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Snapshot of Life: Dzerzhinsk, the Capital of Soviet Chemistry
This paper was a final project for a Modern History class I completed, where we had to create a historical autobiography of a character living in one of the areas of major contention in civilization post 1500. I chose a character from post-cold war Russia, living in the capital of Soviet Chemistry throughout the war. Dzerzhinsk remains as one of the most polluted cities on earth, and life there remains challenging.
Living as a common worker in the Soviet Capital of Chemistry, Dzerzhinsk, throughout the Cold War was not easy. While formerly a powerhouse for chemical weapons and explosives during World War II, Dzerzhinsk was transformed into an industrial complex, manufacturing a variety of chemical based products for the Soviet Empire. Residents worked and lived in a cloud of contaminants that drastically impacted the quality – and lengths – of their lives. Alexei Volkov was born in 1950, shortly after the war and like his father before him, became a chemical worker. He lived for 40 years, finally succumbing to the ravaging effects of Tuberculosis, complicated by a life spent in pollution and infection both at home and at work. His life was an example of what normal, every-day life would have been for the average factory worker. Alexei, like so many of his comrades, felt an immense amount of civic pride in his work despite the great many challenges and hardships that he had to endure.
Early Life and Education
My name is Alexei Volkov. I was born on September 3, 1950 in the Gorki Oblast of Dzerzhinsk, Russia. My parents, Dmitriv and Aleksandra Volkov gave birth to six children, total – but out of all of my siblings only three of my brothers and I survived. My mother often told us the story of our births when we were young, boasting that the birth of my two eldest brothers was done completely without any sort of medical pain relief. By the time I came around in 1950, my mother was able to receive pain medication to facilitate my delivery. Of my two youngest siblings, both girls, one was perpetually ill after birth and died before she reached one year old. The other was conceived after my mother began working in one of the factories, and was stillborn. Our home was small – one room, very close by the factory where my father worked. It had a kitchen area in one corner, and we spread cots or mats on the floor to sleep. It did not have a bathroom, but that didn’t seem like a problem. I remember being told around five that they were upgrading the housing for factory workers and that we would be given a better home soon, but the project was delayed indefinitely.
I remember a huge focus being placed on family and family life. We ate meals together, and we had our own little dacha next to our house where we were able to grow beets, potatoes and carrots to eat. My mother told us that we were lucky to have the food that we had. It was a blessing that we did not have to wait in line for a crusty loaf of bread like they did in other places. My mother even told me once when I was ten or eleven that she met someone in Dzerzhinsk who traveled from Gorky to visit our market. My mother said other places struggled to find food, and that the prosperity of Dzerzhinsk was a testament to the greatness of socialism, and that we should always be grateful.
One of my favorite times in my life was when I was in school. Sure, it had its ups and downs, but I enjoyed learning, and my beginning school and secondary school were highly enjoyable. I studied endlessly as long as the light permitted. I particularly enjoyed my education in science, as I wanted to pursue a career in the factory like my father and pursue chemistry. At age seven, I remember the celebrations as Sputnik and Sputnik II were launched into orbit, and I remember my teachers instructing us that we were winning the space race and defeating the Capitalists of the United States. When I was nine, we listened to a radio in our classroom and discussed the kitchen debates between the American president Nixon and our Nikita Krushchev. I remember cheering with the rest of the students as Comrade Kruschev denounced the American “Captive Nations Resolution” and feeling a sense of pride as he boasted about the Soviet Union’s technological advances that were surely not far behind those of America. It seemed obvious, given our dominance of the space race up through that point that my country would soon have so many great things, and that our society would inevitably advance and supersede that of the American Capitalists. During my school years, I also joined the Octobrists and then the Pioneers. When I turned sixteen, I finally was able to fulfill my father’s dream for me of joining the Komsomol. The Komsomol taught me how to be a good worker and citizen for the Soviet State, and taught me what was expected of me as a young laborer in the factories. I remained a member of the Komsomol until I reached 28, and had worked in the Kaprolaktam plant number 96 for 13 years.
My time at Kaprolaktam was spent working, and striving to meet our quotas. I wanted to be a Stachanovsky worker - someone who consistently exceeded expectations and quotas and who proved their worth to the Soviet State. I was raised to believe that this was the most good that a worker like me could accomplish, and I wanted to do my part to ensure that the Soviet State remained strong and competitive in a world of dangers. We were taught that we were to pursue the plan at any cost – regardless of what that dedication meant. Many of my coworkers were often struck ill. One of my closest friends that worked with me at Kaprolaktam took ill – he said it was because of gas in the plant. Our Comrades viewed him as weak. Ultimately, he left the plant for consistently failing to meet quotas. One day when I went by his room, he wasn’t there. The rumor was that he had sabotaged operations by failing to meet his quotas. I am sad to say I never heard from him again.
When I was in my mid-twenties, both of my parents had died. They were coughing constantly, and the end seemed mostly peaceful. I was glad upon their deaths that their struggle was over and that they were no longer in pain. My father told me stories close to his death about how he used to attend a Russian Orthodox Church, but the church had been destroyed by Stalin when he was still a young man. My father sometimes spoke highly of the Orthodox Church, but never encouraged me to pursue a belief in God, insisting instead that my duty was to the state and to our leaders and that was all the reward in any life that I needed. I believed him. I wanted to be the best Soviet citizen possible, and although I remember having questions at times, it was never a question that seemed worth the time to pursue.
It seemed like a lot of my coworkers were sick throughout my time at Kaprolaktam. There were more people scheduled for each shift than there were actual jobs to do, but this accounted for people who were in the hospital or visiting the profilactoreum. There were reports through the ranks that several people had been poisoned by either gas or by the production of Yperite, but this was whispered amongst workers, not explained by our supervisors or leaders. There was an incident in early 1974 when a large amount of chlorine liquid was discharged, and 11 people were rushed to the hospital. There were rumors that they were poisoned, but those rumors were never confirmed to the rest of us. The chemists assured us that the masks and other equipment were sufficient to protect us from the chemical weapons that we were creating, but there wasn’t always enough equipment to go around, and several people on each shift often had to go without. Working at such a continual risk was not without its benefits, however. As my mother previously told me, working in the capital of Soviet chemistry allowed us with sufficient food for nourishment as well as our own ability to grow vegetables in our dachas behind our homes. In addition, every year I worked, I received an all-expense paid trip to the Black Sea to rest. We also received special trips to the profilaktoreum or to the sanitarium. The smell of Dzerzhinsk only bothered me for a few hours each time I returned. Working in a dangerous position where lots of accidents occurred allowed for even more regular trips to the profilaktoreum or sanitarium, and it was considered a position of honor – one I was happy to accomplish. I even worked alongside several pregnant women several times throughout my tenure at Kaprolaktam. All of us were incredibly proud to have such a good position that allowed us such luxuries.
Although Dzerzhinsk was considered a closed and secretive city even after the end of the World war, we did have occasional visitors attempting to buy food, visit relatives or with special clearance. Visitors to Dzerzhinsk often commented about the continual smoke, but for people grown and raised there like me, the haze and smoke seemed normal. At a very early age, I stopped smelling it, and it simply became part of my reality. It was normal to identify which way the wind was blowing based on the sudden rush of fumes that entered my nostrils. It was normal to go to bed each night with a damp towel or gauze over my mouth and nose to allow for restful sleep.
Facing the End
By the age of 35 in 1985, I was deemed sick by my immediate supervisor, and was put on pension. That year, Mikhail Gorbachev came into power, and there were rumors surrounding Dzerzhinsk that changes were coming to the Soviet Union through the policies of glasnost and perestroika. I kept regular hospital visits, and since I was declared sick by the state, I was allowed to keep regular trips to the profilaktoreum. Later on that year, I was diagnosed with tuberculosis. I had a chronic, consistent cough with flecks of blood, weight loss and infections that occurred seemingly one right after the other. The doctors gave me antibiotics and told me to see them regularly. By 1989, I was confined to a hospital bed. They told me there that I would probably never leave. I missed work. I missed feeling like I belonged to something or that I was a part of something, but I was reassured that I had served the State well, and that I had done my part successfully and that I would be taken care of. By the time we received the news that the Berlin wall came down in November, I knew that the world had irrevocably changed, and the Russia that I knew and loved was finished. Maybe it was better this way. Maybe we could learn to be a part of a global society and finally own our interconnectedness. Maybe socialism wasn’t the answer for everything. Maybe the world just changed faster than I could keep up with it. By January of 1990, I knew that I was dying and there was really nothing more that could be done. Thankfully, they kept me peaceful and well taken care of. Aside from the cough, there wasn’t much pain. Finally, it all faded to darkness.
Due to the rigid secrecy surrounding Dzerzhinsk and the Soviet union overall, Alexei Volkov wouldn’t be directly affected by cross-cultural contact. Dzerzhinsk, due to the production of chemical weapons, was a closed city – even to other Russians. It is obvious, however, that citizens residing in Dzerzhinsk were greatly impacted by the Cold War and the constant technological, cultural and economic race between Capitalistic countries like the United States verses Communist Countries in Eastern Europe and Asia. Alexei did not have an easy life, but his life was fulfilling in its own right. He contributed to a society that dictated that an individual’s responsibility was not only to themselves or their family, but to the good of socialist society and the greater good. He was encouraged to be the best worker possible in hazardous and deadly conditions. Worker safety was not a high priority for the USSR, and factory employees were expected to work in dangerous conditions constantly. At home, the quality of life was not much better; Dzerzhinsk citizens lived, day after day, in the danger zone of the factories’ waste, fumes and smoke. Inhabitants of Dzerzhinsk are suffering from environmental pollution to this day. Instead of being the Chemistry Capital of Russia, Dzerzhinsk now has the title of being one of the most polluted cities in the world, which is contributing to lingering health concerns for residents. Although the culture of fear in the USSR has subsided, there is still a cone of silence surrounding the city which infects its residents. Alexei lived in a time and place that was surrounded by fear but also by hope. His presence there may not have had much of an impact on the world stage, but by being a consistent worker who pushed his limits, going above and beyond the call of duty, his life would have been measured as a Soviet success story.
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© 2015 Julie McFarland