Andrei Hvostov spent his childhood in a secretive closed town Sillamäe in northeastern Estonia next to a Soviet nuclear industry facility. His stories deal with Estonians and Russians, with the Cold War, heroes from TV series, and with “real Estonia“, which existed beyond the environs of Sillamäe. He also writes about Second World War battles, Nazi concentration camps in Estonia and other matters related to the war.
These stories reveal new facets of Soviet life to Western readers while at the same time giving broader recognition to many of the joys and troubles of the generation born in the 1960s, no matter where.
I know one Estonian woman who as a young girl was told about this magic charm from Hiroshima. She started making origami birds, following the Japanese girl’s example. She did it as a precautionary measure. Her little heart would fill with fear as she watched the sky – she was looking out for the nuclear cloud, which was supposed to resemble a horrible, giant boletus mushroom. The approaching danger had to be spotted in time for her to act, attaching the gauze mask to her face and hugging close all the origami birds which she had managed to make by that moment.
Another girl suffered from an unhealthy obsession with nuclear bomb shelters. She lived in a small town in central Estonia, and knew where the town’s shelter was located. The girl always had a bundle of things ready to grab and take with her in case of danger. Whenever she arrived in a new town, whether visiting relatives or for some other reason, the first thing she wanted to know was where the local shelter was situated. She didn’t feel properly safe until she found out.
A third girl fashioned herself a suit out of soap. She had heard that it would protect against radiation. The soap suit was easy to make – you just had to take some normal clothes, like a tracksuit, make them wet, and soap them up; you then waited for them to dry a bit, and soaped them again. The procedure had to be repeated until the layers of soap formed a crust.
When I was in the second year at school, the teacher led a long line of us after lessons to Sillamäe’s school No. 1, to look at the nuclear shelter. In order to educate us as part of some civil defence programme which the teacher had been assigned. I can’t remember if in the course of this we were given a stern command to scurry into the shelter, ‘just in case’. But at our fairly shoddy school – shoddy in terms of its preparedness for surviving nuclear war – there was no such construction.
I was full of excitement just thinking about the bunker, deep underground, with incredibly thick-
walled rooms where mysterious machinery and intricate equipment hummed away and protective rubber costumes and gas masks hung from the walls. There would be switches, buttons, control panels. And a periscope which could be used to observe what was happening at ground level, so that when danger had passed you could put on your protective gear and begin a journey which would be full of adventure. Naturally you would have to pass through a long underground passage, and out through a well camouflaged door, to find yourself somewhere completely different from where you expected. I was downright jealous of those children for having something so cool at their school.
I was left outside alone to face the raging nuclear war. They were already somewhere in that mysterious underground world, they had switched on the air purifying filters, tried out the radio link which the satellites spinning in orbit, and the door, made from unimaginably tough steel and weighing many tons, made a whooshing sound as they opened and closed it with just the push of a button. But I was left standing by the school door like an idiot, with no idea of what to do next. Should I wait for the teacher and classmates who had betrayed me to return, and take the risk that the same boys who had meanly held me behind the door would come back? So that this time they could give me a bloody lip and chuck my school bag into the muddy puddle in front of the school building? But if I just walked off I was in danger of being accused of deliberately avoiding civil defence training, with some troublemaking motives. Absent without leave. Skiving, as they used to say back then. That’s just the sort of rebuke I could expect from that teacher.
There were nine rocket divisions on the plane’s route, or to be more precise air defence divisions, just like the one where I was slogging out my military service. I wasn’t in the Far East, I was in southern Russia. But those divisions in the Far East had the same structure and armaments as the one I was serving in.
They were given the command to shoot down the spy plane.
Not a single one of them was able to deliver the command.
In one of them the men were drunk, in the other the missile loading equipment was faulty, in the third one the signal didn’t get from the control bunker to the starting platform, in the fourth one…well whatever, maybe a bear rubbed its backside against the barracks wall, and the men pried open the weapons room door in order to scare it away.
Not one single damned rocket division managed to do what it had been put on this earth to do.
The alarm. I fling the blanket to the edge of the bed with a practised movement. I leap into my trousers, put on my leg wrappings, boots, jacket, take my belt in my hand, and have time to button up as I storm out of the barracks. And then my brain manages to process that it is light outside. What the hell…? It had always been dark outside during the emergency drills, and now it is suddenly light. Early morning. The birds are warbling high in the blue sky. The steppe is in full bloom. And I am running to position, marvelling at why it is so light.
With every step which brings me closer to the rocket, foreboding grows inside me. This turns into certitude. And then fear.
This time it’s not a game, this time it’s not training. They mean it this time. ‘They’? Who are ‘they’? I don’t know. The Americans. Or the Russians. Someone. Damn them a thousand times whoever they are. Dear God. Help me God. I don’t want to see my rocket firing. Because when it fires that means that war has started.