DRUSHKOVKA, a village in Ukraine
FYODOR (Amy’s father)
The crow of the neighbor’s rooster awakened the man. It was about 4:30 in the morning, with another hour until sunrise. Yet Fyodor Philipovich Wasylenko eagerly slipped out of bed and put on his pants and shirt. His wife stirred but didn’t awaken as he kissed her on the cheek. Next to her slept a baby, barely three months old. Across the room, he heard the rhythmic breathing of his ten-year-old son and fourteen-year-old daughter. He smiled at the sight—for what more could a man want in life than a beautiful, healthy family! Then he tiptoed through the living room and kitchen door where his fishing pole was leaning against the wall. He slipped on his boots, grabbed the pole, and quietly left the house.
This was his favorite time of the day. There was a hush over the village. The sky was beginning to glow in the east. It was a mile-long walk through a meadow to the small river where he loved to fish. One spot in particular, where the stream expanded into a pool, almost never disappointed him. There, young fish would be jumping. He would have no problem catching his limit.
Fyodor chuckled as he walked briskly, slowed only slightly by a stiff leg—the result of a childhood accident. He was a cheerful man, his smile amplified by a chiseled face and a bald head he shaved every other day. He savored life, relishing theater and music and nature. Educated at the university, he read voraciously, eager to expand the horizons of his knowledge. He might have looked like a simple Russian peasant, but he refused to live a complacent life. His desire to help his people obtain a better life was never dampened by the oppression of communism.
As he walked, he thought of his wife, who sometimes tired of all the fish he brought home. She fixed it every way imaginable. Pan-fried, baked, in soup, and stuffed—she had learned that last recipe from a Jewish friend in the village. Some of the fish went to another friend who smoked it and divided it with him. Fyodor liked smoked fish best and often took it with him for a lunch or snack as he went about his work. Sometimes his wife got so sick of fish she would secretly dig a hole in the yard and bury the extra. That was alright; he would just go fishing the next day! How could one complain of too much fish? Not after the years they had endured empty stomachs, especially during the famine of 1933. That was still fresh in his mind. They would have given anything for a piece of bone-filled fish.
It still made him mad. The foolishness of Stalin and his henchmen had produced that famine. Of course, he could never express that opinion publicly. But it was so obvious: Stalin had worried about Ukrainian nationalism and was determined to crush it. In the late 1920s, in an effort to eliminate the kulaks (wealthy and educated “peasants”) he ruthlessly collectivized the rich farmland and arrested any who might be considered part of the resistance. This fisherman had been one of those arrested in 1928, and he had spent three years in exile at the very end of the national railway system in Shadrynsk, Siberia. Then in the early 1930s much of the grain harvest in Ukraine was appropriated and sent to feed other parts of the Soviet Union. In many homes, every last scrap of grain was confiscated. By the winter of 1932-33, millions were dying of starvation. During the spring of 1933, he could remember walking down the streets of Kursk and stepping over the bodies of the dead and dying. The star soprano of the local opera company lay with her hand outstretched on the sidewalk begging for a piece of bread—crying with a voice that had once lifted people to their feet in applause, but now was raspy and faint. He had also heard about people going mad. In one village, a man had killed and eaten his child. Yet there was no offer of relief from the Communist authorities. He knew the government had hoarded grain. In fact, they exported grain or allowed it to rot in storage bins while armed guards kept hungry masses away. But publicly, they never admitted there was a problem.
Such thoughts made his blood boil, only to be cooled by the memory of a story he had heard during the famine. It was about two men who met at a road crossing and chatted for a moment about where to find a piece of bread. “Do you know of any place?” asked one. “No,” answered the friend, “I don’t even know where to find an old, shriveled potato skin! In fact, I haven’t eaten in three days. But three nights ago, I had this vivid dream . There I was in this kitchen, and on the stove was a huge pot of delicious soup. My heart raced with joy. But there was a problem—where was the spoon? I looked desperately for a spoon, but there was none in sight. I woke up in frustration, with a growling stomach.
“The next night, I had the same dream. Same wonderful soup, delicious to look at. But again I woke up in frustration, looking for a spoon. So last night, before going to bed, I got smart. I took a spoon and tucked it under my pillow before turning out the lights. Just in case I would dream about that soup again!”
“So what happened?” asked the friend.
“The dream didn’t come back!” was the reply.
Fyodor chuckled at the story. How typical of Russians—they had not lost their sense of humor. It was often the only way to ease the stress of daily life. No, he would never apologize for providing too much food for his family! He would never depend on a hostile and incompetent government to feed his children. Now he was no longer in exile. He had work, and there was money to buy bread. And every morning, he could fish. In the winter, that meant cutting open a hole in the ice and bracing himself against bone-chilling winds. But during the spring and summer there was no need to hurry. He could enjoy nature, soak up the sun, and think. Fishing gave him perspective on life. It was an escape from the daily oppression of communism, where every action and word had to be carefully weighed. One never knew for sure who were his friends and who were his enemies. But the fish—they didn’t care. Give them worms, and they would attach themselves very nicely to his hook!
Ah, here was his stream. Fyodor’s shaved head gleamed in the early morning light as he prepared his fishing gear. He was an expert. The line on his pole danced as he wound up and cast out to where he knew the more mature fish were congregating. Then he sat on the slightly muddy shore, stretching out his free hand to brace himself as he first stretched out the stiff leg in order to sit. Soon he was on his feet again, scooping up his first catch. Occasionally he would catch a young one, four or five inches long. When that happened, he would gently remove the hook and toss the fish back into the water. Let them grow; he would catch them later!
Fyodor was startled when a group of men suddenly appeared behind him. Usually the only other fishermen at this hour were a couple of older villagers who staked out spots further upstream. He looked over his shoulder and saw a carriage parked on the road just fifty yards behind him. He recognized the three men as workers from a brick and coal factory where he was used as a legal consultant. There was an air of importance from the fourth man; he swaggered as the men made their way down to the pond. He was clearly a party leader—you could tell one every time. He was probably the new factory boss; Fyodor had heard that one had just arrived a few days ago. One of the workers helped the boss unfold a large net and the others carried it into the water.
Fyodor was alarmed. “You can’t do that!” he shouted to the group.
The men with the net looked up, surprised that anyone would challenge their actions.
“You’re obviously new here,” Fyodor said to the leader. “This is not a commercial fishing area. Only amateur pole fishing is permitted. No nets.”
The culprit’s face turned red. “Who are you to tell me where I can fish and where I can’t fish?” he growled.
“I’m a citizen who knows the laws. Nets are not allowed here. This is a breeding pond. Only poles are allowed.” Apparently the boss didn’t know the local ordinances, or he didn’t care. Fyodor knew the type—one who was on the side of those who made the laws and therefore felt no need to obey them. Under communism, laws were for everyone but party members.
The man with the net wasn’t used to being challenged. He stared at his accuser and demanded, “What is your name?”
This was dangerous. “Tell me yours,” Fyodor replied.
“You impudent swine. Tell me where you work!”
“I serve various enterprises. I give legal counsel.”
“A lawyer!” he spat the word out with an oath. “So you think you know everything.”
“I know the ordinances here.”
“Do you know who I am?” the boss shouted.
“Does it matter?” Fyodor gestured toward the water, as though performing on a stage. “The law doesn’t say certain people may fish here with nets, and others must use only poles. It says no nets allowed. That’s true for all citizens of our great Soviet Union.”
“You know nothing about the law. I am Mikhail Tschikalin, and I am the new general director of the Drushkova Brick Factory. You are just a stupid peasant!” He moved closer to the fisherman, as though considering an attack.
But the fisherman was not alarmed. He made no move to retreat. The party boss reconsidered: “Do you think our great leaders in Moscow care about your stupid local ordinances? Do you think they are worried about your petty little fish when they are trying to defend our motherland? You insignificant little worm!”
If the fisherman was afraid, there was no evidence of it in his face or posture. He had confronted petty bureaucrats before. He knew they could imprison him, but they could never break his spirit. He had spent time in jail before, and had acquired a firm confidence that revealed no fear.
Maybe the factory boss sensed that and, being a coward at heart, didn’t want to chance a physical confrontation. They glared at each other for a moment. Then he smiled and tried a new approach.
“I see you care a great deal about our nation,” he said in a conciliatory politician’s voice. “So why are you worried about these fish? They are here for all of us comrades.”
“But if we take them with nets, there will be none left. This is a stocking pond. We must let the small fish grow and produce more fish for our great country.”
“This is only one pond. There are so many other fish in our great rivers. Why shouldn’t the people in my factory enjoy the fish we have here?”
“Then why do we have laws? Why did our wise leaders say no nets here? It was so all the people in our village could enjoy the fish, not just a privileged few who would scoop them all up and leave none for the rest of us.”
“You stupid idiot!” Again the tone changed, and the party leader’s face turned red with anger. “You will pay for this.” He nodded to his helpers, who folded up the net as they started back toward the village. “Throw him into the water,” he ordered the men.
They hesitated, then headed toward the fisherman. Fyodor snapped open his pocketknife, which he used to clean fish, and held it in front of him. He shouted, “If you dare to attack me, I will slice your bellies open as I do those of the fish!” The anger and disdain in his voice made the factory workers think he might even welcome the fray. But the boss called it off. “Forget it! There are better ways to deal with this kulak. Let’s go!” The men angrily retreated to their carriage and left.
The fisherman sighed with relief, but he knew instinctively that he would pay a price for his confrontation. Party leaders were not to be trifled with. He knew that, yet he couldn’t help himself. What good was law if it was ignored? And what good was a man if he didn’t stand for truth? He knew what was right. No one—not even a party leader—was above the law.
Was that belief worth another prison term? Probably not, but for some reason Fyodor could never back down from what he knew was right. He put a fresh worm on the line, reached back, and cast out into the middle of the pool. No party hack was going to ruin his fishing.
A fist hammered on the door. The sound split the silence of the autumn night. Fyodor and Maria awakened with a start.
“What was that?” an alarmed Maria Wasylenko asked her husband. She sat up, shaking in fear.
Fyodor knew who the intruders were. He remembered the warning from a neighbor that morning: “They are coming for you tonight. You must run!” Sometimes, if you ran, they would leave and not come back. But he was not one to run away. He had nothing to hide. He was not ashamed of his life. And if he did run, where would he go? Sooner or later, they would find him anyway.
Fyodor stumbled into the kitchen, flipped on the light, and asked, “Who is it?”
“Open up immediately!” a voice demanded.
I will not open the door unless you identify yourselves.”
There was a loud bang, then suddenly the door flew open as three men forced themselves into the house. They headed for the bookshelves and started ransacking Fyodor’s belongings.
“What do you want?” Fyodor demanded.
“What are you looking for?”
Still no answer.
His face and bald head became flush with anger. “Tell me what you want and I will give it to you! You don’t need to tear up my house!”
But the intruders ignored him and kept tossing books and periodicals and papers onto the floor.
“I am a Soviet citizen!” he shouted. You can’t come in here without a warrant. I know the laws. I demand you identify yourselves!”
“Fedija, please!” cried Maria, her long black hair flowing down over her nightshirt. She knew how the men could hurt him if he resisted.
One of the men skimmed through a journal that contained information about the condition of European countries. Such publications were forbidden to most citizens. “What is this?” the man demanded.
“I read them for my work! I must keep up with what’s going on in other places, in factories like ours.” The intruder set the journal on the kitchen table and continued his search.
Again, Fyodor asked, “Why are you doing this? What do you want? Tell me, and I will give you what you are looking for.”
His pleas were ignored. Two sleepy-eyed children emerged from the bedroom. They huddled together with their mother, shaking with fear. Drawers and boxes were now turned upside down. A pile of clothing, papers, books, and journals grew on the floor.
One of the men bent down and picked up a notebook. It was a diary that belonged to Fyodor’s older daughter—written in German. “Give me that!” Fyodor shouted as he lunged for the book.
The man shoved him out of the way and set it on the table. Fyodor’s heart skipped a beat. He had made it a rule that whenever he and his wife needed a sitter for the children, they would hire one of the women from the German settlement nearby. He insisted that they speak only German so his children could learn the language. For the past year, he had encouraged his daughter to write her diary entries in German for practice. He knew there was tension between Germany and the Soviet Union, but surely there was nothing wrong with teaching his children a foreign language. He was certain, however, the men would use this against him.
“Where is your search warrant?” Fyodor asked. “you can’t come in here without a warrant. I’m a Soviet citizen. I know my rights.”
No answer. A drawer splintered as it was turned upside down and thrown aside.
Fyodor began yelling. He pushed one of the men. “Show me your identification!”
“Fedija!” his wife pleaded.
A baby began to cry. Maria retreated to the bedroom to pick up the baby, trying to comfort her.
As she returned to the front room, an eleven-year-old boy asked, “Mommy, what are the men doing? Why are they—”
Fyodor went after another of the intruders. “Do you have a badge? Show me your badge!”
He turned to the third man out of frustration. “What are you looking for? Tell me! I will give it to you, I assure you!”
One of the searchers pulled out a gun and pointed it at Fyodor’s face. The fifteen-year-old daughter lunged to her father’s side to protect him. The gunman shoved the girl back against the wall. “Shut up and stay there!” he ordered. Then he stood facing Fyodor with the gun while the other two men finished the search.
They set aside several law books and works of literature. There was a collection of newspaper clippings, and also some photographs. These they put in Fyodor’s crocodile-leather portfolio.
Finally the leader spoke. “Put on your coat!” he ordered. “You’re going with us.” At that point, he flashed his badge.
Fyodor didn’t move. “Fedija, please do what they say!” Maria pleaded. The two older children were now crying and trembling in fear.
This was it! Fyodor and Maria looked at each other. They knew. Sooner or later, they had to come. The NKVD always came. He had been arrested before. He had lived in exile for three years. And even after he was released, he was never really free. They watched him. They warned him. They applied pressure. And the pressure built, until now.
There was no sense in arguing. So the men had not properly identified themselves. What could he do? You couldn’t fight the NKVD. He removed his nightshirt and put on his pants, a shirt, and a coat. Over his shaved head, he placed a fur hat.
He kissed his son and older daughter. Without a word, he kissed his wife. He then bent over, gently took his baby daughter’s hand, and kissed it. “Auf, nedovho, Emotshka,” he whispered. “Goodbye. I’ll see you soon, my little daughter.”
Shaken, but with proud determination, he allowed the men to escort him out the front door into the pitch-black night. After a few steps down the narrow path, he turned for one last look. His wife was standing in the doorway, the baby cradled at her breast.
The men led Fyodor down the path, over a narrow stream, and back up the embankment to a waiting truck hiding on the outskirts of the village. Then he heard a familiar sound—a two-tone whistle from his wife. She wanted to know where he was. He whistled back the same two tones.