Book 2. Ringing cedars of Russia (1997)
A destructive force
As head of my very own co-operative I got to know first-hand what a destructive force — one capable of crushing any material state of well-being — impatience toward each other and the break-down of mutual understanding can be. Later I learnt that this is the very reason behind the failure of many collectives. And it can all start over a trifle.
Indeed, that’s how it happened with my first co-operative. Not only was it torn apart itself, but several families were destroyed in the process. Even today I still don’t know how to counteract this force which erupts spontaneously and is not subject to common sense!
It all began when I decided to procure for our firm a country house with its own estate. I entrusted the details to our acting inventory and supply manager Alexey Mishunin. He drew up all the necessary sale-purchase documents, while I went to take a look at the property It included a large house, a fifth of a hectare of land, a bath-house, garage and greenhouse. We even got a cow and a flock of sheep in the bargain — not exactly a priority, but Mishunin said the owners had to go away and wanted to sell everything all at once. There was feed for the cow, and he had already arranged for a woman from the village to come in and do the milking.
A couple of days later I called a meeting of the members of the co-operative to tell them about our acquisition. I ex-plained it was intended for entertaining guests, as well as being a place where the members of the co-operative could relax and celebrate special occasions. We would all have to work
together to fix up the place, do some renovations and modernise the kitchen.
The male half of the co-operative greeted the idea with great enthusiasm. But the women began whispering among themselves. It wasn’t clear who the ringleader was, but my wife took on the role of spokesperson, saying the men had overstepped all recognised bounds of decency in respect to the women.
“We work with you as equals here,” she declared. ‘After that we go home every day and clean house, cook meals and take care of the children. Does that seem trifling to you? And now you want us, in addition to all that, to work our asses off at this country house of yours, do renovations, and then be cooks and waitresses for your receptions and drinking parties?!”
That was when all hell broke loose. The women poured out on the men all their personal and family grievances and other pet peeves. I realised this when one of them cried out: ‘All you do is fool around with dominoes and stare at the tube the whole evening long!”
I knew that none of the men at the co-operative played dominoes. It was her husband, a firefighter, who played. He didn’t even work for us. But wives of the co-operative work-ers were especially ‘pissed off’. One of them stupidly blurted out to her husband in front of everyone:
“You always smell of sweat and cheap cigarettes,” — he was especially fond of the Prima brand — “and now you’re going to be smelling of cow-dung too?!”
A silence hung over the room. The husband took a deep gulp of air, blushed and retorted:
“I shall especially smell of cow-dung. Especially so that you won’t come near me, you slut!”
At this she burst into tears. The women gathered around to console her. And it made them even more ‘pissed off’. They started hurling all sorts of insults. One of our workers was named Zhenya Kolpakov — he’d invented all sorts of devices to increase productivity, and could fix anything that needed fixing. But now they told him:
“We have inventors here, but it takes a whole year to clean up after them!”
Then the discussion turned to politics:
“Gorbachev goes on television, but it’s Raisa Maximovna who makes all the decisions.”
I declared a recess. I thought everyone somehow might come to their senses. After the break they all took their seats again, the outward restraint barely masking the inner tension. Once again my wife spoke in the name of the women. With a contrived tranquillity she threw out a venomous ultimatum: “Of course, if you really want a country residence, go ahead, but not one of us women will step foot in it. In other words, it’ll be yours alone. And since we share our funds in common and you have no right to spend them without our consent, as compensation we demand you give us one of the company cars with a driver, specially for our household use. Well take turns using it.”
“Great,” came a chorus of male voices, “go ahead and choke yourselves! Well give you anything you like as long as you promise not to show up there!”
“They’re bound to find some farm hussies out there,” one of the women observed.
“Let them look,” retorted another. “Those hussies’ll soon make themselves scarce. Who needs them?” 'Raisa Maximovna. Gorbacheva 0nee Titorenko; 1932-1999) — wife of the last Soviet leader (General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of the USSR) Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev (1931-). In contrast to the wives of Gorbachev’s predecessors, Raisa Maximovna played an active role in the political life of the Soviet Union and was rumoured to ‘run the country’ from behind her husband’s back.
None of the men whose wives worked at the co-operative went home that night. It was Friday, and we headed out to our ‘hacienda’.
We took a good look around, and started making plans for settling in. The next day we heated up the bath-house. At Mishunin’s request the village woman came to milk the cow. We watched how she did it. It was a pleasant time. The cow was quiet, not restless. She was ours now. The woman advised that she wouldn’t always be able to come to do the milking. We’d need to look up somebody else.
After an early-evening cleansing at the bath-house, we cooked ourselves supper. It turned out we had quite a feast! Mishunin fried some fish. We put out bottles of beer and vodka, and sat down at the table. And all at once: “Moo-o-oo!”
It was the cow. We got up and headed for the barn. It was milking time, and there was no milkmaid around. We stood there — eight men — in front of the cow and had no idea what to do.
In any case, who can explain what sometimes happens to people at the sight of an animal? You live your life day after day without the slightest thought for non-human creatures. And then all at once you find yourself in a situation where one of them’s in your home: a cat, or a dog, or some other animal, and you find you have the same kind of feelings come over you that you’d have in the presence of a child. You’re nervous, you worry Why is that? Maybe it’s really true that the first man, Adam, when God gave him the job of naming all the creatures, looked upon each one with love, and this love is something we’ve all inherited — it hides for the most part deep down inside us and makes an appearance only from time to time. Nobody can say for certain whether that’s true or not. Only each one of us, I’m telling you, had some sort of feeling for that cow, and I’m positive it felt something for us, too.
And this is what came out of it. Seryozha Khodokov said:
“The milk’s likely bursting her udder. We’ve got to do something.”
We started in pestering Mishunin. Why on earth, we said, did you buy a cow? And yet at the same time we felt bad about selling it — it had only been one day but we had somehow taken to it like one of our own.
The cow looked at us with her sorrowful eyes, silently. Then she stretched her head out toward me and let out a loud “Moo-o-oo!” She was mooing so pleadingly, and I told Mishunin:
“Better get to the milking right away, since you were the one who bought her!”
Mishunin quickly fetched the milk-pail, tied the kerchief around his head (the kerchief the milkmaid had left behind), and climbed into the cow’s stall. He asked us not to leave, as God knows what this cow might do. She let him approach and start milking her. We brought the cow some water to drink, put fresh hay into her stall and gave her some bread.
Mishunin went on milking. At first he wasn’t very successful — only very thin streams of milk came out and even they sometimes missed the pail, but then it got a little better. After fifteen minutes the milk was still coming. Mishunin said, whispering for some reason:
“Sweat. My sweat’s getting in the way.”
“We gathered up handkerchiefs from whoever had them, and Seryozha Khodokov climbed into the stall to wipe the perspiration from Alexey’s forehead. He squatted down be-side him to see how the milking was going, from time to time wiping the sweat from Alexey’s face. And suddenly we could hear Seryozha’s agitated whisper:
“What are you doing? You’re hurting her! You’ve got a good stream coming from your right hand, but only a third of that from your left. You can permanently damage her udder that way”
“It’s my fingers,” Mishunin whispered. “It’s ’cause my fin-gers have gone numb on my left hand. Maybe you’d better help.”
Seryozha Khodokov approached the cow from the other side and they began milking together simultaneously
After half an hour, maybe more, they had milked a whole pailful.
That night at supper we drank fresh milk, and I swear it was the best-tasting milk we’d ever had in our lives.
Early the next morning we were awakened by the milkmaid, who told us with some astonishment that she had tried milking the cow that morning, but for some unknown reason the cow wouldn’t let her anywhere close to her.
Once again we trotted off to the barn. We did everything just the way we had the night before, and the cow started milking.
“Well ain’t that the limit!” exclaimed the woman. “Since the cow seems to like you so much,yoz/ can milk her from now on. Happens that way, y’lcnow A cow can let some people come close, but others she jolly well won’t.”
Our cow, it turned out, was quite picky. Not only did she not let any of the hired milkmaids near her, whenever she was milked she demanded that one of us stand by her muzzle and feed her, and talk to her, while the milking had to be a joint effort on the part of two men together. That meant three of us had to go for each milking session. So that’s how we drew up the schedule — three at a time. At least until we sold the cow, we thought. But it wasn’t long before the rumours about our picky cow began flying around. Buyers would come and try milking her themselves, and nothing happened. And they’d refuse to take her, even for a pittance. Granted, I did make one condition — that she wasn’t to be slaughtered for meat.
We called in a veterinarian, and he told us:
“That does happen, fellows. An animal gets used to someone, and may reject others for a long time. But tell me, what on earth possessed you to domesticate her that way?”
He didn’t have any real advice to offer us, apart from tell-ing us that our cow was calving — meaning she was pregnant. When the time came we would have to prepare for the birthing. The vet indicated the approximate date. We would know when the time was near when she stopped giving milk.
Since the men were obliged to keep watch three at once, we ended up spending a lot of time at our ‘hacienda’ — even staying overnight there.
Our wives had a hard time accepting that we were really having problems with the cow, since they had sworn never to set foot in our ‘hacienda’ themselves, and looked upon this whole story of the cow as a convenient excuse. The women and wives working at the co-operative completely lost all sense of self-control. They started telling obscene jokes. The one who complained about her husband’s bad smell said: “Only a sexual pervert could attract such a perverted cow!” To which he retorted:
“I’d rather spend my whole life milking a silent cow than listening to your dumb remarks.”
Soon afterward he moved out completely to live in the ‘hacienda’ and later got a divorce from his wife. He married a young country girl with a child and became quite a decent farmer.
Then the day came when the cow stopped giving milk. On the vet’s advice we got everything ready for the birthing. But the cow gave birth all by herself and without incident. She bore a little bull-calf. A handsome son-of-a-gun. When we called the vet, he took one look at the pair and said:
“Well, that’s great! Nothing more to be done here. She’s taken care of it all by herself. Just keep the place clean. Make sure she’s well fed.”
Some time later we managed to find a good home for both the cow and her bull-calf. One day we went over to see what a handsome creature he’d turned into, our little bull. And everything was arranged nicely for his mother. Even now I still think of her. I wonder whether she remembers us. But while we got things settled for the cow, we didn’t manage to restore a sense of harmony and mutual understanding in the co-operative.
So I ended up dividing the co-operative in two, reorganis-ing part of it under a different name. I began using the char-tered ship to make long trading voyages to the North along the River Ob. In between such voyages I conducted business cruises for Russian and foreign entrepreneurs.
I took the lesson home that one indispensable condition of success, among others, is a sense of mutual understanding and respect in a collective. You must have faith not only in your own abilities but in everyone’s. Any kind of ability you have is multiplied by your faith in the people around you.