1935-1942: ‘BARRACKS UNIVERSITY’ / by Tori Boggs

Chetkov aged 10 with his sisters, 1936

Chetkov aged 10 with his sisters, 1936

Not long after this, when Boris was about eight, he and his family moved away from Novaya Lyalya to Krasnouralsk, where his father had started working as the manager of the passport-issuing department. For a time they lived a good life, but peace and safety in the time of Stalin was always a tenuous affair. Aleksander lost his job after falling foul of the Communist Party during the Great Purges of the 1930s, narrowly avoiding being shot. The family started a peripatetic lifestyle, living in Kazan, Sverdlovsk, Perm, Krasnoyarsk and the cities of Siberia and Ural. Each time they had to move, they would start at the bottom, in a tiny room in a barracks. Aleksander would once again summon up the innate Chetkov ability to turn his hand to anything, go to an industry showcase, show off his skills and soon they would move up the scale of workers, gaining an apartment.

“People would start coming to him to repair a bucket, a kettle, a lock, fit a saw – he could do everything. Can you imagine that? He was one of a kind. He knew everything about things, I remember he needed just a look at a saw to say whether it was good or bad.” Boris Chetkov

But soon the family would be on the move again, and this peripatetic time marked the end of emotional security for the young Boris. His entire life can be said to have been marked by one powerful characteristic: the ability to live in the now and to move on when necessary, and the years of his childhood marked by the ‘barracks university’, of having to constantly start again must have taught him about the fragility of believing in permanence.

“Boris grows up in a world where attachments cost dearly and can be temporary. In his early life, Chetkov quickly learned how little you can truly control. He learned that no matter who and what you are it can be taken away fast. What can I control? Only what I do and how I do it. This is what gave Chetkov such constructive urgency – you see his almost obsession to constantly create and experiment as there is no certainty that it was going to last. Each moment was precious and fleeting so must be honored to the fullest. Nothing could be taken for granted. No material possession is as important as the things you use to manifest as a unique individual, the things that come from within you… nothing material could effect his internal world of colorful vitality and imagination.” Peter Hoffman

This period also marked an emotional withdrawal from his family and a souring of his relationship with his father. Perhaps even at this young age, while respecting his father’s abilities and work ethic, Boris started to feel that he should be accountable for his own well-being. There are two incidents that stand out, two hard lessons that taught him, in effect, to be careful about who you trust. In Krasnouralsk the Chetkovs adopted a young girl. She started to steal food from the family (for her brother) and also hoard food and wet the bed. Boris’ father simply discarded her: “It didn’t work out in the end and my father had to bring her back. We rejected her.”

At the same approximate time Boris had a dog, a red pointer called Jack. They were close in the way only a boy and a dog could be, endlessly romping together. Boris revealed: “He was so clever, so good. He was my only joy.” However Jack regularly got out, and would chase the neighbor’s goats. He chased them one time too many and Boris came home from school to discover Aleksander had put his beloved Jack down. Boris stated, baldly, “It ruined my relationship with my father.”

Boris ran away from home, sleeping in haylofts and living off the land until he was found and taken home. He started playing truant from school and also stopped drawing (the only time, along with Gulag, the army, and when he had brucellosis that he did so). When staff from the trade school in Novaya Lyalya arrived in town looking for recruits, the teenage Boris went with them, leaving his family behind without a backwards glance.

Courtesy Kenneth Pushkin: 'Boris Chetkov in his own Words'.
Additional research: Hermione Crawford