A Working Woman’s Story

A Working Woman’s Story

Оповідь українською

Story by Marichka Melnyk

Illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk

Even as a little girl, she couldn’t understand why all the adults around her insisted on calling Stalin the “best friend of Soviet children.” Nor could she understand for what exactly and why he deserved her gratitude.

That she was orphaned at age nine thanks to him? That since then the place she called home was more like a prison? That in an instant she lost not only her father and mother but also her older brother? She last saw him in 1938, at the Kharkiv Juvenile Registration and Distribution Center, where the fate of “homeless” children like them was decided. It’s then they were split up: she was sent to an orphanage in Chernihiv, and he went to a labor colony in some place called Cheboksary. (Does anyone even know where that is?) 

She picked up some very valuable skills at her new home – the Kominterna Orphanage, where the Soviets placed some 500 children of the “repressed.” For example, to quickly eat everything you’re given, because the older and stronger kids could take your lunch and who knows if there will be any dinner. To sleep two per bed, because there isn’t enough space for everyone and it’s easier to keep warm this way when the temperature in the common bedroom is only a couple of degrees higher than the temperature outside. She also learned it’s better to listen more and speak less, because every attempt to ask something about her mother or brother led to yelling and threats… and not infrequently a good smack upside the head. She didn’t dare mention her father because then she’d be black and blue all over; “Batya” – the director Mykytchyk – would make sure of it. And she had nobody to complain to because she was the daughter of an “enemy of the people.”

The only thing left to do was to share her troubles with the “best friend of the children,” whose portrait hung in nearly every room in their orphanage. However, he limited himself to watching silently and not getting involved, despite having no qualms about accepting bouquets of flowers and unfounded gratitude for “a happy childhood.”

On days when the insults really got to her, she tried in vain to understand what was wrong with her family and what she personally had done to hurt Stalin. Even if her dad had been accused and convicted of counterrevolutionary activities, what did the rest of her family have to do with it? Why was she separated from her mother and brother? Why were they sent to remote corners of the country? They’re always talking about the family being the “main unit of society” and “the son is not responsible for the sins of the father,” but it turned out this wasn’t true. Or was there something about her family she didn’t know?

In a country where you’re only allowed to speak in party slogans, it’s best to keep your mouth shut. This was Olya’s number one rule – or rather “Comrade Kukharenko’s,” as they named her. The plump young woman with blond hair, blue eyes, and a natural pink blush to her cheeks, which highlighted her dimples when she smiled, worked as an electric welder at the Krasnaya Zvyezda Factory, Russian for Red Star. If her colleagues or friends asked about her family, Olya would instantly become dejected and say she’s an orphan and doesn’t remember her parents. She wouldn’t give any other details. You could bet that’s what everyone who had the words “family member of a traitor to the Motherland” branded on their forehead did.

Brushing off the annoying questions from her roommate at the factory dormitory or workshop was easy. But despite her best efforts to run away from her unfortunate past, it always caught up with her. You can’t get a job without first confessing everything in the personnel questionnaire written in Russian:

1.     Name: Olga Andreevna Kukharenko
2.     Year, Month, Place of Birth: 1929, June, Kharkiv

5. Nationality: Ukrainian

Next came Olya’s favorite questions, truthful answers to which would forever ruin her future, including any chance of a promotion, prevent her from membership in the Komsomol, the Russian communist youth group or the Communist Party, and deny her acceptance to study at the university… Her honesty would even deny her the right to vote, despite there being no actual choices in the elections.

14.     Closest relatives: father, Andrei Aleksandrovich Kukharenko, b. 1903, convicted; mother, Maria Nikolaevna Kukharenko, b. 1905, convicted; brother, Ivan Andreevich Kukharenko, b. 1925, last seen in 1938 at the Kharkiv Juvenile Distribution Center, fate unknown…

18.     Have you or your relatives been convicted of a crime, when, and what crime? father sentenced in 1938 under Articles 54-6, 54-10 of the Criminal Code of the USSR by the Troika of the NKVD  [precursor to the KGB] in the Kharkiv Oblast to 10 years without the right to correspondence; mother sentenced in 1938 by a decision of the Special Council of the NKVD to 5 years in exile as a а family member of a traitor to the Motherland

20.     Have you ever been denied the right to vote, when, and why? deprived of voting rights in 1946 in accordance with the decision of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR of 8 June 1934 as a family member of a traitor to the Motherland

Date questionnaire completed: 17 September 1946

Olya didn’t dare lie in the questionnaire. It was too risky. If you were caught lying, there was only one option: being sent to the camps like your parents and brother. She was convinced this job was going to be her lifeline. It was a one in a million chance to survive and be rehabilitated – to prove to the authorities, plant management, colleagues, and neighbors she’s normal like everyone else. Wasn’t that what the Communist Party needed?

She got lucky. Because so many men died in the war there was nobody else to rebuild the economy. There was nobody to work at the factories and fulfill the “five-year plan in four years.” That’s how women turners, pressers, and fitters appeared in the Ukrainian SSR and the Soviet Union as a whole. Women machinists, motorists, grinders, millers, woodworkers, builders. And women electric welders like herself. At the time there were almost 2.5 times more able-bodied women than men. Even now, in 1952 – 8 years after the liberation of Kirovograd – almost half the workers in some of the Krasnaya Zvyezda Factory workshops are women.

These were women who didn’t just start working a job at a functioning factory, ready and waiting for them. They rebuilt destroyed facilities with their own hands or introduced new production capabilities for the plants. Being part of this battalion and by no means trying to belittle their achievements, Olya, nevertheless, couldn’t let it pass when she heard how everything these days was distorted exaggerated. She would hear the party organizers zealously saying at every meeting that the Hitlerites destroyed more than 80% of their production capacity and the Soviets heroically rebuilt it in a few years. All she could think then was: “How convenient there was a war and you can blame everything bad that happened on the ‘Nazi bastards’ while pinning undeserved medals to your chests.”

The locals who lived through the Nazi occupation told a completely different story, albeit in a whisper. The factory’s main buildings were in fact blown up by Soviet sappers in 1941 as the Red Army retreated to the east, but the rest of the facility remained intact. Moreover, the Nazis built new workshops on the ruins of the destroyed ones, and in the summer of 1942 began production of armored vehicles and other equipment needed for the war. More than 500 workers and engineers from the Krasnaya Zvyezda Factory signed up to work at the Kirovograd Plow and Foundry Plant as it was called then. Today, to speak openly about their fate is spurned, but everyone knows most of the workers were later repressed by the NKVD. This isn’t the most pleasant page in the factory’s history, and one the current management is trying to forget.

The Hitlerites planned to blow up the factory when they were retreating from the city in November 1943 but ran out of time. Two buildings were slightly damaged in airstrikes during the aerial offensive by the Red Army. Luckily, the factory remained mostly intact, allowing production to restart quickly. In August 1944 there were already eleven functioning workshops, and by early 1950 the Krasnaya Zvyezda Factory had nearly reached pre-war production levels.

Today, in 1952, agricultural machinery continues to be made here as it was in the past. The factory survived two world wars, and except for those times, always stuck to its profile. From the moment it was founded by English entrepreneurs – the brothers Robert and Thomas Elworthy – it manufactured mainly seeders, and continued to do so after it was nationalized by the Bolsheviks in 1919. It grew from a small workshop with twelve workers in 1874 to a large factory employing twelve thousand by the late 1930s. Before the war started, it produced 10% of all the agricultural machinery in the Soviet Union. In addition to seeders, the Krasnaya Zvyezda Factory also made parts for combines, tractors, mechanized mills. and other machinery – everything Ukrainian collective farms desperately needed to send thousands of tons of grain to Moscow every month.

Comrade Kukharenko’s job involved the production of seeder frames – a special component made of welded metal pipes upon which the seeding system is later hung. It was not easy work as you had to drag a heavy welding machine around, albeit on wheels. But the worst thing about this particular job was the heat. The uniforms issued by the factory were basically ordinary dark blue coveralls that fail to protect you from feeling suffocated, even though they’re supposed to be heat resistant. You ended up taking a lot of breaks to prevent yourself from fainting, and the more breaks you took the longer it took to get the work done.

If she failed to meet her quota, or the station or workshop fell behind its targets in the socialist emulation (the officially sanctioned competition between factories) with the Krasnaya Zvyezda’s designated and main rival – the Kharkiv Serp i Molot Factory (Russian for Hammer and Sickle), then her workday turned from the official seven hours, into eight, nine, or even ten. And this was life, seven days a week.

“During the times of the Elworthy exploiters, people toiled like slaves 12 hours a day. Even on holidays! They worked in completely different conditions than you – in dark, cramped, hot rooms. You should know in the first half of 1907 alone there were 173 accidents because of the failure to adhere to safety standards,” the supervisors of the third mechanical assembly shop where Olya worked would say to encourage the workers. But to her these words were a slap in the face. “Thank you for eternally freeing us from slavery,” she would say to herself sarcastically when she couldn’t take it anymore. “Good thing we don’t have 16-hour shifts like under the Hitlerites.”

It often felt like the protective mask and gloves would melt and fuse with her skin. But Olya didn’t complain. At least not out loud. Even when she really wanted to. She would calm herself by counting to 100 to contain the hurricane of emotions inside and repeat her mantra: “I got lucky.”

Indeed, she got lucky in autumn 1946 when the people responsible for the mobilization of the labor reserves turned a blind eye to her “untrustworthiness.” That’s how she found herself taking factory production training courses and soon afterwards landing a job at the Krasnaya Zvyezda.

She remembers clearly her first day at work. It was a Wednesday, October 2, 1946, and on that morning during the daily political information briefing the workers listened as the front page of Pravda was read aloud about the end of the Nuremburg Trials, announcing the sentences handed down to the Nazi war criminals (in Russian):

“The biggest trial in history has ended. For the first time, a just punishment has fallen on the heads of the organizers and leaders, the instigators and executors of the criminal plans of the war of aggression…” The thunderous applause with which her colleagues greeted these words still rings in her ears.

Olya really did get lucky, because the factory directors, when putting in their requests for workers, were increasingly asking for men, preferably unmarried ones. And her current director – Oleksandr Matviyovych Merkulov – was no exception. At that time, she wouldn’t have been hired at the factory and would most likely have continued to waste away in Verkhotomsk (a God-forsaken village in the Kemerovo Oblast near Mongolia), where she and the other kids from the Chernihiv orphanage were evacuated in August 1941. Even then she got lucky, because not everyone was relocated away from the Nazi bombings. She overheard the caretakers gossiping about how many of those incarcerated in the Chernihiv prisons were simply shot instead of being evacuated. And for the Soviets there was no fundamental difference between children of “enemies of the people” and criminals…

A Working Woman’s Story

It was just starting to get light out when Olya, dressed in a not-so-new but still attractive light grey double-breasted coat, descended the creaky polished stairs from the second floor of the women’s dormitory – a long wooden building that if it hadn’t been plastered and painted white would have looked more like a cattle barn than housing for people.

“Good morning, Myshka!” (from the Ukrainian meaning Mouse). The pleasant greeting echoed from the watchwoman, a petite but solidly built blue-eyed blonde in her 40s, sitting at her post to the right of the door.  Perched on a platform, the podium and stool she sat on allowed the vakhterka (from the Russian meaning female security guard or custodian) to keep watch on the activities in the women’s dormitory. “Running off somewhere again?”

The workers’ housing on Nekrasivska Street where Olya lived was about 2.5 km from the factory – just over a 30-minute walk. But she always tried to complete the trek faster. She still couldn’t get used to the fact she was slumbering on graves and treading over someone’s bones every day.

The Soviets encountered a housing problem in Kirovograd when the need for more workers grew. They had run out of space at the workers’ quarters on Novomykolayivska Street (built long ago by the Elworthy brothers), so they decided to construct new housing for factory workers on the territory of the old cemeteries in the northeastern part of Elizabethgrad – which was what the city was called before it was renamed in honor of Sergei Kirov, the First Secretary of the Leningrad Regional Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and organizer of Soviet repressions.

The first shacks appeared on the new location in the 1920s, and the area where the cemeteries were located got its current name, Nekrasovska, after the “great Russian poet” Nikolai Nekrasov, whose centenary was celebrated in 1921. But the district didn’t begin to expand actively until after the war, when the current director Merkulov was appointed.

Right before Olya’s eyes, 18 new one-story homes were built in parallel rows on Nekrasovska Street. They were designed for two families, each getting a two-room 54 sq. m. apartment (about 580 sq. ft.) with unheard of amenities at the time like running water, electricity, a sidewalk, and even trees planted on both sides of each building. A community center, grocery store, bathhouse, occupational health and safety office, and other service buildings were also built for the workers.

Among the lucky ones to get keys to their own homes on January 1, 1949, were the top performing workers: Vladyslav Kniatkovsky, Kostiantyn Didenko, Serhiy Kryvoruchko, Mykola Kvinker, and others. There was no way Olya could not know the names of these Krasnaya Zvyezda Factory superstars. Their photos loomed before her eyes every day at the factory’s main entrance, plastered on the board honoring the best employees, almost never being replaced by anyone else’s photos.

She remembers what a sensation the newly built Krasnaya Zvyezda Factory living quarters were at the time. It was mentioned at the 16th Congress of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (Bolsheviks) on January 25-28, 1949, praising the lightning speed at which the homes were built: in just 154 days!

S. T. Redka, the deputy secretary of the factory Communist Party committee, constantly bragged about the new housing, proud as a peacock of this unprecedented achievement. At the same time, he forgot that for each of the 36 workers and their families now living in decent conditions there were thousands of others, like Olya, crowded into barrack-like dormitories. But Olya knew, no matter how many seeders she welded, with her past history, she would never even be put on the waiting list for factory housing, let alone be given a home.

But at least she had somewhere to live. Yes, the roof leaked when it rained; the windows were so warped from the humidity, at one point they were closed and from then on, nobody hazarded trying to open them; the door, deformed for the same reason, required using both your knee and shoulder at the same time to close it. And the faulty furnace was more likely to poison the tenants with carbon monoxide than heat the cramped, kennel-like 12 sq. m. rooms (about 130 sq. ft). 

On every floor of Olya’s dormitory, 20 rooms were evenly distributed along each side of a long corridor. Two women were supposed to live per room, but this wasn’t always the case. For the nearly 100 residents there were four stovetops for food preparation and ten sinks with cold water for washing. The only toilet was in an outhouse, and if you wanted to bathe you had to sign up for a specific day and time at the factory or at a city bathhouse.

“Yes, I have to hurry, Maria Yosypivna,” Olya replied to the attractive vakhterka, her voice unexpectedly weak. Attempting to hide her swollen face behind a scarf, she continued: “I must hurry because there is supposed to be a political information briefing before my shift. They’re going to tell us about yesterday’s 19th Party Congress…”

“Yes, yes, of course!” the vakhterka said in agreement, nodding, her sharp chin moving up and down for greater emphasis, while a group of five other workers passed by. “They were approving the figures for the current five-year plan. It’s very important, you mustn’t be late.” The words coming out of the speaker’s mouth did not match what Olya could read in Maria Yosypivna’s slightly squinted eyes, implying profound skepticism about what she was saying.

The factory workers call Maria Yosypivna Muzyka (from the Ukrainian meaning music). It was short for her last name, Muzychenko, and a tribute to her tough character, thanks to which she kept order and discipline in the dormitory, forcing all the residents to dance to her tune.

Like Olya, there were two people coexisting inside Muzyka: one wanting an ordinary, routine pedestrian life without any wild swings from one challenge to another and was ready to toe the official party line for this; and the other who harbored a deep grudge against those who unfairly denied her a life of stability and opportunities. And ironically, both the “official party liners” and the deniers were one and the same – the Soviets.

It was hard to keep a secret in the women’s dormitory. The workers gossiped about how before the war Muzyka was a foreman of the mechanical department at one of the Krasnaya Zvyezda workshops and in 1938 was even a candidate to join the Communist Party. She had excellent career prospects and her personal life was set. But the war changed everything. Her husband was mobilized on June 23, 1941. A little more than a month later, she was holding the certificate of death indicating her Oleksandr died heroically in battle while defending Kirovograd, in the Zelena Brama forest (from the Ukrainian meaning Green Gate).

Nobody knows for sure what the woman did during the war years, but in spring 1945 she was arrested and accused of collaborating with the Nazis. The NKVD’s suspicions obviously didn’t pan out, because by the end of the year the case was closed and she was released from custody. The short-term imprisonment and charges cost her dearly, though; she was asked to resign as foreman and her candidacy to join the Communist Party went up in smoke. Hence, she ended up at the dormitory, and being assigned guard duty every other day was all she managed to finagle from the former Krasnaya Zvyezda director Mykola Nykanorovych Shynkarevych.

As much as Olya tried to shield herself from her colleagues, Muzyka had managed to slightly penetrate her armor. Although, in the beginning, their relationship could hardly have been called a friendship. It actually began with a scandal. About three years earlier, the vakhterka was making her rounds in the dormitory when she caught Olya cooking dinner on a camp stove on the floor of her room. Muzyka started shouting, confiscated the forbidden kerosene appliance, and wrote Olya up for the violation. 

After keeping a close eye on Olya for several months, Muzyka noticed she wore rather fashionable dresses. Asking around, Muzyka discovered not only was Olya a skilled welder, she was also adept at sewing using the Singer machine her roommate had inherited from her late grandmother. Knowing full well she couldn’t turn her down, the vakhterka asked Olya to tailor, hem, or decorate with white collars the formless clothing she occasionally managed to buy at the Central Department Store on Karl Marx Street.

A Working Woman’s Story

Muzyka was right: Olya humbly tailored her clothes and didn’t take any payment. During their time together, the vakhterka picked up on the unbounded sadness that shadowed the worker, resulting in her gaze constantly being cast down at her feet, rarely raising her head to look at someone straight in the eyes. “She’s an orphan just like me,” she guessed one day. Once her suspicion was confirmed through the gossip brigade, her seemingly insensitive heart shuddered, and her attitude towards Olya changed. With small gestures, like returning the kerosene stove or giving Olya a leftover (not really) scrap of fabric, she gradually quelled the bad aftertaste of their first encounter. This isn’t to say that Olya trusted her completely, but over time Maria Yosypivna, Muzyka, became the person closest to her.

For Muzyka, becoming friends with Olya was also a kind of release. A childless widow branded with the suspicion of having collaborating with the Nazis, she often felt used and unjustly neglected. For no reason at all. Maria Yosypivna never took her pain out on others, every day putting on the impenetrable mask of a guard faithful to the Communist Party. But even the strongest mask sometimes cracks.

“Yes, the numbers…it’s very interesting and exciting,” Olya mumbled unenthusiastically to the vakhterka, forgetting that she had to control her intonation when they weren’t alone. Such carelessness wasn’t typical of her. Waving off her older friend’s concerned look, Olya pushed open the dormitory door and stepped out into the morning twilight.

The road to the workshops in Kovalivka was very familiar. She had taken the same route for six years and nine days, and it was unlikely to ever change. Moving from the factory to another job was forbidden by law, and breaking the law was not in Olya’s best interests.

The young woman, barely paying attention, took Syvaska Street, past Pavlik Morozov Square and the only remaining cemetery, towards Kolhospna Street. There she usually waited for the №4 bus and for 30 kopecks rode three stops to get off at the Krasnaya Zvyezda Factory. From there it was only a few dozen steps to the entrance.

That day, while waiting at the bus stop, Olya was in such deep thought, she only heard the bus when the doors slammed shut with a screech and it drove off. Now she’d have to walk, even though her legs felt like a ton of bricks.

She’d been feeling unwell for several days. She was very tired, her body ached, she was nauseous in the morning. And yesterday she fainted, right in the workshop. It’s a good thing she wasn’t holding an electrode at the time.

The diagnosis by the nurse at the factory clinic caught her by surprise.

“Married? Well, no big deal. It’s not shameful to be a single mother these days. The state will help you,” she said in Russian, as she pointed to the poster on the wall behind her with a smiling young cafeteria worker holding a red-cheeked, toothless plump baby boy. “In the country of the Soviets, a woman who is a mother is steeped in honor, respect, and all-embracing care,” the poster announced (in Russian) under the idyllic image.

Olya cried in her pillow throughout the night. By morning her face was so swollen she looked like she had been stung by wasps. You could barely see her eyes from behind her red bulging eyelids.

Maybe if she was living in a different part of the world, she would have taken the pregnancy news better. She didn’t believe the fairy tale about “honor, respect, and care.” Her mother certainly didn’t experience it that way. And there were many other disheartening examples. The stories from the maternity wards where expectant mothers were treated like prisoners sufficed. You couldn’t bring personal items with you. Your husband couldn’t visit you. You were forced to wash the floors when there isn’t enough cleaning staff. The baby was taken away immediately after birth and brought to you only for feeding. You could forget about painkillers. “Tolerate it, woman,” “work harder,” and “it’s not advanced math, you can figure it out yourself” – that’s what the unsympathetic and sullen nurses threw back at you in Russian, when you requested pain relief for contractions or to be shown the proper way to express breast milk or swaddle your baby. It wasn’t talked about openly, but Olya heard women with families whisper in the workshop about similar experiences.

On the way to work she imagined all the possible scenarios in her head. 

Have an abortion? Officially they had been banned 15 or more years ago. Of course, nobody asked the woman what she wanted. To have a baby, or better yet three, was just one more plan she had to fulfill – the “honorable duty” for the “Motherland.” The state needs more workers and soldiers to build socialism and spread the revolution around the world. They even introduced a special tax for bachelors, singles, and small families. Olya heard men in the factory jokingly call it the “tax on balls.”

Having a secret abortion was too much of a risk. It wasn’t easy to find someone that could do it. Who would go against the law and risk two or three years in prison? Plus, if you started asking around about such brave (or crazy) people, someone was bound to find out. An ordinary woman would be “publicly censured” and have to pay a maximum fine of 300 karbovantsi (the Ukrainian equivalent of the ruble) but the daughter of an “enemy of the people” would probably be sent to prison, following in her parents’ footsteps.

Have the baby? It’s unlikely the baby’s father would marry her. Mykyta was a good man, and he swore that he loved her, but would his feelings erode in the wind as soon as he found out about the unplanned child? On top of that, she never had the guts to tell him the truth about her past. And even if he took it well, Olya’s “family ties” would forever destroy his potential career.

As a matter of fact, Mykyta was from the working class, a migrant from Voronezh in Russia. He graduated from the Kirovograd Technical School for Agricultural Machine Building with the prestigious specialization in metallurgy of “cold working.” He had also been a front-line soldier in the war and was decommissioned after sustaining a leg injury while liberating Kharkiv in August 1943. An unbelievable combination! Now he was the head of his section in the instrument shop and many more doors would certainly open for him in the future! Granted, the Krasnaya Zvyezda management had long been hinting to him that 30 is too old to still be a bachelor. It’s easier to move up the career ladder as a family man – they always receive preference over bachelors. But he would definitely find better options; there were many women at the plant from which to choose.

A Working Woman’s Story

Raise a child alone? Where? In the wretched dormitory, in a small damp room with peeling walls which she shared with a roommate? There was no space to move around, let alone fit a crib. There were two metal beds with springs that creaked with every movement and sagged nearly to the floor, two nightstands for personal items, a kitchen table with two chairs – that’s all the amenities they had. And even this spartan setup occupied the entire room.

Who would help her? She didn’t have any relatives nearby. Other women at least had grandmothers or sisters to lend a hand. Her closest friendwas a dormitory vakhterka… Yes, she could get 77 days of paid maternity leave, but then what? Nursery care? She had to pay and there was a waiting list, because for the state, rebuilding factories and collective farms was always a priority.

“You should give birth!” the Soviets insisted, but Olya heard these words differently. “And don’t stop at one or two children, have six, eight, ten! We’ll hang your photo on the honor board and pin ‘hero mother’ medals and ‘glorious motherhood’ orders on your chest… And despite the fact there aren’t enough nurseries and kindergartens: that is simply nonsense, you can wait. After all, the older children can take care of the younger ones – why support ‘dependents’ and get nothing in return?”

And even if they found space for her child, Olya heard Svitlana Karpenko from the hardware shop complaining to her friends that when she picked up her daughter from the nursery she’s red from screaming and crying. The staff either can’t handle all the children or simply neglect to do their jobs. They’re probably busy with more important matters, such as gossiping about the mothers, especially the single ones. There was no one willing to stand up for them. More likely, the staff were flipping through the pages of the latest issue of Soviet Woman or Woman Worker magazine looking for trendy clothing patterns, recipes, and medical advice.

Knowing this, how could she leave her child there and go back to the workshop for her shift to weld pipes into frames without worrying? Nobody would free her from the factory quota.

Leaving the factory wasn’t an option. “He who does not work shall not eat,” it said in Stalin’s Constitution. You couldn’t survive on state aid with a child; moreover, they’d kick her out of the dormitory. If it weren’t for all these state requests for the endless donations “for brotherly countries of the people’s democracy,” “to bring cultural enlightenment,” and “to help Japanese children who suffered from the earthquake,” maybe she could somehow make ends meet. The income tax and singles tax combined ate up one-fifth of her salary…

She could, of course, give the baby up to an orphanage. But she wouldn’t wish that on her worst enemy.

Relying on the state to raise a child was risky. She could end up with her very own Pavlik Morozov, who would turn her in to the authorities and denounce her without blinking an eye. This was exactly the “new type” of person all these Pioneer (communist children’s scouting organization) and Komsomol units were nurturing. She remembered how these “new” people – loyal Leninists and Stalinists – later wrote in the press: “I, Nikolai Ivanov, renounce my father…” and “I, Lyuba Sydorenko, condemn my mother…” This newspaper column was regularly read to them at the orphanage, which had accumulated a large and impressive archive of news clippings dedicated to this topic.

So what, have an abortion? What if you can’t get pregnant again, or even worse?

“It’s a choice without a choice,” Olya sighed, despondently. She was snapped out of her daze by the protracted whistle of the steam train leaving the station just as she ducked into the archway between Novomykolaivska and Kovalivka streets. The factory was just a stone’s throw away. There, 200 meters away, among the poplars, already having shed about half their yellowed leaves, and alongside the green acacias, towered the four- and six-story buildings of the Krasnaya Zvyezda Factory. If the locomotive hadn’t veered off its daily schedule, this meant the clock read 6 AM. And despite her best efforts, this meant she was already late for that damn political information briefing.

It was some twenty steps to the dreary crowd of workers who had gathered on the square in front of the factory. They blended into a grey, mud-colored mass, the workers indistinguishable in their old, ragged coats, the kufaikas, a Russian word for the wool-padded cotton jackets, and their battle-worn himnastyorkas, another Russian word describing the military pull-over smocks with belts but with the epaulettes removed. 

As the young woman passed the main gate, she felt a strong gaze directed at her from above. Raising her head as minimally as possible, Olya furtively looked up squinting her eyes to the right where a semi-circular glass tower stuck out like a balcony from the second floor of the factory management office. Standing in the window was the stern figure of the director Merkulov, hands on his hips, frowning in displeasure at those breaking labor discipline.

The Krasnaya Zvyezda management department was located in a large, 800 sq. m. (about 8600 sq.ft.) sky-blue building with a green roof. It was built by the Elworthy brothers in the late 1800s as a family home. The decision to build their own residence on the factory grounds surprised many people at the time, but made it easier for the English businessmen to oversee production. The first floor was for the servants, and the family lived on the second floor. Today, 50 years later, the former owners’ dining room serves as the Krasnaya Zvyezda director’s office, and the bay window of the music room, once echoing with Enrico Caruso’s arias playing on the gramophone, was turned into the director’s observation post.

“You’re late, Comrade Kukharenko. The meeting started ten minutes ago,” said Ms. Berestova, head of the factory women’s council, whispering her displeasure in Russian in Olya’s ear. Olya walked past without paying her attention. She stopped a little further on and got on her tiptoes to scan the crowd for her Mykyta.

Wearing a mud-colored suit and burgundy tie with grey stripes, а Lenin cap tucked under his left arm, the Deputy Secretary of the Communist Party Committee Redka was standing on a short staircase serving as a stage. He was holding the morning edition of Pravda Ukrainy (the Communist Party newspaper in Ukraine) in his right hand, reading aloud in a monotone voice the Gosplan’s Chairman M. Z. Saburov’s report titled “Directives of the 19th Party Congress on the Fifth Five-Year-Plan for the Development of the USSR in 1951-1955.” The Gosplan was a Russian portmanteau for “government planning committee.” Standing next to him in the “presidium,” shifting from foot to foot, were three others: Krasnaya Zvyezda’s Chief Engineer Y. P. Kriuchkov; the head of the hardware workshop and part-time People’s Deputy H. K. Maliy of the Verkhovna Rada, the Supreme Council of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic; and the founder of the brigade named after the Georgian Communist Ordzhonikidze and Communist-Stakhanovite K. K. Stoliarenko.

“What a stupid waste of time,” Olya thought. “Even Merkulov realizes it and is waiting out this festival of absurdity in the management office…” She knew the director would only show up at the very end of the meeting, when all that was left to do was vote for the target numbers. Like he always did.

She also knew that her Mykyta wouldn’t miss this meeting for any reason, even if he was allowed to skip it. On the contrary, he’d be one of the first there, so he could stand as near as possible to the speakers.

Olya was right. There he was, in the first rows, standing in the company of two designers – his friends Yerofeev and Koziakin, and next to Zozulia, the acting editor of the factory newsletter with the unimaginative name Krasnaya Zvyezda.

“In the fifth five-year-plan, further rapid growth in machine building is scheduled,” Redka grumbled in Russian into the microphone attached to a stand. From there, wires ran to four amplifiers and loudspeakers placed at various corners of the square. Although meant to increase the volume, the speakers screeched, drowning out any clarity, forcing people to guess what was being said and what to expect in the near future.

“In the next five years, machine production and metalworking will approximately double,” the party secretary continued, as Olya slowly moved through the crowd. “There will also be significant growth in production… new types of agricultural machinery…”

“We need to talk,” Olya said as she gently pulled at Mykyta’s work smock. “Let’s meet tonight, at 9 PM, at our usual spot,” she added when he turned around. After he nodded in approval, she slowly made her way to the opposite end of the crowd so as not to draw attention to herself.

She felt completely out of place at this gathering. So much so, she found it hard to breathe.

The sun had almost disappeared behind the horizon when Olya arrived, sitting down on a bench along one of the quieter foot paths in the park on Novomykolaivska Street. From there she could see the fountain on the central, and only illuminated alley, the one which Mykyta would take.

He was late, even though the spot where they were meeting was closer for him than for her. They could have met at Pavlik Morozov Square, only a two-minute walk from her dormitory, but she hated that place.

A Working Woman’s Story

As Olya waited, the entire history of their seven-month-long relationship flashed before her eyes. They met at one of the subotnyky, what the Soviets called volunteering but was really forced unpaid public labor the authorities would use to clean up parks. They were usually scheduled on Saturdays or other non-workdays but this one was held before the annual celebration of the anniversary of Lenin’s birthday. She was whitewashing trees and curbs by the workers’ theater. It too, was inherited by the factory from the Elworthy brothers. Now it was used for all sorts of Communist Party gatherings and meetings with VIPs like Petrovsky, the former Deputy Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, or Marshall Budyonny of the Soviet Union.

When Olya’s whitewashing bucket was empty, a tall man came to her aid. He had broad shoulders, dark brown hair, brown eyes like hers, and a long scar that stretched from his right temple, across his ear, and down to his jaw. But the scar didn’t spoil the young man’s looks, it just made his face look a bit mean. He rolled up his sleeves, and instead of pouring water into the lime, he poured water into the bucket and then mixed in the lime. The reaction was instantaneous. The contents of the bucket hissed and then exploded like a volcano, white “lava” covering him from head to toe. Olya unexpectedly burst out laughing. True, it wasn’t funny, the mix could have easily burned his skin. The stranger had seemed so sure of himself, radiating confidence, but this was such an epic failure that he couldn’t hold back. At first, he was startled, but after a second or two he also exploded in laughter. Olya took the scarf off her head and offered it to him to wipe off his exposed skin. He accepted the scarf…

However, the two of them were cut from a different cloth. Olya understood this after dating for a few weeks but continued to let him flirt. After all, she was a young woman and deep inside she wanted a man’s attention, although until now she had reined in her desire.

The biggest negative she saw in Mykyta was his unbridled ambitions and undisguised careerism. But beyond that, she considered him to be a good and honest person. At least he didn’t keep any secrets from her. The same couldn’t be said about Olya.

She heard a familiar rustle. A shadow approached her on the path, limping slightly on the left leg. This was another mark the war had left on him. A fragment of artillery broke his large and small calf bones and, unfortunately, the doctors couldn’t put them back together properly.

“Hi, sweetheart!” he said, as he approached the bench.

Olya immediately jumped up and blurted out the news that she could no longer keep to herself.

“Mykyta, I’m pregnant…”

He was just reaching out to hug her but froze halfway through the motion, stunned by what he had heard.

“I understand you’re in shock. But while you come to…there is something more that may influence your decision in this situation… It’s something you must know. I told you in the beginning that I’m an orphan. And most likely that’s the case now, but it’s not the complete truth…”

A Working Woman’s Story

“Enough! Stop your crying! Calm down, my little Myshka!” Muzyka had left her assigned post at the entrance to the dormitory and led her sobbing young friend to the room for the vakhterkas, where she hugged the crying woman. In despair, Olya told the vakhterka about her parents, her relationship with Mykyta, and her pregnancy.

“Well, did you really think Nikita, your Mykyta, would make a different choice? You know his type, it’s written all over his face!” the vakhterka burst out, and very quickly regretted what she had said, because it only made Olya wail even louder.

Muzyka sat Olya on a chair by the door and handed her a striped handkerchief she pulled from her coat pocket. She took a yellow enamel can decorated with poppies off the windowsill, poured water into it from a metal mug, and inserted an immersion heater to boil the water.

“I’ll make you some mint and lemon balm tea. You’ll feel better right away,” she promised, sitting down on the wooden bedstand looking for dried tea leaves. Three minutes later the tiny room was filled with the scent of herbal tea.

“Did you decide what you’re going to do?” Myzuka asked after Olya took a few sips and her crying died down. The vakhterka turned towards the window to heat herself some water.

“I heard about an herbal remedy using tansy,” Olya said after taking a deep breath.

“Who told you that? Don’t listen to the local gossip mongers. Nothing good will come of it!” the vakhterka cautioned.

She put her tea on the windowsill to cool and sat on the other stool next to Olya.

“Don’t you dare! You hear me?” she said, squeezing Olya’s hand.

Olya, still sniffling, sat without looking up, afraid to admit to her friend that she had already purchased the herbs at the pharmacy kiosk.

“Don’t even think about it!” Muzyka continued. “You’ll regret it for the rest of your life! Just like I do…” she blurted out, her words taking both of them by surprise.

That night would be filled with great revelations for Olya as well. In response to her confession, Maria Yosypivna opened up her soul and told a story that even the biggest gossiper in the dormitory couldn’t have imagined. 

As soon as the Hitlerites occupied Kirovograd, she fled to Sentove, the village where she was born, located 30 km to the north of the city. Although her parents were already dead, a great-aunt still lived there and took her in. When the occupiers set up their administration in the city, they invited Krasnaya Zvyezda Factory workers who hadn’t evacuated to come work at the renamed plant, now called the Kirovograd Plow and Foundry Factory. Without even thinking, Maria rejected their invitation. The pain from losing her husband at the hands of these bastards was still too fresh. Not for a second did she believe the supposedly heartfelt intentions of the “friends of the people” and “liberators from Soviet terror” to build a “new order in Europe.” Although some locals did fall for it…

“Can you imagine, they even took photos with the invaders in front of the toppled Kirov monument? How stupid!” Muzyka said, covering her eyes with her hand. “What were they thinking? That the enemy would become their best friends? Or that the Soviets wouldn’t find out?”She and her aunt lived under occupation for a year and half, surviving on what they grew in the garden, trying not to draw too much attention to themselves. But then, around the autumn of 1942, a decree was issued to export blonde-haired, blue-eyed women aged 15-35 to Germany to be domestic servants for Nazi families. This time around, nobody asked Maria whether she wanted the job or not. In May 1943, she was forcibly relocated and placed with a large family in Munich to help an overworked German frau raise her five offspring. The head of the family was an SS Obersturmführer (from the German meaning highest lieutenant officer rank in the German SS) and often disappeared on official trips. But when he came home, he would often and with sadistic desire… rape his children’s nanny. She became pregnant about a year later. Once her problematic condition was apparent, without bothering to ask her, they immediately performed an abortion, so as not to contaminate the superior German race with half-breeds. Such was the official policy of their insane Führer.

A Working Woman’s Story

Now it was Muzyka’s turn to cry and Olya’s to console her.

After the war, having fallen for the Soviet propaganda posters showing Ostarbeiters, the Nazi designation for foreign slave laborers, being greeted joyfully at train stations, the woman headed home. But nobody welcomed her “return from German captivity to the Motherland” with flowers and open arms as promised. Instead, she ended up in the Volkovysk filtration camp in the Belarusian SSR. She spent several months in prison, but the NKVD didn’t find any evidence she had collaborated with the Nazis and the prosecutor’s office of the Kyiv Military District closed the case.

“You know, back then I consoled myself with the idea that I didn’t need this child. I almost convinced myself I would have always hated it because of how it was conceived. But now, when I have nothing in life…” she rose, took a few steps towards the window, picked up the mug, and sipped her tea, which had gone cold long ago.

“I’ll be at your side, I promise. I’ll help you with the child. Just don’t do anything stupid.”

“One forces you to have abortions, the other completely forbids them,” Olya thought to herself the following day as she welded another frame to a seeder. “When will you all croak, you leaders who so lovingly and eagerly dictate your will to everyone…”

“Kukharenko!” The section manager called out her name, distracting her from ruminating over the story she heard yesterday. “Turn off your machine and go straight to the workshop manager. You’ve been summoned.”

She didn’t have to be told twice. Olya put down the electrode, pulled the cord out of the socket, and trotted off to the other end of the factory floor. The production space was separated from the third mechanical assembly shop manager’s office by an opaque, semi-glass partition. As she passed it, she saw that he wasn’t alone, but couldn’t make out the silhouette of the person standing next to him.

Olya knocked on the door, but an annoyed male voice shouted for her to wait. She had no idea why she had been called to the boss’s office, but it was probably serious. The people behind the glass were waving their arms like they were arguing over something, but she couldn’t hear what they were saying over the workshop noise. 

“Come in, Kukharenko!” her boss opened the door, let her in, and went back to his chair behind the desk. To the right of him stood Roza Eduardovna, the Krasnaya Zvyezda Factory employee manager, holding a stack of personnel files.

“I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’ll say it like it is, Olya Andreevna,” the man said in Russian, in a monotonous, seemingly bored voice, pretending to be indifferent, but his gaze darted back and forth, giving away his discomfort.

“There was an inspection at the factory that revealed a large percentage of defective products… It’s very unfortunate, but our workshop was at the top of the list of the offenders. We can’t turn a blind eye to something like this because then we’d all be accused of sabotage…” Olya noticed her file was open on the manager’s desk. “And you have nothing to lose…”

At last, Olya understood what was going on. Without waiting for him to finish, she turned around and walked out of the room, heading straight for the locker room. She took off her work coveralls and put on her coat. From there she started towards the factory exit. As she was leaving, she looked up and saw director Merkulov standing by the window with his arms crossed on his chest. Their eyes met for a brief moment.

Olya woke up the next morning in the hospital where she had been taken after being found unconscious in a pool of her own blood in the dormitory washroom.

“What an idiot!” the nurse who was changing her IV couldn’t resist commenting in Russian. “Why is the child to blame?”

Weak and in pain, Olya found the strength to lift herself up and rest on her elbows. Looking curiously at the woman her own age standing there in a white coat, Olya smiled. Then she started haltingly singing off-key the words to a popular lullaby in Russian:

“…Sleep, my little boy, sleep,
Sleep, my dear eaglet,
There is a bright path for you –
Gather your strength…”

The nurse, making a circular motion with her finger at her temple, ran out of the hospital room, as Olya, leaning back on the bed, continued to sing alone, barely moving her lips:

“In the sky, full of light,
The stars shine brighter,
The serene sleep of children,
Is protected by Stalin…”

She got lucky. At least there’s something in her life that she can control.

A little less than five months after this story, the great Soviet leader, the “father of the nations” and “friend of the children” – Stalin, died. Unfortunately, his death didn’t mean the end of the Soviet Union. But there were some shifts in the totalitarian regime.

For example, the mid-1950s saw the beginning of a mass review of cases of repressed Soviet citizens. Many of those who had been unjustly convicted in 1937-1938 were rehabilitated and recognized as victims of political repression. In 1958, the Fundamental Principles of Criminal Legislation of the USSR and the Union Republics that abolished the concepts of “enemy of the people” and “family member of an enemy of the people” was passed, removing the restrictions related to this legal status. But in practice it was a different story…

In 1956 workers were given the right to change their place of work as they chose. Criminal liability was abolished for moving to another factory and for absenteeism without a valid reason. As the number of able-bodied men increased, women were gradually transferred to easier and less dangerous types of work.

In 1955 the ban on abortions was lifted. According to estimates, in the prior year, at least 4 million illegal abortions were performed in the Soviet Union. Due to the Soviet totalitarian system’s deliberate disregard for basic sex education and limited access to other methods of birth control, abortions would remain the number one method of contraception in the USSR for decades to come. Having deprived women of any alternative, even after decriminalizing abortions, state propaganda continued to scare them with possible infertility and loss of sex drive that would lead to broken marriages and loneliness.

Who knows if these changes meant things could have turned out differently for Olya Kukharenko, daughter of an “enemy of the people,” orphan at the Kominterna Orphanage, and electric welder at the Krasnaya Zvyezda Factory. Perhaps, at least, her choice would have been a little easier if these changes had happened several years earlier.

Other stories written by Marichka Melnyk

Other stories illustrated by Maryna Lutsyk


Hammer + Sickle = Death + Famine

Symbols may only be images, but behind their façade they can conceal stories of unspeakable suffering…

The Ark, Nazis, and Toilet Paper

“USSR? Russian? Mein Freund!” With these words, Hans kissed the frightened Belarusian three times on both cheeks, ending with a celebratory “Heil Hitler!”…
  • A Working Woman’s Story