No sooner had any resolution been passed in Moscow, than it was usually responded to straightaway in Alma-Ata. Ever since the establishment of Soviet power, decisions taken by the numerous congresses and plenary sessions – of which there were a great many – after flying over Russian villages and the territories of other Union Republics without lingering in the wide expanses of the state, would come to rest here and take root precisely in our Republic. While Russian villages and the other republics were still not really sure what the decisions they were hearing about actually meant, here in Kazakhstan we would be rolling up our sleeves and putting them into practice. We all know that he who starts out first on a task will be the first to finish it as well: so while Russian villages and other Republics were thinking through what they had heard, careful not to be in too much of a hurry, and others might be scratching their heads wondering what the implications were, Kazakhstan would already have informed Moscow that the new tasks were completed and be champing at the bit, impatient to carry out the next resolution.
One of the most important such political decisions of those times was the removal of distinctions between town and country. As soon as this particular resolution, duly passed by the powers-that-be, reached Alma-Ata and made its way from there to regional capitals, then to district ones and finally to the auls, the men in charge at local level – who were used to implementing resolutions of high-ranking Party leaders without delay – got to work immediately.
“So how, by what means can we wipe out the distinctions between town and country? What differences exist between them? What needs to be done to get rid of these differences quickly and effectively?” These were the questions over which local leaders were wracking their brains in many parts of Kazakhstan, as meetings were held to study the opinions of conscientious, well-informed activists?”
We do not know how these questions were resolved in other places, but in the “Socialism” sector of the well-known “Communism” collective-farm, it was agreed that the main difference between town and aul was that auls could not boast any multi-storey buildings. “What makes a town a town? Multi-storey buildings… What makes an aul an aul? Single-storey mud huts. But if we take down the mud huts and build multi-storey houses, then we should have done away with the main difference between towns and auls,” concluded the sector head, Pashat Barakatov: “So tall buildings will appear in the aul. They shall be our skyscrapers, “Socialism Heights”.
Pashat enjoyed well-deserved authority, not just in his own sector but throughout the collective farm. According to some people, Barakatov at one time had been about to be appointed to a post in the Timiryazev Agriculture Academy in Moscow. He was well-versed in current politics, used to read the newspapers and even knew something about literature. A year ago Pashat had been seen in the aul shop purchasing Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. At that time when people in the aul had not only never heard of such a writer but could not even pronounce his name syllable by syllable, he impressed many of them by exclaiming in front of other people: “Oh, to think that Hemingway’s appeared in our shop…” That made people’s jaws drop in astonishment. The leaders of the collective farm and the general meeting, after adopting Pashat’s suggestion as the basis from which to start, passed a resolution to build as an experiment two multi-storey blocks of flats in the “Socialism” sector of the collective farm. The meeting called upon Sepentai, the foreman for construction work in that sector, to travel to the regional capital so as to acquire from architects the technical specifications and plans for multi-storey buildings and calculate the average costs for building such blocks.
“This task is more than one person can manage, let Barakatov the sector head be involved as well…” he proposed initially, but Sepentai was first subjected to merciless criticism by Pashat and then the collective farm’s chairman laid on the criticism thicker still.
“Running away from difficulties is not worthy of a communist. What do they say about that in the Party charter? You’re shirking responsibility,” they all maintained to a man. Now that two people had voiced their opinions, what was there left to do for the others but agree? Party activists subjected Sepentai to harsh criticism and some people even went so far as to suggest that his Party card should be confiscated and he be excluded from the collective farm and sent packing. Ospan, the vet in charge of artificial insemination for sheep, expressed his regrets at having to work in one and the same collective as this two-faced and cowardly party member. There had been twenty-one people at the meeting – all Kazakhs, who naturally spoke very poor Russian and even those who could manage would pronounce the word “vodka” as “wodka”. Despite all this, Ospan said everything he had to say in undiluted Russian. As he was speaking in Russian, everyone listened attentively to what the vet was saying. Soon they all felt that Sepentai was a dishonest communist, that he was a reactionary element going out of his way to undermine the cause of advanced socialism, that he opposed the policy advocating the eradication of the differences between town and country and the general view that the work of promoting socialism was a truly creative endeavour. At that meeting Sepentai was obliged to apologize to all present for his ideological retreat and deviationism: he admitted his mistakes and also promised that he would rapidly – no, immediately – put things right. He assured everyone that he would fulfil every task assigned to him by the Party, however difficult it might be, any task at all.
After all that a vote was taken and it resulted in a unanimous decision to pardon him: there was only one abstention.
* * *
The next day Sepentai took the first bus to the regional capital. Since he had never crossed the threshold of such important institutions before, it was only after a long and difficult search that he managed to find the building of “Regional-Construction-Project”, which happened to be in the building next to the “Regional-Projects” and “Kazakh-Fisheries” offices. He succeeded in tracking down the man he needed to see in order to discuss his objective. The people he found were unable to take any decisions on their own. It was only on the fourth day that he achieved something: in a distant corner office where four men had their desks, he found someone who said that he knew an architect working for “South-Kazakhstan-Elevators-Milling-and-Construction-Equipment-Sales”, who had at the ready plans for two multi-storey buildings. If Sepentai agreed to meet him, the architect could be invited over for a discussion and it might well be possible to persuade him to sell the plans to the “Socialism” sector of the farm at an acceptable price. Sepentai was beside himself with joy and he used every argument he could think of to bring round the architect, before he finally left the office.
For two days he held discussions with the architect from “South-Kazakhstan-Elevators-and-Construction-Equipment-Sales”. The discussions were conducted in a secluded corner in one of the town’s parks – in the “Aral” restaurant on a small island in the middle of a lake in a cordial atmosphere of complete mutual understanding.
A month later results of Sepentai’s sojourn in the town began to appear. Dozens of lorries from the regional capital started pouring into the farm delivering building materials and these were followed by countless building workers: plasterers and masons, architects and bulldozer drivers, surveyors and concrete-mixer operators. Sepentai could not possibly have known that the plans sold to the collective farm for 20,000 roubles were plans which had been gathering dust in a forgotten cupboard of the institute: they had been turned down by the planning authorities at every level.
Rumours started spreading like wild fire through the district to the effect that the farm’s “Socialism” sector needed workers and unemployed men from the whole area turned up in droves. More and more people came out on to the main road to thumb lifts.
The drivers would ask: “Where are you off to mate?” “Which way are you going?”
“To ‘Communism’ farm. I’ve been waiting here for a good hour. I’m ready to pay you for your trouble, but do give us a lift.”
“No go, my lorry’s on the blink. If I get as far as ‘Socialism’. I’ll be lucky!”
“But that’s exactly where I need to get!”
* * *
Before even a fortnight had passed, the small office in the “Socialism” sector was bursting at the seams with all the would-be builders who had appeared on the scene. Sepentai’s and Pashat’s heads were spinning and they had no idea how to escape from the men who were besieging the farm. Having assigned the main tasks to the farm’s team-leaders and foremen, they turned all their attention to the newcomers. When they had taken on the necessary numbers of men, they sent all the rest of them packing. Initially they had not known how many workers they would need to put up two seven-storey buildings. Like a flock of sheep rounded up in a pen, the men crammed into the room and then started talking loudly and shouting. Which ones should they keep on and which ones should they send back home…? The organizers didn’t know where to start so as to bring order into the chaos.
“How many people do we need? Which one of those noisy wretches should we keep on?” asked Palat, ready to vent all his anger at Sepentai. “How many workers would be needed to put up houses like that in the town?”
“The town’s one thing and we’re out here in the steppe. In the towns they’ve got more machines than people and all we’ve got are one crane and three tip-up lorries. That’s it…”
“I’m not asking you what we’ve got and what we haven’t got. Tell me, how many men do we need to build one of the houses?”
“If we don’t count the machines…we-e-ell,” Sepentai’s lips moved up and down as he tried to count them up. “Mm-m… We’ll need twenty for the ground floor, twenty-five for the first floor… the second floor… the third floor… the fourth floor. For one of the houses we’re going to need 120 people.”
“But we’re not going to be putting up five floors all at once. First of all we build the ground floor, then we start on the first floor. Isn’t that right? Or are your people going to be laying bricks in thin air?” “You’re right… Of course – we can’t start the first floor until the ground floor’s built, because the first floor has to be built on top of the ground floor…”
“Precisely, Comrade foreman! If things aren’t spelled out for you, you’d never work it out for yourself. So how many people are we going to need in total?”
“Two heads are better than one. Let’s take on 150 people and send the rest of them home. If it turns out to be too many, we can cut the numbers back later on, however many will be necessary.”
“All right, organize work teams! Make sure that each one contains people from different ethnic groups.” At that very moment the posts of the old door, up against which the crowd of men trying to see into the room was pushing, caved in and came away from the mud-brick walls, so that the door fell right into the office. The ten people who had been at the front of the crowd, so as to get in first, somersaulted over the threshold and landed on the office floor, crumpling and squashing their straw hats in the process. Two or three of the poor fellows managed to crawl out of the pile and hurl themselves towards the desk, but they were overcome by shyness halfway and stopped in their tracks. Sepentai glowered sternly at a thin, weather-beaten man, who had been floundering under the heap of bodies and asked: “Your surname?”
“Line of work?”
“I’m not asking what clan you’re from but your ethnic group?”
“Kazakh… I said that because I was told you were a Konyrat too…”
“These Kazakhs!… Even when they’re squashed under a crowd, they’ll still divide themselves up into clans. All right, we’ll take you on.” Sepentai then turned his gaze to a bald fellow, lying at the top of the heap.
“Line of work?”
“Kazakh. I’m a Konyrat as well…”
“He’s lying, he’s from the Naiman clan…” blurted out a pockmarked fellow with ears that stuck out, who had been floundering in the pile next to Kopbergenov.
“First one Kazakh, then another…” said Sepentai, deep in thought, realizing it would be good if there was a Russian among them. If they all turn out to be Kazakhs…
“Are there any Russians among you?” he asked, but was met by silence.” “Are there any Russians among you masons?” shouted Sepentai into the corridor that was buzzing like a beehive.
“Yes!” answered a fair-haired fellow wearing a sombrero.
“What’s your surname?”
“Bekturov? What kind of a Russian name is that?”
“My father’s name is Viktor, but when Kazakhs registered his birth, they wrote down Bektur instead of Viktor.”
“I’m not sure I believe you, but never mind… the Devil will sort you out in the end. You’re taken on and now off you go!”
While Sepentai was shouting out one by one the names of all the ethnic minorities populating Kazakhstan, it began to get dark. Unable to carry on any longer from sheer exhaustion, he turned to Pashat and said: “They’ve been writing in the newspapers that there are a hundred and thirty ethnic groups living here in Kazakhstan in peace and harmony. I’ve only got a hundred and twenty-seven so far. Where can I lay my hands on another three? What do I still need?”
“Have you got a Kurd?”
“I’ve got one of those too.”
“And a Shurshite?”
“What’s that for heaven’s sake? What kind of people are they?”
“Have you got a Shurshite?”
“Have you got a Pashtun?”
“No, they live in Afghanistan.”
“We definitely need one of those and a Shurshite… And what are you?”
“What d’you mean – ‘what’? Kazakhs.”
“We don’t need any more Kazakhs. You can set off home.”
“Perhaps you think that a house built by a Kazakh will fall down? Wherever we go, Kazakhs are getting turned away. Where are we meant to go and where can we earn a living?”
“That’s none of our business. To the ends of the earth for all I care! We need a Shurshite or at least an Eskimo.”
“And if such people don’t exist, what are we meant to do? Kick the bucket?”
“Just get on and find some…!”
However hard the leadership summoned them, not a single Shurshite, Eskimo or Pashtun came forward. The list was checked through carefully once more and the farm’s officials, realizing there was nothing to be done, started looking at each other anxiously.
“So what do we do now?” asked Pashat sadly. Sepentai thought long and hard.
“What if we were to assign eight people from the list of surplus Kazakhs to the ethnic groups still missing: we could list one as a Pashtun, another as a Shurshite and so on. The people out of work have got little choice. They’re bound to agree. We’ll explain to them that if there’s any checking, they’ll need to say they belong to the groups we allocate them to.”
“If they don’t look right, then what?”
“Who’s going to worry about looks? Anyway what kind of looks does a worker have? When they’re all up to their eyes in heavy work, they’ll all just be looking like members of the proletariat…”
Pashat looked hard at Sepentai for a moment and then exclaimed with a happy smile: “That idea will save the situation! Well done, Sepentai! You’re really on the ball! Every now and then at least…”
As if someone had been tickling him, he burst into a fit of giggles. Then he abruptly began to cough so as to mask his laughter.
“All right then,” he said: “On you get. Even so, don’t just write down whatever comes into your head. Pick people who look right for the ethnic group you choose.”
“Of course I will. When it comes to it though, among Kazakhs you can find people with looks that would suit any ethnic group, if you look hard enough.”
“That’s true. Anyway, I’m off home now. You can finish the rest on your own.” With that, Pashat made people move back to let him through the crowd in the corridor, so that at last he could get out of the building. Sepentai was keen to round things off as well. He picked out three people in the crowd of Kazakhs, whose appearance – in his eyes – were right for the three missing groups and then persuaded them to accept his conditions, so that he could take them on without delay. None of the Kazakhs wanted to lose the work opportunity and they all fell over each other in their eager enthusiasm to accept his conditions.
“But of course, that’s fine by us! If that’s all you want, you can list us all not just as Pashtun, but even earthworms – we won’t mind! Nothing’s going to happen to us. We’re not going to be any the worse off. If in the future anyone starts asking about our ethnic group – we shall answer as you told us to. But we just need to write down who we are, so that we don’t forget…”
* * *
Not long after all of that, on the building site in the “Socialism” sector of the “Communism” collective farm, work began in earnest on the construction of the two seven-storey blocks of flats. Before the foundations appeared, two banners were set up at the edge of the plot of land. There had been a fair number of banners gathering dust in the store-room of the “Socialism” sector. Sepentai had brought out two of them and after scratching out the faded, out-dated slogans, he replaced them with new ones. In place of “Let’s overtake America” or “We shall all help to build communism by 1980!” he wrote “Our hard work will eliminate the differences between town and country!” and “Thanks to the Party we are living in the age of Advanced Socialism!” Then he attached each banner to two tall poles so that they were visible from a long way off. Pashat, who was in charge of the “Socialism” sector, reported back to central HQ every Monday on his walkie-talkie that the building work was proceeding at an unprecedented pace and, if they managed to keep it up, the two buildings would be ready not just within the year but after a mere five months. He pointed out that his sector would once again be among the leaders for the financial year, having achieved the goals set by Party and Government ahead of schedule in order to eliminate the differences between town and country.
Against all the odds Pashat and Sepentai kept their promises: the five months sped by like wild horses and families in the aul started preparing for the move. Part of the planning involved making sure that the residents of the new blocks should represent not just one but several ethnic groups and the two men managed with great resourcefulness to achieve that objective. Most of the residents would be Kazakhs, but there were five or six Russian families, three Uzbek ones, two families from Azerbaijan, one Turkish, one Georgian and one Armenian one, which had turned up from Iran for some reason or other the previous year. There was also one Kizilbash family, one Dungan family and one Korean one. Pashat distributed the housing certificates first of all to the non-Kazakh householders and to the Kazakhs, who were prepared to be listed as belonging to other ethnic groups living in the Republic, and then he named the day for the move. Living in his sector were 84 families in total and the enormous seven-storey blocks were able to cater for them all straightaway. There were only two or three old women left behind, who preferred to stay on in their one-storey mud huts rather than live high up, and there were a few peasants who did not want to leave their plot of land and outbuildings behind.
On the day of the move the Chairman of the collective farm arrived and various local officials and a special rally was held in front of the new blocks of flats. Pashat Barakatov delivered a fiery speech for the occasion. He said that an event like the construction of wonderful seven-storey blocks in a mere five months, as opposed to the year scheduled for the project, was only possible in the context of advanced socialism and that working people in capitalist countries would not only be unable to aspire to such a feat but would not even be able to imagine it. He reduced the viability of capitalism to dust and ashes in no time at all. After accusing America – the flagship of the capitalist world – of all possible mortal sins, he reduced its President Reagan to a laughable scarecrow.
He was eventually interrupted by an old man standing in the front row, who asked: “Dear Pashat, haven’t you gone too far by building two great blocks like this in the middle of the steppe? Why go on about distant America? Wouldn’t it be better to talk about what’s going on in your own aul?”
Pashat nearly exploded giving vent to a wild burst of anger: “Who said that? Was that you, Elder Meldesh? So you didn’t like my criticism of American imperialism? By viciously distorting our words you come over as an extremist all the time, instead of setting a good example to our young people. If you’re so fond of America and take their side, why don’t you set off there? We shall not waste a moment holding back people with evil intentions here. Or was the criticism directed at you last time not enough?”
People were getting restless by this time and turned round to take a look at the old man who couldn’t sit still. A good number of angry eyes homed in on him for trying to protect distant America, the main enemy of the “Socialism” sector, for interrupting such a solemn event. There was indeed a good deal of truth in Pashat’s question as to whether the criticism directed at him last time had not been enough. Eight months previously, Elder Meldesh had spent his pension on two barrels of beer in the nearby town, which he had then brought back and handed out to people free of charge near the farm’s social club. Enormous numbers of people had gathered round the building to enjoy the beer they didn’t need to pay for and in the end the pressure from the crowd had ended in a free-for-all. The old man’s cart had been broken and the two barrels crushed to bits. News of the event had first reached the ears of the head of the sector and in the end the farm chairman heard about it. After calling Meldesh into his office, the chairman asked:
“What is the meaning of all this? Why are you stirring people up?”
“Why am I at fault? My only crime was to treat people worn out by their labours to some free beer.”
“What d’you mean why? You maintain every day that under communism we should not need money for anything. I’m already old and my days are numbered, so I’m unlikely to live long enough to see this communism which you talk about so much. This led me to spend two months’ worth of my pension on a couple of barrels of beer and hand out free drinks to people. How was I to know that it would all end in a fight?”
“Take note!” the Chairman shouted at his deputy, who was sitting beside him. “A formal reprimand!”
That day old Meldesh calmed down, after being issued with a strict reprimand for disrupting the peaceful lives of the working people with his opportunist intentions. Pashat, for his part, was reminding him once more of this episode. Heaven knows how things might have developed, if the Chairman had not calmed him down with the words: “All right now, you just continue with your speech.” After a solemn cough or two, Pashat continued to read his speech from his prepared notes.
“Don’t just think of these two buildings which stand before you simply as houses. They are a model for the future, a model for communist living. They represent yet another outstanding achievement of the Soviet working people. These houses were built by representatives of all the ethnic minorities living in Kazakhstan and this explains why they were completed seven months ahead of schedule. Today families of many different ethnic groups are making ready to move into new accommodation. Not just Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Moldavians and Byelorussians took part in the construction and fitting out of these buildings, but representatives of all the other ethnic groups resident here in Kazakhstan as well. Some of those who attracted the most attention as shock-workers were the Eskimo, Sagyntai Aibaltaev, the Pashtun Ergeshbai Sarmoldaev and the Shurshite, Temirbek Sikymov. And now let us return to today’s celebrations…”
“What d’you mean Eskimo? Who’s the Pashtun around here?” shouted people who worked in the sector and soon their shouts were drowning out Sepentai. The men whose surnames Sepentai had called out were standing there with their wives, children and other relatives. When one of them was referred to as an Eskimo, another as a Shurshite and a third as a Pashtun not to mention certain others, also lumped with a false identity, their wives filled the air with ear-splitting shrieks.
“You there, Comrade sector head,” shouted the wife of ‘Shurshite’ Temirbek. “Don’t you disgrace my husband like that: not only is he not a Shurshite, but he’s never seen any Shurshites in his life! He’s a Kazakh! Not only is he a Kazakh, but his ancestors were from the Konyrats of Otrar, who fought alongside Genghis Khan: within that tribe he was from the Kulshygash clan, within that clan he was a Taz…”
“Don’t you start dividing Kazakhs into clans and tribes,” interrupted a Pashat rendered hopelessly confused by this time, biting his lip. The solemn gathering had already been reduced to a riot led by the wives of the ‘Eskimo’ and the ‘Pashtun’. The Chairman of the collective-farm, well aware that this chaos could last forever, took centre stage: “Patience, Comrades, patience!” he said, raising his hand. “Let the men singled out by name step forward and we shall see with our own eyes who they really are.”
“They all work here and we see them every day. Why do they need to step forward?”
“Let them step forward, even so. Where are you fellows? Come on, step forward!”
When Eskimo Saguntai, Pashtun Ergeshbai and Shurshite Temirbek did in the end step forward, everyone broke into uncontrollable laughter!
“Traitors!” called out one of the men, rather worse for wear after drinking, who started brandishing his fist. “They were ready to sell out their people for a few kopecks. I stuck to my guns and said: ‘Even if I have to lose my job and collect beetles out in the steppe, I’ll still remain a Kazakh!’ Now you’ve seen and heard it all for yourselves! I’ve no idea what they’re up to, because those people were smiling fit to burst when they came out of Sepentai’s office…!”
The meeting was getting out of hand by now like an agitated henhouse. Heaven knows how it might all have ended, since they were all out of control, if it had not been for the Chairman who took a grip on things at last: “Stop all this noise!” he roared angrily. “What are you all so excited about? If someone’s down as a Shurshite, what of it. Let things be, nobody’s any the worse off, are they? Any Soviet citizen today can register with whatever ethnic group they choose.”
He made a short pause, waiting to see what effect his words had had on the crowd and when the noise started to die down he began talking in a quieter, calm voice. In a reassuring tone he told them all about what had been planned to improve life for people in their aul and then – moving on from the aul – he talked about the country’s domestic and foreign policy, touching on the attention focused on ethnic issues. Finally, when he realized that people had forgotten why they had grown so excited in the first place and had calmed down, he turned to those who were about to move into new flats: “Welcome to your new home! May you live here happily!” and proceeded to cut the specially prepared red ribbon.
Once everyone had caught sight of the ribbons in the Chairman’s hands, the impatient crowd rushed into the two seven-storey blocks. It was only then that he could wipe the sweat from his forehead and walk over to his car. Before he finally left, he found time to hurl angry curses at Barakatov, head of the “Socialism” sector.
The next morning, straight after breakfast, the Chairman, Pashat and Sepentai sat down to compose a report for the District Party Committee:
“Report to the District Committee of the CPSU1
The working people from the ‘Socialism’ Sector of the ‘Communism’ collective-farm in the Zhetisai District, who support in every possible way the policies of the Party and Government with regard to the elimination of the differences between town and country, took upon themselves the honourable commitment of building two seven-storey blocks of flats. In the plans drawn up locally it was duly laid down that the construction work would be completed over the course of a year. Thanks to the heroic labour of the local work force and workers recruited from outside, two blocks – each consisting of 64 flats, i.e. with a total of 128 (one hundred and twenty-eight) flats – were ready for farm workers to move into seven months ahead of schedule. Yesterday, i.e. on September 21, 1981, new residents moved into all the flats. We should like to assure you once again that, in the future as well, we are ready to carry out without delay or deviation all tasks entrusted to us by our Party and Government.
Chairman of the Collective-Farm General Assembly: B. Zhalmuratov
Secretary of the Farm’s Party Committee: S. Kereibaev
Head of the ‘Socialism’ Sector: P. Barakatov
September 22, 1981”
Secretary of the Farm’s Party Committee: S. Kereibaev
Head of the ‘Socialism’ Sector: P. Barakatov
September 22, 1981”
So as to submit the report as quickly as possible, Kereibaev, the secretary of the Party Committee left straightaway for the district centre. Before going their separate ways, the three men had agreed that that they would hold a meeting in Barakatov’s house to inform all the farm foremen about how the important project had been completed ahead of schedule. Pashat, who never liked to waste any time, immediately sat down with his walkie-talkie in the farm office and rang through to the sector to give instructions for a calf and two sheep to be slaughtered and skinned by the time he re-appeared. Since he had already sent the report to the District Office, it was decided that, without calling in to see the Chairman on his return, he would go straight back to the “Socialism” sector and that his family would make their way there with everybody else.
At that point in time the open space in front of the two new blocks of flats had turned into something resembling a cattle-market. There was a frenzied bellowing, bleating and mooing going on. There was a cluster of carts drawn by horses, camels and donkeys, not to mention overloaded “ZiL”, “KaMaz” and Belorus” lorries, tractors with caterpillar wheels and combine harvesters for the cotton crop. In a word, whatever vehicle the collective farmers might have to hand they had brought along to the yard outside the new blocks. All the new residents were busy hauling loads from the vehicles into their new homes. Given that they had all been told to move in as a group on one particular day, the agitated and perspiring residents were bound to bump into each other in the porches, to start cursing and swearing and even descending to physical violence.
It was close on midnight when the exhausted new residents began to calm down, deciding to leave all unfinished tasks till the next day. In the new flats, however, just as everywhere else in the district, there was no gas supply. This meant that all the new arrivals, resorted to crafty tactics to find a solution, each one as best he could. Some just made do with tea from the thermoses they had brought with them, others sought comfort for their stomachs from pieces of cold boiled meat, while still others switched on electric hot-plates and old Meldesh and his wife boiled their kettle for tea after lighting a small bonfire on the balcony of their second-floor flat. Many of the Kazakhs, used to wide open spaces in front of their dwellings, embarked on setting up hearths outside the block, making a good deal of noise as they set about lighting fires. For any outsider it would appear that these new blocks were not so much examples of socialist community spirit as sinking ships in a sea of flames. People were scurrying about between the blocks and the hearths: some were grinding corn, others hammering nails into walls, while fires were burning merrily on the balconies and the stoves out in the yard were spitting showers of sparks right, left and centre. In short the inhabitants of the seven-storey communist blocks for communal living were shortening the days allotted to them as best they possibly could.
The next day those families would be celebrating their house-warming and the residents – representatives of the 130 ethnic groups living in Kazakhstan – would be singing songs, dancing and revelling for days and nights on end. The people who had moved into the new blocks were in the main drivers, tractor-drivers, mechanics, farm labourers, combine-drivers, builders and they would be bound to park their vehicles and tractors nearby. When thirty tractors belonging to the heads of the 128 households start turning engines on all at once as dawn breaks, then it might seem to some people that the end of the world is at hand and it will be difficult to guarantee that nobody will take fright and leap from a balcony in terror.
There now followed the first morning of communist communal living. The dawn broke and it was one of those bright mornings such as the newspapers love to describe: a gently serene morning filled with pure radiant light. The sun peeped forth and in the light of that new day there was no hint of the storm which was brewing in that world of slumber. That sun was ushering in future events for the residents of those new blocks who suspected nothing and were gradually coming to after celebrating their house-warming.
Since these were communist flats, naturally toilets had been provided in them. If there is a toilet to hand, naturally anyone would be keen to try it out. Temirbek, one of the ground-floor residents, like anyone anywhere, would start his new day with a visit to the toilet. His flat had not yet been cleared up after the party from the night before and he started climbing over plates while still half awake, winding his way through chests and boxes large and small: when he reached the toilet door, however, his feet landed in something liquid. Out of habit he started grumbling at his wife, assuming that she must have spilt some water on the floor. Yet by now his nose had encountered a suspicious smell and realizing he had trodden in something other than ordinary water, he froze to a standstill. Now that his feet had already hit liquid, it was a quite natural reaction for him to pull the door towards him. That was when the liquid which had been building up in the toilet burst upon him in a torrent.
Temirbek jumped back into the corridor and woke his family; soon he found himself in the middle of a noisy riot. Inside the toilet filth was pouring out of a big black pipe with joins between its sections which had not been fixed together tightly enough and there was no end to the cascade. This all made it look as if the residents of the upstairs flats had happily made the most of their chance to use communal facilities. Temirbek lost no time before rushing up the stairs and banging with his fists on the door of a Tatar one floor up, as if he was announcing that an enemy had surrounded them. A thin old woman, bespectacled and with a yellow face opened up for him.
“Ni kirak siage?2”
“Stop your nikirak-ing, Granny. God has cursed us!”
He pushed the old woman to one side and rushed into the flat shouting: “Who’s in the toilet?”
“Oh, God help us, what are you on about?”
“Who’s in the toilet?”
“Ibatulla’s in there.”
Temirbek pulled at the handle of the toilet door, shouting: “Ibatulla, you can go to Hell!”
“Ibatulla, come out here!” demanded Temirbek. “Hurry up!”
At last Ibatulla’s strained voice made itself heard: “All right, all right, just a minute!”
“Forget about your ‘minute’. My flat’s being washed away in a flood. Don’t just sit there in your toilet. Whether you’ve finished or not, you just come out here, NOW!”
Out came Ibatulla, highly embarrassed, his face covered in red blotches.
“You Kazakhs don’t even let anyone sit quietly in his toilet,” he said, with an attempt at a joke. “Well, how are things?”
Temirbek quickly explained to him what was happening. After that Ibatulla opened the toilet door again and, seeing that a pipe was dripping in there, he shouted at the top of his voice. The two of them ran up to the second floor, where an Uzbek by the name of Islamzhan lived. They explained to him what was up.
“That can’t be!” he said, shaking his head. “The shit-house can’t break down on the very first day.”
“What d’you mean it can’t, if my flat’s already turned into a filthy pond. It won’t be long before shit’s floating into your flat…”
The three of them ran up to the third floor, where a Georgian warehouse supervisor by the name of Gamrakeli lived. He had clearly only just come out of the toilet, because he was busy fastening his flies, when his neighbours appeared.
“Oh, Gamardzhoba!3” he exclaimed, very happy to see them.
“That’s enough of your Gamardzhobas, just make sure you don’t use the toilet any more!”
“Well, you see… it’s all very…”
On the fourth floor all was calm. That was where the electrician Ivan Krivonosov lived. When he had realized what was going on, he simply shrugged his shoulders and asked: “What d’you want me to do about it?”
“We must go and see the people in charge. We must lodge a complaint saying that before we’d hardly moved in, liquid sewage was pouring into our flats.”
“I haven’t got time for that today,” said the electrician, drinking some very cold water out of a tap. “I’ve got to fetch my wife from the town today. You’ll have to go without me. Whoever caused the flood, let him go and see about it. It’ll take a long time before it gets as far as the fourth floor.”
“That’s very mean of you!” yelled an indignant Temirbek back at him, “It’s not like the old days any more. We all live one above the other now, we’re all in the same boat. If a neighbour upstairs gives no thought to the people down below, what kind of life are we all going to have? If you go and have a look at my flat, it’ll make you want to run a mile…”
They came down to the ground floor again and went into Temirbek’s flat. His wife and children, now pinching their noses and wearing rubber boots, had by this time rustled up a dam out of rags and old clothes in the path of the liquid. Their last efforts were devoted to steering the unending stinking torrent over their threshold and outside the building. The Georgian, Garmakeli, broke down the doorstep so that the international flood that was building up more and more could finally surge past the last step of the stairs and into the yard.
It was only then that the inmates all realized that the residents on the other staircases were facing the same problem, which they too had been wrestling with for over an hour, with thoughts for nothing else but how best to contain this unexpected evil…
Not long afterwards all the residents of both blocks came out into the yard.
* * *
All those responsible for running the collective farm had gathered in Pashat Barakatov’s house, where it was announced that the report had been sent off to the district Party office and they finally went to bed in the small hours. In accordance with an unwritten ‘special category’ rule of the party leadership, beds had been laid out on the floor in Pashat’s office so that the chairman, Party secretary, chief agronomist and sector head could sleep there on the floor. Snoring happily, they had just sunk into a deep sleep when ten people came into the house all covered in mud. Pashat’s mother, who had been sitting there working her spindle, called out in a fright: “What the hell are you doing?!”
“Where’s Barakatov?” asked Temirbek, after greeting the old woman.
“He went out … a little while ago… What a surprise, Temirbek, is that you? What’s the matter – you look as if you’ve seen a ghost, as if Satan’s been chasing you… Are you feeling all right?”
“I’m fine, just fine,” rattled off Temirbek to reassure her, anxious not to lose any time. “We need the men in charge!”
“They… went off a long time ago.” “Where to?”
“How should I know, they never tell me where they’re going.”
“To hell with them all!” swore Ivan, beside himself by now. “Everyone’s about to drown and they’re out and about heaven knows where!”
At that very moment the snores of the blissfully unaware male quartet started seeping through the tightly closed door. Guessing where the snoring might be coming from, Temirbek and Ibatulla despite the squeals of the old woman, opened the door and pushed their way into the office. Inside it looked as if there were enormous carcases of recently slaughtered livestock laid out and the men were snoring so loudly that the walls were shaking and the ceiling heaving from side to side.
Even when another three ‘visitors’ came in, pestering them from all directions, it was all they could do to wake up the snorers and get them on to their feet. The collective farm’s leaders looked round at the intruders with their heads wobbling as if about to fall off their necks and with bleary eyes as if they were being confronted by Munkir and Nankir, the Angels of Death, demanding answers to challenging questions. They were quite incapable of understanding what was happening. When they had eventually grasped the gist of what was going on, they muttered: “All right, be on your way and we’ll be over in a minute.” As soon as their indignant visitors had left the office, they flopped down again on to their beds.
When the men in charge eventually turned up near the seven-storey blocks, still clutching at their heads as they walked along, it was already midday and the crowd was losing its patience. Anger was boiling over, as the first inspection began.
“You’re all just ignorant!” declared Pashat, after listening to the infuriated new residents. “You’re just savages who can’t get used to urban life! Even before you’d finished moving in, you started slaughtering sheep, cleaning offal in the toilets and then flushing all the rubbish down the pan. You ought to be fined for violating the rules of communist communal living!”
“Is that all you have to say? Before we’ve even settled into the new homes, we have to pay fines!?” exclaimed old Meldesh, screwing up his eyes in horror. “We’re not going to be treated like fools! You’re the ones who have plenty to answer for!”
Suddenly he lent over the railings of his own balcony and looking up to where a small girl was leaning over a balcony on the third floor, he shouted up to her: “Tell your stupid father not to use the toilet, not to flush it. Are you all deaf up there? Do we have to take an axe to your door, to make you open it?” The small girl slipped back into her flat without a word.
After a long and stormy discussion, the men in charge went into all the flats. Everything they had been told turned out to be true. They decided to invite a commission over from the district Party office. They agreed that nobody would use a toilet, have a bath or turn on a kitchen tap until the commission had been.
The commission turned up a week later, but it did not stay for long. Its conclusions were announced immediately. It turned out that the “Socialism” sector of the collective farm had made a sensational discovery of international importance regarding the construction of multi-storey residential blocks: nobody on the farm had thought of laying pipes for main drainage to link in with the sewage system for the blocks, which had been built precisely so as eliminate the differences between town and country living.
“So that’s what it was and I kept wondering how had they managed to do all that in just five months!” said the chairman, casting a threatening look at Pashat and Sepentai, after he had listened to the commission’s findings. “You two had better be prepared for a spell inside! There’s no other way out.”
“If we get put inside, then everyone else will have to go too,” said Pashat in a mournful tone, as if he drew at least some comfort from that thought.
News of this extraordinary event soon got as far as the district Party office as well. A meeting was called and the Party officials issued a Strict Warning. No warning is going to get a house built though, or main drainage laid. After long discussions, the district-level officials all agreed that work had to start on the main drainage for the new blocks. Before rumours about what had happened spread far and wide, machinery of the best possible kind available was sent to the “Socialism” sector of the farm and work began the very next day.
A few kilometres away from the aul a large trench was dug and from that a ditch one and a half metres deep all the way to “Socialism’s” multi-storey blocks.
In the meantime the residents of the two new blocks were living in hellish conditions. Some people went back to the mud huts they had been living in before, while others, submitting to the harsh new ‘rgime’, started cooking their meals on hearths set up in the yard around the blocks, relieved themselves in the steppe and came home only to sleep at night.
Old Meldesh’s grandson was due to get married: the family had specially postponed the wedding till after the move but the appointed day still came round all too rapidly. Everyone begged the grandson to wait, but he insisted on keeping to the original plan. While they were preparing for the wedding, Zhaparkhana, the mother-in-law of Meldesh’s neighbour, died and this meant that her family gathered in the new block for its first wake. It resulted in the most shocking mix-up for the inhabitants of one of the new blocks: family members who had come over to take leave of their relative shouted out the ritual greeting for a funeral gathering – “Bauyrym!” – as they came into the flat, where the wedding festivities were in full swing, while wedding guests turned up in a flat where the loud wailing of mourners was underway. After that the inhabitants of the aul, who had in the past enjoyed the freedom of wide open spaces, now began to feel ill-at-ease with each other: quarrels and conflict became much more common features of their day-to-day lives than before and people started having far less to do with each other than in the old days.
At first work on the new drainage system began enthusiastically, but gradually the pace slackened. Ten weeks later the pipes were laid and the earth under the new blocks began to dry out. Whether it was all because the calculations of the engineers had been inaccurate or because the earth had dried out and subsidence had set in, it was difficult to say, but the two blocks now sloped towards each other.
This led the men in charge to call a halt to the work immediately and oblige all the residents to leave. Those who, in their excitement over the chance to move into a new flat, had destroyed their former humble dwelling, now had to put up tents and move into them as temporary accommodation.
Once again people started complaining: although they had seen many trials and tribulations in the past, this latest upheaval had left them indignant. Once again the key officials at district level came together for a meeting, so as to decide what they ought to do. In the middle of the hectic summer season they all found it hard to concentrate on the harvest which needed bringing in: each and every one of them was thinking about how cruelly Fate had treated him.
1 Communist Party of the Soviet Union
2 “What d’you want?” in Tatar.
3 “Hello” in Georgian.