A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


We could not immediately translate into the language of facts our jubilations on coming into the Trepke heritage. The release of the money ad material required was, for one reason or another, delayed. But the main obstacle was the Yolomak, a small but mischievous stream. Its course lay between our colony and the Trepke estate, and in April it showed itself to be a formidable representative of the elements. At first it flooded its banks with slow obstinacy, only to retire still more slowly within its modest limits, leaving behind it fresh disaster--mud impassable either by man or beast.

"Trepke," as we had begun to call our new acquisition, remained, therefore, a set of ruins for a long time to come. In the meantime the boys revelled in the coming of spring. In the morning, after breakfast, while waiting for the bell to summon them to work, they would range themselves outside the barn, basking in the sunlight, exposing their chests to its rays, and strewing the yard with their carelessly flung jackets. They were capable of sitting in the sun without speaking for hours on end, making up for the winter months when it had been so hard to keep warm, even in the dormitory.

The sound of the bell compelled them to get up and shuffle reluctantly to their respective places, but even during work they would find pretexts and means to warm their sides in the sun every now and then.

In the beginning of April, Vaska Poleshchuk ran away. He was not what you would call a prepossessing member of the colony. I had come across him in December, at one of the tables in the Department of Public Education--a dirty, ragged lad surrounded by a small crowd. The Department for Defective Juveniles had declared him a mental defective, and was sending him to a home for such boys. The tatterdemalion protested, weeping that he was not mad at all, that they had got him to town by a trick, telling him they were taking him to Krasnodar, where they had promised to put him into a school.

"What are you yelling for?" I asked him.

"They say I'm mad!"

"Allright--I heard you! Stop bawling, and come with me."

"How are we going?"

"On our two feet! Come on!"

The little chap's countenance was not exactly an index of intelligence. But he exuded energy, and I thought to myself. "What the hell! Everybody's good for something!"

The Department for Defective Juveniles was glad to be relieved of its charge, and we set out at a brisk march for the colony. On the way he unfolded the usual tale, beginning with the death of parents and dire poverty. His name was Vaska Poleshchuk. He was, in his own words, "a casualty," having taken part in the storming of Perekop.

On his first day in the colony he went completely mum, and neither teachers nor boys could get a word out of him. Probably it had been something of this sort which had forced the pundits to the conclusion that Poleshchuk was a defective.

The other boys were intrigued by his silence, and asked my leave to apply methods of their own to him--only give him a good fright, they said, and he'd talk all right. I flatly forbade any such measures. I already regretted having brought this mute into the colony.

And then, Poleshchuk suddenly began to talk, without the slightest apparent provocation. It may have been simply the warm spring day, fragrant with the exhalations which the sun drew from the still humid earth. He talked with shrill energy, accompanying his words with bursts of laughter, and sudden leaps. He would not leave my side for days on end, chattering endlessly about the delights of life in the Red Army, and about Commander Zubata.

"What a man! His eyes so black, so blue--when he looks at you, you go all cold! When he was at Perekop our own chaps were afraid of him...."

"You keep on and on about Zubata," the boys said. "Do you know his address?"

"How do you mean--address?"

"His address--do you know where to write to him?"

"No, I don't. Why should I write I'll just go to Nikoliayev, and I'll find him there."

"He'll send you packing!"

"He won't either! It was the other one who sent me away. He was the one who said: 'what's the use of our troubling ourselves with this nitwit?' I'm not a nitwit, am I?"

For days on end Poleshchuk chattered to all and sundry about Zubata--his good looks, his courage, and how he never used really bad language when he swore.

"Do you mean to bolt?" the boys asked him.

Poleshehuk would cast a glance in my direction and fall into a reverie. He evidently thought long over this, and when the rest had forgotten all about him, and were deep in some other subject, he would suddenly get hold of the boy who'd put the question to him, and ask:

"Would Anton be angry?"

"What about?"

"Well--if I were to bolt?"

"I should think he would! After all the trouble he took about you!"

Vaska fell into his reverie again.

And one day, just after breakfast, Shehaputin came running into my room.

"Vaska's not anywhere in the colony. He didn't have breakfast--he's bolted! Gone to Zubata!"

The lads clustered around me in the yard. They wanted to see how I was going to take Vaska's departure.

"Poleshchuk did run away, after all...."

"It's the spring....

"He's gone to the Crimea...."

"Not the Crimea--Nikolaev. ..."

"If we went to the station, we might still catch him!"

Vaska might be nothing to boast of, but his defection impressed me painfully. It was embittering to have to admit that here as one who could not accept our modest offering, and had gone in quest of something better. At the same time I knew well enough that our poverty-stricken colony was not calculated to attach people to us.

To the boys I said:

"To hell with him! If he's gone--he's gone! We have other things to think of."

In April, Kalina Ivanovich began to plough. This was made possible by the most unexpected event. The Commission for Juvenile Delinquency had a horse thief--a juvenile one--brought before it. The culprit was sent to some place or other, but the owner of the horse was not to be found. The Commission went through a week of agony, not being accustomed to deal with such cumbersome material evidence as a horse. Then came Kalina Ivanovich to the Commission, beheld the sorry plight of the unoffending beast, forlorn in the middle of the cobbled yard, seized its bridle without a word and led it to the colony, pursued by the relieved sighs of the members of the Commission. At the colony Kalina Ivanovich was greeted with cries of rapture and astonishment. Gud took the bridle from Kalina Ivanovich into his trembling hands, while into the wide spaces of his soul the exhortation of Kalina Ivanovich sank deep:

"Take care, now! She's not to be treated like you treat one another! She's only an animal--she can't speak. She can't complain, you know that yourselves! But if you tease her, and she gives you a kick on the noddle, it'll be no use going bawling to Anton Semyonovich! You can bawl your heart out, but it won't help you. And I'll break your skull for you!"

The rest of us clustered around this solemn group, and no one dreamed of resenting the terrible threats hanging over Gud's head. Kalina Ivanovich stood beaming, pipe in mouth, while delivering this intimidating oration. The horse was a chestnut, still fairly young, and well nourished.

Kalina Ivanovich and some of the lads busied themselves for several days in the shed. With the aid of hammers, screwdrivers, and odd bits of iron, and to the accompaniment of endless sententious harangues, they managed to patch up some sort of a plough from odds and ends found among the refuse left by the former colony.

At last the blissful moment arrived when Burun and Zadorov followed the plough. Kalina Ivanovich kept up with them, exclaiming:

"Oh, the parasites! They can't even plough--there's a fault, and there, and there!" The lads retorted good-naturedly:

"Show us the way yourself, Kalina Ivanovich! You've probably never ploughed a furrow in your life!"

Kalina Ivanovich, taking his pipe out of his mouth, looked as fierce as he could:

"Me? I've never ploughed? You don't need to have ploughed yourself! You've got to understand! I can see when you go wrong--and you can't!"

Gud and Bratchenko accompanied them. Gud watched the ploughmen furtively to see they didn't maltreat the horse, while Bratchenko simply followed Red with his enamoured gaze. He had appointed himself stableboy under the aegis of Gud.

Some of the older lads had begun fiddling about with the old seed-drill in the shed. Sofron Golovan was shouting at them, filling their impressionable souls with admiration for his vast technical erudition.

Sofron Golovan possessed certain vivid characteristics which distinguished him among his fellow mortals. Of enormous stature, full of animal spirits always a little tipsy but never really drunk, he had his own opinions about everything under the sun, and wonderfully ignorant ones they were. Golovan was an extraordinary mixture of kulak and blacksmith: he owned two huts, three horses, two cows and a smithy. For all his kulak wealth, however, he was an able smith, and his hands were much clearer than his head. Sofron's smithy stood right on highroad, next to the inn, and it was to this topographical situation that the Golovan family owed its rise to fortune.

Golovan came to the colony on the invitation of Kalina Ivanovich. Tools of a sort were found in our sheds, though the smithy itself was in a broken-down condition. Sofron offered to bring with him his own anvil and forge, as well as a few additional tools, and to work in the capacity of instructor. He was even ready to repair the smithy at his own expense. At first I could not understand this eagerness to help us, but my mind was cleared by Kalina Ivanovich during his evening "report."

Thrusting a scrap of newspaper down my lamp chimney to light his pipe, Kalina Ivanovich said:

"That parasite Sofron has a good reason for wanting to come to us. The muzhiks are alter him, you know, and he's afraid they'll confiscate his smithy; and if he stays here, you know, it'll look as if he's working for the Soviets."

"What shall we do about him?" I asked.

"Let him stay! Who else would come to us? Where could we find a forge? And the tools? We have nowhere to lodge an instructor--if we used one of the huts, we'd have to call in carpenters. And after all--" Kalina Ivanovich screwed up his eyelids. "What if he is a kulak? He'll work just as well as if he was an honest man."

Kalina Ivanovich, who had been thoughtfully sending puffs of smoke towards my low ceiling, suddenly broke into a smile:

"The muzhiks, the parasites, will confiscate his smith anyhow, and what good will that do anyone? It'll just stand idle. We might as well have a smithy--Sofron will get what's coming to him, anyhow. We'll string him along, and send him about his business when we've done with him. 'This here is a Soviet institution,' we'll tell him, 'and you, you son-of-a-bitch, you're nothing but a bloodsucker, you're an exploiter of the people.' Ho-ho-ho...!"

We had by now received a part of the money for repairing the estate, but it came to so little that our ingenuity was taxed to the utmost. Everything had to be done by ourselves, and we needed a smithy and a carpenter's shop of our own. Joiners' benches of a sort we had, tools we bought, and soon we acquired a carpentry instructor. Under his guidance the lads fell energetically to sawing boards brought from the town, making window frames and doors for the new colony. Unfortunately the technical level of our carpenters was so low that the process of making windows and doors for our new life was at first excruciatingly difficult. Our work in the smithy--and there was plenty of it--was at first nothing to boast of, either. Sofron was in no hurry to bring the reconstruction phase of the Soviet state to an end, though the pay he got as instructor was not much, and on pay day he would demonstratively send one of the boys with his whole salary to an old woman who ran a still, for "three bottles of the best."

I knew nothing about this for some time. I was jus then altogether under the spell of the magic words: staples, hinge plates, hinges, latches....The boys were just as excited as I was by the sudden expansion of our work. Very soon carpenters and locksmiths cropped up among them, and we actually found ourselves with a little money to spend.

We were thrilled by the animation which the smithy brought with it. At eight o'clock the cheerful ring of the anvil resounded throughout the colony; laughter was always coming from the smithy, around the wide-open doors of which two or three villagers were invariably hanging about, discussing farming, taxation, Verkhola, the chairman of the Kombed, [Poor Peasants' Committee--Tr.] fodder, and our seed-drill. We shed the farmers' horses, put tires on their cart wheels, and repaired their ploughs. We charged the poorer peasants half rates, and this served as a starting point for endless discussions on social justice and injustice.

Sofron offered to make us a gig. Some sort of a body was dug up from beneath the rubbish in which the sheds of the colony abounded. Kalina Ivanovich brought a couple of axles from the town. For two whole days these axles were beaten on the anvil by hammers big and small. At last Sofron announced that the gig was quite ready but for the springs and heels. And we had neither springs nor wheels. I looked for secondhand springs all over the town, while Kalina Ivanovich set out on a long journey into the depths of the country.

He was away a whole week, and brought back two pairs of brand-new wheel rims and a veritable budget of impressions, the main one being: what ignorant folk these muzhiks are.

One day, Sofron brought with him Kozyr--an inhabitant of the farmstead. He was a quiet, courteous man with a perpetual bright smile, much addicted to making the sign of the cross. He had only recently been discharged from a lunatic asylum, and trembled all over whenever his wife's name was mentioned, for she it was who had been the cause of the incorrect diagnosis of the gubernia psychiatrists. Kozyr was a wheelwright. He could scarcely contain his delight at being asked to make four wheels. The circumstances of his home life, and his own ascetic leanings, prompted him to make us a purely practical proposal: "Comrades--(God forgive me!)--you sent for the old man, didn't you? And now supposing I stay here and live with you?"

"But we have nowhere to put you!"

"Don't let that worry you! I'll find a place for myself. The Lord will help me! It's summer now, and when winter comes we'll manage somehow. I can live in that shed over there, I'll be quite comfortable!"

"All right--you can stay!"

Kozyr crossed himself and attacked the practical side of the question immediately.

"We'll get rims! Kalina Ivanovich couldn't, but I know how to set about it. The rims will come to us--the muzhiks will bring them themselves, you'll see! God won't let us want!"

"But we don't need any more rims, Pop!"

"Don't need them--don't need them? God bless my soul! You may not need them, but others do! How can a muzhik live without a wheel? You can sell them and make money, and the boys will be the gainers."

Kalina Ivanovich laughed, and supported Kozyr's supplications.

"Let him stay, damn him! Nature's such a grand thing you know--even a human being may be of some use!"

Kozyr became a favourite throughout the colony. He took up his quarters in the little room nest to the dormitories. Here he was perfectly safe from his wife, who was indeed a virago. The boys hugely enjoyed defending Kozyr from her incursions. This lady invariably made her appearance at the colony in a whirlwind of shrieks and oaths. Demanding her husband's return to the bosom of her family, she accused me, the boys, the Soviet government, and "that tramp Sofron," of destroying her domestic felicity. With unconcealed irony the boys would assure her that Kozyr was no good as a husband, and that the making of wheels was of far greater importance than domestic felicity. Kozyr himself would sit huddled up in his little room all the time, patiently waiting for the attack to be finally beaten off. It was only when the voice of the injured spouse could be heard from the other side of the lake, whence mere snatches of her pious wishes for him could be made out--"...sons-of-...damn your..."--that Kozyr would emerge from his sanctuary: "The Lord deliver us, my sons! What a disorderly female'."

Unfavourable though the atmosphere was, the wheel trade bean to show profits. Kozyr, merely by crossing himself, managed to do good business; without the slightest effort on our part, the rims rolled in, and we did not have to pay money down for them. Kozyr was indeed a splendid wheelwright, and the work of his hands was famous far beyond the precincts of our district.

Our life had become more complicated and a great deal brighter. Kalina Ivanovich did, after all, sow some five desyatins of our fields with oats, Red graced our stable, in our yard stood the new gig, its sole defect being its extraordinary height: it reared itself almost seven feet above the ground, and to the passenger inside it always seemed that, while there undoubtedly was a horse in front, it must be somewhere far, far below the top of the gig.

Our activities developed to such an extent, that we began to feel our lack of manpower. We had hurriedly to repair another building for use as a dormitory, and it was not long before reinforcements arrived. These were of a quite different nature from any we had so far received.

By this time great numbers of the atamans had been liquidated, and many of their youthful followers, whose military and piratical roles had been confined to the function of grooms or cook boys, were sent to the colony. It was owing to this historical circumstance that the colony's membership was enriched by names like Karabanov, Prikhodko, Goles, Soroka, Vershnev, and Mityagin.