A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


By the end of autumn an extremely gloomy period had begun in the colony--the gloomiest in our whole history. The expulsion of Karabanov and Mityagin had been a most painful operation. The fact that "the very smartest of the fellows" had been expelled, boys who up till then had enjoyed the greatest influence in the colony, left the others rudderless.

Both Karabanov and Mityagin had been excellent workers. Karabanov knew how to throw himself into his work wholeheartedly and exuberantly; he found joy in his work, and infected others with it. Sparks of energy and inspiration had, as it were, flown from his hands. He did not often growl at the lazy or the languid, but when he did he shamed the most inveterate shirker. Mityagin was a splendid complement to Karabanov while at work. His movements, as befitted a true burglar, were distinguished by gentleness and suavity, but everything he did turned out well, all was good luck and good nature. And they were both sensitively responsive to the life of the colony, reacting energetically to the slightest irritation, to all the occurrences of the day.

With their departure, everything suddenly seemed dull and dreary. Vershnev buried himself still deeper in his books, Belukhin's witticisms became excessively earnest and sarcastic, boys like Volokhov, Prikhodko, and Osadchy, turned remarkably serious and polite, the little ones seemed bored and reserved, the whole collective suddenly acquired the outward manifestations of adult society. It had become difficult to collect a jolly company of an evening--everyone seemed to have business of his own to attend to. Zadorov alone maintained his cheerfulness and smiled his charming frank smile, but there was no one to share his liveliness, and he smiled in solitude, sitting over his book, or the model of a steam engine which he had begun to make in the spring.

Certain failures in our farming contributed to the general depression. Kalina Ivanovich was but a poor agronomist, having the wildest notions as to rotation of crops and the technique of sowing, while we had taken over the fields from the villagers in a weed-choked and exhausted condition. And so, despite the superhuman work done by the boys in the summer, our harvest was reckoned in pitiful figures. More weeds than wheat were grown on the winter fields, the spring corn looked wretched, and matters were still worse with the beet and potatoes.

Depression prevailed in the apartments of the teaching staff, too.

Perhaps we were simply tired--none of us had had leave since the opening of the colony. But the teachers made no complaints of fatigue. The old talk about the hopelessness of our work, the impossibility of practising social education on "such lads" was revived, the old theory advanced that all this was a futile waste of soul and energy.

"It'll all have to be given up," Ivan Ivanovich would say. "Look at Karabanov, whom we were all so proud of--he had to be expelled! It's not much good placing special hopes upon Volokhov, Vershnev, Osadchy, Taranets, and a whole lot of others. Is it worth running a colony for Belukhin alone?"

Even Ekaterina Grigoryevna was untrue to our spirit of optimism, which had formerly made her my foremost assistant and friend. She frowned in deep thought, and the results of her reflections were strange and unexpected.

"Listen!" she said. "Supposing we are making a terrible mistake! Supposing there isn't any collective, any collective at all, you know, and we keep on talking about the collective, simply hypnotizing ourselves with our own dreams of a collective."

"Wait a minute!" I said, checking her flow of speech. "What d' you mean 'there isn't any collective'? What about the sixty members of the colony, their work, their life, their friendship?"

"D' you know what all that is? It's a game, an interesting, perhaps an ingenious game. We were carried away by it, and the lads were carried away by our enthusiasm, but it was all temporary. And now it seems we're tired of the game, everyone's bored with it, soon they'll give it up altogether, and everything will turn into the usual, uninspired children's home."

"When you get tired of one game, you can begin to play another," said Lydia Petrovna, endeavouring to cheer us up.

We laughed sadly, but I had not the slightest intention of giving in.

"It's the usual spineless intellectualism that's got you, Ekaterina Grigoryevna," I told her. "The usual whining. It's no good trying to draw any conclusions from your moods--they come and they go. You desired intensely that both Mityagin and Karabanov should be conquered by us. Perfectionism, whims, over-eagerness, invariably end in whimpering and despondency."

I spoke thus, suppressing in myself, perhaps, the very same spineless intellectualism. I, too, sometimes harboured sneaking thoughts: better throw the whole thing up, neither Belukhin nor Zadorov was worth the sacrifices continually required by the colony. It came into my head that we were already exhausted, and that success was therefore impossible.

But the old habit of silent patient endeavour had not abandoned me. I tried, in front of the members of the colony and the teaching staff, to be energetic and confident; I would fall upon the fainthearted teachers, trying to convince them that our troubles were temporary, that all would be forgotten. And I take off my hat to the extraordinary endurance and discipline displayed by our teachers at this difficult time.

They were, as ever, punctual to the minute, active and alert to the slightest jarring note in the colony; they went on duty, according to our splendid traditions, in their best clothes, braced up and scrupulously neat.

The colony forged ahead without smiles or joy, but moved with a good unbroken rhythm, like a machine kept in perfect running order. I observed also that there were good results from my reprisals against the two members--the raids on the village ceased altogether, the cellar and melon field operations had become things of the past. I pretended not to notice the low spirits of my charges, and to behave as if the new spirit of discipline and loyalty with regard to the villagers was quite a natural thing, as if everything was going on as formerly and, as formerly going ahead.

Several new and important undertakings presented themselves. We began building a hothouse in the new colony, laying paths and levelling the yards after the clearing up of the Trepke ruins; fences and arches were put up, a bridge was in progress of construction over the Kolomak at its narrowest point, iron bedsteads for the use of the colony were being made in the smithy, our farm implements were put into repair, and the final repairing of the houses in the new colony was going on at a feverish rate. I relentlessly imposed more and more work on the colony, requiring from the whole of our social structure the former precision and accuracy of execution. I do not know myself, how it was that I took up military training with such ardour--it must have been in obedience to some unconscious pedagogical instinct.

I had some time before introduced into the colony gymnastics and military drill. I have never been a gymnastic expert, and we had not the means to call in an instructor. All I knew was military drill and military gymnastics, and everything appertaining to battle order in a company. Without the slightest premeditation, and without a single pedagogical qualm, I began to train the boys in all these useful branches.

The boys themselves took up these subjects gladly. After work the whole colony came every day for an hour or two to exercise on our drill ground--a spacious rectangular yard. Our field of activities increased in proportion to the increase in our experience. By the winter our skirmishing lines were executing extremely interesting and complicated movements all over the territory of our group of farmsteads. With grace and methodical accuracy we carried out assaults on given targets--huts and storerooms--assaults crowned by bayonet attacks and by the panic which seized the impressionable souls of their proprietors and proprietresses. Huddling behind the snow-white walls, the inhabitants would run out into their yards at the sound of our warlike cries, hastily locking storerooms and sheds, and, then, flattened against their doors, would follow with terrified glances the orderly ranks of our boys.

All this was extremely pleasing to the boys, and very soon we had real rifles, for we were joyfully accepted into the ranks of the General Military Training Department, which tactfully ignored our criminal past.

During training I was exacting and inexorable, like a true commander; and the boys thoroughly approved of this. Thus were the foundations of a new game laid, that game which subsequently became one of the main themes of our life.

The first thing I noticed was the good influence of a proper military bearing. The whole outward appearance of the colonist changed--he became slender and graceful, stopped slouching against table or wall, could hold himself erect with ease and freedom, without feeling the need of props of any sort. By now it was easy to distinguish new boys from old-timers. The gait of the boys became more confident and springy, they began to hold their heads higher, they lost the habit of thrusting their hands into their pockets.

In their enthusiasm for military order the boys contributed many inventions of their own, making use of their natural boyish sympathy for naval and military life. It was just at this time that the rule was introduced into the colony: to reply to every order, in token of confirmation and consent, with the words "very good!" accompanying this splendid reply with the flourish of the Pioneer salute. It was at this time, too, that bugles were introduced into the colony.

Hitherto our signals had been given by means of the bell left over from the former colony. Now we bought two bugles, and some of the boys went daily to the town to take lessons from the bandmaster in playing the bugle from notes. Signals for all occasions occurring in colony life were committed to paper, and by the winter we were able to dispense with the bell. The bugler went on to my porch of a morning, now, and flung over the colony the melodious, sonorous sounds of the signal.

In the calm of evening the sound of the bugle floating over the colony, the lake, the roofs of the farmsteads was particularly thrilling. Someone standing at the open window of a dormitory would take up the signal in a youthful, resonant tenor, someone else would suddenly repeat it on the keys of the piano.

When they heard of our military "craze" in the Department of Public Education, the word "barracks" became for long the nickname of our colony. But I had so much to grieve over that I was not inclined to worry about another little pinprick. I simply had no time.

In August I had brought two baby pigs from the breeding station to the colony. They were of a pure English breed, and therefore protested the whole wav against compulsory "colonization," and kept falling through a hole they found in the cart. At last they grew hysterical in their indignation, to Anton's fury.

"As if there wasn't trouble enough without taking pigs."

The Britishers were dispatched to the new colony, where more than sufficient numbers of milling tenders were found among the younger boys. At that time over twenty boys were living in the new colony and with them lived one of the teachers, a somewhat ineffective individual by the name of Rodimchik. The big house, which we had denominated Section A, was already finished, and had been assigned to workshops and classrooms, but for the time the boys were living there. Some other houses and wings were also ready. There was still much work to be done in the huge two-storey empire-style mansion, which was intended for dormitories. New planks were daily nailed to sheds, stables and barns; walls were stuccoed, doors hung.

Our farming received powerful reinforcement. We called in an agronomist, and soon Eduard Nikolayevich Sherre, a being completely incomprehensible to the unaccustomed eye of our inmates, was striding over the colony fields.

Unlike Kalina Ivanovich, Sherre was never moved either to indignation or to enthusiasm, was always equably disposed, and a shade jocular. He addressed all members of the colony, even Galatenko, with the formal "you" (instead of "thou"), never raised his voice, and at the same time entered into no friendships. The boys were astounded when, in reply to Prikhodko's rude refusal. "Currant bushes! I don't want to work in the currant bushes!" Sherre merely expressed cheerful, kindly wonder, without the slightest pose or affectation.

"Oh, you don't want to? Just tell me your name, then, so that I shan't assign any work to you by mistake!"

"I'll go anywhere you like, only not to the currant bushes."

"Never mind, I'll get on without you, you know--and you can find yourself work somewhere else."


"Be so kind as to tell me your name, I have no time for superfluous conversation."

Prikhodko's piratical beauty seemed to fade in a moment. He shrugged his shoulders scornfully and made for the currant bushes, which only a moment ago had seemed to be in such flagrant contradiction to his vocation.

Sherre was comparatively young, but nonetheless he flabbergasted the boys with his unbroken self-reliance and superhuman capacity for work. It seemed to the colonists that he never went to bed. The colony would just be rousing itself in the morning, when Eduard Nikolayevich was already pacing the field with his long ungainly legs. The bugle was blown for bedtime, but Sherre would be in the pigsty, talking to the carpenter. In the day he could be seen almost simultaneously in the stable, on the site of the hothouse, on the road to town, and directing the manuring of the fields; at least, everyone had the impression that all this was going on simultaneously, so rapidly did Sherre's remarkable legs carry him from one place to another.

On the second day after his arrival Sherre had a quarrel in the stable with Anton. Anton was unable to understand or appreciate how anyone could adopt such a mathematical attitude as that which Eduard Nikolayevich insistently recommended, towards so sentient and delightful a creature as a horse.

"What's he taken into his head? Weighing? Whoever heard of weighing hay? Here's your ration, he says, and you must use neither more nor less. And such an idiotic ration--a little of everything. If the horses die I shall be answerable. And he says we're to work by the hour. And he's thought up some sort of a notebook--write down how many hours you work in it."

Sherre was not intimidated by Anton when the latter began bawling, as was his custom, that he wasn't going to let him have Falcon, who, according to Anton's reckoning, was to accomplish the day after tomorrow some particular feat. Eduard Nikolayevich went into the stable himself, led out and harnessed Falcon without so much as a glance at Bratchenko, who was petrified by such an outrage. Anton sulked, hurled the whip into a corner of the stable, and went out. When, however, towards evening, he did look into the stable, he saw Orlov and Bublik bossing around. Anton fell into a state of profound mortification and set off to give in his resignation to me. But Sherre rushed up to him in the middle of the yard, with a paper in his hands, and bent over the offended countenance of the head groom as if nothing at all had happened.

"Listen--your name's Bratchenko, isn't it? Here's your schedule for the whole week. Look, everything's put down exactly, what every horse has to do on a given day, when to be taken out, and so on. It's written here, which horse can be driven, and which is resting. Look through it with your comrades, and let me know tomorrow what alterations you think are required."

The astonished Bratchenko took the sheet of paper and went back to the stable.

The next evening Anton's curly head of hair, and the peaked, close-shaven head of Sherre might have been seen bending over my table engaged in most important business. I was working at the draughting table, but every now and then stopped to listen to their conversation.

"You're quite right. Very well, Red and Bandit can work at the plough on Wednesdays."

"Laddie can't eat beetroot, his teeth...."

"Oh, that doesn't matter, it can be minced finer--you try."

"And supposing someone else wants to go to town?"

"They can go on foot. Or let them hire horses in the village. What's it to do with us?"

"Oho!" said Anton. "That's the way!"

It has to be admitted that one horse a day did not go very far in satisfying our demands for transport. But Kalina Ivanovich could do nothing with Sherre, who cut short his inspired economic logic with the imperturbably cool reply:

"I have nothing to do with your need for transport. Take your provisions on anything you like, or buy yourself a horse. I have sixty desyatins. I will thank you not to raise the question again."

Kalina Ivanovich banged with his fist on the table, shouting:

"If I need a horse, I'll harness it myself!" Sherre entered something into his notebook without so much as glancing at the infuriated Kalina Ivanovich. An hour later, leaving the office, he warned me:

"If the schedule of work for the horses is infringed without my consent I will leave the colony immediately."

I sent hastily for Kalina Ivanovich and said to him:

"Leave him alone! You can't do anything with him!"

"But how am I to manage with one horse? We have to go to town, and to fetch water, and carry wood and provisions for the new colony."

"We'll think something up."

And we did.

New faces, new cares, the new colony, the ineffective Rodimchik in the new colony, the figures of the well set-up colonists, our former poverty, our growing prosperity--all this, like a mighty ocean, imperceptibly swallowed up the last traces of depression and grey melancholy. Since those days I only laughed a little less than formerly, and even the inner, living joy was not powerful enough to diminish the outer austerity which the events and emotions of the end of 1922 had imposed upon me like a mask. This mask caused me no discomfort, I hardly noticed it. But the colonists always saw it. They may have known it was only a mask, but for all that their attitude towards me was marked by a tone of exaggerated respect, a shade of stiffness, perhaps by a certain timidity, which I should have difficulty in defining. On the other hand I always noticed how they seemed to blossom out joyfully, coming into particularly close spiritual contact with me, whenever we happened to have fun together, to have games, to play the fool, or simply to pace the corridors arm-in-arm.

In the colony itself all austerity and all unnecessary gravity had disappeared. Nobody could have said when all this changed and settled down. As before, we were surrounded by laughter and jokes, as before, all were bursting with humour and energy; the only difference was that all this was no longer marred by the slightest breaches of discipline, or by haphazard, slovenly movements.

And after all Kalina Ivanovich found a way out of the transport difficulties. A single yoke was made for Gavryushka the bullock, to which Sherre laid no claims--for what was the use of one bullock?--and Gavryushka fetched water and wood, and did all the freight carrying for the colony. And on a certain delicious April day the whole colony rocked with laughter, laughter such as we had not known for ages--Anton drove in the cabriolet for something from town, and Gavryushka was harnessed to the cabriolet.

"You'll be arrested," I told Anton.

"Just let them try," he replied. "We're all equal now. Gavryushka's just as good as a horse, isn't he? He's a toiler, too."

Gavryushka, quite unabashed, drew the cabriolet to town.