A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


By the winter of 1922 the number of our girls was increased to six. Olya Voronova had outgrown her plainness, and become quite a pretty girl. The boys began to take notice of her in good earnest, but Olya was equally good-natured and aloof with them all. Her only friend among them was Burun. Protected by the Herculean form of Burun, Olya feared nobody in the colony, and could even afford to ignore the infatuation of Prikhodko, the strongest, stupidest; and most feckless boy in the colony. Burun was not in love with her; a healthy, youthful friendship existed between him and Olya, greatly adding to the prestige of both in the colony. Despite her beauty, Olya did not make herself conspicuous in any way. She loved the land--work in the fields however heavy had the attraction of music for her, and she would say of herself: "When I'm grownup I'll marry a muzhik--that I will!"

The leading spirit among the girls was Nastya Nochevnaya. She had been sent to the colony with an enormous sheaf of papers, in which all sorts of things were recorded of her--that she was a thief, a receiver of stolen goods, that she had run a den of thieves. We regarded Nastya as something of a marvel, for she was a person of extraordinary charm and integrity. Although barely fifteen, she was distinguished by her stateliness, her fair complexion, the proud carriage of her head, and her firmness of character. She knew how to scold the other girls when necessary, without asperity or shrillness, and could quell a boy with a single glance and a brief, impressive reproof.

"What d'you mean by crumbling your bread and then throwing it away? Have you come into a fortune, or have you taken lessons from the pigs? Pick it up this instant!" she would say, in her deep, throaty voice, with its undertones of restrained force.

Nastya made friends with the women teachers, read a great deal, and advanced undeviatingly towards the goal she had set herself--the Rabfak. But for Nastya, as for all the others who shared her ambition--Yarabanov, Vershnev, Zadorov, Vetkovsky--the Rabfak was still a great way off. Our fledglings were as yet very backward, and found the greatest difficulty in mastering the intricacies of arithmetic and politgramota.[Rudimentary politico-civic studies--Tr.] The most advanced of them was Raissa Sokolova, whom we had sent to the Kiev Rabfak in the autumn of 1921.

We knew in our hearts that this was a hopeless undertaking, but our women teachers did so want to have a student of the Rabfak in the colony. The aspiration was a laudable one, but Raissa was not a particularly suitable object for so sacred a cause. She prepared for her Rabfak entrance examination almost the whole summer, but had to be driven by main force to her books, for Raissa herself by no means aspired to education of any sort.

Zadorov, Vershnev, Rarabanov, who were all endowed with a taste for study, were extremely displeased that Raissa was going to be promoted to the status of a student. Vershnev, remarkable for his ability to read day and night, and even while working the bellows in the smithy, was a lover of righteousness, and a searcher after truth; he could not mention without indignation Raissa's brilliant future.

"C-c-an't you see," he stammered, "Raissa will end up in jail, anyhow?"

Karabanov was still more definite in his expressions.

"I never thought you would have done anything so rash!"

Ziadorov, no whit abashed by Raissa's presence, smiled disdainfully, saying, with a scornful gesture:

"Rabfak student! You might as well try to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear." Raissa replied to all these sarcasms with her languid simpering smile; she did not in the least desire to get into the Rabfak, but she was gratified, and the idea of going to Kiev pleased her.

I agreed with the lads. Indeed, what sort of a student would Raissa make? Even now, while studying for the Rabfak, she used to receive mysterious notes from the town, and leave the colony on the sly every now and then. With equal secrecy she was visited by Korneyev, a boy who had only stayed in the colony three weeks, during which time he had robbed us deliberately and systematically, and had then become involved in a robbery in the town--a wanderer from one criminal investigation department to another, a thoroughly depraved and loathsome individual, one of the few people whom I had recognized, at first sight, as incorrigible.

Raissa did pass the entrance examination for the Rabfak. But a week after we received this inspiriting news we learned from some source or other that Korneyev also had left for Kiev.

"Now she'll really learn something!" said Zadorov.

The winter passed. Raissa wrote every now and then, but little could be made of her letters. Now it seemed as if everything was going splendidly, now she seemed to be finding her studies extremely difficult, and always she was in need of money, although she received a stipend. Every month we sent her twenty or thirty rubles. Zadorov declared that Korneyev fared sumptuously on this money, and this was probably not far from the truth. The women teachers, who had been the initiators of the Kiev scheme, were mercilessly held up to scorn:

"Anyone could see it was no good--only you couldn't! How is it that we could see it, and you couldn't?"

In January Raissa unexpectedly turned up al the colony, with all her hampers, saying that she had been allowed to come home for the holidays. But she had no papers in confirmation of this, and her behaviour clearly showed that she had not the slightest intention of returning to Kiev. The Kiev Rabfak, in reply to my inquiries, informed me that Raissa Sokolova had stopped attending the institute, and had left its hostel for an unknown destination.

Everything was now clear. To do the boys justice, they did not tease Raissa or taunt her with her failure, they seemed to have dismissed the whole adventure from their minds. During the first few days after her arrival, they made endless fun of Ekaterina Grigoryevna, who was crestfallen enough as it was, but on the whole they seemed to think that what had happened was nothing out of the ordinary, and had been foreseen by them all along.

In March, Natalya Markovna Osipova communicated to me her disquieting suspicion that Raissa displayed certain symptoms of pregnancy.

My blood ran cold. A girl member of a juvenile colony discovered to be pregnant! I was well aware of the existence in the vicinity of our colony--in the town and the Department of Public Education--of numbers of those virtuous prudes who are always awaiting the opportunity to raise a hue and cry: sexual immorality in a juvenile colony! Boys living with girls! I was alarmed both by the atmosphere in the colony, and the situation of Raissa, as one of my charges. I asked Natalya Markovna to have a "heart-to-heart talk" with Raissa.

Raissa flatly denied that she was pregnant, even professing indignation.

"Nothing of the sort!" she cried. "Who thought up such beastliness? And since when have the teachers begun spreading gossip?" Poor Natalya Markovna really felt that she had done wrong. Raissa was very fat, and the apparent pregnancy might be explained by unhealthy obesity, the more so as there were really no definite external signs. We decided to believe Raissa.

But a week later, Zadorov called me into the yard, one evening, for a private talk


"Did you know Raissa was pregnant?'"

"And how do you know?" "You're a funny chap! D'you mean to say you can't see it? Everyone knows, and I thought you did too."

"Well, supposing she is pregnant, what then?"

"Nothing! But why does she pretend not to he? Since she is pregnant, why does she try and behave as if nothing has happened? Look--here's a letter from Korneyev! See here--'My dear wifie.' We knew about it long ago."

The teachers also displayed increasing signs of anxiety. I began to be irritated by the whole business.

"What's all the fuss about? If she's pregnant, then she'll give birth to a child. You can conceal pregnancy, but not a birth. It's not such a catastrophe--there'll be a child born, that's all!"

Summoning Raissa to my room, I asked her:

"Tell me the truth, Raissa! Are you pregnant?"

"Why is everybody pestering me? It's a disgrace--sticking to me like burrs! Pregnant! Pregnant! Once and For all, I tell you I'm not!"

Raissa burst into tears.

"Look here, Raissa," I said. "If you're pregnant, there's no need to try and conceal it. We'll help you to get some work, maybe right here, in the colony, and we'll help with money, too. Everything will have to be prepared for the child, baby clothes made, and all that...."

"Nothing of the sort! I don't want any work--leave me alone!"

"All right--you can go!"

We in the colony could learn nothing definite. She might have been sent to a doctor for examination, but on this point the opinion of the staff was divided. Some were urging for the immediate elucidation of the affair, others agreed with me that such an examination would be extremely unpleasant and offensive for a young girl, and that, after all, there was no necessity for it, sooner or later the whole truth would be known, and there was no hurry. If Raissa was pregnant, she could not be much past the fifth month. Let her calm down, and get accustomed to the idea, by which time it would be difficult to conceal anything. Raissa was left to herself.

On the 15th of April there was a big congress of teachers in the town theatre, at the opening meeting of which I gave a lecture on discipline. I finished my lecture at the first session, but my statements aroused such impassioned debate that the discussion of the lecture had to be put off till the next day. Almost our entire teaching staff and several of the older pupils attended the meeting, and we had to spend the night in town.

By then, interest in our colony was being shown beyond the limits of our district, and the next day the theatre was as full as it could hold. Among other points raised was that of coeducation. At that time coeducation was forbidden by law in colonies for juvenile delinquents, and ours was the only one in the whole country in which the experiment was being made.

While answering this question, the thought of Raissa just passed through my mind, but whether she was or was not pregnant seemed to me to have no bearing on the question of coeducation. I assured the meeting that in this respect all was well in our colony.

During the interval I was called into the vestibule. There I ran into the panting Bratchenko--he had ridden in extreme haste into town, and refused to tell any of the teachers what had happened.

"There's trouble in the colony, Anton Semyonovich," he said. "A dead baby has been found in the girls' dormitory."

"A dead baby!"

"Dead! Quite dead! In Raissa's hamper. Lenka was washing the floor, and happened to look into the hamper--perhaps she meant to take something. And there she saw a dead baby."

"What are you talking about?"

Our feelings were indescribable. Never before had I experienced such horror. The women teachers, pale and weeping, got out of the theatre somehow, and returned in a droshky to the colony. I was unable to leave, still having to counter the attacks which my lecture had provoked.

"Where's the baby now?" I asked Anton.

"Ivan Ivanovich locked it in the dormitory. It's there, in the dormitory."

"And Raissa?" "Raissa's sitting in the office, the fellows are guarding her."

I sent Anton to the militia with a declaration as to the discovery, remaining behind myself, to continue the discussion on discipline.

I only got back to the colony in the evening. Raissa was sitting on the wooden bench in my office, dishevelled, and wearing the apron in which she had been working in the laundry. She did not look at me when I came in, only let her head sink still lower. Beside her on a bench was Vershnev, surrounded with books--he was obviously looking for some reference, for he rapidly turned the leaves of volume after volume, and paid no attention to anyone.

I gave the order to unlock the door of the dormitory, and remove the hamper with the corpse to the linen room. Quite late in the evening, when everyone had gone to bed. I asked Raissa:

"Why did you do it?"

Raissa raised her head, gave me a blank, scarcely human look, and smoothed the apron over her knees.

"I did it, and that's all about it!"

"Why didn't you do what I told you?"

Suddenly she began to cry quietly.

"I don't know!" I left her to spend the night in the office under the guard of Vershnev, whose passion for reading was the best guarantee that he would stay awake. We were all afraid that Raissa would make some attempt on her own life.

The next morning an investigator arrived, but his investigations did not take long--there was hardly anyone to interrogate. Raissa related the details of her crime with terse precision. She had given birth to the child in the night, right there in the dormitory, where there were five other girls sleeping. Not one of them had waked up. Raissa's explanation of this was of the simplest: "I tried not to moan."

Immediately after the birth she had strangled the baby with her shawl. She denied having premeditated the murder.

"I didn't mean to, but it cried."

She had hidden the corpse in the hamper she had taken with her to the Rabfak, meaning to take it out the next night and leave it in the woods. She thought the foxes would eat it, and nobody would be any the wiser. The next morning she had gone to work in the laundry, where the other girls were washing their linen. She had had breakfast and dinner with all the rest, as usual--only some of the boys noticed that she was very glum.

The investigator took Raissa away, and ordered the corpse to be sent to the mortuary at one of the hospitals for a post mortem.

The teaching staff was completely demoralized by the whole affair. They thought the last days of the colony had arrived.

The boys were in a somewhat excited state. The girls were afraid of the dark and of their own dormitory, where they would not for the world stay without the boys. For several nights Zadorov and Karabanov hung about the dormitory. It all ended in neither the girls nor the boys sleeping, or as much as undressing. During these days the favourite occupation of the boys was frightening the girls--suddenly appearing beneath their windows draped in sheets, getting up appalling concerts in the vents of the stoves, or hiding under Raissa's bed, in order, when night fell, to imitate, at the top of their voices, the crying of a baby.

The murder itself was regarded by the boys as a perfectly simple phenomenon At the same time they disagreed with the teachers as to Raissa's motive. The teachers were convinced that Raissa had strangled her baby in an access of maidenly modesty--her overwrought state, the sleeping girls, the sudden cry of the child ...her terror that it would wake her companions.

Zadorov almost split his sides with laughing when he heard the explanations of the ultrapsychologically-minded teachers.

"Drop that nonsense!" he exclaimed. "Maidenly modesty, indeed! She planned it all out beforehand and that's why she wouldn't admit she was going to have a baby soon! It was all planned out beforehand with Korneyev... to hide it in the hamper, and take it into the woods. If she had done it out of modesty, would she have gone so calmly to work the next morning? If I had my way, I would shoot that Raissa tomorrow! She's a worm, and a worm she will remain! And you go on about maidenly modesty--she never had any in her life!"

"Very well, then, what was her idea? Why did she do it?" asked the teachers in desperation.

"Her idea was very simple! What does she want with a baby? You have to look after a baby, feed it, and all that! A fat lot they wanted a child --especially Korneyev!"

"Oh, it couldn't be that!"

"Couldn't it? What a set of suckers! Of course Raissa will never admit it, but I'm quite sure if she was properly managed all sorts of things would come out...."

The other boys agreed wholeheartedly with Zadorov. Karabanov was perfectly convinced that it was not the first time Raissa had played "this trick," that probably something of the sort bad occurred even before she came to the colony.

On the third day after the murder, Karabanov took the corpse of the child to the hospital. He returned very much elated.

"Oh, the sights I've seen! They've got all sorts of kids there in jars--twenty...thirty.... Some of them are ghastly--such heads! And one had its legs doubled up under it--you couldn't tell if it was a human being or a frog. Ours isn't like that! Ours is a beauty next to those!"

Ekaterina Grigoryevna shook her head reproachfully, but even she could hardly repress a smile.

"How can you, Semyon! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!"

The boys stood round laughing. They were sick of the dejected, sour countenances of the teachers.

Three months later Raissa was called to trial. The whole Pedagogical Council of the Gorky Colony was summoned to the court. "Psychology" and the theory of maidenly modesty prevailed in the courtroom. The judge reproached us for having failed to foster the right atmosphere and the right attitude. We had nothing to say for ourselves, of course. I was called privately to the judge and asked if I was ready to take Raissa back to the colony. I replied that I was.

Raissa received a sentence of eight years on probation, and was immediately handed over to be kept under supervision at the colony.

She returned to us just as if nothing had happened, bringing with her a pair of magnificent brown boots, attired in which at our evening parties she shone in the whirl of the waltz, evoking excruciating envy in the breasts of our laundresses and the Pirogovka girls.

"You'd better send Raissa out of the colony, Nastya Nochevnaya advised me, "or we'll do it ourselves! It's disgusting to have to share a room with her!"

I hastened to get her a job in the knitting mills.

I came across her in the town every now and then. Visiting the town much later, in 1928, I was surprised to recognize Raissa behind the counter in an eating house--she was much fatter than she had been, but at the same time she was more muscular, and the lines of her figure had greatly improved.

"How are you getting on?" I asked her.

"All right! I'm working at the counter. I have two kids, and a decent husband."


"Oh, no!" she smiled. "That's all over! He was knifed in a street fight long ago. And, Anton Semyonovich--"

"Well, what is it?"

"Thanks for not letting me sink. Ever since I began to work at the mills I left my past behind me."