Krasnoturinsk is a city in the Sverdlovsk region of Russia. There is an aluminum plant there. They say the wealthiest women of fashion used to wear aluminum buttons and that everyone was jealous of them as they were even more expensive than those made of gold. In 1988, Krasnoturinsk was clean, peaceful and cultured. Either the city was built by German prisoners or the Germans were exiled there and they built the city. Either way, all of the officers in my detachment were Germans. They reminded me of my grandfather: regulation, honesty, conscience, decency and an officer’s word.
The penitentiary for juvenile offenders was like the overcrowded Komsomolskaya subway station, where there are three railway stations. How you presented yourself at this station was who you were. The newcomer was called a “tram” as you didn’t know yet what sort of person he would turn out to be. One might become the boss of his detachment, another a hard worker, while another would end up washing other people’s socks by the end of his sentence.
I would go on to study welding at the school there, one month of theory, one month of practice, and so on for nine months. In theory I made notes, while in practice I lugged angle irons to the cutting machine—this was called “feeding”—or I turned the wheel of the pipe bender, which in fact was called “the wheel,” or carried the various bits of iron out of the workshop, which was called “transportation.” Sometimes these bits of iron weighed over a hundred kilos and you would have to carry them between two people. But I would go on lugging them without a word, sensing intuitively that were I to show any kind weakness in front of anyone I’d get stomped immediately, and there was no way in hell you could come back from that. I got five rubles a month for that job.
There were those provocateurs who tried to knock me down, but I resisted them aggressively, hurled angle irons about and played the fool. Finally, one day during evening construction, the detachment boss told everyone they ought to get rid of me as there hadn’t been enough murders in our detachment. Everything became suddenly very quiet for me.
I enrolled at school, in the seventh year, and put my head into reading books. I would choose the thick books that were more dog-eared than the rest. After a few months, I began getting A’s, especially in geometry.
After graduating, I became a grade three welder, I started welding the bits of iron, and my salary rose to forty rubles. I suddenly had all these friends, a so-called family of five.
My friend Dmitri was shoved into another detachment, and soon he went off to the adult prison. I was due to go there myself, but before my eighteenth birthday the head of the detachment called me over and suggested that I stay at the juvie. He said they needed me to help all the struggling students pass their exams. He gave me his officer’s word that after at most two-thirds of my sentence I could go home on parole.
When I began working with the students, I was shocked by all these fifteen-, sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds who didn’t know a single letter of the alphabet, didn’t know how to write, and had no idea that two times two was four. Shita told me he lived in a cemetery and helped his father dig graves. He had not been to school a single day in his life. He was almost eighteen at the time, he never passed the math exam, and then he went off to the adult prison. How could I explain Pythagoras’ theorem to him when he didn’t even know one number? Several of the students were able to describe the theorem and got their certificate of incomplete secondary education.
The female math teacher spoke about the different temperamental types among the students. The Sanguine—more or less normal; the Choleric—who would yell and wave their hands about; the Melancholic—who were always sad and crying; and the Phlegmatic—the devil-may-care, who might have their socks stolen from them and wouldn’t bat an eyelid. I decided I would read up on this more closely at some point.
I passed my grade four welding; I had a couple of years left to study in school but by now it had become easier since I had a decent knowledge of the subject. I gained two titles, “Best in Profession” and “Best Student at School.” The officer kept his word and after three years, one month and three days I was given a ticket for the steam train and one hundred rubles, then off I went to freedom.