A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


The arrival of the new members at our colony shook our far from stable collective to its foundations, and we once again relapsed into our old bad ways.

Our original members had only been brought to recognize law and order on the most elementary level. And the newcomers, complete strangers to discipline, were still less disposed to submit to any law and order whatsoever. It should, however, be stated that there was never again any open resistance or display of hooliganism towards the teachers. It is to be presumed that Zadorov, Burun, Taranets and others, managed to give the newcomers a concise history of the first days of the Gorky Colony. Both veterans and novices realized that the teaching staff was not a force hostile to themselves. The chief reason for the prevalence o this spirit should undoubtedly be sought in the work of the teachers themselves, work so selfless and so obviously onerous, that it evoked instinctive respect. And so the boys, with extremely rare exceptions, were always on good terms with us, bowed to the necessity of working and studying in the school, thoroughly realizing that it was to our mutual advantage. Slothfulness and shrinking from hardships assumed purely biological forms, and never that of protest.

We ourselves faced the fact that any improvement in our situation came from a purely external form of discipline, and implied not the slightest, not even the most primitive, culture.

But the reason for the boys' consenting to live amidst our poverty, and take part in toil which was distinctly arduous, without running away, must of course be sought not merely on the educational level. There was nothing particularly attractive in the life of the streets during the year 1921. Our gubernia was not on the list of starvation districts, but for all that, conditions in the town itself were extremely severe, and there certainly was hunger. Besides, in the first years our boys were not real waifs, hardened to roving the streets. The greater part of our lads came from homes with which they had only recently broken their ties.

At the same time, the colonists, while presenting the most vivid characteristics, were on the lowest possible cultural level. These were precisely the types selected for our colony, which was specially intended for difficult cases. The overwhelming majority of them were semiliterate or completely illiterate, they were almost all inured to filth and vermin, and their attitude to their fellow man had hardened into the pseudo-heroic pose of aggressive self-defence.

A few individuals of a somewhat higher degree of intelligence--Zadorov, Burun, Vetkovsky, Bratchenko, and, among the later arrivals, Karabanov and Mityagin--stood out in the crowd; the rest only gradually and slowly approached the acquisitions of human culture, and the poorer and hungrier we were, the longer it took them.

During our first year one of our greatest vexations was their perpetual tendency to quarrel among themselves, the appalling weakness of the ties which must exist in any collective, but which in their case broke down every minute over the merest trifles. To a great extent this arose not so much from enmity, as from this same pseudo-heroic pose, undiluted by the slightest political consciousness. Although many of them had dwelt in the tents of their class enemies, they had not the slightest awareness of belonging to any particular class. We had hardly any children of workers, the proletariat was for them something remote and unknown, while most of them harboured profound scorn for agricultural labour, or rather not so much for the labour, as for the labourer's scheme of life and mentality. Hence there remained a wide field for all sorts of eccentricity, for the manifestation of personalities sunk in semibarbarity, demoralized by spiritual loneliness. Although in its general outlines the picture was melancholy enough, the sprouts of the collective spirit which had begun to show themselves during that first winter burgeoned mysteriously in our community, and these sprouts had to be cherished at all costs--no alien growths must be allowed to smother their tender verdure. I consider my chief merit to lie in the fact that I remarked this important development at the time, and estimated it at its proper value. Tending these first shoots turned out to be a process of such arduousness and length that, had I been able to foresee it, I would probably have taken fright and thrown up the sponge. The saving factor was that--incorrigible optimist as I am!--I always believed myself to he within an inch of victory.

Every day of my life during this period was a medley of faith, rejoicings, and despair.

Everything would seem toe going swimmingly. The teachers had done their day's work, had finished reading aloud, chatting, or otherwise entertaining their charges, and, wishing them good night, had gone to their own rooms. The kids were in peaceful mood, getting ready to go to bed. In my room the last beats of the pulse of the day's work were throbbing to a close: Kalina Ivanovich was sitting there, propounding his usual axioms, a few of the more inquisitive boys were hanging around, Bratchenko and Gud were standing at the door waiting ran opportunity for their routine attack upon Kalina Ivanovich on the question of fodder, when suddenly the air was rent with cries:

"The fellows are knifing each other!"

I rushed headlong from the room. The dormitory was in an uproar. In one, corner were two ferocious groups of frenzied individuals. Threatening gestures and leaps were mingled with the foulest of oaths. Somebody was boxing somebody else's ear, Burun was wrenching a Finnish knife from one of the heroes, and from the other side of the room arose voices of protest:

"Who asked you to interfere? D'you want me to give you what-for?"

Seated on the side of a bed, surrounded by a crowd of sympathizers, a wounded hero was silently bandaging his bleeding hand with a piece of rag torn from a sheet.

Just behind me Kalina Ivanovich was whispering in frightened tones: "Hurry! Hurry! They'll cut each other's throats, the parasites!" I had made it my rule never to try and separate, or shout down combatants, so I stood silently in the doorway, observing the scene. Little by little the boys became aware of my presence and fell silent. The sudden silence sobered the most turbulent spirits among them. Knives were stowed away, fists were dropped, and swearing was checked in mid-flight. But I still maintained silence, though inwardly seething with rage and hatred for this whole savage world. It was the hatred of impotence, for I knew very well that today would not be the last time.

At last a heavy, uncanny silence reigned in the dormitory. Even the muffled sound of tense breathing died down.

Then it was that I broke out in a fit of veritable human fury, strong in the conviction that I was doing the right thing.

"Knives on the table! And quick about it, damn you!"

Knives were piled up on the table: Finnish knives, kitchen knives, filched for the purpose of reprisals, penknives, and homemade blades fashioned in the smithy.

Silence continued to hang over the dormitory. At the table stood Zadorov, smiling--dear, engaging Zadorov, who now seemed to me the only kindred spirit I had. I rapped out another curt order:

"Any bludgeons?"

"I have one here. I took it away," said Zadorov.

They all stood round, hanging their heads.

"To bed!"

I did not leave the dormitory till everyone was in bed.

The next day the kids avoided all mention of the row of the night before. I also made not the slightest reference to it.

A month or two elapsed, during which, here and there, in remote corners, the fires of individual feuds smouldered, rapidly extinguished by the collective itself whenever they gave signs of bursting into flame. Then there would suddenly be another violent explosion, and again infuriated boys, losing all human semblance, would chase one another with knives in their hands.

It was on one such evening that I realized I should have to tighten the screws. After a fight, I ordered Chobot, one of the most indefatigable knights of the Finnish knife, to go to my room.

He went like a lamb. Once in my room, I said to him:

"You'll have to quit!"

"Where'll I go?"

"I advise you to go where you can knife other people. Just because your comrade wouldn't give up his place to you in the dining room, you jabbed a knife into him, today. Very well, then, find yourself a place where differences are settled with knives."

"When am I to go?"

"Tomorrow morning."

He went out morosely. The next morning, during breakfast, all the boys came to me with the request: let Chobot stay--they would answer for him.

"What guarantee have you?"

This they could not understand.

"How are you going to answer for him? Suppose he does use his knife again--what could you do about it?"

"Then you can expel him!"

"So you've no guarantee! No--he must quit!"

After breakfast, Chobot himself came up to me with the words:

"Goodbye, Anton Semyonovich! Thanks for the lesson!"

"Goodbye, and no ill feelings. If things are too hard, come back. But not before a fortnight."

A month later he returned, gaunt and pale faced.

"I've come back, like you said." "You didn't find a place to suit you?" He smiled.

"Didn't I? There are such places. I'll stay in the colony, and I won't use a knife."

The boys greeted us affectionately in the dormitory.

"So you did forgive him. We said you would!"