Back then, I was one of the managers of the small enterprise that also tried to survive as the whole country did. Although it was a state owned enterprise, the state itself couldn't care less. If you're drowning, you're on your own. Perhaps it was the slogan of every factory, kolkhoz and paradoxically of every military unit... We had to follow the tendency. We were to organize consistent production, save our team and it was equally important and natural to want to sell our products, preferably for hard cash. To do that we had to connect with those who survived after the collapse and who were our potential customers both from Russia and former USSR republics.
Therefore, the commercial director of one of the Tajik collective farms, an order bearing millionaire, visited us. He wanted to get to know the possible supplier of the products he needed and to see the products first-hand. It was a man of portly habit in his fifties, well-coiffed, dressed to the nines and wearing elite perfume. He conscientiously devoted two full working days to inspect the plant, coordinate delivery dates, and of course to get the best price out of us. After the formal part was over, my guest asked me to see him to the railway station so that he could buy a ticket to travel to his next point of destination. I logically volunteered to be his guide as I had supervised the visit of our respected customer and actively helped preparing the contract. Of course, the unformal evening visits to the Ural bathhouses, where we broke the ice of formal talks and the fact that we were almost of the same age helped.
We were both in a good mood and having a nice chat when we got to the railway station and headed to the booking office. Suddenly my companion stopped and shouted with a dramatically changed expression on his face, 'Bread! Bread!' and then rushed to something lying on the ground under people's feet. Still having no clue about what had just happened and why he started screaming, I picked up his light brown real leather attachЁ¦ case, which matched his coat from the guck (which was always on the streets by the end of March) so that the motley crew at the railway station wouldn't steal it by chance. Meanwhile my guest picked something up off the pavement and turned to me holding a thick slice of plain brown bread. He was holding it with his arms outstretched as if it was something very precious. A respectable grand man holding a dirty slice of bread...
Ў®Oleg! It is bread! Bread! On the ground!
I had no idea what people thought of that scene but I felt very uneasy. And here's why.
Firstly, I suddenly realized that had I been walking alone I would have easily passed that slice of bread and wouldn't have even given a thought about it. Me, who used to teach young people in the past and who had two kids.
Secondly, I found myself thinking that the first thing that came to my mind was to tell my guest to Ў®just forget about itЎЇ and continue walking.
Thirdly, I suddenly felt devastatingly ashamed; burning and overwhelming shame. I was actually ashamed, very ashamed for my nation and above all of myself...
And this slice of bread had to be lying there just like that! Had there not been so many people, the little hungry sparrows or pigeons or even a pooch would have long picked it and gobbled it up. And here I got stuck in such a situation!
My guest stood there with his arms outreached, looking into my eyes as if demanding an answer to his silent question Ў®What is wrong with you people?ЎЇ
And I was supposed to reply for myself and for my motherland. But there was nothing I could answer, simply nothing. Looking down I muttered under breath like an indolent pupil, Ў®These things still happen... They do...ЎЇ
My guest silently looked at me. His wide open eyes were full of perplexity, resentment, and reproach. He must have realized that he would not hear a more prudent reply, and murmuring something he headed to the railway station building, still holding the bread in his hands. You should have seen him carrying that slice! He did it with respect and trepidation as a handful of ice-cold spring water held close to a dry mouth under a red-hot Tajik sun floating in the white sky, cherishing each and every drop of moisture as heaven-sent. Walking over to the parapet of the station building he gently put the bread there having blown dust off it and wiped it with a snow-white handkerchief...
Then we silently stood there for a very long time keeping our thoughts to ourselves. Later we started talking again but we never mentioned what had just happened. My guest must have been tactful enough not to talk about it and I was too ashamed and too unready to answer his question.
We split on good terms and later the contract was fulfilled well and on time.
It's been a while since that day. I wonder if my Tajik friend ever thinks of that story (I wish him good health!) But I keep recalling that day. Every time I do that I feel dreadfully ashamed and afraid. I am afraid of what had already happened to us and what can happen in future. Why, why do people who know perfectly well what mass starvation of the thirties meant, when millions of people died, when one had to have a bread ticket to be able to get at least one slice of bread, when people had only tiny pieces of it during the Great Patriotic War, when they had to survive the Siege of Leningrad with its Road of Life and Piskarevo cemetery, why do these people stump on bread pieces on a dirty street? Starvation did come by my family too and my grandmother's dearest wish during the world war was to bite a big mouthful of brown bread and give enough slices of it to her children...
WerenЎЇt we told at school about respecting the hard labor of a peasant-farmer?
Bread is the staff of life! Save every bit of bread! Bread is our wealth!
People of my generation and those older than me do remember these slogans from newspapers, on canteen and cafe walls and from party leader speeches. Maybe we got very used to them and stopped noticing them? We knew about them but we forgot, didn't we? Or maybe someone made us forget them?.. As it was wisely said once, Ў®It's hard to memorize but easy to forget...ЎЇ And there is nothing else to say about the Ў°Pepsi and chipsЎ± generation.
Still, why hasnЎЇt that successful and rich Tajik businessman forgotten, why did he rush to save bread from being trampled in the street dirt? Like me, he was Ў®madeЎЇ in the USSR! Maybe he still remembers his barefoot childhood in a large family who lived in a remote mountain village? Or is it racial memory of the generation and self-preservative instinct of survival inherited from the previous generations of his nation who knew famine and deprivation?
Honestly, I envied my guest from the East and his morality and loyalty to the memory of the things one simply cannot forget. I looked at him with admiring envy that day. I sincerely admired him. I admired him the way I admired the most respectful attitude towards old men in the republics of the former USSR and China. I thought of the migrants flowing to Russia and Europe and still revering their culture.
Then why did we lose this reverence? It's hard to answer this question and my story does not give any answers. Perhaps we now have too much food and clothes? Or maybe well-being has become a shell where people hide from the problems? Haven't we faced a trouble big enough for the whole country (God forbid)? But to avoid such a trouble we need to turn on our memory and reconnect with our roots and blood ties, with our history and with each other!...
I have told this story to my friends, relatives and my children many times. When the time comes, I will share it with my grandchildren. And I will be honest with them. I will tell them how their granddad made a fool of himself (and a fool he was!) at that railway station... Every time I tell the story, I confess for my forgetfulness. But I am also thankful to that Tajik who gave me a moral lesson. Till my last breath, will I hear him screaming these words as if he were still reminding me of something very important. 'Bread! Bread!'Ў
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