Guess what…

( Russia, 1990s )

(  Chechnya.
Photo from the Russian website ‘No to War’ )

“Guess what. I got a notice from the draft board. They need more ‘cannon-fodder’ in Chechnya.”

All lads from 18 to 27 years old were required to serve in army for 3 years, unless they were lucky enough to get into the University. Then they could do a weekly military training course at the university instead. Ivan was not that lucky.

“But they surely can’t take you. Not with all your health issues. Your medical notes are longer than Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’!”

“They are taking everyone – with no brains, eyes, ears, arms, legs…  As long as you have teeth to fight Chechens with. Do you remember Michael?”

“The one who just had a baby-son?”

“Yes. Michael was hiding for a few months to avoid military service. He was just caught by two military guys with Kalashnikovs and a policeman. He bribed a young lad there to pass a note to his wife Anna. She is devastated.”

“My God, Ivan! You can’t go there. If Chechens do not chop your head off, you’ll hang yourself from bullying. How much would that cost to ‘get rejected’ on medical grounds?”

“Two thousands US dollars I’ve heard.”

The only income I had was a monthly scholarship that all A+ students were getting at the University – forty thousand Russian roubles a month which was around two US dollars.

“Look, don’t give up. We’ll find the way out of it.”

I started looking for any job that could generate some income. Finally I got an offer to sell felt pens and pencils from door to door. I was given a buddy for my first run. He boasted that he could sell anything to anyone. He surely could. I felt that people were ready to buy anything off him not to see him again. He could intimidate anyone with just one piercing look of his black eyes. He served in Afghanistan and told me about his comrades, who never came back.

“Good luck!”- he said to me at the end of the run. “Remember – never enter the offices of the ‘security’ guys, or you will be raped and might be killed.”

The whole city was sub-divided among so-called ‘security’ companies. Every business, no matter how small, was paying them to avoid being visited by boys in balaclavas from the same ‘security’ companies. Very ‘secure’ arrangement.

All my spare time I was spending walking from office to office, trying to sell these silly pens. It did not go that well, but I could make a few dollars on a good day. I’ve done all the offices around my place and started going to other suburbs. One day I came across an office with a friendly picture of the sun. “Sun Inc.” was written on the sign. I knocked on the door and waited for a while. No one opened the door. I pushed the door open and entered the hall. It was empty. I saw another door at the end of the door, which was half-open. I knocked on the door, then pushed it open and entered the room. There were two guys sitting in the room. One of them was around forty, the other – a young lad in his twenties.

“Hi, princess,” – the younger lad’s eyes slid down my body with a lascivious look. “Welcome, welcome…”

“Sorry, it must be the wrong address.” – I stammered out and started moving slowly backwards. Suddenly the door behind me slammed – another young lad was standing by the door. I took a quick look at the windows – all curtains were drawn, but I spotted metal bars on the windows. There was no escape.

“Well, well, you, bitch” – a young lad came towards me. “You are in the right place at the right time.” He lifted my chin with his finger. “You’ll be licking my ass, Miss Clever.” He kept taunting me, but I ignored his voice. The only voice I could hear was Ivan’s: “One at a time. Stay calm. One at a time. Stay calm….”

“One at a time. Boss first.” – I said quietly and moved towards the older guy, sitting at the desk. The young lad laughed.

“Leave her to me,” – the boss pointed to the door. Both younger lads disappeared.

The boss stood up and came towards me. He looked into my eyes and ripped my jacket off. I flinched and closed my eyes.

“Is that really so disgusting?”

“How do you think?”

“How old are you?”


“My daughter would turn nineteen tomorrow. She had brown eyes, just like you,” – he paused. “She was run over by some bastards and left dying on the road like a dog…”

He paused.

“And how old are you?”

“Forty eight.”

“My dad turned forty eight this year. He got four chickens and two hundred eggs instead of his wages last week. He can afford neither a hospital bill nor a coffin for me.”

He looked at me and turned away to the window. Dead silence enveloped the room.

“Let’s go,” – he came to me and pushed me towards the door.

Two lads with greedy wolf’s eyes were waiting in the hall. My knees started trembling.

“Back off, lads. This girl is mine,” – the boss put his hand on my shoulder.

“Go!” – he gently pushed me towards the front door.

( Photo by Corvinus )

* * *

Human Rights Watch Reports:

* * *

I was killed in the army – Case study by The Mother’s Right Foundation

“I was killed in the army” – faces and stories of 18-20 year old Russian soldiers – victims of dedovshina (bullying), who never came home.

* * *

Background on conscription in Russia

Waiting for dad

( Russia, 1990s)

( Photo by Vyacheslav Yatchenko )

 “I’ve got a present for you from grandma,” – dad just came back from a small coal-mining town in Ukraine, where his parents lived. “Should we meet tomorrow under the big clock at the metro station?”

“What time, dad?” – I felt very excited, anticipating my present.

“I have drinks after work tomorrow, so might not be able to drop it off before 8 pm. Should we make it 8.10 pm?”

“That sounds great. Looking forward to seeing you there by the big clock.”

Next day I could not wait to see my dad and get my present. I put my clothes on and rushed out of the house before eight pm. It was dark outside. I got to the metro station in five minutes. The clock struck eight pm.

There were quite a few people by the big clock. Three young ladies in mini-skirts were leisurely smoking cigarettes. I moved away from them to avoid breathing in smoke. A young couple were hugging and kissing each other on the only bench in the metro-station. I stood next to a middle-aged woman with two big bags full of groceries. She looked very tired, with black mascara circles around her eyes and bright red lipstick.

One minute past eight. A crowd of people got off the train and went to the exit. I was trying to find my dad in a crowd of tired faces.

“How much?” – a young stranger with tinted glasses approached me.
“What?” – his voice gave me a start.
“How much?” – he repeated his question.
“How much of what?” – I felt puzzled.
“Sorry…” – he quickly disappeared in a crowd.

Two minutes past eight. A group of laughing youngsters passed me on their way out.

Three minutes past eight. A drunk middle-aged man was slowly walking towards the exit. A middle-aged woman, standing next to me, started waving to him. Staggering on his unruly legs, he approached us and suddenly fell on me, grabbing onto my shoulders. A strong smell of alcohol almost knocked me out. I tried to free myself, while middle-aged woman helped him back onto his feet.

Four minutes past eight. At last I managed to get away from this drunk. A middle-aged woman helped him onto his feet and started leading him towards the exit, pulling two heavy bags behind.

Five minutes past eight. A young lady came towards me.
“Would you like a cigarette?”
“No, thanks, I do not smoke.”
“What about a kiss?”
“What?” – I shrank back from her. She giggled and left.

Six minutes past eight. Another crowd of people got off the train, but I still could not see my dad.

Seven minutes past eight. An old man approached me.
“Are you my girlfriend?” – he gave me a wink.
I did not know what to say. He laughed and sat on the bench.

Eight minutes past eight. It felt like the clock’s arm was hardly moving around.

Nine minutes past eight.
“What are you doing here, bitch?” – a big guy with a bulldog face advanced towards me.
“Wwwwaiting for my daddddddy.” – I stammered out moving backwards towards the wall.
“Wwwaiting for dadddddddy?” – he laughed. “I give you one minute. Scram!” – he spitted out and turned away.

Ten minutes past eight. I was slowly moving backwards to the exit, looking at the big clock.

“How are you, my little princess?” – dad’s kind smile suddenly appeared in front of me. He put a bag with a big parcel on the floor and tried to give me a hug.
“Don’t hug me!” – I screamed in terror. “Or they might think you are my client!!!”
“What’s wrong with you, honey? Have you been watching horror movies?”
“No, dad. I’ve just been waiting for you by this clock for ten minutes!!!”

( Photo by Bondarchuk )


Oh, girls…

( Russia, 1990s )

(  Photo by Masha M.  )

I just got my Bachelor in Special Needs Education and started doing my Masters, when I got a job in a children’s home. There were around 50 children there, aged from 7 to 15.

My only teaching experience so far was at a Special Needs school. Luckily, I was a teacher-trainee only and was working in a class with a very experienced teacher. Before I had a chance to get to the classroom, a big lad pulled my ponytail and pushed me into the wall.
“Are you new? Which room are you in?” – asked this boy, grinning from ear to ear. I found it hard to admit to this lad, who was almost twice as big as me, that I was here as a teacher. I looked younger than some of the students in the senior classes.

Two weeks of practice at this school proved to be quite entertaining – at least, for the kids, if not for me. One could only be impressed with the rich imagination of these kids when it came to “welcoming” new teachers. No day would pass without a half-chewed chewing gum or sharp pin left by caring childrens’ hands on my chair. Pens, pencils and chalk kept mysteriously disappearing just when they were needed. Once they even managed to stuff a few worms and caterpillars in my bag – I wondered how they managed to know about my particularly strong feelings for these lovely creatures. As for the lessons, they did not care much about them. Most of the kids were coming to this school only to get a free breakfast and lunch, as some of them were rarely served food at home. It was a special needs school after all, not Eton.

Kids in the orphanage turned out to be even more unpredictable and challenging. An innocent question such as “do you need some help with your homework” led to one 7-year-old boy rolling on the floor, shouting hysterically and banging his head against the bare wooden floor-boards. Later I learnt that every time his older sister, who was now living in the same orphanage, struggled with her homework, her dad would either punch her or bang her face against the table. He broke her nose once.

This girl came to me one day. She was a very quiet and meek girl around 11 years old. I liked her a lot. “What is the easiest way to die: to take some pills or cut your veins”, she asked, pointing at the blood vessels on her arms. I did not know what to say.

When all the kids went to a countryside summer camp, we were required to check their beds and cupboards every now and then. I was surprised to find little secret nests made of grass and leaves in some of the cupboards. Almost all boys found themselves “little friends” – either a lizard, frog or at least a caterpillar, carefully kept it in a jar. One could only wonder how much love and warmth these kids saw in their lives if they were craving affection from frogs and caterpillars.

Some kids were allowed to go home in the weekend to see their nannas. I asked one seven-year-old girl how was her weekend. “It was fine,” she said. “I went to see my nanna and met my mum with dad number 11.” Her real dad was in prison, while mum was running a little “business” from home. This girl quite innocently considered all the mum’s “clients” to be her dads and numbered them accordingly.

Older children were even worse affected. Their language gave me a real culture shock as it seemed that they could express all their thoughts and feelings in a few words, none of which would be listed in a mainstream dictionary. They were all into smoking and drinking. Covered with a thick layer of make-up, these 13-15 year old girls looked older than me, as was later proved by an orphanage’s cleaner, who openly admitted that it took her almost two weeks to realise that I was a teacher not a new kid there.  It was such a disappointment for her, as she was so happy to see a normal “kid” there at last.

I bet, for these kids I was like a creature from another planet. I never smoked or drank. My only “street” experience was a quick run to the metro station to catch a train to the University and back. When I happened to be outside in the evening, I was almost always accompanied by a male relative or a trusted friend. As most Russian girls of my age, I lived in my family’s apartment. In spite of the sexual revolution that filled TV screens and newspapers stands with naked bodies, Russian families had traditional “sexist” attitude to girls’ upbringing. While lads were roaming the streets in search of fun to ‘get it out of the system’ before settling in with “good” girls, young ladies were under family’s control, waiting for their princes. Unfortunately old habits die hard even after ‘settling in’ especially in a big city like St. Petersburg with no issues on the supply side, so marrying Russian princes was like playing a Russian roulette. However Russian language had lots of colourful expressions for those girls, who did not want to play by these rules, as well as for those who did not settle by a certain age with local “princes”. By the end of the 4th year at University over a quarter of the girls in my course were married, quite a few of them had their first babies. One girl in our group became a widow at the age of 21. Her husband, who was still doing his Bachelor degree at University, was working as a security guard at night to support his young family with a newborn baby – the surest way of shortening your life-span in Russia.

The girls at the orphanage were obviously going down the other path – ‘not to be settled in with, but to get fun with’. That was a black-and-white game with nothing in-between. I would not blame them however. They hardly had any choice. Girls like me had  family support. We grew up with mum’s loving kisses and dad’s warm hugs that made us feel secure, loved and needed. Long forest walks with dads and short naps in their caring strong arms taught us to trust. Watching our mums and dads, we got some idea of what women and men should be like, that we could use to judge people we met in our lives as well as guide our own lives.

As for those girls in the orphanage, they tried to look tough, but felt quite insecure. Most people they met in their lives were not very good role models. They had no idea of what a functional family was like or how males and females should be treating each other in a respectful way.  What for an average person seemed dysfunctional was their only norm of life. That’s how all the people they saw lived.  Having neither firm foundation in the past nor something to look for in the future, they were an easy prey.

Growing up without dads, these girls were craving for male attention and love. They wanted to feel secure in someone’s hug. Unfortunately, the love they were getting, was very short-lived and only added insult to injury, leaving scars of “being used”  over and over again. I could only admire the staff members, who tried to make the difference, but these girls were still sinking deeper and deeper. By the age of 13-14 some of them were selling themselves under the nearest bush for a bottle of vodka. By the age of fifteen … One day when I came to the orphanage, everyone was silent. Two 15-year-old girls committed suicide….

* * *

“Mummy, mummy, why are you crying?” – I’ve heard the frightened whisper of one of my 7-year-old girls. She climbed on my knees and gave me a hug. I was scared to look in her eyes. There was neither mercy nor miracles in that world.


Walking home

( Russia, 1990s )

(  ‘Orphanage’ by Dark Knight  )

I got my first teaching position in the orphanage. Most kids in this orphanage were so called ‘social orphans’. Their parents were still around, but were not allowed to care for their kids. Unfortunately, by the time these kids got to the orphanage, the harm has already been done. The orphanage itself was not paradise either, though we tried to give these kids as much love as we could. But how much love and affection can one heart give to 20-30 kids? Not much…

I’ve finished for the day. 7 pm. It was time to go home.
“I want a story, mummy. Just one more story, please?” – they used to call me ‘mummy’. I always found it hard. How can ‘a mummy’ say “I’ve finished for today. See you tomorrow.” or “I need to go home”. Home? What is ‘home’? And where?
“I want a cuddle, mum.”
“I have a sore leg.”
“I need a drink.”
“I’ve lost my toothbrush.”
“I am scared of darkness.”
“There is a big hole in my pants.”
Requests were coming from all sides.

“Ok, ok. Another five minutes.”

The clock struck 8 pm. It was dark outside. Last kiss, last hug, last smile… Cold winter air at last. One hour to walk home. The buses were not going here, have no money for a taxi.

I rushed along the street and stopped by the last street lamp. There was a dark patch ahead. Not safe for ladies at night. But the police used to patrol this part of the street at night time. Two other ladies were already waiting by the lamp. At last we saw two guys in police uniforms. Pretending, that we were just enjoying a leisurely night stroll, we follow closely behind them. Here was the end of their route. They turned back. I rushed further down the street, trying not to stay too close to the kerbside. Just in case, not to be pulled into a passing car. A middle-aged man walked towards me.

“Just a second, lady. You are so young and pretty. You have the whole life ahead. Look above. These roofs had not been cleaned from ice and snow for the whole winter. I would not walk that close to these buildings.” He disappeared in the darkness of the night.

I was half way home when I spotted a group of young people further down the street. I slowed down.

A sudden screech of the breaks made me jump a few meters away from the kerb.

“Oh, Ivan. That’s you. You gave me a fright.”

“I phoned you at home, but no one answered. I got worried and started looking for you. Why are you so late? Jump in the car.”

“Gosh, you are just on time.” I said, pointing at the group of young lad at the end of the street.

Skinheads started roaming the streets. Beware if you have different colour of the skin, asian eye shape, wearing skirt or just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…

* * *



( from A Raw Youth by Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1875 )

( from “the history of fashion” )

“I don’t like women because they’ve no manners, because they are awkward, because they are not self-reliant, and because they wear unseemly clothes!” I wound up my long tirade incoherently.

“My dear boy, spare us!” he cried, immensely delighted, which enraged me more than ever…

“I’m not speaking for your entertainment,” I almost shouted at him. “I am speaking from conviction.”

“But how do you mean that women have no manners and are unseemly in their dress? That’s something new.”

“They have no manners. Go to the theatre, go for a walk. Every man knows the right side of the road, when they meet they step aside, he keeps to the right, I keep to the right. A woman, that is a lady – it’s ladies I’m talking about – dashes straight at you as though she doesn’t see you, as though you were absolutely bound to skip aside and make way for her. I’m prepared to make way for her as a weaker creature, but why has she the right, why is she so sure it’s my duty – that’s what’s offensive. I always curse when I meet them. And after that they cry out that they’re oppressed and demand equality; a fine sort of equality when she tramples me under foot and fills my mouth with sand.”

“With sand?”

“Yes, because they’re not decently dressed – it’s only depraved people don’t notice it. In the law-courts they close the doors when they’re trying cases of indecency. Why do they allow it in the streets, where there are more people? They openly hang bustles on behind to look as though they had fine figures; openly! … They walk along the parade with trains half a yard long behind them, sweeping up the dust. It’s a pleasant thing to walk behind them: you must run to get in front of them, or jump on one side, or they’ll sweep pounds of dust into your mouth and nose. And what’s more it’s silk, and they’ll drag it over the stones for a couple of miles simply because it’s the fashion, when their husbands get five hundred roubles a year in the Senate: that’s where bribes come in! I’ve always despised them. I’ve cursed them aloud and abused them.”…

“And how do you come off?” the prince queried.

“I curse them and turn away. They feel it, of course, but they don’t show it, they prance along majestically without turning their heads. But I only came to actual abuse on one occasion with two females, both wearing tails on the parade; of course I didn’t use bad language, but I said aloud that long tails were offensive.”

“Did you use that expression?”

“Of course I did. To begin with, they trample upon the rules of social life, and secondly, they raise the dust, and the parade is meant for all. I walk there, other men walk, Fyodor, Ivan, it’s the same for all. So that’s what I said. And I dislike the way women walk altogether, when you look at their back view; I told them that too, but only hinted at it.”

“But, my dear boy, you might get into serious trouble; they might have hauled you off to the police station.”

“They couldn’t do anything. They had nothing to complain of: a man walks beside them talking to himself. Every one has the right to express his convictions to the air. I spoke in the abstract without addressing them. They began wrangling with me of themselves; they began to abuse me, they used much worse language than I did; they called me milksop, said I ought to go without my dinner, called me a nihilist, and threatened to hand me over to the police; said that I’d attacked them because they were alone and weak women, but if there’d been a man with them I should soon sing another tune. I very coolly told them to leave off annoying me, and I would cross to the other side of the street. And to show them that I was not in the least afraid of their men, and was ready to accept their challenge, I would follow them to their house, walking twenty paces behind them, then I would stand before the house and wait for their men. And so I did.”

“You don’t say so?”

“Of course it was stupid, but I was roused. They dragged me over two miles in the heat, as far as the ‘institutions,’ they went into a wooden house of one storey – a very respectable-looking one I must admit – one could see in at the windows a great many flowers, two canaries, three pug-dogs and engravings in frames. I stood for half an hour in the street facing the house. They peeped out two or three times, then pulled down all the blinds. Finally an elderly government clerk came out of the little gate; judging from his appearance he had been asleep and had been waked up on purpose; he was not actually in a dressing-gown, but he was in a very domestic-looking attire. He stood at the gate, folded his hands behind him, and proceeded to stare at me – I at him. Then he looked away, then gazed at me again, and suddenly began smiling at me. I turned and walked away.”

( Photo by Vilis Missa )

About a little boy and a little girl who did not freeze to death

A Christmas Story by Maxim Gorky(abridged)
translated by Margaret Wettlin

It was six o-clock of a Christmas Eve. The wind was blowing, raising up clouds of snow…The sky was clear and full of stars… The streets were crowded and noisy. Horses pranced down the roadway, people walked along the pavements, some of them hurriedly, others unhurriedly: the former hurried because they had cares and responsibilities and did not have warm coats; the latter dawdled because they did not have cares or responsibilities and did have warm coats, even fur coats.

It was to one of these people who did not have cares but who did have a fur coat, and one with a very handsome collar – it was straight under the feet of this gentleman, who was walking along very properly, that two little balls of rags and tatters rolled, and at the same time two little voices were heard.

“Kind sir…” piped the voice of a little girl.

“Most honoured gentleman…” chimed in the voice of a little boy.

“Could you spare a mite for us poor ‘uns?”

“A kopek for bread. For the holiday,” they ended in chorus.

They were my hero and heroine – little poor children; the boy was named Mishka Pryshch, the girl Katka Ryabaya.

Since the gentleman did not stop, the children kept diving under his feet and crossing in front of him, while Katka, breathless with expectation, whispered: “Just a mite, just a mite,” and Mishka did his best to get in the gentleman’s way.

And when the gentleman had had just about all he could take of this, he threw open his fur coat, pulled out his purse, held it up to his nose and breathed into it snuffily as he extracted a coin, which he thrust into one of the very small and exceedingly dirty hands outstretched to him.

In a trice the two balls of rags had rolled out of the gentleman’s path and come to rest in a gateway, where they stood clinging to each other for a while and glancing silently up and down the street.

“Didn’t see us, the old devil,” whispered the little poor boy in a tone of malicious triumph.

“He’s gone to the izvozchiks round the corner,” explained the girl. “How much did he give, that swell?”

“Ten kopeks,” said Mishka indifferently.

“So how much does that make?”

“Seven tens and seven kopeks.”

“That much? Then we’ll go home soon, won’t we? It’s cold.”

“Plenty of time for that,” said Mishka discouragingly. “See you don’t work too open. If the copper sees you he’ll take you in and give you a clipping. Here comes a barge. Let’s go!”

The barge was a fat woman in a fur cloak, which shows that Mishka was a very naughty boy, very coarse and disrespectful to his elders.

“Kind lady…” he wailed.

“In the name of the Virgin…” put in Katka.

“Pshaw! She couldn’t squeeze out more than three kopeks, the damned old sow,” swore Mishka, and made another dash for the gateway.

The snow still swept up and down the street and the wind grew sharper. The telegraph wires hummed, the snow creaked beneath the runners of the sleighs, and from somewhere down the street came a woman’s ringing laughter.

“Think Aunt Anfisa will get drunk again tonight?” asked Katka, pressing closer to her companion.

“I s’pose so. What’s to keep her from drinking? She will,” replied Mishka definitely.

The wind blew the snow off the roofs and began to whistle a Christmas tune. A doorweight banged. It was followed by the slamming of glass doors, and a deep voice called out:

“Let’s go home,” said Katka.

“The old song,” snapped the long-suffering Mishka. “What makes you want to go home?”

“It’s warm there,” Katka explained briefly.

“Warm!” mocked Mishka. “And when they all get together and make you dance, how will you like that? Or pour vodka down your throat and make you throw up like the last time? Home? Bah!”

And he hunched his shoulders with the air of a man who knows his worth and is certain of the correctness of his opinions. Katka yawned convulsively and collapsed in a corner of the gateway.

“You just keep mum. It it’s cold, grit your teeth and bear it. It’ll pass. You and me’ll get warmed up one of these days. I know, I do. What I want, is – “

And here he broke off to force his lady to evince curiosity as to what he wanted. But she only snuggled down without showing the slightest curiosity. At which Mishka warned her, somewhat anxiously:
“See you don’t go to sleep! You might freeze to death. Hey, Katka!”

“Never fear, I won’t,” said Katka with chattering teeth.

Had it not been for Mishka, Katka might indeed have frozen to death, but that knowing little scamp firmly resolved to prevent her doing anything so trite on Christmas Eve.

“Get up. It’s worse when you’re down. When you’re up you’re bigger, and it’s harder for the cold to get you. Big ones are too much for the cold. Take horses, for instance. They never freeze. People are smaller than horses, and so they’re always freezing. Get up, I tell you. When we’ve got a ruble we’ll call it a day.”

Katka, who was shivering all over, got up.
“It’s – it’s awful cold,” she whispered.

It had, in fact, become extremely cold. Gradually the clouds of snow had grown into dense whirlwinds which here tool the form of pillars, there – of long veils studed with diamonds. They made a pretty sight billowing above street lamps or streaming past the brightly lit shop-windows. They sparkled with a myriad of colours whose sharp cold glitter hurt the eye.

But the beauty of all this did not interest my little hero and heroine.

“Oho!” said Mishka, thrusting his nose out of his hole. “Here comes a whole flock! Up and at them, Katka!”

“Kind gentleman…” wailed the little girl in a tremulous voice as she darted out into the street.

“The least little mite, mister,” pleaded Mishka, and then, shouting: “Run, Katka!”

“The imps! Just let me lay hands on you!” sputtered a tall policeman who suddenly appeared on the pavement.

But they were not to be seen. The two shaggy balls had rolled swiftly out of sight.

“Gone, the little devils,” snorted the policeman, and smiled good-naturedly as he gazed down the street.

The little devils were running and laughing for all they were worth. Katka kept catching her foot in her rags and falling down.

“Heavens, down again!” she would say as she struggled to her feet and looked behind her fearfully, laughing in spite of herself. “Where is he?”

Mishka, holding his sides with laughter, kept lunging into passer-by, an offence which earned him not a few smart fillips.

“Stop it… devil tak you… just look at her! You simpleton, you! Whoop, there she goes again! Was there ever anything so funny?”

Katka’s falls put him in high spirits.

“He’ll never catch us now, we can slow down. He’s not a bad sort. That other one, the one that whistled – once I was running, and all of a sudden – smack! straight into the belly of the night watchman! Whacked my head against his rattle.”

“I remember. Got a lump this big,” and Katka broke into another peal of laughter.

“All right, that’s enough,” Mishka interrupted soverly. “Listen to what I have to say.”

They walked along side by side looking grave and anxious.

“I lied to you back there. That swell slipped me twenty kopeos, not ten. And I liekd before that, too. So that you wouldn’t say it was time to go home. Today’s been a good day. Know how much we took in? A ruble and five kopeks. That’s a lot!”

“Isn’t it,” breathed Katka. “You could almost buy a pair of boots with that much – at the second-hand market.”

“Boots, humph! I’ll steal you a pair of boots. Just wait a bit. I’ve had my eye on a certain pair for some time. Just wait, I’ll snitch them. But here’s what: let’s go to a pub now, shall we?”

“Auntie’ll find out again and give it to us – like she did that other time,” said Katka apprehensively, but her tone belied an inclination to succumb to the temptation of warming herself in a pub.

“Give it to us? No, she won’t. We’ll find a pub, you and me, where not a living soul will know who we are.”

“Will we?” whispered Katka hopefully.

“So here’s what we’ll do: first and foremost we’ll buy half a paund of sausage – eight kopeks; a pound of white bread – five kopeks. That makes thirteen. Then we’ll buy two sweet buns for three kopeks each – six kopeks; that’s nineteen. Then a pot of tea – six; there’s a quarter for you. Think of that! And we’ll have left – “

Mishka faltered and grew silent. Katka gave him a grave, questioning look.

“That’s an awful lot to spend” she ventured mildly.

“Shut up. Wait. It’s not so much. In fact, it’s very little. We’ll eat another eight kopeks’ vorth. Thirty-three in all. If we do it at all, we may as well do it right. It’s Christmas, isn’t it? So we’ll have left… if it’s a quarter of a ruble… eight ten-kopek pieces… and if it’s thirty-three… seven ten-kopek pieces and something left over. See how much? What more can she expect, the damned ald witch! Come along! Make it quick!”

Hand in hand, they went hopping and skipping along the pavement. The snow blew into their eyes and blinded them. now and again a cloud of snow would swoop down upon them and wrap both their little forms in a transparent sheet that they quickly rent in their dash for food and warmth.

“Listen,” gasped katka, out of breath from rushing so, “I don’t care what you think… but if she finds out… I’ll say it was… all your doing. I don’t care. You always run away… and I have to take it… she always catches me… and beats me worse than you. That’s what I’ll say, mind.”

“Go ahead and say it,” nodded Mishka. “If she licks me… I’ll get over it. Go ahead… Say it if you want to.”

He was feeling very gallant, and walked along whistling, his head thrown back. He had a thin face with roguish eyes that usually wore an expression too old for his age; his nose was sharp and slightly curved.

“Here’s the pub. Even two. Which shall it be?”

“The little one. But first to the grocer’s. C’mon!”

When they had bought all the food they wanted, they went into the little pub.

It was full of smoke and steam and a heavy sour smell. Tramps, izvozchiks and soldiers were sitting in the murky shadows, while superbly filthy waiters moved among the tables. Everything in the place seemed to be shouting, singing, and swearing.

Mishka spied an empty table in the corner, nimbly made his way to it, took his coat off, then went to the bar. Casting shy glances about her, Katka, too, began to take off her coat.

“May I have some tea, mister?” said Mishka to the man, beating lightly with his fists on the counter.

“Tea? Quite. Help yourself. And go and fetch some hot water. Mind you don’t break anything. I’ll teach you a thing or two if you do!”

But Mishka had run off for the water.

Two minutes later he was sitting gravely beside his girl, rolling hhimself a cigarette with the air of a drayman who has put in a good day’s work. Katka was looking at him admiringly, awed by the easy grace with which he deported himself in public. For the lifeof her she could not feel at ease amid the deafening roar of the pub, and the least of the fears was that at any moment they would be “thrown out on their ear.” But she would not for the world have had Mishka guess her thoughts, and so she patted down her tow-coloured hair and tried to look about her very simply and unaggectedly. The effort to do so brought floods of colour to her smudged cheeks, and she screwed up her blue eyes to hide her embarrassment. Meanwhile, Mishka instructed her solemnly, trying to imitate the tone and phraseology of a yard porter named Signei, whom he found to be a very impressive person, even if he was a drunk, and had just spent three months in jail for stealing.

“So let’s say, for example, you’r begging. How do you go about begging? It’s no damn good just saying, ‘be so kind, be so kind.’ That’s no way. What you’ve got to do is get under the bloke’s feet – make him afraid he’ll fall over you.”

“I’ll do it,” agreed Katka meekly.

‘Good,” said her companion with an approving nod. “That’s the thing. And then take Aunt Anfisa for example. What’s Aunt Anfise? First of all, she’s a sot. And besides…”

And Mishka announced with commendable frankness just what Aunt Anfise was besides.

Katka nodded her head, fully agreeing with his appraisal of their aunt.

“You don’t obey her, and that’s not right. You ought to say, for instance, ‘I’ll be a good girl, Auntie, I’ll mind what you say…’ In other words, give her a lot of soft soap, and then do what you please. That’s the way.”

Mishka fell silent and scratched his stomach impressively, as Signei always did when he had delivered himself of a speech. Since no other topic presented itself, he gave a little toss of his head and said:
“Well, let’s eat.”

“Let’s,” nodded Katka, who for some time had been eying the bread and sausage hungrily.

And they began to eat their supper in the damp smelly obscurity of the ill-lighted pub, to the accompaniment of bawdy songs and coarse oaths. Both of them are with feeling, with discrimination, with little pauses, like true Epicureans. And if Katka, losing her sense of propriety, greedily took a bite that made her cheek stick out and her eyes pop comically, the staid Mishka would remark indulgently:
“Rushing ahead there, aren’t you, lady?”

At which she would almost choke in her haste to swallow down the unseemly bite…

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Image 1: Photo by Denis Romanov
Image 2: Photo by Oleg Trofimych
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World Vision: Building a better world for children