Birth of Zernograd

Vladimir A. Soloukhin, Birth of Zernograd. 1955


Translated by James von Geldern

Original Source: Rozhdenie Zernograda (Moscow: Biblioteka Ogonek, 1955).

Not far from a place where rocks protrude from the ground, where they block the path of a river, forming the shape of a jutting peak with seething and plummeting water, a camp appeared. Sharp-peaked, dark green tents were pitched in two strict rows.

Names have been chalked on the tents: “Outpatient Clinic,” “Brigade No. 4,” “Post Office” (a light blue mailbox was nailed to a post in front of this tent). Somebody jokingly wrote on the canvas of their tent: “Knock before entering.” And the big tent with window, which stood at the juncture of the two rows, was decorated with the sign: “Hospital of the Kairakty Sovkhoz.”

In the middle of the camp a stake was driven into the ground, and a cultivator disk was hung from it; if you want it’s a gong, or else town assembly bell–in a word, a signal. Soon a large van arrived. The Muscovites immediately baptized it “GUM.” Wood chips shone white in the grass next to it–carpenters began to build the cafeteria there. For the time being, the smoke of field kitchens streamed spryly upwards. A primus stove had begun to hiss somewhere, some was playing their accordion, and a three-year old boy wheeled his bicycle outside. The steppe took on a lived-in look.

The farm’s Party organizer, Halim Akhmediarov, set up his small household in one of the tents. Tall, a bit chubby, with a large smooth-shaved face, he saw people with kind and understanding eyes. Halim is a born livestock-breeder. He has spent the great part of his life in the Alatau mountains, in high mountain pastures, amidst alpine meadows, yurts, flocks of sheep. The Party sent him to the northern steppes, to the Kairakty Sovkhoz. He bid farewell to his wife Rauza, his sons Bulat, Marat and Jomart and to his daughter Seula, came to the steppe and set to work. He revised the Party roster (there turned out to be fourteen members), talked with each individually, and then gathered a party meeting. Slogans, militant pamphlets and “new-flashes” began to appear in camp.

Now he was sitting in his tent and looking through the roster of tractor-drivers. The wind roaming the steppe did not penetrate the tent. It was warmed by the sun like a hothouse. He needed to recommend a tractor driver for laying the first furrow. Even in kolkhoz that have existed and plowed for ten or twenty years, the first furrow is an event, and cutting it is a great honor. A here was the first furrow in the history of a virgin lands sovkhoz. In ten or twenty years, when a true city has been built up on this spot, let people know: the first furrow on the virgin lands of the Kairakty Sovkhoz was plowed by such-and-such a tractor-driver.

“Iakovlev, Kitsenko, Bushilo, Zvorych, Riabovalov”: the party organizer read off the names of the drivers and could not decide on one. Not because they were bad, but because they and all the rest had not had the chance to show themselves. Where else but at work can a man show his true potential? Yet work was still ahead. Loud, excited voices ripped Halim away from his thoughts. He listened in.

“Over there, past that mound,” informed a girl’s ringing voice, “they’re plowing for all they’re worth, and you’re here sleeping!”

The party organizer walked out of his tent. “Who’s plowing? Where?” he asked with alarm.

“It’s Prikhodko, plowing beyond the mound. Don’t you hear the tractor working?”

Several minutes later Halim Akhmediarov was there. Amidst the ash-grey steppe covered with feather-grass a smoking rectangle of raised earth ran black into the distance. Far away at its edge went a tractor. It came even with the party organizer and stopped.

“Hi, Comrade Party Organizer!” said Prikhodko, sticking his head out of the cabin, “We decided to give it a try.”

“You and who else? How was it you decided without asking anyone?”

“Like that. Comrade Shmalko, my hitch man, and me were driving the tractor to the farm center, the steppe was all around us, and I just had to lower the plow. I did consult with my hitch man, that is with Shmalko, he’s the brigade’s Komsomol organizer, an official figure, so to speak. So we up and put the plow to the earth. Once it’s lowered we couldn’t take it back up, so that’s the story. So now we’ve turned a hectare and a half,” he finished, glancing at the plowed land.

“Well, congratulations, Comrade Prikhodko, on plowing the first furrow! “The party organizer gave him a firm handshake. “And congratulations to you too, Comrade Shmalko!”

“Does that mean we can keep going?”


The tractor started off again, straining to overcome the resistance of the earth tangled by roots. The turning of the virgin lands had begun.

Everyday Life

The tent city pitched amidst the boundless expanses of feather-grass and comprising the center of the Kairakty Sovkhoz, was like an island. There was a large green geometric rectangle (where the tents stood), and around it all became black: it was the black of the steppe plowed for the first time. An occasional green gully ran through the massive blackness like a vein. So much earth had been plowed that three brigades had left the center to become farm hands far out in the steppe.

There is bustling by the field van of the Nikolai Maksimovich Mamontov, director of the sovkhoz. There was a time (two or three months ago) when Mamontov did not have a chief agronomist, a chief mechanic or a chief bookkeeper. He had served all those functions, and thus the workers went straight to him over all sorts of minor questions. He had a staff now, but the custom remained.

“Nikolai Maksimovich, when is the car leaving for Atbasar,” one man asks.

“The sovkhoz has a carpool director, ask him,” the director patiently explains.

“Nikolai Maksimovich, the spring busted.”

“What, am I supposed to fix it for you?” asks Mamontov. “There’s a mechanic, that’s his duty.”

Then there’s the business manager:

“Nikolai Maksimovich, how many towels should the kitchen be allotted?”

Nikolai Maksimovich closes the door tight so that nothing can be heard outside: “You’re my deputy director for business. You’re in charge of all the sovkhoz property. Can you solve the “problem” of how many towels to give the kitchen yourself, without the director!”

The business manager stands in shamed silence while Mamontov walks away and, by the same habit, starts to count out the necessary amount of towels: wash the dishes–one, dry your hands–two, another for the cook’s assistant–three …

A picturesque figure appears by the van–a young man in boots, wearing an army blouse tucked into his trousers and torn on the shoulder, with a wide-brimmed straw hat.

“How many sovkhozes have you brought shame to?” he’s asked.

“Oh, I’ve been a few places.”

“You might try working,” someone advises him.

“I came to work as a tractor-driver, so, be so kind, give me a tractor!” he tosses back scornfully.

He knows very well that a sovkhoz does not receive its machinery all at once, but some every quarter. Until all the machines are received, some of the tractor-drivers have to do some other work. It is something temporary, and one can only wait. Other drivers, members of the Komsomol, had become hitch men, went to plant potatoes or dig foundations for future buildings. This one insists on a tractor from the start.

All around, life is bubbling. Hydro-geologists are drilling the earth in three shifts, day and night. The agronomists Zhenya Sadko put together a market-gardening brigade from eight Komsomol girls. The brigade was given Gena Karnaukhova, the former press operator, and soon there were hothouses and seedlings, and there was talk of cabbage, melons and red beets.

Twelve crates were delivered to the sovkhoz. When they were opened, they were filled with books. The Dnepropetrovsk Steam Engine Repair Plant had sent the sovkhoz a library. The Komsomol Butuzov was appointed librarian.

But most important–the earth was plowed up and sown. People were particularly worried about the first plantings. In the steppe, the ground dries out very quickly. The black layer of damp earth is turned over, and ten minutes later turns gray and dusty. The wheat grains are hot, uncomfortable and suffocated in the warm, dried earth. Rain is needed if the seeds are to swell and send off shoots. It is also needed for the shoots to grow strong, break up the clods of dirt and climb out to the sunshine. And then moisture is even more essential. The need lasts until the tender sacs of the wheat ears are coated with a white starchy liquid. Next to the tough and prickly feather-grass, which fears neither sun nor wind, the young shoots of wheat that first appeared here seem completely helpless. They wait for the rain. The people are also waiting for rain. Rare was the person who, walking out of their tent, did not look to the sky: “Will a cloud appear?”


Polina Lukianovna Grishko, a woman of about sixty years, was one of the best milkmaids on the Krivorozhskoe Sovkhoz. Judging by accounts, she intended to go to Moscow in August, to the agricultural exhibit. But things turned out differently. Her son Nikolai handed in an application and soon left to help assimilate the virgin lands. From her son’s letters, Polina Lukianovna found out that Nikolai had been enlisted in the Kairakty Sovkhoz, and that he was now living in the village of Belovodsk. He would be living there till the snow melted, and when it melted he would go out into the steppe to plow the land and build houses. After that Nikolai told her he was living in a tent with his brigade, surrounded by the bare steppe, and that near the tent was a small tent that would probably dry out in the summer. The brigade was about six kilometers from the farm center. Everything was alright, but for the time being there was nobody to wash and mend the laundry, and they could not find a good cook.

An idea kept coming to Polina Lukianovna after she got the letter. One day she stopped the senior livestock specialist Emelian Afanasievich Brichko. “I’d like some advice,” she said.

“Have you thought of a way to raise milk yield?”

“No, it’s something else. What do you think about my going to the virgin lands?”

“The virgin lands?” The livestock specialist even took a step back to get a better look at Polina Lukianovna. “The virgin lands? But it’s young folk that are going there, the Komsomols! They don’t even have any cows yet.”

“Wait a minute before you laugh,” Polina Lukianovna said calmly. “I’m having a serious talk about matters of business. My son Kolya is there, in the virgin lands. As his mother, can I go there or not?”

In mid-May Polina Lukianovna bid farewell to her sovkhoz and relatives and left for Kazakhstan.

She had pretty much imagined what the second brigade’s field camp would be like. Only she had thought the pond would be a bit bigger, and the tent a bit smaller. Cots stood in three rows in the tent, ten to each row. Several were unoccupied, and on the others, people were sleeping after a night’s work. Her Kolya was amongst them. She instantly recognized him.

“You should undress, my son, go to sleep as you should, with a blanket,” said his mother, touching him with her hand.

He had probably been dreaming of home, because he did not awake, did not jump up surprised, but hid his face in the pillow. Polina Lukianovna sat down next to him and began to watch her sleeping son. Looking around, she noticed he was not the only one sleeping in his clothes, that many beds had turned black from a similar habit. The majority of the free cots had been made haphazardly. “Evidently there’s nobody older to look after them,” thought Polina Lukianovna. “But there should be a brigade leader.”

… Polina Lukianovna began to live in the second brigade’s tent, next to her son. By the second day everyone called her simply Lukianovna. Lukianovna set to work on them with hurry or bother, without making too much noise. From morning to night she could be seen by the pond with a large zinc basin and a pile of linen. First she cleaned up her son, then the people on neighboring cots, then the entire tent. Whoever tore a button loose or ripped something went to Lukianovna. And she also took over the kitchen.

The sovkhoz director Mamontov frequently visited the brigades. Once he struck up a conversation with Lukianovna.

“I’ve heard about how you’re helping out. But it’s not really for you to do. Tomorrow some laundresses will be coming. We’ll find you something in your specialty. I’m thinking of buying some sixty head of cattle. There’s enough grass, let them eat it. Will you be with us for long?”

“I came here permanently,” Lukianovna answered quietly. “Forever.”

The Rain Begins

The rain that everyone had waited for impatiently had been going for five hours. The first drops had fallen while the sun was still out, in the second half of the day. The director ran out of his van. People poured out of the tents. A tractor driver stuck his hand out the window and, when a large drop struck his palm, yelled to his hitch man “Rain!”

Halim Akhmediarov, the party organizer, stopped his car, threw open the door and, stepping out, put his face under the cold drops. Rain!

It made everyone happy, and everyone was afraid it would end soon, without moistening the earth for more than a few centimeters. The night descended, and the rain kept falling.

The sovkhoz activists had gathered in the director’s van. Halim Akhmediarov ran the meeting. First they discussed an idea for a competitive agreement. No point caused any objections. It was necessary to ensure that twenty two thousand hectare of virgin land be ploughed. Fallow land had to be ploughed up by August 15, and the land for spring sowing by September 1. But when they came to the point about “grain yield per hectare,” Nikolai Maksimovich made a correction: “Here we have written one hundred poods per, but the rain is falling, and we can confidently raise the figure to one hundred ten. Furthermore, thanks to the rain we’ll be able to sow millet.”

Then they began to talk about the fruit and berry nursery. The leader of the second brigade, Kizima objected that the designated area would not be enough. But it was decided that for the first try one hectare would be enough. Kizima behaved much more actively than normal at the meeting.

The activeness of the usually quiet Kizima was explained by the second item on the agenda. Perhaps he could already feel how the meeting would end for him, and was rushing to feel himself a member of the collective just a little while longer.

“And so we go on to the second item on the agenda,” announced Halim Akhmediarov.” Today we will discuss the conduct of the leader of the second brigade, Kizima. Let Kizima tell us what happened.”

Kizima, a scrawny man with a very dark complexion, tousled hair and very black eyes, got up. He was clutching at a greasy cap in his hands.

“The axle broke,” Kizima began his explanation. “I went to fix it. Well, the buffet was there. I met some guys I know, they invited me.”

Suddenly his voice changed. He was clutching at a greasy cap in his hands.

“I promise never to allow myself such violations again. I will exculpate my guilt with honest labor and ask you to believe this was the last time.”

After Kizima’s speech there was silence. You could feel that people were ashamed for the brigade leader, that they did not want to say the words the bitter words to him that they would have to.

“Comrades, the quality of plowing in Kizima’s brigade is the very best. In his sector there isn’t one shallow furrow. Kizima knows his work well,” said one Communist in his defense without much confidence.

“Even if he was good as gold it wouldn’t give him the right to go on binges.”

The resolution was passed: “Request sovkhoz director N. M. Mamontov to relieve Feodosii Pavlovich Kizima from the post of brigade leader.”

The rain had been falling uninterrupted for eight hours. The good rain of abundance. The frame of light pouring from the van window was tightly packed with big drops. Over the entire steppe, enveloped in the gloom of night, there was a constant and unremitting noise. The people leaving the van did not hide their heads in their collars, as they usually did in a rainstorm, but lifted their faces up: rain! Then he disappeared in the dark. Kizima too disappeared. But his head was lowered: even the rain brought him no joy.

Next day, the earth flared up with an even green flame. The shoots had begun their furious growth.


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