6.12.1913  -  12.12.2002

Books of N.M.Amosov

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Recollections. Mother. Childhood. Relatives

My father left us, and Mama was everything to me...

I can't call her Mother, Mama only. She has remained the most ideal woman for me, absolutely flawless. Young people are remarkably carefree and thoughtless about their "old folks." After Mama's death, I found her diary — a small notebook with brief, unconnected entries. At that time, I read only a page and stopped thinking it blasphemous to invade her private thoughts. I gave everything to my Aunt Yevgenia for safekeeping and left for Arkhangelsk, later our village was relocated, because after the construction of the Rybinsk Reservoir, it would all be under water. Everything was lost during the evacuation by raft. We didn't have much, but it was all bought with the money Mama managed to scrape together; far more important were the diaries, including those kept by father when he was a prisoner-of-war in Germany during World War I. Those I had read at least. Our children are the same. They are practically indifferent to their parents' biographies. Sometimes I have an urge to reproach them but stop myself, recalling how I was at their age.

Mama was born in the northern village of Suvorovo, some sixty miles north of the town of Kirillov. The northern regions of our country are popular nowdays, and lots of people visit this town and the local monastery, famous for its beautiful frescos by Dionysius. They come by the busload to this place which used to be a God-forsaken spot known for its bears (indeed, my Uncle Lyosha, a hunter, killed about twenty bears in the area).

My grandfather had four sons and two daughters. Mama, the eldest, was born in 1884. Grandpa was strict and periodically flogged his children... Like all the kids in the family, Mama studied for three years at the local church school. It seems to me that she was the brightest, since she grew very fond of books and reading. She wanted to continue her studies, but alas, could not. Later, she married unsuccessfully and had a daughter.

Life got more complicated thereafter. Grandpa decided to give his daughter an education and took her to Kirillov to some educated folks he knew. There he found a tutor who didn't ask much, and he began to prepare Mama for the examinations required to become an external student for four grades at the local gymnasium (believe it or not, there was such a form of education in those days). She studied hard for more than a year, passed the exams and went to a school of midwifery in St. Petersburg. After completing a three-year course, she received her midwife's diploma. My memory has retained very little of what she told me about her life in the capital. It must be kept in mind that she lived very modestly, since her father could send her very little money, and she had to support herself by nursing wealthy in-patients. Nevertheless, she recalled her student years as a holiday: students were interested in public life. They attended various lectures and meetings, went to the theatre, buying the cheapest tickets. They read and argued a lot.

In 1909, Mama was sent to work as a midwife at a small out-patient clinic in the village of Olkhovoye, Novgorod Province, in the north. Here, she made a life for herself. The orderlies in charge of the clinic changed several times, but she remained, known to everybody around simply by her patronymic Kirillovna.

In the early 1920s, the clinic remained the same as it had been under the administration of the provincial authorities before the Revolution. The younger generation can hardly imagine the state public health care in rural areas at that time.

Initially, there was no building for the clinic, and part of a peasant's house was rented for the purpose; after the Revolution, the clinic was moved to the house of a local rich man. The clinic changed buildings several times during that period, but everywhere it occupied three rooms: a waiting room, an examination room where the orderly or midwife received patients, and the apothecary. The latter was usually lined with big cupboards where supplies for making medicaments were kept. There was a long table with scales and various things needed for the preparation of the ointments, tinctures, broths, and powders typical of the old-fashioned pharmacist's trade. Mama was in charge of the apothecary, and perhaps she had taken a special course in rural pharmacology. I was always interested in the cupboard where poisonous substances were stored. It was kept locked and had a Jolly Rodger with cross bones painted on it. I helped Mama prepare medicines, but she never let me near that cupboard. Well, I knew where the keys to it were hidden, anyway...

The clinic served villages and settlements for a radius of a dozen kilometers — a small county in fact. All in all, there were some ten or twelve villages with a total population of some six or seven thousand people. Out-patients were received in the morning; the number usually increased in the winter: in the summer, there was simply no time to get ill. I can clearly visualize a dozen or so horses in front of the clinic, chewing hay; sleighs of different shapes and forms... (How the situation has changed: the picture typical then is unimaginable today.)

By midday, the waiting room was packed with men, women, and children dressed in sheepskin coats and bundled up in woolen mufflers. The pungent aroma of wet sheepskins, felt boots and foot cloths always hung in the air. Some people would come in bast shoes.

Medical practice was even worse than the pictures painted by Chekhov and Veresayev in their short stories. Both writers gave portraits of doctors, however, in our village, the principle figure was an orderly, often a graduate of the war-time one-year training course. Qualified orderlies were in short supply: most of them had been killed during World War I. The nearest hospital and doctors were in Cherepovets: twenty-five kilometers along the frozen river by sleigh in winter or five hours by boat in summer.

In winter, patients were received till five in the afternoon; it grew dark and lamps had to be lit. The orderly would examine the patients and write prescriptions, then Mama would prepare the medicine ac­cording to the given instructions. Only then would the patient leave. In addition, Mama would examine pregnant women and deal with gynecological problems. For them, there was a special examination "room" — corner in the apothecary separated by a screen from the rest of the premises. When the orderly was away, Mama managed alone. And vice versa. I don't recall that they ever got ill or missed any days, except for their annual leaves which lasted two weeks.

The main task of a midwife is to handle deliveries. Mama usually attended from 100 to 160 women in labour a year. Two-thirds of them lived in distant villages some eight or ten kilometres away. Mama was proud that she had completely oustered the "old crones" who had traditionally handled in villages from time immemorial. In her own words gaining authority in this matter had been quite a struggle, since the "old hags" had been reluctant to give up their practice.

I recall scenes as follows. Late at night. Someone knocked at the door or window. Mama woke up, put on a house dress, and opened the door to the vestibule. "Kirillovna," said the visitor, "Marya is about to give birth! Hurry up, for God's sake..."

The man came in, bringing with him the smell of hay and frosty air. He stayed in the kitchen and Mama talked with him from the room as she was getting dressed.

"Marya? Which one? What village? When did the labour pains begin?"

"We're the Sushkovs from the Nizhny Borki village. You delivered a baby for us year be'fore last..."

"Haven't lost any time, have you?" muttered Mama.

The man went on calmly, trying to pull the icicles from his beard and moustache: "The pains began last night. I told her to wait till morning so as not to wake you up at night. But finally, she woke me up and said she couldn't bear it any longer... You told her to come for an examination when she got pregnant but she didn't have time..."

Mama was fully dressed by that time. Grandma was also awake by then and stood before the icons, crossing herself. I was lying in bed, trying not to show that I was not asleep either. Goodbye kisses were not a custom with us.

"Take the box..." said Mama.

Mama had a special box in which she carried her obstetrical instruments. The box was rather heavy, because she used to take many things beside instruments: many peasants' dwellings were very dirty. I remember Mama instructed pregnant women to wash the floor mats clean before their labour started: bed linens were rare in villages at that time, and towels were also in short supply.

The man picked up the box, Mama put on her sheepskin coat, and they left the house. I still remember the peculiar squeak of the wicket-gate...

"They always have to go into labour at night," mumbled Grandma. Then she extinguished the lamp, climbed atop the back of the large old-fashioned Russian brick stove where she slept, yawned and whispered a prayer:

"Lord, have mercy upon us! Lord, have mercy upon us!" Then silence, and I fell asleep.

In the morning, my first question was whether Mama was back.

"Don't expect her soon," Grandma would answer. "The village is six kilometers away, and snow-drifts are high on the road: just listen to the wind."

I listened to the wind and thought about the snow storm. Perhaps they had gotten lost, and the horse, the man and my Mama were buried in the snow...

Until Mama came back, anxiety reigned in the house. How were things going there?

Usually, it didn't take village women long to give birth, and the midwife wasn't disturbed ahead of time. Mama generally came back in eight or twelve hours. Naturally, there were some complications like breech births or transverse fetal presentation. (These terms I also knew from childhood, and I had a vague vision of a child lying transverse in the belly. Later, when I grew older, I read about these things in Mama's books.)

A day had passed, evening had broken, and Mama had not yet returned... I was sitting by the window, unable to tear my eyes from the path. Late at night I heard Grandma kneel in front of the icons and pray in a loud whisper:

"O Lord! Help Your humble and obedient servant Mary in her labour! O Lord! Have mercy upon Your humble and obedient servant Elizabeth and help her in her work..."

The prayer calmed me down and I fell asleep: I was still in the first or second grade; I was not a member of the Young Pioneers' Organization; Mama was not a religious person and hadn't gone to church since the Revolution. Grandma, on the contrary, was very religious, and I often heard about the Almighty from her...

In the wee hours of the morning, I heard the squeak of the wicket-gate: I never missed the sound, even in winter, through the double-framed windows. Grandma rushed to the door from her refuge on the brick stove, trying to pull on a coat... "Glory to You, o Lord, for You have heard to my humble prayers..."

I also jumped out of bed to meet Mama. Barefoot, in long Johns (proper underwear appeared in the countryside much later), I went to the vestibule.

The door opened and, together with a gust of cold air, Mama came in. She was followed by man with the instrument box in his hands. Both were cheerful and even merry.

"What a fine boy we have! Eleven pounds! Prokhor, take off your coat and get some rest."

"Thank you, Kirillovna, but I'd better get goin'. Don't know how we could have managed without you..."

There was another village midwife in our family: Aunt Katya, my father's sister. I'll write about her below. She and Mama were good friends, when Aunt Katya visited us, they could talk about their patients and childbirth till the wee hours.

Mama worked as midwife for twenty-four years, handling some three thousand odd childbirths, and only one woman died. Five women in labour were taken to Gherepovets where they successfully were operated upon.

The infant mortality rate was also low, although the conditions in the peasants' huts were far from perfect: people were so poor that they often had nothing to wrap the newborn child in. Mama often sent her own old towels and sheets with their husbands to ease their plight. The village women were in all probability, strong and accustomed to childbirth. At the same time, no one could deny Mama's qualifications.

We lived in constant expectation of another birth. Every third or fourth day, Mama would leave home to handle a delivery. In the fall, births were particularly frequent; the weather was awful: heavy rains, muddy unpassable roads, and dark, cold nights. Often, she would go from one delivery to another and then a third one... So Grandma and I lived in constant anxiety.

One thing is totally absent from my memory: gifts from Mama's patients, because they were simply nonexistent. In fact, Mama never took a thing from the women she assisted in labour. Well, there was one exception. Mama had a flock of devoted admirers, almost friends, the women whom she assisted in labour several times and who really had gentle hearts and kind, humane souls. Sometimes, in the fall, they brought her red whortleberry and nothing more. I recall one occasion when someone brought her a basket of eggs and she threw them off the high porch; the broken eggs rolled down the steps, leaving yellowish spots.

Mama had a very clear, silvery voice. When she spoke with women in the street, she could be heard far away People used to say; "Kirillovna is coming..." She was a passionate and dedicated worker She not only handled deliveries but established a system of periodic check-ups for pregnant women prior to childbirth and even lectured them on personal hygiene and child care. She was particularly concerned about the high mortality rate among children due to summer diarrhea. I remember "the conversations on this subject and the discussion of possible preventive measures. Likewise, I recall the organization of summer day-care centers which first appeared in our village long before the advent of collective farms. Mama was absorbed by the lives of village folks and didn't want to change it for the world. "She lost her husband because of these village women," Aunt Katya used to say many years later. She simply couldn't imagine any other of having a happy life. As a son, I didn't cause her much trouble. Frankly, I was a good boy. And how could it be otherwise with a mother like her? I had never heard her lie; she was benevolent to other people, always ready to help them... Everybody thought highly of her, and there are still living witnesses to that.


It is time now to tell you about the Amosoffs. Many times I have tried to figure out what in my character is genetic and what is the result of upbringing. I believe that my genes are stronger. In any case, my deduction is rather shaky and subjective and cannot be passed off as Gospel truth.

The village of Olkhovoye and larger settlement of the same name stood on the Sheksna River. All in all, there were three hundred houses, two churches, a two-year elementary school, and the seat of the volost or county authorities. Later, after the Revolution, it was converted into a club house. In short, it was a civilized sort of village, as it were.

The peasants did not have much land, and the soil was poor, so it was difficult to live without any additional means of income except farming. Most of the folks were neither rich nor poor: each had a horse, one or two cows, several head of sheep, hens and chicken, and humble vegetable gardens. There was an abundance of only thing: cabbage.

I don't know the ancient history of the village except that in the days of serfdom, it had belonged to some landlords, although I saw no traces of an estate there.

Now about my forbears.

It's amazing how little people are interested in the past of their families. Maybe it is because they were not taught to cherish their past. At the same time, read some biographies, and you'll see that people know their family trees back to the adoption of Christianity in Russia. I personally know the history of my family only back to my greatgreat-grandfather. At least three generations of the Amosoffs up to my father were farmers and factory workers at the same time: they farmed the land in summer and, in winter, the head of the family and his elder sons would go to the township of Marotskoye and work at a metal factory there. The head of the family was usually a sort of supervisor or team leader, and his sons were ordinary workers. At least, that was the case with greatgrandfather on his tombstone was the inscription: "To supervisor Ivan Amosoff..."

They lived well but were not rich. There was no hired help in the family. Perhaps, they could have become wealthier, but there were two scourges in the family: a passion for horses and strong drink. The passion for horses ended with my grandpa's death, but the alcoholism was passed to his children and grandchildren. Mama thought it was hereditary and feared for me all her life.

I remember the Amnsoff's property: a winter house with a bug kitchen and two small rooms and a summer urban-type dwelling with a kitchen and three larger rooms. A big farmyard where three cows were kept sometimes, as my grandma used to boast. The horses used to change all the time, but one was always kept for household purposes.

The back yard was filled with husbandry buildings: a bath house, a coach house, a granary, and a cellar — all close to each other. The names sound flashy, perhaps, but in fact, all the buildings were old and shabby: the bath house, almost in ruins, had a heath without a chimney so the smoke had to be released through a small window; in the coach house were a cart, a sleigh, a sled, and a roost for the hens. The granary was small, but it was kept locked with a big key made by one of our forbears. There had been a smithy, but it burnt down, and I remember only an anvil and a stub with a vice.

In general, it was a typical household of modest means.

Mama and grandma spoke about my grandpa in very different ways. Mama used to say that he had been a remarkable man with a very kind heart. Everything about him was fine except for the drinking, "Even when he was drunk, he was a good man," she added. Grandma was more reticent in her judgement: "A strange man he was For high church feasts I used to cook a lot — beer, pies, everything. And he would go outside and invite everybody in to join him, saying that the Amosoffs had a house of plenty and could treat everybody Or take his passion for horses, for instance. I would hardly be used to one when he would go trading it for another. Once, he even locked me in the granary so he could do his horse-trading in peace. Every Gypsy horse trader for miles around knew him."

Family legend had it that his horses were the death of him in the end: he had been riding from a nearby town in bad weather and had fallen through the thin ice on the river. He escaped the Grim Reaper's clutches for the moment but got dropsy and died... "During the war, when he was ill and unable to walk, he used to sit you in his lap and say, All children have grown up, but no one wants to be a farmer May be you will follow in my footsteps'..." Grandma often recalled.

My grandma, Marya Sergeyevna, was a completely different kind of person: she was an imperious woman and kept the entire household in her strong hands. She told me that she had been born a serf and could neither read or write.

Grandma didn't like Mama initially because when my father married her, she already had a daughter from her first marriage. But when father left us, she stayed with Mama and me although she had had ten of her own children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. Grandma didn't want to live with her own children or her other daughters-in-law: Mama's kindness had won her heart.

Grandma died of cystic cancer; she suffered a lot but never disturbed Mama who was tired after visiting the sick. Mama recalled that Grandma moaned at night but would not call out to her until she was completely awake.

I tend to think I've inherited some of my Grandma's genes as well.

The Amosoff uncles and aunts were also interesting people who could well have been characters from a novel or a short story. Some as the main characters, and others — to fill in the background.

The eldest son in the family was Uncle Vasya from the town of Rybinsk. I don't know when or why he went there, but before the Revolution, he was the manager of a rolling mill and continued to work in that capacity after it. He had a big family and lived a long life. There was nothing else remarkable about him.

Second in line was my father, but I'll write about him later: there was not much love lost between us, and my memory has kept little of him.

The third child was Uncle Sasha. He and his family were very close to us. He did not even complete the two-year elementary school, but left for St. Petersburg to become a skilled worker at one of the engineering factories there. Moreover, he was an inventor, had a number of patients, and earned quite a lot. Unfortunately, he was also a heavy drinker He was married to Ukrainian girl and had three daughters and a son. In 1918, after the Revolution, when there was hunger in the capital and the factories were shut down, he returned to Olkhovoye and worked as a mechanic. They lived well, but after that, something was missing from Uncle Sasha's life.

In 1922, the first National Exhibition of Economic Achievements was opened in Moscow. Uncle Sasha went there and returned with a burning desire to build a windmill similar to the American type he had seen in Moscow. He wanted to build it of wood, since there was no metal at hand. He spent the rest of his life designing and building the mill of his dream... It consumed all his earnings, and he even managed to abstain from drinking the whole time he was working on it His family lived from hand to mouth, but he was busy with the mill. Finally, a four-storeyed tower-like structure appeared in his vegetable garden. The windmill arms and the six-meter rudder remained unfinished and lay on the ground where he kept working at them. When they were completed, he wanted to hoist them up and fasten them to the rotating turret.

I remember it was March. There was the melting snow and Uncle Sasha raising the rudder. The field behind the house where the windlasses were installed was full of people — children in particular. Uncle Sasha and his helpers tried the whole day to lift the vanes and the rudder, but unsuccessfully: they were unable to fix it so that it was perpendicular to the axis.

Something went wrong with Uncle Sasha's soul after this failure. He started drinking anew, but kept on climbing his tower and doing something up there. Obviously, he didn't derive even a bit of pleasure from it any longer. One winter night on his way home from a neighbouring village, drunk as a lord, he collapsed on the road. A farmer found him and brought home, but he was already dead.

His wife was left with four kids aged five to eleven, without any means of substance. Aunt Anna had a difficult life ahead of her. Despite all the hardships, she brought up her children and gave them an education: the daughters became teachers and nurses. The youngest son, Tolya, studied to become a mechanic. He fought bravely during World War II; after that, he became a sailor, completed his education, lost an eye during one of his sea voyages and, finally, died of a heart attack when he was not yet fifty.

Katerina, Uncle Sasha's middle daughter, and I are still very close, but I don't see any traces of the Amosoff character in her.


Now I can write about my father. I'm going to be frank about him, because all those who might be hurt by the unpleasant truth are long dead. Mama always thought that he was a fine man initially. And that may well be: judging from his diaries, it is quite possible. I'm afraid, however, that diaries are not a reliable source for passing judgement, since everybody tends to make himself look better than he really is, albeit subconsciously. (I'm no exception, of course.)

He completed a two-year school and was a more or less educated man with a splendid hand (too splendid in my view — or perhaps that was the way penmanship was taught at that time). He was obviously well read and had a good library at home. Particularly numerous were books on philosophy and political science. Most of these books were written by socialist revolutionaries, though there were also books by Marx and Lenin. Having served in the army during World War I, he organized a consumer cooperative in our village and, in Mama's words, was the most honest person in charge of it. He opened a local store and a creamery which continued to function after the Revolution.

When she first arrived in Olkhovoye, Mama stayed with the young local teacher, Alexandra Dobrokhotova, who had come there right after finishing the gymnasium. Misha Amosoff met both young women; he was twenty-five at the time. I have a photo of him: a handsome man, tall, curly hair, a big nose and thick lips. I took after him, except for the height (I'm shorter) and the hair. The Amosoff family trait is the nose. Some psychologists maintain that both external and internal features are inherited simultaneously. Perhaps, but I doubt that this is true in all cases.

Mama and father would have married earlier, if not Grandma. She was absolutely against their marriage, for she had another girl from a rich family in mind for my father. She even approached the local priest aid talked him into refusing to perform the marriage. So Mama and father had to go to a nearby parish.

It was difficult for Mama to live under one roof with such a mother-in-law. Only her husband's love made life easier. She always said that he had always loved her and they had been happy throughout the almost two years that transpired before World War I broke out.

I was born in due course. There was no such thing as maternity leave and Mama didn't stop her midwifery practice. So, a nanny was found against Grandma's will. Mama had to visit her patients frequent­ly, and, therefore, she stopped breastfeeding very soon. I was brought up on baby food; vitamins were then unheard of among village folks, even among midvives. I was therefore a sickly child who suffered from infantile infectious diseases, probably even rickets. However, before I started school, I stopped getting ill. In any case, I'm writing now about my father not myself.

World War I broke out, and Mama's happiness vanished into the air with it. Letters ceased coming from the front very soon (in six months, actually) "Missing in action," that's what it's called. Life is merciful, however, and after an eight-month silence, a postcard arrived — this time from Germany. To make a long story short, my father had been captured and was a prisoner-of-war. The International Red Cross Society helped organize correspondence and parcels via Sweden.

It was easier to be a prisoner-or-war during Word War I than it is nowadays. I know everything about those times from father's postcards and the dozen or so notebooks which comprise his diaries, written in pencil. He worked at different jobs, mainly in agriculture. He tried unsuccessfully to escape twice; his attempts were "rewarded" with solitary confinement in the "cold," meager rations, and hard labour. Nevertheless, it was not capital punishment, as it would have been nowadays. He returned from the camp only in early 1919.

I vaguely recall him home-coming: a room, a bright light, and a man who looked like a giant. A giant and a stranger. He remained a stranger to me for the rest of my life.

Father wanted first to become a farmer, since he had learned a lot from (he German farmers, but soon, he left the village for Cherepovets where he had been offered an important post in the provincial council of consumer societies. He was tempted there by the possibility of earning more and buying everything he needed for his farm, which had become terribly run-down in his absence: there was no horse, and only one cow remained. No one in the family could work properly: Grandma was old, and Mama was available only during the short breaks between her nursing visits. Moreover, there was no money to hire any help.

All father's agricultural plans went down the drain. He brought back a colt which we called Druzhok or Friend. We grew up together, and Druzhok became a good horse; we kept him some three odd years while we still had some hope that father would return.

One day, the household was divided between father and his siblings; father demolished the old winter house and started to build a new one but never completed it. He came to Olkhovo every week, and his visits were very unpleasant, since they always ended in drinking parties that aggravated the tensions in the house. Probably I was subconsciously jealous of that strange man. Later, I heard some rumours about a woman. Mama cried, and Grandma prayed. She openly took the side of her daughter-in-law and threatened to curse her son. But times had changed, and her threats frightened no one.

The family was collapsing. Later, Mama would say that father wanted us to move into town, and that she refused because of her village practice. I doubt that was the reason.

I witnessed the final showdown. Father had been drinking heavily and was transferred to Sheksna, a district centre at the intersection of the river and the railroad. He invited us to visit him, and we went by boat. I was seven or eight, and the journey was very interesting to me. After we had passed Cherepovets, I saw sadness in Mama's eyes, but that had little effect on me. (I remember well that later, I was ashamed of my behaviour ) We arrived in Sheksna late at night. Father met us and took us somewhere. My parents were talking all the way, but I didn't listen to their tense conversation. Suddenly, I saw a woman in white following us and realized she was the one I had heard about Suddenly, father turned and left us; the woman also disappeared. Mama began crying, and I did not know how to comfort her... Finally, we went to the local clinic where Mama knew one of the midwives. She received us warmly and made comfortable beds for us on the floor

We spent half of the next day in that room. I heard someone came with a message, but Mama would not even open the door. She was very sad and answered all my questions in monosyllabic, abrupt words. That very afternoon, we took a train for Cherepovets. It was my first train journey, and I stood all the way by the open window, giving little thought to my parents. I felt sorry for Mama, but maybe it was a good thing he had left us.

After this abortive visit to father, he did not come to the village for a long time, and everybody knew that he and Mama were going to divorce. All the aunts and uncles were on Mama's side and supported her through thick and thin.

So I was not very lucky in terms of my male progenitor; I could never forgive him for what he had done, although I didn't need him at all. In the end, Mama was both mother and father to me.

It's time, perhaps, to tell you something about my childhood which was somewhat unusual for a country boy: I kept away from the rest of the village children and allowed to play only with my cousins.

I was an isolated and sheltered boy when I started school: I didn't even know our next-door neighbours personally. I knew them only by sight. I couldn't read or write at the time, but I talked with grownups a lot. I recall that I enjoyed drawing complicated pictures — battle scenes in particular War was the main topic of all the conversations then. I didn't like to go for walks: it cost my elders a lot of effort to force me outdoors for a gulp of fresh air, particularly in winter.

School was a great event in my life. Teachers were in short supply, so one teacher taught the first and third grades simultaneously. There was no free seat for me in the first grade, so I had to sit with the older pupils (both grades were taught in the same classroom). I learned to read rather quickly by pecking at their textbooks, but I didn't like the school at all: I was depressed by the noise and violent games of the other pupils with whom I didn't have any contact outside the classroom. Even during breaks, I remained in my seat. I finally got accustomed to the atmosphere at school only around Christmastime. I remember well that it took me three months to read Robinson Crusoe — almost till summer vacation.

During the summer after my first year at school I became a normal country boy: I ran barefoot and spent days with my friends. Nevertheless, I remained an awkward boy, a dawdler: I could neither swim nor fight and was a lousy skittles and team-sport player. In short, I suffered from an inferiority complex.

I was a good student, although the teaching conditions were poor there were no textbooks or paper, and even teachers were totally lacking in educational skills. At the same time, I still recall our teacher Seraphima Petrovna with great pleasure and respect...

In 1924 a Young Pioneer group was formed in our village: it was very interesting to be a Pioneer at that time, much more interesting than today, judging from my daughter's experiences. When the troop was organized, I was elected assistant leader. That was my first official post.

Many episodes live on in my memory — particularly the incident with the sunflower seeds. Goodness knows why, but Pioneers were not supposed to eat them, so I don't eat them even now. Red neckties became a part of the village life quite easily; proper underwear and shorts, on the contrary, were not well received by the old women. There were cases when boys had to use scissors or an ax to make shorts of their trousers and trunks of their old long Johns.

In fact, there was nothing extraordinary about rural childhood: the river, the forest, the meadow, and the lots of games. Some household chores and field work. Our household was modest but complete: we had Druzhok the colt, Lushka the cow, the Arfik dog, a cat and some hens. I could tell stories about everyone of them, but it wouldn't be worthwhile: nothing but the usual recollections of childhood. What is strange is that I do not remember how I did my homework. Maybe we were not given any assignments.

Another recollection of that time: I organized a school cooperative society. Once, an old cooperative official stayed with us overnight; he was an old Communist Party member and had been a political emigre in the past. He gave me that idea. It so happened that there was a flood in Leningrad that year, and many goods, including books, were damaged. He sent us a box of damaged and discounted books — hundred roubles' worth or so. We sold them at a profit, repaid our debt, and established a new major stock. True, afterwards trade was sluggish, but notebooks and pencils were sold through our cooperative.

I read a lot, since the library was good. I remember particularly a thick volume, French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle. When I close my eyes, I can still see the illustrations.

I spent two years in the fourth grade: Mama thought I was too small, and she hesitated to let me go back and forth to Cherepovets alone. Nevertheless, it was interesting at school, since the Pioneer group was very active.

Those rural school years seem to be the happiest of my life. Many people share this feeling.

Father didn't come for a long time, but then he started to come to Olkhovoye occasionally and visited us. Mama had reconciled herself to the situation by that time and spoke with him calmly. I was repelled by the fact. He had another family in Cherepovets and a son whose name was Horatio (!). We often joked about this name in the family.

The last summer before going to Cherepovets I spent with Uncle Vasya in Rybinsk. For the first time in my life, I drank tea with sugar Particularly tasty was white bread soaked in tea. In Rybinsk, I also tried ice cream for the first time: vendors sold it from barrel and the ice cream in a can. Ice cream was put in a small waffle cone. The price was 5, 10 or 15 kopecks, depending on the waffle size of the cone. What an unspeakable pleasure it was to eat that ice cream! I didn't have money of my own, but my uncle's children bought it for me several times. Later, in Cherepovets, similar ice cream was sold. Again I didn't have any money and could afford that five-kopeck pleasure only once a week.

Everybody treated me well. I don't know why but people have treated me well all my life... Other people often speak about their "enemies," but I've never experienced this feeling. Grandma and Uncle Sasha died that year. My cousins who had been closest to me were orphaned. Those deaths didn't impress me much.

I had to continue my education, so I left for another town, Cherepovets, to attend a secondary school there. First, I had to take entrance exams. Mama went with me, there was a competition to get in, but I passed successfully. Then we returned home and waited for an official letter about my enrollment. Soon came the time of my departure from Olkhovoye; the last week I spent with Mama before going to Cherepovets.

I wept bitterly in my tiny room in Cherepovets after seeing off Mama, who left by steam boat... She's gone home! The next four years, I always felt fits of sorrow when, after visiting Olkhovo, I had to return to Cherepovets where almost all my life was dull and miserable: I didn't know any happiness except during vacations. Life got somewhat easier in the last year I spent there, when I turned sixteen, and new interests burst into my life.

Mama had found board and lodging for me with her best friend, Alexandra Nikolayevna Dobrokhotova, a school teacher whom she had met during the initial years in Olkhovoye. Alexandra Dobrokhotova had a small house not far from where the town's cathedral once stood, now Red Army Square. Someone probably thought that the cathedral was out of place there, so today the square looks bald as a knee. These are, however, consequences of a different nature...

Alexandra Dobrokhotova seemed old to me, althought she was around forty at that time. I heard she had been unsuccessfully married to an army officer in the past. He had either left her or been killed during the Civil War. Her house had two rooms and a kitchen. Today, as I recall, the total area was some twenty square meters, and the ceiling was no more than two metres, since I was able to touch it with my fingertips.

She taught at a primary school, and her salary was so meager that, according to the present-day standards, she lived almost in poverty, like we did in Olkhovoye. There was no electricity in her house, for it was too expensive. To buy firewood or to repair the fence meant a hole in her budget. To darn it she had to live from hand to mouth for three months. To make both ends meet, she let out a room to students.

She cooked for me, and I used to bring water from a nearby well I chopped wood and swept the pavement in front of the house. The rooms were rarely cleaned, and her favourite cats always defecated indoors. One of them was so mean, it used to piss on my desk because I shot at in with my toy pistol. Don't try to tell me that animals have no reason!

Alexandra Dobrokhotova was a wonderful woman and a splendid teacher. Her place was frequented by her colleagues who were as lonely as herself and they talked shop all the time, their favourite subject being their students. Since then, everything about the business of school-teaching has been close to my heart. (I recall Mama, Alexandra Dobrokhotova and the rest and admire their devotion to their professions. They were modest, dedicated people but not phrase-mongers!)

Father, who earned 120 roubles a month, gave me 15, and that was all I had to live on. I paid 5 roubles rent and the rest I spent on food. Twice a month, I had to go to Father to get my allowance. He worked in a cooperative and had a good position there. Those visits were a real burden to me! Sometimes, I could barely force myself to climb the stairs to the first floor where his office was located. I used to hang about in the street for a while before I made up my mind to go... But I had no other alternative: Mama had no money, since she had to support my sister who was a university student. So, willy-nilly, I had to accept this money. Those visits live vividly in my memory: a large office with several desks — Father's the main one. I approach and greet him. He always looks so kind...

"Father, I need some money..."

"How much?"

On the first of each month, I said that I needed ten roubles, and on the fifteenth, five. He asked the same question every time I came to him, but I never did ask for more. And frankly, he didn't offer any more... Two or three times, I visited him and his new family. Once a year he used to come to my place, tight as an owl, and give me a good thrashing because, in his words, I was the spoiled mama's boy who needed some "stern schooling," because I didn't love him and had no respect for other people. He reduced me practically to tears, so I waited impatiently for Alexandra Dobrokhotova to come home, since she would unceremoniously tell him to leave.

So, my life was not a happy one, but I was never bored. In fact, I have never been bored in my life, for boredom, to my mind, is the domain of lazy people.

I'm a pedant by nature, genes I obviously inherited from Grandma. I recall my childhood: it was in 1918 or 1919, and I wasn't in school yet. Those were hungry years, and Mama's salary was millions of roubles because of the inflation. But our private household and austerity made things easier. Home-made tea and coffee were served with ersatz sugar, one piece per meal. Once, during Lent, I decided to throw myself a real feast on Easter: so I began to drink unsweetened tea, putting the ersatz sugar in an empty box where sweets had once been kept. I was never tempted to take a piece, and had a real feast on Easter as a reward.

In Cherepovets, Alexandra Dobrokhotova cooked the meals, and did the shopping. I was never short of money and ate well, although had only ten roubles to spend on food. I had soup with beef and buckwheat porridge every day for the five years I lived there. I couldn't afford butter for the porridge, so I used melted fat. In the morning and evening, we had tea with bread, but no butter. We drank our tea unsweetened, filtering it through a piece of sugar we held between our teeth. Our tiny pieces of sugar were kept in a tin box. Twice a month, I went to the movies, paying 20 kopecks for a seat in the front rows. Occasionally, I would buy a candy for 1 kopeck from an old street vendor. The candy was big enough to last till I reached the school building that stood four blocks away from the house. At the same time, my cousin Nadya (a typical Amosoff), who was a student at a teachers' training college and was paid a scholarship of 15 roubles, was hungry almost all the time.

With the New Economic Policy abolished, my entire system of austerity went down the drain, for there was nothing left to economize on. Those were the bad days, as far as I was concerned, but one was able to survive. The available food was short on vitamins, so my eyes ached in the spring, though I can't recall any other illness. In fact, I never missed any classes in four years. (Today, illness is a frequent excuse for absence from school.)

I never studied for my classes. The system was very simple, indeed: there were only two grades, "Satisfactory" and "Unsatisfactory." There was almost no homework, mathematical problems were solvel in the classroom, and no essays were written at home. At the same time, the teachers who taught us were of the old school and had taught at pre-revolutionary high schools. Only with the new German teacher, Nestor Nestorovich Hencke, did we begin to study. We had homework every day, and I even got an "Unsatisfactory" one semester. I still remember one of his favourite sayings — one he frequently applied to me — one of the best students. It was: "If you beat your hired help enough, he'll learn how to shoot a pistol."

The only pastime I had after classes was reading; Alexandra Dobrokhotova kept a lot of old literary supplements in a walk-in room: cheap, unbound editions of the classics printed on a low-quality paper. I used to take a set of books, from ten to twenty each, and read them one after another. Besides, I had joined two public libraries: one for children and an other for adults. All I know nowadays in the field of fiction is the legacy of those school years. (Since I'm a pedant, I used to keep a list of what I was reading — an average of some 120 pages a day every year.) I had no friends among my classmates until the eighth grade. At the same time, I started to like girls very early on. I even wrote love notes to them.

There was a certain Valya. She wore a black velvet beret with a big red pompom. A real beauty. My first love was ideal and unhappy, as always. Unfortunately, I am not able to describe it the language it deserves. In short, Valya got married during her first year at college, leaving me with a "wounded heart," as popular novels of that time would have described it, for the next three years. The "wound" shouldn't be overestimated: neither that one nor the others that followed deprived me of sleep or appetite...

Once, some forty years ago, I was heading home from the hospital and was approached by a woman who asked: "May I join you?" I thought she was a relative of one of the patients and rather cheeky, since she used my Christian name when addressing me. She said something that seemed strange and improper to me. I was even more surprised and stared at her. A middle-aged woman — not old at all — fine features and a good figure. Suddenly, I recognized a familiar face: Valya. She was in Kiev in transit, and, knowing that I was living there (the press had already run some articles about me) decided to pay me a visit...

Father had been giving me money for some two years, but then he got ill: something went wrong with his eyes, probably from all that drinking. He went to Leningrad for treatment. There was a slight improvement, but not much. The sister had graduated from Medical School by that time, and the financial standing of our family had improved. So Mama refused to take any more of Father's money. Moreover, she demanded that he should take the new house he had been building, leaving us the old one we had inherited from Grandma and the plot of land. "I don't want to hear any reproaches from him," she said. Self-esteem — that's what I would call it. Father had expressed some claims to our family property once, and Mama had heard about his words. Besides, Father had a second son...

In 1928, during collectivization, our household was eliminated; we sold the colt Druzhok and the cow Lushka, crying bitterly over this loss. Only the cat and the dog Arfik remained. The house was pulled down, and Father sold the lumber. He bought a new one on the bank of the Sheksna River, a sort of richman's country house. It belonged to the local council and stood abandoned. He didn't pay much for it. "The other woman" spent summer there, and Father used to come on weekends and holidays. All this was distressing to Mama.

One year we lived at the clinic, and the peasants built a small house for Mama: a tiny room and a kitchen, fifteen square metres all in all. Mama lived there till her death. After she died, Aunt Yevgenia had the house torn down, since the village was evacuated. This house looked shabby compared with the old one. Grandpa's gates had rotted so they eventually collapsed. They were replaced by new ones made of a few planks. The yard, once well-trodden and wide, stood overgrown with grass. The old wicket-gate, however was preserved, and it creaked as in the days of my early childhood... And the big rowan-trees were as majestic as ever.

For me, fourth grade (which corresponds to the eighth of modern school) was peculiar. It was the time of industrialization it the country, and the curriculum was readjusted once again: high schools were entrusted with the vocational training of students. Our class specialized in forestry. The students were supposed to be trained as technicians of a sort for the forest industry. The lectures were given by first-class engineers from the local timber works. They taught us land-surveying, forestry techniques and economics, taxation, etc. We enjoyed those classes. Moreover, we had a chance to learn a trade: few of us thought about going to university because of the stiff competition and the lack of money. Most of our students were from families of modest means.

That year I started going out to visit the "smart set" of our school that gathered at Leonid Tetyuev's. Leonid would play the violin or guitar, and someone else would sing. These gatherings were quiet, modest and respectable, and I returned home on time. I spent six years at Alexandra Dobrokhotova's place, and only two or three times toward the very end of my stay did I go to bed after ten... What a model boy! I never experienced any doubts or put on airs, although my moral standards that year were rather strange, leading to some deviations. I had taken a firm decision to become a biologist and thought that my intentions entitled me to do some things that other people were not allowed to. Consequently, 1 stole some books on biology and medicine from a bookstore. That act might have ended pretty badly for me indeed...

That spring, the entire group went to Vakhnovo on the Sheksna River to practice land-surveying techniques in the field. We stayed at the local school there and surveyed forest areas, using an astrolabe and a theodolite. It was an interesting and jolly time.

That summer, we were divided into smaller groups and sent to timber works and forestries for more serious practice. Four of us — Nikolai Chernyshev, Valya, Alexandra Vanchinova and myself — were assigned to a remote forest area some one hundred kilometres to the north of the railway that goes from Vologda to Leningrad. Along with foresters, we performed a useful service, preparing forest areas for felling operations. Our life was almost as primitive as in the Stone Age: we lived in huts and went to small, God-forsaken villages to get food. The northern people who lived there were very interesting. Everything was very romantic, particularly since the girl I loved was nearby (I never had enough strength or courage to kiss her, after all.) Every day we spent walking from one tree to another, making land-survey maps: one of us took the measurements, and another took notes. In the end, my pants were one big hole...

Our happiness was over soon: the girls ware taken to work in the office and we with Nikolai were sent even further away. Everything changed drastically at once: a deep and restless sorrow took hold of me, and I ran away home, though I had two more weeks of work ahead of me. I felt so ashamed when I invented my pretexts. Mama pretended she had blelieved me, though I knew she didn't.

This weakness, I'm still ashamed of.

Back at home, I waited for letters from Valya, but all I got from her was a short note. Everything was over: one must pay for his faint-heartedness!

Luckily, we didn't meet in the fall: our class was disbanded, and the students were tranferred to colleges of their choice: the mechanical engineering one in Gherepovets or the forestry one not far from Leningrad. My closest friends and I stayed home, and Valya left.


The two years I spent at college were entirely different from the previous ones, and I don't want to write much about them... In fact, there is not much to write about those years: we went to classes with older boys and girls who had begun their course of study earlier. However, I managed to catch up with them. The summer lesson was highly instructive: "Never again!" In the evening, I frequently went to Leonid's place where his younger sister's girl friends used to gather. But I wasn't interested in them.

In winter, we were sent to the Kemsk lumber yard to help them fulfil their production plan. It was a hard job, but I didn't complain. Our summer practicum was at the timber processing works and paper factory in Nevskaya Dubrovka. During World War I, they had been destroyed in the course of heavy battles. Our practice was standard: we worked with a mechanical saw, removed the cut timber. That was a difficult job. Afterwards, I worked as a stoker at the local power plant: I had to unload some twenty carts of heavy firewood and put it into a furnace. After each cart, I gulped down several cups of water My black shirt was bleached white in two weeks from salt in my sweat.

That fall, in 1931, Father died. We students were unloading a barge of firewood some ten kilometres outside the town. I was summoned to the director's office and informed of his death. The news didn't affect me, since he hadn't given me any help for two years already. Several times, I had gone to his place, drinking tea and holding serious adult conversations. It was interesting to see what kind of person my Father actually was. We discussed politics and literature, a little. I wasn't particularly impressed with him, although he wasn't a fool either. Mama praised him often, telling me he had been the victim of circumstance and alcohol...

Father was lying in the coffin, dressed for the funeral. My eyes were fixed on the suture under his chin — a trace of the postmortem. Zinaida, his second wife, looked tear-stained and miserable. Well, her life hadn't been a bed of roses: as a young woman, she had married a drunkard. She had no one to blame for it: in for a penny, in for a pound, as they say.

I was told that Father had died an easy death: he had been drinking with a friend of his and suddenly had collapsed to the floor. When the doctor was brought in, he had only to confirm the death. In this he was lucky, at least. Came Aunt Katya, stern and silent, and Uncle Vasya, tipsy and on the verge of tears.

I spent some two hours with the departed, trying to imagine his childhood. In Crandma's words, he had been a good student at school. Later he went to Rybinsk to work with his brother where he met revolutionaries and cooperative enthusiasts. Most of his knowledge he acquired from books, or got polished, as they used to say in those days. He returned to the village, bursting with ideas, and was able to translate them into reality. There were some love affairs, according to the rumours I heard. (No wonder, he was an Amosoff, after all!) His marriage to Mama was a happy one — both Mama and all the relations said so. Judging from his letters and diaries, he didn't lose courage when imprisoned in the POW camp.

Everything went wrong when he came back. Maybe it was Mama's fault that she didn't want to move to town with him. She might have kept him from drinking. However, I'm not sure of that. The love had gone out of their relationship, and what else does a woman have to keep a man with her? A high-ranking post in trade didn't contribute to his sobriety. Greediness wasn't a part of his character: he didn't accumulate any wealth when he could have made a fortune during the new economic policy period. Never was he brought to court. After this sober judgement (that what I thought at the time) I couldn't think any more of Father. It was time for him to die before he became completely degraded and went blind.

Mama was distressed by the news of his death and even wanted to attend the funeral, but then decided against it... (A correct decision, I think.)

Father was buried the next day. There were an orchestra, some of his former colleagues, relatives, and drinking buddies. He was buried in a new cemetery, far away from home, but the coffin was carried on the pallbearers' shoulders all the way. I helped, too. For the first time, funeral dirges were being played for a close relative of mine and touched me very deeply. My aunts said later that I had been deeply moved while sitting by the coffin and attending the procession, almost on the verge of fainting. But I had been calm as ever and was amazed afterwards at how misleading the impressions of eye-witnesses can be.

I didn't go to the wake, for most of the people there were strangers to me. I recall that on my way home from the cemetery, I bought a watermelon and tried it for the first time. So that was the extent of my sorrow...

Maybe I'm just an insensitive person.