On our first day, we joined the other women workers in some pretty filthy work: shearing sheep. We performed this monotonous task in a large covered shed, saturated with the smell of sheep. Some of us sheared, while others picked burrs and all sorts of trash that had gotten caught in the wool.
We were soon transferred from the foul shed to a distant work site in the broad steppe, the realm of green fields. We were assigned to hay mowing.
At four in the morning, as the sun's rays were just beginning to spill over the steppe, the overseer would wake us, kicking the legs of those who wouldn't get up immediately. At the camp, the steward assigned us to the various sectors. In the morning, we froze from the bitterly cold dew, which drenched our clothing up to the waist. Staggering along, still half asleep, we worked as automatically as robots, gradually warming up a bit.
At ten, we returned to camp for breakfast, which lasted around half an hour. Despite the camp hubbub, some people preferred to nap instead of eating. Our food was of rather poor quality - very plain and unappetizing. In the morning, they cooked us a watery gruel made from wheat and water with a dose of salt, or buckwheat dumplings as big as cobblestones - one or two of these would satisfy the hunger of even the greatest glutton. The meal was poured into a wooden trough, from which you'd pull the dumplings with long, pointed splinters. We got the same modest fare for lunch and dinner.
After our brief breakfast, we returned to work. As the day wore on, the heat became so intense that you wanted to take shelter in any available patch of shade. The sun was so strong that the backs of most of the newly arrived vagabonds were practically covered with swollen blisters; later, as their skin toughened up, the burns went away. We women were often so exhausted from the heat that we lost much of our modesty: when we reaped and bound the hay, we wore only our shirts, since that made it a lot easier to work.
During the busy season, there were no set limits to the work day: if the steward wished, it could last for sixteen hours or more, with only an hour off for lunch. Actually, the work itself was lively and gay, although Galina and I found it difficult and alien.
In the evening, after the sun had set, we returned to camp. The fire would be going and dinner waiting. Some people filled their stomachs with the plain, unsatisfying food and fell asleep on the spot, scattered around camp. Everyone slept under the open sky, harassed by mosquitoes and subject to the bites of other enemies as well: the black spiders, whose venom could make your whole body swell up.
At first, people found it rather strange to hear ordinary girls - manual labourers like themselves - speak of many things they'd never heard or even thought about. They became most interested when the conversation touched upon the land: this immensely important topic was dear to every heart. Everyone was united on this issue; they all felt the need for land most acutely, and this provided us a way to reach even the simplest peasant.
However, we didn't actually conduct socialist propaganda; it was clear that we were still an alien, incomprehensible element in a world we scarcely knew.
Of course, our difficulties were compounded by the repressive political system of Russia and the peasants' own fear. They reacted to all radical talk with caution, distrust, and sometimes the most natural incomprehension. Frequently our evening talks ended with the peasants saying: "That's our fate - so it's been written", or, "We're born - we'll die."
In fact, we were rarely able to talk at all: after the day's work, our limbs shrieked with weariness, our exhausted bodies demanded rest and peace.