Among the Khirghiz

November 14, 1931

The recent arrival known to her neighbors as Margarita Robertovna is writing to her mother, who knows her as Margery. She is squeezing as many words as she can onto a sheet of coarse grey paper folded in two to make four pages. She prints her address.

Урал Каз Край Рыбак Союз, Цалкарский Промысел, Анкотуиского Район. 

Copied correctly, this will direct her mother’s reply forty unpaved miles across the steppe from Uralsk in the northwest corner of what has latterly become the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.  Her own letter is bound for 6a, The Leas, Folkestone, Kent, a clifftop row house overlooking the English Channel. 

“Dearest Mith,” Margery writes. “Here we are in our new home. Robert and I are delighted with it.“ 

Robert is her five-year-old.  Margery calls him Robert to family and friends from her former life. Here the boy goes by other names. She thought of naming him Karl Marx but settled on Kompro, short for Communist Proletariat. Komok is the diminutive she uses. His playmates call him Kolya.  Robert he inherits from Margery’s late father. He is a good-looking boy. His mother worries he is small for his age. His birth was harrowing. 

They have their new home to themselves. It consists, Margery writes, of “a large room with a window and a door at one end and 2 windows at the other. The door leads onto a good porch with a nice food cupboard and place for our hen and cock, and the porch and window look onto the courtyard of the Promisel or Fish Farm; the other two windows look out onto the steppe with a Khirghiz village. They live very scattered so that only 3 houses are visible.”

The Khirghiz (Margery’s spelling) are nomads. Or were. They have pastured their herds across the vastness of Central Asia for millennia. Now they are being “sedentarized” under Stalin’s First Five Year Plan. Moscow has decided they must pack up their yurts, settle down and surrender their livestock. This is contributing to a famine across the Kazakh Autonomous SSR that will leave 1.5 million dead over the next two years.

“Our side walls are inside walls,” Margery continues. “On one side is the head man’s rooms and on the other the “salters” — these are Russian — and the baker, an old man without any family, also Russian. All the rest of the personnel and workers are Khirghiz. Needless to say, I am trying to learn to talk to those as they know no Russian! The head man has a nice wife with 4 children, the eldest boy older than Robert. The latter is as happy as possible, playing with the little Khirghiz as well and learning Khirghiz fast.”

Margery turns to the subject of food. In Uralsk, to which they moved in 1926, she and Peter, the boy’s father, wrestled calories from the soil, a few chickens and, until it was socialized, a cow.  The little family has been fortunate that a bit of Margery’s money still reaches them from England via Quakers in Moscow. The steppe is merciless even if you know what you’re doing. But things are looking up.

“We have as much fish as we can eat — fresh, salted and kippered. I saw the kippers being smoked today. They reminded me of the pictures of Dante’s Inferno.” 

The fish come from Lake Chalkar, a brackish, egg-shaped puddle left, some say, when an ancient ocean retreated south into the Caspian. The name comes from a Kazakh word for big.  The lake is seven miles long and five miles across. At this point Margery thinks it is 50 miles by 50, an easy mistake. The steppe here is as flat and empty as the ocean. From its treeless shore, Chalkar could be as broad as the Pacific if you knew no better. Big or small,  it “teems with fish” — carp, bream, pike and, most prized, chekhon or saber fish, an oily cousin of mackerel. 

“The fishermen — various kolkhoz groups or parties — come and fish, sell their fish to us and are entitled to buy all sorts of goods ad lib for their fish money. So we have a nice shop.” A kolkhoz is a collective farm.  “Us” is the Ural Kazakh Fisherman’s Union which does the salting and kippering and runs the store. There is no refrigeration. That would call for electricity. Peter is keeping the books. He would rather be studying accountancy in Moscow but they didn’t accept his application.  Still, for the first time in their six years together he and Margery will be well supplied as winter sets in. Or so she wants to reassure her mother.

“Peter bought a good warm overcoat with his first 1/2 months wages and 400 lbs of potatoes, and tea and sugar, tobacco, paraffin, soap, onions — 26 lbs — and tomorrow will receive wages to buy boots, more potatoes and materials so I shall be busy on my machine.”

She draws a diagram of the room, labelling its contents. Her pedal-powered sewing machine sits between the windows at the back. Margery makes and mends with whatever she can find or repurpose. To the right is the bed she shares with Peter. Onions and flour are stored at the head. At the foot is the stove. Built of mud and stone it takes up nearly half the wall they share with the salters. On top sit a Primus, a samovar and a copper. Between the stove and the door are buckets and a bowl for hands after visits to the communal pit latrine.

Room diagram

“Fuel is free, as much as you want — sheaves of rushes from the banks of the lake. I burn 2 sheaves in the early morning, putting my saucepans to one side on bricks and tripods and stuff the rushes in beside them. The copper boils while you burn them and you have hot water for washing. I then take out the breakfast saucepan and put it in the hay box and close up the stove after putting in pies or something to bake.”

Against the left-hand wall is a kitchen table.  On it is a cloth stitched together from colored handkerchiefs. These were gifts from Mith. Anything more elaborate than a hanky or a pillow case is subject to import duties Margery and Peter cannot afford, or may disappear en route. Then come the table at which Margery is writing and a bookshelf. Its contents include well-thumbed medical and veterinary handbooks, Bukharin’s ABC of Communism, and copies of Wife and Home magazine which Mith has arranged to be mailed from London every month. After the bookshelf, there’s Robert’s bed, across from his parents’. Above it hang pictures of Lenin and Stalin alongside Peter’s guitar and mandolin.


Wife and Home November 1930

Also on the walls — whitewashed mud — are a clock, two more Lenins and a medley of mezzotints: a Canaletto of Venice, Hobbema’s Apollo, Courboulds’ The Fishermen’s Departure and the Fisherman’s Return, and scenes of Jane Austen-era country life by William Wade: The Compassionate Children, The Citizen’s Retreat and The Farmer’s Door.  Here Wade’s farmer would have been classified as a kulak or rich peasant and, had he been allowed to live,  packed off to rot in a labor camp; the horses whose noses the compassionate children are stroking would have been taken by the kolkhoz. 

Over the sewing machine is a mirror.  In it, Margery sees a woman of aristocratic bearing and vestigial beauty. At 44, she has weathered surprisingly well given the tribulations to which she has subjected herself. Had she lived the life to which she was born, she would likely still have the teeth she has lost her as a complication of tuberculosis and other assaults on her immune system. 

“So you see,” she assures her mother, “it is quite a dear little room.”

It is time to finish. The nearest mail box is seven miles off. Peter is going on his bicycle. He  likes an excuse to be out of the house. “Must send this by him. Will write again later. Love from Marg. And kisses.”

January 11, 1932

“Dearest little Mith,” Margery writes, “No letter for some time from you. The posts here are awful. I hope you hear from me now and then. I am very busy with my sick people and my health work painting posters of Khirghiz mothers and children and getting someone to write the words “Don’t swaddle me, I want to grow”, “Bath me and wash my shirt”, “Fresh air gives health!””

She has been using the rosy-cheeked, golden-haired English babies on the covers of Wife and Home as models for the children on the posters. “Give them oval eyes and straight black hair and they turn into little Khirghiz quite successfully. They are so like Chinese, the women and children in pants tied at the ankle, then a high waist print dress, then a long sleeveless coast sewn with money and gold braid, and money hanging from their plait of hair behind.”

Margery’s only other news is that “a coupon for 175 rubles” has lately arrived from Moscow “sent by Mrs George on her departure for America.” Paul George, an American Quaker, is a tractor specialist with the Ford Motor Company which is building a plant for Stalin at Nizhny Novgorod. Margery is the beneficiary of a small trust fund from which her brother Arthur has been sending her a regular “allowance” via Quaker House in Moscow where Paul’s wife Floy has been working and which the Soviet authorities have just shut down. 

January 31, 1932

“Dearest Mith,” Margery writes, “No letters from you for some time. Try postcards again last news from you was Wife and Home for November. Do try again.

“I am so interested in my work. The Khirghiz schoolmaster is my great friend and a great enthusiast. He asks for health placards for his school and I told him about vitamin D and how we must teach the Khirghiz to eat vegetables and get them interested and obtain seeds for the spring for his schoolchildren to plant. I am busy making pictures of Lenin, Stalin and health placards for the Khirghiz who have cleaned and whitewashed their houses. The children will so love the pictures that they will give their mother no peace until she has whitewashed. The Khirghiz do not understand the value of light. They formerly lived in felt tents and ate nothing but quantities of meat, keeping herds and pitching their felt tents wherever good pasture and water was handy.

“You ask about the religion of the Khirghiz. They used to be Mohammedans but you see nothing of this among the young and middle-aged but I caught one old granny at her prayers bowing down her head to the sun and one husband reading the Koran when his wife’s baby was born. 

“Talking of babies, they stamp round the woman with tire irons to make the baby come quicker and she is delivered on her knees with her arms over a rope tied across the room. The new baby is clad in a shirt with raw edges, not hemmed, to make it grow better.  There is a belief that if a Khirghiz baby is ill it may be saved by wearing a shirt which belonged to a Russian or some other nation. 

“But nothing beats the new child’s bed.  This is a marvel, a low wooden bed with a hole in it and a jar under the hole, the mattress also with a hole in it, the sheet also. The child is lain on the bed accurately over the hole and covered over with a blanket and strapped to the bed with its arms by its side and its legs straight, so tightly strapped that your fingers cannot pass under it. Through the hole and between its legs is put a hollowed-out bone. This is arranged to accurately catch the baby’s urine and conduct it through the hole into a receptacle which hangs on the bed.

“Not satisfied with strapping the child down so tightly that when taken out its body is marked all over by the pressing of the straps, they cover the child with a thick blanket only raised from the face and body by a crossbar like a tent, one foot in height, so the child is in complete darkness and almost complete airlessness. It does not kick or move and soon tires of crying as its lungs have no air and lies quietly in its living coffin more dead than alive.  Little wonder that it has chronic constipation. 

“I am attending a baby 2 miles distant and visit it with a ball syringe and am trying to win over the stubborn mother and the more stubborn granny. The child’s bed is several generations old as, also, is the scooped out bone. The father and the granny all went through the ordeal. I don’t yet know how long it goes on and when the child begins to walk. They themselves quite enjoyed my laughter at the bed and the father came in to know what was the matter and when told quite joined the merriment. But I don’t see much hope of them changing their customs.

“The nightwatchman has come in and says children walk when one and a half years old.

“The days are so short, by the time you have had breakfast (with lamplight) and tidied and washed up and done lamps in the intervals of seeing patients, Peter comes in for dinner with Robert and we hustle the guests out as tenderly as possible and lock the porch door for 1/4 hour while we have dinner which is ready cooked in the stove still hot from the morning. In the evening, the floor to wash and ice to bring in and fuel and after dark Robert helps light the stove again to warm up our room and reheat our soup and second dish.

 “Peter is working in the evenings trying to get his yearly accounts ready. This is not allowed. He is supposed to work 7 1/2 hours only but whilst in the office everyone comes to him to help them do their accounts.  The fishermen bring in loads of 20 or 40 fish which have to be weighed and sorted and priced, and carts arrive from Uralsk with stores for the cooperative and take from here loads of fish packed in basket crates or fibre sacks or boxes each with different weights and they are paid by the pood

“What with the two languages there are many misunderstandings and all come to Peter to smooth them out. Result: work at night while there is peace and quiet. They promised him a helper. We are expecting his arrival any time from Uralsk, then Peter will have some spare time.  He has bought a gun and is so delighted with it. In the spring there are masses of wild duck, wild geese and wild swans on the lake and you can eat them or give them in and receive materials etc in exchange.  

“My machine is working beautifully just now. One Khirghiz woman is very clever with it and sews for the whole district! We allow her this privilege, and her only and she sews for everyone, otherwise various people would soon spoil it thinking they knew how.  

“We are having a very mild winter and are enjoying it. Robert plays out of doors the whole day long until dark only appearing for half an hour at dinnertime. In the evening he does a hasty lesson in Khirghiz and helps light the stove. He has gained 1 1/2 pounds in weight. We also have a stock of meat and butter, bread quite sufficient even with visitors.

“In three days time Robert’s birthday. I have about 50 wrapped sweets, 15 bought gingerbreads, two tumblers of sugar, last year’s eggs – a little doubtful – and butter and flour ad lib to make buns and feed all the little Khirghiz playmates. I have got cardboard to make a top hat and Robert will dress up as a bourgeois and be blindfolded and make sport for his guests. They will all have red flags stuck on rushes to beat him with!! 

“Next letter will tell you how it goes off. I am only afraid of spoiling the buns. Love from Marg.”