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A Red Boyhood: Growing Up Under Stalin

A Red Boyhood: Growing Up Under Stalin

by Anatole Konstantin

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Many children growing up in the Soviet Union before World War II knew the meaning of deprivation and dread. But for the son of an “enemy of the people,” those apprehensions were especially compounded.

When the secret police came for his father in 1938, ten-year-old Anatole Konstantin saw his family plunged into a morass of fear. His memoir of growing


Many children growing up in the Soviet Union before World War II knew the meaning of deprivation and dread. But for the son of an “enemy of the people,” those apprehensions were especially compounded.

When the secret police came for his father in 1938, ten-year-old Anatole Konstantin saw his family plunged into a morass of fear. His memoir of growing up in Stalinist Russia re-creates in vivid detail the daily trials of people trapped in this regime before and during the repressive years of World War II—and the equally horrific struggles of refugees after that conflict.

Evicted from their home, their property confiscated, and eventually forced to leave their town, Anatole’s family experienced the fate of millions of Soviet citizens whose loved ones fell victim to Stalin’s purges. His mother, Raya, resorted to digging peat, stacking bricks, and even bootlegging to support herself and her two children. How she managed to hold her family together in a rapidly deteriorating society—and how young Anatole survived the horrors of marginalization and war—form a story more compelling than any novel.

Looking back on those years from adulthood, Konstantin reflects on both his formal education under harsh conditions and his growing awareness of the contradictions between propaganda and reality. He tells of life in the small Ukrainian town of Khmelnik just before World War II and of how some of its citizens collaborated with the German occupation, lending new insight into the fate of Ukrainian Jews and Nazi corruption of local officials. And in recounting his experiences as a refugee, he offers a new look at everyday life in early postwar Poland and Germany, as well as one of the few firsthand accounts of life in postwar Displaced Persons camps.

A Red Boyhood takes readers inside Stalinist Russia to experience the grim realities of repression—both under a Soviet regime and German occupation. A moving story of desperate people in desperate times, it brings to life the harsh realities of the twentieth century for young and old readers alike.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Anatole Konstantin’s informative and exciting memoir of his family’s heart-rending struggle to survive the dismal years of Soviet communism is a fascinating page-turner that will appeal to a worldwide readership.”--Jules Koslow

“Konstantin’s memoir is a gut-wrenching portrayal of his boyhood in Stalin’s Soviet Union before and during World War II. It should be required reading for every high school student in the United States.”--Elizabeth Fuller

Kirkus Reviews
A boy's-eye view of life during wartime-first the Soviet Union's vicious internal struggles under Stalin and then its horrific ordeal after the Germans invaded in 1941. Konstantin begins his memoir in dramatic fashion, recalling the night of April 17, 1938, when his father was taken away by the Soviet secret police and never seen again in their little town in the Ukraine. The early passages of the book do a fine job of explaining the climate in which such an incident could occur; Konstantin describes an Orwellian regime full of furtive police activities, mysterious disappearances and a terrorized populace. What makes Konstantin's recollections so captivating is his ability to effectively divide the text between small details vividly rendered, such as a trip to the movie theater, and the larger story of a global political and military struggle. Despite the upheavals that roiled his childhood, the author somehow managed to get a decent education; he refers frequently to inspirational teachers and to devouring books ranging from The Grapes of Wrath to Das Kapital. But these moments of enlightenment in Konstantin's young life were tempered by the unbearable wartime conditions; often, as he left school for the day, he saw corpses piled high on wagons to be carted away. His mother married a Polish refugee in 1944, and they were able to return with him to Poland in 1945, happy to escape the "cursed" Soviet Union. But the Soviets soon consolidated their grip on Poland, and the family fled west, finally winding up in a UN refugee camp in Germany. As a displaced person, Konstantin qualified for free tuition at a local university, and after three more years of struggle was finally able to emigrateto "the land of my dreams"-America. Uneven, but full of engaging details about a tumultuous period in world history.

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University of Missouri Press
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range:
14 Years

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A Red Boyhood

Growing Up Under Stalin

By Anatole Konstantin

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2008 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8262-6638-5



I was born on April 24, 1928, in a small Ukrainian town called Volochisk. The town is split in two by the River Zbruch, which between 1918 and September 1939 formed the border between Poland and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. From 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon until 1918, this was part of the Russian Empire. In 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart, Ukraine became an independent country.

My father, Nissen Konstantinovsky, who was then twenty-five years old, came from Kishinev, which is now Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. From 1918 to 1940 Moldova belonged to Romania, but before that, when Father was born in 1902, it was part of the Russian Empire and was called Bessarabia. In 1940 the Soviet Union took it away from Romania and, until the beginning of the war in 1941, Kishinev was the capital of the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic. During World War II Romania, which was allied with Germany, took Moldova back until 1944, then the Soviet Union reoccupied it until 1991, when it became an independent country.

Father was a photographer and was working in a studio in Volochisk when he met Mother, Rachel "Raya" Breitgand, who had been born there. They were married in 1927, only two months after having met. According to Mother, she was sixteen years old, but according to her brother she must have been at least eighteen. She looked very young: she was slim, a little over five feet tall, and took care of her appearance. Many times I heard her telling the story of how once at the movies Father was asked whether he needed one adult and one child ticket.

Two months after I was born my parents moved to a little town called Gorodok in Russian and Horodok in Ukrainian, which actually means "little town"; here Father opened his own studio. There was already a photographer in town when Father moved in, and there was no love lost between them. Father always referred to him as the partach, which is Russian for someone who does shoddy work, and for a time I thought that this was his name. The town was a county (rayon) seat and had three or four thousand people, of whom about half were Jews, about a third were Poles, and the rest Ukrainians. All the peasants in the area were Ukrainian and worked in collective farms called kolkhozes.

Father's father was Emanuel or Rachmil Konstantinovsky, which means "the man from Konstantinov." There is a town in the Ukraine called Staro-Konstantinov (Old Konstantinov), as well as one called Novo-Konstantinov (New Konstantinov), where his family could have been from. Emanuel served in the Russian army during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. The Russian army was defeated and he returned home a total pacifist. He bought several cows and became a milkman.

Father's mother was Assya "Hadassa" Konstantinovskaya, the ending "aya" in Russian being reserved for females. I do not know much about Grandmother, other than that she was an energetic, take-charge woman, while Grandfather was a mild man, greatly affected by his war experience. I know nothing about my great-grandparents on either side.

Father had two sisters: Aida, who went to Uruguay in 1920, from where she illegally crossed into Argentina, and Ester, who, together with my grandparents, died of typhoid fever in Uzbekistan during the war. Ester's husband and two children were killed during the bombardment of Kishinev by the German Luftwaffe in 1941.

At the age of twelve Father became an apprentice to a photographer. To learn the trade in those days one also had to learn to mix the developer and the fixer, and also to retouch negatives by filling in light areas and scratching out blemishes. Later on he found a job in the Romanian city of Yassy. When, in the early 1920s, he was about to be drafted into the Romanian army, he decided to join his sister Aida in Argentina. The Romanians looked down on the Moldovans; Romanian soldiers mercilessly beat the Moldovan minority soldiers, particularly if they were Jewish. Father knew men who had returned home from the army with most of their teeth knocked out.

Father packed his two cameras and found a freighter sailing to Naples. He wrote to Aida from there, asking her for advice on how to get to Argentina. Because the mail in Romania was censored, he was afraid to write to her from home, for fear that the authorities would find out that he was planning to emigrate instead of going into the army. Aida wrote back, telling him not to come because things were very bad in Argentina. She regretted this for the rest of her life and blamed herself for what would eventually happen to Father.

Not being able to return home, Father faced a dilemma. He spoke only Russian, Romanian, Moldovan (which is a dialect of Romanian), and some Yiddish. He was afraid to go to a country whose language he did not know and where he did not know anyone. Then he found a Russian freighter going to Odessa and, in exchange for photographing the captain and the crew, was taken on board. After stopping in Genoa and Istanbul, he arrived in Odessa, where he had some distant relatives, and eventually found the job in Volochisk.

Mother's father was David Breitgand. Breitgand is a Russification of breite hand, which in Yiddish or German means "broad hand." I have never encountered another Breitgand. The family legend has it that grandfather David's father, Solomon, was one of several sons and was subject to be drafted into the Russian army, which, before 1874, meant he would serve for a term of twenty-five years. Since only sons were not drafted, my great-great grandfather bought new identities for the rest of his sons, and they settled in different places under invented names, each claiming to be the only son of his father.

Grandfather David was born in 1874 and died in 1961 of gangrene that developed after he broke his leg and refused to go to a hospital — he had never been in one in his whole life. My grandmother's name was Eta. She died of smallpox during the epidemic after World War I, and Mother had to quit school to take care of her three younger brothers. Grandfather David was in the egg business. He bought eggs from farmers, candled them, and then resold them. To candle eggs is to look at them in front of a light, to see if the embryo has begun developing, in which case they are sold for hatching rather than for food. Since there were no chicken farms where the hens were separated from the roosters, all eggs were fertilized, and if they were to be eaten, it had to be before red blood vessels began forming in the yoke.

Before I was born, Mother decided that if her baby was a girl, she would be named Eta, after her mother, but my parents did not have a name for a boy. Mother resolved this by naming me Etan, with the accent on the "a," which she claimed to have invented, even thought there is a biblical name Eytan, meaning "strong." In my case it turned out to be mostly headstrong.

Since in the Ukraine the name Etan did not exist, it evoked a great deal of teasing — I feel sorry for any child condemned to carry an unusual name. To make matters worse, where I came from, a child is called by a diminutive of his name, which in my case became Etanchik. This did not sound right and was abbreviated to Tanchik, which in Ukrainian means "little dance." I was driven to tears when, upon seeing me, kids would point an index finger to the sky and spin round and round, or would ask me to perform my little dance. Only teachers called me Etan and it remained so until the war, when I could claim that my birth certificate was lost and that my name was Anatoly.

Father did not quite know how to cope with the name Etan. Many years later, when my aunt Aida died in Argentina, her daughter sent me a baby picture, on the back of which Father had written that this was his son Izzy.

* * *

My first memory is that of a low-slung old building with crooked walls in the center of town, at the intersection of the only two cobblestone-paved roads. You entered a long, unlit hallway, at the end of which, behind a plywood partition, was kept a wooden barrel filled with drinking water and periodically replenished by a water carrier, who brought water from a distant well in two buckets suspended on a yoke. A huge glass bottle in a wicker basket, containing kerosene for lamps and for the primus burner used for cooking, was also kept there, and a wooden ladder led from there to the attic. In the attic in a wooden cage, several chickens were being fattened with corn before being taken to the slaughterhouse, where a bearded man in a bloodstained apron slit their throats and hung them by their feet on a hook over a smelly metal trough to bleed. He plucked them while they were still warm and threw the feathers into a barrel, the stench of which was detectable at a great distance. Watching Mother dissect chickens, I had learned early a great deal about anatomy. I was particularly interested in the tiny eggs, which I insisted Mother cook for me right away.

From the hallway one entered Father's office, part of which had been turned into a darkroom. A door from the office led into the room where the three of us lived, and a permanently locked door led from our room to the rooms belonging to our landlord. The studio, or what Father called the gallery, was a separate wooden structure, its front wall and ceiling consisting of 18 x 24 centimeter glass panes made from photographic glass negatives stripped of their photosensitive emulsion. The wall and ceiling had sectional curtains, the metal rings of which made a scratching sound when Father manipulated them with a long stick to get proper light on the subject. There was no electricity, which meant Father could not take pictures on very cloudy days. At the back of the studio was a table with a mirror and a kerosene lamp, on which country girls heated the tips of long, metal tongs, one side of which was concave and the other convex, with which they curled their hair before being photographed.

The floor of the studio was covered with sand, which I once stuffed into my mouth until it made me sick. On the end wall hung a gray linoleum backdrop with pictures of fancy furniture in the bottom corners, so that photographs might create the impression of having been taken in an opulent living room. There were several bentwood chairs and a tall, round stand on which standing persons could rest one elbow and lightly support their head, perhaps placing an extended index finger on the cheek — a fashionable pose that implied wisdom.

The front of the house was long enough for Father to paint in two-foot-high letters Fotografia Konstantinovskogo, the ending "ogo" meaning "belonging to a male." He spent a couple of weeks on the ladder, first dividing the space with a ruler and a flat carpenter's pencil into five-centimeter squares, then drawing the letters and filling them with black paint and, finally, drawing in perspective the third dimension and painting it red. The result was the biggest sign in town. There was also a display case, called a vitrina, full of photographs of happy grooms, radiant brides, pudgy babies, and glowering officials, who must have assumed that a fierce look made them appear more important. Father was a very good draftsman, which his competitor, the partach, was not, and he had a monopoly on "vignettes," groups of individual photographs of organization members, which he arranged on a large sheet of cardboard and decorated with ornate scrolls. The size of the photograph and the number of scrolls around it corresponded to the rank of the person photographed. Father copied the scrolls from pre-Revolutionary money bills, but Communist officials did not seem to mind looking like czars. Father also drew a pretty heading with farm animals for kolkhoz vignettes or stars with hammers and sickles for party conferences. He then photographed the whole thing and made multiple copies. It was a lucrative business.

Another source of income was provided by the Ukrainian custom of families being photographed behind open caskets of their deceased loved ones. Even during the starvation of 1933, when squads of Communist goons confiscated all grain from the peasants to force them to "voluntarily" join collective farms, we had enough to eat. Father took the sad photographs of open caskets in exchange for a few eggs or some buckwheat grain.

Our building was actually part of an inn. The living quarters were attached to a large barn that could accommodate several wagons and horses. Peasants from distant villages who had brought their products to the market used to stay overnight at the inn, where they and their horses were fed and had a place to sleep. In my time, keeping a private inn was illegal and only occasionally were old customers allowed to sneak in after dark.

Our landlords were an elderly couple named Berkovich. He was tall and thin, with stooping shoulders and red-rimmed, watering eyes. He had "sat for gold," which means that he had sat in prison until ransomed. Since he had been a businessman, the authorities assumed that he had money hidden away, presumably in the form of pre-Revolutionary ten-ruble gold coins, about the size of a penny, which for some unknown reason were nicknamed "piglets." All former storekeepers and craftsmen — in Gorodok mostly old Jews — were ordered to turn in their gold. Those who claimed that they did not have any were imprisoned and kept on bread and water until their relatives sold their belongings and procured some gold coins, which was very difficult and dangerous to do. There were rumors that the recalcitrant ones were given only herring to eat and no water; many did not survive. Another rumor had it that at an opening night of the opera in Odessa, when the people were leaving, the NKVD men stood at the door and robbed everyone of their jewelry, including wedding rings and earrings, then thanked them for their contribution to building communism.

As I grew older, I refused to stay in our room and became a nuisance to Father, particularly when Mother was not home. Occasionally Father would slap me on the behind and sometimes, after having been slapped, I would stand at the door and complain to any passing militiaman: "Uncle militiaman, please arrest my father, he spanks me!" Little did I realize that someday this would actually happen. Most of the time they pretended not to hear me, but those who knew Father would come in and have a good laugh with him.

Eventually, Father got to know most of the people in town and I remember once, at the end of the day, the chief of the NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, which later changed its name to Committee for National Security, or KGB) dropped by. He was a huge man, with a huge face that fit his last name — Mordovets. (Morda is a Ukrainian word for animal face.) He was in a jolly mood and told Father a joke that well illustrated NKVD humor. It was about a manager of a ball-bearing factory who was being accused of producing undersized bearing balls. The manager was summoned to a party meeting, to which his accuser, the head of the factory party cell whose job was to second-guess management, brought a measuring gauge. After making a long speech accusing the manager of sabotage, the accuser triumphantly inserted a ball, which all this time he held in his hand, into the gauge. It fit perfectly, because during his long speech it had expanded from the heat of his hand.

The chief laughed uproariously and Father obviously tried to force a laugh. I did not understand the humor until much later, when I could visualize the petrified factory manager accused of sabotage, which meant long imprisonment or worse, sighing a huge sigh of relief.

* * *

Because we were located right in the center of town, our street had a stone-block sidewalk; most other streets turned into ankle-deep lanes of mud after a rain. Facing the street, to the right of us, in a single-story redbrick building, was the County Party Committee, from which one could hear the constant clicking of typewriters. Next, in a beautiful gray stone house, which like all the other buildings in the center of town had belonged to merchant families before the Revolution, was an office of the government bank that dealt with financing of collective farms and of other county offices. Individuals did not do any banking and there were no checking or savings accounts. Then, in a long warehouselike building, there was the movie house that showed silent movies accompanied by a pianist, who banged away on an old upright piano. The talkies did not arrive until about 1935. I remember the first time I was allowed to go to the movies by myself. The movie was H. G. Wells's The Invisible Man. When the man began unwinding the bandage from his head and there was nothing there, I became frightened and tried to leave, but the doors were locked. Finally, someone heard me crying and let me out.


Excerpted from A Red Boyhood by Anatole Konstantin. Copyright © 2008 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

In 1949, upon graduation from the Technical University of Munich in Germany, Anatole Konstantin immigrated to the United States and continued his study of engineering at Columbia University. He founded PDC International Corporation and lives in Connecticut.

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