Archive for the ‘The Fifth Bundle’ Category


May 27, 2009

(First printed in A Flight of Average Persons, New Star, 1979 and reprinted in Yarmarok, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1987)

I’d like to tell you a story I know that no one wants to hear.  I have told enough such stories to disgusted and bored audiences to know that nobody is interested in hearing them.  There are millions of such stories, of which I know only a few hundred, and of which I wish to tell you one right now.

The story concerns an old man who was born in Polish-occupied western Ukraine and suffered the oppression of serfdom under Polish lords.  While Ukrainian peasants rebelled against serfdom every generation, they were never successful.  So like a lot of other people, this man left the country between the wars and came to live in Canada.  As he was a communist, he rejoiced when he heard the news that his homeland was freed from Polish imperialism and was to be converted to socialist prosperity and made into a classless society.

Like a great many old men, this one wished to visit his homeland once before he died.  So he went back, all these decades of socialism later, still remembering as old men often do, every detail of life as a youth under the Polish oppressors.

Many old men and some old women are now going back for such visits.  The women talk about it a little when they come back, but only because it doesn’t matter very much what women say.  Very few women were communists anyway, politics being men’s work.

The men do not talk because if they did, they would be shamed before their peers.  If you are an old communist, it is better that you should die than that you should slander the Soviet Union.  I am not going to explain that because I can’t.  It is simply a fact.  So they all go and they come back with colour slides of approved showplaces, and pictures of the relatives dressed in their Sunday best, and pictures of the monuments to the heroes who died defending the great fatherland during the great fatherland war and they repeat the official statistics.  If you get them drunk and insist they tell you the truth, some will cry, others will whine about customs officials, but no one will slander the Soviet Union.  They’ll tell you where they went and what the food on the plane was like and what museums they went to and insist that you look at those pictures of the relatives in their Sunday best and they will quote official statistics at you.

If someone has a relative who is a worker or a bureaucrat, no matter how minor, then they can tell a little about how they live really, without slandering the Soviet Union.  But forty-two percent of the population is still engaged in agriculture, and almost all the immigrants from western Ukraine to Canada were peasants and it follows therefore, that their relatives still in western Ukraine are peasants rather than workers or bureaucrats.  So there are only two choices: they either keep quiet about how those relatives live or they slander the Soviet Union.  Most people choose to keep quiet.

The old man, whose name was, I think, Petro (although it may have been Ivan), understood the rules followed so carefully by thousands of others.  He went to the Soviet Union to visit but when he came back, he transgressed and asked a question.  He was not very descriptive and he certainly did not intend to be malicious.  He was, quite simply, in a state of shock and needed help in understanding.

The question he asked concerned haying.  Haying is itself a fairly simple matter but the social situation under which it is done is very often not.  In order to understand the old man’s babbling, it is necessary to understand a little about collective farms.

How it works is, to use milk as an example, none of the milk produced on the collective farm is available to the peasants.  I don’t know where it goes.  “Out there,” they tell me, pointing up or around.  “They” drink the collective farm milk.  It is all collected in proper containers, properly sterilized, properly pasteurized and it is all a miracle of technology, they tell me.  But the peasants don’t get any.  “Those in higher classes,” they will finally say, “pahnni”.  But they hasten to explain that there are, of course, no classes in the Soviet Union.

In spite of this lack of classes, if the milkmaid who milks the collective farm cows wants some milk, she must own her own cow kept in her own private plot, beside her own private house.  As the collective farm belongs to the people, you would think she could help herself to some milk while milking.  If, however, she gets caught, she would go to jail for stealing.

In addition to all the above, it should be noted that the cow has a quota for the butterfat she must produce.  There isn’t much you can do to a cow who doesn’t produce the required amount of butterfat one day – due perhaps to some minor illness, poor quality grass, or maybe even the weather.  It is unlikely the cow even knows she has a quota.  The person who gets the blame if the cow does not produce the requisite amount of butterfat is the milkmaid.  So as well as guards for making sure the collective farm workers don’t eat what they produce, there is an inspector who takes a sample with a syringe out of the milkmaid’s paid and tests it for butterfat quantity.  If the butterfat content is too low the milkmaid gets criticized, loses any bonus or award she might otherwise have earned, and ultimately, if the cow doesn’t shape up, gets transferred to a worse job.  (I asked if the inspector was one of the “they” who actually got to drink some of the milk but did not receive a satisfactory answer.)

That is why the milkmaid must own her own cow.  If you have a cow, you must also feed her.  As no one owns any land apart from their garden plot, the only place to get hay is from the collective farm.  In order to get hay for her/his cow the peasant contracts out a piece of land with hay on it from the collective farm.  The peasant then cuts all the hay on this piece of land and for every four bundles she/he turns in to the collective farm, she/he gets to keep one for her cow.  That is, every fifth bundle is theirs.

So the old man, Petro (or Ivan or Stepan), went back to visit his homeland after all the years of socialism.  The trouble with him was that although he was a communist, he was also a peasant and understood nothing of Leninist dogma and had no opinion at all on Marxism and the National Question.  He saw that under Polish oppression he had worked for the landowners for every third bundle whereas now people were working for every fifth bundle.  He was aware there were now schools for the children and there was some medical care, for which people ought to have been grateful.  I’m sure he had the tonnage of steel production explained to him, and that he saw at least some of the monuments to the great fatherland war but he either didn’t remember or didn’t care about that.  He saw and remembered that peasants worked for every fifth bundle.

So he came home, a bewildered old man, and he made the rounds of all his old friends and asked each one of them how it came to be that under Polish serfdom, peasants had worked for the landowner for every third bundle and now they only got every fifth bundle.  He made no mention of the militarism, the fact that you have to speak Russian to get a job in a Ukrainian city, the position of women, the absence of consumer goods, or any other stuff that constitutes slandering the Soviet Union.  Nor was he critical, vindictive or malicious in his questioning.  He was simply confused.  At first he visited people at their homes but as he was always unwelcome, he hung around East Hastings looking for people he knew.  He went from person to person, seizing them by the lapels to prevent escape, and said that peasants now got only every fifth bundle whereas he had worked for the Polish lords for every third bundle.  How am I to understand this? he asked over and over again.  Please, can you explain it to me?

People brushed him off as one would an old man.  When he nevertheless persisted in his questioning, they began avoiding him and if he caught them anyway, people told him they were tired of his nattering about the fifth bundle and couldn’t he leave them alone.

The old man died; whether his death was at all connected with his failure to understand is unlikely.  All old men must die some time and most of them die confused.

All the old communists came to his funeral, for one must do one’s ritual duty in death as well as in life.  It is unclear whether they came to mourn or simply to see if he really had ceased slandering the Soviet Union.  In any case they were relieved to find that while they walked within touching distance of the old man in the open coffin, not once did they hear him make any mention of the fifth bundle.

That’s the end of the story.  The reason no one wants to hear such stories is that they are interpreted as slandering the Soviet Union.  For those who are against such activities, any notion of imperfection in the USSR is sin.  For the others, slander is insufficient unless it includes mass starvation and lice.  But I swear that my intention at this time is not to slander the Soviet Union.  My intention, while slanderous, has quite a different target.

October, 1977


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