A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


All this time our colony was gradually consolidating the material side of its existence. Neither extreme poverty, vermin, nor frost-bitten toes, could prevent our indulging in dreams of happier future. Despite the fact that our middle-aged Laddie and ancient seed-drill offered little hope for the development of agriculture, all our dreams revolved around farming. But so far these were only dreams. Laddie's horse-power was so inadequate to agricultural requirements that it was only by the wildest flight of fancy that he could be pictured drawing a plough. Besides, along with all the rest of us, Laddie was under nourished. It was with the greatest difficulty that we obtained straw for him--not to mention hay. All through the winter, driving him was a prolonged torture, and Kalina Ivanovich got a chronic pain in his right arm from the threatening motions with the whip without which Laddie refused to budge.

To crown all, the very soil on which our colony stood was unsuited to agricultural purposes. It as little better than sand, which a breath of wind sent shelving into dunes.

Even at this distance of time I am unable to understand how it was, situated as we were, that we dared to embark upon so wild a venture--one which was, nevertheless, destined to put us on our feet.

It all began in the most fantastic manner.

Fortune suddenly smiled upon us, and we obtained an order for oak logs. They had to be fetched straight from the woods where they were felled. Although these particular woods were within the boundary of our Village Soviet, we had never been so far in that direction before.

Having arranged to go there with two of our neighbours from the farmstead, they providing the horses, we set of on our travels into a strange land. When we got to the place, Kalina Ivanovich and I turned our attention to a distant line of poplars towering above the reeds of the frozen stream. Leaving the drivers among the fallen trees to load their sleighs and argue as to the probability of the logs falling off on the way, we crossed the ice, climbed a hill by a sort of avenue on the other side of the river, and found ourselves in a kingdom of the dead. Before us, in the most ruinous condition, stood almost a dozen buildings of varying sizes--houses, sheds, huts, outhouses, and the like. All were in about the same stage of dilapidation. Where once there had been stoves, there now lay heaps of bricks and lumps of clay, half-covered with snow. Floors, doors, windows, staircases, had ail disappeared. Many of the partitions and ceilings were shattered, and here and there brick walls and foundations had been removed bodily. All that remained of the vast stables were the walls back and front, above which there towered, in blank melancholy, a remarkable iron tank or cistern which looked as if it had been freshly painted. On the whole estate this tank alone seemed to be imbued with life-- everything else was stone-dead.

On one side of the yard stood a new two-storey house, left unstuccoed, but with some pretensions to style. Its lofty, spacious chambers retained fragments of plaster moulding and marble window-sills. At the opposite end of the yard there was a new stable built of hollow concrete. Even the most dilapidated of the buildings amazed us on closer examination by their solid workmanship, huge oak beams, sinewy ties, and slender rafters, and by the precision of all vertical lines. That powerful economic frame had not died of senility and disease, but had been violently destroyed in its prime.

Kalina Ivanovich groaned at the sight of so much wealth.

"Just look at it all!" he cried. "A river, garden--and what meadows!"

The river bounded the estate on three sides, gliding past that hill which was such a rarity on our plains. The orchard sloped towards the river in three terraces, the first planted with cherry trees, the second with apple trees and pear trees, and the lowest thickly covered with black currant hushes.

In a yard on the other side of the main building was a large, five-storey mill, its sails going full swing. From the workers at the mill we learned that the estate had belonged to the brothers Trepke, who had fled with Denikin's army, abandoning their houses with all that was in them at the time. All movable property had long ago found its a to the neighbouring village or Goncharovka and nearby farmsteads, and now the houses themselves were on their way out. Kalina Ivanovich was moved to eloquence.

"Savages!" he burst out. "Swine! Idiot! Look at all this property! Dwellings! Stables! Why couldn't you have lived here, sons-of-bitches? You could have moved in, farmed the place, drunk your coffee--but all you can think of is hacking at this frame with an axe. And what for? All because you must boil your precious dumplings, and you're too lazy to chop wood.... May the dumplings stick in your throats, you fools, you idiots! They'll go to their grave just as they are--no revolution will help the likes of them! Oh, the swine, oh, the rotters, the cursed blockheads! What the hell!"

Here Kalina Ivanovich turned to a passing worker from the mill.

"Could you tell me, Comrade," he asked, "how to get that tank up there? The one sticking up over the stable. It'll he ruined here, anyhow without doing any good to anyone."

"That tank? Damned if I know! The Village Soviet is responsible for everything here."

"I see. Well, that's something!" said Kalina Ivanovich, and he set out for home.

Striding home behind our neighbours' sleighs, over the smooth surface of the road, which was already beginning to yield to the influence of impending spring, Kalina Ivanovich indulged in daydreams: wouldn't it be nice if we could get hold of that tank, move it to the colony, and set it up in the attic over the laundry, thus converting the laundry into a steam bath?

The next morning, before setting out again for the forest, Kalina Ivanovich buttonholed me. "Do write me a paper for that there Village Soviet, there's a good chap! They no more need a rank than a dog needs hip pockets! And for us it would mean a steam bath."

To please him I gave Kalina Ivanovich a paper. Towards evening he returned, almost beside himself with rage.

"The parasites! They look at everything theoretically, they're incapable of a practical point of view! They say--drat them!--this here tank is state property. Did you ever hear of such idiots! Write me out another paper--I'll go straight to the Volost Executive Committee."

"How are you going to get there? It's twenty kilometres away. What'll you go in?"

"I know someone who's going that way, he'll give me a lift."

Kalina Ivanovich's plan for a steam bath appealed to everyone at the colony, but nobody believed he would be able to obtain the tank.

"Let's make one without it. We can make a wooden tank."

"A lot you understand! If people made tanks of iron, it means they knew what they were about! And I mean to get it, if I have to choke it out of them!"

"And how do you mean to get it over here? Is Laddie to haul it?"

"That'll be all right! Where there's a trough there'll always be pigs!"

Kalina Ivanovich came back from the Volost Executive Committee crosser than ever, and seemed to have forgotten all words which were not oaths.

Throughout the next week he followed me about, begging me, to the accompaniment of laughter from the boys, for yet another "paper to the Uyezd Executive Committee."

Leave me alone, Kalina Ivanovich! "I cried. "I have other things to think of besides this tank of yours!"

"Do write me out a paper!" he insisted. "It can't hurt you! Do you grudge the paper, or what? Just you write it out, and I'll bring you the tank."

I wrote out this paper, too, for Kalina Ivanovich. Thrusting it into his pocket, he at last relaxed into a smile.

"There can't be such an idiotic law--letting good property go to ruin, and no one lifting a finger! We're not living under the tsarist regime any more!"

But Kalina Ivanovich returned late in the evening from the Uyezd Executive Committee and did not put in an appearance either in the dormitory or in my room. He did not come to see me till the next morning, when he was coldly supercilious, aloofly dignified, fixing his eye upon a distant point out of the window.

"Nothing will come of it," he said tersely, handing me back the paper.

Right across our minutely detailed application was written curtly, in red ink, the one word, decisive and heartbreakingly final--"Refuse." Kalina Ivanovich brooded long and passionately over this reverse. For almost two weeks he lost his delightful elderly sprightliness.

The following Sunday, when March was dealing drastically with the remains of the snow, I invited some or the boys to come for a walk with me. They scraped together some warm garments, and we set out for... the Trepke estate.

"What if we move our colony over here!" I mused aloud.

"Over here?"

"To these houses."

"But they're not habitable!"

"We could put them into repair."

Zadorov burst out laughing and started spinning around the yard.

"We have three houses waiting to be repaired," he reminded me, "and we haven't been able to get them done all the winter."

"I know! But supposing we could get this place put into repair?"

"Oh! That would be some colony! A river--a garden--and a mill!"

We scrambled about among the ruins and let our fancy soar: here we'd have a dormitory, here a dining room, this would make a capital club, and there would be the school-rooms....

We came home exhausted but full of energy. In the dormitory a noisy discussion of the details of our future colony was held. Before separating for the night, Ekaterina Grigoryevna said:

"D'you know what, boys, it's not healthy to indulge in daydreams. It's not the Bolshevik way!" An awkward silence ensued in the dormitory. I cast a wild glance at Ekaterina Grigoryevna, and declared, bringing my fist down on the table with a bang:

"I'm telling you! In a month's time that estate will be ours! Is that the Bolshevik way?" The lads burst out laughing and cheering. I laughed with them, and so did Ekaterina Grigoryevna.

All through the night I sat up preparing a statement for the Gubernia Executive Committee.

A week later the Chief of the Gubernia Department of Public Education sent for me.

"Not a bad idea, that! Let's go and have a look at the place!"

Another week passed, and our project was being discussed before the Gubernia Executive Committee.

It appeared that the authorities had had this estate on their minds for quite a time. I availed myself of the opportunity to tell them of the poverty and neglected state of our colony, of our lack of prospects, and of the living collective which had nevertheless sprung up among us.

The chairman of the Gubernia Executive Committee said:

"The place wants a master, and here are people who want to get to work. Let them have it!" And here was I--an order in my hands for the former Trepke estate, comprising sixty desyatins of arable land, and my estimate for repairs approved. I stood in the middle of the dormitory hardly able to believe it was not all a dream, and around me an excited crowd of boys, a whirlwind of enthusiasm, a forest of uplifted arms...

"Do let us see it!" they begged.

Ekaterina Grigoryevna entered. The boys rushed at her, overflowing with good-natured raillery, Shelaputin's shrill treble ringing out:

"Is that the Bolshevik way, or what? Just you tell us!"

"What's the matter? What's happened?"

"Is this the Bolshevik way? Only look!"

No one was happier about it all than Kalina Ivanovich.

"You're a trump," he said, "it's like the preachers say: 'ask and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you' and thou shalt receive--' "

"A smack in the jaw!" interolated Zadorov.

"That's not a smack in the jaw," said Kalina Ivanovich, turning to him, "that's an order."

You knocked for a tank, and all you got was a smack in the face. But this is an affair of state importance, not just something we asked for."

"You're too young to interpret the scriptures," said Kalina Ivanovich jocosely--nothing could have put him out at this moment.

The very next Sunday he accompanied me and a crowd of boys to inspect our new domain. Kalina Ivanovich's pipe sent triumphant puffs of smoke into the face of every brick in the Trepke ruins. He strutted proudly past the tank.

"When are we going to move the tank?" asked Burun with perfect gravity.

"Why should we move it, the parasite?" said Kalina Ivanovich. "We'll find a use for it here. These stables have been built according to the last word in technique, you know!"