. She lost interest in life. She recognized that I was a deceiver, just like many people. Is there really no such thing as love, so she thought, that was capable of staying faithful until death separated, in spite of all the problems that surrounded the lovers? Up to that moment, she had believed that such love did exist, and she had it with Viktor. But all between them turned out to be a fantasy mirage, which no matter how close you could come, it would always stand far away and inaccessible to you. What happened with you turned out to be mere vanity.
So this poor, deceived girl heart wailed with unbearable sorrow. Everything was over. Such a beautiful flower of the field, brightly blooming and stretching out its petals to the spring sun, suddenly was stepped on by some rude pedestrian’s foot. It wilted, dried up, and perished. That is how love and hope were extinguished in Valya’s heart.
She tried to assure herself that it was a mistake. It was only a little mischief on her beloved’s part. Everything would be clarified. This too would pass, and once again happiness would shine upon us. But she could not persuade herself in spite of her hopes. About all this, Valya wrote me in a voluminous letter and asked me to forget all that was pure between us. She asked that I no longer touched the wound in her heart with my written excuses.
When I received that letter and read it, it was as if something in my heart burst. I realized that with my own hands and my stupid carelessness I destroyed my happiness with one stroke of the pen! How could this be? What could I do to fix it? Could I try once again to explain in a letter that all of this was an accident and that I loved her as before and even more so? I felt that it would have been in vain. Maybe I would have reacted in a similar manner had she betrayed me. I was so crushed by my own sorrow that I did not know what to do. That happens in life – one careless step and then – off the cliff.
My friends in the service saw my suffering that I could not hide. Indeed, a person’s face is the mirror to his soul. Everything that was taking place inside is expressed on the face. But who could understand me completely?
Soon I received a letter from my sister and brother-in-law. They rebuked me for my behavior and told me that Valya packed her things and left to live with her father. He had divorced his wife and lived now in Chimkent near the medical school. Despite their efforts to speak with her, she was irreconcilable.
After this letter, I became more depressed. One Sunday, Sergeant Khoroshilov proposed to take me and one other soldier to a very interesting place on the weekend. I consented. We signed out for the weekend and went together to the village. In the café we bought 3 bottles of “sulka”, vodka as the soldiers in Primorye called it. The sergeant sent us on our mission.
I saw a long, earthen barracks, similar to those barracks seen in my childhood in Karlag. We entered one of the rooms where sat several women. Their appearance explained everything. I immediately understood where I was. Earlier I heard that Khoroshilov visited “the 17th Republic”, as they nicknamed this barracks. It was an actual night brothel. We drank up one bottle of “sulka”, then the second, and the third. There was almost no food, and I quickly became intoxicated.
Through my foggy intellect, I realized that I needed to get up right away and get out, otherwise I would be stuck in this abyss. I arose, put on my coat, and went into the cold. It was winter. The women tried to restrain me, but I escaped and left. Then Khoroshilov went after me and tried to turn me back. I stood with my back to the fence and clutched the post. Seeing that I did not want to return and instead desired to return to the base, he jumped on me, ripping me off together with the posts, and both of us fell into the snow. I was stronger than him and quickly freed myself of him.
Cursing him, I quickly marched off. It was a dark night. I remember that I stopped in some furnace room and asked how I could get into the summer base. The stoker, a civilian guy, led me out and pointed me in the direction of the air base where our base was located. I saw the identifying lights of the jets which performed night sorties and headed in that direction. “Suchka” did its job and soon I was completely intoxicated.
Limping around, I fell into some hole. Apparently, I thought I had arrived at the hangar. I took my coat and boots off and lied down in the snow to sleep. Of course without coat and boots, even though I was very drunk, I could not lie down for long in the snow. But I slept for a bit. The strong night cold quickly sobered me up. I could not understand a thing. Where was I? What happened? With my teeth chattering, I put on my coat. I did not find my cap. I tried to put on my boots, but I could not, for my feet were hardened.
Then I put the foam flaps from my boots in my coat pockets. Somehow I put my bare feet into the boots and wanted to button my coat. My hands refused to comply. I also could not find my soldier’s belt. In such a messy appearance, I moved along the snow toward the planes standing on the tarmac. I was fully convinced that the hangar was there.
I arrived at the hangar at 4 in the morning. Entering the hangar, I saw the hangar warden, a soldier from my wing. He saw my terrible appearance and understood everything. He told me that at 2 AM, a drunk Khoroshilov returned from leave and realizing that I had not returned, told the guys how I left. Some soldiers put out an alarm and went with Khoroshilov to search for me. But they were unable to find me and returned empty. And he ordered that they put me in bed until morning.
I got undressed, lied on my bed, and fell asleep quickly. I slept until 11 AM. They did not disturb me. The commander of the wing gave the order not to disturb me. When I woke up, I myself was to come see him in the headquarters.
I somehow got dressed and put my shoes on. I went to the commander. He heard me out and sent me to the commander of the battalion. When I entered the war room, there sat the commander as well as the commander of the political activity division. Both men were old. They listened to me carefully about what had taken place. When they learned the reason that spurred me to such action, they reacted quite unexpectedly. They let me go without any disciplinary warning. I even escaped without having to sit in “the lip” where they could have sentenced me at a minimum for 5 days. By the way, during my entire 4 years of military duty, I never once sat in “the lip” (solitary confinement).
And so the emergency situation turned out to be a light frostbite of my feet along with my suspension from being a mechanic for 3 months. Instead of paying me 500 rubles, they now paid me just 50 rubles. But it could have turned out worse.
One sergeant Ajigitov arrived from the Caucasus military district to our battalion. He was to continue his extended tour of duty. That winter, he also fell asleep drunk in the snow. His hands and feet were frostbitten. As a result, they amputated his feet up to his ankles and his hands up to his wrists. That man was paralyzed for life.
Once again I was convinced that God loved me and had sent me His guardian angel. There were no Christian soldiers in our battalion. After taps, soldiers in the darkness conversed with one another and told fantastic tales about Baptist Christians. They said that they close themselves in their homes, blacken the windows, turn off the lights, and commit perverse acts. I always stopped them and said, “That’s not true, guys. Don’t believe that nonsense. I myself as a civilian visited their churches and never saw such things. When you finish your tour of duty and return home, find a Baptist church in your city, visit it, and see the truth for yourselves.”
“Who are you, a Baptist?” they asked me.
“No,” I answered, “I would like to be a Baptist, but I cannot, but I believe in God.”
The guys laughed at me, but they respected me. And I got along with a lot of people. I continued to service jets. Because there were not enough weapon mechanics and in spite of my demotion, I still signed off on the readiness of the planes and wrote my name in the journal for verifying them.
After 3 months passed, they restored me to my previous rank and monthly salary of 500 rubles. The director of the headquarters, Major Shulgin, often relieved me from all duties and utilized me in his office as a cartographer. I had excellent calligraphy skills. I sketched on the whiteboard all kinds of schematics for air battles. I cut out of rubber bands figures for various planes which were used for plotting air attacks. In this manner, I became an important person in the headquarters.
Sensing this, I told Major Shulgin that I wanted to go on extended leave, even though up to that time I had never left the base for extended leave. Respecting me and appreciating my skills, he promised to give me leave.
And so, after a regular training session on air combat, during which I was in the hangar and working on repairing the floors, they called us to attention. Commanders came and issued orders to reward those who distinguished themselves with a short-term vacation home. My name was not among those they read off the list.
I came out of formation and came up to the group of commanders from behind. Where Major Shulgin stood, I asked him, “Since you, Comrade Major, had promised me leave, then why is my name not on the list?”
He smiled and told me to stand in formation. After 5 minutes, they blurted out an addition to the order. “For outstanding accomplishment during air combat training, enlisted man Peychev Viktor is permitted a short-term leave home for the duration of 10 days, including the payment for his round trip travel home and back.”
Hoorah! If I had kept quiet, who knows how I ever would have managed to come home for leave. But here, having gotten up the courage, I received the opportunity to be home in my third year of duty. Finally, I could be home, see my Valyusha, and perhaps solve everything. I no longer received letters from her. Since I did not know her address, neither did I write her.
It did not take long to pack. The next day, I went south on the passenger train “Vladivostok-Novosibirsk”. They gave me 20 days leave to account for my travel home and back. October was a warm “Indian summer”. I went in a clean, warm car and fell in love with the scenery passing through my window. All my thoughts were already home.
Before my eyes stood a harsh, offended image of Valya.
Passing along the banks of Baikal, I bought 5 kilograms of smoked omul, several bottles of beer, and put it all in a small travel bag. I had money and did not spend it all.
When we went near the city of Ulan-Ude by night, the conductor announced that we were about to pass by a huge bust of Stalin. They turned off the light in the car. We saw from the right of the train an enormous rock on top of which was carved a large bust in the profile of Stalin. Beneath the bust was a bright light emitted from a projector. The conductor on the public address system recounted that this bust was cut out by a prisoner. All the work was completed in 2 years, after which Stalin released him early from his sentence.
Along with me in the car traveled a prisoner freed after having spent 10 years in prison. I entertained him with omul and beer. As we talked, he opened up to me everything and told me the details about his life. Then he told me, “I am going to my brother whom I have not seen in 10 years. I have no one else, no parents, no girls, no relatives. I will come to my brother, but then what will I say? Probably I will punch him in the nose. Let them send me to prison again.”
I understood such people well. When I was in Karlag, I met similar people who were utterly fed up with life. Whether in the zone or prison, whether for 10 years or for several prison terms, it all became for them home. I understood that prison does not educate people to stand on their own, but rather it handicaps them. I understood this in Karlag, and now was convinced once again of this after my conversation with the prisoner.
Like a dog tied to a chain for many years and then released to the wild, after doing a few laps will once again return to its chain, for it cannot conceive of life without it.
So without any special incidents, I arrived in the city Chimkent where my beloved girl whom I had deceived was living. I came to the city in the evening and arrived at my sister’s home. With tears in her eyes, she told me how Valya, after receiving my letter that Natasha had shown her, cried for a long time. Then she left without saying a word.
The next morning, I went to the medical school. During a break, I saw her there. We went to the side under the gaze of curious girlfriends. When we were alone, we looked each other in the eye. In her morbid look, I felt her deep hurt and frigid calm. I asked her for forgiveness and said that the letter written to Natasha occurred because of my idleness without any serious intention. This was truly the case.
But Valya answered, “Vitya, you know that I loved you with all my heart, gave everything to you, believed you, and waited for you. What you did truly hurt me. I went through a lot, cried a lot, and decided to forget everything. Better sooner rather than later, when we would have formed a family, and had children, and then you would have betrayed me. I would have been happy to forget everything, forgive you everything, and once again love you like I used to. But understand me. I cannot do this, no matter how hard I try. You cannot order a heart to go against its will. You do this, if you can do it rather than me. Let everything return to what it once was, but I know that you are unable to do that. So let us forget everything, build your happiness with others. I have decided to remain alone. That will be better. Do not torture yourself or me. Do not visit me, forget about me, and farewell.”
With these words, she departed and bowed her head lowly.
And that is how it all ended!
I do not remember how I made it home. Life was not so kind! I wailed like a little baby. My sister could not comfort me. In vain did I walk to the house where she lived with her father. In futility did I ring the bell and call for her – she never came to the door.
That is how I spent my leave. I returned to the base, overwhelmed with grief and indifferent to my surroundings. On the way back, I no longer enjoyed nature. No longer did the wonderful scenery of Lake Baikal bring me any joy.