Spring 2008, Volume 4

Memoir by Gary Berkovich

Field Work

In the summer of ’52 along with some of my classmates from Kharkov’s Construction Trade School, Ukraine, I was sent for field work training at YuzhSpetzStròy (YSS), a firm that specialized in construction finishings’ work. The YSS HQ was in the city of Rostov, on the Don River, South Russia.

Rostov was still recovering from the war damage. The downtown was one big ruin of burnt-down government complex on Engels Street. We heard that the architect had been executed early in the war for “sabotage”: allegedly, he had built the complex in the form of a swastika, so that the Germans could easily recognize it and bombard from above. Especially magnificent were the ruins of a theater designed by Soviet architects Tschuko and Gelfreich.

I’ll never forget the long walks we took under the lindens of Kirov Boulevard. And on the whole, I fell in love with Rostov. Somehow it reminded me of Kiev. I still believe the two are the most beautiful cities in the European part of the former Soviet Union.

Upon arrival we learned they were not doing any work in Rostov, and we were sent around various departments in different towns. My friend Sasha Frishman and I found ourselves in a suburb of a place called Novocherkassk, a mere twenty-five miles away from Rostov. Sasha’s girlfriend got the best assignment and was sent to Sochi – Soviet number one Black Sea resort. Sochi was rumored to open a few more vacant spots any day, and, hoping to get them, we hitchhiked to Rostov’s office every Saturday. We stayed overnight at the office – we bunked on the floor, wrapping ourselves in floor rugs, since the nights were cool – and spent Sundays in the city.

After a Sunday in Rostov we would thumb a ride to Novocherkassk with a passing truck. The latter was a small verdant town, the capital of Don’s Cossacks with a large Russian Orthodox cathedral and the monument to Yermàk, a Cossack chieftain who conquered Siberia in 16-th century.

The local YSS department operated in a nearby settlement named Molotov, four or five miles away. It grew next to the construction site for a huge chemical factory whose first stage of operation had already started. It had been disassembled in Germany seven years earlier and transported to Russia in an unexplainable hurry; as if it was loot. At the time the future factory site had not been picked yet. Therefore, immediately after crossing the border back to the USSR, metal elements of buildings and equipment were dropped off the train platforms and left there to rust until the construction started. The Soviets took an immeasurable number of factories like this out of Germany, and the area at the border sprouted huge cemeteries of steel carcasses.

While we were in Molotov, they were delivering materials for the second stage of construction – deformed, rusted, and ultimately unusable. Right from the station it was taken to scrap yard in nearby settlement Budyonny for melting it down. Even the few usable pieces often became trophies for quick-thinking Russians who took them from the construction site to the metal scrap yard. One truckload was good for three or four vodka bottles.

The Molotov settlement where we were assigned cots in the dormitory had a population of about twenty thousand – mostly ex-convicts who for a few years were not allowed to settle within thirty miles of large cities. Vodka was the food item of choice, and it was a rare week without a drunken fight with a murder.

Two middle-class seventeen-year-olds like us were very uncomfortable among this populace. We tried hard not to stand out. We learned to curse. We gave up washing and shaving. We never turned down a glass of vodka, however sick we felt. And yet the locals had no trouble spotting us.

There were no baths or showers in the bathrooms. We had to use the bath house. It was open two days a week – one day for men and one for women. The bath house consisted of two rooms, each with cold and hot water taps and concrete benches. The rooms were connected by a wicket-gate made of decrepit wood boards.

Once Sasha and I came on a so-called unisex day, and the gate was closed. There were few people – just us and another guy lying on the bench face down.

Suddenly someone called from the women’s half: “Hey, Ivan, you need to get your back scratched?”

The gate swung open, and two maids showed up wearing nothing but their tattoos. Sasha and I were taken aback as the guests set about rubbing and massaging their friend, laughing and cracking dirty jokes. They paid no attention to us covering with our washbowls in the corner. At a certain point we heard, “Whoa, girls – not with the boys around.” And the trio retired to the other half.


Our YSS department specialized in tin metal work, glazing, roofing, flooring and painting. When we showed up, our bosses had no idea what to do with us. We were appointed Foremen Assistants and dispatched to count parquet floor pieces piled up in a huge warehouse. We were told to sort them out by size and put them in neat stacks. Our first impression was that this assignment could last us through the rest of our field work. Perhaps that was our bosses’ hope, too.

Yet we were so despaired by the prospect of spending all this time in a dusty hot windowless warehouse that we decided to put in twelve- to fourteen-hour shifts instead of eight-hour ones. We left the warehouse only for a quick run to the canteen on the lunch break – and then back to work. A week later we presented the results.

After that we were assigned to work with roofers who were just beginning to lay “flat roofing.” First they glued two layers of tar paper, and topped them with roof felt attached with special mastic. The mastic came by cart in the form of sixty-five pound bricks that were then dropped in a large metal vat heated by a bonfire. The boiling mastic was extracted from the vat and passed to the roof; then the workers used sticks wrapped with rags to spread the mastic before putting the rolls of cover on top.

The slanted roof started at the height of about sixty feet. Mastic was delivered by means of a primitive rope with two wheels, one on top and one on bottom. The lower one was brought into motion by an electric engine and made the rest of the system work. The buckets with hot mastic were supposed to be suspended from the ropes – except for there weren’t any available.  

The bosses wondered how much we knew about tin metal work. We decided that, since we were almost fourth-year students, we could not admit we knew absolutely nothing. And thus we were assigned to bucket production ASAP.

We were issued tools and tin metal at the warehouse. We made the workbench ourselves. Our first buckets were positively unusable; they spilled even sand. By the time Sasha and I finally produced a bucket that could hold liquid we wasted all the material. The leftover was good for three buckets – and the mastic lifeline was working!

Once Sasha stayed by the vat to keep the fire going, while I took the cart to get the next shipment of mastic bricks. As a city boy, I never rode a horse. I saw it from the distance and in the movies and could not guess it required special skills. To my luck on the way back I did not notice an electric cable on the ground, brought down by the crane that had passed earlier. The poor horse stepped on the cable and was electrocuted instantly. I ran to the office, anticipating a reprimand and punishment. Yet for some reason the news were met with open joy. The horse was taken away; the carcass was instantly cut and cooked, and the hide was sold – actually, traded for vodka. All the work stopped. There was a feast, and everyone got formidably drunk.

Sasha and I stayed away and retired to the dorm.

We had another roommate. Although a former inmate, Yerofèy did not drink vodka every night like others and instead took notes in a thick notebook. It turned out he was writing a novel about buoy keepers.

His family had been buoy keepers on Yenisèy River in Siberia for generations, and he was planning to do the same. Unfortunately for him, the times were hard. At seventeen, he went to the collective farm field to dig up from under snow some tiny rotten and frozen potatoes left over; he was arrested and got five years for theft.

He let me read his manuscript, and I liked it a lot. I was put off by curse words in dialogues; but he assured me that buoy keepers talked exactly like that.

He had a girlfriend in the women’s dorm named Galya (for some reason, most girls in the settlement were named Galya). She would visit in our absence, or sometimes we would pointedly step out for a couple of hours. One day they told us they were moving into his friend’s room. He had a vacant cot and they had to hurry before the director moved in someone else. The friend also had a steady girlfriend.

They planned to live in this tiny room as a foursome, on three cots, periodically swapping partners – “in order not to go crazy from boredom,” the future writer explained. He offered to introduce us to “nice girls,” too.

The plan failed after less than two weeks. On a payday, the settlement was in a state of usual mass inebriation, and his friend got knifed to death. No one else had been moved into our room yet, and so he returned.

The work went on. Once a bucket with hot mastic dropped off the rope. Luckily, there was no one below. But the bosses were concerned, and we were instructed to improve work safety. The dangerous area was to be fenced. Since part of the rope passed over a road, we were to make warning signs and place them there.

We made up texts like “Don’t be a Dope/Don’t Stand under the Rope” and wrote them in block letters on plywood sheets. The bosses loved them, and we got promoted to the roof – to spread hot mastic and glue felt and tar paper.

Then there was a setback in glazier work. All three glaziers went on a binge. The month was at the end, and we had to put at least some glass somewhere in order to meet monthly quote. Especially since we were expecting an inspection from Moscow, and one of its members was rumored to be a teetotaler – a recipe for disaster in Russia.

The building was lighted with a “shed roof” – special skylight construction on the roof. Naturally, we broke a lot of glass, but hardly all of it. We managed to put some glass before the inspection arrival. After that, we were taken off the roof and dispatched to painting work.

The painters were relatively young female ex-convicts. Some of them were even allowed to leave and settle in the city, but for unknown to me reasons chose to stay here. Perhaps, they liked the familiar environment or simply had no other place to go. As a foreman assistant, I didn’t have to do any painting myself, but merely to “help and organize.” But I knew painting, and enjoyed doing it myself.

The girls were quick to notice me blushing at their racy language. That prompted them to use it even more and get a kick out of watching me turning beet-red. It was not that I was unfamiliar with this lexicon in Kharkov, but there was something particularly off-putting in hearing it from young women.

One day after lunch and a few drinks with it, my co-workers embarked upon the memories of their camp life. In particular, with many colorful details, interrupting one another, they recalled the times when they raped men – one of them to death. Warmed up with vodka and pleasant memories, one of the girls nodded at me – “why not the boy here?”

At first I thought they were joking. But in an instant they were all over me, locking the door and undressing me and wrestling me down on the floor. I fought back and yelled, which seemed to inflame them even further.

Someone overheard us and banged on the door.

At the meeting next morning the painter foreman Galya whispered to me: “Don’t you snitch on us.”

Indeed, a complaint was fraught with a visit to the parole officer and possibly going back to jail.

“They were just kidding,” she added. And then, as we walked to the site, she said, “What were you afraid of? Five broads – big deal!”

I still don’t know whether they were joking.


We had to submit a final report of our work at YSS, including – as everywhere in the Soviet Union – the number of inventions we generated and implemented. In my work with painters I came up with one invention only: by tying three brushes together, I could cover a greater area with one stroke. My co-workers were not happy about it. A bunch of brushes with paint on them turned out to be too heavy. Yet the management got bonuses for implementing inventions. And my crew was miserable.

Yet in the aftermath of the rape episode I found it hard to feel sorry for them.

BIO:  “I am a Chicago-area architect, and came to the US from the Soviet Union in 1977. I have written a memoir of my life in the USSR: "Human Subjects." Attached is the story "Field Work" from this yet unpublished book.”