A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


In February, a bundle of notes almost equivalent to my six months' salary disappeared from one of my drawers.

At that time my room was office, teachers' room, accountant's office, and pay desk, since I fulfilled the corresponding functions in my own person. The bundle of crisp banknotes had disappeared from a locked drawer which bore not the slightest traces of having been forced.

I informed the boy's of this the same evening, asking them to return the money, pointing out that I could adduce no proof of theft, and might easily have been accused of embezzlement. The boys heard me out in grim silence, and dispersed. After this meeting I was waylaid in the dark courtyard on the way to my room in the wing by two of the boys--Taranets and a slight, agile lad named Gud.

"We know who took the money," whispered Taranets, "only we couldn't say so in front of everyone; we don't know where it's hidden. And if we peached, he'd run away with the money."

"Who was it?"

"There's a chap--" began Taranets, but Gud shot him a lowering glance, obviously not approving of his tactics.

"What's the good of talking? He ought to have his mug pushed in."

"And who's going to do it?" retorted Taranets. "You? He could knock you into a cocked hat!"

"Why not tell me who it was. I'll speak to him myself," I said.

"That wouldn't do!"

Taranets was all for a conspiratorial secrecy.

"Well, just as you like," I said, shrugging my shoulders. And I went off to bed.

The next morning Gud found the money in the stable. Someone had stuffed it between the bar of the narrow window, and the notes lay scattered all over the place. Gud, in a frenzy of joy, came running up to me with his fists full of crumpled banknotes in wild disorder.

In his ecstasy Gud capered all over the colony, the other boys were radiant, and kept running into my room to have a look at me. Only Taranets strode about, his head held proudly erect. I refrained from questioning either him or Gud about their activities subsequent to our conversation of the previous night.

Two days later someone wrenched the padlocks off the door of the cellar, and made off with a few pounds of lard--our entire stock of fats, and the padlocks themselves. A day or two later the storeroom window was taken out, and some sweets we had been saving up for the anniversary of the February Revolution, together with a few jars of cart grease, were missing. The cart grease was worth its weight in gold to us.

Kalina Ivanovich actually began to lose flesh; turning his wan visage upon one boy after another, and puffing smoke into their faces, he tried to reason with them:

"Look here! It's all for you, you sons-of-bitches! You're robbing yourselves, you parasites!"

Taranets evidently knew more about it than anyone else, but would say nothing outright, it apparently not suiting his book to give the show away. The boys expressed themselves freely about it, but it was the sporting aspect which appealed to them. They could not be brought round to the view that it was themselves who were being robbed.

In the dormitory I shouted at them in bitter rage:

"Who do you think you are? Are you human beings, or are you--?"

"We're gangsters!" called a voice from a bed at the other end of the room. "Gangsters-that's what we are!"

"Shucks! You're not Gangsters! You're just sneak thieves, stealing from one another! Now you haven't any lard, and be hanged to you! There'll be no sweets for the anniversary. No one's going to give us any more. You can go without--I don't care!"

"But what can we do, Anton Semyonovich? We don't know who did it. You don't know yourself, and no more do we!"

I had known all along that my urgings would be useless. The thief was obviously one of the bigger boys, of whom all the rest went in fear.

The next day I took two of the boys with me into town to try to rangle another fat ration. It took us several days, but in the end we did get some lard. They even issued us a fresh supply of sweets after haranguing us at length for our inability to hold on to what we had already been given. When we got back, we spent the evenings in an exhaustive narration of our adventures. At last the lard was brought to the colony and stored in the cellar. The same night it was stolen.

I was almost glad when this happened. Now, I thought, the common, collective nature of our interests will assert itself, and arouse greater zeal in the matter of clearing up the thefts. As a matter of fact, though all the boys seemed downcast, there was no special display of zeal, and after the first impression had passed, they fell again under the spell of the sporting interest: who was it that worked so adroitly?

A few days later a horse-collar was missing, and now we couldn't even go into town. We had to go from house to house begging the loan of one for a few days.

Thefts had become everyday occurrences. Every morning something or other would be found to be missing: an axe, a saw, a pot or a pan, a sheet, a saddle strap, a pair of reins, provisions. I tried not going to bed, pacing the yard with my revolver handy, but of course I couldn't keep this up more than two or three nights. I asked Osipov to stand guard for one night, but he showed such terror at the prospect that I never brought it up again.

My suspicions fell on many of the boys, not excluding Gud and Taranets. But I could produce no evidence whatsoever, and was compelled to keep my suspicions to myself.

Zadorov, laughing uproariously, asked me facetiously:

"Did you really think, Anton Semyonovich, that it would be all work, work in a labour colony, and not a spot of fun? Just you wait--there's more to come! And what d'you mean to do to the one you catch?"

"Send him to prison."

"Is that all? I thought you intended to beat him up."

One night he came out into the yard, fully dressed.

"I'll walk up and down with you for a bit."

"See that the thieves don't have it in for you. that's all!"

"Oh, they know you're on watch tonight, and they won't go out stealing. So that's all right."

"You're afraid of them, Zadorov, aren't you?

Own up, now!"

"Afraid of the thieves? Of course I am! But me being afraid or not isn't the point--you know yourself, Anton Semyonovich, that it's not the thing to peach on one's pals."

"But it's you yourself who is being robbed."

"Me? There's nothing of mine here."

"But you live here."

"You call this living, Anton Semyonovich? Is this life? Nothing will come of this colony of yours. You might as well give it up! You'll see, as soon as they've stolen all there is to be stolen, they'll run away. You should simply engage a couple of hefty watchmen with rifles."

"I'm not going to engage any watchmen with rifles."

"Why ever not?" asked Zadorov, astonished.

"Watchmen have to be paid and we're poor enough as it is; and what is more important--you've got to learn to realize that you yourselves are the owners."

The idea of hiring night watchmen was suggested by many of the boys. There was a regular debate held on the subject in the dormitory.

Anton Bratchenko, the best of our second batch of boys, argued as follows:

"While there's a watchman on guard, no one will go out stealing, and if anyone does, he'll get a load of shot you-know-where. And after walking about with it for a month he won't try any more tricks."

He was opposed by Kostya Vetovsky, a good-looking boy whose specialty in the world-at-large had been searching people's rooms with forged warrants. His was but a secondary part in these searches, the principal roles belonging to adults. Kostya himself, as attested in his "record," had never stolen anything, his interest in these operations being purely theoretical. Thieves he had alas despised. I had long noted the subtle and complex nature of this lad. What amazed me was the way he got on with the roughest of the boys, and his acknowledged authority on political matters.

"Anton Semyonovich is right,"he insisted. "There mustn't be any watchmen. We don't all understand yet, but soon we shall realize that there must be no stealing in the colony. Even now lots of our chaps understand that. Soon we shall begin to stand guard ourselves. Shan't we, Burun?" he exclaimed, suddenly turning to Burun.

"Why not? There's no harm in standing guard," replied Burun.

In February our housekeeper resigned her post in the colony, I having found her a place in a hospital. One Sunday Laddie was driven up to her doorstep, and all her former cronies and the participants of her philosophical tea parties, began busily piling her innumerable bags and boxes on the sledge. The good old soul, swaying serenely atop of her treasures, set out at Laddie's habitual two kilometres an hour to take up her new life.

But Laddie returned late that same night, bringing back the old woman, who burst sobbing and crying into my room: she had been robbed of almost all her worldly possessions. Her cronies and other helpers had not put all her boxes and bags on to the sledge, but had carried some off--it was a flagrant case of robbery. I at once aroused Kalina Ivanovich, Zadorov and Taranets, and together we searched the colony through and through. Such a lot had been stolen that it had not been possible to hide everything properly. The housekeeper's treasures were found among bushes, in the lofts of outhouses, under the steps of a porch, and even simply pushed beneath beds and behind cupboards. And she certainly was a rich old woman: we found about a dozen new tablecloths, a quantity of sheets and towels, some silver spoons, various little glass receptacles, a bracelet, some earrings, and trifles of all sorts.

The old woman sat weeping in my room, which gradually filled with suspects--her former cronies and allies.

At first the boys denied everything, but after I shouted at them a bit the horizon began to clear. The old lady's friends turned out not to have been the principal thieves. They had restricted themselves to a few souvenirs, such as a napkin or a sugar bowl. Burun was found to have been the chief actor in the whole business. This discovery amazed everyone, especially me. From the very first, Burun had seemed the most reliable of all the boys, invariably grave, reserved, but friendly, and one of the best and most painstaking of our scholars. I was overwhelmed by the scope and thoroughness of his proceedings: he had stowed away the old woman's property by the bale. There could be no doubt that all the previous thefts in the colony had been the work of his hands.

At last I had arrived at the source of the evil! I brought Burun before a "People's Court"--the first to be held in the history of our colony.

In the dormitory, seated on beds and tables, were ranged the ragged and grim-visaged jury. The rays from the oil lamp lit up the tense faces of the boys, and the pale countenance of Burun, who, with his heavy, awkward frame and thick neck, looked like a typical American gangster.

In firm, indignant tones I described the crime to the boys: to have robbed an old woman, whose only happiness consisted in her wretched possessions, to have robbed one ho had shown more affection for the boys than anyone else in the colony, just when she had turned to tem for aid--surely anyone capable of this must have lost all human semblance, he must be, not simply a beast, but a skunk! A man should he able to respect himself, should be strong and proud, and not rob feeble old women of all.

Whatever the cause--whether my speech made a great impression, or whether the boys were sufficiently aroused anyhow--Burun became the object of a united and vehement attack. Little, shockheaded Bratchenko extended his arms towards Burun:

"Well! What can you say for yourself? You ought to be put behind bars, you ought to be thrown into quod! All through you we've gone hungry--it was you who took Anton Semyonovich's money!"

Burun made a sudden protest. "Anton Semyonovich's money? Prove it if you can!"

"Don't you worry about that!"

"Prove it then!"

"So you didn't take it--it wasn't you!"

"So it was me, was it?"

"Of course it was you!"

"I took Anton Semyonovich's money? Who's going to prove it?"

From the back of the room came the voice of Taranets:

"I am!"

Burun as thunderstruck. Turning towards Taranets, he seemed to he going to make a rebuttal, but changing his mind, only said:

"Well, what if I did? I put it back, didn't I?" Somewhat to my surprise the boys burst out laughing. They found the altercation highly entertaining. Taranets bore himself like a hero. Stepping forward he declared:

"But still he shouldn't be expelled. We've all of us done what we oughtn't to. But there'd be no objection to giving him a thorough licking."

Everyone fell silent. Burun let his unhurried glance travel over the pock-marked face of Taranets.

"I'd like to see you do it! What are you trying so hard for, anyway? You'll never be made manager of the colony, however you try! Anton will give me a licking, if necessary and it's none of your business."

Vetkovsky jumped up.

"What d'you mean 'none of our business':' Fellows--is it, or is it not our business?"

"It is, it is!" shouted the boys. "We'll beat him up ourselves, and we'll do it better than Anton could!"

Someone was already making a rush at Burun. Bratchenko was shaking his fists in his very face, bawling. "You ought to be flogged, you ought!"

Zadorov whispered in my ear: "Take him away, or they'll beat him up!"

I dragged Bratchenko away from Burun. Zadorov shoved two or three of the other boys out of the way. With difficulty we put a stop to the din.

"Let Burun speak! Let him tell us!" cried Bratchenko.

Burun hung his head.

"There's nothing to tell. You're right, all of you! Let me go with Anton Semyonovich! Let him punish me as he thinks fit!"

Silence. I moved towards the door, fearing to allow the rage welling up within me to overflow. The boys dispersed to right and left to make way for me and Burun.

We crossed the dark yard picking our way among the snowdrifts in silence, I in front, he following.

My state of mind was deplorable. I regarded Burun as the very scum of humanity. I did not know what to do with him. He had been sent to the colony as one of a gang of thieves, most of whom--the adults--had been shot. He was seventeen years old.

Burun stood silently just inside the door. Seated at the table, I restrained myself with difficulty from throwing some heavy article at him, and thus putting an end to the interview.

At last Burun lifted his head, looked steadily into my eves and said slowly, stressing every word, and scarcely able to repress his sobs:

"I... will... never....steal...again!"

"You're a liar! That's what you promised the Commission!"

"That was the Commission! And this is you! Give me any punishment you like, only don't expel me from the colony."

"And what is it you like about the colony?"

"I like it here. There's the lessons I want to learn. And if I stole, it was because I was always hungry."

"Very well! You'll stray under lock and key for three days and get nothing but bread and water. And don't you lay a finger on Taranets!"

"All right!"

Burun spent three days shut up in the little room next to the dormitory, that very room in which the tutors had slept in the former reform school. I didn't lock him up, he having given his word not to go out of the room without my permission. The first day I did send him nothing but bread and water, but the next day I took pity on him and sent a dinner to him. Burun attempted a proud refusal, but I shouted at him:

Come off that--I don't have any of your airs!"

He smiled faintly, shrugged his shoulders, and took up his spoon.

Burun kept his word. He never stole any thing again, either in the colony, or anywhere else.