"Anne Kaczanowski" asked me on Sat Jul 26, 2008 8:16 am (PDT) Re: Clothing in Gulags
Did your husband ever get shoes or something in place of a shoe at this time when he was barefoot? ? ? hania ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Yes, Hania, my husband -- only 18 at the time -- did get shoes of a sort thanks to a kind Russian. Here is the excerpt from Aleks�s memoirs about arriving in Kirov (Vyatka) with his friend Dionizy just after their release in snowy October 1941 from a Gulag camp in northern Russia :-- In Kirov, despite our appearance, nobody paid much attention to us. We got lost. The passersby we asked for directions would not stop but would start walking faster and spreading their arms in a helpless gesture, saying only, "I don�t know. I don�t know."
We found a militiaman, and when we asked him how to get to TES-2 [the power plant Aleks and Dionizy were assigned to work at], he checked our documents and then took us to the nearest NKVD office. There the duty officer checked our papers again and after making several phone calls ordered one of his underlings to show us the way to where a truck was to pick up men working on the night shift at TES-2. The underling obviously did not relish the idea of being seen in our company, and as we walked he said to me, "Aren�t you ashamed to walk barefoot through the city?"
The truck for TES-2 dropped us off at the plant workers� hostel where we were greeted with yells of, "Go away! We have enough lice of our own. We don�t need yours!" The hostel was indeed packed solid. People crowded the triple bunks and even the corridor was full of workers sleeping on the floor.
The political officer to whom we reported was sitting at a desk in a tiny office. He looked at us with sympathy, checked our papers rather perfunctorily and pushed back his cap on his head. Then he leaned back on his chair and sighed. With his head tilted back, he gazed at the grimy ceiling as if expecting a revelation or miracle from the God he was not supposed to believe in. He stayed like that for a while. Then he scratched his ribs on both sides of his body at once, got up with another sigh and said, "Let�s go!"
When we were crossing the courtyard, he looked at my bare feet and told Dionizy to wait. Beckoning at me to follow him, he turned back towards the hostel. He opened the door of the dormitory and called for the janitor. An elderly cripple hobbled towards us and looked relieved when he learned that we were seeking not a place to sleep but any old pair of old shoes for me. He retreated to the far end of the room, went down on his knees and elbows, and then vanished under the long, continuous sleeping bunk. While we stood in the open door waiting for him, the foul but pleasantly warm air carrying the stench of unwashed bodies wafted around us, reminding me of the time-honoured prison dictum: "Nobody died from stink but the entire Napoleonic army perished from the cold."
The old cripple returned triumphantly waving a pair of worn out lapti, a peculiar footwear once common to all Russian lands. It could be best described as a kind of moccasin woven from strips of willow bark with plaited bark thongs attached. They look like shallow baskets. To wear them you first wrap your feet in old rags or paper plus straw or hay in winter. Remarkably light and warm, they are more comfortable than Guccis but wearable only in dry weather. During very cold weather, the natives splash water all over them. This freezes before it soaks in, making them windproof and so even warmer despite subarctic temperatures. They don�t last long for walking, but peasants could weave another pair as they went along the road. In the old days villagers used to measure distance by the number of pairs of lapti it took: "My aunt lives in a village about two pairs of lapti from here." However wearing them was always associated with poverty and the village girls would look with disdain on the cavalier who "climbs a willow tree barefooted and comes down well shod."
I was grateful for this unexpected gift though it did not make my frozen feet feel any warmer because I had nothing to wrap my feet in.
[The political officer billeted them in the nearby hamlet of Marievka with an older Kokholz worker, known as Uncle Misha, and his family. Walking barefoot through the snow plus the deprivations of prison continued to take their toll.]
My scurvy ulcers kept breaking out and oozing, and the recent frostbite made my life even more miserable. Whenever I entered a heated room or even when I stayed outside during a thaw, my toes, heels and sides of my feet would swell, turn a bluish purple and itch terribly. Nothing seemed to stop that hellish itching. Only soaking in sauerkraut brine, as suggested by Uncle Misha�s wife, would bring temporary relief.
[A few days later, Aleks bartered his father�s watch for a draughtsman�s job.]
My new chief looked a bit uneasy. He did not know what to do with this ragged ex-con foisted on him by his boss. He talked in general terms about the heavy workload, deadlines to be met and the extra effort needed to ensure a quick victory over the Hitlerite cannibals. But as he spoke he could not take his eyes off the disintegrating lapti on my feet. Still staring at my feet, he mumbled to himself a line from Griboyedov�s comedy The Mischief of Being Clever: "Poverty is not shameful but a swinish misfortune." And yet the thought of having his status lowered by harbouring a deputy shod in willow bark moccasins bothered him more than wearing them bothered me. He took me outside to a shed on the side of the plant to see the man in charge of stores. There he pleaded for a pair of rubber boots for me.
"Nothing doing," said the store manager, but he eventually took pity on me and produced a pair of new lapti and two squares of a thin, very coarse felt to wrap my feet in before putting them on. As we walked away [my new boss] Sergei Sergeyevich kept casting furtive glances around, ready to bolt into the nearest doorway rather than be seen in my company by any of his friends.
-- Excerpt from "Without Vodka: Adventures in Wartime Russia" By Aleksander Topolski. See www.withoutvodka.com
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