I was born on the banks of the dried-up Aral Sea. The Aral was only called a sea. Strictly speaking, at the time of my childhood, it was a huge, seemingly limitless lake, the fourth largest in the world. The residents of the coastal town of Aralsk were primarily engaged in the fishing industry. In those years the ethnic composition of the Aral Sea area was about as diverse as Babylon.
Aside from the autochthonous Kazakhs and the Russians who brought with them Soviet rule, there were many representatives of peoples deported by Stalin from their native lands: Ukrainians, Koreans, Chechens, the Ingush, Greeks, Karachay, Kalmyks, Meskhetian Turks and Crimean Tatars. In local schools and hospitals, one would often come find repressed Jewish teachers and doctors from Moscow and Leningrad who had been exiled and forced to resettle. As a result, the standard of secondary education in the average Aralsk school was no inferior to the best schools in the capital.
The local kids would knit together in international “gangs” on a regional basis, and periodically hold battles on the outskirts of the town to establish their areas of influence and power. From an early age, in accordance with the fashion for criminal romance, popular in the post-war period, the boys carried penknives, and knuckle dusters around with them in their pockets, as well as homemade playing cards without which it would have been unthinkable to appear in “polite society”. The older lads had guns. Most were home-made but some were real fire-arms, captured weaponry, which had been given to them by soldiers who had returned from the war.
At that time though, serious crime in the city was a rarity. Young lads were more often drowned at sea in a storm, or in the lake having fallen through the ice playing hockey in winter.
Our “gang” was called the naval gang because all the kids in it lived on streets that ran adjacent to the sea. We blocked all approaches to the shore keeping any strangers out. We were all excellent swimmers. The year round we wore striped sailor’s vests undershirts with the collars gaping wide and quilted jackets. We sang pirate songs and even tried to make pirate’s smoking pipes like those we had seen depicted on the front covers of maritime adventure novels.
We all dreamed of sailing around the world on pirate ships dreaming of lands, where dark-skinned men lay around in white trousers for days on end under the palm trees, lazily sipping rum and dancing the rumba. We younger boys were convinced that these lands began exactly where our sea ended and so, with inexpressible anguish, we escorted ships which left for sea watching them until the smoke from their funnels had completely disappeared beyond the horizon.
Once, whilst rigging work was being undertaken in the port, a friend and I snuck onto a ship that was set to sail for the town of Muynak situated on the lake’s opposite shore. We hid under a tarpaulin where we were discovered only once the ship was already far out to sea. We weren’t thrown overboard or even severely reprimanded. The sailors just laughed and fed us in the galley along with the others.
A greater shock awaited us though. Muynak turned out to be a small provincial town, even smaller than our native Aralsk. It had no palm trees, no dark-skinned men, no rumba or rum…
When we returned to shore, the ship’s captain gave us both a sailor’s cap, saw us onto the quay and did not report us to anyone. After the war people were all very kind.
We fished a lot and took every opportunity to go out in the boats into the open sea. A boy’s childhood spent at sea could only be a happy one.
I loved and hated school at the same time. There were some subjects I loved and found very interesting: mathematics for its internal beauty, physics for its ability to explain the uniform movement of the heavenly bodies, aircraft and ships and history, particularly ancient history, which opened windows onto worlds that have long since disappeared. I hated all the subjects related to languages because of the repetition involved and the grammatical rules, which seemed to me artificial and contrived so that I always wished to simplify them. I detested the strict daily schedule and boring classroom assemblies. I also hated the activities organised by the pioneer and Komsomol organisations for their insincerity and tediousness, preferring the lively games of street boys.
In my thirteenth year, the family moved to the capital city of Alma-Ata, where I joined the Republican Physics and Mathematics School, and so had the opportunity to participate in and, subsequently, win at All-Union Physics and Mathematics Academic Competitions. Next came the Mechanics and Mathematics Faculty of Novosibirsk University which was elitist for the time and there I made friendships that were to last my entire life.
After university, I returned to Alma-Ata, where I started work at the Institute of Mathematics, Kazakh SSR Academy of Sciences. This was the time when the persecutions of academician Sakharov began, when the ruling Communist Party started “tightening the screws” across the entire country and one could go to prison for making a joke about Brezhnev.
Under the leadership of local party authorities, a wave of rallies and meetings were held in all academic institutions of the Soviet Union, at which letters were to be signed condemning and shaming Andrei Sakharov.
A rally of this kind occurred at the Institute of Mathematics where I worked. I have never been a hero and in this lion’s den I found myself unable to speak out against what was happening. Neither could I conceive of the idea of signing such a letter and so, pretending to be stupid with a deadpan face I asked the bureau of the assembly, when academician Sakharov would speak, so that we could hear his point of view, and then discuss it, and if necessary condemn it, in accordance with the common procedure of a scientific seminar.
Silence reigned in the room for about a minute and was then followed by a growing rumble of approval. The Communist Party representative glanced first at me with undisguised pity, as at one mentally impaired, and then turned angrily to the Institute management before rising sharply from her chair and leaving the meeting without a word.
In the morning of the following day, I quickly switched jobs. More than twenty years later, after the Soviet regime had been overthrown, former colleagues congratulated me on the fact that the Institute of mathematics was the only institute of the Academy of Sciences of Kazakhstan to get away without enduring the disgrace of having to sign the anti-Sakharov letter.
I remember another occasion that occurred a little earlier, also at the Academy of Sciences. According to the requirements of the time, any young doctoral candidate had to sit a preliminary exam on Marxist-Leninist philosophy. During this exam, I was given a question on the issue of morality. Having given the examiners a detailed answer to the question in accordance with the Marxist-Leninist philosophy receiving the highest grade possible: “Excellent”, I asked the examiners if I might be allowed to express my own thoughts on morality. I then outlined to them roughly what is written about morality in “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer”.
If I had been a hero, I would have openly declared that the Marxist-Leninist moral doctrine that acclaims the dictatorship of the proletariat over the rest of society is criminal to its core but, as I have already said, I am no hero and so I just said quietly that I simply could not accept the idea that some unknown proletarian should tell me how to live.
At that point, the examiners announced that I had in fact been awarded the grade “Unsatisfactory” which meant that the road to an academic degree in the SSSR would be closed to me. I told them they had no right to award me this new grade because they had only just evaluated my knowledge on the same question as “Excellent”.
I was asked to leave the room and await their decision in the corridor. The examiners deliberated for more than four hours and at around midnight invited me back into the room. It was explained to me that I would be awarded the grade “Satisfactory” and could retake the exam if I wish to improve my grade on the understanding that I would refrain from adding ‘improvisations from self’ after my formal answer to the exam question.
To put this into some context, the grade most commonly awarded to candidates for Marxist-Leninist philosophy was “Excellent” and only occasionally “Good”. As far as they could remember, this was the first time in the history of the Kazakhstan Academy of Sciences that the grade “Satisfactory” had ever been awarded.
I thanked the Commission but turned down their invitation to retake the exam, saying that if the Supreme Certifying Commission chose to deny me a degree in mathematics on account of my grade for Philosophy, then such a degree was not worth the paper it was written on.
Some time later I successfully defended my dissertation and to this day am proud of the “unique” grade I was awarded for philosophy.
As an aside, on the topic of morality, I must mention my grandmother, who at that time, in an atmosphere of total totalitarian morality, managed to communicate to me as a seven to eight year old child the notion that different people think differently, that this is their God-given right, that people have a right to hold to any kind of morality they choose as long as they do not cause other people harm.
My grandmother was an illiterate, quiet, discreet Kazakh woman, who very rarely involved herself in family conversations unless she was asked her opinion directly. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had such a grandmother, who instilled in me as a child the initial ideas of “The Last Faith: a book by an atheist believer”.
Translated from Russian original by Joanna Dobson