You know the kid: the pint-sized disruptive force of nature. No willful schoolmarm with a calm down is about to keep this little fellow from jumping up on a school desk or three and leading the revolt of a righteous legion of one.
There has been now a long period between the Rule of the Tsars, the Dictatorship of proleteriate’s self-serving nomenklatura, the Cold War Era, the ongoing but passing Region of the Phantoms of the Soviet, and, alas, the dismal mini-epoch of COVID-19 hysteria. Arkady Polishchuk’s reminiscence from the early portion of his now long life — the author was born in 1930 — proves less political than delightfully romantic. With Stalin’s dictatorship an omnipresent and worrisome fact of life, the same proves somewhat ignored by those not directly in its path. Life just proceeds beside it — or acquiesces to it in major part while elsewhere stubbornly evading it and working around it.
What may most charm in this part of Polishchuk’s memoir is Russia eternal, from the rustic home of the 1930s and the Primus stove to the charms — for the youngest of boys — of playing in the attic of a building equipped with radiators —
We didn’t need coal or firewood anymore; alas, I was unable to sit on the radiators of central heating – they were half-hidden under both windowsills. It made it impossible to turn the paunchy radiators into a reconnaissance aircraft, although I drew on them our red five-pointed stars and stuck out there our world-famous red flag.
While the author’s life moves forward, his experience moves backward through time, i.e., to rough wilderness and lives of lumberjacks and milkmaids certain to age and weather in the remote wild winters.
There is too the timeless “realpolitik” of business — how things really get done — known to all frontiers but perhaps Russia’s wild timber lands with both arch observation and bemused appreciation.
When one willful woman in the back of beyond flirts (seriously) with the (unwilling diplomatic) author, she whinnies in the ageless way.
She was an agent of some collective farm from Southern Ukraine, in Russian terms, a pusher (tolkach). Her job was to buy timber for the construction of a new dairy farm and stables, of course, if she told me the truth.
“Are’ye here to get some raw wood?” the head asked.
“Live wood? Logs?”
“It’s great,” she said.
“What’s so great?” I said.
“It’s great that you aren’t here for the timber. Are’ye a prosecutor or a policeman?”
“No, I’m a pediatrician.”
“Is that the type who helps pregnant women?”
“Could you help me?”
“Are you pregnant?”
She whinnied like a breeding stallion.
“Do you have a child here?” I asked.
“No, my children are in Moldova.”
“I can’t treat children from a distance.”
“You can treat their mama right here.”
“I have to go,” I said. “A child is waiting for me.”
In Western terms, she could be called an expediter or even a mover and shaker. The law did not back her activity though it was as necessary for the Soviet economy as a lubricant for trucks and trains. These agents traveled across the country to get scarce material and parts for state plants, factories, and farms, whatever the cost. Their main tools were bribes and what could be delicately called barter arrangements. If needed, or if in the interests of authorities or an extortionist, these pushers could easily fall under the penal code. Without them, though, the five-year plans of the USSR would not have been implemented. No doubt, this proprietress of the luxurious black tresses did not know a thing about the very existence of the State Planning Commission. However, this powerful institution have always conceptually known of her existence. The Socialist System worked!
So Polishchuk’s Russia has its magical old world, one where horses gain more traction than trucks in some places and prove themselves more reliable as well, where the farmer may hope to waylay the stranger for hitching to one of his comely daughters, so that she and stranger may be more permanently way laid and put to work in the ways of the countryside. It has too its thieves, the lonesome hood out for mugging and a wallet, the organized gang set to wrangle a truck load of felled timber bound for sale at other than its intended destination, and there’s the permanent fixture of the fixer, bribing, cajoling, dealing where the state’s dogma and ideals fail to motivate the deals that get done.
Still, Stalin’s actions and a modernizing Russia’s accomplishments are always near in memory and in conversation. For Polishchuk’s young adulthood, the war was over but the world remained ragged and scattered, unsettled, and in some parts channeled or herded by the Soviet effort — Stalin’s effort — to move around particles of populations. Speaking with a forester for his story, Polishchuk hears both the boast of industrial advancement and the covering of Stalin’s propensity for broad and compelled mass displacements.
“It’s a revolution,” his voice relaxed, the tension almost evaporated. “You’ll see the most advanced methods of labor brought to life by the “Friendship” brand chainsaw. Difficult to believe that until recently we used axes and two-handed saws.”
“Just like a century ago?” without knowing it, I touched an open wound again.
“You can say so,” now he was nervous anew. “After the war. No-no, the workers weren’t prisoners, they were deportees. The winter in Karelia was harsh. The barracks were built slowly… I was young. Just like you. It was my first job after the Forestry Academy.”
Note: Russia had warred against Finland for Karelia and after annexation had used the depopulated space to sort displaced persons of uncertain or negative political loyalty to the Soviet.
Polishchuk continues with memory:
“Soviet prosecutors have a long history of poor judgment,” I tried to comfort him, but my joke sounded ambiguous.
He returned to his memories, “At first, I took all deported for enemies. They were continually arriving.”
I mumbled some sort of soothing nonsense like, “The whole country did. Patriots are blind.” After that, I asked a wrong question again, “Who were they?”
He ruffled his hair, “Russians, Poles, Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians, Volga Germans, and Chechens,” he stared at me almost in a panic, “The families with small children…” he looked in the window, his voice faltered, “Have you ever seen a concert pianist chopping down a pine with an ax?”
“We all remember what we want to forget,” I said.
What the author may have wanted to forget himself may be present in his first book, Dancing on Thin Ice: Travails of a Russian Dissenter (DoppelHouse Press, 2018), a book that begins with the nastiest of prison stories. As I Was Burying Comrade Stalin — perhaps by living adventurously and critically on top of the dictator’s memory — presents more the underlying character of Russia in its more comfortable and natural cultural habits.
(Disclosure: Arkady Polishchuk and this editor have been friends on Facebook for quite a few years now).