A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


Six kilometres from Poltava, springing out of sandy hillocks, there is a pine forest of some 200 hectares, bordered by the smooth, endlessy gleaming cobblestones of the highroad to Kharkov. In a corner of a 40-hectare clearing in the forest, a perfect square is formed by a group of uncompromisingly symmetrical brick buildings. This is to he the new colony for juvenile delinquents.

The sandy, sloping courtyard merges in a wide glade extending towards a reed-fringed lake, on the opposite bank of which may be discerned the dwellings and wattle fences of a kulak farmstead. Beyond these, etched against the sky, is a straight line of ancient birch trees and a huddle of thatched roofs.

Before the Revolution there had been a colony for juvenile delinquents in this place, but in 1917 its inmates all ran away, leaving behind them extremely faint vestiges of an educational system. Judging by the contents of the dilapidated registers, the educational staff had been chiefly recruited from retired non-commissioned officers, whose main duty it was never to take their eyes off their charges, either during work or recreation, and at night to sleep next to them in an adjoining room.

According to the local peasantry, the educational methods of these tutors were not very subtle, being in practice limited to that simplest of all pedagogical apparatus--the rod.

Material traces of the former colony were still further to seek, its neighbours having carried and carted away to their own barns and outhouses everything in the way of furniture, stores, and workshop equipment on which they could lay their hands. Among other valuables they even removed the orchard. But there was not the slightest indication of a spirit of vandalism in all this. The fruit trees had not been cut down, but simply uprooted and replanted elsewhere, the windowpanes not broken, but taken carefully out of their frames, the doors hacked by no ruthless axe, but gently lifted off their hinges, the stoves removed brick by brick. The only article of furniture left was a sideboard in the apartment of the former director.

"How is it that the sideboard was left behind?" I asked Luka Semyonovich Verkhola, a neighbour who had come from the farmstead to have a look at the new bosses.

"Well, you see, our people had no use for this cupboard. It wouldn't have gone through their doors--too high, and too wide. And there would be no point in taking it to pieces."

The sheds were crammed with odd articles, but there was nothing of any practical use in them. Following a hot scent I managed to retrieve a few things which had been stolen quite recently. Thus I recovered an old seed-drill, eight rickety joiners' benches, a brass bell, and a thirty-year-old cob, an erstwhile fiery Kirghiz steed.

Kalina Ivanovich, manager of supplies, who was already on the spot when I arrived, greeted me with the question:

"Are you the pedagogical director?"

I was soon to learn that Kalina Ivanovich spoke with a Ukrainian accent, although he refused, on principle, to recognize the Ukrainian language. There were many Ukrainian words in his lexicon, and he pronounced his g's in the southern manner.

"Are you the pedagogical director?"

Me? I'm the director of the colony.

"No, you're not!" said he, taking his pipe out of his mouth. "You're the pedagogical director, and I'm the supply manager."

Picture to yourself Vrubel's "Pan," but Pan gone quite bald, with only a tuft of hair over each ear. Shave off Pan's goatee, trim his moustache in the episcopal manner, stick a pie stem between his teeth, and Pan becomes Kalina Ivanovich Serdyuk. He was a remarkably versatile individual for so modest a post as that of manager of supplies in a children's colony. Of his fifty-odd years, which lad been spent in the most varied activities, he was proud to recall only two phases--his youth, when he had been a private in the Keksholm Infantry Regiment of the Guards, and his superintendence, in 1918, of the evacuation of Mirgorod during the German offensive.

Kalina Ivanovich became the first object of my educational zeal. It was the very abundance and variety of his views which constituted my greatest difficulty. With impartial fervour, he damned the bourgeoisie and the Bolsheviks, the Russians and the Jews, Russian slackness and German punctiliousness. But out of his blue eyes there shone such a zest for living, and he seemed so responsive and so full of life, that I did not grudge expending a little of my pedagogical energy on him. I started on his education the very first day, beginning with our very first encounter.

"Comrade Serdyuk, surely you don't imagine a colony can get on without a director! After all, somebody has to be responsible for everything!"

Kalina Ivanovich again removed his pipe, and said, with a courteous inclination of the head in my direction:

"So you want to be the director! And you want me to be so-to-speak your subordinate!"

"Not necessarily! I could be your subordinate if you prefer it that way."

"Well, I've never been taught pedagogics. I don't claim what isn't mine by rights! Still, you're only a young man and you want an old man like me to be at your beck and call. And that's not right, either. But I haven't got enough book learning to be the director--besides, I don't want to be!"

Kalina Ivanovich stalked away in a huff. All day he seemed dejected, and in the evening he came into my room quite heartbroken.

"I've moved a bed and a table in here. They're the best I could find," he said.


"I've been thinking and thinking what we're to do about this here colony. And I've decided that you'd better be the director and I'll be so-to-speak your subordinate."

"We'll get on all right, Kalina Ivanovich!"

"I think so, too. After all, it doesn't take a genius to put a sole on a boot. We'll manage. And you, since you're an educated man, will be so-to-speak the director."

We set about our work. The thirty-year-old cob was raised to its feet by the judicious use of props. Kalina Ivanovich clambered into a sort of phaeton, kindly provided by one of our neighbours, and the whole remarkable contraption set out for the town at the rate of two kilometres an hour. The organizational period had begun.

The task set for the organizational period was a most appropriate one--to wit, the accumulation of the material values required for the creation of the new man. Kalina Ivanovich and I spent whole days in town during the first two months, he driving there, I going on foot. He considered it beneath his dignity to walk, and I could not stand the languid pace of our Kirghiz steed.

During these two months we managed, with the help of experts from the villages, to get one of the barracks of the old colony into some sort of shape, putting in windowpanes, repairing stoves, hanging new doors.

We had only one victory on the "external front," but it was a notable one: we succeeded in wangling 150 poods of rye flour out of the Food Commissariat of the First Reserve Army. And this was all we managed to "accumulate" in the way of material values.

But when I came to compare what had actually been done, with my ideals in the sphere of material culture, I realized that even if I had achieved a hundred times as much, I should have fallen just as short of my aim. And so, bowing to the inevitable, I declared the organizational period concluded. Kalina Ivanovich was quite of my way of thinking.

"What can we expect to find here," he exclaimed, "when those parasites produce nothing but cigarette lighters? First they lay the land waste, and then they ask us to 'organize'! We'll have to do as Ilya Muromets did!"

"Ilya Muromets?"

"Yes, Ilya Muromets! Maybe you've heard of him! They've made a hero of him--a bogatyr--the parasites! But I say he was just a tramp--a loafer, going sleigh riding in the summer!"

"All right, then! Let's be like Muromets. We could do worse! But who'll be Solovei, the highwayman?"

"There'll be no lack of them--don't you worry!"

Two teachers arrived at the colony--Ekaterina Grigoryevna, and Lydia Petrovna. I had by that time almost despaired of finding teachers; no one seemed anxious to devote himself to the task of creating the new man in our forest--everyone was afraid of our "tramps," and no one believed our plans would come to any good. And then one day at a conference of village schoolteachers, in response to my efforts at persuasive eloquence, two real live people came forward. I was glad they were women. It seemed to me that the "elevating feminine influence" was just what was needed to round out our system.

Lydia Petrovna was extremely young, hardly more than a schoolgirl. She had only just graduated from high school, and was fresh from the maternal nest. The Chief of the Gubernia Department of Public Education, while putting his signature to her appointment, asked me:

"What do you want with a girl like that? She doesn't know a thing!"

"She's just what I was looking for. D'you know I sometimes think book learning is not the chief thing just now. This Lydochka is an unspoiled little thing, and I regard her as a kind of yeast to leaven our dough."

"Aren't you being a bit farfetched? All right, here you are!"

Ekaterina Grigoryevna, on the other hand, was a seasoned pedagogue. She wasn't so very much older than Lydochka, but Lydochka clung to her as a child clings to its mother. Ekaterina Grigoryevna had a grave beauty of countenance, emphasized by black eyebrows almost masculine in their straightness. She was always neat, in clothes that had been preserved, as by a miracle, and Kalina Ivanovich justly observed, after making her acquaintance:

"You've got to watch your step with a girl like that!"

Now everything was in readiness.

On the fourth of December our first six charges arrived at the colony, presenting me with a fantastic packet bearing five huge seals. This packet contained their "records." Four of them had been sent to us for housebreaking while bearing arms. These were about eighteen years old. The other two, who were a little younger, had been accused of theft. Our new charges were splendidly attired, in the smartest of riding breeches and cavalry boots. They wore their hair in the height of fashion. These were no mere street arabs. Their names were Zadorov, Burun, Volokhov, Bendyuk, Gud, and Taranets.

We received them with the utmost cordiality. The whole morning went in preparations for a gala dinner; the cook bound her hair with a fillet of dazzling whiteness; in the dormitory, festive tables were spread in the space unoccupied by the beds; we had no tablecloths, but brand-new sheets provided effective substitutes. All the members of our incipient colony were gathered there. Kalina Ivanovich turned up in honour of the occasion in a green velvet jacket instead of his usual stained grey coat.

I made a speech about the new life of toil, and the need for forgetting the past and pressing ever onward. The newcomers paid scant attention to my words, whispering to one another and allowing their sardonic glances to rove over the camp beds with their worn quilts, and the unpainted window frames and doors. While I was in the middle of my speech, Zadorov suddenly exclaimed loudly to another boy:

"You're the one who let us in for all this!"

We devoted the rest of the day to drawing up plans for our future life. The newcomers, however, listened to my proposals with courteous indifference, eager to get the whole thing over.

And the next morning a much-perturbed Lydia Petrovna came to me with the complaint:

"I can't manage them! When I told them to fetch water from the lake, one of them--the one with his hair done so smartly--started tugging on his boot, letting the toe swing right up to my face, and all he said was: 'Look how tight the bootmaker has made them!' "

The first days they weren't even rude, they merely ignored us. Towards evening they would saunter away, returning only in the morning and acknowledging my pathetic expostulations with discreet smiles. And then, a week later, Bendvuk was arrested by a detective from the Gubernia Criminal Investigation Department for robbery with murder the previous night. Lydochka, frightened out of her wits by this event, retreated to her room for a good cry only emerging every now and then to ask of all and sundry: "What does it mean? I don't understand! Did he just go out and kill somebody?"

Ekaterina Grigoryevna, smiling gravely and knitting her brows, exclaimed:

"I don't know, Anton Semyonovich, I really don't know! Perhaps we'd better just go away! I don't seem to be able to find the right approach."

The lonely forest surrounding the colony, the empty shells of our buildings, our dozen camp beds, the axes and spades which were almost our only tools, the half-dozen boys who were in frank opposition not only to our pedagogical system, but to the very principles of human culture itself--all this was as unlike as possible to any scholastic experience any of us had ever had.

The long winter evenings in the colony were distinctly uncanny. Two oil lamps, one in the dormitory, the other in my room, afforded our only illumination. The teachers and Kalina Ivanovich were reduced to the time-honoured system of our forebears--a wick floating in a saucer of oil. The chimney of my lamp glass was broken at the top, and the lower part was always grimy with soot, owing to Kalina Ivanovich's habit of poking nearly half a newspaper down it to light his pipe.

The snowstorms started early that year, and the yard was soon blocked with drifting snow, through which it was nobody's business to clear paths. I asked the boys to do this, but Zadorov said:

"That's easy enough, but wouldn't it be better to wait till the end of the winter? What's the good of us clearing it away when it's sure to snow again? See?"

Bestowing a smile of angelic sweetness upon me, he joined a friend, as if oblivious of my very existence. It could be seen at a glance that Zadorov was the child of educated parents. He spoke correctly, and his face had that youthful refinement only found among those who have had a well-nurtured childhood. Volokhov belonged to quite another category. His wide mouth, spreading nose, and wide-set eyes, composed, with the puffy mobility of his features, the physiognomy of a typical "tough" Volokhov, his hands as always deep in the pockets of his riding breeches, sauntered up to me:

"Well, you've had your answer," he drawled.

I went out of the dormitory, my rage congealing into a hard lump in my chest. But paths had to be cleared, and my suppressed fury called imperatively for the outlet of action.

"Let's go and clear away the snow!" I said having sought out Kalina Ivanovich.

"What? Have I come here to be a navvy? And those chaps?"

He motioned in the direction of the dormitory. "The highwaymen?"

"They won't!"

"The parasites! Come on, then!"

Kalina Ivanovich and I had almost finished the first path when Volokhov and Taranets came along it for their nightly sally townwards.

"Atta boy!" cried Taranets gaily.

"And high time, too!" added Volokhov.

Kalina Ivanovich blocked their way.

"What d'you mean 'high time'?" he spluttered. "Just because you, you blighters, don't want to work, you think I'm going to do it for you! You shan't use this path, you parasites! You go through the snow, or I'll bash your head in with this shovel!"

Kalina Ivanovich brandished the spade fiercely, but the next moment it had flown into a distant snowdrift, while his pipe catapulted in another direction, and the astonished Kalina Ivanovich stood there, blinking, at the departing youths.

"You can go and get the shovel yourself!" they shouted, proceeding on their way with gales of laughter.

"I'll quit, hang me if I don't! I'm not going to work here any more!" said Kalina Ivanovich, and he went back to his room, leaving the spade in the snowdrift.

Life at the colony became melancholy and gruesome. Cries of "Help, help!" were heard on the Kharkov road night after night, and the plundered villagers were always begging for succour in the most tragic accents. I procured myself a revolver from the Chief of the Gubernia Department of Public Education, by way of protection from our own particular knights of the road, but concealed from him the situation at our colony. I had not as yet given up hope of coming to some sort of an understanding with my charges.

These first months of the existence of the colony, as well as being a time of despair and futile effort for myself and my colleagues, were also a time of ardent research. In the whole of my previous existence I had not read so many books on education as I did that winter of 1920.

It was the time of Wrangel and the Polish war. Wrangel was quite near, just outside Novomirgorod: and quite near to us, in Cherkassy, was the Polish army, while all over the Ukraine roamed the "atamans," and many of those around us were still going about under the blue-and-yellow spell of Petlyura's banners. But in our wilderness we endeavoured, our chins propped on our hands, to shut out the thunder of great events, and devoted ourselves to the study of pedagogics.

The chief outcome of all this reading was a firm, well-founded conviction that the books had yielded me very little in the way of science or theory, and that I should have to bring my own theories out of the sum total of the actual phenomena, as displayed in everyday life.

At first I felt, rather than understood, that what I needed was not a set of abstract formulae, which I should anyhow have been unable to apply, but immediate analysis of the situation, followed by immediate action.

I was well aware that I should have to hurry, that I could not afford to lose a single day. The colony was becoming more and more like a den of thieves and cutthroats. The attitude of the boys to their teachers was rapidly crystallizing into habitual insolence and frank hooliganism. By now they were bandying dirty stories in front of the women teachers, rudely demanding their dinner, throwing plates about the dining room, making open play with their Finnish knives, and inquiring facetiously into the extent of every body's possessions, with jeering remarks such as: "You never know what might come in handy!"

They flatly refused to cut down trees for firewood, breaking up the wooden roof of a shed under the very nose of Kalina Ivanovich, joking and laughing good-humouredly the while.

'It'll last our time!" they cried gaily.

Kalina Ivanovich, scattering constellations of sparks from his pipe, threw out his arms in despair:

"What's the good of talking to them, the parasites!" he cried. "Who taught them to break up what other people have built? Their parents, the parasites, ought to go to quod for it!"

And then, one day, the storm broke. I suddenly lost my footing on the tight rope of pedagogical practice. One wintry morning I asked Zadorov to chop some wood for the kitchen stove, receiving the usual cheerfully insolent reply: "Do it thyself! God knows there are plenty of you here!"

It was the first time any of the boys addressed me with the familiar 'thou." Desperate with rage and indignation, driven to utter exasperation by the experiences of the previous months, I raised my hand and dealt Zadorov a blow full in the face. I hit him so hard that he lost his balance end fell against the stove. Again I struck him, seizing him by the collar and actually lifting him off his feet. And then I struck him the third time.

I saw to my astonishment that he was simply aghast. Pale as death, he kept putting on and taking off his cap with trembling hands. Perhaps I would have gone on hitting him, if he had not begun to whimper out: "Forgive me, Anton Semyonovich!"

My rage was so wild and unbridled that a word of resistance would have set me rushing at the whole pack of them, ready for murder, ready to wipe out this gang of thugs. An iron poker had somehow found its way into my hand. The other five huddled speechless around their beds. Burun was nervously adjusting his clothes.

Turning towards them, I rapped with the poker against the foot of one of the beds.

"Either you all go this minute to work in the woods, or you leave the colony, and to hell with you!"

With this I left the room.

Going to the shed in which our tools were kept, I took up an axe, and grimly watched the boys, who had trooped nearer me, select axes and saws. It did pass through my mind that it might be as well not to put axes into the boys' hands on such a day, but it was too late--they had taken everything they needed. But I was at the end of my tether. I was ready for anything, resolving only that I would not sell my life cheap. Besides, there was a revolver in my pocket.

We set out for the forest. Kalina Ivanovich, overtaking me, whispered in profound excitement: "What's up? For God's sake, what has made them so obliging all of a sudden?"

I looked abstractly into Pan's blue eyes and replied:

"A bad business, old man! For the first time in my life I've struck my fellow man."

"God almighty!" exclaimed Kalina Ivanovich, "and what if they complain?"

"If that were all!"

To my astonishment, however, everything went off swimmingly. The boys and I worked away till dinnertime, cutting down the more stunted pine trees. They were a bit sulky, but the bracing frosty lair, the splendid, snow-crowned pines, and the fellowship of toil, mingling with the rhythm of axe and saw, did their work.

When a halt was called, all self-consciously dipped into my proffered store of coarse tobacco, and Zadorov, sending a puff of smoke towards the pine tops, suddenly burst out laughing:

"That was a good one!"

It was quite a pleasure to look at his rosy, laughing visage, and I couldn't help smiling back at him.

"What? The work?" I asked.

"The work's all right. I meant the way you licked me!"

He was a strong, strapping lad, and could certainly afford to laugh. I was astonished at myself for having dared to lay hands on such a Hercules.

With another peal of laughter, he picked up his axe and went up to a tree:

"What a joke! Oh, what a joke!"

We had dinner all together, with good appetites, bandying jokes, and nobody mentioned the occurrence of the morning.

Still feeling slightly embarrassed, but determined not to relax my authority, I firmly issued orders after dinner.

Volokhov grinned, but Zadorov came up to me and said, with a grave look: "We're not such bad chaps, Anton Semyonovich! Everything will be all right! We understand...."