1. A construction crew is living in tents at the Porogi building site on the banks of the Upper Pechora River in Siberia. It is mid-January, a time when the sun shines for only an hour every day. The crew is supposed to complete eight standard houses by May, when a team of drillers and their families are scheduled to arrive. Work has ground to a halt, however, because brick deliveries have stopped.
Foreman Stepan Semyonovich Liutoyev calls in 23-year-old assembly worker Nikolai Babushkin.
Some months earlier, at Liutoyev's initiative, Babushkin had been elected as a deputy to the district Soviet. His election photo had been heavily retouched--the dimple removed from his chin and a suit and tie painted over his soldier's tunic.
Liutoyev orders Nikolai to see chief engineer Cheremnykh at the Dzhegor brick works and, using his authority as a Soviet deputy, grab Cheremnykh by the throat and demand bricks. If Nikolai returns without bricks, says Liutoyev, they will unelect Nikolai as a deputy.
HOW TO MAKE SIBERIAN SKIS"You need a whole fir tree to make one ski like that, and another for the second of the pair. The tree is split by an axe, a plank is hewn out of it--not sawn out, heavens forbid!--but hacked out of it with an axe. Then this plank is dried for six months in a shady place--not in the sun, heavens forbid!--but in the shade. Then by steaming the end of the plank it is bent as required. Then dried again. And when it is quite dry the ski can be considered half ready.
Now it remains to glue reindeer hide to the ski, the hairy side outward, the pile lying in such a way that the ski will be running against it. And--heavens forbid!--you musn't use ordinary carpenter's glue to fix the hide to the wood. It is essential to use glue which has been prepared from fishbones. Then the ski is dried once more. "
Soon Nikolai is skiing across the tundra on skis he made himself, according to directions handed down by four generations of Pechora Babushkins. The skis have reindeer hide glued to the bottom, so they would never slip backwards on a slope.
2. As the fleeting daylight passes, Nikolai reaches the road and flags a ride on a passing truck. The driver is grumpy and uncommunicative. But after the truck has a flat tire and Nikolai helps fix it, the driver opens up, revealing that he is worried that his wife is perhaps having an affair with his best friend and flat mate, Gennadi. Gennadi is a positive character and a Party member, but still the driver wants to get his own apartment, just to be safe.
3. They arrive in Dzhegor and the driver lets Nikolai out. It has been a year since Nikolai has seen this town, which he and his fellow crew mates built from scratch with their own hands. That's his job, build a city out of nothing, then as soon as its habitable, he moves on to another desolate spot.
Nikolai decides to go see his old friend Lyoshka Vedmed and his wife, Verochka. They've been married for a year and probably have a baby by now.
Nikolai recognizes the building where Lyoshka and Verochka live--16 Comrades Street. He himself lived in that building while working here. All the streets in Dzhegor were named by Pavel Kazimirovich Kryzhevsky, an Old Bolshevik who had been exiled here and imprisoned a long time ago, before the war. Recently, he was rehabilitated, given back his Party card, a generous pension, and even offered a flat in Moscow. He chose to stay in Dzhegor.
Nikolai arrives at the Vedmeds'. It is the same room that he and Lyoshka shared not too long ago. But now it is neat and filled with furniture: a wardrobe with a looking glass, an Octave radio set, and a Record television set; a silk lamp shade, lace curtains; and a real-life oil painting of a mermaid and a sailor. Nikolai thinks that Lyoshka must be making a lot of money.
Only Verochka is at home. Both Nikolai and Lyoshka had been in love with her, but it was Lyoshka who married Verochka.
Nikolai joins Vera in the kitchen as she cooks and they await Lyoshka. They have a fat, well-fed Angora cat, and a mouse who knows no fear of the cat. Verochka has grown thin and seems to have lost her looks over the past year. Nikolai asks if they have a baby. Verochka says she was pregnant, but they decided to have an abortion.
Just what is:
Old New Year's Day
Verochka suggests that perhaps Lyoshka is at the flat of Volosatov, a foreman, who lives in the next building. Nikolai decides to go fetch Lyoshka.
As Nikolai enters the Volosatovs' flat, the first thing he notices is a New Year's Tree standing in the corner. It is decorated, but completely dried out and bare--all the needles have fallen off.
Lyoshka and Volosatov are sitting at a table, completely drunk. They are celebrating Old New Year's Day. Volosatov drunkenly pours Nikolai some homebrew. Nikolai drinks it down and reacts with disgust. It is the worst stuff he's ever tasted. Volosatov's wife apologizes, saying its the dregs, all that's left from the batch they cooked up. Lyoshka doesn't seem to mind the taste and readily drinks more.
Lyoshka tells Nikolai that he and Volosatov have some business together and plan to make a lot of money. Lyoshka intends to buy a motor scooter with his profits. Volosatov's wife says they want to buy a cottage in someplace warm like Berdyansk, where they can retire when "the Lord provides a pension." Nikolai pointedly asks, "Is it the Lord who provides pensions?" Crossing herself, Volosatov's wife responds, "The Lord provides everything."
Nikolai drags the incredibly drunk Lyoshka home. Verochka sets up a cot for Nikolai in the kitchen, while she and Lyoshka lie down in the next room. Nikolai, getting ready for bed, hums his favorite song, Moscow Nights.
Enjoy Moscow Nights
Through the thin walls, Nikolai hears Lyoshka let out a stream of drunken curses, then make love to Verochka. Nikolai gets dressed and leaves, checking into a dormitory-style hotel.
4. When Nikolai opens his eyes the next morning, the first thing he sees is a young man named Chernomor Ageyev aiming a TOZ-20 rifle right at his forehead. Thinking quickly, Nikolai hurls a boot at Chernomor, then lunges at him and pins him against the wall. Chernomor just laughs and points to a target on the wall right above Nikolai's bed. He says the gun is not loaded and he just likes to do some sight-training exercises every morning.
Chernomor had been working on a prospecting team on the Shugor, but he quit recently because the team was so isolated--no telegraph or telephone. Chernomor explains that he's waiting for an important phone call, but refuses to say what kind of call.
Nikolai takes a kettle and goes to get some hot water. The tap, however, doesn't function properly. Water spurts out, splashing and scalding the ankle of a young woman who comes up behind Nikolai. She says something in irritation and marches away.
5. Nikolai goes to the brick works, searching for chief engineer Vasili Kirillovich Cheremnykh. He spends at least an hour going from department to department trying to track him down, and in the end is informed that Cheremnykh has just driven away.
Nikolai decides to go to the district executive committee. He sits for an hour in the waiting room of the chairman, Fyodor Matveevich Kayurov. Growing impatient, Nikolai finally bursts into Kayurov's office, where, it turns out, the district executive committee is in session. Daniil Artemievich Lyzlov, secretary of the district Party committee, recognizes Nikolai as a Soviet deputy.
When the committee members hear that Nikolai has come about bricks, they ask him to sit down because that's just what they were talking about. Also attending the meeting--much to Nikolai's surprise--is the young woman from the hotel, Irina Petrovna Ilyina. It turns out that she is the town's chief architect. She got the job because no experienced architect would take it, owing to the low salary.
Kayurov berates Cheremnykh for not producing enough bricks. Irina, however, says bricks are old-fashioned technology. They should change to using large panels and blocks. She speaks in support of Cheremnykh's plan to change one department in the brick works from making bricks to producing gravel and blocks of keramsite, a type of porous clay sealer. Kayurov opposes the plan, thinking it's just a "fairy tale".
This is the first Lyzlov has heard of the plan, and he intimidates Kayurov into approving further study of the idea.
As the meeting breaks up, Nikolai asks about bricks for Porogi. Cheremnykh and Lyzlov get an idea.
6. Nikolai is in Cheremnykh's apartment, which is filled with clever contraptions--an articulated lamp, a bed with a pneumatic pillow that folds up into an armchair, and a wind-up shaving razor. Cheremnykh asks Nikolai if he has experience with large-block construction. In fact, Nikolai put up a whole town in Central Asia using large blocks. Cheremnykh stresses that large blocks require much less manpower--you will no longer need swarms of bricklayers for each house.
Cheremnykh says that he will start shipping bricks to Porogi immediately and guarantee regular deliveries on one condition: while Cheremnykh is changing one workshop to keramsite production, Nikolai is to stay in Dzhegor as a hostage and form a team of large-block assembly workers. Then--in about three months--they will deliver the first lot of blocks to Porogi, complete with a brass band and flags out. The assembly workers, by the way, will be paid piece rates--a good deal.
Seeing no other way to fulfill his mission, Nikolai agrees.
Irina arrives. She's surprised to see Nikolai, but happy to hear that Lyzlov has approved the plan to produce keramsite. There seems to be some affection between the middle-aged Cheremnykh and the young Irina. Cheremnykh turns on the radio, which plays Glen Miller music. He and Irina dance slowly and tenderly together.
Nikolai and Irina walk back toward the hotel together. But it's so cold, that soon they start running. They slip and fall together. They roll around in the snow, laughing happily together, until Irina tells Nikolai to get his mitts off her. He complies.
First Earthling in Space
12 April 1961
Read the propaganda pamphlet:
7. That very night, trucks loaded with bricks set out for Porogi.
The next morning, Nikolai has tea with Chernomor, who doesn't take sugar or put butter on his bread, mysteriously explaining that he has to keep his weight down. Nikolai starts to get suspicious and suggests that the unempolyed Chernomor is a parasite that ought to be taken to the police. Offended, Chernomor produces an official certificate from the USSR Academy of Sciences, acknowledging that he has volunteered for the conquest of sapce and requested that he be sent to the moon.
So that is the call that Chernomor is waiting for--from the moon project. A year ago, Nikolai himself had considered volunteering to go to the moon, but conditions at Porogi were worse than on the moon, so he didn't want to be considered a deserter by choosing an easier job.
Nikolai now respects Chernomor, but he suggests that Chernomor might have to wait a long time for the call--maybe six months. This rattles Chernomor. He says he'd like to take a job, but everyone wants him to sign a three-year contract. And Chernomor has to be ready to depart for the moon at a moment's notice.
Although Chernomor is ill-suited to the job, Nikolai offers to hire him as an assembly worker on the new keramsite team. Assured that the work is only for three months, Chernomor agrees.
Nikolai begins working closely with Cheremnykh and sees him nearly every day. But he doesn't see Irina.
One evening, Cheremnykh invites Nikolai to his apartment. When they arrive, Cheremnykh reveals that it is his birthday and he's having a little party. The only guests are himself, Nikolai and Irina.
Embarrassed that he has no gift, Nikolai presents Cheremnykh with the hunting knife he received from his grandfather, a famous Pechora hunter. The blade was specially tempered and could cut iron; the heft was made of specially plaited rawhide; and the sheath was made of elk skin stitched with reindeer gut. This knife has killed three bears. A special knife indeed.
Irina gaily grabs the knife and hurls it at the door, but it doesn't stick. Cheremnykh also fails at the trick. But Nikolai does it expertly. Irina beseeches Nikolai to teach her the skill. Nikolai says he can show her how to do it, but it's not something he can teach her. To acquire the skill, she must actually believe that she can accomplish it. It is that way with everything in life, Nikolai says: If you believe, you can get everything you want.
Irina takes the knife, concentrates, mutters her belief in herself, and throws the knife. This time, it sticks perfectly in the door.
A telegram arrives wishing Cheremnykh a happy birthday. Instead of making Cheremnykh glad, the telegram makes him glum. He proposes a toast to the past. Irina refuses to drink, saying they have no past. Instead, she offers a toast to the future.
8. While working to tear all the old machinery out of the new keramsite workshop, Nikolai regularly goes to make sure that the bricks are being shipped to Porogi. One day, he sees the truck driver who had given him the ride into Dzhegor. He is now one of those hauling bricks to Porogi.
Nikolai asks the driver about his personal situation. The driver reacts grimly. His wife, Niurka, on International Women's Day, received a gift of silk underwear from Gennadi. The driver insisted that she return the gift, but she refused. Nikolai cautions the driver that it's still no proof of any hanky-panky between Niurka and Gennadi. He advises that the driver try to get a separate apartment, away from Gennadi. In fact, Nikolai promises to help.
Nikolai sees Kayurov, asking for assistance in getting the driver a new apartment. Kayurov says there are many people with more serious reasons for an apartment in line in front of the driver and he will just have to wait his turn.
Dejected, Nikolai leaves Kayurov. Just then, Irina arrives, with some plans for a new bridge. Kayurov hurriedly says he has no time to deal with the bridge and shoos her away.
Irina shows Nikolai the plans for a new, modern bridge to replace the decrepit old "temporary" wooden bridge which spans the Chut river. The bridge is so rickety that passengers must get off buses and walk across the bridge on foot.
Irina is frustrated with the number of "temporary" constructions in Dzhegor, poorly planned, laid out, and executed, using old-fashioned ideas and materials. She wishes that instead of having to remake a town, she could start one from scratch. Nikolai tells her about Porogi, virgin soil for an architect. Irina is interested. She then starts idly sketching an idealized city, with beautiful gardens and glass-walled walkways. She draws a man and woman in the city scene. To Nikolai's eye, the man looks like Cheremnykh, so he draws in a crude representation of himself. Irina erases some things on the sketch, including the other "man".
Lyoshka calls Nikolai and asks him to drop by. When he gets there, Nikolai sees that Lyoshka and Verochka are packing to leave. They have signed up to work at Porogi--Lyoshka as an assembler and Verochka as an accountant. They are both happy about the move.
They ask Nikolai to stay in the apartment and take care of their things until they return to claim them and move them to Porogi. Afterwards, they advise Nikolai to pass the apartment on to someone who needs it. Nikolai says he'll give it over to the district Soviet to decide.
Nikolai decides to get rid of the mice and other vermin in the apartment. He calls in the fumigators, who shove poison in all the wall cracks, then set off a fumigation smoke bomb. After an hour, Nikolai returns to the apartment and finds the Verkhmeds' cat still inside, wheezing. Nikolai roughly tosses the fat cat outside to fend for itself.
Nikolai then starts to open the windows, but before he gets too far, he himself becomes violently ill and rushes to the bathroom.
9. Nikolai and Irina go for a walk in the park. Although they talk of other things, Irina wants him to kiss her. But Nikolai doesn't dare. Irina has a talk with Cheremnmykh to explain her new situation.
10. Nikolai is awakened by loud booming noises--they are breaking up the ice on the river with explosives.
Today is a big day. The first shipments of keramsite blocks are going to leave the factory for Porogi. True to his word, Cheremnykh has the trucks bedecked with flags, and a brass band is on hand to play for the trucks when they depart. One truck flies a long banner reading: "Greetings to the builders of the new town!".
One of the trucks is being driven by that same truck driver who gave Nikolai a ride into town three months ago. He and Nikolai are happy to see each other. Nikolai asks the driver about his personal situation. The driver says he's gotten a divorce because of his suspicions about Gennadi and his wife. As soon as Gennadi learned of these suspicions, he immediately left town to dispell all cause for concern. So maybe the driver was wrong and there never was any affair. Nevertheless, he can't go back to his ex-wife and apologize because of his pride.
The trucks are ready for their triumphal departure when Kayurov comes rushing up with terrible news. The rivers are overflowing their banks, flooding has begun. Also, the rushing waters and giant ice chunks have begun an assault on the ricketey bridge, threatening to smash it.
Kayurov commandeers the trucks and orders them all to dump their keramsite blocks into the river near the bridge-heads, to protect them from the rushing waters and ice chunks. The result: no kermasite for Porogi, but the bridge is saved.
The right side of the river is flooded. Those living on the first floors of apartment buildings, merely have to move up to the second floor and never get a foot wet. The one-story private houses, however, are completely engulfed, leaving only their roofs exposed. Row boats and motor boats work all day and night to ferry evacuees to safety. One of these evacuees is Irina, who had taken a room in one of these private houses.
Irina is brought to safety, looking dazed and weary, carrying only a suitcase and her white fur coat. Nikolai, without saying a word, picks up her suitcase and brings her to his apartment. He cooks her some macaronni and meat, and fixes up the Vekhmed's soft, fancy bed for her. (Nikolai never sleeps in the bed...it's too soft for him and he'd oversleep.) It is now the time of the white nights, with the sun disappearing for only a hour and a half each day. Irina stares wearily out the window at the sun. Nikolai puts his hand on her shoulder, and she melts into his arms. They kiss.
11.Pavel Kryzhevsky, the Old Bolshevik, lay dying. He has many visitors coming to pay respects, including a group of Young Pioneers, who make the old man an honorary pioneer and give him a red scarf.
Although there are gods of various kinds they have in common one cunning feature, they all promise people life beyond the grave. And as no one wants to die, some ignorant people swallow that bait and become believers. That's what the priests live on.
Nikolai comes to visit Kryzhevsky. Lyzlov is there, and Kryzhevsky is tightly clutching Lyzlov's wrist. Nikolai remembers a book he read about religion which said the common aspect of all religions is a belief in an afterlife. It's easier for a believer to die, because he or she thinks they're going on to some other place. But it's harder for an atheist, who knows this is the end.
Lyzlov tells Nikolai that because of the muddy condition of the roads it is now impossible to ship keramsite blocks to Porogi by truck. They'll have to do it by river.
12. Eventually, the big day comes when the first keramsite blocks are to be shipped down river to Porogi. Kayurov gives a typical bombastic speech, praising the project and all those who took part in it, including Cheremnykh, Nikolai, and Chernomor. Quite a change from his original impulse, which was to fire Cheremnykh for what he viewed as a hare-brained scheme. Nikolai decides that Kayurov is a blow-hard bureaucratic careerist that they ought to get rid of. But since this is a festive occasion, he says nothing.
Irina is busy chiding Cheremnykh, telling him that keramsite is already old technology. They should be using foam cement and keralite glass. Typical, Nikolai thinks. Irina is again racing ahead. Only someone who doesn't want a peaceful life could put up with Irina as a wife.
Irina then moves on to pester Kayurov to approve funds for the new bridge. Kayurov deflects her, however, saying there are more important projects to deal with first.
Chernomor, still convinced that he'll be called for space duty, hopes he can find more temporary work. Nikolai again tries to caution Chernomor not to rely on being sent to the moon. But Chernomor points out that Gagarin got the job as kosmonaut exactly the same way...writing in and volunteering.
As the band plays, Nikolai and Irina get on the barge and set sail with the keramsite. Nikolai is to stay and work in Porogi; Irina will return to Dzhegor after a few days. Still, Nikolai has hope and he can wait.
As they approach Porogi, they see the eight houses which Liutoyev's crew have completed. Nikolai gasps with joy and pride. Irina, however, starts berating him, demanding to know how they could put such ugly "chicken coops" right on the banks. These are the gates of the town and demand more beautiful planning. She then berates him for the freckles on his nose, and kisses him.