A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


There were five, including myself. We were known as "the heroes of social education." Not only did we never call ourselves by this name, it did not so much as occur to us that we were doing anything specially heroic--neither in the early days of the colony's existence, not later, when it celebrated its eighth anniversary.

The word "heroes" was used not only about the Gorky Colony, but in our secret hearts we considered such words as mere catchwords to raise the morale of workers in children's homes and colonies. For at that time Soviet life, and the revolutionary movement, were fraught with heroism, while our own work was only too prosaic in essence and achievements.

We were just ordinary mortals, with any amount of shortcomings. We didn't even really know our own business: our working day was crammed with error, diffident movements, confused thinking. And ahead was impenetrable mist, through which we could only make out, with the utmost difficulty, the vague outlines of our future pedagogical life.

Every step we took could have been criticized from any point of view, for our every step was unplanned. There was nothing incontrovertible in our work. And when we began to argue, matters grew still worse--for no truths were ever born of these arguments.

There were only two points as to which no doubt ever arose: one was our firm resolve never to throw up the work, but to carry it to some sort of a conclusion, even if that conclusion should be failure; the other was our everyday life--our life in and around the colony.

When the Osipovs first came to the colony, they had felt a shuddering aversion for its inmates. According to our regulations, the teacher on duty had to have dinner with the boys. Both Ivan Ivanovich and his wife firmly declared that they were not going to sit at the table with the boys, being, as they said, unable to conquer their fastidiousness.

"We'll see, "I said.

During his evening duty in the dormitory, Ivan Ivanovich would never sit on one of the beds, and as there was nothing else to sit on he spent his evening duty on his feet. Ivan Ivanovich and his wife would wonder how I could sit on these verminous beds.

"That's nothing," I told them. "Everything will come right in the end. We'll get rid of the lice, or find some other way..."

Three months later, Ivan Ivanovich was not only eating heartily at the same table with the boys, but actually stopped bringing his own spoon to table with him, selecting a wooden spoon from the pile in the middle of the table, and contenting himself with merely passing his fingers over it. And in the dormitory of an evening, Ivan Ivanovich, seated on a bed surrounded by a lively bunch of boys, would take part in the game of "Thief and Informer." For the purpose of this game all the players were dealt out tickets inscribed "thief," "informer," "investigator," "judge" or "executioner." The one drawing the lot marked "informer" was armed with an improvised lash, and had to guess who was the thief. Each in turn stretched out his hand, and the informer had to single out the thief with a flick of the lash on the suspect's palm. He just as often hit upon the judge or the investigator, which honest citizens, insulted by his suspicions, in their turn smote the informer on his own palm, according to the established tariff for such affronts. When the informer succeeded in discovering the thief, his sufferings were at an end, and those of the thief began. The judge pronounced the sentence--five hot ones, ten hot ones, five cold ones. The executioner then seized the lash and carried out the sentence.

Since the parts taken by the players were constantly changing, the thief in one round becoming the judge or the executioner in the next, the main charm of the game consisted in the alternation of suffering and revenge. A harsh judge or ruthless executioner, on becoming informer or thief, got his own back from the reigning judge or executioner, who now remembered against him his former sentences and inflictions.

Ekaterina Grigoryevna and Lydia Petrovna also took part in this game, but the boys treated them chivalrously, merely assigning three or four cold ones, while the executioner, with the mildest expression in the world, just stroked the soft feminine palm with his lash.

When I played with them the boys would show the utmost curiosity as to my powers of endurance, so there was nothing for it but to brave it out. As judge I gave sentences which horrified even the executioners, and when it was my turn to carry out a sentence, I would cause the victim to forget his pride and call out:

"Anton Semyonovich--that's too much!"

To make up for this I was given it hot. I always went home with a swollen left hand--it was considered infra dig to change one's hand, and I needed my right hand for writing with.

Ivan Ivanovich Osipov, from sheer cowardice, adopted effeminate tactics, and at first the boys treated him gently. One day I told Ivan Ivanovich that these tactics were erroneous: our boys must grow up to be brave and daring. They must not fear danger, still less physical pain. Ivan Ivanovich did not agree with me.

One evening when we were both taking part in the game, I sentenced him, in my capacity as judge, to twelve hot ones, and in the next round, as executioner, ruthlessly slashed his palm with the whistling lash. He lost his temper, and revenged himself on me when his turn came. My devotees could not leave such conduct on the part of Ivan Ivanovich unrevenged, and one of them reduced him to the ignominy of changing his hand.

The next evening Ivan Ivanovich endeavoured to wriggle out of this barbarous game, but was shamed into participation again by the irony of the boys, and henceforward came through the ordeal with flying colours, neither cringing, when judge, nor showing the white feather when informer or thief.

The Osipovs frequently complained that they took lice home with them.

"It's in the dormitories that we must bet rid of the lice," I told them, "not in our own rooms."

And we did our best. With great efforts we obtained two changes of linen and two suits, for everyone. These suits were a mass of patches, but they could be steamed, and hardly any lice remained in them, nevertheless it took us some time to get rid of the lice entirely, owing to the constant arrival of newcomers and our contacts with the villagers.

The work of the staff was officially divided into main duty, work duty and evening duty. In addition to these, the teachers gave lessons in the mornings. Main duty was a kind of hard labour from five a. m. till the bell went for bedtime. The teacher on main duty had to see to the routine of the whole day, check the issue of provisions, superintend the fulfilment of tasks, look into conflicts, reconcile combatants, conciliate objectors, order supplies, check the contents of Kalina Ivanovich's storeroom, and see that linen and clothing were changed. Work while on main duty was so overwhelming, that by the beginning of our second year, some of our senior pupils, a red band on their sleeves, began to assist the teachers.

The teacher on work duty simply took part in any current work, particularly where a greater number of boys were engaged, or where there were many newcomers. The teacher's role was that of actual participation in any work on hand--anything else would have been impossible in our conditions. The teachers worked in the workshop, in the forest, felling timber, in the fields, and in the truck garden, and also wherever repairing of inventory was going on. Evening duty was little more than a formality, for in the evenings all the teachers, whether on duty or not, gathered together in the dormitories. There was no heroism in this, for we had nowhere else to go. It was not very cosy in our empty rooms, illuminated at night only by the floating wicks, whereas after evening tea we knew that we were impatiently awaited by the colonists, with their merry faces and keen eyes, with their endless fund of stories, true and untrue, with their incessant questions on topical, philosophical, political and literary subjects, with their games, from "Cat and Mouse" to "Thief and Informer." Here the events of our life were discussed, our peasant neighbours subjected to searching analysis, and nice points as to repairs, and our future, happy life in the new colony debated.

Sometimes Mityagin would spin a yarn. He was a great hand at tales, relating them with skill, not without an admixture of the theatrical element and rich mimicry. Mityagin was fond of the little ones, and his stories rejoiced their hearts. There was hardly ever anything magical in his stories, which were mostly about foolish peasants and wise peasants, reckless aristocrats, cunning craftsman, daring ingenious thieves, bedevilled policemen, brave, victorious soldiers and clumsy, heavy-witted priests.

We often arranged reading sessions of an evening in the dormitories. From the very first we had begun to get a library together, and I had begun to buy books, and beg for them in private houses. By the end of the winter we had almost all the Russian classics, and a number of political and agricultural publications. I managed to collect from the chaotic warehouses of the Gubernia Department of Public Education a quantity of popular works on various branches of science.

Many of our charges were fond of reading, but by no means all were capable of mastering the contents of a book. We therefore held reading sessions, in which, as a rule, everyone took part. The reader was either Zadorov, whose diction was irreproachable, or myself. During the first winter we read a great deal of Pushkin, Korolenko, Mamin-Sibiryak, and Veresayev--but most of all we read Gorky.

Gorky's works made a strong, though dual, impression. It was Gorky's romanticism which appealed to Karabanov, Taranets, Volokhov, and some others, who took no interest in the author's analytical side. With glowing eyes they listened to Makar Chudra, gasped and shook their fists at the character of Ignat Gordeyev, but were bored by the tragedy of Gaffer Arkhip and Lyonka. Karabanov was particularly fond of the scene in which the old Gordeyev looks on at the destruction of his "Boyarinya" by the breaking ice. Semyon, with set face, exclaimed in melodramatic tones: "There's a man for you! Oh, if everyone was like that!"

He listened to the account of Ilya's death in The Three with equal enthusiasm.

"Great fellow! Great fellow! Dashing out his brains against a stone--there's a death for you!"

Mityagin, Zadorov, and Burun laughed indulgently at the enthusiasm of our romantics, wounding them in their tenderest spots.

"You fellows listen, but you don't hear anything!"

"I don't hear anything?"

"Ah, but what is it you hear--what's there so fine in dashing one's brains out? He's a fool, that Ilya, a rotter! Some dame gives him a sour look, and he melts into tears. If I'd been him, I'd have throttled another of those merchants--they ought all to be throttled, your Gordeyev too!"

The opposing sides only agreed in their estimation of Luka, in The Lower Depths.

"Say what you like!" exclaimed Karabanov, wagging his head. "Such old chaps do a lot of harm. Buzz-buzz-buzz, and suddenly disappear.... I know that sort."

"That old Luka was a knowing one," said Mityagin. "It's all very well for him--he understands everything, he gets his own way everywhere. Now cheating, now stealing, now acting the dear old man. He'll always be all right, himself."

Childhood and My Apprenticeship made a strong impression on all of them. They listened with bated breath, begging for the reading to go on: "at least till twelve." At first they didn't believe me when I told them the story of Maxim Gorky's own life. They were stunned by the story, suddenly struck by the idea:

"So Gorky was like us! I say, that's fine!"

This idea moved them profoundly and joyfully.

Maxim Gorky's life seemed to become part of our life. Various episodes in it provided us with examples for comparison, a fund of nicknames, a background for debate, and a scale for the measurement of human values.

When, three kilometres away, the Korolenko Children's Colony was organized, our boys wasted little time on envying them.

"Korolenko's just the name for those kids! We're the Gorky boys!"

Kalina Ivanovich was of the same opinion.

"I met that Korolenko, and even had a talk with him--he was a respectable man. And you--you're tramps both in theory and practice!"

We were called the Gorky Colony without any official nomination or confirmation. In the town they gradually got used to our calling ourselves by this name, and raised no objections to our new seals and rubber stamps bearing it. Unfortunately we could not at first correspond with Alexei Maximovich, no one in our town knowing his address. It was only in 1925 that we read, in an illustrated weekly, an article on Gorky's life in Italy; in this article his name was given in its Italian version--"Massimo Gorky." We then sent him, on the off-chance of his getting it, our first letter, bearing the artlessly concise address: Italia, Sorrento, Massimo Gorky.

Both seniors and juniors were enthusiasts for Gorky's tales and Gorky's biography, although most of the juniors were illiterate.

We had about a dozen juniors, aged ten years and upwards. Each member of this little crowd was lively, slippery, light-lingered, invariably and inconceivably grubby. They always arrived at the colony in the most lamentable condition--skinny, rickety, scrofulous. Ekaterina Grigoryevna, our self-appointed medical officer and sick nurse, had her hands full with them. Despite her austerity, they all gravitated towards her. She knew how to scold them in a motherly way, knew all their weaknesses, never believed what they said (an achievement I could never attain), never overlooked a single offence, and displayed frank indignation at every breach of discipline.

But no one else could talk so simply and with such human feeling to a little chap--about life, his mother, about his becoming a sailor, a Red Army commander, or an engineer. No one else could so plumb the depths of the terrible injuries which a blind accursed fate had inflicted upon these little chaps. Moreover, she found ways of feeding them up, infringing, on the sly, all the rules and regulations of the supply department, and conquering with a kind word the rigid officialdom of Kalina Ivanovich.

The older boys, who noticed the contact between Ekaterina Grigoryevna and the youngest of our inmates, respected it, and invariably agreed with the utmost good humour and indulgence to fulfil any little request of Ekaterina Grigoryna--to see that a little chap washed himself properly, soaping himself all over, that another did not smoke, that clothes were not torn, that such a one did not fight with Petya, and so on; It was largely thanks to Ekaterina Grigoryevna that the older boys in the colony grew fond of the little ones, and treated them like younger brothers--affectionately, strictly and considerately.