A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


This was in the beginning of the summer of 1922. Nobody in the colony ever mentioned Prikhodko's crime. He was severely beaten up by the other boys and had to keep his bed for a long time, and we did not pester him with any questions whatever. I gathered that there had been nothing special in what he had done. No arms were found on him.

But Prikhodko was for all that a real bandit. The near-catastrophe in my office, and his misfortune made no impression on him. And in the future he continued to cause the colony much unpleasantness. At the same time he was loyal in his own way, and would have broken the skull of any enemy of the colony with crowbar or with axe. He was an extremely limited individual, always under the power of the latest impression, swayed by every idea that entered his dull brain. But there was no better worker than Prikhodko. The hardest tasks could not subdue his spirit, and he was a mighty wielder of axe or hammer, even when these were used for purposes other than breaking his neighbour's skull.

After the unfortunate experiences already described, the members of the colony harboured violent wrath against the peasants. The lads could not forgive them for having been the cause of our troubles. I could see that if they refrained from outrages against the peasants, it was only out of pity for me.

My talks, and the talks of my colleagues about the peasantry and their work, and about the necessity of respecting this work, were never received by the boys as the talk of people who were better informed, or wiser than themselves. They considered that we knew very little about such things--in their eyes we were town intellectuals, incapable of understanding how profoundly unpleasant the peasants were.

"You don't know them. We know what they're like, to our own cost. They're ready to cut a man's throat for half a pound of bread, and just try to get something out of them.... They wouldn't give a crust to a starving man, they'd rather their grain rotted in their barns."

"We're bandits--all right, we are! Still we know we did wrong, and we've been--er--forgiven. We know that. But they--they care for no one. According to them the tsar was bad, and so is the Soviet government. The only people they consider any good are those who ask nothing themselves, and give them everything gratis. Muzhiks--that's what they are!"

"Oh, I can't bear those muzhiks! I can't bear the sight of them--I'd shoot the lot!" said Burun, an inveterate townsman.

Burun's favourite amusement at the market was to go up to some villager, standing beside his cart, eyeing with distaste the town miscreants milling around him, and to ask him:

"Are you a crook?"

The villager would forget his cautiousness in his indignation.


"Oh, you're a muzhik!" Burun would exclaim, laughing, unexpectedly moving with the rapidity of lightning towards the sack on the cart. "Look out, Pop!"

The villager would respond with a string of oaths, which was just what Burun wanted--he enjoyed it as the amateur of music enjoys a symphony concert.

Burun made no bones about telling me:

"If it weren't for you, they'd have a hard time of it!"

One of the main causes of our unfriendly relations with the peasantry was the fact that the colony was surrounded entirely by kulak farmsteads. Goncharovka, where most of the inhabitants were real working peasants, as as yet far away from our daily life. Our nearest neighbours, all those Moussi Karpoviches and Yefrem Sidoroviches, were snugly ensconced in neatly-roofed, whitewashed huts, surrounded not by wattle hurdles, but by real fences, and were careful not to let anyone into their yards. When they came to the colony they wearied us with incessant complaints about taxation, prophesying that the Soviet government would never last with such a policy. And at the same time they drove fine stallions, while on holidays samogon ran in rivers, and their wives smelt of new print dresses, smetana and cheesecakes. And their sons were unrivalled suitors and dazzling cavaliers; no one else had such well-tailored coats, such new dark-green peaked caps, such highly polished boots, adorned winter and summer with magnificent shining galoshes.

The colonists well knew the economic position of each of our neighbours, they even knew the state of an individual seed-drill or harvester, for they were always fixing and repairing these implements in our smithy. They knew, also, the melancholy lot of the numerous shepherds and workers whom the kulaks so frequently turned ruthlessly from their doors, without even playing them their wages.

To tell the truth I myself became infected by my charges with dislike for this kulak world nestling behind its gates and fences.

For all that, these continual quarrels made me uneasy. And to this must be added our hostile relations with the village authorities. Luka Semyonovich, while surrendering the Trepke field to us, never lost hope of getting us turned out of the new colony. He made strenuous efforts to have the mill and the whole Trepke estate handed over to the Village Soviet, ostensibly for the organization of a school. He managed, with the help of relatives and cronies in the town to purchase one of the annexes in the new colony for transference to the village. We beat off this attack with fists and palings, but I had the utmost difficulty in getting the sale cancelled, and in proving, in the town, that the annex was simply being purchased for firewood for Luka Semyonovich and his relatives.

Luka Semyonovich and his henchmen wrote and dispatched to the town endless complaints of the colony, reviling us in various government departments; it had been on their insistence that the raid had been made on us by the militia.

As far back as the winter Luka Semyonovich had burst into my office one evening, demanding imperatively:

"You show me the registers where you enter the money you get from the village for your work in the smithy."

"Get out!" I replied.

"What's that?"

"Get out of here!"

No doubt my looks gave little promise of success in the elucidation of the fate of the money, and Luka Semyonovich made himself scarce without a murmur. After this, however, he became the sworn enemy of myself and our whole organization. The members of the colony, in their turn, detested Luka with all the ardour of youth.

One hot noonday in June a regular procession appeared against the horizon on the opposite bank of the bake. When it drew nearer to the colony we were able to distinguish its astounding details--two muzhiks were leading Oprishko and Soroka, whose arms were bound to their sides.

Oprishko was in every respect a dashing personality, fearing nobody in the colony but Anton Bratchenko, under whom he worked, and who chastised him whenever he thought fit. Oprishko was much bigger and stronger than Anton, but the totally inexplicable adoration he bore for the head groom and the fascination of the latter's triumphant disposition prevented him from ever using these advantages. Oprishko carried himself with the utmost dignity in regard to the rest of the boys, never allowing them to impose upon him. His excellent temper was in his favour, for he was always jolly and cared for nothing hut jolly society, so that he was only to be found tin those parts of the colony where there was never a hangdog look or a sour countenance. At first he had utterly refused to leave the collector [Temporary home for waifs--Tr.] for the colony, and I had had to go and fetch him myself. He received me lying on his bed, with a scornful glance.

"To hell with you," he said. "I'm not going anywhere!"

I had been told of his heroic qualities, so that from the first I adopted the proper tone in addressing him.

"I'm extremely sorry to disturb you, Sir," I said, "but duty compels me to beg you to take your place in the carriage prepared for you."

Oprishko was at first astonished by my "gallant address," and even made as if to get off the bed, but then his former whim got the upper hand and he once more let his head sink on to the pillow.

"I told you I wasn't going...."

"In that case, honoured sir, I shall be compelled, to my profound regret, to convey you by force."

Oprishko raised his curly head from the pillow and looked at me with unfeigned astonishment.

"For God's sake, where did you spring from?" he exclaimed. "D'you think it'll be so easy to take me by force?"

"Bear in mind...."

I made my voice menacing, letting a shade of irony creep into it.

"...dear Oprishko...."

And here I suddenly roared at him: "Get up, you! What the hell are you lying there for? Get up, I tell you!"

He leaped from the bed and rushed to the window.

"I'll jump out of the window, so help me, I will!" he cried

"Either you jump out of the window minute," I said contemptuously, "or get into the cart--I have no time to play about with you!"

We were on the third floor, so Oprishko laughed gaily, and frankly. "There's no getting away from you!" he said. "What's to be done? Are you the director of the Gorky Colony?"

"Yes, I am."

"Why didn't you say so at once? I'd have gone with you long ago."

He started making energetic preparations for the way.

In the colony he took part in every single enterprise of the other boys, never, however, playing first fiddle, apparently seeking entertainment rather than profit.

Soroka was younger than Oprishko. He had a round, comely face, was thoroughly stupid, incoherent and extraordinarily unlucky. Whatever he undertook he came to grief. So when the boys saw that it was he who was tied up beside Oprishko, they were displeased.

"What on earth does Dmitri want to get mixed up with Soroka for?" they muttered.

The convoy consisted in the chairman of the Village Soviet and our old friend Moussi Karpovich.

Moussi Karpovich was the picture of injured innocence. Luka Semyonovich was as sober as a judge and bore himself with official aloofness. His red beard was neatly combed, an embroidered shirt of dazzling whiteness showed beneath his jacket, it was obvious that he had just come from church.

The chairman began.

"A fine way you're bringing up your lads," he said.

"What's that to do with you?" I retorted.

"I'll tell you what--people have no peace from them--robbing on the highway, stealing everything."

"Hey, Pop--what right have you to tie them up?" came a voice from the crowd of colony boys.

"He thinks this is the old regime."

"He ought to be taken in hand!"

"You be quiet!" I adjured them. "Tell me what is the matter," I said, turning to the men.

Now Moussi Karpovich took up the tale.

"My old woman hung a petticoat and a blanket on the fence, and these two passed by, and next thing I know the things are gone. I run after them, and they take to their heels. Now I can't run as fast as they do, you know! Fortunately Luka Semyonovich was just coming out of church, and we got hold of them...."

"Why did you tie them up?" came from the crowd again.

"So's they shouldn't run away. That's why...."

"We don't have to discuss that here," put in the chairman. "Let's go and draw up a statement."

"We can get on without a statement. Did they return the things?"

"What if they did? There's got to be a statement."

The chairman had made up his mind to humiliate us, and the occasion favoured him--for the first time boys from the colony had been caught red-handed.

Such a situation was extremely unpleasant for us. A deposition spelt inevitable jailing--for the lads, and for the colony an irreparable disgrace.

"These boys have been caught for the first time," I said. "All sorts of things are apt to happen between neighbours. The first time should be forgiven."

"No," said the red-haired one. "No forgiving! Come on to the office and take a deposition!"

Moussi Karpovich remembered old scores.

"You remember how you took me, one night? You still have my axe--and look what a fine I had to pay!"

I had no reply to this.

Yes, there was no way out. The kulaks had us floored. I directed the conquerors to the office, calling out to the boys in my rage:

"Now you've gone and done it, confound you! This time it is petticoats! We shall never get over the disgrace! I shall have to start thrashing the rotters! And those fools will be jailed!"

The boys held their silence. They bad indeed "gone and done it." With these ultra-pedagogical utterances, I, too, went towards the office.

For two hours I begged and implored the chairman, promising that such a thing would never happen again, agreeing to make a new pair of wheels together with axle for the Village Soviet at cost price. At last the chairman presented his final terms:

"Let all the lads ask me themselves!"

During these two hours I contracted a lifelong hatred for the chairman. While the conversation was going on the bloodthirsty thought kept passing through my mind--perhaps one day the chairman will get caught in a dark place, and if he gets beaten up, I won't be the one to save him.

Do as I would, there was no other way out. I told the boys to line up at the porch, and the authorities came out to the steps. With my hand at the peak of my cap, I said, on behalf of the colony, that we deeply regretted the error of our comrades, requested forgiveness for them, and promised that in future such occurrences would not be repeated. Luka Semyonovich uttered the following speech:

"Undoubtedly such things should be punished with the utmost severity of the law, for the villagers are undoubtedly toilers. Therefore, if a villager hangs up a skirt, and you take it, you are enemies of the people, of the proletariat. I who have been authorized by the Soviet government cannot allow unlawfulness, according to which any bandit and criminal can take what he likes. And your asking me and promising and that--God knows what'll come of it. If you ask me bowing low, and your director promises to bring you up honest citizens, and not bandits... then I'll forgive you unconditionally."

I was trembling with humiliation and rage. Oprishko and Soroka, pale as death, stood in the ranks of the colonists.

The chairman and Moussi Karpovich shook hands with me, said a few magniloquently magnanimous words, which, however, I did not even hear.

"Break up!"

Over the colony the burning sun shone out and became a fixed glare. The smell of mint hovered over the earth. The motionless air hung over the forest like a rigid blue screen.

I looked around me....The same colony, the same rectangular buildings, the same boys, and tomorrow everything would begin all over again--petticoats, the chairman, Moussi Karpovich, journeys to the dreary, flyblown town.... Right in front of me was the door of my room, with its camp beds and unpainted table, and on the table a packet of shag.

"What's to be done? What am I to do? What am I to do?" I turned towards the forest.

There is no shade in a pine forest at noon, but everything is always clean and tidy, one can see a long way, and the slender pines range themselves beneath the sky in splendid order, like a neatly set stage.

Although we lived in the forest I scarcely ever found myself in its depths. Human affairs held me ruthlessly down to tables, lathes, sheds and dormitories. The quiet and purity of the pine forest, the air saturated with the smell of resin, had a magnetism all its own. One felt as if one would like never to leave it, as if one would like oneself to become a slender, wise, fragrant tree, and to take up one's stand beneath the sky in such refined, elegant society.

A branch snapped behind me. I glanced round--the whole forest seemed to be filled with colonists. They moved cautiously along the aisles formed by the tree trunks, advancing towards me at a run only by the very furthest glades. I halted in amazement. They, too, froze in their places, shooting at me penetrating glances, filled with a sort of motionless, terrified anticipation.

"What are you doing here? What are you following me about for?"

Zadorov, who happened to be nearest to me, stepped out from behind a tree and said almost gruffly:

"Come black to the colony!"

My heart seemed to miss a beat.

"What's happened in the colony?"

"Nothing whatever. Let's go back!"

"Say what you mean, confound you!"

I stepped rapidly towards him. Two or three of the others approached, the rest held aloof. Zadorov said in a whisper:

"We'll go, only do us a favour."

"What on earth do you want?"

"Hand over your revolver!"

"My revolver?"

All of a sudden I guessed what he meant, and burst out laughing. "Oh, my revolver! With pleasure! You're a funny lot! I could just as well hang myself, or throw myself into the lake."

Zadorov suddenly broke out into resounding laughter.

"All right, then, keep it! We got it into our heads that.... You're just having a walk? Go on, then. Back, fellows!"

What had happened?

When I had turned into the forest, Soroka had rushed to the dormitory.

"Oh, lads! Oh, fellows! Oh, come quick to the forest Anton Semyonovich is going to shoot himself!"

Without waiting for him to finish speaking they all rushed out of the dormitory.

In the evening everyone seemed extraordinarily embarrassed--Karabanov alone playing the fool, and twisting about between the beds like one possessed. Zadorov grinned disarmingly, and for some reason kept pressing the small blooming face of Shelaputin to himself. Burun would not leave my side, maintaining a resolutely mysterious silence. Oprishko had given himself up to hysterics, lying on the bed in Kozyr's room, and weeping into the dirty pillow. Soroka had hidden himself somewhere to get away from the jeers of the boys.

Zadorov said:

"Let's play forfeits!"

And we actually played forfeits. Pedagogics sometimes assumes queer forms--forty lads, all half-ragged and half-hungry, playing forfeits as merrily as possible in the light of an oil lamp.... Only the traditional kisses were missing.