Chapter Twenty Six: Military Service

All of my peers were already in the military.  I was almost 19 years old.  I began to worry that the people on the draft board failed to notice my existence.  So I voluntarily went to the draft board to receive a notice.

In fact, for whatever reason, I was not on the list.  They gave me on the spot a draft notice that compelled me to report before October 10 to the military draft center with my belongings for a medical inspection with the goal of being sent off to the Armed Forces.  In response to such an unexpected turn of events, it pleased me in the sense that soon I would serve out my mandatory time in the military and then begin to live out my hard-earned family life.  However, in another sense, it saddened me that soon would begin a prolonged period of separation which would be difficult for both of us to endure as we had already tasted the joy of family life.  During the day, Valya spent time in study at the medical school, while I lazed around in idleness and boredom waiting for the evening when we would reunite.  With all my burning energy I was determined to suck out of life every last minute and hour of happiness possible that remained on our account.

I settled up completely with the prospectors’ group.  They remitted my full compensation and release me on my way.  They wished me the best during my time of military service and desired that I came back to work upon finishing up.

The day of departure for military duty approached.  I passed medical inspection and was considered fit for carrying out military service.

Many fields in our area were planted with cotton.  When the cotton became ripe, all sources of labor, including students from middle schools, technical schools, and institutes, were assembled and sent off to collective farms where they harvested the cotton.  The collective farms lacked sufficient labor on their own to manage this work.  At this time, Valya also was sent to gather cotton in one of the collective farms in the Sayram region.  All the drafted soldiers had escorts such as fathers and mothers, families, and relatives.  Out of all the people in the city, all I had was my sister, brother-in-law, and my young beloved bride (no one knew at the time that she was already my wife).

Having become accustomed to acting on my own, I went to the director of the technical school and requested that they released my bride so she could see me off to the military.  They politely denied my request and said they had no right to go against the plan for harvesting cotton.  Then I stopped at one of the “Amerikanka” bars and ordered for myself 2 glasses of Yersha (a mix of beer and vodka), which soon gave me additional courage.  I decided to head straight to the head of the city, the head of the Administrative City Council, Comrade Lopayev, with whose son I studied in the seventh grade.  At the entrance to his office, a young female secretary cried out to me:

“Who are you looking for, young man?”

With an appearance of resolution, I walked past her, opened the door without knocking, and asked, “May I come in to ask you a personal question?”  He courteously allowed me inside and waved his hand at the female secretary standing behind me to leave.

With a firm step, trying not to give away that I was drunk, I walked along the long, soft carpet toward the long, red, velvet table standing by the wall where the official sat.  He rose, came to meet me, and politely shook my hand.  He asked, “Tell me what is going on, young man?”

Right before me hanging on the wall hung portraits of our leaders: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Lenin, and Stalin.  I explained to the official that I was drafted into the Soviet Army for service, but because I was an orphan from my childhood, I had no parents to send me off.  My request to him was that he would release my bride, Valentina Popov, who was studying in the medical faculty, for a few days from the cotton harvest so at least she could see me off.  The director of the medical school denied my request, and thus I came to make this request of him.

He praised me for courage and shrewdness, slapped me on the shoulder, and told me that there was a time when he was young and had a bride who escorted him to the front.  Apparently reminiscing about his youth of long ago, he cried, pulled out a handkerchief, and wiped his eyes and nose.  Then he sat at the table, lifted up the telephone receiver, and made a phone call.  When someone picked up the phone on the other end, he brusquely gave the command:

“A young, handsome man will come to you now, and you will promptly issue him the written authorization to release from the cotton harvest Popov Valentina for a term of 10 days.”

After thanking him, I flew out of the official’s office like a bullet and dashed to the medical school.  This time, the director of the school politely directed the secretary to type immediately an order to release Valentina Popov from the cotton harvest for 10 days.

With this letter, I wasted no time and packed a bag with candies, cookies, and beer bottles.  Grabbing a mandolin that I played very well, I quickly set off for Sayram where I used to live in an orphanage.  From there, I went to the Fourth Division of the collective farm, where the brigade of female medical students was housed.  I arrived toward evening.

With ease I found the place where the girls were living.  They received me with hospitality.  The girls were astounded by Valya that she had such a brave, independent gentleman.  After giving the supervisor of the work group the document of release, with such difficulty I received permission to take my bride home.  But going to Chimkent in the night made no sense.  So we along with the entire work brigade had dinner, drank tea with such delicious candies and cookies, and danced to the accompaniment of my mandolin.

I played the waltz “On the Hills of Manchuria” and others.  Not having any accessible gentlemen, the girls whirled slowly one with another.  Then without music, I drank beer and did tap dances of “the Gypsy” and “Chechyotka” for them to encouraging clapping.

When everyone had gone to their places to sleep on their straw mattresses and pillows, Valya and I got dressed and went to the bank of the River Sayram-Su.  Again just like at the bank of the canal, I stretched out my jacket on the ground.  Until the sun came up, we merged as if into one and forgot everything on earth.  We ignored the autumn cold, the cries of nocturnal birds and frogs.  We simply enjoyed this happy moment of time in the universe given to us by God Himself.

In the morning, we said farewell to the female work brigade.  Valya and I walked on foot to the city.

The day to say goodbye arrived.  I came to my friend, also a draftee, Viktor Belokopytov, who lived near us.  His home echoed with music and the sounds of drunk voices.  I stopped at his house and saw his mother pressing her son to her bosom and patted his head with her hand.  An unexplainable feeling arose in my chest.  My heart was about to leap out of my body, and tears began to choke me.  I never knew maternal love, and now seeing its manifestation for her son, I could no longer bear to watch them.  I burst out of there because of the unpleasant feeling of loneliness.

At the appointed hour, people came outside.  People went in groups.  Each drafted man was surrounded by parents, friends, and neighbors.  Somewhere an accordion played while someone sang songs from war times.  We joined the profession.  Right by my side went in silence my bride, sister Pasha, and brother-in-law Ivan.  We went in silence.  Along the way to the draft board joined other groups of escorts.  In some places we heard the playing of harmonicas, loud crying, laughter, and jokes.  In my soul it felt as if cats were screeching.

Two contradictory thoughts nested in my head.  I regretted that I myself volunteered to go to the draft board.  Perhaps they would not have summoned me to serve for a long time.  On the other hand, my comfort was that the earlier I did it, the better.  Sooner or later, I would have had to serve, and after military service, I would soon once again be living with my beloved.  We would have our own family, children would follow, and we would be happy.  We did not realize, not I, neither she, that this day would be the final day of such hot love, such loyalty, such purity and joy abounding in all its depth.

But I will discuss this later.  For now – now we approached the building of the draft board.  The command was given for the escorts to leave behind the draftees.  Loud crying was heard along with farewells and wishes.  I said goodbye to my sister and brother-in-law and clutched Valya to myself.  I did not want to let her go.  They hurried us.  For the last time I glanced at my crying sister and bride, and the gate of the draft board closed behind us.

They herded us into the yard and put us in a line.  They began a roll call of the draftees and immediately separated us into groups.  They included me in a team of 10 people.  They gave us an escort, junior sergeant Aksyonov who came for us from the war zone.  The sergeant then separated us from the rest and took us outside where accompanying families still lingered.  He allowed us once more to say goodbye to our families.  Once again I came up to my sister and kissed her along with my brother-in-law.  They had done so much good for me.  I asked them to watch out for my Valyusha.  Then I went to my weeping Valya and kissed her one more time.  I told her these words with a loud voice quoted from one film: “Wait for me, and I will return!”  Our last kiss was the final farewell.  Except in letters, we never ever kissed again.

The junior sergeant gave the command, “Attention!”  Throwing our backpacks on our shoulders, we moved toward the train station where in a couple of hours, we would sit in the passenger car and say, “Farewell, beloved city!”  The junior sergeant told us that we were lucky.  They would teach us many special skills for the maintenance of airplanes.  The school where we would be studying admitted only guys who had finished technical school or institute.  They included me in this group apparently based on my work records, where I was considered a surveying technician.

So we, future students of the military school, traveled along the endless steppes of Kazakhstan and crossed the wide Volga River and turned to Rostov.  Along the way, we had outrageous behavior.  We drank a lot, each was blessed with a lot of money, and we were able to purchase vodka at any stop without problem.  It was more difficult to buy bread, especially in Russia where the war had taken place.  We sang songs, and in revelry tore each other’s clothes.  Our caps were bereft of their labels.  We also threw each other’s caps out of the windows of the train cars.  Our escort could do nothing with us.  He was happy that at least we arrived at the war zone alive.

I heard that large teams of drafted men, or even the union of several teams, were loaded into freight cars.  These trips could take a long time, including prolonged stops at stations.  And incidents occurred when two such cars filled with draftees met each other and were delayed a long time at one of these train stations.

And if we, a team only of 10 people in a passenger car, behaved so outrageously, one can only imagine what would happen in a freight car filled with such men!  There were fights, actual combat, and even casualties!  I often ask myself why God puts up with such outrage?  After I became a Christian, later on I read the book Heroes of the Faith by Martsinkovsky where he describes his encounter with the leader of the Russian Revolution, Lenin.

Lenin told Martsinkosky, “Without God, we will live somehow.”  Yes, the Christian professor answered, without God you will live somehow.  But our entire life, and all our economy in the country, and all our affairs will go on “somehow”.  But the Bible states in Paul’s epistle to the Romans, Chapter One, Verse 28:

“And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.  They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.”

And we were convinced of this living in the USSR.

The reader might ask: why do I write in such detail all the dark sides of my life?  I write them not as an example to be imitated, but rather as a warning, so that adults would not carry out poorly thought out decisions from which will suffer not only they themselves, but also their children.  And children and young people who read my book would not repeat in their lives what I did.  And although I behaved very badly, I realized that it was wrong, since in my heart was sowed that good seed that quietly took root in me and in its time ripened and gave miraculous fruit: salvation from eternal death.  I accepted Christ in my heart and live by Him to this day.  But in that time, I still went by another path, my own, that path by which most people travel.

I knew that nearby was another path, but I did not want to travel on it.  I often made mistakes in life that at any minute could have cost me my life.  But God loved me.  He put up with me, waited, and did not punish me unto death.  But I will discuss this later.  For now, I will continue with how I wound up at the summer military school.

So we were fortunate.  Although we were all in a mess, we were alive and arrived at the base located at the station Morozovsk, Rostov region.  At night they brought us to the yard of the camp and drove us to the club.  We slept right on the floor for the rest of the night.  In the morning they took us to the cafeteria and fed us delicious army oatmeal.  Then a barber came and shaved our heads.  Then they led us to the army bath and ordered us to take off all our torn clothes.  We folded them and put them into backpacks and wrote our last names on stickers attached to the flaps.  We then carried them into storage.

Naked with bald heads and wash basins in hand, we ran about the bath, laughing and joking as we did not recognize one another.  Our outward appearance resembled that of naked birds with bald heads that fell out of their nest.  After the bath, they gave us military uniforms: white underwear, green breeches and shirts with bright buttons, military boots with wool socks, soldier belts, hats, and caps.  Of course, the uniforms did not fit every soldier’s size.  For some, including me, the uniform was too large.  For others, it was too small.  We were basically all alike.  We could not stop laughing until the stern shouts of the senior leadership and harsh gazes of more experienced soldiers calmed us down.  Gradually we adapted to our new conditions.

They separated us into various squads.  They assigned each of us a place and showed us our bunk.  Thus our military service began.  We were registered as students of the air school and together underwent training as young soldiers.

Drills ensued from the very first day.  They made us run to the point of exhaustion around the stadium.  Because we were not used to it, we barely crawled with our heavy soldier boots.  They gave us rifles with bayonets attached to them.  Day and night we learned rules.  Almost every night they set off alarms.  We drowsily jumped out of bed and somehow put on our gear like some herd of sheep.  We descended the stairs, running into one another, dragging ahead our rifles and gas masks, and finally making it outside into the yard into our squads.

And then the commanders announced that it was a false alarm done for training purposes.  They examined the results of our fighting readiness.  In the first days and weeks, our results were pathetic.  Even the commanders themselves smiled when the young soldiers went into formation.  Not one “taps” (the command to go to bed) took place successfully.  The head of our company with the last name “Tyros”, a Ukrainian, an old man, mocked us.  Five or six times he gave the commands “Go to sleep!” and “Get up!”  Each time he forced us to get dressed and undressed.  He added that we should obey his order in 4-5 minutes.  In the first days, the evening call brought much laughter to us and our leader.  There were Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, and Georgians in our company.  Organizing us into 3 rows along the path to the armory, he shouted out in his Ukrainian accent our last names, distorting and dismembering them in the process.

His pronunciation of each last name drew out laughter.  The entire company laughed, even the sergeant who stood on top of a box in front of us laughed.  Hearing his name, each recruit was supposed to yell loudly, “Me!”  Once, pronouncing some Georgian’s name, the sergeant laughed so much that he fell off the box which evoked wild guffawing from the entire company.  Instead of Peychev, he used to cry out, “Pevchi”, that is, “Having been sung to”.

One time after a regular drill, the command to wake up and everyone had managed to get dressed and assemble in formation.  In the back rows there was heard some noise and commotion.  Finally, a tall enlisted man exited the formation and held in his hand his other leg without a boot.  The Georgian was hopping and yelled, “Comrade Sergeant, one boot is different!”  A friendly laugh broke out.

The sergeant looked at his bare foot and saw a little boot that did not reach his ankle.  The sergeant also burst out laughing.  Then he shouted, “Who put on someone else’s boot?”  The company was silent.

“First row, 3 steps forward, march!”  The row stepped forward.  The sergeant inspected the feet of each soldier.

Once again, he yelled, “Second row, 3 steps forward, march!”  And the second row stepped forward.  The sergeant also inspected them.

In the third row calmly and unaware stood one soldier, the shortest of the whole company, a Tatar named Akchanov.  He wore his own boot on one leg, but on the other was a boot one and a half feet too long.  The sergeant realized what had happened.  He asked him, “Private Akchanov, do you have your own boots?”  Not looking at his boots, the recruit answered, “Precisely, Comrade Sergeant!”  A friendly laughter again broke out.  The Tatar had to change his boot with the Georgian. In the midst of the confusion, they confused their boots.  That evening, we could not stop laughing nor go to sleep.

In the first days of boot camp, I wrote a long letter to my Valyusha.  I wrote her about my longing which accompanied me day and night from the first day of our separation.  I was very emotional and sensitive.  I often wrote her letters.  They ended up being 5 or 6 pages in length.  I also received from Valya thick letters.  She also wrote me about how much she missed me.  But this was only 3 months since our day of separation.  We still had four more years ahead.

They took photographs of all of us during the first month of our service for our soldier’s books which took the place of passports.  All my friends already had soldier’s books.  After taking oaths 3 months later, we received the right to leave the base on weekends.  Because they ran out of film, I did not have a soldier’s book.  The photographer no longer came to the base, and I had nowhere else to be photographed.  Every day I asked my closest officers, the commander of the platoon, junior sergeant Nechayev, and the squad leader, senior sergeant Medvedev to go in town with me to get a photo.  But they never responded to my request and did not relieve me of duty.

Somehow I received 50 rubles by mail from my sister.  I had an idea.  I showed my commanders the money and promised to treat them to vodka if they would take me to get a photograph.  They consented.  Behind the back of the company sergeant, the first Sunday, we three left the base.  After the photo, we went to a store nearby, bought vodka, and right there in the square drank without anything to eat.  I was quickly intoxicated since it had been a long time since I had drunk, let alone on an empty stomach.  I began to accuse them of being unfair with their subordinates.  In my civilian life at home, I had no fewer subordinates than they did when I worked in the expedition and never addressed them so rudely the way my officers related to us.  After a few words, we got into an argument.  We entered the base, they took me to the boiler room, and beat me up.  I escaped from them and ran to the second floor of my armory.  They replaced our rifles with the newest Kalashnikov semi-automatics.  They stood along the wall in special pyramid shelves.

The sergeants ran after me.  I quickly ran up to the pyramid of rifles, hoisted up a rifle, loaded it with bullets, and ran after the offenders.  One brief moment kept me from the worst of trouble.

But fortunately for me in that moment, some soldiers from my squad stood nearby.  Understanding the situation, they quickly snatched me, took the rifle away, and prevented me from doing one shot.  Seeing I was completely drunk, they quickly took me to the third floor where our iron beds were and covered me with pillows.

When sergeant Tyros heard the noise, he came.  Not noticing anything suspicious, he asked, “What is this noise?”

The guys answered, “Nothing, Comrade Sergeant, we were just fooling around a little.”

“Look at me in the eye, or else I’ll punish you with kitchen duty to clean potatoes!”

With those words, he left.  The other 2 officers were also drunk and hid themselves.  The incident ended for all of us with no negative repercussions.

Soon friends brought me my photos.  The headquarters registered my soldier’s book and gave me the chance to leave base on weekends.  It is true that I no longer drank until training camp ended.  First of all, we were paid very little.  We only received 5 rubles each month, sufficient only to buy toothpaste or polish for our buttons on our uniform.  Second of all, I had no desire to drink.

Our training was very busy.  We went through 30 subjects both necessary and unnecessary.  For example, among simple, purely military subjects, we studied metallurgy and medicine.  We studied the history of the Communist party, metal cleaning.  There was a medical lesson taught by the Jewish base doctor that showed us how to protect ourselves from syphilis and other contagious diseases.  Many subjects were secret.  We took notes from the lectures in secret notebooks which were sealed.  The guard brought them, made us sign for them, and then brought them back to a secret place.

During the political lessons they constantly repeated that our country was surrounded by hostile capitalist countries.  They were preparing us for war which could break out at any moment.  None of them made us happy and brought us despair.  All of us in our childhood experienced the recent war with Germany.  Once again they impressed us day and night that America was enemy number one.  So in such physical and moral conditions we trained exactly one year and 3 months.  I studied in the mechanical department ordnance, that is, I had to know and service all kinds of weaponry used to arm our fighters and bombers.  I finished school and passed the state examination of the first level.

Consistent with the current situation, I had the right to choose any war zone except Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Odessa where to serve.  Along with my training, I found time to read fictional literature just like my time in the boarding school.

I particularly liked the book Ursu-Uzalu by Arsenyev.  He ecstatically described the nature of the Far East: the wonderful taiga, mountains, valleys, and rivers.  So I chose to serve in such a wonderful place.

But before making this decision, I went to the base commander.  Like talking to a father, I told him that I had a young wife and confided in him that I loved her deeply.  If possible, I wanted to end up in the nearby Central Asia military zone to have the potential to be closer to her.  I remember that he permitted one married soldier to live a whole month in a rented apartment with his wife who came to him.

He attentively heard me out, empathized, and told me he could not help me.  He said that even if he were able to send me to the Central Asia military zone, they might send me to such a remote, barren place where not only would I not see my wife, but I might not even see people in general.  That is how it ended up.  I firmly resolved to serve in the Far East military zone.

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