Escape from the Soviets - T. Tchernavin

The Birth of My Son

My son was born on the last warm day of September, 1918. Red and yellow leaves rustled in the garden in the soft sunlight, the sky was blue—all was as it should be in a fine autumn.

That was the first year of the Bolshevik rule; life was getting more and more disorganized; famine was threatening. All were talking of it, but no one understood as yet how terrible it was going to be.

The Revolution as such did not frighten me; I was brought up in a very liberal professorial family and felt convinced that the overthrow of the autocracy would lead to real political freedom. We were not afraid of material difficulties; I thought that under any conditions my husband and I, both well qualified and hardworking people, could be certain of earning a living. But the first sensation I felt on waking up on the morning after my son was born was hunger. I was positively ashamed of the way it forced itself upon my mind.

We had practically no money left: we could just manage to pay the doctor. I was to have been paid for some literary work, but the publisher had to wind up his business suddenly and I never received my fee.

My husband took on another job in addition to his work at the University, I returned to my teaching, but prices of food-stuffs were soaring, and our joint monthly salaries were not enough to keep us for a fortnight. I was given as much food as could be spared, but it was fearfully little! I did not dare confess even to myself how I suffered from hunger, especially after nursing the baby. My head reeled, my back ached, I felt so weak that I could have given anything for some really nourishing food. But in those days we could get nothing except the daily ration of half a pound of black bread, a microscopic quantity of butter to put into the soup and a few mangel-wurzels and turnips; potatoes were a rarity. Meat and fish were an inaccessible luxury. I had never imagined in the old days that food could be such a problem!

It frightened me to look at my husband: he was getting thinner at an incredible rate. His face looked transparent, his eyes were feverish. He had abscesses on his hands from underfeeding.

In those days we often avoided each other. Meals were particularly trying: we were both hungry and neither could make the other eat. It was a mere pretense at eating, like a meal on the stage when actors rattle forks and knives on empty plates to give the illusion of a sumptuous dinner.

And the baby screamed and could never wait in patience for his next feed, He was rosy and his eyes were azure-blue, but his stomach was drawn in like that of a borzoi pup, and he cried so much that we had to call in a doctor.

Doctors are often excellent people, but they have a dreadful habit of speaking about things which everyone avoids mentioning and of making impossible demands.

"Your baby is perfectly well, but he is hungry." said the doctor.

"What am I to do?" I asked mechanically.

"Give him more food."

We said nothing, feeling utterly crushed.

"Where do you teach?" the doctor asked me sternly.

"At the Commercial School."

"How many hours?"

"Six hours a day."

"Why so much?"

"Four hours lessons, two hours compulsory 'social work.'"

"How do you manage to nurse the baby, then?"

"I teach from nine till eleven, run home to nurse him, return to the school and teach from one till three, then home again, and go back to work from six till eight."

"How long does the journey take you?"

"Twenty minutes if I walk very fast."

"Six times a day twenty minutes' walk—that's two hours, plus six hours work. You can't do that and nurse the baby. You must put him on a bottle. There's nothing else I can tell you. The Government is opening now special Infant Welfare Centers. If you can prove that you are poor, you can get milk from there for the baby, but I warn you that their milk is bad: There's too much oatmeal water added to it."

The doctor told me how much milk I ought to give baby, how to dilute it, and so on, and went away.

Left alone, we could not look each other in the eyes. What had we done! We had brought a child into the world and now could not feed it. We both worked from morning till night, and yet our child was crying with hunger.

"l will try to get one more job," my husband said. "They say that at the Agronomical Institute they give the professors a bottle of milk a day. Two academicians have accepted work there. You see, the Imperial dairy farm at Tsarskoe Selo is theirs now."

"But are there any vacancies on the staff?"

"I believe there are. I'll go and see the Director tomorrow."

The following day was Sunday. My husband went to Tsarskoe, and I decided to spend the day in bed, hoping that rest would do me good and I should have more milk.

It was pouring with rain. The rooms were cold and damp, but the baby was warm in his Japanese basket, and I wrapped myself up in a shawl and lay quite still. I felt very sad.

Here was a new creature come into the world; its existence was so simple: when it had had enough to eat, it slept; when it was hungry it opened its eyes and mouth and cried till it was fed. But there was not enough food, and no chance of getting any, though it was only a question of half a pint of milk a day.

Round the town were villages where there were cows and milk, but special police at the railway stations took the milk away from the peasant women who brought it to the town, so as to force them to sell it to the Government organizations for worthless paper money. If one went to the villages to buy food, the peasants asked in exchange anything they fancied—clothes, pillows, blankets, watches, pictures, even pianos. I had nothing to offer them because we had just started housekeeping and were short of everything. We had only four chairs in our three rooms!

What should we do if my husband had no luck at Tsarskoe? I lay there, thinking, and reading over my mother's letter. "We are as badly off for food as you are," she wrote. "Your sister is so busy that she leaves home at nine and sometimes does not return till eleven at night. She has charge of two laboratories, lectures at two University Schools and does practical work. I have learnt to cook 'with nothing' and she says it is very nice, but I am afraid she is badly underfed. There's nothing but boiled grain and soup with a little cereal and potato in it. A pound of butter has to last us a month, and a pound of sugar also; we hardly ever get two pounds of sugar a month. I take tea with saccharine so as to leave sugar to her. I write 'tea' from habit—it's dirty-coloured liquid made with baked oats. I am very uneasy about you and the baby. Try to sell something. The wife of Professor E. takes things on commission and sells them in the street. He lectures in five or six University Schools, but that's not enough to feed their family."

How ridiculous it all seemed! How long could one go on like this?

The day dragged slowly on; I could not do anything till the question of milk was settled.

It was dusk when my husband came back. I lay still and listened intently: he opened the door and shut it quietly, with a steady hand. He took off his things quickly and walked up the passage with a firm tread. Could it mean good news? Yes, he came in looking cheerful and excited.

"I am going to lecture at the Agronomical Institute and take charge of the Zoological laboratory. They will give me a pint of milk a day."

I still remember the feeling of globing warmth at my heart when I heard this. The child was saved.

His father stood bending over the cot.

"I'll give you the bottle myself to-morrow, puppy. Your daddy's science has come in useful, after all."