A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


The next day I said to the boys: "The dormitory must be kept clean! You must appoint a dormitory monitor. You can only go to town with my permission. If anyone goes without it, he needn't trouble to come back, or I won't let him in.

"I say!" exclaimed Volokhav...couldn't you let us down a little more lightly?"

"Well, boys, you can choose for yourselves," I said. "That's all I can do! There's got to be discipline in the colony. If you don't like it, find somewhere else to go to. But those who stay will submit to discipline. Whatever you think, we're not going to run a thieves den here."

"Shake!" said Zadorov, extending his hand towards me· "You're right! You, Volokhov, shut up! You're a fool about this sort of thing. Anyhow we have to stay here for la while. And it's better than quod, isn't it?"

"And is attending school compulsory?" asked Volokhov.


And if I don't wish to study? What good'll it do me?"

"School is compulsory. You've got to attend whether you like it, or not. Zadorov called you a fool just now. You must learn and grow wise."

Volokhov shook his head comically, exclaiming:

We're in for it now!"

The incident with Zadorov proved to be a turning point in discipline. I have to admit that I was beset by no qualms of conscience. Very well--I had struck one of my pupils. Keenly as I felt the pedagologial impropriety, the illegality of my action, at the same time I realized that the purity of our pedagogical conscience would have to be subordinated to the immediate task before me. I firmly decided to be a dictator if other methods failed. Not long after I came to loggerheads with Volokhov, who, while monitor, had failed to clean up the dormitory, and refused to do so on being reprimanded.

"Don't drive me to extremes," I said, looking sternly at him. "Do the room!"

"And if I don't you'll give me one in the eye, will you? You have no right to!"

I seized him by the collar, dragged him towards me, and, with the fullest sincerity, hissed into his face:

"Listen! I give you fair warning! I shan't give you one in the eye--I'll mark you for life! Then you can complain. If I go to prison for it, it's no business of yours."

Volokhov wriggled out of my grasp, exclaiming plaintively:

"No sense in going to prison for a little thing like that! I'll tidy the room, damn you!"

"Don't you dare to talk to me like that!" I roared at him.

"Well, how d'you want to be talked to? Go to----"

"Go on! Swear!" Suddenly he burst out laughing, with a baffled gesture.

"What a fellow!" he cried. "All right, I'll tidy the room, don't shout at me!"

It should not be thought that I believed, even for a moment, that I had discovered a sovereign disciplinary method in the use of physical force. The Zadorov incident had cost me more than it had cost Zadorov himself. I was in constant fear of falling into the habit of taking the line of least resistance. Lydia Petrovna criticized me with frank severity:

"So you've discovered a method at last? Just like in the old seminary, isn't it?"

"Leave me alone, Lydochka!"

"No, but really! Are we to beat them up? May I, too? Or is it your monopoly?"

"I'll let you know a little later, Lydochka. I don't yet know myself. Give me time!"

"All right! I can wait."

Ekaterina Grigoryevna went about with a frown on her brows for some days, addressing me with distant politeness. Five days passed before she asked me, with her grave smile:

"Well, how are you feeling?"

"Thanks! I'm all right."

"D'you know what's the most distressing feature of this affair?"

"Distressing?" "Yes. It is that the boys speak of your exploit with enthusiasm. They are all but in love with you, especially Zadorov. What does it mean--I don't understand! Could it come from a habit of servitude?"

I thought for a while before answering, and then said:

"No, it isn't that. It has nothing to do with servitude. It must he something else. Let's look deeper: after all, Zadorov is stronger than I am, he could have crippled me with a single blow. And he fears nothing, any more than Burun and the rest do. In this whole affair it's not the beating they remember, it's the passion, the fury of a human being. They know very well I needn't have beaten them, I could easily have sent Zadorov back to the Commission as incorrigible, and made things unpleasant for them in all sorts of ways. But I didn't do any of this; instead I chose a way which was dangerous for myself, but it was a human, not a bureaucratic way. And after all they do really need our colony. Things are not so simple. And they see how we work for them. They're human beings, too. And this is a most important factor."

"You may be right," said Ekaterina Grigoryevna thoughtfully.

But this was no time for philosophical musings. A week later, in February 1921, I went to town in a furniture cart and brought back some fifteen real waifs, in real rags. What with scrubbing them, getting them fitted out somehow or other, and curing them of the itch, they gave us plenty to do. By March we had thirty boys at the colony. Most of them were in a terrible state of neglect, savage beings who were by no means hopeful material for the fulfilment of the social-educational ideal. So far they seemed entirely devoid of that creativeness which is said to bring the child's mental processes so close in type to those of the scientist.

Our colony had become richer in teachers too. By March we had a regular Pedagogical Council. To the astonishment of the whole colony Ivan Ivanovich Osipov, and his wife Natalya Markovna, brought with them quite a lot of property in the form of couches, chairs, cupboards, and all sorts of raiment and dishes. Our ill-clad charges watched with profound interest the depositing of all these goods at the door of the Osipov abode. This interest was far from abstract, and I was extremely afraid that this glorious display might find its way to the stalls of the market.

A week later the marked interest taken in the possessions of the Osipovs was diverted to the arrival of a housekeeper. This functionary was an extremely good natured, garrulous, simple old soul. Her inventory, while not so valuable as that of the Osipovs, included some extremely titillating items. To wit: large quantities of flour, jars full of jam and other cornestibles, a number of neat little boxes, and certain bags which the trained eyes of our boys knew, by their contours, to contain all manner of good things.

The housekeeper arranged her room very cosily, according to the canons of an old woman, placing her sundry bags and boxes in corners and on shelves which seemed to have been destined for them from the beginning of time, and very soon the friendliest footing had been established between her and some of our boys. This friendship was founded on the principle of mutual advantage: the boys brought her firewood and tended her samovar, in exchange for which services she would treat them to an occasional cup of tea and entertain them with her worldly wisdom. There was really nothing for a housekeeper to do at our colony, and I used to puzzle over her appointment.

Decidedly there was no need of a housekeeper at the colony. We were incredibly poor. Apart from the few rooms in which the staff was installed, we had only been able, on the whole premises, to put into repair one barge dormitory, with two cylindrical iron stoves. In this room there were thirty camp beds, and three tables, at which the boys ate, and did their lessons. Another large dormitory, a dining room, two classrooms, and an office, awaited their turn to be put into repair.

We had one and a half changes of bed clothes, and no other linen at all. Almost our only contact with wearing apparel consisted in endless appeals to the Department of Public Education, and other departments.

The Chief of the Gubernia Department of public Education who had so confidently called the colony into being, had been transferred to another job, and his successor, who bad more important work to do, displayed little interest in us.

The atmosphere at the Gubernia Department of Public Education was far from propitious to our dreams of prosperity. At that time the Gunernia Department of Public Education consisted in a conglomeration of rooms big and little, and all sorts of individuals, but the true pedagogical creative units were not so much rooms or people, as tables. Rickety, with peeling surfaces, once red or black, these erstwhile desks, dressing tables and card tables, surrounded by equally heterogeneous chairs, represented the various departments, as testified to by notices hung on the walls over each table. Most of the tables were deserted, since the human appendage of any given table was as a rule not so much the head of his department as bookkeeper or something else in some other commissariat. Should a figure suddenly happen to appear behind any of the tables--all those waiting their turn would make a rush at him. The ensuing conversations were restricted to inquiries as to whether this was the right department, or another should he applied to--and if so why, and which one? And if this was not the right department, why had the comrade who was at that table over there last Saturday, said it was? After successfully elucidating these points, the head of the department hastened to weigh anchor, and disappeared with the rapidity of a shooting star.

Our faltering perambulations around the tables got us nowhere. And so, in the winter of 1921, our colony was not much like an educational establishment. Tattered padded jackets barely covered the boys' naked bodies; but seldom could the remains of a crumbling shirt be made out beneath a jacket. The first batch of boys, who had arrived so well-dressed, did not long stand out among the others: chopping wood, kitchen duty and work in the laundry, educational as all these tasks were, had disastrous effects upon clothing. By March our boys might have evoked the envy of an actor playing the part of the Miller in Dargomyzhsky's Water Pixy. Very few of them had boots, most of them winding strips of cotton or linen, kept on with string, round their feet. And even in this primitive form of footwear there was a shortage.

Our food known as kondyor. [A thin millet gruel--Tr.] Other forms of norishment were not to be counted on. In those days there were various categories of food rations--normal rations, increased rations, nations for delicate individuals, rations for healthy individuals, rations for "defective" children, sanatorium rations, hospital rations. By the exercise of the most subtle diplomacy, by begging, by strategy, through the appeal of our wretched looks, even by hints at the danger of a revolt among the boys, we sometimes angled a sanatorium ration, or some other augmented allowance. Such rations ostensibly included milk, fats galore, and white bread. Of course we got nothing of the sort, but we did get extra allowance of black bread and some groats for a time. Every month or so we suffered a strategic defeat, which would degrade us to the condition of ordinary mortals again, and then we had to start all over again weaving our intricate web of open and secret diplomacy. Sometimes we actually managed to get meat, smoked fish, and candy rations, but this only made it harder to bear when it subsequently appeared that only mental defectives, and not moral defectives, were entitled to such luxuries.

Occasionally, overstepping the limits of the strictly pedagogical sphere, we made sallies into outlying domains, such as the Gubernia Commissariat for Supplies, or the Food Commissariat of the First Reserve Army, or some other more or less appropriate authority. The Department of Public Education severely discountenanced such irregular proceedings, and our sallies had to be made in secret.

All we had to do was to arm ourselves with a paper inscribed with the simple but expressive legend: "The Colony for Juvenile Delinquents requests one hundred poods of rye flour for the use of its inmates."

At the colony itself we never used words like "delinquent," and our colony never bore such a title. In those days we were known as "moral defectives." But such a title, being too suggestive of educational authorities, would not have done when approaching outside departments.

Armed with my paper, I would station myself in the corridor of an appropriate department, just outside the door of the main office. A perpetual stream of visitors was always passing through this door. Sometimes the office was so crowded that anyone who liked could get in. Once inside, one only had to elbow one's way through the crowd towards the official seated at the table, and silently insert one's paper between his hands.

The heads of supply departments were as a rule but little versed in the intricacies of pedagogics, and would often fail to see any connection between "juvenile delinquents" and the educational system. Moreover, the emotional impact of the very words "juvenile delinquents" was an impressive one. It was therefore but seldom that an official would glance sharply at us with the words: "What made you come to us? Apply to your Department of Public Education.

More often this is what happened: the official, after due thought, would propound a series of questions.

"Who's supposed to supply you--the prison authorities?"

"Well, no, the prison authorities don't supply us. Our boys are miners, you see.

"Who does then?"

"Well, you see, that hasn't yet been established."

"How d'you mean 'hasn't been established'? Isn't that rather strange?"

At this point in the proceedings the official, jotting a few words on his pad, would tell us to come again in a week's time.

"In that case," I would suggest, "perhaps you could just let us have twenty poods to go on with."

"I can't give you twenty--you can have five for the present. And I'll investigate the matter as soon as I can."

Five poods was inadequate, and the conversation had taken a turn by no means in accordance with our plans which, naturally, had not provided for investigations of any sort.

The only outcome of such interviews which was acceptable to the Gorky Colony, was for the official, without putting any inconvenient questions, to receive our paper in silence, scribbling across one corner of it the single word: "Granted."

When this happened I would rush headlong back to the colony.

"Kalina Ivanovich! An order! A hundred poods! Quick, get hold of some men and go and fetch it before they have time to make investigations."

Kalina Ivanovich would stoop gleefully over the paper.

"A hundred poods! Fancy that! Where does it come from?"

"Can't you see? The Gubernia Commissariat for Supplies for the Gubernia Department for Jurisdiction!"

"Whatever does that mean? But never mind--we're not particular where it comes from!"

The primary need of man is food. The clothing situation was not, therefore, so depressing to us as the food problem. Our charges were perpetually hungry, and this complicated to a considerable extent the task of their moral re-education. And they were only able to satisfy their appetite to a very small extent by private enterprise.

One of the principal forms of their private food industry was fishing. This was a strenuous occupation in winter. The easiest method was to pillage the yateri (nets in the form of a four-faceted pyramid) set up in a neighbouring stream and in our lake by the inhabitants of the hamlet. The instinct of self-preservation, and a certain common sense in regard to their own practical interests which is inherent in human nature, restrained the boys from carrying off the actual nets, but a day came hen this golden rule was broken by one of them.

This was Taranets. Sixteen years of age, he was from an old-established family of thieves, slender, pock-marked, gay, witty. He was a splendid organizer, and a most enterprising individual, but he had little respect for the interests of the collective. Having stolen several yateri from the river, he brought them into the colony. The owners of the nets came in his wake, and the affair culminated in a great row. After this the farmers began to keep watch over their nets, and our fishermen rarely managed to plunder them. Not long after, however, Taranets and a few other boys became the proud possessors of nets of their own, presented to them by a mysterious "friend in the town." With the aid of these nets our fisheries soon became a flourishing concern. At first fish was enjoyed by the privileged few, but towards the end of the winter Taranets imprudently decided to include me among the elect.

He came to my room with a plate of fried fish.

"I've brought you some fish."

"So I see, but I'm not going to accept it."

"Why not?" "Because it wouldn't be right. Everyone in the colony ought to get some."

Taranets flushed with indignation.

"Why should they? I get the nets, I catch the fish, I get soaked through in the river, and now I'm to share it with everyone!"

"All right, take your fish away, I didn't get any nets, and I didn't get soaked though."

"But this is a present."

"And I'm not going to accept it. I don't like the whole business. There's something wrong."

"What's wrong?"

"I'll tell you what: you didn't buy the nets, did you? You say they were given to you'"

"That's right!"

'And who were thy meant for? Only for you? Or for the whole colony?"

"What do you mean--the whole colony? They were given to me."

And I consider that they were meant for me and for all of us. Whose frying pans do you use? Your own? No--everyone's! And the sunflower oil you wheedle out of the cook--whose is that, d'you think? Everyones, of course! And the wood, the stove, the pails? Well--what have you to say to that? I have only to confiscate your yateri, and that would be the end of it. But it's your uncomradely spirit that's worst of all. What if the nets are yours--you have your comrades to think of. Anyone can catch fish."

"All right," said Taranets, "have it your own way. But do have some fish!"

I accepted the fish, and from that day, everyone took a turn at fishing, and the catch was sent to the kitchen.

Another unofficial means of procuring food consisted in visits to the market. Every day Kalina Ivanovich would harness Laddie, our Kirghiz, and set forth to procure provisions, an onslaught on the respective departments. Two or three of the boys who had reasons of their own for going to town--for medical treatment perhaps, or to appear before some commission--would insist on accompanying him, to help him by holding Laddie's head when necessary. These lucky ones would return from the town with full stomachs, and usually brought something good for their comrades with them. There was not a single case of anyone getting run in at the market. The spoils obtained during these sallies were given a legitimate aspect: "My aunt gave it to me," "I met a friend," and so on. I tried not to insult any member of our colony by base suspicions, and invariably accepted these explanations. What good could my distrust do, anyhow? The famished, grubby lads, wildly searching for food, did not seem to me suitable material for the propagation of morals of any sort, on such trifling provocation was the snatching of a bublik, [rings of cracknel dough--tr.] or a pair of boot-soles from a market stall.

Our unutterable poverty had its good side: everyone--director, teachers and pupils--was equally hungry and equally needy. Our salaries were worth very little in those days, and all had to put up with the same wretched kondyor and go about in almost the same tattered condition. All through the winter I had practically no soles to my boots, and bits of my portyanki [strips of cloth or linen bound round foot and ankle, and worn instead of sack inside high boots.--Tr.] were always sticking out. The one exception was Ekaterina Grigoryevna, in her scrupulously brushed and tended dresses.