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The Salty Childhood



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Aleksander Gezalov


It seems like I always write something in my mind or watch an invisible film on which I can see the events, faces and fates of different people. I have a great desire to pull it out of my innerness and show it to everyone. I love to observe people. For example, on the bus I see someone with a tattoo on his hand that says "Valya". I look at the faces of people who are getting older with bodies growing fragile. I watch children walk with their parents. I look at windows at night, trying to imagine what is behind the curtains. Why do I do this, what is it for? ...I don't know.

What made me concede to this muffled desire to take up the pen and tell the story of the salty childhood? I still don't know. When you read these lines I don't want you to feel sorry for me. This is not my desire. No, what I wish is that my memoirs about "the salty childhood" would have an impact on someone's heart. Perhaps someone will think about their own children. Where are they? What is happening to them? Or, having met a child from an orphanage, they would not have pity for them but instead sincerely help such a child. All that you need to do is to just participate in this child's life, but very often this does not happen. A figurative uncle or aunt's candy is already considered participation... and where do you find the balance when others have helped and mentored an orphan but did not step aside to give them a chance to be independent in life? Very often an orphan does not understand that your help cannot be everlasting and sometimes they have to face things themselves.

I tried to write about my companions and myself as truthfully as possible because I believe that it is very important to write only the truth. Perhaps, after all these years, the truth can set the record straight and ease the present orphan's suffering (wish I could erase this phrase, but it is the truth). Most of my friends are no longer alive. The childhoods differ, and it's up to the parents. Only they can be responsible for the childhood of their own children.

I do not want this book to be an accusation towards parents. It is not about them but rather for them - "Do not judge or you too will be judged". But orphanages do exist and they will continue to exist for a long time. We need to be able to help orphaned children find themselves, to know how the world works and to find motives of hope, faith and love in themselves. This will be as living water to wounded souls. Love these children and all other children, and they will be content. I really hope that teachers who are working with orphans will read my memoirs. I do not have advice for them on what to do or how to do it. These writings are about what happened to my friends and me who were deprived of parental love and a family and instead raised by the orphanage system. Many years later I am able to look back and describe the orphanage in one word - a "system". Maybe these memoirs could help some instructors and teachers understand this system and understand the corrupt relationships involved in this "process".

The orphanages have fallen behind the fast-paced changes in the outside world beyond Russia because of their isolation from society and their internal "order". To adapt to present times is much harder for the orphans than children raised in a home with a family. It is very important to be able to value the kids and their desire and efforts to live as happily as possible in an orphanage, and to also participate in this and help them in the future. A child, any kind of child, wants joy and warmth. We need to try hard to help them possess this warmth.

Now to remember!

Petrozavodsk. Evening. I took my dog for a walk (I'll write about her later). I needed to get some fresh air and felt as though I was in a submarine just about to submerge. I visited the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and whispered a prayer. I'm preparing myself. I know that today is the day to write about my orphaned childhood. It took me a while to choose the right music to write to. I chose songs from movies directed by Eldar Ryazanov. I lived my life through these songs and I will write to these songs. Later on I will put on a Mark Bernes record. He is very close to me, very... Lives are like songs, they're all different.

I didn't think it would be so painful to remember what I've lived through and endured... But what is simple in life? I should just start somewhere... No, I'll put on some Mark Bernes first, his last record. The one where he sounds saddest... Yes, I should start with Petrozavodsk. Or maybe Moscow. No, perhaps Suzdal, Vladimir, Sydogda, Sobinka, - how about the Vladimir Province in its entirety? It was here that I spent my strange childhood. This is where I was tossed around and moved from one orphanage to another... In 1990, after three years of service in the navy, I didn't care where I would go. Nobody was waiting for me anywhere. I could get off at any station I wished. I got off at Petrozavodsk, which I don't regret. This is a strange kind of freedom. It is a freedom to choose your own freedom.


The phrase "We all come from our childhood" is about me but at the same time not about me. I had a different childhood than anyone else. I didn't have a sweet, joyful, carefree childhood with a Mom and a Dad. I only know the One who created me. He is up there... It's easier. To imagine those who gave birth to me and abandoned me is hard, painful and difficult... What for? It seems to me that I remember myself as very little - a newborn who realizes that he is going to be left behind at the hospital. I'm asking with my eyes, "How am I doing?" There is a white robed figure that feels uncomfortable looking into my eyes. It is holding me and keeps repeating "Mom will come, Mom will come." The strange phrase penetrated me like a torpedo in a ship's hull. Where is my Mom going and why does she have to leave me here? The white figure already knows that Mom will not come, and so do I but "they" were taught to tell us the "truth" so that the child would not fidget or cry, but be silent, as if before an execution.

Then, for a long time, I didn't hear those four letters: M, A and P, A. Later this question sounded ridiculous in the orphanage, "Do you love your Mom?" What Mom? Who's Mom? Show her to me, and maybe then I'll give you an answer... Why would you have an illusion of a Mom that's not near you? Illusions get in the way of life... Later on, when I graduated from the orphanage, I was flipping through my graduation papers when I came across a note with very messy cursive writing that said, "I refuse my son because I am not able to...". I regret that I didn't dispose of this yellow piece of paper in the wind, as I myself was disposed. Maybe it's in my genes to throw everything away... I probably had pity on my mother... But, with a lack of knowledge, I threw away many things in my life. Now all that I have in my hands is one laminated document: Lived in Orphanage, Stamp. And nothing else...

The stamp on my life.


After checking our heads for insects, they diagnosed us with head lice. Then my companions and I were sent to Gus-Khrustalny, a beautiful old Russian city of underground crystal.

Wherever I went, everyone was curious about my un-Russian sounding last name. I was asked if I spoke Azerbaijani. It was a ridiculous question because they knew that I came from a children's hospital. Even my Russian wasn't that great at the time. But they were asking without even thinking. Sometimes just out of their own curiosity. It's just like people looking at an aquarium and asking a fish its name. But I am not a fish... There was a time when I even wanted to change my last name to the more Russian sounding Kolokoltzev for example.


Our playschool, Garden-Orchard, was near the market. We would just stand by the fence and gaze at the passers-by with sad eyes. Even then we knew how to play an "orphan" - how else could we get attention? We couldn't get attention from anywhere else. Sometimes we were given some charity. I was a successful beggar because I could use my eyes beautifully. People walking by would stuff our pockets with sunflower seeds, candy and pickles. In the future, the "orphan" technique often helped us survive. Could you blame the children who are left up to their own devices to find their own country of a happy, "sweet" childhood?

"Cold sores"

We contemptuously called our teachers "cold sores" ('vospa', short for 'vospitatel', the Russian word for 'teacher'). Very often they would get together in a gazebo, smoke their cheap extra strong "Belomor" cigarettes and talk about everyday chitchat. I would hide and spy on them nearby trying to hear what they were talking about but later would be punished for it. I was just curious what ladies that had so many problems at home and at work would talk about. To avoid getting caught, I would crawl under the gazebo, lie down on the grass with my hands rested under my head and listen to the gossip of the day. They would talk about everything: salary, the kitchen, the headmaster and so on... Sometimes they would talk about it with juicy details and a lot of hate. Most of the discussion was saved for the husbands. "He is a such-and-such. I just want to kill him sometimes!" Then the other would say, "No, mine deserves to be murdered!" I didn't know what husbands were. At that time I thought they were dogs or some other kind of animal. I especially remember one of those "sores" that wore a leather coat. She always had a "Belomor" in her black teeth. She always called us "comrades" but she would call the other teachers "dear comrades". She didn't always do a very good job of supervising us. Sometimes she would just stand with her cigarette and stare into space. You know us kids, we get into all kinds of trouble. Once I even fell into a fountain basin trying to reach for a yellow autumn leaf.

There were different types of punishments. Sometimes they would make us kneel on millet or other dry seeds. I've done it more than once, like the others. In our playschool they had two parrots and would borrow the bird seed to use it for those purposes. Since that time I can't even imagine owning a parrot as a pet.


Evenings at our "garden" were very noisy. All of the kids were screaming and raising a ruckus, from the youngest to the oldest. It was the night guard's (the nanny's) shift. I can't remember her face, body type, age or her name - nothing. Everything about her was erased from my memory. I just remember her wrist watch "Zerya", with a metallic bracelet. Evil isn't remembered and I'm thankful for this ability.

The nanny had a habit of going to the boiler room to see the boiler man. She would use a toy rubber baton to scare us into going to sleep. We would obediently throw our blankets down and hide our heads under pillows while she was punishing us. The baton was so hard, it's too bad that they didn't make soft ones at that time... After this procedure, the nanny, satisfied, would leave us for the entire night. But behind the windows we could see darkness, hear the wind, and see the trees' branches scraping the windows. Frightening. But there was no one to call. It was always like that, even later we didn't have anyone to call. We were trained to be independent since we were babies. You might say, "that's good". But why would we have so many people working to help us and what were they doing?.. The nanny and the boiler man would have fights very often. She would lock him out of the building and he would run around the windows and scream something that we could not understand. Out of fear, many children started to wet their beds. Night became the most hated part of my day for my entire childhood.

While the nanny was with the boiler man, we would potty train ourselves. We had to get up, go to the washroom, climb onto a stool and pull out the potty with our assigned vegetable or fruit symbol on it and do our business. I was mostly assigned the "watermelon" or the "squash". Now this is a real garden, where we were fruit and vegetable children... Once I tried to pull out the potty with the squash symbol and all of the potties fell on my head and cracked it. That's how I got my first scar. Later I would have many more but this was the first. Frightened, I ran back to my bed but I was still bleeding... The nanny was fired (they didn't sue people in those days) but she was quickly hired by another similar facility. What kind of a headmaster would write a truthful report about something bad that happened right under his nose? So, other "nannies" came, each with their own methods of fighting kids. They would turn on the light in the middle of the night and shout angrily, "Who wants to pee?"... Since that time I sleep very lightly, still waiting for them to call me.


Everything around us was in very poor condition. Maybe it was the period of time? Old furniture, old clothes, old bulky toys... I remember a truck made out of iron - it was huge... We never played war or family. Each one of us would get a certain toy, we would sit beside it looking at it stupidly. Later we would exchange them. We never fought, there was nothing to share, everything was fixed - systemized. However, one time someone struck me with that huge iron truck and I struck him back with a wooden horse. After that we were on our knees in millet. They would feed us all of the same food: soup, pasta with potatoes, thick compote drink with white bread. We ate everything, up to the last crumb. Teachers would threaten us by saying that if we don't finish our food, we would not be allowed to watch Cheburashka, the much-adored Soviet cartoon about a quirky big eared lovable little creature by that name. This method of punishment-reward was used on us very often. We had to obey. But what can you do? How can you run away when you're in a submarine? Even now I catch myself about how I eat, like a dog in a doghouse: I swallow quickly, choking on chunks of my food. I don't know how to eat properly. But the good thing is that I can eat anything, which is very convenient in our times. Porridge? Give me porridge. Compote? I agree with compote... It makes no difference. This makes it easier for orphans who are later in prison, it doesn't matter what they stuff themselves with. It's like they set us up for this kind of life. And still we should be grateful for our "education"...

We would always save a little bit of bread: we would toast it on heat registers and we would eat it at night like hamsters. A special treat was to prepare fried bread. To make it, you would use a hot iron and toast the bread - we had to be really creative.

Of course, there was enough food for the rats. All of the heat registers and corners of the room were stuffed with dry bread. We didn't have maids and had to clean the whole orphanage ourselves. But our "toast factory" was working all the time, even when we were in college. Trust me, I don't remember anything positive about the "garden". Maybe there was something but it is now forgotten. Every day looked like the next. Wake up call, clean up with a wet mitten in front of the window, exercise by hopping on the cold floor... But I do remember one event. One cook started to bring me to her home with groceries. Maybe out of pity. Once, I ate all of the candy that she kept in her cupboards. It was funny that she, an adult woman, was talking to me as if I was a newborn. Maybe she had no children of her own, so she wanted to baby me, but I went straight to her candies. Basically I destroyed her dreams of motherhood. She continuously swore at me and brought me back to the orphanage. But I didn't care, I stuffed myself with enough candy for a long time and brought some back for my friends. She never took me back again.

First trip to the hospital

I had developed sepsis and was sent to the hospital, to room number "0". The hospital was made out of wood. I would spend days in bed, on the headboard was a tag with some kind of writing my name, probably. In that period of my life, I only remember a few episodes. The doctors would visit often. They looked at me and I looked at them. They were saying, "He's not going to pull through". And I was thinking, "What am I pulling through?". They would carry me on a stool to the treatment room. With a huge syringe they would pull dark blood from one arm and inject red blood in the other - there is lots of foreign blood in me. Nobody came to visit me. My bedside table was always empty. I remember when I realized that everything would be fine, I woke up in the middle of the night and there was a cat sitting on my chest. At that time I couldn't pet her, but since that time she started to visit me often.

Once I spilled some kind of mixture - vials and jars with medication in large amounts that were placed on a stool by my bed. I got out of bed, dizzy, and went to the washroom to look for a rag. As I was walking I was holding the wall for support. The head nurse at the desk saw me walking. In the bathroom I got a rag, brought it to my room, and without any energy left I collapsed near my bed. That's how I spent the rest of the night until morning - on the rag. Then came spring. Spring rushed through the windows and into the hospital with birds singing. Light was brought into my existence. I would lean my forehead on the window frame and look and listen to spring. Later they allowed me to go outside. I was sitting on a bench. Near me, something was chirping. The sky was blue and the grass was green, life went on.

Patients from other rooms started to visit me with gifts and my bedside table was never empty since. Strangers would come and sit at the edge of my bed and talk to me... I spent about one year in the hospital. But later they returned me back to "my place" - Garden-Orchard.

My first graduation

In 1975 our "Garden-Orchard" had a graduation. I still cannot forget the smell of the identical clothes that they gave us. Backpacks, pencil cases, rulers, etc. - everything was the same. We would check each other's stuff and try to find something different and beautiful but couldn't find it.

I remember how the headmistress made us line up as if we were going to war. Then she read a list of who was going to what orphanage. We didn't care where. The soul was rejoicing in new uniforms. Some changes were waiting for us. Millet and "cold sores" were in the past. Our rejoicing was for nothing though. Later I would seldom believe that changes are for the better because during my time being in different orphanages, I rarely saw that bad would stop being bad. One bad would just be replaced with another bad. When they put us on the bus, an elderly lady came and called my name, asking where I was. "Truthfully" they told her that I was still in the building...

Those kind of teachers could have changed my life but they didn't want to waste time on me, investigate who she was and why she was interested about me. I don't know whose Grandma that was, but maybe... What if?

The "cold sores" said their last goodbyes and we departed. I leaned against a window and saw "Garden-Orchard" disappearing into my past, far away to the back of my memory... Newcomers arrived to our "Garden-Orchard". The conveyor for children deprived of a family life was working very efficiently. It's a simple enough task to pluck you out of your family and take away all your rights...

Orphanage - the slim straw to grasp at for those who have already drowned.

New, very new

I was sent to Novy village in the Gus-Khrustalny district to an old log-house orphanage. It's strange that I can't remember any bright or beautiful orphanages. They were all extremely poor and old, as though the childhood of such a child can only happen in such a place - so they don't have false hopes of ever achieving anything. They never built new buildings for orphanages before, and they're not doing that now either. Why would they? All they need is walls and a roof over their head. That was how much the government cared. Everything is planned with hardship in mind, from the very beginning. If you look at photographs of the orphanages that I went to, you could mistake them for an asylum, or worse.

All new

When they were unloading and organizing us according to the list, all of the senior orphans weren't looking at us but at our new backpacks and uniforms. Later I understood that nothing actually belongs to you in an orphanage. Everything is everybody's, nothing is your own. Later in life, this type of mentality is damaging in relation to possessions - nothing is taken care of and everything is given away. This is the result of uneducated generosity.

The older girls were "generous" in taking away our backpacks and clothes. They were giving them to their "sons" and "daughters" - those whom they smothered and dragged around like their little dollies. They gave us their old clothes and told their "children" that they bought their new clothes from the store. That was how they played grownups. Adult problems were easily taken care of this way. Take away from a stranger and give it to your own, that's how it's done. The "dolls" were rejoicing. From this point on, this concept of "ours" and "theirs" always existed. The younger children were divided into two groups, those who were smothered and who were not. This phony motherhood was nothing close to the real thing but they didn't realize it. When those girls, the "mothers", grew up and had given birth, they didn't know how to care for their own children. They couldn't do it. This resulted in their children ending up in an orphanage. Orphan parents know for sure that the government would always clothe and feed their children.

I wasn't lucky enough to be in the "cuties" group - I wasn't tall or cute. Most importantly, I didn't resemble any of the older girls, which disqualified me for sonship. This was monitored very closely and with some resemblance you could have a "mother" and "father". The Juniors checked us to see if our heads were shaved, which meant that we were free of lice. Those were only the haircuts that were allowed for entry to the orphanage. That was very convenient, it meant that the lice would be left behind. I remember when one girl was crying and screaming when they were cutting her hair, begging them to put her hair back. The Seniors, mocking her, put her hair back on her head, promising that the hair would reattach itself. The girl believed them. Sometimes she would wear the hair on her shaved head. Everybody was laughing at her. As for me, a seven year old boy, I felt sorry for her.

Since the first day of our arrival at the Novy village we had not only been studying but working as well. Later we stopped studying altogether and just worked. We had pigs, a horse, chickens, and other barnyard critters. The orphanage was always in survival mode. Everyone had to work to eat. Why study? The headmaster would say that hard work made humans out of monkeys. Nobody could teach us how to work properly. Later it would be very hard to teach orphans how to work as adults. What is teamwork? How to build healthy working relationships? Lastly, the discipline needed to do your job. In the orphanage, the value of work was so twisted that adult orphans no longer wanted to work. Many tried to find a way out. You also got fed for free in prison...


At once we were assigned to pigsty cleaning. That's how we got our nicknames, the "swiners". The pig barn wasn't the worst job. After all, they could have made us saw fire wood, load coal, or dig a garden... The Seniors didn't participate in any of it, their responsibility was to gladly drive us to work harder. The middle kids were watching us. They had already done their share of work and were preparing themselves to become Seniors. So everywhere and always, the orphanage staff understood that it is easier to control the younger children with the help of Seniors, who had gone through the same bitter experience. Fear upon fear - that's what the orphanage system was based on during those years. Later I had to face it again in the army. The pecking order wasn't really a new discovery for me. But why does a seven year old boy or girl have to go through such an experience when they have an entire government taking care of them? Who gave grownup men and women the right to shrug their responsibilities of raising the children onto the shoulders of angry, bitter senior kids?

One time, a friend of mine and I tried to have a rest near a wood pile. The headmaster, who saw that we weren't working, grabbed me by the ear, pulled me up and said to my face, "Whoever doesn't work doesn't eat". After that I was cutting firewood for a long time. But I had to tell the doctor that I cut my ear with the saw. She rejoiced that I was so quick-thinking and that I wasn't going to cause any trouble. She gave me a vitamin and, sure enough, put another one in her own mouth (which I thought very funny at the time for some reason).


Surprisingly, I was a very good student. Very good. I was a hard worker and a good listener. My report card would beautifully showcase only high marks but it was also the cause of my beatings. A Senior would come and ask: "Who is the best student?" Nobody would tattle orally but everybody was looking at me or another unfortunate top student. After that we had to go water the garden or they would force us to go to the store and buy some cigarettes or collect butts on the street.

Once the Seniors gathered us all together and announced that they decided to snatch a television set. They needed a bunch of distracting extras in the store. We did our job, what's more to do? Later the police found a Junior and charged him as a juvenile offender.

Our county was involved with harvesting peat. We would chase the rail cars carrying the peat. We would also ride them, nearly colliding with electric trains, or put coins on the rails to flatten them when they got run over. That was fun. It was impossible to walk through the county, the locals were bullies and they would tease us by calling us "clones in an incubator". It was the same in every other place. They could smell us from a mile.

I would always carry a stone in my pocket, it was handy to fight back the local boys. Usually they would surround you from every direction, insult and then kick you with their legs. I would spin like a cornered wolf and then would swing my fist with the rock inside. Nobody wanted to get a rock between the eyes, so they would jump away. That was when you would run away through the gap, and I was a very fast runner... Closer to the fence of the orphanage, I would insanely scream for help. Our "brethren" would hear - we would have a fight by the fence with the locals. I would never use the rock for beating, it wasn't honourable. Then a new style came, we would use lead from car batteries and mould them into brass knuckles for our hands. Carrying them in our pockets, we were ready for a fight. I also had "brass knuckles". In boxing there's a type of punch called a hook. We tried our best to "hook" everybody with our moulded brass knuckles. There was a day when all of the older boys in the orphanage were challenged for a massive fight. So we, the Freshmen, received an order from the Seniors to mould as many brass knuckles as we could. We were "smithing" as if we were before the battle of Kulikovo in medieval times. The Seniors would even bring food for us.

I later understood why the locals had so much hatred for us. At school our "brethren" were picking pockets. Stealing whatever they could, even from the gardens in the village. Well, I guess the locals had a right to hate us. Once, while I was working the stable, a Senior boy and girl came to "play". I still recall their first and last names today. They would often remind me how I interrupted their most "interesting" moment of their game. It was good that she was able to restrain him, otherwise he would have killed me for sure.

The headmaster was fired from his job when it came to light that he was involved with the girls. With a rotating schedule he would call one of them to clean his house. He would then lock the doors and "help them". I think he was even charged and all of his possessions were confiscated. Everybody was overjoyed as though a revolution had just happened. There was total chaos at the orphanage for some time. We didn't have a headmaster who cared if we studied or not. But when we were assigned a new one, a headmistress this time, everyone started to remember the old one as the good one. Orphaned children would sell their souls if necessary. It's not their fault, life teaches them to find the best solution in any situation.

We would gather special memories from holidays. In the orphanage, there was an unwritten law. You had to keep your goodie bag underneath your pillow. The Juniors would come and go through them to find the best items and give them to the Seniors. The best we could get was cheap hard candies with jam centers. We enjoyed them. We would find a match, stick them into the center and pull out the jam. That was good enough for us. These kinds of things were happening in all of the orphanages that I've ever been, and on my account it's over a dozen with different profiles and different styles. It happens in orphanages with barred windows, orphanages for the mentally challenged, and orphanages for tuberculosis patients. I've been through a few, and have developed a special attitude towards gifts. Someone gave me a beautiful plastic saxophone as a gift once. I decided to smash it before anyone else could take it from me... I was interrogated on that case for a long time. They tried to take it away and sell it but I was as silent as a guerrilla warrior. Later I told them that it was stolen from me.

Practically everybody smoked. That was how you showed your maturity. I never smoked. The Seniors would send the young ones to collect cigarette butts. They still do the same today. We even had a quota: 20-30. If you brought it - good for you, if you didn't - black eye.

Just like Rasputin

Not everything was bad in the county orphanage, I have some good memories too. That was the place where, for the first time, someone treated me like a human. That was my first teacher. Later I saw a similar type of relationship in a movie, "French Lessons" based on a novel by Valentine Rasputin. But I couldn't understand why a family would send their son away to study where he's going to suffer from starvation. I understand that the parents wanted their son to have a good education but when it comes to life and death...

I don't know if the teacher could guess what was happening in my life but she would often invite me to her home (with pure motives). She would help me and show me any kind of support she could. She lived close to the orphanage, so it wasn't too far, behind a beautiful fence. I remember that to get to her house, I had to walk through the cemetery. That's when I asked my first question about death. She delicately answered those kind of questions, giving the best possible answer that she could but always made sure that I didn't see death as a quick escape from life's difficulties. She was a Russian Orthodox believer. She had some icons around her house but nobody at school knew about it.

Since that time, somehow, I stopped being afraid of death. This has really helped me to go through many obstacles, limits and dangers of my bumpy life. She would always greet me at her doorstep and walk with me into her home. I can't exactly remember what she was telling me but I remember how she would treat me with delicious food. She would never ask me about my bruises, just sit across the table with her chin rested on her hands and watch me eat. When I ate, I would ham it up a little, looking extra hungry.

In autumn, her yard was covered with apples. She wouldn't collect them because she liked to see apples on the trees and on the ground. I would stuff my pockets with greed, take as much as I could carry, and bring them to the orphanage.

It all ended one day when I was stupid enough to bring my classmate with me. Serving the Seniors, he "handed me over". Out of some kind of jealousy, the Seniors disallowed any of my future visits to my teacher. I think it was pure jealousy. Maybe, if I were in their place, I would do the same. I remember this moment. I'm leaving her forever, looking back, while she's standing on her doorstep. Behind the house is a rainbow. I was walking backwards as long as I could, just so that I could capture this moment forever.

Where is she now, this kind person? Is she still alive? I am so grateful to her for her care and concern for me when I was still little, weak and unwise. I am ashamed that I can't remember either her first or last name. I was very young. Forgive me please, my dear teacher. It's so important for a child with a difficult life to find this kind of good person with a simple, unsophisticated view of life. It will stay in that child's memory forever and, God knows, will give him ground to stand on in the years ahead and carry him through to better things, it will indeed...

Dreaming of a better life

I also remember a "black" pond where everybody from the orphanage would go swimming. That's where, for the first time, I saw a dead man - the body of somebody who drowned washed up on its shores. On the way back to the orphanage we excitedly discussed him while we were marching (always in order by two's, with a drum and trumpet). Now I try my best to avoid funerals, otherwise I feel sick afterwards. I've seen enough of that as so many of my companions are now dead and gone.

If only we knew that life was so fragile. But at that time we thought that we were going to live forever. All we thought about was that we had to grow up faster so that we could graduate from this orphanage and move on to a better one. But what we didn't know was that all of the orphanages, or most of them, are the same. After inspection from the higher-ups our headmistress was fired. All of the pigs from our pig farm were sent to the slaughterhouse. I cried. I knew each one by name, fed them, and rode them. Later on I didn't even cry for people who died. This is the fruit of my "school of life".

After Novy village, they sent me to Sobinka, a small town near the big city of Vladimir. I knew I wouldn't be staying there for too long. I was expecting my next transfer, so I just acted like a passer-by. I was a total stranger. The Seniors, surprisingly, didn't bother me. They knew I wasn't their pet, they decided not to enslave me in their business - I got lucky. "The pets" were working to the maximum. Everybody envied me, I envied myself. Regrettably...

I bummed around there for a few months, while they were deciding where and what they would do with me. I didn't bother going to school, that was when I got behind with school. But I decided it wasn't my fault, rather someone else's, and I skilfully manipulated this excuse. Since that time I wasn't very disciplined with my studies. To be exact, very bad. Later on, the teachers would treat us with disinterest. They would start to make up imaginary marks for us at the end of the year. A "C" was the highest achievement, the most you could wish for. Of course, we tried to study but not to our potential. What for? They would feed us anyway and we had a place to sleep. Nobody's going to kick us out for a bad school report card.

Strangely enough, that was the first orphanage where nobody could hit me. And the last one...

Suzdal - My favourite city

They sent me to Suzdal in late autumn, in the evening. Right away I was sent for a "check-up", in other words, an interrogation: Who, Where, Why, What for? That's how they greet people in prison.

I was assigned to a Senior who was considered a "tough guy" - to serve him. Right away he sent me to manually wash his socks. I refused. As a result, I got a purple shiner and was given a piece of advice that if anyone asked, I was to say that I tripped and fell... I had many "falls", like my other classmates.

Orphanage, a model of future life in the army or prison. Here the Seniors and stronger kids modify the technique of putting others down on the younger and unprotected ones. How could you defend your honour? Who could teach you to do that?

Our revenge on the teachers

In the orphanage, practically all of the teachers had nicknames - a small revenge from the children. Orphans would carefully choose a slanderous nickname and use it in their conversations about them. If you didn't follow this "protocol", you would be harshly punished. We would often provoke the teachers to see their reaction. That determined the strengths and weaknesses of their character. If a teacher handled the pressure appropriately in a certain situation, that meant everything would be alright - they would get a good nickname. But if not, sorry, you get what you deserve. That's why, preferably, a graduate of this educational "system" in the future would work with orphan children. It's easier for them to understand the "politics", the monarchy of the orphanage. Orphan children would often use manipulation over inexperienced teachers. But the honour of picking a nickname belonged only to the Seniors. It would then pass down through the ranks.

For example, the headmistress of our orphanage was nicknamed GF due to the initials of her name - Galina Fedorovna but then because she loved so much to make us march and attend meetings, we renamed her Galliffet (riding breeches). The heaviest teacher was nicknamed Hen. The most petite and oldest teacher was nicknamed Kapa (little cap) and so on. But there was a teacher whose nickname never stuck, it was given to her by the Seniors. Her name was Lyudmila Vasilyevna Kasatova, a truly kind and bright person. She never had children of her own, and later we found out that she had lung cancer.

She was very nice to the younger children, which made the Seniors jealous. They sent one guy, Sasha Chizhkov, to try and provoke her into losing her temper. When we found out about it we showed him the dark side. We covered him with a blanket and beat him up. After that I was seriously punished. I was paraded in front of the entire orphanage (just like in Leo Tolstoy's "After the Ball"). Later they would torture me by making me stand on one foot on a nightstand, holding a pillow in my outstretched arms, all night long...

Both Mrs. Kasatova's work and free time were given to us. Everybody loved her. When I'm in Suzdal, the first thing I do is visit her grave. I remember her fondly. Forgive us, Lyudmila Vasilyevna, for everything and everybody. If only I could travel back in time and change a few things...


One day we had people from "Mosfilm" come to the orphanage. They were planning to make a movie about the 1800's. Every one of us was suitable for playing peasant children. Even the movie director said so. Then he said, "They look natural, let's roll the cameras". During the filming we stood in a windy field and the wind was ruffling our poor clothes. We were supposed to look at the camera and then to the orphanage. They shot it in one take. But something came up and they had to stop the production of the film. So, the movie with our participation never appeared on the big screen. What a shame. I think they used the same technique to make the famous movie "Ragamuffins". Children from a real orphanage portray a difficult childhood very authentically...

The proceedings

It was very seldom that no one was getting punished at night. I always dreaded the night with fear. Every day we were given a task: find 20 copecks (a decent sum for that time) for the Seniors. Everyone was stealing. If you didn't bring the exact amount, you underwent "proceedings" come night time. We always had a judge, lawyer and a prosecutor - all Seniors, but the executor was a Junior. That's how they were "training" to be Seniors, they picked a different executor every night... Later, when the Juniors became Seniors, they could only relate with the new Juniors on the same terms. Who could forgive such cruelty? When the Freshmen became Juniors, they would pay forward their revenge to the new Freshmen who were innocent.

The circle of life.

This is how the "court" worked. Everyone would take their places and the "process" would start. The Seniors had a "judicial system", we were waiting for the sentence. Before our conviction we were allowed to make a last statement, where we would promise with all that we had to find the money. They would answer: when you bring it, we'll pardon you... You might ask, where did orphans receive this kind of knowledge? We were frequently visited by graduates who did their time and they shared their experience.

I remember Yura Piskunov who would always bring the discussed amount and sometimes even more. He "worked" at the neighbouring school. He would also be beaten for his hard work. He was very cowardly. Sometimes it just comes with your character, like you were born with it. I don't think it was his fault. He was also very nervous. His face and arms were very slim, like a girl. His face was very pleading and he knew how to "work his face". He could start crying without any kind of preparation, without even using the help of a sliced onion. To tell you the truth, we even respected him for his creativity and knowledge to live at somebody else's expense. He would dive under your feet and curl himself into a ball so that it felt really uncomfortable for everyone to kick him. He adapted himself to this cruel style of life.

And so, later on he spent quite a few times in jail for pickpocketing. His nickname was Yura -Golden Hand. I wonder where he is now, but his last sentence was very prolonged.

My Birthday

On December 3rd, my birthday, they kicked me out at night to find 15 copecks. I didn't know where to find the stupid money, and that's why I sat in a snow bank not far away from my orphanage and decided to freeze to death!

A woman who lived close to the orphanage was coming home from her night shift. She saw me and started to ask me why I was sitting in the snow - she knew who I was and where I was from. I told her honestly that it was my birthday, and I didn't have a "gift" for the Seniors. She gave me 20 copecks and escorted me to the orphanage. Oh, how I rejoiced that I had escaped punishment this time! The next morning, the woman came to the orphanage and told the headmistress about the incident. The headmistress called me to her office, closed the door, and beat me with the heel of her shoe. Later on, the Seniors had a "meeting" at which they grounded me from watching television for one month. At night they beat me very badly.

There was a variety of punishments. For example, gang-beatings, a "ride" on the blanket, a night long walk on your knees on the iron staircase (suggested by the teachers)... And there were others... A couple of times I was sentenced to a hanging for trying to run away. They would almost hang me for real, but something wouldn't allow them to finish the job. You might ask, where was the night supervisor? She was scared to death to go upstairs and check on us. That's why she sat in her little room downstairs, either watching television or sleeping.

Your environment defines who become

I don't know why, but the bedrooms of the Senior boys and girls were on the same floor. Instead of doors, they had curtains. Each room would hold from 10 to 15 children.

Everything in the orphanage was pre-World War II. New inventory was stored in a warehouse - just in case if an inspector would come. During their visit, GF would give us flannel shirts. In the orphanage we had one main rug in the corridor and another in the headmistress's office. We also had a reel-to-reel stereo and a black and white television set - they were almost always locked up. Before the inspection, the children would scrub everything until it gleamed. It's quite possible that the main reason of the inspector's visit was hygiene.

We were poorly dressed, we would inherit hand-me-downs from the Seniors. The lady in charge of our clothes, Lluydmila Ivanovna, would cry often. She was ashamed in front of visitors that we looked like a bunch of ragamuffins. She would hem and repair our clothes or lengthen them with extra material. It was determined that the Freshmen didn't need good clothing - they would ruin them anyway because they worked a lot. Why should they be dressed nicely?

Everyone had their number on their hand, like in a concentration camp. Mine was 61. I still get shivers whenever I hear this number... We all wore corduroy jackets just like in the forties, and plaid coats. When they needed to wash our clothes, they just took them off of us, but we didn't have another set to change into, so we wore whatever we could find. The first time I heard of a sweater was when I was over 25 - keep in mind that quite often the temperatures outside dropped to 30 degrees below existence... Lyudmila Ivanovna, an honest and kind woman, always wanted to quit, but she worked until the orphanage closed down.

Both boiler men and stable boys

We worked a lot, until we couldn't even move, which was detrimental for our studies. We had more than enough areas to cover. We worked in the garden, orchard, greenhouse... We had to take care of the pigs and Boy, our horse. In spring, Boy would try to escape to the female horses. He would kick down the stable door at night and run away. We would have to find him, catch him and bring him back to the stable. Eight years later, the Seniors burned the stable down because they were drunk. Lots of hay was burned and the pigs died, but they managed to save the horse. We knew the drunken Seniors started the fire, but everyone kept silent. The kindest person out of all was the horseman, Vasya, or at least we thought so - he was always quiet and that made him kind. He was always drunk and you could smell strong cologne. Even the horse would turn away and stomp his hooves.

At the stable, Vasya always had a pile of empty bottles of cucumber cologne. He would always sleep in the hay. The cooks always felt sorry for Vasya, so they would bring him food to the stable, so he could dilute the alcohol... Vasya also had barrels of pickled cucumber and cabbage. We would lock him in the cellar - giving him a chance to eat until he dropped. We were also as kind as the cooks.

The orphanage was heated by an old boiler. The boiler man, Kolya, drank even more than Vasya and that's why he was even kinder than him. We would rarely see Kolya at the workplace, very often we would have to fill in for him and put the coal in ourselves. Sometimes, when the boiler man wouldn't come out of his drunken trance, we had to unload a few tonnes of coal to the boiler room. We would also have to take turns missing school to do his job for him. The Seniors realized this, and they started "working" there a lot by grabbing one of us and spending the day there. We had to move the delivered coal to the boiler very quickly in the night, otherwise the locals would steal it from us. Everybody had wooden houses but nothing to heat them with. Who cares about orphans! In the morning we would have bloody blisters but were very proud of our heroic achievement. Because of the blisters, we couldn't hold a pen. That's why we would either sit under the desk or volunteer to peel potatoes for the orphanage. There was a time when we worked on a collective farm, cleaning boulders from the field. With the money that we made, we were supposed to go to Moscow for a field trip. Instead, new chairs later appeared in the headmistress's office. It would be pretty hard to ride those chairs to Moscow, very inconvenient.

If it's not yours, take it

Some teachers would steal groceries from the orphanage, as well as anything else within reach. For Vasily Vasilyevich (I don't remember his last name) we would bring potato skins to his pigs, but he would hide perfectly good potatoes under those peels. Everyone knew he was stealing, but he was a war veteran. Whenever he got an opportunity, he would punch us with his fist and yell, "I fought for you! I was rotting in the swamps for you, you #%!*& @&%$!" And so on... He would very often come to work drunk or drink vodka while he was there. That's when he would get very aggressive and yell, chase us all over the orphanage and kick us. We would hide from him wherever we could. A couple of times our headmistress tried to talk to him, but the following day he would show up at work with all of his medals and he was forgiven. Once, during his shift, someone "cleaned out" the kitchen. He realized that it was due to his negligence and the first kids he saw were pronounced guilty, at random. The headmistress was satisfied with that. They started to call us "sausage stealers". It was true, we stole sausage from the fridges and give it to the dogs because we felt sorry for them.

I noticed that the headmistress was keeping files and documents of us so that she could threaten us with sending us to juvenile prison. Many of us would have ended up there if it hadn't been for one lady-lieutenant (she's a colonel now). She would justly investigate who did what, give us a talking-to and close our files. Our headmistress tried to bribe her with a box of chocolates but the lieutenant would refuse to send us behind bars. Some still ended up in jail when they were in the orphanage. They would later come back and show off their jail time. We would listen to the stories of these ex-cons and take heed. What if we are next?

Adoptive parents

People would come from Moscow willing to adopt, but in most cases this was just to get a bigger apartment from the government. If you had a small apartment, the government would give you a bigger one if you decided to have or adopt kids. Once when a boy was adopted, he walked over 400 kilometres back to the orphanage, in autumn, improperly dressed for the weather. His adoptive parents accused him of stealing and told him he was not suitable for their family, and so on. Another time, somebody wanted to adopt me, but I was making faces and playing stupid so much that it bugged them and they changed their minds. If only I knew at the time what I would have to live through and see later on, I would go to any other family and change my face's expression for the best. It's better to have your face like that than being bashed on the door...

Although one girl, Marina Pelevina, got lucky. An Italian couple decided to take her in. Can you imagine, just before her departure she was riding a sled downhill and got hurt somehow. Everybody thought that she wouldn't go, she would stay. But the Italians waited for her to get better and took her when she was ready. She was a very beautiful girl, like a doll...

Our house

I would like to say something about the building in which we lived. It used to be a 17th century monk's hostel. It was an ancient, thick-walled building with a crack in the girl's bathroom (that's why, in the winter, we would all share the same bathroom). Before it was discovered, some guys were peeping on the girls. Later they found another way to peep, from the roof of the stable...

Very often I would crawl under the floor-boards of our building. I was looking for and finding old coins and antique hairpins, for example. I was always dreaming about finding a treasure. I could give it to the Seniors and forever pay the debt for everyone so that they wouldn't bother us anymore. I wasn't the only one hoping to find a treasure. But of course no one found any. What a shame. Maybe our childhood wouldn't be so salty after all... We also had our own very old shower. Older boys liked to shower with older girls. GF, the headmistress, would tease them and call them "brides and grooms", but would permit it nevertheless. As for us, she would never allow us to wash with girls our own age.

We would die for sports

Even though we didn't have a phys-ed teacher at our orphanage, our assistant headmaster was responsible for our physical education. Each and every one of us loved sports. What else was there to do? The most beloved sports of both the Seniors and Freshmen were soccer, hockey and boxing, Seniors vs. Freshmen. Whenever we went to an actual tournament, the Seniors would always be the forwards and we would be defence. We would lose sometimes, but very seldom because we knew the consequences. At night they would beat us mercilessly. The orphanage didn't have punching bags or sports equipment, we only had hockey sticks, skates and a couple of balls. I was given a hockey stick, plastic mask, two coats and felt boots to play in the net. Once when we were playing against full grown men, they scored on me. Right away a Senior skated up to me and bashed my elbow with his stick. I didn't say anything. We never said anything when we were beaten, as such was the law: You're a boy, you can take it, that's the only way... After the game nobody could even take the coat off of me, that's how swollen my arm was. They even had to cut the sleeve open. I told the doctor that the puck hit me there. She was pleased. Doctors always expected us to have similar explanations, the ones that were convenient for them. Then they didn't have to investigate anything. That night nobody bothered me. Even though we lost, I was already a victim with a cast. You could say I got lucky that night...

In this type of "goalie" equipment - a coat and felt boots - I was minding the net for about 5-7 years until they found a replacement for me. We especially loved the so-called "Russian games", being thrown down an icy hill. The Seniors would wait for us on the top of the hill while we were supposed to climb up and capture it. When we reached the top they would push, kick or throw us back down with no rules... Maybe that's when I stopped being afraid of getting hit and the pain that followed. In boxing it was very important to have no fear. The cruelty of those you know is nothing compared to the cruelty of strangers...

That's how I broke my other arm. I fell from the top of the hill down into the snow, but underneath was a rock. If someone were to watch the game, they would have no idea what was going on - some were crawling, others were hitting... The Seniors would also put rocks inside their snowballs and throw them at us. That's how I got another scar when one hit me in the head. But the worst of their tortures was "The Gas Chamber". At first, they would put us in garbage cans and throw in a burning match box or tennis ball. Then they would put the cover on top and make us stay there and endure. Later they found an insulated cabin which was used in the old days to transport mental patients. You can imagine how many people could fit in there...

There was one Senior that liked to perform experiments on us. He would make us drink liquid photo fixers and watch how it would react with our bodies. It works very well as a laxative. I hated those experiments so much but would remain patient and say that I was alright after drinking it. Then the tormentor would give you some more... He was a very nice guy, we called him "Gestapo". That's when the Seniors started to receive their own nicknames, as a response to their cruelty. Having learned about these nicknames from the "informers", they started to have more night trials.

To get away from the orphanage and the Seniors, I signed myself up for every possible activity. I sang in the choir, played the wooden spoons and participated in soccer and boxing. Once, during choir practice, somebody stole money from the director of the club's pocket. I didn't do it, but I was accused and they kicked me out with shame. I even thought of hanging myself. Sure enough, they found witnesses who presumably saw me steal the money. Those kinds of things happened very often. If you're an orphan, you're a thief. We're not kleptomaniacs, but sometimes life would force us to do it when there was no other way. They caught the real thief later and, imagine that, he was one of the locals. Nobody came to ask for forgiveness though, but it wasn't like I was waiting for it.

I remember one mom was going on a business trip overseas, and with her lack of knowledge she left her son with us. GF promised that everything would be alright, but the Seniors thought different... He ran away the next day and stayed with some distant relatives. He was ready to be anywhere but with us.

What are you crying about, young man?

Teachers in training would often visit us. They were students from the Vladimir pedagogical university. They would come and drink honey wine and play soccer with us, drunkenly yelling songs about fogs. They would leave with an excellent recommendation from the orphanage. It was more convenient for everybody.

When Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev died, a national day of mourning was called. Hen wouldn't stop crying: how could she live on knowing she also had the same kidney disease that Brezhnev had. We tried to "comfort" her by telling her that at her funeral she could have the same music he did... Then two singers died, Joe Dassen and Vladimir Vystosky. I even cried, not for them, I was just in the mood...

They didn't accept me in Pioneers or Communist Boy Scouts. I would always "miss the boat". When the time arrived for me to join the Communist Union of Youth, or Komsomol, we met up with the leader and, for some reason, he put his hand on his heart and said, "Orphans don't deserve to be in the Komsomol".

We, pioneers - children of the working class*?

*Soviet patriotic song

We waited for the Communist camps as a rescue, an opportunity to get away from the problems and cruelty of the orphanage, at least for the summer. We would easily play orphan around kind counsellors. Now I would ask for their forgiveness. We would manipulate their integrity. But who could really blame orphans for that?.. Sometimes a child would provoke an adult to be kind to them and would cling to it, not letting go, unfortunately. The counsellors noticed that several days before our departure we would stop eating and be walking around hungry and pale. They thought that we were depressed and didn't want to say goodbye to them. What naive and wonderful people. I had a chance to be in about 40 different pioneer camps. In every single one, they had very bad wooden toilets. At camp they called me "Actor-Sasha" - for my ability to sing, dance and perform.

I had Andrey Mironov's role in "The Twelve Chairs" and Sashka Spiridonov had Anatoly Papanov's. Everyone was laughing so hard during the scene when we were searching the chairs for treasure. I sang adventurous songs. I was very happy at that time and forgot that somewhere the Seniors existed. Because I had tuberculosis, they would have to send me down south to camps. When I returned, I would be multi-coloured from my bruises. The Seniors greeted me by hitting me. That's what they decided to do at the "meeting". The whole orphanage shunned me because I was resting in the south while they were here and working. They wouldn't talk to me for three months. Truth be told, some of them would secretly come and apologize, but they had to follow protocol. I understood.

Often the locals would come and borrow some fighters for their "army" to fight in a stadium against locals from another district. The Seniors would take everybody for the battle, "hundred on hundred". We were also in the army alongside adults.

Innovative projects

One of the teachers invented behavioural report cards to raise grades and discipline the children. This noose-like idea could only come from the enemy. The Seniors and their "court" were put in charge. Now their hands were completely untied: they could hit harder, they were always right and they were in charge of disciplining everyone.

The teachers saw that we were covered with bruises, but we were as behaved as we've ever been, so why would they care? They just wanted to harness us to study. Whenever you didn't complete your homework, you got an "F" in your daily report card. I don't know if they knew or guessed that we would get beaten up for this, but they continued anyway. A couple of teachers refused to put marks in the report cards, I applaud them. At night we would be judged and punished.

When Hen gave the Seniors a task: "Help this person with this subject", she could be assured that the Seniors would finish everything on time with fast results.

I don't know who complained to Moscow about such an upbringing of children, but inspectors came from the capital city. They lined us up, undressed. The commissioners checked us and wrote reports on every "fall" that we had. The Seniors were standing beside, I don't know why they were also undressed. The headmistress invited the whole inspection group for a cup of tea and vodka where she explained that we were very dedicated to our sports. We kept our mouths shut and didn't give anyone away. The commissioners left, satisfied with our check-up and gave a little slap on the wrist to our headmistress because we were too sporty and fell a lot. Right after that event the first cases of runaways started to happen. We just couldn't believe in justice anymore. We would run away individually or in two's. We would be on the run for three to four weeks until the authorities would catch us and put us in detention. There, the local teachers would express their cruelty. Since we weren't under their authority permanently, we would talk back to them. I remember, once, with a teacher like this I fought back with an iron. There was nothing to be afraid of because they couldn't send me anywhere worse than to an orphanage. At least here I could stand up for myself...

Strangely, those who ran away would adapt better to life. It must be that they got street smart during their time on the run. Interesting thought!..

Maybe everyone should have run away, how about that for an educational program for kids...

Everyone who returned from an escape was followed by a deathly fear for night time. Everyone was waiting for the night, the Seniors for theirs, and us for ours. I read a book once, "The Underground Children" by Vladimir Korolenko (1853-1921) and I wanted to write to the author, not knowing that he died a long time ago. Funny... I read a lot, under the blanket with a flashlight, but mostly at the pioneer summer camps, not at the orphanage. We didn't have that luxury.

I would especially like to tell you about one escape.

My first escape, but not the last...

I heard it through the grapevine from other runaways that in another orphanage my youngest brother was getting beaten up constantly. Usually they wouldn't put brothers and sisters together in the same orphanage because they thought they'd make a clique. I decided to run away too. I would walk at night along the road. I ate whatever I could steal at the market. The police had my description in their hands already. I was caught - I fell asleep in the bushes and forgot to hide my legs from the sidewalk. "Good citizens" gave me up. I was put in jail with the over-nighters. I was received very well, they even offered to help me escape by placing me in a big pot for compote, but I refused. I made the police feel sorry for me and squirmed into their trust. They relaxed more. I was free to walk down the hall, ask any sorts of questions, until one day I just left. I left my Grandma, I left my Grandpa, and from you, police, I will run, run, run as fast as I can.

When I got to my brother's orphanage I didn't care that they also had Seniors because I knew that they wouldn't touch a "stranger", that's the law. I found my brother right away... He was sitting and crying under the table. I asked him to stop weeping and show me where the guilty one was. Well, he turned out to be a big boy who was a head taller than me. As soon I saw him I ran up to him and kicked him in the you know where... From there on I just pummelled him. Nobody could interfere. Everybody knew that this was a one-on-one fight. I tried to hit him as hard as I could so that it would take him longer to heal after I left. Even while he was lying on the floor in his own blood I added insult to injury and screamed profanities at him. He would've done the same to me. That was the law.

For the next three weeks I lived in a stable next to my brother's orphanage. Some kids were even bringing me food. But somebody turned me in and Vasily Vasilyevich came to get me (I still don't remember his last name). When we went to take the electric street car, the whole orphanage showed up to say goodbye- I was their hero. But I was going back to my Seniors, where I wasn't a hero, and I was very upset about that. Of course, I could have run away from Vasily, but that would only make things even worse. Vasya drank all the way back and was telling me stories about himself, but I was looking through the window... Nobody touched my brother again after that, they knew that he had an older brother - an animal. And it was the truth. (Right now my brother is in jail for a long time, for cruelly assaulting someone on the street.)

With my return, the punishment was horrible. I was sentenced to sleep in the armoire for the whole month. I also had to do all of the little dirty jobs, like peel the potatoes, clean the bathroom, shovel the snow or remove the snow from the skating pond. The headmistress beat me up with the heel of her shoe again. She just kept screaming that she couldn't sleep, that she had aged because of me, and that she had to spend a lot of money on Valerian root to calm her nerves. I handled all of the punishments easily because I knew that it was for a good cause. A one month escape for my brother was worth the pain.

We grew!

Our Seniors graduated from the orphanage, so the Juniors became the new Seniors. Logically, we became the new Juniors... It was tough... We didn't use force, but, instead, tried to convince the Freshmen to work. None of us refused to do our share as well. Because of that, we were beaten up a lot by the Seniors for being soft on them. The Freshmen knew about this and tried not to show resistance, but to help us as much as they could. That's why in the future, when we became Seniors and they became Juniors, our relationship was very good. Even in first grade we made a promise that when we had climbed to the top, we wouldn't touch the Freshmen. We kept our promise.

There were a few Seniors who wanted to change the situation. They organized a mob brawl. Even the police were called to come in. But we got a chance to beat up the "rebels". They wrote a letter of apology and were sent to a different orphanage where other kids had to suffer. Later some of them went to jail for continued cruelty. After so many years of being mistreated by the teachers, we didn't have any respect left for them. We didn't pay any attention to them, we just ignored them: for everything that they had to say, silence was our response. You could say that we declared a prolonged boycott. Not to everyone, of course, but to the majority. Those people were dead to us. The Elementary teachers started to have lots of problems. New teachers did not want to come, but it was hard for the old ones to adjust. Many of them quit.

Sometime later we became Seniors. At that time, a "new order" was introduced to the orphanage, which was hard to believe in because cruelty was passed down from generation to generation. The one we hated most was our headmistress. We would write letters of complaints of whatever popped up in our heads to try and destroy her reputation. Years later I was able to find her home phone number in Suzdal. I tried to call her from Petrozavodsk, but realized that she had moved to another city. Maybe she moved out of shame. If so, that would be a good thing...

Suddenly, at school, teachers started to feel responsible for our education, but we weren't good students because it was too late to catch up. I always loved history and literature. Those were the only subjects that I did my homework for, and I was best in class. When we had demonstrative lessons, I would recite long poems and monologues. My classmates really liked it - they didn't need to do anything for that class. Our literature teacher Nina Timofeyevna Toneyeva supported me in every possible way. She would look at me like a mother would (even though I don't know what mothers look like, but they would most likely possess the kindness and attentiveness Mrs. Toneyeva had). Every time I'm in Suzdal I make sure I visit her.

It is finished

Now the Freshmen were never beaten for absences. The teachers tried to put their old plan into action, but we refused by organizing an orphanage-wide hunger strike. For a few days nobody would eat, even our headmistress started to panic.

I can't tell you that we didn't have any authority at all over the Freshmen. We still punished them if they stole from each other (or if they got way out of line). We wouldn't beat them up, but rather punish them with more chores. When the graduated Seniors came to visit, everybody would leave the orphanage grounds. Nobody even wanted to say hi to them. We even planned to beat them up, but were afraid - many of them had knives... We had shanks too, but they were Seniors and we still kept their deeds in our memory.

The teachers would complain to them about their new "difficulties" in disciplining us, but couldn't do anything about it. After that we made more trouble for them. For example, we cut up Hen's purse, placed yucky gooey stuff on their chairs or locked them up in the classroom for a few hours.

One day the graduates organized a drinking party in the stables. We found out about it and barricaded the door while they were inside. They got drunk and started to burn the straw. We were waiting for them to start screaming, but they found a way out. Too bad. Even after I graduated from the orphanage I wanted to find our tormentors one by one and punish them - I'd shoot them if I could. But many of them were punished by life, or by God. I cannot tell you about all of the cruelty that was done, but I also need to have mercy on the dear reader who is going to read these lines and to spare the hearts of kind people...


Before our graduation our headmistress gathered all of us together and said: "Never marry another orphan, you don't want to bring anymore suffering upon yourselves". But we didn't listen to her final speech. We just wanted to leave and have freedom. For many of us, freedom became a dead end.

They gave each of us twenty roubles, seasonal clothing and drove us to the nearest community college. My teacher Vladimir Evgenyevich gave me another "red" (ten roubles) and, for a goodbye, he shook my hand. He had tears in his eyes. At that time I didn't know why, but now I understand: he felt sorry for me that I was going nowhere. Soon after, he went nowhere himself. He died of cancer.

On the first day of college they gave me a dorm, some groceries and a couple of household items. I ate a week's worth of food supply in one sitting. How would I know that it was supposed to last me a whole week? The older students came and kicked down the door to my room. They tried to take away my food, but for a response they got a chair and a radio in the head. My oldest brother was in the same college and said he carried a knife with him at all times, like many others. Since the college was in the village, there were always fights between the city guys and the locals. On my first day I became a witness of a big knife fight and a murder. Somebody gave me a knife and told me that when the police came I was going to be a witness (with a bloody knife in my hands!). I had enough brains to throw the knife away and run.

There were more than enough fights. The winning side would keep shifting from the locals to the city boys. But everyone's favourite fight was hundred-on-hundred in the stadium. More than once I would be sucked into these brawls - it's a nightmare. Here, at the community college, I started to box seriously and proudly wore my new nickname, "Boxer". Later in life my fist would often help me solve many problems, not just at the college, but also in the army.

Submarine orphanage

I was conscribed in the winter time and was told that I would be a tank driver, but I ended up in the navy - my height didn't matter there. The navy registration office in Vladivostok asked me where I wanted to serve, "above" or "below". I said below. They stuffed me in a compression chamber with a setting of three PSI atmospheric pressure. I passed the test and they sent me to the training grounds.

At first I was excited to go to the submarine because, as rumour had it, the pecking order wasn't so tough. That was a mistake... I was posted as a torpedo man. It was easier for me to be in the navy than for the others. I can say one thing - a submarine is very similar to an orphanage - there is nowhere to run. In the submarine everything is yellow, all departments, just like life in the orphanage.

Freedom again

Finally, the demobilization. The day arrived when you could return home. Where was home? Where was I supposed to go and what was I to do? While I was in the navy, recruiters from the Moscow Atomic University came: Join us, you have nothing to lose. Yeah right, I'm not that stupid! I jumped on the Mermansk train to Moscow, but I didn't make it to the last stop, I got off at Petrozavodsk. With my uniform still on, I applied to an arts school. They gave me a dorm and I started a new life. Orphan benefits - zero: they expired at age 23, and I was in the navy at the time. That was my life... Couldn't rent a place, didn't know how and didn't have the money. After graduating from the arts school they kicked me out of my dorm, so for the next three years I was living in stores or roadside shops. The headmaster of the arts school and the head of living quarters didn't bother give me a room, even though I asked them, begged them, and showed them my papers. I started a few jobs at the same time. I would sleep at the store at night. Sometimes I would sleep at my friends' place, but I couldn't bother them all the time and didn't stay there for long - they have their own life.

When people meet me for the first time, they can't quite know how to take me - What kind of a ball of energy is he?.. But I can't do it any differently, in a short period of time I need to catch up on everything that was lost, long before I was even born.

Meeting Clara Luchko*

*Russian film star

It so happened that at one point I was working as a tour facilitator for a major concert hall. The job involved a lot of traveling as I was in charge of booking stage performances. I had to organize seven to nine shows a day. The actors were working like slaves, my goal was to provide them with a place to stay and food to eat, which I was pretty good at. My orphanage experience actually came in handy.

Somebody suggested inviting Clara Luchko to tour in their area. My phone conversation with her didn't go very well, I was very nervous and was telling her the whole truth about traveling by train... Because things didn't go so well, Lady "L" took over to organize her trip. Clara Luchko was brought to Petrozavodsk... I had to escort her on the train to Sortavala and Pitkyaranta. Clara Luchko talked a lot about life when we were on the trains. She was telling me about herself and I was telling her about my orphan past. She was a good listener. When we arrived in Moscow she told me, "Sasha, please do something for the orphans. Write a book about yourself. Make sure you write...". Because I traveled with Clara to Moscow, I spent more money to get a better train and some gifts for her. I was fired with no salary or benefits. But at that point, I didn't care. I already knew what I was going to do... I am grateful to God for meeting such an amazing woman. For such a short period of fellowship with her, two or three days, she was able to answer many of my questions, to distinguish and direct me to my calling.


I've been going to church ever since I was a kid. I would stand at the entrance and look at the priests and icons... I never had the desire to reach my hand out for begging. I always watched bums on the street and wondered how they ended up like this? But something drew me to the church, even when I was ignorant and in the dark, and sometimes getting ready to depart from this world. And with time, the question of faith took on a very important meaning for me. At the age of 32 I was baptized and that was by the will of God. If faith had been with me earlier, many things would have been different for sure. But I would consider the desire to live according to the truth as faith as well. And I tried.

When I look back, I can tell you for sure, no matter what difficulties I had to go through, I don't regret a single second that I lived on this earth. I always tried, and am still trying to be as honest as I can be. The question of my purpose in life doesn't exist for me anymore. I live for others, not for myself, and for the memory of my fallen orphan friends. I live on this earth for those who lived before, now, and for those who will live after me, with joy and for joy. Gratefulness and acknowledgement will always live in my heart for these people. So many of them complete strangers who made themselves available to, in deed or in word, accomplish the work of the Greater Good for this child's soul, and wouldn't let my faith drown in the salted tears of my childhood. Those people weren't concerned with who I was, where I was from, if I had a living permit, or what my social status was... They were just kind people whom I met on my journey of life.

It's a miracle that many years later you can look back and be able to recognize your mistakes, forgive enemies and be grateful for the kindness of certain people. That's what keeps me going.

About the dog

Not a long time ago I picked a dog up from the street. She was beaten very badly. Obviously she belonged to someone, but was abused by her master (I could never understand a betrayal such as that).

When this dog ended up in my home I wasn't ready to be a dog owner. Because of her prodigal life she wouldn't obey commands and wasn't very house-broken. It took me a long time to make the decision to give her away or to keep her. I was very busy and I didn't have time to keep up with her. I put an ad in the newspaper but got nothing in response. If I would give her to the "dog orphanage", nobody could tell me anything because nobody cared. But to me she was like a child who was abandoned by her parents. So I decided to keep her...

Maybe she's the one who picked me? Some time later I found some good owners for her. But one day, when I returned back home, I found her waiting for me by the door. She came to thank me.

Personal, very personal

It's already been quite some time that I've been thinking in agony: Should I send a copy of "The Salty Childhood" to my mother? I don't know...

Aleksander Gezalov

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Suzdal, Petrozavodsk. 2003