A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 1


In 1923 the regular columns of the Gorkyites approached a new stronghold, which, strange as it may sound, had to be taken by storm--the Komsomol.

The Gorky Colony had never been an exclusive organization. From the year 1921 our ties with the so-called "surrounding population" had been extremely varied and extensive. Our nearest neighbours were, owing both to social and historical causes, our foes, against whom we struggled to the best of our abilities, but with whom we carried on economic relations, largely thanks to our workshops. The economic relations of the colony, however, extended far beyond the boundaries of the hostile section, since we did work for the village on a fairly wide radius, penetrating by our industrial services lands so remote as Storozhevoye, Machukhi, Brigadirovhka. By 1923, contacts with the big villages nearest to us--Goncharovka, Pirogovka, Andryushevka, Zabiralovka--had been established, and they were not merely of all economic nature. The very first sallies of our Argonauts, pursuing aims or an aesthetic nature, such as a review of local feminine beauty, or the demonstration of personal attainment as in the sphere of hairdressing, figure, bearing, and smiles--even these first voyagings into the ocean of village life led to a considerable extension of social ties. And it was precisely here that the members of the colony made their first acquaintance with Komsomol members.

The forces of the Komsomol in thee villages were extremely weak both as to quantity and quality. The village Komsomols themselves were mainly interested in girls and drink, and as often as not exerted a pernicious influence on our boys. It was only when the Lenin Agricultural Artel began to be organized opposite the new colony, on the right bank of the Komosol, and found itself, as it were involuntarily, in a state of grave hostility with our Village Soviet and the whole farmstead group, that we discovered a fighting spirit in the ranks of the Komsomols and began to make friends with the younger members of the artel.

Our boys knew thoroughly, down to the smallest detail, all the affairs of the new artel, and all the difficulties against which its organizers had had to contend in setting it up. In the first place the artel struck a violent blow at the kulak territories, thus evoking from the members of the farmstead united and furious resistance. The artel did not gain its victory easily.

The owners of farmsteads at that time represented a great force and had a certain pull in the town, while their essentially kulak nature was for some reason a secret to many of the town authorities. In this struggle the town offices were the principal battlefield, and the principal weapon--the pen, so that the members of the colony could take no direct part in the struggle. But when the matter of acreage was settled, to be followed by inventory operations of extreme complexity, much interesting work was found for both our own boys and the lads in the artel, in the course of which contacts became still closer.

The Komsomols did not play a leading role in the artel, being on a lower intellectual level than our older boys. Our school studies had proved a great asset to our members, greatly intensifying their political consciousness. The members of the colony had begun proudly to consider themselves proletarians, and thoroughly understood the difference between their own position and that of the village youth. Intensive, and often onerous, work on the land did nothing to disturb their profound conviction that quite different activities lay ahead of them.

The oldest of them were already able to describe in some detail what they expected from their future, and what they aspired to. And it was the youthful forces of the town and not of the village, which played the leading role in the crystallization of these dreams.

Not far from the railway station were situated great engine workshops. For our boys they represented the most cherished collection of valued individuals and objects. The engine workshops had a glorious revolutionary past, and contained a powerful Party collective. The boys dreamed of these shops as of something miraculous--a fairy palace. Within this palace was something more splendid than the luminous columns of "The Blue Bird"--the powerful swooping of cranes, steam hammers with their concentrated force, intricate turret lathes, which seemed to he endowed with a complex cerebral apparatus. About the palace the people--the masters--moved to and fro, noble princes, clad in precious attire, shining with train oil, and fragrant with the aromas of steel and iron. They had the right to touch the sacred surfaces, the cylinders and the cones, all the wealth of the palace. And they themselves were special people. The combed, red beards and fat, greasy faces of the farmstead dwellers were not to be found among them. They had wise, subtle faces, shining with knowledge and power--the power over machinery and engines, the knowledge of all the complex laws governing the use of switches, props, levers, and steering wheels. And among these people were many Komsomols, compelling our admiration by a new and wonderful hearing; here we could observe confident cheerfulness, could hear the strong salty idiom of the worker.

The engine workshops! They represented the utmost aspirations of many of our boys during the year 1922. Rumours of still more splendid human creations came to their ears--the Kharkov and Leningrad plants, all those legendary Putilov, Sormovo works. Ah, well--the world is full of wonders, and the dreams of a humble member of a provincial colony cannot soar to such heights. But we gradually began to get more intimate with the engine shop workers, whom we had opportunities of seeing with our own eyes, whose charms we could feel through all our senses, not excluding that of touch.

They were the first to come to us, and it was their Komsomols that came. One Sunday Karabanov rushed into my office, shouting:

The Komsomols had heard much good of the colony, and had come to make our acquaintance. There were seven of them. The boys surrounded them at affectionately in a dense crowd, and spent the whole day with them in the closest of contacts, showing them the new colony, our horses, our implements, our pigs, Sherre, the hothouse, feeling to the very depths of their beings the in significance of our wealth in comparison with the engine workshops. They were greatly struck by the fact that the Komsomols, far from putting on airs with us, or demonstrating their superiority, actually seemed to be impressed, and even a little touched by what they saw.

Before going back to town the Komsomols came to me to have a talk. They wanted to know why we had no Komsomol organization in the colony. I gave them a brief outline of the tragic history of this matter. We had been trying to organize a Komsomol nucleus in the colony ever since 1922, but the local Komsomol forces had come out absolutely against this--our colony was for delinquents, so how could there be Komsomol in it? To all our requests, arguments, adjurations the same answer was given--our members were delinquents. Let them leave the colony, let it be certified that they had reformed, then only could the acceptance in the Komsomol of individual boys be discussed.

The engine shop workers sympathized with our situation, and promised to support our cause in the town Komsomol organizations. And the very next Sunday one of them came again to the colony, but merely to give us discouraging news. Both the gubernia and town committees said: "Quite right--how can there be Komsomols in the colony so long as there are so many former Makhno followers, ex-criminals and other shady characters among them?"

I explained to him that we had very few Makhno followers, and that even these could hardly be taken seriously as such. Finally, I explained to him that the word "reformed" could not be used in the formal sense given it in the town. It was not enough for us to "reform" a boy, we had to re-educate him on new lines, that is to say, in such a manner that he should become not merely a harmless member of society but also an active worker in the new epoch. And how is such a one to be educated, if, when he aspires to become a Komsomol, he is not admitted, and everyone begins to bring up old, and after all, childish, crimes against him? The engine shop worker both agreed and disagreed with me. The question of a boundary line seemed to him the most difficult. When could a member of the colony be received into the Komsomol, and when not? And who was to decide this question?

"Who? Why, the colony Komsomol organization, of course!"

The Komsomol from the engine shops continued to visit us frequently, but at last I realized that their interest in us was not quite a healthy one. They regarded us, first and foremost, as criminals; they attempted with the utmost curiosity to delve into the boys' pasts, and were ready to acknowledge our successes, with, however, the sole qualification: but still yours are no ordinary boys. I had the utmost difficulty in getting individual Komsomols over to my point of view.

Our position on this question had remained unaltered from the very first day of the colony. I considered that the principal method for the reeducation of delinquents should be based upon a complete ignoring of the past, especially past crimes. It had been by no means easy for me to carry this method out in its entirety, for among other obstacles I had to combat my own instincts. There was always a sneaking desire to find out what a boy had been sent to the colony for, what he had really done. The usual pedagogical logic at that time aped medicine, adopting the sage adage: "In order to cure a disease, it must first be known." This logic sometimes seduced even me, not to mention my colleagues and the Department of Public Education.

The Commission for Juvenile Delinquency used to send us the personal records of our charges, in which were minutely described the various interrogations, confrontations, and all that rot, which were supposed to help in studying the disease.

I was able to get all my colleagues in the colony on to my side, and as far back as 1922 I had asked the Commission not to send me any more personal records. We quite sincerely ceased to interest ourselves in the past offences of our charges, and with such success that the latter soon began to forget them themselves. I rejoiced exceedingly to see how all retrospective interest was gradually disappearing from the colony, how the very memory of days which had been vile, diseased and alien to us had disappeared. In this respect we attained the limits of our ideal--even new arrivals were ashamed to talk about their feats.

And suddenly, in connection with such a wonderful undertaking as the organization of a Komsomol nucleus in the colony, we were forced to remember our past and to revive the words so hateful to us--"reform," "delinquency," "personal records."

The boys' aspirations to join the Komsomol hardened, thanks to the opposition they met, into stubborn determination, and they were even ready to fight for it. Those inclined to compromise, like Taranets proposed a roundabout way--to give those desiring to enter the Komsomol certificates showing that they had "reformed," but to leave them, of course, in the colony. The majority was against resorting to such a trick. Zadorov reddened with indignation, saying:

"None of that! You're not dealing with muzhiks, we don't have to fool anyone. We've got to work for a Komsomol nucleus in the colony, and the Komsomol will know itself who's fit for it, and who isn't."

The boys went very often to the Komsomol organizations in the town in their endeavours to attain their object, but on the whole without success.

In the winter of 1923 we got into friendly relations with yet another Komsomol organization. This happened quite by chance.

Anton and I were returning home one day, towards evening. Mary, her well-nourished skin gleaming, was harnessed to a sleigh. Just as we were going down the hill we met with a phenomenon unusual in our latitudes--a camel. Mary, unable to overcome her natural feeling of disgust, trembled, reared, kicked between the shafts, and went off into a wild gallop. Anton dug his feet into the front of the sleigh, but could not check the mare. A certain inherent defect of our sleigh, which Anton, it is true, had often pointed out--the shortness of the shafts--determined the further course of events and brought us nearer to the afore-mentioned Komsomol organization. Breaking into a frenzied gallop, Mary struck with her hind legs against the iron front of the sleigh, and, now quite panic-stricken, carried us towards inevitable catastrophe with terrifying rapidity. Anton and I tugged at the rains together, but this only made matters worse--Mary tossed up her head and grew more and more frantic. I could already make out, the spot at which everything was destined to come to a more or less disastrous end---at the turn of the road were a number of peasants with their sleighs, crowding round the hydrant to water their horses. It seemed as if there could be no escape, for the road was barred. But by a kind of miracle Mary galloped between the drinking trough and the group of sleighs belonging to people from the town. There was a sound of cracking wood, and shouts, but we were already a long way off. The hill came to an end, we flew over the smooth, straight road less furiously, and Anton was even able to look back and shake his head: "We've smashed someone's sleigh up. We must get away!"

He began to wave the whip over Mary, who was trotting ahead at full speed, but I restrained his too eager arm.

"You can't get away! Look what a devil they have!"

Indeed, a splendid trotter was overtaking us with calm forceful strokes of his hoofs, while from over its croup a man with crimson tabs was gazing steadily after the unsuccessful runaways. We came to a stop. The possessor of the crimson tabs was standing up in his sleigh, holding on to the driver's shoulders; there was nowhere for him to sit, for the back seat and the back of the sleigh itself had been converted into a kind of trembling latticework, while the bespattered and splintered fragments of various sleigh appurtenances trailed behind it in the road.

"Follow!" barked out the military man.

We obeyed, Anton beaming. He was delighted with the improvements in the turnout which had been made by our troublous passage. In ten minutes we found ourselves in the commandant's office of the GPU, and only then did Anton's countenance display signs of discomfited wonderment.

"Just look!" he exclaimed. "We ran into the GPU!"

We were surrounded by people with crimson tabs, one of whom started shouting at me:

"Naturally--they have a mere lad for a driver--how could he be expected to hold the horse in? You'll be answerable yourself."

Anton writhed with mortification and, almost in tears, shook his head at his offender:

"A mere lad, indeed! If you didn't let camels go about the roads--letting all these brutes swarm all over the place! How could the mare bear it? How could she?"

"What brutes?"

"That camel!"

The crimson tabs laughed.

"Where are you from?" I answered.

"The Gorky Colony," I said.

"Oh, so it's the Gorky fellows! And who are you--the director? We've landed some fine fish today!" laughed a young man, calling to those around him, and pointing to us as if we were welcome guests.

A crowd formed around us. They teased their own driver, and bombarded Anton with questions about the colony.

"We've been meaning to go to the colony for a long time. They say you're a fighting lot, there. We'll come and see you on Sunday."

Then up came the supply manager and started angrily drawing up some sort of a statement. But everyone shouted him down.

"Drop your red tape! What are you writing it all down for?"

"What for? Have you seen what they've done to the sleigh? Now let them repair it!"

"They'll repair it without your deposition. You will, won't you? Go on--tell us about things in the colony! They say you don't even have a lockup."

"A lockup--what for? Have you got one?" inquired Anton.

Once again everyone burst out laughing.

"We'll be sure to come to you on Sunday. We'll bring you the sleigh for repair."

"And what'll I drive in till Sunday?" barked the supply manager.

But I calmed him down.

"We have another sleigh," I assured him. "Send someone with us to take it."

And so our colony gained some more good friends. On Sunday the Cheka Komsomols came to the colony. And once again the accursed question came up for discussion--why couldn't the members of our colony become Komsomols? The Cheka-men unanimously took our side on this question.

"What on earth do they mean?" they said to me. "Criminals, indeed! What rubbish! They ought to be ashamed of themselves! And they call themselves serious people! We'll take the matter up--in Kharkov, if we can't do it here."

At that time our colony had been put under the direct authority of the Ukrainian People's Commissariat for Education, as a "Model Delinquents' Institution." We began to be visited by inspectors from the People's Commissariat for Education. These were no longer shallow, fatuous provincials, believing in social education as a kind of emotional springtide. The Kharkov folk did not regard social education as a pageant of youthful souls unfolding, the right of the individual, and similar poetical claptrap. What they were looking for were new organizational forms and a new approach. The nicest thing about them was that they did not pose as Fausts, in quest of a single moment of bliss, but showed a friendly spirit of equality with us, seeking for what was new, and rejoicing in every grain of the new they discovered.

The Kharkov people were greatly astonished by our Komsomol mishaps.

"D' you mean you're working without a Komsomol nucleus? You are not allowed to form one? Who says so?"

In the evenings they got together with the elder boys, and stood about in groups, exchanging sympathetic nods.

Thanks to the representations of the People's Commissariat for Education and of our friends in the town, the question was decided with lightning speed in the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Komsomol, and in the summer of 1923 Tikhon Nestorovich Koval was appointed political instructor.

Tikhon Nestorovich was of peasant stock. He had managed to get the twenty-four years of his life filled with many an interesting event, chiefly from the struggle in the villages, and had accumulated strong reserves of political activity, and, besides all this, was a wise person and imperturbably good-natured. From the first moment he spoke to the members of our colony on equal terms like a comrade, and showed himself an expert both in the field and on the threshing floor.

A Komsomol nucleus was organized in the colony to the number of nine persons.