18 May Babinsky. Family (1967 – 1975). 6: Supporting Agriculture. Summer Dacha
Supporting Agriculture. Celebrating Holidays.
The campaigns of harvest help began in high school. In tenth grade on one of our forays to a kolkhoz, a foreman ordered us to clean (he meant to weed) a field of green onions. We could not see the onions under the weeds. When we cleared the patches of any growth, he called us useless city brats.
Harvesting corn during an exceptionally hot summer turned into breaking shriveled ears of corn off dried-up stalks; they ruptured under our fingers with a puff of dust. Field work took up the first month of university, in day programs.
In the summer and fall, every company sent their staff to the country for a week or two. Only women that had children younger than three, pregnant women, students enrolled in evening programs, and company management did not qualify.
And some weekends we spent at storage facilities called kagaty. (Kagaty is a method of storing potatoes in shallow trenches covered with straw.) In the fall, we shoveled last-year liquefied potatoes out of the trench into trucks for disposal. They seeped from the shovels onto our shoes, the shoes worn to work and outings. After lunch break, we deposited the new potato crop into the revoltingly stinking trench.
At another storage place, a huge cabbage pyramid sat under a drizzle that had not let up for days. The Party district representative handed us short-bladed knives and ordered us to remove the darkened outer leaves then toss the cleaned cabbage into a new heap. That, he said, would preserve the cabbage from the effects of rain. Yesterday somebody had done the same; today was our turn to shine. The Party man warned us not to think of stealing—government property was our property too.
And then there were tomatoes. We looked longingly at the stacked crates packed the day before. The tomatoes in them had already begun to wrinkle and would be mush by the time they reached the stores. We filled new crates with tomatoes picked that morning. At the gate, a guard confiscated the few tomatoes that found their way into our purses.
Dima’s venture to the same facility had a happy ending. He convinced his coworkers to bring burlap sacks and spread them outside the fence. The group kept throwing tomatoes over the fence. Everybody went home with a sackful over their shoulder. Polina pickled some and whipped up a multitude of dishes—not one tomato went to waste.
Being a student of an evening program and then a mother of a young child saved me from the extended kolkhoz stunts with their fatty food that my body did not tolerate. But there was no reprieve from the Saturday or Sunday volunteer work when our company planted or uprooted trees and installed or rearranged benches. Or from the May First
and October Revolution holiday demonstrations that followed the military parades.
(Every child knew from school history lessons that it was the class struggle of the USA proletariat that had founded the May First tradition followed by the working people of the entire world. But in the capitalist countries the proletarians got stuck on economic cause whereas, as every child knew, the political cause constituted the crux of the matter.
It wouldn’t occur to us that Israel, the accursed Zionist enemy of mankind, celebrated May First, especially enthusiastically in the beginning of its existence.)
We gathered at a specified location, received placards and flags and waited our turn to pass by a platform teeming with corpulent men in gray coats and felt or astrakhan hats (in Moscow, the platform was atop Lenin’s tomb).
A chain of soldiers flanked the jubilant stream so that nobody could get in or out. Loudspeakers hailed the working people of each country on the globe: “Long live the industrious people of Angola!” We, the horde, responded “Hurray!” What a weight off our shoulders to finally drop off the props!
The official mass adulation reached its pinnacle in 1970, the year of Lenin’s hundredth birthday anniversary. Buildings, media, store posters, anything flat, horizontal or vertical, proclaimed “Lenin is with us.” A set of bed sheets with that sign on the ribbon around it took the thunder away from anekdot creators. People bought the linen for the ribbon.
A city family’s summers were carved in stone, at least in the intelligentsia circle. To strengthen the children’s immune system (that was the formula), they vacationed in the country on the shore of a river with two- and three-year-olds because the seashore was contraindicated until the age of four, though no one knew by whom or why.
While communal apartments had no competition, anything justified a temporary escape. But as more people luxuriated in their individual flats with all the modern conveniences, vacations in dismal and labor-intensive conditions made less sense. Still, few challenged the routine. So, in 1970 and 1971 we spent our month-long vacations with Emily in Letki, a village on the Desna River, an hour bus ride from Kiev. It was the go-to summer retreat: fresh air, sand beach, peasant’s market with the freshest dairy, meat of just-slaughtered animals, and fruit and vegies just-off-the-ground, bush or tree. Separately, landlords supplied just-milked milk, in our case, free of charge, to their renters.
(It did not affect us but the annual rumors of cholera in the city of Odessa, Kerch and others on the Black Sea received official confirmation of fact in 1970. Never before had outbreaks of cholera, smallpox, plague, viruses, mass poisoning been classified other than capitalist-invented-lies. Deadly infections simply could not occur in a socialist society. KGB engaged in “conversations” with devious spreaders of panic and led the hunt for spies who had entered Soviet territory with bacteria in their valises.)
In Letki, we rented a dacha, a large room with a closed-in veranda used as a kitchen and an eating space. A narrow path favored by tiny frogs led to the outhouse, a pencil-shaped wooden box in the middle of a large lot. The water well was located a goodly distance away.
The landlord’s family—husband, wife, and teenage son—lived in a room with a brick stove but no veranda. They owned two cows, some pigs and a slew of chicken. On their lot they grew, it seemed, all the vegetables known to man.
The husband and son fished extensively. Their relative sold the catch in Kiev—that alone could make them Rockefellers—along with their harvest, poultry, pork, milk, and eggs. They were kolkhoz members, obviously, but had no time for it, the landlady admitted. For a price, the office marked most of the mandatory work completed.
The wife and I liked to talk while her sewing machine was going (she took in stitching for a local factory) after Emily fell asleep. The conversations centered on her pride in her husband’s moderate drinking and her three children, two of whom, married and living in cities, counted on their parents’ injections of food and funds.
She let me take as many carrots, peas, and radishes from her patches as I wanted. Early in the morning, she placed a jar of still-warm milk on the stoop and, every now and then, a few fish. Any time I looked I saw her bent figure in the midst of the greenery or milking the cows or feeding the pigs.
We brought the staples with us: buckwheat, rice, spaghetti, tea, sugar. The Letki market provided the produce at lower than city markets’ prices and fresh off the patch, chicken sold live, and farmer’s cheese in gauze sleeves.
A small dusty square with boards on A-shaped supports, the market lasted from three until five in the morning: the women had to head back to their crops and animals. Like my landlady, they toiled practically around the clock. With no refrigerator at the dacha, I went to the market every other day.
The second summer Dima did not take his vacation: he worked on an urgent project that paid overtime. So, three-year-old Emily tagged along on market days, half-awake, shivering, and stumbling inside the tracks made by horse carriages and dried haphazardly after the rains.
To cheer her up, the sellers slipped a tomato, an egg, an apple into her hands; one woman gave her a little basket to keep the booty. Then Emily took a nap, I killed the chicken and plucked it (thanks to Polina’s lessons I had become an expert), cooked,
brought water from the well on the landlady’s yoke and did the laundry on her washboard in her balya.
Afternoons we spent at the river doing the things the vacation was for: playing in the sand, splashing in the water, admiring the sunset, and drinking in clean air.
One thing spoiled the dacha experience—the gas cylinder. We rented a two-burner gas range easily but a cylinder proved impossible to find, blat or not.
The first summer, the Letki factory manager, Dima’s subordinate, let us have his spare cylinder that lasted the entire month. The next year he referred us to the local shop where his name nudged the worker to scrounge up a small cylinder that Dima refilled on Sundays. Emily came down with stomach problems. Dima’s investigation showed that the gas cylinder leaked. The leak, too slight to smell, affected Emily who played at my feet.
Avram and Rakhil visited Letki once each summer to keep us up-to-date on the unpublished news: Sakharov; Committee of Human Rights; the Western denunciation of the sentences received by the dissidents who had attempted to hijack a plane.