I searched a while for the street called Karl Liebknecht. Yet no one could tell me exactly where it was located. Finally, I figured it out and stopped at the main post office on Soviet Street, where they told me how to get there. Locals knew the street by its old name “Eighth Curve.” Just when I asked how to find Eighth Curve, people pointed me the exact way. Effortlessly I found the street and the house I required.
I knocked on the gate. An elderly came out and asked what I wanted. I answered her that I had arrived from Karaganda to my sister Pasha and her husband Ivan. She answered that they indeed lived there, but they were not home at the moment. They were at a construction site nearby. A girl with big eyes came out and took me along the street. We became acquainted on the way. Her name was Nadya.
My sister and brother-in-law were building nearby half a block away where a section of land was cordoned for them and cut from their neighbors. At that time, properties in town were even larger, around 25-30 mills. My brother-in-law was assigned a property of 8 mills. They had already built walls for the home from clay adobe.
We had a happy reunion. It had been so long since we had seen each other. How much water flowed under the bridge, and so many events had taken place. We had endless questions and stories. So I blended into the new family and became its newest member.
My brother-in-law Ivan and I had good relations. He was a sumptuous young man of stature, a Siberian from a Christian family.
In 1944, under pressure from the Allies who opened the second front during the war, the government permitted a church building to be opened on Third Curve at the very edge of the city. The good news spread throughout the whole city and surrounding villages. Despite persecution which took place throughout the country, now having received freedom, people with joy could gather in the house of prayer. Brothers walked 30 or even 40 kilometers on foot from the surrounding villages just to be at the worship services. At that time there were no buses neither private automobiles. Despite this, the house of prayer was constantly filled with people. This was the true fulfillment of the words of the Lord who said:
“He… opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens.” (Revelation 3:8)
The Lord ordained that the church was to be under persecution in order to test her faithfulness, so that the persecuted and outcast people of God would endure all forms of trials and imprisonment. Now the Lord gave His people reason to rejoice, for He gave freedom to preach His Word, which with renewed strength was spread throughout the country, reaching its remotest corners.
People were drawn to the Source of light, and churches everywhere began to grow and multiply. That was the case in Chimkent. The Zudilin family who owned the apartment where we lived were Christians. The owner of the house and my brother-in-law also sang in the choir as tenors. Often they invited me to the prayer meetings. I sat in the general pews and heard the Word of God, but it did not penetrate my heart because of the sin deeply entrenched in it. I liked the choir singing as well as the general singing of Christian hymns. Out of respect to my brother-in-law and sister, I began to visit services regularly, but in my free time I led an utterly different lifestyle.
Within me dwelled a different form of energy. Outside with new male and female friends, we played all kinds of games. After the games, I would tell my audience about my adventures. My vocabulary consisted partly of criminal slang and the other half crude and vulgar words.
Out of habit, sometimes my conversations with sister and brother-in-law let out crude language. Naturally they made me feel ashamed and asked me to change my language. Having come into totally foreign circumstances, logically I did what I could to control my language and behaviors, though it was very difficult for me. Gradually and secretly I continued to smoke. By day I watched my language, and at night I tied a kerchief around my mouth so that my obscenities would not be heard when I slept.
By the fall the new house was ready, and we moved into it.
The time had come to think about school. My brother-in-law and I went to the school called Klokov. We stopped by the office of the principal and asked him to enroll me in the seventh grade. The principal looked at my documents and saw my prominent grade of “1” for behavior. She never had such students before. She advised me to seek another school. They advised us to go to Oblono and explain my situation there. Once they heard us out, the people at Oblono called the school at Klokov and convinced the principal to enroll me in the seventh grade under a probationary period of one month.
So I enrolled as a student in the seventh grade in class B. And I started to attend that school. How difficult it was to restrain myself in order not to cause trouble in my classes, but nevertheless I firmly held my cool. At the end of the month long probation, our class teacher, Idita Frantseva, the German teacher, told me, “Peychev, I cannot believe that you received a grade of 1 for the year for behavior. I cannot believe that such a student could calmly sit for an entire month in class without once even but pinching his neighbor, let alone causing some greater trouble.”
And she lauded me before all the students. I studied well. I had an outstanding visual memory. I loved to read a lot. Even when I was living at the boarding school, still being such a mischievous boy, I found time to read books. Just when they turned off the lights and everyone went to sleep, I began to tell jokes and stories that I heard from the prisoners to the guys in my room. My stories took a long time to end because I kept on making up their continuation. When I sensed that no one was listening anymore, since they fell asleep, then I called out to some guys.
“Vanka, are you sleeping?” Silence.
“Grishka, are you sleeping?” Silence.
Then being convinced that everyone was asleep, I got up, turned on the light, and got a book from under my pillow. Turning my head on my pillow and lying on my stomach, I read for a long time.
So when I studied in seventh grade, I always had a “5” (A) in Russian penmanship, composition, and writing, as well as dictation. I loved to read books aloud. I particularly remember a book called “Redhead.” The fate of the hero of this book was similar in many ways to my own.
I devoured all kinds of books, including novels, fantasies, and children’s books. I also loved history and geography.
And then I finished the seventh grade. In those years, compulsory education lasted only seven grades. I had the desire to go to work. But my brother-in-law advised me to go to technical school for, as he liked to say, the shovel will not depart far from me. I sent my documents to the hydroengineering technical school at Kzyl Orda and awaited their answer.
But in order not to be lazy, I found work in a state administration as a surveyor. I worked all summer as I dragged around with me a 20 meter measuring tape, signs, and rail. I got money which I gave to my sister. We spent evenings in noisy games.
Kreger Street where we lived was wide and overgrown with green grass. Almost no cars drove on it, not even bicycles. There were no light vehicles in those years in Chimkent. In the entire city there were no more than 2 or 3 buses, and even those never came to our part of town. So we played on the whole street, and no one ever bothered us. My favorite game was lapta. Even adults played with us.
By the fall, not waiting for an answer from the technical school, I quit my job at the state administration and found work in the engineering team for “Kazgiprodenergo”. The work included business travel. Our reconnaissance brigade headed by our leader Zolotaryovy conducted the mapping of the canal Arys-Turkestan. It was easy to carry the bag with pegs, measuring tape, stakes, signs, and rail. The workday began with the rays of the sun and ended with the rays of the moon. All day we took no pity, nor could we take pity on our health, as we worked as some cowards. Sometimes we wore shirts. Under the hot, dry, southern sun we became black like Africans. The salt from our sweat came out on our skin, and our shirts became sticky from sweat.
All the workers were young men from 15 to 18 years of age in perfect health and strongly energized by good money. We were not home for 3 or 4 months. When we arrived home, we paraded about our peers like kings and tried to look mature. Naturally, when you have money, you have friends.
Here it is appropriate to recall the parable of the prodigal son in the Bible. So long as he had money, he had friends. When the money ran out, the friends disappeared. That is what happened with me.
I had a friend named Pyotr Bushuyev. We became very close to one another. When I came for a visit home after my business trip, we got together and spent time hanging out with our peers, boys and girls. I paid for all the expenses for drinking liquor since he neither worked nor studied in school.
Once, when my money ran out and a week before my next business trip, my friend Pyotr stopped coming to see me and tried not even to look me in the eye. But at one of my final evenings, walking by the “American”, I saw Peter in the company of new friends. “Americans” as we called them in those years were “fast food joints” scattered throughout the city, just about on every street corner. There you could without any special conveniences get something to eat and drink on the run. So my friend Pyotr and his circle of friends were standing at one of these “Americans.”
He saw me and turned away as if he had not noticed me. The next evening he did not appear. It hurt to tolerate such betrayal from my friend, or so I considered him. Although he was a good friend, in the moment of difficulty, when he discovered that my money had run out, he joined a new circle of friends. This was a good lesson for me to make me more careful about choosing friends in the future.
Of course, I did not spend all my money away on drinking. When I returned from my trips, I gave a lot of it to my sister Pasha. This money paid for her to sew a new custom dark suit and to buy rain boots, a hat, and a jacket.
I looked more handsome and the girls outside looked on me favorably. There were not that many guys in the postwar years who could be seen in such suits.
After the evening games, we split off into pairs in dark corners and played the game of love. There was not one girl of ours whom I did not like in reality, so I spent time with one, then another, without giving anyone preference. It once happened that because of me several girls from our company got into a fight and scratched each other on the face. In the evening, our neighbor Aunt Katya told my sister, “Your Vitka is totally to blame.”
I really did like one girl, Vera Firsova. However, she was in a different crowd and rarely spent time with us. For some reason, I got lost in her presence and never could find a way to approach her.
Once I arrived with a good sum of money and got acquainted with the different crowd. There were guys who were older and worked like me. The girls here were also more mature. We gathered in a house on Dostoyevsky Way where one poor widow and her daughter Natasha lived. The guys put down their money, bought vodka and beer, and the girls cooked food. All this took place not far from our house.
We gathered on evenings and drank “yersha” – a mixture of vodka and beer. We then ate what our girlfriends prepared. Then we sang songs from the time of war, “Katyusha” and many others. Then gaining our courage, we danced waltzes and foxtrots which were in style at that time. I did not like to dance because it was difficult for me to find a dance partner given my short height.
But on the other hand, I loved to hop, and I could do that very well. I loved to beat out a “tap dance”. When we danced, frequently I stepped on the girl’s foot or she stepped on mine. The dance did not work out. Where I learned to hop, I have no idea even to this day.
I had my music – guitars, mandolins, and even harmonicas. I quickly picked up on the mandolin. Evenings were happy, noisy, and lasted late until 2 or 3 in the morning. Then getting our courage up, we dispersed into the city night, some by themselves, others in pairs. I remember after such evenings, when I returned home, the door was always unlocked. I quietly went to my corner, got undressed, and went to bed. In the morning naturally we had an unpleasant conversation with my sister and brother-in-law, but they could not persuade me otherwise.
I carried on with my young party life. Although on Sundays at the persistent request of my sister and brother-in-law, I went to the prayer meetings. I agreed with them that I needed to end my sinful way of life, but I continued to remain by myself and was unable to change my life.
Once at the very peak of another evening out, when we got up the gumption to dance and hop, suddenly the door in the room opened. At the foot of the door appeared a huge boss of a man (as we learned later, this was the widow’s brother). Apparently he heard on several occasions what took place in his sister’s house and came over to take a look and be convinced himself. Out of shock such a silence ensued that you could hear your own heartbeat.
A tense silence ensued for 5 minutes. Then, the man put a shovel against the wall. He ordered us, “Well, guys, one at a time, get out of here!”
Insanity arose. Everyone took his clothes and hat in his hand and ran out onto the street. During our exit, he received a farewell punch in the back and a kick in the rear.
Suddenly, the room emptied. The girls hid in another room. I alone remained. Unable to find my coat and cap, I slowly came up to the sphynx. He raised his fist, and when he wanted to punch me in the head, I suddenly reacted, jumped on him, and punched him under the nose. The crackle of a wooden post and a terrible howl of anger rang out. He yelled, “Just you wait!” But I was too far out on the dark street.
A light rain fell, but my boots, raincoat, and cap remained there in the house where we were having fun. And suddenly I was ashamed and angered by my cowardliness. Even though there were 10 of us guys, not to mention how many girls, we were still intimidated by this jerk? Even we could crush him, tie him up and throw him outside, just like he threw us out. And suddenly such bravery welled up inside of my breast that right at that moment I turned around and bravely marched toward that house where the conqueror remained. Suddenly in my head I had a plan: in case of attack, I would give him a quick blow to the groin. When the opponent would double over in pain, I would carry out a sharp punch to his Adam’s apple. Victory would be assured!
I courageously entered the yard and saw a masculine figure standing in the darkness by an apple tree. Dim light from the window shined on him. He held the shovel with one hand and a cigarette in the other.
Without saying a word, I proceeded to the room. I removed the raincoat, put on my shoes, and wore my cap on my wet head. Then calmly with a firm step I went outside.
The flames of the cigarette in the garden did not budge. I have no idea what happened to that Goliath. Maybe he was truly shocked by my courage that I returned by myself, or else he got lost in thought about what had just occurred, that he alone chased off the partying youth without running into any resistance. In any event, no one chased me. I arrive home earlier and went to sleep.
The next day our whole crowd met at the nearest “American” to discuss what happened the other day. We all were in accord that we had cowered and had run away in panic. We were all ashamed, especially before our ladies. So we resolved in that same spirit to devise a plan. If he chose to show up again, then no one would run off but would give him a worthy resistance.
So we acted accordingly. The first evening we gathered again at the very hospitable hostesses’ home and continued our partying. Our guest of last night no longer came, apparently having soberly judged that things might not have worked out so well the second time. So he left us in peace.
By winter I received a promotion in responsibilities working for the engineering crew. From a line worker I became a junior surveying technician. This is how it happened. In our group there was one young female practitioner from the Alma-Aty Hydraulic Technical School. Her name was Valya. She headed the survey of land for a future canal. I carried the surveying rod. Each evening she recorded the measurements in her journal, but she found an unacceptable technical measure. The next day we redid the work of the day before, and it was unpleasant for both of us.
During smoking breaks, I asked one of the guys to hold the rod, while I myself became the surveyor and began to teach myself how to take measurements. I asked Valya to verify the accuracy of my measurements. When she verified them, she confirmed that they were done correctly. She taught me how to adjust the rod and the method of surveying.
Once after our routine check of a track we had gone over, I proposed Valya to change places. I took the survey, and Valya held the rod. I worked in her place the entire day. Valya rechecked my measurements and was pleased with my work. The measuring error turned out to be minor and tolerable.
From that time secretly kept from the boss of the brigade, every morning a car brought us to the needed track zone. I took the survey, Valya took the rod, and we successfully carried out our work.
But then it happened that the director of the brigade demanded to verify something in our area. He caught us – me in the role of the technician and Valya with the rod in her hands. He knew about the frequent editing of her work. When he took the journal out of my hands, he immediately understood it all.
In the evening he summoned me to his tent and checked all our surveying journals. He praised me. Then in detail he inquired about my family situation and learned that since the age of 5, I had lived in an orphanage because my parents were sentenced to the concentration camps. He asked me what I wanted to do in the future. I told him that I applied to study at the Kzyl-Orda Hydraulic Technical School, but for some reason did never received an answer.
Then he told me, “The fact is, Viktor, you are an orphan. It will be very difficult for you to study 4 years at a technical school because you have no hope of getting financial support. You have the gift of adaptation. You can even say that you are a technician. Spend the winter in the office, and we will equip you with the material you need. Whatever you do not understand, we will help you with it. By spring we will graduate you as a junior technical prospector. Do you agree?”
Of course, I accepted with joy, and soon they sent Valya and me to Chimkent. They placed her in the chamber of material refining, while I took up my studies.
The director of our brigade was also an orphan in his childhood. When he grew up, without finishing technical school, he took up the specialty of surveying and even became the head of the brigade. Thus he cared like a father for my fate. He helped me in just 3 winter months to learn the most critical skills.
In the spring I went out with the brigade to continued prospecting work for the branches of the canal in the role of a junior technical prospector. It brought me great joy. I did not have to go to Kzyl Orda to study for 4 years. My salary was raised, and most importantly, I loved my job very much. First of all, I was always outside far from the noise of the city, plus I gained full satisfaction from the work I produced.
The next season they sent me to the field work in “the Hungry Steppe.” This was what they called a vast territory completely deprived of water and almost uninhabitable that boardered the sands of Kzyl-Kum.
Our brigade rented an apartment in the village of Kazkirisupr, which later was renamed “Jetysay.” Our job was to survey the terrain of the Hungry Steppe which was projected before the war by the Germans.
The Hungry Steppe was spectacular. The endless steppe, flat like a table, stretched out as far as the eye could see. A rug of green grass and all kinds of ground flowers enraptured the eyes. Triangles of geese and ducks preparing for migration flew in the sky. Flocks of steppe partridges flew like clouds and spun around the places of drinking water.
Somewhere by the small, dry creeks dwelled Kazakhs in their huts and yurts. This people was very hospitable. They shepherded rams, cows, and camels. They divided the land into small earthly plots and grew watermelons, muskmelons, sunflowers, and corn.
Yet we came to violate this tranquility established through many centuries by cutting up the entire steppe with lines of future irrigation canals.
One time the branch of a canal passed right through such a peaceful Kazakh aul. Of course, the inhabitants of these auls were unhappy with us and brought us much harm. After several years, the Hungry Steppe became a place of growing cotton, and the authorities disbanded all the auls in this area. They took the water for the irrigation of cotton from the Syr-Darya River such that they fenced off many areas with dams.
After several decades, the whole earth of the Hungry Steppe became full of salt. Then they were forced to dig deep waste disposal pipes through which the salty water exited toward the sands of the Kzyl Kum Desert. The waste formed salty lakes. Hundreds of steppe saigak antelopes died because they had nowhere to graze. Man violated the natural balance created by God. Catastrophe arrived as a consequence.
The gigantic Aral Sea nearly dried up. People living around this sea and depending on it for food became impoverished. The same problem also affected the Amu-Darya River.
But we prospectors did not seriously think about consequences at that time and worked with great excitement. I managed to adapt the total array of tools for the purpose of building the future branch of the irrigation system. As a result, I overfulfilled the plan by 250-300%. Instead of 10 kilometers of marking off the canal, we managed to mark off 25-30 kilometers. Because of this, we were rewarded with wage increases and a bonus. Everything was good.