My birth place often inflicted resentments and chagrins upon me, and I had a hard time getting over them. This was particularly prevalent in my teenage and youth years. The name of my native town used to raise condescending smirks on people’s faces, especially on the faces of those who were lucky enough to be born in the capital cities. “I am a Moscovite”, “I am a Leningrader” had the same impact as “I am a prince” or “I am a count” with the mere name of the birth place itself bestowing a sense of comfort and respect. Of course, that feeling had vanished over the years and my birth place became my home: the house, the garden, my parents, grandparents, my first friends, first books, first resentments and disillusions and my first conscious joys.
I was born on April 13th, 1932 in Konotop (Ukraine). Under the rule of the tsars, Konotop was a symbol of a remote godforsaken place. In a popular Soviet cape-and-dagger comedy film, famous actor Armen Jigarkhanian, portraying a brainsick Chekist, proclaimed whilst wielding a wooden gun: “Comrade Stalin is not dead. He is alive. He was hiding at a secret address in Konotop”. The audience exploded with laughter, conceiving that indeed nobody would find comrade Stalin in such a godforsaken place. However, Konotop became another symbol in the 1920s — the town gave its name to the Moscow literary association, whose members were the nationwide famous Vasyli Grossman, Konstantin Paustovsky, Arkady Gaidar and many other talented writers and journalists. Nobody knows with certainty why they named their association “Konotop”, the same as there is no answer why in the days of Alexandre Pushkin there was a literary circle “Arsamas” named after the town with a similar status as Konotop.
During my childhood, I viewed Konotop as the best place in the world. The town had many big old gardens and the small houses were faintly visible through the tree foliage. Nearly everything was growing in those gardens: apples, pears, bird-cherries, plums, cherries, apricots, mulberries, gooseberries, currants and raspberries. Alas, the streets did become impassable after rain. Even Paustovsky wrote about the famous Konotop puddles “in which the long-suffering Konotop horses were sinking each year”. For children, Konotop was a joy though, being able to either splash through the puddles, knee-deep in water or have our bare feet enjoyably rolled in the hot dust in the dry weather.
I was born to a Ukrainian but quite “Russified” family. My parents, paternal and maternal grandfathers and great-grandfathers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers lived in the part of East Ukraine, which was subjected to total russification after the Rada of Pereyaslav of 1654.
My first words were in Russian. The family members spoke, wrote and read in the Russian language. Ever since I was a child I was surrounded with books of Russian classic literature.
My father, Nikolay Vasilyevich Gubenko (1903–1993), the son of a machinist at the Konotop locomotive repair shop, graduated from the local gymnasium, just like many of his peers, equally sons of the “workers”. After the revolution, my father proceeded to graduate from the Konotop Railway Technical School and later graduated from the Kiev Institute of Public Education. In 1938 Nikolay Vasilyevich was admitted to the correspondence department of the faculty of mechanics and mathematics of the Moscow State University, but his studies were interrupted by the war.
At the Konotop Railway Technical School, where my father worked for many years as a teacher first and then as a vice-principal, the education was in Russian. However, my father had a great command of the Ukrainian language which he never used in everyday life, but remembered it to a ripe old age.
I remember in the 1980s his boyhood friends often came to see him. They were the remainders of a formerly big Konotop community in Brest. It was formed in the city on the Bug River in 1939 and consisted mainly of locomotive drivers. During the war, they drove trains with military supplies under bomb and artillery fire. I utterly admired their stories and recollections.
These old friend gatherings always culminated in Nikolay Vasilyevich turning on the record player. Apart from being an avid bibliophile and book reader, my father was also a real music lover. His collection of records numbered several hundred vinyls. Besides Russian and foreign symphonic, opera and ballet classical music, Nikolay Vasilyevich collected records of performances of leading Moscow theatres and traditional music from different nations. Amongst all that, were records of Ukrainian folk songs which were always played at those old friends’ gatherings. They listened to native melodies in silence, often with their eyes half-closed as if falling into precious recollections, sometimes even singing along in soft voices.
My mother, Tatiana Stepanovna Smolovik (1904–1996) was also born in Konotop to a worker’s family. Just like my father, she graduated from the Kiev Institute of Public Education. Before moving to Brest, she taught history, was the vice-principal of the Konotop Pedagogical College and worked as the head of the school district.
At the time of my birth, the representatives of the so-called “exploitative classes” — landowners, nobility, bourgeoisie, clergy, kulaks, as well as “their servants” — bourgeois intelligentsia including scientists, cultural workers, etc. — were rooted away, expelled or sent to the growing GULAG archipelago. The greater part of the peasantry was exterminated by the organized famine-genocide or disappeared in Siberian exiles. Those who survived in that ruthless class purge were proclaimed outlaws and deprived of all rights. In the official Soviet terminology there even appeared a special national status — “lishenetz”, someone deprived of the voting and civil rights.
If in the “old world”, a noble birth was like winning the lottery, to be a “man from the people” became a gift of fate in the new world. It was prestigious to be born on arable land, in a furrow, during hay harvesting, in czarist torture chambers, “between hammer and anvil”, etc.
It took the authorities a long time to decide where to put non-manual and other intellectual workers in the Soviet table of ranks, as there were many talented “men of the people” among them. Officially, there were only two classes in the USSR: workers and peasantry, and between them there was a slim layer under the name of “black-coated proletariat”, the “working intelligentsia”. In the Soviet lexicon, the words “intelligentsia” and “intelligent” had long and steady derogatory, if not abusive connotations—rotten intelligentsia, lousy intelligent (n), kid-glove intelligent (n), boneless intelligent (n), etc. However, as we know, necessity is the “mother of invention”, which is why they started to write “Soviet employee” in the questionnaire box called: “social origin”. This euphemism officially replaced the word “intelligentsia” which irritated the authorities so much.
Having received diplomas of higher education and becoming teachers, my parents passed into the category of “Soviet employees”. However, they both had working-class roots. Both my grandfathers, Stepan Smolovik and Vasyli Gubenko, worked at the Konotop locomotive repair shops. Stepan was a turner and Vasyli was a machinist. Both families shared similarities and were not any different to the majority of workers’ families.
There was only one bread-winner in the family. At the time, worker’s earnings guaranteed and ensured decent living standards for the family. The sole duty of wives was to look after the home and bring up children. The boys in both families studied at Konotop men’s grammar school, the girls — at the girls’ higher basic school. This was customary for Konotop working families, which gives a different perspective of the town and its people and strongly challenges its definition as a godforsaken place.
The books of Russian and foreign classic literature played an important role in my ancestors’ families. They regularly subscribed to popular literary and art magazines. Children were taught to play music instruments—violins, guitars, mandolins were heard in their houses.
My parents lived in Konotop with me and my elder brother Evgeni (1927–2013) until 1939.
In December 1939, my father was transferred to work at the Brest Railway Training School, which was reorganized from the local technical school. He was officially appointed to the position of the director of the technical school in 1940 and worked in that position up until 1963.
The last pre-war years we lived a happy life in Brest-Litovsk. Brest became a Soviet city on the 22nd of September 1939 and retained the name “Brest-Litovsk” from the czarist time.
It was an entirely different world. The Soviet propaganda trumpeted about poor, miserable and hopeless life in bourgeois Poland. Nevertheless, Brest impressed me with the cleanness of its carefully paved streets, sidewalks, smart lawns in front of tidy fine houses and numerous shops. Even common bypasses looked oddly elegant. And what’s more: bicycles, bicycles, bicycles…
At the outbreak of war our family was dispersed to different places. I was staying with my grandmother in Konotop, my elder brother Evgeniy was in the pioneer camp in Crimea and my father was in a sanatorium in Nesvizh. My mother with my younger brother, the one-year-old Leonid, remained in Brest together with her sister and her daughter who came to visit us from Penza.
They went through the most dramatic trials on their way to salvation. At the dawn of 22nd of June 1941 my mother holding my baby brother in her arms and her sister with her little daughter, literally fled the city in what they had on. Bombs were falling and shells were bursting in all directions. The two women went along the railway line towards Zhabinka. On the way to the station they came under terrible bombing. Though rendered senseless by a near blow, my mother managed to dig up my brother Leonid, who was lifeless and covered up with soil, and bring him back to life.
On the 22nd of June in the afternoon my father reached Baranovichi, where he learnt that Brest was captured. He knew nothing about the fate of his wife and his son. In July, Nikolay Vasilyevich arrived in Konotop, where I was with my grandmother. At that time, the town incurred increased attacks by German aircrafts. They bombed us day and night. It was ordered to clear the attics of all houses of all fire-hazardous stuff. My father engaged in this job with me as his helper. I was struck by what I had seen in the attic of my grandfather’s house no less than Columbus seeing the shores of the New World.
In the attic was a real library of the world’s classic books and magazines published as early as during the imperial era. They were piled up in the attic for the lack of space in my grandfather’s rather small
My father was giving me the books and I was taking them, running up and down the straight ladder. I laid the books carefully on the grass in front of the house and covered them with magazines. When I observed the empty attic, I saw another miracle: an immense beautiful iconostasis with intact icons looking at me interrogatively and solemnly. Generations of my ancestors used to say prayers to them with love, hope and gratitude, those icons were hidden in the dark attic from human insanity, through the time of troubles and now they opened their image to me in an equally rough time. The iconostasis could have become an invaluable family relic, but it was lost during the wartime together with the house protected by it.
At night, we were raised by the air-raid alarm. We ran out of the house: it was a clear starlit night, and a pile of books gleamed white in the middle of the yard. Our first thought was- what if it were taken as a signal to German airplanes? The newspapers were full of reports about saboteurs who showed objects for bombing to the enemy. As we were thinking what to do, a German bomber flew low over us. We saw its silhouette against the starry sky. Of course, I did not notice identification marks, but I recognized the specific, pulsed, whiny sound of German engines. We dashed to the house, took warm blankets and sacks and covered the books with them. In the morning, we put them all in the shed.
At the end of August 1941, we left Konotop. We took only foodstuffs and some clothing with us. I had only the clothes that I wore and some spare underwear.
We went to Penza, where finally, our family reunited after all twists and turns. The Soviet authorities and local population gave a hostile reception to the first refugees, they blamed us for cowardice and treachery. Behind the front line, people were absolutely unaware of the catastrophic situation at the fronts in the first months of the war. People judged on events taking place thousands of kilometres away, through newspapers and the radio. My aunt, who left Brest in the first hours of war, was refused her former place of work. As for my mother, they did not employ her even as a cleaner. The attitude changed when the enemy began to draw near fast, but the nickname “cuees” (that is how they pronounced the word “evacuees”) remained glued to the refugees for all the time of their stay in the east of the country. Having gone through many hardships and overcome many odds, my mother and her sister finally succeeded in finding jobs.
The family and working life gradually fell into place. My father worked at the railway administration, my mother — at the district Party committee. My brother and I attended school. My grandfather and grandmother were busy about the house. The rationing system was not yet introduced, though at that time hunger came to the besieged Leningrad. We did not know about it because nothing was reported in the front-line communiqués and newspapers. The rationing system was introduced all over the country in the fall of 1941. People tried to forget the speech Molotov made in August of 1941, in which he assured the Soviet people that the enemy would be ousted as early as this year and that the Germans suffered extensive losses and Germany itself would face severe famine because its population had long lived under the rationing system. That the Soviet people were on safe grounds, because the collective farms would produce and supply plenty of foodstuffs to the front and war workers. Of course, our situation could not even be compared with the hunger of Leningrad or with the sufferings of people in the cities and villages devastated in fierce battles that left behind a burnt, blasted, mine-infested desert. However, it was during the war that I experienced a long and constant hunger. Aside from the front, Soviet people starved: both in the cities and rural areas. There were three types of cards: bread, ration and merchandise cards. A bread card was the uppermost. Loss of that card was a measureless disaster as it was not subject to reproduction. There often were bread shortages, people had to stand in many-hours-long queues to get bread. The other types of cards had merely symbolic meaning and up to 1944 they were hardly redeemed. People collected them in multicoloured reams of paper. They had sentimental value to us, as a reminiscence of long forgotten food items like butter, oil, eggs, meat, fish, sugar, flour, cereals, etc. Even herring was in deficit. To the fall of 1944 I forgot the taste of these foodstuffs.
The question comes: how did we survive? It was Panic grass that helped us out, or rather the product it turned into: millet. Thin millet soups and gruels flavoured with a drop of oil which was bought for a very large amount of money at the market, bitter oat flour, millet cake of sunflower or mustard, rarely lentil. Rural people did not receive cards.
The two years in Penza were tough and left a deep imprint in my childhood memories. I remember the terrible, troublesome, severe long winter of 1941–1942 when the temperature dropped to - 41ºC. My mother managed to procure a cloth of doubtful quality and made me a wadded coat and cap with her own hands. The situation with footwear was even worse. Before leaving home, I used to wrap my feet in newspapers to protect them from frost.
Opposite our house, behind a high fence, among big old trees, there was a big beautiful three-story building of the former gymnasium, where a while ago, the father of the future proletariat leader Vladimir Lenin taught physics. It was evidenced by the memorial tablet at the entrance of the gymnasium yard.
In the summer of 1941, a military hospital was moved to that building. There, for the first time, I saw the real face of the war: deformed, burnt, mutilated people, stumps of human bodies on crutches. It seemed that the wounded stood near the fence from morning till night. Those who had hands, held them out. They asked for food. They were very hungry. This fact astounded me. Of course, they were fed in the hospital but apparently not enough. We brought them everything we could, sometimes even unripe tomatoes of the size of a walnut. The wounded ate them before our eyes. It was a visible, nearly palpable grief.
Penza was not bombed, but German scout planes often appeared over the city. Penza met them with anti-aircraft artillery fire. I don’t know, to what extent the anti-aircraft shells were dangerous for the planes high in the sky, but their splinters were falling thick and fast to the ground, cutting the branches of trees and breaking through the house roofs. They brought death and injuries. But we did not hide; we stared with curiosity as the shells burst right above our heads and did not think about danger. To our regret, we did not see any downed plane, but were very glad when we happened to find shell splinters.
It was in Penza, that I became addicted to reading. There was no electricity in the city and petroleum-lamps were a rarity, so we had to read and do our lessons in the light of an oil lamp. This lamp was a small vial with petroleum and a wick. It gave little light and much soot. When my brother Evgeniy, my cousin Maya and I sat down at the common table to do our lessons, each had his own little lamp. If it began to blink, it was necessary to cut the burnt wick and the small flame would become even. In that light, I absorbedly read the novels of Dumas, Stevenson and many other arresting books, which my brother Evgeniy used to take from his friend who had a big home library. These lamps gave light, but they also covered everything with black soot, that accumulated on everywhere. Our noses were dirty; the whitewash on the walls and ceiling was hardly visible by the end of the winter. The spring began with total tidying up and washing of the rooms. With great difficulty, if not whiteness but at least light greyness was returned to the walls and ceilings. Every Sunday we washed ourselves clean in the public bath house after standing in a long line.
In the spring of 1943, Nikolay Vasilyevich was transferred to Saratov to a position of the director of the Saratov Railway Engineering College. In the summer of 1943, our family settled in the new place. In Saratov, we strongly witnessed the sacrifices necessitated by war. The feeling of hunger became permanent. The market prices on food items were prohibitive. Potatoes were bought by pieces. Salt disappeared. A loaf of bread would cost 500–600 rubles. Such prices exceeded the average monthly income of the majority of working people. Grandma Aniya who did the housekeeping cooked every day a thin millet soup with sparse pieces of potatoes. Instead of salt she put pieces of pickle bought at the market into the soup. The absence of salt annoyed more than the absence of sugar, which remained only in our memories. In the summer of 1943, grandma sometimes bought “kuch” with sugar tickets — a sweet pie, a memory of the Volga Germans who had lived there before the war. The city of Engels and capital of their republic was near Saratov. All the Germans were exiled to the Kazakhstan steppe in the summer of 1941, but the sweet pie, the “Kuchen” remained until 1943. There was an inscription on the shorter side of a brick building which I passed on the way to the market and it reminded me of those Germans. The inscription was painstakingly traced out in big letters and it impressed deeply with its frankness: “Irma is a fool!”.
The purpose of my visits to the market was modest: to buy a glass of sunflower seeds. A glass of sunflower seeds would cost 13–15 rubles. I collected this amount for weeks looking forward to the long-expected purchase. Sunflower seeds did not appease hunger, but they would numb it. When there were no sunflower seeds, we chewed grass stems, robinia flowers or nightshade berries.
In Saratov, we lived in a district called Degtiarka. We were surrounded with habitual unpaved streets, run-down carriageways and total absence of sidewalks. We were given a room in the former hostel of The Saratov Railway Technical School. It was a big wooden two-storey building that looked like a barrack. The large yard was bounded by a file of ponds that went far into the city park. The front of the technical school looked on to the east toward the Volga River, the presence of which was denoted by black tanks of the petroleum storage depot situated on the left bank of the river. I had already seen the Dnieper River before but the Volga River left a lasting impression on me. It impressed me with a mass of inexhaustible waters. It seemed like everything else was diminished in size near it.
Soon after our arrival to Saratov my parents sent me to a pioneer camp situated in the forest suburb. I stayed in the camp for nearly a month. At that time, the bombing of Saratov began. German airplanes flew over the camp practically every night. They flew low and their silhouettes seemed exceedingly big. We did not know then that these frequent attacks were related to the battle on the Kursk Bulge. Saratov was an industrial centre and an important railway junction making its destruction and even dysfunction the goal of German bombing.
Our houses were covered by the crowns of old trees, hidden in the thick bushes. We saw neither the glows of fires, nor air bomb explosions or anti-aircraft gunnery. Only in the mornings, did the grown-ups tell us about the consequences of such attacks, about burnt and destroyed quarters.
In the new school year of 1943, a separate course was introduced to the curriculum “for the purposes of better military training of the youths” as we were told. Our school became the “28th boys’ school.” We were very proud of it, though we had neither military nor physical training in the fourth form except for usual fights-duels “with the aim of drawing blood” when play fighting. I began to receive the official “training” when in Penza soon after.
In the autumn-winter period, we first heard the new national anthem of the Soviet Union to the music of A. Alexandrov, which replaced the previous “International” one. The “International” hymn remained the communist party hymn and Alexsandrov’s music is still played until these days. Not all of us could hear the new national anthem because only few of us had radio sets at home. At the first lesson the teacher asked us: Who has heard the new national anthem? Only a few pupils put their hands up. I and my desk neighbour, Valia Lebedev, were amongst them. “Who can sing the national anthem? — The teacher asked. — “Here are the words”. She showed us a notebook sheet. Valia Lebedev stood up: “I can” He went to the black-board, took the sheet, turned to the class and began to sing. The melody rolled out clear and free, without the slightest distortion. I had never heard better a-capella singing. Since that time, the melody of the national anthem always brings back the image of a boy singing near the class black-board. Valia Lebedev and I spent much time together after lessons. One day we smuggled German helmets and Soviet bullet-proof vests from a guarded scrap yard. The bullet-proof vests looked like real armour — cuirass with a steel apron. We carried them home with great difficulty wading knee-deep in snow in total darkness. At home, I threw the heavy weight with a bang and never touched it afterwards. But Valentin put the cuirass over his coat and came to school in it. During a lesson, the cuirass fell down from the hanger onto the tile floor and frightened the teacher. The “singer” was kicked out of the classroom together with his bullet-proof vest. Another time we found ourselves at a railway spur concealed among maintenance buildings. There were open trucks with Soviet tanks in it. They were T-34 tanks. They looked intact, but inside everything was burnt out. We explored the tanks inhaling the long-lasting burning smell and convincing one another that our tankmen had survived.
The general feeling was elated by the front-line communiqués. The Red Army advanced. There was a big detailed railway map of the USSR hanging on the wall in our house. Every day Nikolay Vasilyevich marked the liberated stations on it. The marks were going up nearer and yet nearer to Brest. And then the long-awaited day came, when father departed for the liberated Brest and we began to wait impatiently for news from him. In spirit, I was already in Brest. Finally, my mother got a letter with the documents permitting us to go to Brest. My father’s deputy of commerce at the technical school came to take us to Brest. He was a former guerrilla, a strong tall man armed with a TT pistol. For nearly a month which we spent traveling from Saratov to Brest, I listened, bracing myself, to his stories about fights and everyday life in the woods. I looked into the unknown reality that was previously concealed from me, the reality of exceptional heroism, but also of events drowned in the unheard cruelty defined in one word: war. That month of life on the road was long, difficult and often dangerous.
Our train was passing scenes of recent battles: destroyed and half-ruined station buildings, burnt houses, frames of derailed carriages, cratered fields littered with metal wreckage, barbed wire, stovepipes tracing earlier settlements. Wrecked, turned over by the war, the Orel fields gave way to the Briansk forests followed by the Gomel region as we travelled further. It was a guerrilla land. Everything pointed to it. At the time of occupation, the Germans closely guarded all the approaches to railroad tracks. Along our road we saw multiple bunkers, earth-and-timber emplacements, trenches, obstacle lines of various kinds. Despite invaders’ precautions, the derailed carriages and sometimes, whole trains evidenced that there were brave men getting over the line of death and committing sabotage attacks. Especially many derailed trains were lying on Luninets running line — traces of activity of the guerrillas, both Soviet and Polish.
At last we reached Zhabinka. There was a miraculously spared small station building standing amongst burnt carriages and smashed rail tracks. It was the only stone building surrounded by wooden peasant houses away from the station.
Brest was near, but the last kilometres of the road seemed to me the longest.
In September 1944, I was once again a citizen of Brest, the city which became my second homeland. It is the place with which the most important events of my life and the life of our family are connected, the city that I fell in love with from the first pre-war meeting.
Year after year, each of them was full of hopes for the best, and the best was in us, in our youth and the optimism that came with it. We lived in conditions of total lack of everything necessary for a normal life and it was our youth that protected us from this drab existence.
In 1951, I finished the boys’ secondary school No.3. In the last school year, I was seriously ill. The verdict of doctors was severe: I could not study, could not serve in the army or do any sports. I did just the opposite. I entered the physics-mathematical faculty of the Brest pedagogical institute, though I had never thought of myself as a teacher. After the institute, I was instantly recruited into the army, where I served in one of the units of the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany. After the army, I worked as an inspector at Brest customs for three years. Then I was teaching at the secondary school No.9 for six years. In spite of doctor’s prohibition to do sports activity I seriously indulged in badminton. When the electric measuring instruments plant (that was the first name of Brest’s electromechanical plant) opened in Brest, I happened to take a job there as a spectral laboratory engineer. A few years later, it was reorganized into a metallo-physical laboratory and I became its head. I worked at the plant all the way until retirement. However, I have not had a chance to enjoy a quiet pension life, because I was invited to work as a badminton coach in one of Brest physical education schools.
Only in 2007, did I finally become an onerous burden on the state budget as an absolute pensioner. My parents passed away long ago, as well as my younger brother Leonid, who never recovered from the blast injury he suffered in his infancy in the first day of the war. In 2013, my elder brother Evgeniy died. He lived in Dnepropetrovsk to his last day, where he did academic and teaching work and was the faculty dean at the Dnepropetrovsk institute of railway engineers. Many of my childhood and youth friends passed away. But I remember them all, in my mind I speak to them and for me they remain living companions.
I am a happy husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. My wife Eleonora Mikhailovna and I have lived together for nearly 60 years. I am grateful to the fate for all it gave and is still giving to me in my long-life journey.