A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


The winter and spring of 1922 were marked by terrific explosions in the Gorky Colony. They came one after another with hardly a breathing space, and they are now fused in my memory in a sort of tangled mass of misfortunes.

And yet, despite so much that was tragic in those days, they were days of growth, both material and moral. How it was that these two phenomena--tragedy and growth--could logically exist side by side, I should at present have some trouble in explaining. But they did. The usual day in the colony was, even then, a wonderful day, filled with toil, mutual confidence, and feelings of human fellowship; in addition to all this, there were always laughter, jokes, enthusiasm, and a fine cheerful spirit. And yet scarcely a week passed in which some incredible occurrence did not plunge us into the abyss, involving us in a chain of events so fatal, that we almost lost our normal outlook, and became like sick persons, reacting to the outward world with lacerated nerves.

Quite unexpectedly anti-Semitism cropped up in our midst. Up to then there had been no Jews in the colony. In the autumn the first one came, and after this, one at a time, several more. One of them had worked in some capacity in the Gubernia Criminal Investigation Department, and he was the first to receive the full impact of the wild rage of our original inmates.

At first I was unable to make out who were the major, and who the minor offenders. Later arrivals at the colony were anti-Semitic simply because they had found a convenient outlet for their hoodlum instincts, while the older ones had had more frequent opportunities to insult and bully the Jewish boys.

The name of our first Jewish member was Ostromukhov. He was beaten up in season and out of season.

To be beaten up, to be continually mocked at, to have a decent belt or a sound pair of boots substituted by worn-out articles, to be cheated out of their food, or have it befouled, to be incessantly teased, to be called all manner of insulting names, and, worst of all, to be kept in a state of continual terror and humiliation--such was the fate in the colony, not of Ostromukhov alone, but also of Schneider, Gleiser, and Krainik. It was a matter of excruciating difficulty for us to struggle against all this. Everything was carried out in the utmost secrecy, with extreme caution, and almost without risk, since the Jewish boys were terrified out of their wits from the very beginning, and afraid to complain. It was only possible to build up surmises on indirect signs, such as a dejected appearance, silent and timid behaviour, or through vague rumours arising from friendly chats between the teachers and the more impressionable of the younger boys.

It was, however, impossible entirely to conceal from the pedagogical staff the systematic persecution of a whole group of their charges, and the time came when the raging of anti-Semitism in the colony was a secret from no one. It even became possible to establish the names of the worst bullies. They were all our old friends--Burun, Mityagin, Volokhov, Prikhodko. But the dominant roles belonged to two boys--Osadchy and Taranets.

His liveliness, wit, and organizing ability had long placed Taranets in the first ranks among the boys of the colony. But the arrival of older boys somewhat restricted the field of his activities. His power complex now found an outlet in intimidating and persecuting the Jewish boys. Osadchy, who was sixteen years old, was sullen, stubborn, strong, and thoroughly demoralized. He was proud of his part, and this, not because he found any nostalgic beauty in it, but out of pure obstinacy, because it was his past, and his life was nobody's business but his own.

Osadchy knew how to savour life, and always took good care that his days should not pass without some sort of enjoyment. He was not very fastidious in his ideas of enjoyment, usually contenting himself with ia visit to Pirogovka, a village on the near side of the town, whose inhabitants were a mixture of kulaks and small traders. At that time Pirogovka was noted for its abundance of pretty girls, and samogon, and it was these attractions which constituted Osadchy's principal enjoyment. His inseparable companion was the colony's most notorious loafer and glutton, Galatenko.

Osadchy sported a magnificent forelock, which prevented him from seeing the world around him, but was undoubtedly an enormous asset when laying siege to the affections of the maidens of Pirogovka. Whenever I had occasion to interfere with his private life, Osadchy would cast glances at me from beneath this forelock, full of ill-humour, and as I thought, dislike. I would not allow him to go to Pirogovka, insistently demanding a greater share of his interests for the colony.

Osadchy became the chief inquisitor of the Jewish boys. He could hardly, however, be called an anti-Semite. It was simply that the defencelessness of the Jewish boys, and the impunity with which they could be persecuted, afforded him opportunities to shine in the colony in all his native wit and bravado.

We had to think twice before embarking upon a straightforward, open campaign against our Jew-baiters, since any such campaign might have been fraught with the direst consequences for the Jewish boys themselves. Such types as Osadchy would not scruple, at a pinch, to use their knives. It would be necessary, therefore, either to go gradually, to work below the surface, taking every precaution, or to put an end to it all with a single explosion.

I began by trying the first method. My idea was to isolate Osadchy and Taranets. Karabanov, Mityagin, Prikhodko and Burun were all my friends, and I counted on their support. But the most I could achieve here was their promise to leave the Jewish boys alone.

"Who are we to protect them from--the whole colony?"

"None of that, Semyon," I said. "You know quite well who I mean!"

"Well, and if I do? Supposing I do stick up for them, I can't tie Ostromukhov to me, can I? They'll catch him, all the same, and beat him up worse than ever!"

Mityagin frankly told me:

"I can't do anything about it--it's not in my line--but I won't hurt them. What do I want with them?"

Zadorov sympathized with my attitude more than any of them, but he could not declare open warfare against boys like Osadchy.

"Something very drastic will have to be done," he said, "but what, I don't know. They keep all that from me, same as they do from you. They never touch anyone in front of me."

In the meantime the situation with regard to the Jews was going from bad to worse. The Jewish boys bore bruises on their persons every day now, but when questioned, refused to name their tormentors. Osadchy strutted about the colony, looking defiantly at me and the teachers from beneath his magnificent forelock.

Deciding to take the bull by the horns, I summoned him to my office. He flatly denied everything, but his whole appearance showed that he was only doing so for convention's sake, and that in reality he did not give a rap what I thought of him.

"You beat them up every day!"

"Nothing of the sort!" he said indifferently.

I threatened to send him away from the colony.

"All right, do!"

He knew very well what a long and agonizing business it was to expel anyone from the colony. Endless applications would have to be made to the Commission, all sorts of forms and reports handed in, and Osadchy himself, not to mention a host of witnesses, sent over and over again for interrogation.

Besides it was not Osadchy in himself who interested me just now. The whole colony looked on at his exploits, and many regarded him with approval and admiration. To expel him from the colony would have been to perpetuate this feeling in the form of a permanent reminder of the martyred hero Osadchy, who had feared nothing, obeyed no one, beaten up the Jews, and for this had been expelled. Moreover, Osadchy was not the only one who persecuted the Jewish boys. Taranets, less violent than Osadchy, was infinitely more inventive and subtle. He never beat them up, and in front of others was almost affectionate to the Jewish boys; but at night he would stick pieces of paper between the toes of one or other of them, set light to the paper, and get back to bed, feigning sleep. Or, getting hold of a pair of clippers, would persuade some hulking fellow such as Fedorenko to clip Schneider's hair to the very roots on one side of his head, and then go through the motions of discovering that the clippers had suddenly got out of order, and jeer at the poor boy, who followed him about in tears, imploring him to finish what he had begun.

The delivery from all these misfortunes came about in the most unexpected manner, and one not very creditable to the colony.

One evening the door of my office opened, and Ivan Ivanovich ushered in Ostromukhov and Schneider, both of them bleeding profusely and spitting blood, but not even crying, so accustomed had they become to violence.

"Osadchy?" I asked.

The teacher on duty related that Osadchy had pestered Schneider, who was on dining room duty, all through suppertime--making him take back the platefuls he was handing round, change the bread, and so on. Finally, just because Schneider, accidentally tipping up a plate, dipped his thumb into the soup he was serving, Osadchy rose from his place, and, in front of the teacher on duty, and the whole colony, struck Schneider in the face. Schneider himself might have kept silent, but the teacher on duty was no coward, and there had never before been a fight in front of a member of the teaching staff. Ivan Ivanovich ordered Osadchy to leave the dining room and go and report himself to me. Osadchy moved towards the dining room door, but stopped in the doorway, exclaiming:

"I'll go to the director, but first I'll make that Ikey sing!"

And here, a minor miracle took place. Ostromukhov, always the meekest of the Jewish boys, suddenly jumped from the table, and threw himself upon Osadchy.

"I'm not going to let you beat him up!" he cried.

It all ended in Osadchy beating up Ostromukhov right there in the dining room; and on the way out, observing Schneider cowering in the covered entrance, he struck him a blow so violent that one of his teeth came out. Osadchy refused to go to me.

In my office, Ostromukhov and Schneider were smearing the blood over their faces with their grimy sleeves, but did not cry, having evidently given themselves up for lost. I was myself convinced that if I did not once for all relieve the tension, the Jewish boys would have to save themselves by precipitate flight, or be prepared for a veritable martyrdom. What chiefly oppressed me, and made my blood run cold, was the indifference shown to the massacre in the dining room by all the other boys--even Zadorov. I felt at this moment as lonely as during the first days of the colony's existence. But in those first days I had looked neither for support nor sympathy from any quarter, it had been a natural loneliness which I had recognized to be inevitable. Now, however, I had become spoiled and was accustomed to the constant co-operation of my charges.

Several other persons were by now in my office, as well as the sufferers.

"Call Osadchy," I said to one of them.

I was almost sure that Osadchy, having taken the bit between his teeth, would refuse to come, and had firmly resolved, if necessary, to fetch him myself, even if I had to take out my revolver.

But Osadchy came, bursting into the office with his jacket thrown over his shoulders, his hands in his trouser pockets, overturning a chair on his way. He was accompanied by Taranets. Taranets tried to look as if all this was extremely amusing, and that he had only come in the hope of an entertaining spectacle.

Osadchy, glancing at me over his shoulder, said:

"Well, I've come.... What is it?"

I pointed to Schneider and Ostromukhov.

"What's the meaning of this?"

"Is that all? What the hell! Two little sheenies! I thought you really had something to show me."

And suddenly the pedagogical soil gave way beneath me with a loud explosion. I felt as if I were in a kind of human void. The heavy abacus lying on my table suddenly flew at the head of Osadchy. I missed my aim, and the frame struck the wall with a clatter and fell to the ground.

Senseless with rage, I felt about on the table for a heavy object, but instead, suddenly picked up a chair and rushed at Osadchy with it. In a panic he stumbled towards the door, but his coat fell off his shoulders on to the floor, entangling his feet, and bringing him down.

My senses returned to me--somebody was taking me by the shoulder. I looked back--Zadorov was smiling at me.

"That swine isn't worth it!"

Osadchy was sitting on the floor, whimpering. Taranets, deathly pale, his lips trembling, was seated perfectly still on the window sill.

"You bullied these kids, too!" I said.

Taranets slipped down from the window sill.

"I give you my word of honour I'll never do it again!"

"Get out of here!"

He went out on tiptoe.

At last Osadchy got up, holding his jacket in one hand, while with the other hand he demolished the last trace of his nervous weakness--a solitary tear slowly crawling down his grimy cheek. He looked at me quietly, gravely.

"You'll spend four days in the cobbler's shop, on bread and water."

"All right--I'll do it."

On the second day of his arrest, he called me to the cobbler's shop, and said:

"I won't do it any more. Will you forgive me?"

"We'll talk about forgiveness when you've finished your term."

At the end of four days he no longer asked for forgiveness, but said sullenly:

"I'm going away."

"Go on, then."

"Give me my papers." "You won't get any papers."

"Goodbye, then!"