A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


While our boys had been brought to regard the property of the colony with something like indifference, there were outside elements which took the deepest interest in it.

The main forces of these elements stationed themselves along the Kharkov highroad. Hardly a night passed without somebody being robbed on this road. A string of carts belonging to the local inhabitants would be held up by a single shot from a sawn-off rifle, and the robbers, without wasting words, would thrust the hand unencumbered by a rifle down the fronts of the women's dresses, while their greatly perturbed husbands, tapping the sided of their high hoots with the handles of their whips, would exclaim in astonishment: "Who would have thought it! We put our money in the safest place we knew--in our wives' dresses. And just look--they make straight for their bosoms!

What may be called collective robbery of this kind was seldom accompanied by bloodshed. The husbands, after having stood still for the time laid down by the robbers, would return to their senses, and come to the colony with graphic accounts of the occurrence. Collecting a posse armed with palings, I taking my revolver, we would rush to the highroad and make a thorough search in the adjoining woods. Only once was our search crowned with success; about half a kilometre from the road we came upon a small group hiding in a forest snowdrift. They answered the shouts of our lads with a single shot, and dispersed in all directions, but we managed to capture one, and take him back to the colony. Neither rifle nor loot was found on him, and he hotly denied all accusations. When handed over to the Gubernia Criminal Investigation Department, however, he was found to be a notorious bandit, and shortly after, the whole gang was arrested. The Gubernia Executive Committee expressed its appreciation to the Gorky Colony.

But the robberies on the highroad went on as before. Towards the end of the winter our boys began to come upon indications of some "sticky business" perpetrated in the night. Once we caught sight of an arm protruding out of the snow between the pine trees. Digging around it, we found the body of a woman, killed by a shot in the face. Another time, in the bushes just beside the road, we found a dead man, in a waggoners coat, with his skull broken in. We awoke one morning to see two men dangling from the trees at the outskirts of the forest. While awaiting the arrival of the coroner, they hung thus for two whole days, staring at the colony with bulging eyes.

Far from displaying any fear in regard to such phenomena, the colonists did not attempt to conceal their interest in them. In the spring, when the snow had melted, they would scour the woods for skulls gnawed clean by foxes, mount them on sticks, and carry them into the colony for the express purpose of scaring Lydia Petrovna. As it was, the teachers lived in perpetual terror, trembling in their beds lest at any moment a gang of robbers should burst into the colony, and a massacre begin. The Osipovs, whom general opinion credited with possessions worth stealing, were the most terrified of all.

One evening towards the end of February, when our cart, loaded with all sorts of provisions, was crawling home from the town at its usual rate, it was held up just at the turning leading to the colony. On the cart were grain and sugar, which for some reason did not appeal to the highwaymen. Kalina Ivanovich had no valuables on him but his pipe. This circumstance aroused the righteous indignation of the robbers, who struck Kalina Ivanovich over the head, so that he fell into the snow, where he lay till they disappeared. Gud, who was always entrusted with the care of Laddie, remained a passive witness of the incident. When they got back to the colony, they both poured detailed accounts of the adventure into our ears, Kalina Ivanovich stressing the dramatic side, while Gud emphasized the comic aspect. But a unanimous resolution was passed, henceforward always to send an escort from the colony to meet the cart on its way home.

We stuck to this resolution for two years. And we gave these sallies along the highroad la military name--"straddling the road."

An escort usually consisted of about ten persons. Sometimes I would be one of them, as had a revolver. I couldn't trust all and sundry with it, and without a revolver our posse was felt to be scarcely strong enough. To Zadorov alone I would occasionally entrust the revolver, which he would proudly strap over his rags.

Road duty was an extremely interesting occupation. We would dispose ourselves over one and a half kilometres of the road, from the bridge over the river, to the turning leading to the colony. The boys tried to keep themselves warm by jumping about in the snow, shouting to one another the while, so as not to lose contact, and striking terror of sudden death into the soul of the belated traveller in the dusk. Homeward-faring villagers, whipping up their horses, dashed silently past regularly recurring figures of a most sinister aspect. Sovkhoz directors and other representatives of authority swept by on their rattling carts, taking care to let the boys see their double-barrelled guns and sawn-off rifles; pedestrians lingered by the bridge in the hope of enlisting the support of numbers in the form of fellow wayfarers.

When I was with them, the boys never got tough, or scared travellers, but without my restraining influence they sometimes got out of hand, and Zadorov insisted on my accompanying them, even though it meant giving up the revolver I started going out with the escort every time, but I let Zadorov carry the revolver, not wishing to deprive him of his well-earned enjoyment.

When our Laddie came into sight we would greet him with shouts of "Halt! Hands up!" But Kalina Ivanovich would only smile and start puffing at his pipe with exaggerated satisfaction. His pipe lasted him the whole way, and the familiar saying: "the hours passed unnoticed" was fully applicable here.

The escort would gradually fall into line behind Laddie, and enter the grounds of the colony in a gay crowd, eagerly inquiring of Kalina Ivanovich the latest items of news with regard to provisions.

This same winter we went in for operations the importance of which extended far beyond the interests of the colony--operations of national importance. The forest guard came to our colony and asked us to help to keep watch in the woods, there being too much illicit felling going on for his staff to cope with.

The guarding of the state forest considerably raised us in our own estimation, provided us with extremely interesting work, and ultimately brought us in no small profit. Night. Day will soon be breaking, but it is still quite dark. I am waked by a tap on my window. Opening my eyes I can just make out through the frosty patterns on the windowpane, a nose pressed flat against it, and a tousled head.

"What's up?"

"Anton Semyonovich, they're cutting down trees in the woods!"

Lighting my improvised lamp, I dress rapidly, pick up my revolver and double-barrelled gun, and go out.

On the doorstep on one such night were those ardent lovers of nocturnal adventure--Burun, and a guileless little chap named Shelaputin. Burun took over the gun and we entered the wood.

"Where are they?"


We came to a stop. At first I could hear nothing, but gradually I began to make out, amidst the confused sounds of the night, and the sound of our own breathing, the dull thud-thud of steel against wood. We followed the sound, stooping to avoid detection, the branches of young pine trees scratching our faces, knocking off my glasses, and scattering snow over us. Every now and then the sound of the axe would cease, so that we didn't know which direction to take and had to wait patiently for it to begin again. And ever and anon the sounds would be repeated, getting louder and nearer every minute.

We tried to approach as quietly as possible, so as not to frighten away the thief. Burun lumbered along with a certain bear-like agility, the diminutive Shelaputin tripping after him, pulling his jacket closer to keep himself warm. I took up the rear.

At last we reached our goal. We posted ourselves behind the trunk of a pine tree, just in time to see a tall slender tree quivering throughout its length--at its base a belted figure. After a few tentative, fumbling strokes the wielder of the axe straightened himself, glanced round, and again resumed his felling. We were now about five yards away from him. Burun, holding the gun in readiness, muzzle upwards, looked at me and held his breath. Shelaputin, crouching beside me, leaned against my shoulder and whispered:

"May I? Is it time?"

I nodded. Shelaputin gave Burun's coat sleeve a tug.

The shot rang out with a terrific explosion, resounding through the trees.

Instinctively the man with the axe squatted down. Silence. We went up to him. Shelaputin knew his job, and the axe was already in his hands. Burun cried out in cheerful greetings:

"Ah! Moussi Karpovich! Good morning!"

He patted Moussi Karpovich on the shoulder, but Moussi Karpovich was unable to utter a single word in response. Trembling from head to foot, he kept mechanically flicking the snowflakes from the left sleeve of his coal.

"Where's your horse?" I asked.

Moussi Karpovich was still unable to speak, and Burun answered for him:

"There it is! Hi, you! Come over here!"

Only then did I observe, through the screen of pine branches, a horse's head and the shaft-bow of a farm cart.

Burun took Moussi Karpovich by the arm. "This way to the ambulance, Moussi Karpovich!" he said gaily.

At last Moussi Karpovich began to manifest signs of life. Taking off his cap, he passed his hand over his hair, whispering without looking at us: "My God! My God!"

Together we moved towards the sleigh. The sleigh was slowly turned, and soon we were moving over deep tracks now almost hidden by feathery snow. Our driver, a lad of fourteen or so, in an enormous cap and outsize boots, made clucking sounds to the horse, and shook the reins mournfully. He kept snuffling, and seemed thoroughly upset.

On nearing the outskirts of the wood Burun took the reins from the lad.

"You're going the wrong way!" he exclaimed. "If you were carrying a load, it would be the right way, but as you're only driving your Dad, this is the way."

"To the colony?" questioned the lad, but Burun did not give him back the reins, and turned the horse's head in the direction of the colony.

Day was beginning to break.

Suddenly Moussi Karpovich halted the horse by twitching at the reins over Burun's arm, at the same time, with his free hand, taking off his cap.

"Anton Semyonovich!" he pleaded. "Let me go! It's the very first time! We have no fire wood.... Do let me go!"

Burun angrily shook Moussi Karpovich's hand off the reins, but did not send the horse on, waiting to see what I was going to say.

No, no, Moussi Karpovich!" I said. "That won't do! We'll have to draw up a deposition. This is an affair of State--you know that!"

Shelaputin's silvery treble rose towards the dawn:

"And it's not the first time either! It's not the first time, but the third! Once your Vassili was caught, and the next time...."

Burun's hoarse baritone cut across the silver music of the treble:

"What's the good of us hanging about here? You, Andrei, get away home! You're just small fry! Go and tell your mother, Dad's been caught. Let her get something ready to send to him."

Andrei, frightened out of his wits, scrambled down from the cart and ran at top speed towards the farmstead. We started on our way again. Just as we entered the colony grounds we encountered a group of lads setting out to meet us.

"Oh, oh! We thought you were being murdered, and we decided to come out and save you."

"The operation has been carried out with complete success!" laughed Burun.

Everyone crowded into my room. Moussi Karpovich, profoundly dejected, sat on a chair facing me. Burun took up his seat on the window-sill, still holding the gun. Shelaputin whispered the gruesome details of the night's adventure into the ears of his pals. Two of the boys were sitting on my bed, and the rest were ranged on benches, all absorbed in watching the process of the taking of a deposition.

The deposition was drawn up in heart-rending detail.

"You have twelve desyatins [about 2.7 acres] of land, haven't you? And three horses?"

"Horses!" groaned Moussi Karpovich. "You can't call that one a horse! It's only a two-year old."

"A three-year old!" insisted Burun, patting Moussi Karpovich kindly on the shoulder.

I went on writing:

"The cut was six inches deep....

Moussi Karpovich flung out his arms: "Ah, now Anton Semyonovich! For God's sake! How d'you make that out? It was barely four!"

Suddenly Shelaputin, breaking off in the middle of his whispered narrative, measured about half a metre with his extended arms, and grinned cheekily into Moussi Karpovich's face.

"Like this?" he cried. "This is how deep it was, isn't it?"

Moussi Karpovich, pretending not to notice the interruption, submissively followed with his eyes the movements of my pen.

The deposition was completed. On leaving Moussi Karpovich shook hands with me with an air of injured innocence, and extended his hand to Burun as the eldest of the boys present.

"You shouldn't be doing this, lads," he said. "We've all got to live!"

Burun answered him with facetious courtesy: "Don't mention it! Always happy to oblige!" Then he was struck by a sudden thought:

"I say, Anton Semyonovich! What about the tree?"

This set us all to thinking. After all, the tree was almost felled, by tomorrow somebody would be sure to finish it off and take it away. Without waiting to hear the outcome of our musings, Burun made for the door. On his way out he flung a remark over his shoulder at the now thoroughly vanquished Moussi Karpovich:

"Don't you worry--we'll bring the horse back! Who's going with me, lads? All right--six will be enough. Is there a rope there, Moussi Karpovich?"

"It's tied to the sleigh."

Everyone went out. An hour later a long pine tree was brought into the colony. This was our time-honoured tradition, remained in the colony. For a very long time to come, whenever inventories are being checked, we shall say to one another:

"Where is Moussi Karpovich's axe?"

It was not so much moral expostulations or occasional outbursts of wrath, as this fascinating and vital struggle with hostile elements which fostered the first shy growth of a healthy collective spirit. Of an evening we would hold lengthy discussions, laughing our fill, sometimes embroidering upon the subjects of our adventures, and drawing ever closer to one another in the thick of these adventures, till we gradually became that integral unit known as the Gorky Colony.