Children of Revolution
IT all began with just ten boys. Boys of thirteen, fourteen, fifteen years, without fathers or mothers. Putoff, Michaef, Smirnof, and other names too hard to pronounce. They were thin, scrawny boys, small for their age and hungry. For two or three years they had not tasted sugar. Black, sour bread of rye was all they had, and sometimes thin potato soup. But even of this there was not enough for boys to grow on. Not since the Hungry Year, when their fathers and mothers died, and they were stranded with hundreds of thousands of other boys, along the great River Volga.
The River Volga is one of the mighty rivers of the world. Far in the north it rises, where even in the hottest summers the rains and mists keep cool the long white evenings. And slowly, muddily, spreading over the great plains of Russia, it wanders southward till it comes to the inland Caspian Sea by the fabled city of Astrakan. Here Tartar fishermen spread their nets in the scores of channels into which the great Volga breaks in delta formation, sluggish, hot, below the level of the ocean. Here the sun blazes down pitilessly from early spring until late autumn; waves of blinding heat strike up from the dazzling waters and the ancient city streets; and everyone who can travels northward to escape towards the pleasant hills of the northern and middle Volga.
On both sides of the great length of the Volga, and for hundreds of miles in every direction, are peasants of many old races, tilling the earth in very primitive fashion. They live together in crowded villages, five hundred, a thousand, sometimes five thousand houses; and from these villages they go forth in the morning to their fields. Some of the fields are near and some are distant. Each man has little pieces of land in many different places. For this was the way the land came down from their grandfathers; and their grandfathers also handed down the very old ways of farming.
Because their ways of farming are very old, there come years when the wheat and rye harvest fails. These are known as the Hungry Years. One year in every three is a Hungry Year along the Volga. It is not altogether the fault of the peasants. It is the fault of the earth as it moves around the sun, and the sun as it travels through space. Something about these movements of the sun and the earth, over hundreds of thousands of years, is slowly drying up the great plains between Europe and Asia, the plains where the Volga flows. Hundreds of thousands of years ago there were great inland lakes here and much water. Perhaps some tens of thousands of years in the future, even the river will be dried up. Meantime the peasants live along its banks, and do not know enough about farming to escape the Hungry Years, when the sun is hot and no rains come for the wheat. The worst of all the Hungry Years was 1921. That was the year when a million people died. For the land was parched with heat till it cracked open; and the grain shriveled and died before it reached the height even of a few inches. And the peasants poured forth over the land, fleeing in every direction from hunger; while those who stayed at home made bread of grass and of twigs and straw. They ate this till their stomachs felt full; but from food like this they grew swollen and died. All over the land, for a thousand miles to the north and south they were dying.
Then because there was not enough food for all, the government gathered the children into children's homes, and from all over the land, and from foreign lands also, as far as America, people sent food for the children. So after the Hungry Year was gone there were many children living, whose fathers and mothers were dead. Putoff, Michaef, Smirnof and the other boys were some of these famine children.
And now they were fourteen and fifteen years old. And the children's homes said to them: "We cannot forever keep on feeding you. We also are poor, and there are younger boys than yourselves without fathers and mothers, roaming the streets. Who wants to start a working group and learn how to earn a living? We have land and houses up in the hills that we will give you; and a few tools and some food for a little while."
Many boys volunteered, for they were tired of sitting around the children's homes, where the food was very little and there was nothing to do, and where all winter long they must sit on the big stove, because they had no shoes to go outdoors. So ten were chosen to start, and with them went a leader, Yeremeef, who used to be a peasant. The houses of Cherumshan were in a beautiful place, with wooded ravines through which ran little streams of water. But they were old, with many broken windows and with no furniture in them, only the empty walls. Here the boys camped out in the empty rooms and began their fight for a living. Already they intended to get more than a living. For they had promises of help from America, and they made up their minds to build here, in the desolate Volga region, a modern American farm where all might live and eat, and where more and more homeless, hungry children might come to join their commune.
Already, when they came to the houses of Cherumshan, a carpenter named Fedotov had come before them and had made three narrow wooden bunks. The rest of the boys slept on the door; they had brought from the children's homes five burlap bags filled with straw and five thin blankets. Under these they huddled together, for the October nights were growing cold. Also Yeremeef had brought from town two lamps, ten bowls, ten spoons and two iron pots for cooking; and some black rye flour and potatoes and oil from sunflower seeds. This was all they had to begin living, except the horse and old wooden cart that took the things out to them.
The very first night they held a meeting. They had a supper of thin potato soup,--just potatoes boiled in water, with a little sunflower-seed oil to supply some fat,--and then they gathered around the lamp and discussed the future. They decided to get up at six every morning, and have breakfast at seven; then work from eight to twelve and from two to four, repairing houses, cooking, making shoes and clothes and dishes. "Who wants to be carpenter?" asked Yeremeef, and six boys raised their hands. "Who wants to be shoemaker?"--Three volunteered for this. The last boy said he wanted to look after the horse.
Early the next morning they started to work. But Fedotov, the carpenter, had only his own set of tools, and these were already old. A saw, a hammer, a hatchet, and a couple of planes. Not many boys could learn to be carpenters with that. Besides, there was no wood to work with. So some of the carpenters were put on the committee for cooking and the rest went out looking for wood.
They found it,--two broken-down shacks that no one could ever repair to live in. Their leader, Yeremeef, went back to town to get permission to tear down the shacks, for everything in the Cherumshan houses now belonged to the town, and to tear down even a shack one must get permission. This was soon done, and the boys set to work, taking the shacks apart and making the boards into tables and beds. It went very slowly, for none of them had ever been carpenters before. Besides, there were very few tools. But little by little, with Fedotov showing them how, rough wooden bunks for sleeping began to grow under their hands. Then tables, benches, and a stall for the horse.
After three weeks the boys sent a delegation to the town. "We are working very well now, but there is little food. But near at hand is an old mill which is not running. Give it to us and we will run it, and from the grain that we grind we will get bread." So the town gave them the mill, and also sent out four more children, Nasipaef and Lameku who wanted to be millers, and two girls, Nastasia and Katherine, to help cook and sew. These also were famine children who wanted to leave the children homes and learn to make a living.
About this time some old clothes from America came to Russia, to give to famine children. Down from Moscow to the new colony came fifty coats and trousers, and fifty pair of good American shoes. But only three pair of the shoes were big enough for the boys to wear; Putoa got one of these and it lasted for two years. He went bare foot most of the time to save his fine strong American shoes; he wore them only when the weather was cold and he must go on a long tramp to town. The rest of the shoes which did not fit them they sold, and bought leather in the near-by town of Kvalinsk. So at last their shoe-shop began working, and a shoemaker came out from town to show the boys how to be shoemakers. For this also they had few tools and only two or three boys could work at a time, waiting for each other to finish with the knives or the sewing machine. But steadily they worked away till all the fourteen children had shoes.
And now a great piece of luck came to the colony. Two days' journey away the Quakers from America were giving out food to children's homes. And the Quakers had heard of this group of boys which was starting to build a big farm colony of children, and promised to give them food. So Yeremeef went on the boat for a day's journey north, and then took the train for a day's journey west, till he came to the town where the Quakers gave out supplies of food. He brought back with him a whole car-load. Very wonderful food that they had not seen for years. Sugar and cocoa, and lard! There were also a hundred blankets, for starting a big colony. And soap--the first they had seen for many years! For ever since the Hungry Year they had been too poor to buy soap, and had scrubbed their dishes with sand, or ashes from the fire.
So now, because they had so much food, and blankets, they invited fifteen more boys and girls to join them, from the children s homes in the town. Seven girls and eight boys came out; they were all children who were reaching the age of fourteen and the town refused to support them any longer. But they brought with them from the children's homes an old sewing-machine. With this the girls set to work to make underwear and clothes and mattresses.
For the old clothes that came from America were of all shapes and sizes. Most of them did not fit the children. Some were too big, but most were too small, meant only for little children. These had to be pieced and they made very funny looking clothes. But funniest of all were some minister's suits that were given by some kind Preachers in America. They looked very queer on these thin, scrawny boys of the Volga, when they went out in the barn to tend the horse, or when they worked in the carpenter shop or the fields.
In the big carload of Quaker goods there came also some ticks for mattresses. But the boys and girls held an assembly and decided that these ticks were too good to use for mattresses. They were ever so much better than the old clothes from America. They decided to cut up the ticks and make shirts and skirts from them. But how should they get mattresses? For many weeks they did not have any; they found some straw and made a heap of it in their rooms and slept on that. But now that the young carpenters were improving in work and the wooden bunks were getting finished, everyone began to think of having mattresses.
All around these boys and girls, in many directions, were villages of peasants. And every peasant had a couple of burlap sacks, which he used to carry grain to market. But now, since the Hungry Year, these sacks were getting worn, full of holes, and could no longer be trusted to hold grain. The peasants also were hungry and had not seen sugar or lard or soap for many years. So the boys of the colony set out with the Quaker food, and traded sugar and lard and soap for old burlap bags. They got these bags very cheap, for the harvest was over, and the peasant would not need his bags very much for another year. By then he hoped he might buy some good ones. Out of these old torn burlap bags the girls made mattresses, patching the biggest holes. The smaller holes did not matter, for the bags were to be filled with straw, not grain. If a little straw spilled out on the bed-room floor, that did not hurt anyone.
As fast as beds were made and mattresses finished, more and more boys and girls came to the colony. By February there were fifty-seven in all. And still the Quaker food lasted. The first supply of potatoes and hour and oil was long since gone, but they sold the precious sugar and lard and cocoa and with the money bought the cheaper potatoes and flour. But always they kept back a little sugar for themselves. It was the first sugar there had been for two or three years.
Soon the girls had made underwear for everyone in the colony, two suits apiece. Then they began making underwear to get ready for more boys and girls who would come in the spring. For up and down the Volga the colony began to be heard of,--this place where a group of boys and girls were learning to be carpenters, shoe-makers, millers and farmers. They knew that no more boys or girls would come to them in the winter; for famine children had no shoes and coats to travel far in the cold weather. But as soon as the spring should come, and the boats begin again to travel along the Volga, they knew there would be other children coming to the colony.
Meantime a problem arose about dishes! The ten bowls and ten spoons with which the colony began were no longer enough for fifty-seven children. They needed pails also for water, and pans for washing. In the houses of Cherumshan was a ruined blacksmith shop. This the boys repaired, and two of the boys decided to be blacksmiths. They had a man to teach them, the same man who was helping them to run the mill. Sheets of old iron they found in ruined houses, and of these they made pans. They also found large quantities of old tin cans, left over from the days when Americans sent cans of milk to feed children in the Hungry Year. In their blacksmith shop they took these cans, sawed off the tops and hammered down the edges till they would no longer cut, and thus made cups and bowls for soup. In the carpenter shop they carved pieces of wood into long spoons and ladies. These were the only dishes they had for the whole first year of the colony.
And now, with the spring of the year, came the time for ploughing. Money had come from America to buy horses and tools. For already in the early autumn when the boys first moved out to the Cherumshan houses, they took the name of an American, John Reed, for their colony. He was a pioneer from Oregon who traveled many lands, helping men fight for freedom. He went to Mexico and wrote about the wrongs of the peons there before their revolution. And he came to Russia, in the days of its revolution, and died from typhus, and was buried by the great red walls of the Kremlin in the Red Square of Moscow. And because he was the American who helped the Russians in their darkest days of revolution, the colony named itself after him.
Also they had invited an American to be guardian of the colony, and to help it secure horses and ploughs and a tractor and grow to be a good American style of farm. So that it could be an example to the peasants in the whole region, showing them how to plant crops that would not fail in the dry summers. The first gift from America came at Christmas time--$100 for a Christmas celebration. Long and carefully in their meeting the boys and girls considered this great sum of money. What should they spend it for that the colony most needed?
"We don't need a celebration," said one of the older boys. "But we need horses. For spring will be coming and the time for ploughing and how shall we plough?" So they voted to send Yeremeef and two of the boys many days journey away to Uralsk, where they heard that horses were cheap. On freight cars they went and on foot, and they bought five horses. It was a large number, but the horses from Uralsk turned out to be not very good ones. One of them died before spring, and another they traded for a cow. When springtime came, they had three of the Uralsk horses and two others to begin ploughing.
They were already proud of their record that first winter. In the carpenter shop they had made more than fifty cots and fifteen tables; they had made twenty-five stools and twelve long benches, and fifteen troughs for feeding pigs or washing clothes. They had made two carts, very rough affairs with wheels bought from the town, and with long poles laid across the axles and fastened together, and a rough framework arising from the poles. This is the kind of cart the Russian peasant uses; it is called a telega. They had also made many repairs to the mill and the houses, fitting windows into the broken holes until the place could be lived in. They also made the wooden parts of two ploughs and three harrows, to be ready for the spring ploughing. These were very rough ploughs, with only an upright piece of iron fastened in place by the young blacksmiths--but they were better than nothing.
In the blacksmith's shop they had made several dozen cups and bowls, ten pans, twenty-four pails, ten kitchen knives and six pruning saws for the orchard. They repaired the metal parts of ploughs and put iron teeth in the harrows. Now, as the spring approached, they began to make spades and mattocks. And when it came time to dig in the garden, there were already ten spades and twenty-five mattocks that the boys themselves had made.
Also the girls had not been idle. They had made over and over 200 pair of underwear. This was a large amount, but it was made from very old clothes and soon wore out. No sooner was one set of underwear finished than another must be worked on. They had made 52 mattresses out of burlap bags. They had made over 47 overcoats and 30 dresses and 30 boys' blouses and 20 pairs of trousers. All these things were very hard to make, for there was only one old sewing-machine, and the girls sat in line to take turns using it. Whatever could be done by hand was done that way. And after the clothes were done, they were already very old and wore out quickly.
Meantime the little mill had been working, and already three or four boys were becoming accomplished millers. It was not so easy to get customers for the mill, for it was a poor and small one, and would only work a few hours in every day. The power came from a mill-pond, which had not much water. All through the night and most of the day the water must gather in the mill-pond, till, perhaps, towards evening there would be enough water to run the mill for a few hours.
The peasants did not like to come to this mill, because it ran so poorly. So the children organized a committee to go out and advertise among the villages. "Come to our mill," they said, "for we also are peasant children, orphans of the famine. Some day we will have a fine school here, that your children also will want to go to. And even if our mill is very small, still you should help us. We are making our price for grinding lower than the better mills. We ask only three pounds from every forty that we grind, and the others take four or five."
As a result of this advertising, more peasants came to the mill. And Nazipaef and Lameku ground wheat and rye month after month, from February till August. Most of the grain was ground in the winter and early spring; after May there was little work. But in this time the young millers earned for the colony 3,240 pounds of rye Sour, and 1,328 pounds of wheat flour, and 1,600 pounds of millet for porridge. This was enough for almost three months' food for the colony.
So with the Quaker sugar and lard and cocoa and soap, and with the flour and millet from their mill they lived not badly, making their own furniture and shoes and clothes and dishes, till the snows ran off the hills and down through the ravines to the great Volga, which moved under its ice until it broke through the frozen bonds and began flowing free to the Caspian. Till the season of mud came and went, and the ploughing began.