A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1

Horrid Old Men

Summer evenings in the colony were delicious. The tender, limpid sky made a vast background, the outskirts of the forest were hushed in the twilight, the sunflowers edging the truck garden had gathered in a single silhouette, and seemed to be resting after the day's heat, the steep, chilly slope to the lake was merged in the falling dusk. There would be people sitting on a porch somewhere, their muffled talk faintly audible; but one could never make out who they were, and how many there were of them.

While it is still almost light, there comes an hour when it is difficult to recognize objects, or distinguish them from one another. At that hour the colony always seemed to be deserted. Where could all the boys be? one asked oneself. A stroll through the colony would enable you to see them all. In the stable a group of five are discussing something beneath a horse collar on the wall; there is quite a gathering in the bakery, for the loaves will be ready in half an hour, and all who are in any way involved in this event--those on supper duty, and those on general duty--are seated on benches in the swept and garnished bakery, in peaceful conversation. Around the well the company bears a casual nature--one has come for a pail of water, another was just passing, yet another was detained there because someone bad been looking for him since the morning--all have forgotten about the water, and remembered something else, something, perhaps, of no particular importance--but what can be unimportant on a sweet summer evening?

At the far end of the yard, just where the slope towards the lake begins, a flock of little chaps are perched upon a fallen willow, which has long ago lost its bark, and Mityagin is spinning one of his inimitable yarns:

"....and so, in the morning, when the people came to the church, they looked round--not a single priest to be seen! What could have happened? Where had all the priests gone to? And the watchman said: 'You know what? The devil has probably carried off our priests to the marsh. We have four priests! "Four?" Yes, that must be it-- four priests have been carried off to the marsh in the night.' "

The boys were listening in rapt silence, their eyes glowing, the silence only broken by an occasional joyful squeak from Toska. It was not so much the devil who amused him, as the stupid watchman who had been on duty all night and could not make out whether it was his own or strange priests whom the devil had taken to the marsh. A picture was conjured up of fat priests, all alike, with no names of their own, of the whole fussy, difficult undertaking. Just fancy! To carry them one by one on his shoulders to the marsh!

From among the bushes, where there had once been a garden, comes the explosive laughter of Olya Voronona, followed by the teasing baritone voice of Burun, again laughter, this time not from Olya alone, but from a whole chorus of girls, and Burun springs into the glade, holding his crumpled cap on his bead, and pursued by a gay, motley throng. Shelaputin lingers in the glade, unable to make up his mind whether to laugh or run away, for the girls have accounts to square with him too.

But these peaceful, meditative, poetical evenings did not always correspond to our moods. The storerooms of the colony, the cellars of the villagers, even the rooms of the teaching staff, had not ceased to be the objects of nefarious activities, though not on such a scale as had marked our colony in the first year. Missing articles had become a rarity. If a new specialist in this art did make his appearance amongst us, he quickly realized that he would have to deal not with the director, but with the majority of the collective itself, and the collective could be extremely cruel in its reactions. Earlier in the summer I had had difficulty in getting a new boy out of the grip of the other members of the colony, who had caught him trying to get into Ekaterina Grigoryevna's room through the window. They beat him up with the blind fury and ruthlessness of which the mob alone is capable. When I made my appearance in their midst, I was just as furiously pushed aside, and somebody called out passionately: "Make Anton get the hell out of here!"

That summer Kuzma Leshy was sent by the Commission to the colony. He must have been of partly gipsy descent. His huge black eyes were well placed on his dusky countenance, and supplied with an excellent rotatory apparatus, and nature had imposed a definite assignment upon these same eyes--to miss nothing which lay handy and could be stolen. The other members of Leshy's body blindly carried out the orders of those gipsy eyes: Leshy's feet carried him to the place where the handy article lay, his hands reached out for it obediently, his black bowed obediently to take advantage of any natural means of shelter, his ears were ever on the alert for suspicious rustlings or other warning sounds. What part Leshy's head took in all this it would be hard to say. Later in the history of the colony Leshy's head was appreciated at its worth, but at first it seemed to everyone the most unnecessary part of his body.

This Leshy caused us both grief and entertainment. There was not a day when he did not get into trouble. Once it was for sneaking a lump of lard from the cart, only just arrived from town, another time for stealing a handful of sugar from the storeroom under the storekeeper's very nose, he would pinch shag from his comrades' pockets, eat up half the bread on the way from the bakery to the kitchen, or pick up a table knife during a business talk in the room of one of the teachers. Leshy never worked to a plan of the slightest intricacy, or used any instrument, however primitive. He was so made as to regard his hands as his best instrument. The lads tried beating him up, but Leshy merely grinned:

"What's the good of beating me? I don't know myself how it happened. I'd like to see what you would have done!"

Kuzma was a cheerful lad. In the course of his sixteen years he had accumulated such experience, travelled much, seen a lot, put in time in the prisons of many gubernias, could read and write, was witty, remarkably agile and fearless in his movements, could dance the hopak beautifully, and did not know the meaning of shyness.

For these qualities the other boys forgave him much, but his thievish tendencies soon began to get on everyone's nerves. At last he got himself into a very ugly mess, which kept him on his back for a long time after. He broke into the bakery one night and was severely beaten up with a log. Our baker, Kostya Vetkovsky, had long suffered from continual shortage of bread, only coming to light during delivery, and then there was a chronic diminution in surplus weight after baking, and chronic scoldings from Kalina Ivanovich. Kostya laid a trap which was successful beyond expectation, and Leshy walked straight into it, one night. The next morning Leshy went to Ekaterina Grigoryevna, asking for help. He had been climbing up a tree to get some mulberries, he said, and got scratched. Ekaterina Grigoryevna was extremely surprised at such a sanguinary result of a mere fall from a tree, but it was none of her business--she bandaged Leshy's countenance and helped him to the dormitory--for Leshy could not have got so far alone. Until the right moment came Kostya confided to no one the details of that night in the bakery, but he spent all his spare time at Kuzma's bedside, reading him The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

When Leshy recovered he himself told the whole story, and was the first to laugh at his own misfortune.

"Listen, Kuzma," said Karabanov, "If I always had such bad luck, I would long ago have given up stealing. You'll get yourself killed one of these days."

"I keep wondering myself," mused Kuzma, "how it is I'm always so unlucky. It's probably because I'm not a real thief. I'll have to try again a few times, and if nothing comes of it, I shall have to give it up. That's right, isn't it, Anton Semyonovich?"

"A few times?" I repeated. "In that case don't put it off, try today, nothing will come of it, anyhow. You're no good at such things."

"No good?" "None at all. But Semyon Petrovich told me you'd make a splendid smith."

"Did he?"

"Yes, he did. But he said, too, that you had sneaked w new taps from the smithy--they're probably in your pockets this very minute."

Leshy came as close to blushing as his dusky countenance permitted. Karabanov seized Leshy's pocket, guffawing as only Karabanov could guffaw.

"Of course they are! Here's your first time, and you muffed it!"

"Oh, hell!" said Leshy, emptying his pockets.

Within the colony it was only cases of this sort which arose. Things were much worse in respect to the so-called environments. The village cellars continued to enjoy the sympathy of the colonists, but this matter was now perfectly regulated, and reduced to a highly-organized system. Only seniors took part in cellar operations, juniors mere excluded, and at the slightest attempt on their part to go underground, these seniors ruthlessly and in all good faith pressed criminal charges against them. The seniors arrived at such extraordinary skill that even the tongues of the kulaks did not venture to lay this dirty business to the door of the colony. Moreover, I had every reason to believe that the executive leadership in all cellar operations was in the hands of no less an expert than Mityagin.

Mityagin had been born a thief from his childhood. If he did not steal in the colony, it was because he respected its inmates, and thoroughly understood that to steal in the colony as to injure his comrades. But nothing was sacred to Mityagin at the town markets or on the premises of the villagers. He often absented himself from the colony in the night, and the next morning it would be difficult to get him up for breakfast. He always asked for leave on Sundays, returning late at night, sometimes in a new cap or muffler, and always with gifts which he distributed among the younger boys. The little ones adored Mityagin, who, somehow or other, managed to conceal from them his frankly predatory philosophy.

Mityagin still retained his affection for me, but the subject of stealing was never broached between us. I knew that he was not to be helped by talking.

And yet Mityagin caused me great anxiety. He was on of the most intelligent and gifted of the boys, and therefore enjoyed universal respect. He knew how to display his thievish nature in the most attractive light. Me was always surrounded by a suite of older boys, and this suite behaved with the tact of Mityagin himself, with Mityagin's own respect for the colony and the teachers. It was difficult to ascertain what this company occupied itself with in the mysterious hours of dark. To do this it would have been necessary either to spy on them, or to interrogate a few of the boys, and it seemed to me that either of these systems would disturb the tone which had been so laboriously created.

Whenever I happened to learn of one of Mityagin's escapades, I would openly haul him over the coals at a meeting, sometimes inflict a penalty on him, or call him into my office to reprove him in private. Mityagin usually maintained silence with a perfectly calm demeanour, smiling with the utmost cordiality and good humour, and when leaving, invariably calling out in affectionate, grave tones:

"Good night, Anton Semyonovich!"

He was a frank supporter of the colony's good name, and was extremely indignant when anyone got caught.

"I don't understand where these asses spring from? Always biting off more than they can chew!"

I foresaw that we should have to part with Mityagin. It was annoying to have to acknowledge my powerlessness, and I was sorry for Mityagin. He himself probably realized there was no good in his staying in the colony, but he did not want to leave a place in which he had made so many friends, and where the little ones were drawn to him as flies are drawn to sugar.

Worst of all was the fact that even boys who seemed to be reliable members of the collective--Karabanov, Vershnev, Volokhov--began to be infected by the Mityagin philosophy. The only one to show real, open opposition to Mityagin was Belukhin. It is noteworthy that the enmity between Mityagin and Belukhin never assumed the form of a brawl, or came to fighting or even quarrelling. Belukhin openly announced in the dormitory that so long as Mityagin was there, there would always be thieves in the colony. Mityagin heard him with a smile on his face, and replied without the slightest rancour:

"We can't fall be honest folk, Matvei. What the hell would your honesty be worth if there were no thieves? You get all the credit through me."

"I get credit through you! Why d' you talk such nonsense?"

"Just like that! I steal, and you don't steal, and so you gain glory. And if nobody stole, everyone mould be the same. I consider Anton Semyonovich ought purposely to take in chaps like me. Otherwise there'd be no way for chaps like you to make good."

"What rubbish!" said Belukhin. "There are countries where there aren't any thieves. There's Denmark, and Sweden, and Switzerland. I've read there aren't any thieves there."

"That's ia lie!" stammered Vershnev. "They steal there, too. And what's the good of not having thieves? Look how insignificant they are--Den-denmark and Switzerland!"

"And what about us?"

"Us? Just look at us, just see how we've shown ourselves--look at the Revolution, just look at it!"

"People like you are the first to oppose a revolution, so there!" shouted Belukhin.

Utterances like these would especially infuriate Karabanov. He would leap out of bed, shaking his fists, and darting ferocious glances from his black eyes at the good-natured face of Belukhin.

"What are you making all this fuss about?" he would cry. "What if Mityagin and I eat an extra roll, is that going to harm the Revolution? You measure everything in rolls."

"Stop hurling your rolls at me! It's not the roll, it's that you're a swine, going about digging into the earth with your snout!"

By the end of the summer the activities of Mityagin and his companions assumed colossal dimensions on the neighbouring melon beds. In our parts watermelons and muskmelons had been abundantly sown this year, some of the more prosperous farmers having planted several desyatins with them.

The stealing of melons began with an occasional raid on the melon beds. Stealing from melon beds has never been accounted a criminal offence in the Ukraine, and village boys have always gone in for minor raids on them. The owners maintained a more or less good-natured attitude to such raids--twenty thousand melons were sometimes gathered on a single desyatin, and if a hundred or so disappeared during the summer, the loss was scarcely felt. For all that, a hut was always erected in the middle of the melon field, in which there lived some old man who did not so much protect the melons as keep a record of uninvited guests.

Every now and then one of these old men would come to me with his complaints: "Your lads were in the melon field yesterday. Tell them it's not right to do that. Let them come straight to the hut, there's always enough to treat a fellow. Just tell me--I'll choose you the best watermelon in the field myself."

I transmitted the old man's request to the boys. They gratified it that very evening, merely introducing a slight amendment to the system proposed by the old man: while the very best melon chosen by the old man was being eaten, to the accompaniment of friendly conversation about the quality of the melons last year as compared to the crop the year of the Japanese war, uninvited guests were roving over the melon field, filling the turned-up hems of their shirts, pillowcases, and sacks with melons, while quite dispensing with conversation of any sort. That first evening, taking advantage of the old man's kind invitation, Vershnev suggested that Belukhin should visit him. The others raised no objections to this preferential treatment. Matvei returned from the melon field content.

"It was ever so nice, upon my word, it was! We had a talk, and made a guy happy...."

Vershnev sat on a bench smiling calmly. Karabanov burst into the room.

"Well, Matvei, did you have a good time?"

"You see, Semyon, me can be good neighbours, too."

"All very well for you! You've had your fill of melon, but what about us?"

"You're a funny guy! You can go to him yourself!"

"I like that! You ought to be ashamed of yourself! A man invites us, and are we all to go? That would be beastly cheek--there's sixty of us!"

The next day Vershnev again proposed that Belukhin should go to see the old man. Belukhin magnanimously refused the offer--let someone else go!

"How am I to find anyone else? Come on! You needn't eat any melon. You can just sit and talk."

Belukhin decided that Vershnev was right. He even liked the idea of going to see the old man and showing that the colonists didn't only go to him for the sake of watermelons.

But the old man received his guest extremely coldly, and Belukhin had no chance of displaying his disinterestedness. On the contrary the old man showed him his gun and said:

"Your felons carried off half the melons while you were sitting here talking, yesterday. How can you? I see I shall have to treat you differently. I shall shoot, that I will!"

Belukhin, covered with confusion, returned to the colony and, once in the dormitory, began to shout out his indignation. The boys all laughed, and Mityagin said:

"What's the matter with you--has the old man hired you as his lawyer? Yesterday you gobbled up the best melon, while keeping well within the law--what more do you want? And perhaps we never saw a single one. What proof has the old man?"

The old man did not come to me any more. But it was clear by many signs and tokens that an orgy of stealing was going on.

One morning, glancing into the dormitory, I noted that the whole floor was strewn with melon rind. I gave the monitor a rowing, punished someone or other, and demanded that this should not happen again. And for the next few days the dormitories were as clean as usual.

The mild, exquisite summer evenings, filled with the murmur of conversation, with an atmosphere of affection, with unexpected bursts of resonant laughter, melted into solemn, crystalline nights.

Dreams, the fragrance of pine and mint, the rustlings of birds and the echo of the barking of dogs in some distant village, hovered over the sleeping colony. I went out on to my porch. From round the corner appeared the monitor on night duty, and asked me the time. Bouquet, the spotted dog, followed him through the evening coolness on noiseless paws. I could sleep in peace.

But this peace covered extremely complicated and disquieting events.

Ivan Ivanovich happened to ask me:

"Is it by your order that the horses roam about the yard all night long? They might be stolen... ."

Bratchenko fired up.

"Aren't the horses to be allowed a breath of air, then?" he asked.

The next day Kalina Ivanovich asked:

"What makes those horses look into the dormitory windows?"

"What on earth do you mean?"

"Go and see for yourself! The moment day breaks they stand under the windows. What makes them do it?"

I verified this statement: it was quite true--in the early morning all our horses, and the bullock Gavryushka, presented to us on account of his age and uselessness by the economic section of the Department of Public Education, ranged themselves beneath the windows among the lilacs and the bird-cherry trees, standing there motionless for hours, apparently in anticipation of something pleasant.

In the dormitory I questioned the boys:

"What makes the horses look into your windows?"

Oprishko sat up in bed, glanced towards the window, smiled, and shouted to someone:

"Servozha--go and ask those idiots what they're standing under the windows for?"

Giggles came from beneath blankets. Mityagin, stretching, said in his bass voice:

"We shouldn't have taken such inquisitive beasts into the colony--it's just another worry for you."

I attacked Anton.

"What's all this mystery about? What makes the horses hang about here every morning? What do you tempt them with?"

Belukhin pushed Anton aside.

"Don't you worry, Anton Semyonovich," he said. "No harm will come to the horses. Anton gets them here on purpose, so they must expect something nice."

"That's enough of your chatter!" said Karabanov.

"I'll tell you. You forbade us to throw melon rind on the floor, and there's always someone among us who happens to have a melon... ."

"What d' you mean 'happens to have'?"

"Why, of course! Sometimes the old man treats us, sometimes they bring them from the village... ."

"The old man treats you?" I repeated reproachfully.

"Well, he, or somebody else. And where are we to throw the rinds? So Anton lets the horses out. And the fellows treat them."

I left the dormitory.

After dinner Mityagin staggered into my office bearing an enormous melon.

"For you to try, Anton Semyonovich."

"Where did you get it from? Get out of here with your melon! I mean to take you all in hand, in good earnest."

"The melon is perfectly legitimate, and was specially chosen for you. The old man has been paid real money for that melon. And of course it's high time you did take us in hand, we won't be offended if you do."

"You get out of here with your melon and your talk!"

Ten minutes later, a regular deputation entered, bearing the melon referred to. To my astonishment, the spokesman was Belukhin, who could hardly speak for laughing.

"These swine, Anton Semyonovich, if you only knew how many melons they eat every night! What's the use of concealing it? Volokhov alone ... but of course that's not the point.... How they get them--let that lie on their consciences but there's no getting away from it, they treat me, the bounders. They've found out the weak place in my youthful heart, you know--I simply adore melons. Even the girls get their share, and Toska gets treated, too. It has to be admitted that they're not quite without generous feelings. Well, and we know you don't get any melon, all you get is unpleasantnesses on account of these accursed melons. Therefore we beg you to accept our humble offering. I'm an honest person, not one of your Vershnevs, you can believe me, the old man has been plaid for this melon, more, perhaps, than the value of the human toil invested in it, as it says in economic politics."

Thus concluding, Belukhin suddenly fell serious, placed the melon on my table, and moved modestly aside.

Vershnev, disheveled and tattered as ever, peeped from behind Mityagin.

"P-p-political ec-c-conomy, not economic p-p-politics," he amended.

"It's all the same."

"How did you pay the old man?" I asked.

Karabanov began checking off on his fingers:

"Versnnev soldered a handle on his mug: Gud put a patch on his boot, and I kept watch for him half the night."

"I can just imagine how many melons you added to this one during the night."

"Quite true!" said Belukhin. "I can answer for that! We keep in touch with that old man now. But there's a melon field just outside the forest, where the watchman's a spiteful guy--always ready to shoot."

"What--and have you begun going to the melon fields?"

"No--I don't go myself, but I hear the shots--you know, one sometimes happens to be passing by...."

I thanked the boys for the magnificent melon.

A few days later I saw the "spiteful guy." He came to me, utterly disheartened.

"How's all this going to end?" he exclaimed. "They used to go out stealing mostly in the night, and now there's no escape from them even in the daytime--they come at dinnertime in bands. It's enough to make one cry--you go after on, and the others run over the whole field."

I warned the boys that I should go myself and help to guard the melon field, or that I would hire a watchman at the expense of the colony.

"Don't you believe that muzhik,' said Mityagin. "It's not a matter of melons--he won't let anyone pass by the melon fields."

"And why should you? What takes you there?"

"What's it to do with him where we go? Why should he fire?" Another day Belukhin warned me:

"This is going to end badly. The chaps are simply furious. The old man's afraid of sitting in the hut now, he's got two others watching with him, and they've all got guns. And the chaps won't stand for that!"

The same night the boys from the colony advanced in skirmish array towards the melon field. The military drill to which I had subjected them was of use here. By midnight, half the colony was lying beside the boundary of the melon field, after having sent out patrols and scouts. When the watchmen raised the alarm the boys shouted "Hurrah!" and rushed to the attack. The watchmen retreated into the woods, in their panic leaving their guns in the hut. Some of the boys occupied themselves with plucking the fruits of conquest, rolling the melons down the slope towards the boundary of the field, the others embarked upon reprisals by setting fire to the big hut.

One of the watchmen rushed to the colony and waked me up. We hastened to the field of battle.

The hut on its mound was enveloped in flames, and giving off a glow as if a whole village was on fire. As we ran up to the melon field a few shots rang out. I could see the boys, lying in regular squads among the melon beds. Every now and then these squads rose to their feet and ran towards the burning hut. Somewhere on the right flank Mityagin was giving out orders.

"Don't go straight, go round!"

"Who's that shooting?" I asked the old man.

"How do I know? There's nobody there. Maybe somebody left a gun there, maybe the gun's going off by itself."

Everything was, as a matter of fact, over. On my appearance the boys seemed to vanish into thin air. The old man sighed and went home. I went lack to the colony. Utter silence reigned in the dormitories. Everyone was not only asleep, but snoring. I never heard such snoring in my life. I said softly:

"Stop that fooling and get up!"

The snoring ceased, but everyone continued stubbornly to sleep. "Get up, I tell you!"

Tousled heads were raised from pillows. Mityagin looked at me with unseeing eyes:

"What's the matter?"

But Karabanov could not keep it up any longer.

"That'll do, Mityaya, what's the good...."

They all surrounded me and began to narrate with enthusiasm the details of the glorious night. Taranets suddenly jumped as if stung.

"There were guns in the hut!" he exclaimed. "Well, they're burnt now!"

"The wood has burned, but the rest could be used."

And he plunged out of the dormitory.

"This may he all great fun," I said. "But just the same it's real banditry. I can't stand it any more. If you intend going on like this we shall have to part company. It's a disgrace--no peace in the colony, or in the whole district, either by day or by night!"

Karabano seized me by the arm.

"It shan't happen again! We see for ourselves that it's gone far enough. Don't we, fellows?"

The fellows gave a buzz of confirmation.

"That's all nothing but words," I told them. "I give you fair warning, if this banditry goes on, I'll expel somebody from the colony. Mind, this is the last time I shall warn you!"

The next day carts visited the melon field, gathered up all that remained, and departed.

On my table lay the muzzles and smaller parts of the burned guns.