A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


digging a ditch

Our farming developed along a path of miracles and sufferings. It was a miracle when Kalina Ivanovich managed to wangle an ancient cow, which he himself said must have been "born dry," from some department or other distributing its property; it was a mirjcle that we obtained from some purely agricultural department, quite unrelated to us, a no less ancient black mare--pot-bellied, lazy, subject to fits; it was a miracle that farm carts, arbas, [a kind of bullock cart--Tr.] and even a phaeton, made their appearance in our shed. The phaeton, a two-horse one, was very beautiful in our eyes at that time, and exceedingly comfortable; but the miracle which would have been required to obtain matching horses for it was not forthcoming.

Gud having left the stables to go and work in the cobbler's workshop, the post of head groom was filled by Anton Bratchenko, an energetic individual whose vanity was so sensitive that he underwent moments of severe humiliation, seated on the box of the elegant vehicle behind the long-legged lanky Red, and the stocky, bandy-legged Bandit, as Anton had (quite unjustifiably!) christened the black mare. Bandit stumbled at every step, sometimes actually falling down, when our grand turnout had to be set to rights in the middle of the town, amidst the jeering remarks of other drivers, and of street urchins. Anton would often be provoked by these jibes to a fierce brawl with the unwelcome spectators, thus bringing still further discredit upon the stables of the Gorky Colony.

Anton Bratchenko was inordinately fond of a fight, could hold his own in a quarrel with any opponent, and was past master in the art of imprecation and innuendo, as well as possessing a considerable gift for mimicry.

Anton had never been a waif. His father worked in a bakery in the town. His mother, too, was alive, and he was the only son of his worthy parents. But from his earliest years Anton had felt an aversion for the domestic hearth, only coming home to sleep, and cultivating a wide circle of acquaintances among the street boys and thieves of the town. After distinguishing himself in a number of daring and entertaining adventures, and undergoing several short stretches in jail, he at last found himself at the colony. He was only fifteen, good-looking, curly-haired, blue-eyed, slender. He was extraordinarily gregarious, incapable of passing a single moment by himself. Somehow or other he had learned to read and write, and knew by heart volumes of adventure stories, but study he would not, and could only be kept in the classroom by main force. At first he would often leave the colony, always, however, returning in a day or two, without, apparently, feeling the slightest sense of guilt. He tried to overcome his roving inclinations. "Be as strict as possible with me," he would ask, "or else I'm sure to turn out a tramp, Anton Semyonovich!"

He never stole anything in the colony, and loved to stand up for the truth, but was quite unable to understand the logic of discipline, only accepting it to the extent that he found himself in agreement with the principle arising out of the circumstances of the moment. He recognized no obligation to obey the rules of the colony, and made no secret of this. He did stand in a certain awe of me, it is true, but would never hear my admonitions out, interrupting me with a passionate speech, in which he would invariably accuse his innumerable enemies of all sorts of offences--such as sucking up to me, slander, or bad management--then, shaking his whip at absent foes, he would leave the room indignantly, slamming the door after him. He was intolerably rude to the teachers, but even in his rudeness there was a certain charm, and our teachers did not take offence. There was nothing brazen or even inimical in his bearing, for the passionate human note always prevailed, and he never quarrelled on selfish grounds.

Anton's conduct in the colony was ruled by his passion for horses and stable work. It would be hard to trace the origin of this passion. He was much more intelligent than the average inmate of the colony, and he used good townsman's Russian, merely seasoning his speech with occasional Ukrainian expressions by way of showing off. He tried to keep himself neat, read a great deal, and liked talking about books. This did not prevent him from spending almost his whole time in the stable, removing dung, perpetually harnessing and unharnessing the horses, polishing bridles and breechings, plaiting the whip; he was never too tired, in any weather, to drive to town, or to the new colony, in spite of the fact that he was in a perpetual state of semistarvation, for he was invariably late for dinner or supper, and if nobody remembered to leave him his share, he would never mention it himself.

His activities as stable boy were interspersed with incessant bickerings with Kalina Ivanovich, the blacksmiths, the storeroom monitors, and, above all, with anyone desirous of taking the horses out. He would only obey an order to harness the horses and go somewhere with them, after prolonged altercations, punctuated by accusations of cruelty to the horses, by reminders of occasions when Red and Bandit had come back with sores on their necks, and by demands for forage or shoeing iron. It was sometimes impossible to drive out of the colony for the simple reason that neither Anton nor the horses were to be found, and there was not the slightest indication of their whereabouts. After a painstaking search, in which half the colony participated, they might be found either in the Trepke grounds, or in a neighbouring meadow. Anton was always surrounded by two or three lads as infatuated with him as he was infatuated with the horses. These boys kept the horses well in hand, and scrupulous cleanliness prevailed in the stable--the floors swept, the harness in its right place, the carts in a straight row, a dead magpie hanging over each horse's head, the horses themselves well groomed, their manes plaited, their tails neatly tied.

Quite late one evening in June, some boys came running to me from the dormitory, exclaiming:

"Kozyr's ill--he's dying!"

"Dying?" "Yes, dying: he's burning hot and hardly breathes."

Ekaterina Grigoryevna corroborated their words, saying Kozyr had had a heart attack, and that a doctor must be found at once. I sent for Anton. He came, obviously determined to oppose in advance any order I was likely to give.

"Anton, put the horses to at once! You'll have to go to town immediately!"

Anton would not let me go on:

'I'm not going anywhere, and I won't let you have the horses! They've been worked off their feet all day--they haven't had a chance to cool down.... I'm not going to drive them!"

"Don't you understand it's for a doctor?"

"I don't care a straw who's sick! Red is sick too, and no one calls a doctor for him."

I fairly lost my temper.

"Give the stable over to Oprishko this minute! You're impossible to work with!"

"Let him have it, I don't care! We'll see how Oprishko manages! You believe anything people tell you--'he's ill, he's dying,' and not the slightest consideration for the horses--let them die.... All right, let them--I'm not going to let you have them!"

"Did you hear me? You're not head groom any more, hand the stable over to Oprishko!"

"All right--I will! Let anyone have it who wants it. I won't live in the colony any more!"

"You can do as you like. Nobody's keeping you!"

Anton, with tears in his eyes, started fumbling in the depths of his pocket, and pulling out a bunch of keys, he put them on the table. Oprishko, Anton's right hand, came into the room and stared with amazement at his weeping chief. Bratchenko looked at him with scorn, made as if to say something, but only wiped his nose with his sleeve without a word and left the room.

He left the colony that very evening, not even going into the dormitory. Those who drove to town to fetch a doctor saw him striding along the road; he did not ask for a lift and waved away their invitation.

Two days later, in the evening, Oprishko burst into my room, crying, his face streaming with blood. Before I had time to ask him what it was all about, Lydia Petrovna, who was on duty that day, ran into the room in a state of great perturbation.

"Anton Semyonovich!" she cried. "Do go to the stable--Bratchenko is there, kicking up the most awful row!"

On our way to the stable we met the groom, the huge Fedorenko, making the woods resound with his bawling.

"What's the matter with you?" I asked.

"I ...he ... what right has he...? He beat me in the face with a pitchfork!"

"Who--Bratchenko? "

"Bratchenko! Bratchenko!"

At the stable I found Anton and another of our stable boys working away feverishly. Anton greeted me morosely, but seeing Oprishko behind me, forgot my presence altogether, and fell upon him.

"You stay away from here, or I'11 lick you with the girth again! A fine driver you are! Look what he's done to Red!"

Snatching up a lantern, Anton dragged me up to Red. There really was a bad sore on Red's withers, which had been covered with a strip of clean cloth; Anton removed this gently, and put it back again.

"I've powdered it with xeroform," he said gravely.

"But what right have you to come to the stable without permission, dealing out reprisals, and beating people up?"

"You think I've done with him? He'd better keep out of my way--I'll beat him again!"

A crowd of boys stood laughing round the stable door. I had not the heart to be angry with Bratchenko--he was so sure that he and his horses were in the right!

"Look here, Anton," I said, "for beating up the boys you'll be under arrest in my room all the evening!"

"I have no time for that!"

"Will you shut up!" I shouted.

"All right, all right...so now I've got to stick about in some room!"

He spent the evening sulking over a book in my room.

In the winter of 1922, Anton and I had a bad time of it. The oats which Kalina Ivanovich had sowed in the shifting sands, without any manure, had yielded hardly any crop, and not even an appreciable quantity of straw. We still had no fields of our own. By January we found ourselves without fodder. At first we made shift somehow, begging for fodder now in the town, now from the neighbours, but people soon stopped giving us any. Kalina Ivanovich and I haunted the thresholds of offices to no avail.

At last real catastrophe came. Bratchenko, with tears in his eyes, told me that the horses had not been fed for two days. I was silent. Swearing and sobbing, Anton went on cleaning out the stables; but there was nothing more for him to do. The horses were lying on the ground, and Anton drew my special attention to this circumstance.

Next day Kalina Ivanovich returned from town in the worst of tempers.

"What's to be done? They won't give us anything. What is to be done?"

Anton stood in the door silent.

Kalina Ivanovich flung out his arms and glanced at Bratchenko:

"Are we to go out and steal--or what? What can one do? Poor dumb creatures!"

Pushing the door open, Anton flung himself out of the room. An hour later I was told that he had left the colony.

"Where's he gone to?" I asked.

"How do I know? He didn't say a word to anyone."

Next day he returned, accompanied byia villager and a cart leaded with straw. The villager was wearing a new coat and a fine sheepskin cap. The cart rumbled rhythmically into the yard--it had well-fitting plugs and the coats of the horses gleamed. The villager immediately recognized in Kalina Ivanovich an authority:

"A lad told me in the road, that the tax in kind is received here."

"What lad?"

"He was here just now... He came with me... ."

Anton was peeping out of the stable trying to convey something to me by means of mysterious gestures.

Kalina Ivanovich, smiling into his pipe, drew me aside:

"What's to be done? Let's take this load from him and then we'll see!"

By now I understood what it was all about.

"How much is there here?" I asked the villager.

"There should be about twenty poods. I didn't weigh it."

Anton appeared on the scene.

"You told me yourself, on the way, that there were only seventeen," he objected. "And now you say twenty! Seventeen poods!"

"Unload it. And then come to the office and I'll give you a receipt."

In the office, or rather the tiny room which I had at last managed to screen off on the premises of the colony, I wrote down, with my own guilty hand on one of our forms, that I had received seventeen poods of oaten straw from Citizen Onufri Vats, as payment of tax in kind.

Vats bowed low, thanking me for he knew not what, and took his departure.

Bratchenko, so happy that he even sang, was busy with all his henchmen in the stable. Kalina Ivanovich, laughing uneasily, was rubbing his hands.

"Confound it! We shall get into trouble over this business!" he said. "But what were we to do? We couldn't let the animals starve! They're state property too, after all!"

"What was that muzhik so jolly about, when he went, I wonder?" I asked.

"Why shouldn't he be? He thought he would have to go to town, to climb the hill, and to stand in line when he got there. And here be said seventeen poods, the parasite, and nobody checked him, perhaps there are only fifteen!"

Two days later a cart loaded with hay was led into our yard.

"Payment of taxation in kind. Vats paid his here."

"And what's your name?"

"I'm one of the Vatses, too. Vats, Stepan Vats."

"Just a minute!" I went to look for Kalina Ivanovich, and hold a hurried consultation with him. In the doorway I met Anton.

"Well, you've shown them where to come to pay their taxes in kind, and now...."

"Take it, Anton Semyonovich--we'll explain somehow!"

It was impossible to take it, and equally impossible to refuse it. Why, it would be asked, should we take it from one Vats, and refuse it from another?

"Go and unload the hay, and I'll write you out a receipt."

We accepted two more cartloads of baled straw and forty poods of oats.

Shaking in my shoes, I awaited retribution. Anton would cast a thoughtful glance at me now and again, smiling almost imperceptibly out of the side of his mouth. But he no longer fought with all who came to him demanding horses, and, cheerfully carrying out all orders for the transport of freight, worked in the stables like a Hercules.

At last I received the brief but expressive inquiry:

"You are requested to inform us immediately on what authority the colony is accepting payment of taxation in kind.

"District Commissar
for Supplies Ageyev."

I did not even tell Kalina Ivanovich about this inquiry. And I did not reply to it. What answer had I?

In April a pair of black horses harnessed to a tacharzka [Ukrainian cart--Tr.] flew into the yard of the colony, and the terrified Bratchenko flew into my office.

"They've come!" he gasped.

"Who's come?"

"Perhaps it's about the straw! He looks awfully angry."

He seated himself behind the corner of the stove, and fell silent.

The District Commissar for Supplies was true to type--clad in a leather jacket, armed with a revolver, young, spruce.

"Are you the director?" he asked.


"Did you get my inquiry?"

"I got it."

"Why didn't you answer? What's the meaning of this--am I supposed to come myself? Who gave you permission to accept payment of taxation in kind?"

"We accepted payment of taxation in kind without permission."

The District Commissar for Supplies jumped out of his chair, shouting: "What d'you mean--without permission? Do you realize what this implies? You will be arrested for this, do you know that?"

I knew that.

"Do your stuff," said I in hollow tones to the District Commissar for Supplies. "I'm not attempting to defend myself, or get out of it. And please don't shout! Do what you think necessary!"

He strode obliquely from corner to corner of my tiny office.

"This is one hell of a business!" he muttered, as if to himself, and then he snorted like a war horse.

Anton came out of his corner from behind the stove, following with his glance the peppery District Commissar for Supplies. Suddenly he exclaimed in a low voice like the hum of a beetle:

"Anyone would stop caring whether it was payment in kind or what it was, if the horses hadn't been fed for four days! If your fine black horses had done nothing but read the newspapers for four days, would you have been able to gallop up to the colony like you did?"

Ageyev came to a halt, astonished.

"And who may you be? What are you doing here?"

"This is our head groom--he's a more or less interested party," I said.

The District Commissar for Supplies resumed his striding across the room, and suddenly came to a stop in front of Anton.

"Did you at least enter it on your books? This is one hell of a business!"

Anton leaped over to my table, and whispered anxiously:

"It is entered, isn't it, Anton Semyonovich?"

Neither Ageyev nor I could help laughing.

"It's entered."

"Where did you get such a fine lad?" asked the District Commissar for Supplies.

"We make them ourselves," I smiled.

Bratchenko raised his eyes to the face of the District Commissar for Supplies and asked with grave friendliness:

"Shall I feed your blacks?"

"Go ahead and feed them!"