A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 2


Hardly had the carpenters finished the windows in the Red House, when winter was upon us. That year, winter was kind: downy and mellow with no unhealthy thaws or severe frosts. For three days Kudlaty was busy with the distribution of winter clothing to the colonists. The grooms and pig tenders he gave valenki, [High felt boots.-Tr.] the rest got boots, remarkable neither for newness nor style, but possessing many other virtues--solid material, elegant patches, enviable roominess, enabling two sets of legging-strips to find a place in each of them. At that time we hardly knew what a coat was, wearing instead a kind of jacket quilted with wadding, and with padded sleeves--the legacy of the world war. On some heads there appeared caps reminiscent of the tsarist military commissariat. But the majority of the boys had to wear their cotton caps in the winter, too. We were unable at that time to warm the bodies of our charges in a more efficient manner. Winter and summer their trousers and shirts were of a light cotton material. There was therefore in the movements of the boys in the winter a certain superfluous lightness, enabling them to dash from one place to another like shooting stars, even during the severest frost.

Winter evenings in the colony were full of charm. Work was over by five, and there were three hours till supper. Here and there oil lamps were lighted, but it was not this which made for true animation and cosiness. The staves would be set going in dormitory and classroom. There were always two clusters around each stove--one of logs, the other of colonists, and both clusters seemed to be there not so much with a view to heating as for friendly evening chat. The logs began first, as the nimble hands of one of the lads laid them in the stove. They told a long story full of amusing adventures and laughter, shots, pursuit, boyish cheerfulness and triumphant jubilations. The boys could hardly make out their chatter, for the narrators interrupted one another, and all seemed to be in a hurry to get somewhere or other, but the meaning of the story was clear enough, and sank deep into the heart--life is a gay and absorbing adventure. And when the crackling of the wood died down, and the narrators had settled down to ardent repose, merely whispering something with their weary tongues, the boys and girls would begin their stories.

In one of these groups was Vetkovsky. He was famed in the colony as a story-teller, and was always sure of a large audience.

"There are many wonderful things in the world," he would say. "We stick here and never see anything, but there are chaps in the world who never miss a thing. I met one of them lately. We'd been to the Caspian Sea and had roved about the Caucasus. There's a ravine there, and a cliff, and it's called 'God take me across!' Because there's no other way there's only this one way, you see, past this cliff. Some people get by, and some don't--stones keep rolling down all the time. It's all right so long as one doesn't fall on your noodle, but if it does, you fall right into the abyss and nobody ever finds you."

Zadorov stood by listening attentively and looking with equal attentiveness into Vetkovsky's blue eyes.

"Why don't you go there and try, Kostya?" he would say. "Perhaps God would take you across."

The lads would turn their heads, illuminated by the red glow of the stove, towards Zadorov. Kostya sighed his displeasure. "You don't understand, Shurka," he said. "It would be interesting to see everything. This chap, now, was there."

With his usual irresistible, ironic smile, Zadorov would say:

"I'd ask that chap something else.... Time to close the flue, kids."

"What would you ask him?" inquired Vetkovsky pensively.

Zadorov watched the eager lad who was rattling the shutter over the flue.

"I'd ask him the multiplication table. He's a rotter, after all, travelling all over the world, sponging on people, and growing up an ignoramus--probably he can't even read. 'Take me across,' indeed! Dunces like that deserve to have their heads bashed in. That cliff was put there purposely for them!"

The boys would laugh, and someone volunteered the advice:

"Better stay with us, Kostya! You're no dunce!''

At another stove was Silanti, seated on the floor, his knees wide apart, his bald head gleaming, as he spun a long yarn.

"...We thought everything was tall right, as they say. He was crying and kissing us, the mean guy, but the moment he got to his office, he played a dirty trick. He unleashed his hounds on the town, that's what he did. And the next morning what did we see--mounted police, and everyone was saying we were to be flogged. But my brother and I, we didn't like, as they say, having our trousers taken off, and all that. I was sorry for my girl, you see how it was! But I thought to myself: 'They won't touch the girl..."

Behind Silanti were planted Kalina Ivanovich's valenki, and above them rose the smoke of Kalina Ivanovich's pipe. The smoke from his pipe descended to the stove, making a sharp angle, bifurcating in two streams around the ears of a bullet-headed little chap, and rushing eagerly into the hot draft of the stove. Winking at me, Kalina Ivanovich interrupted Silanti:

"Hee-hee! Come on, Silanti, just you tell us--did those parasites stroke you on the place your legs grow from, or did they not?"

Silanti jerked his head, and almost falling on the floor, burst out laughing.

"They did, Kalina Ivanovich, you're right there! And all for a wench, damn her!" And the murmuring streams of narrative Bowed on around the other stoves, and in the classrooms and in the apartments. Vershnev and Karabanov were sure to be in Lydochka's room, where Lydochka would treat them to tea and jam. The tea did not prevent Vershnev from getting angry with Karabanov.

"All right!" he stammered. "You do nothing but scoff day in, day out. When are you going to start thinking?"

"Why, what is there to think about? Have you a wife, or bullocks, or are your storerooms full of goods? What have you to think about? Just live, that's all!"

"One ought to think about life, you funny chap!"

"You're a fool, Kolka, that's what you are--a fool!" cried Karabanov. "According to you, thinking means settling into an armchair, and staring in front of oneself. But anyone who has a brain will think, anyhow. It's only people like you who need to stoke themselves before they can begin to think."

"Why d'you tease Kolya?" Lydochka would say. "Let him think if he wants to--he might get at something that way.

"Who? Kolka? Not he! D'you know what Kolka is? He's a little Jesus! He's 'seeking the truth.' Have you ever seen such an idiot? He wants the truth! He'd like to grease boots with the truth."

Semyon and Kolya would leave Lydochka the best of friends, Semyon singing at the top of his voice, and Kolya, an affectionate arm around Semyon's waist, still trying to convince him.

"S-s-since there has been a r-r-revolution," he would stammer, "everything ought to be done right."

In my modest abode, also, were visitors. I now had my mother with me, an aged woman, whose life was quietly flowing into the final reaches of eventide, veiled by calm, transparent clouds. The colonists called her "Granny." And now Shurka Zhevely, Mitka Zhevely's younger brother, was visiting her. Shurka had the sharpest of noses. He had been a long time in the colony but didn't seem to grow, though certain parts of him became sharper and sharper, till he was all over points--his nose was sharp, his ears were sharp, his chin was sharp, and his glance was sharp, too.

Shurka always had some odd enterprises or other on foot. Behind a remote bush in the garden he had a bearded-up space in which dwelt a couple of rabbits, and in the stoker's basement he kept a baby raven. At the general meeting the Komsomols would sometimes accuse Shurka of running his "farm," which they said was of a purely private nature, for the purposes of speculation. But Shurka would defend himself vigorously, and not too politely.

"Come on, then, just you prove that I've sold anything! Did you ever see me selling anything?"

"Where d'you get the money from, then?"

"What money?"

"Where did you get the money to buy sweets with yesterday?"

"Call that money? Granny gave me ten kopeks."

Nobody had anything to say against Granny at the general meeting. There were always a few little boys hanging around Granny. Sometimes they would run little errands for her in Goncharovka, but they always tried to keep out of my sight when doing so. And when it was absolutely certain that I was busy and not soon to be expected home, they would flock to Granny's table in groups of two or three, drinking tea, or finishing up some stewed fruit which Granny had made for me, but which I had not had time to eat. Granny, with the failing memory of the aged, did not even know all her friends by name, but Shurka stood out in the crowd, because Shurka was a veteran colonist, and because he was the liveliest and the most talkative of them all.

Shurka had come to Granny today for a most particular and important reason.

"Good day!"

"Good day, Shura! Where have you been all this time? Have you been ill?"

Shurka seated himself on a stool, smiting the knee of his new print trousers with the peak of a once white cap. His head bristled with stubbly flaxen hair, badly in need of clipping. His nose in the air, Shurka regarded the low ceiling.

"I haven't been ill. But my rabbit has.

Granny sat on the bed rummaging in the wooden box which contained most of her possessions--the scraps of stuff, reels of cotton and balls of wool composing a grandmother's treasures.

"Your rabbit's been ill--poor thing! You must feel it!"

"It can't be helped," said Shurka seriously, hardly able to suppress the anxiety in his screwed-up right eye.

"And if you were to try and cure it?" said Granny, looking at Shurka.

"I have nothing to cure it with," whispered Shurka.

"Do you need any medicine?"

"If I could only get some millet--half a glass of millet, that's all!"

"Would you like some tea, Shurka?" asked Granny. "Look, there's a kettle on the stove, and the glasses are over there. Pour some out for me, too."

Shurka laid his cap carefully on the stool and busied himself awkwardly at the high stove, while Granny, not without difficulty, stood on tiptoe and reached down from the shelf the pink bag in which she kept her millet.

Kozyr's domain--the wheelwrights' shed--was the meeting place of the gayest and noisiest company of all. Kozyr slept, as well as worked, there. In the corner of the shed was a low, homemade stove, and on the stove, a kettle. In another corner was a folding bed, covered with a patchwork quilt. Kozyr himself sat on the bed, his visitors on blocks of wood, on technical equipment, on heaps of wheel rims. All did their utmost to wring from Kozyr the abundant store of beliefs which he had accumulated in the course of his life.

Kozyr would smile wistfully:

"It's wrong, my children, it's wrong--God forgive us! the Lord will be angered!"

But before the Lord had time to vent his anger, Kalina Ivanovich got angry. From the dark aperture of the doorway, he emerged into the light, and exclaimed, waving his pipe:

"What are you making fun of an old man for? What business of yours is Jesus Christ, I'd like to know! I'll give you something that'll make you pray not only to Jesus Christ, but to Saint Nicholas, too!"

"May the Lord bless you, Kalina Ivanovich, for standing up for an old man!"

"If there's any more of such goings on, just you come and tell me! You can't manage these tramps without me--I wouldn't count too much on your Jesus Christs!"

The lads pretended to be afraid of Kalina Ivanovich, hastening out of the wheelwrights shed to disperse themselves about the many other corners of the colony.

We no longer had the big barrack-like dormitories, our charges sleeping in small rooms, holding from six to eight persons. Under this system they were able to consolidate their groupings, and the characteristic features of each group stood out more vividly, making it more interesting to work with them. An eleventh detachment was formed--a detachment of younger ones, organized as a result of the steady insistence of Georgievsky. As before he was always looking after them--tending them, washing them, playing with them and scolding them, indulging them like a mother, filling the toughened souls of the other boys with wonder by his energy and patience. And this marvellous work of Georgievsky's did something to mitigate the unpleasantness which might have arisen from the general conviction that he was the son of an Irkutsk governor.

New teachers were added to the colony. I was still patiently seeking real people, and managed to fish some sort of material out of the not very brilliant pedagogical reserves. It was in the truck garden of the teachers' trade union, where he was working in the capacity of a watchman, that I discovered Pavel Ivanovich Zhurbin. Well-educated, kindly, disciplined, he was a stoic and a true gentleman. He had one feature in particular which I greatly appreciated--a connoisseur's delight in human nature. With the passion of a collector, he would descant upon individual traits of human psychology, the subtle convolutions of personality, the beauties of man's heroism, and the sombre depths of man's baseness. He had thought much of all this, while patiently scrutinizing the human crowd for signs of anything in the shape of new collective laws. I could see that his dilettante enthusiasm would never get him anywhere, but I liked the sincere, pure nature of the man.

Another discovery was Zinovi Ivanovich Butsai. About twenty-seven years old, he had only just graduated from art school and was recommended to us as an artist. We needed an artist, both for the school and for our theatre, and for all sorts of Komsomol activities.

Zinovi Ivanovich impressed us by the extremes to which all his characteristics were carried. He was extremely lean, extremely dark, and spoke in a bass voice so deep that it was hard to keep up a conversation with him, for he seemed to emit ultraviolet sounds. Zinovi Ivanovich was further distinguished by extreme calmness and imperturbability. He came to us in the end of November, and we were all agog to see what artistic innovations were to enrich our life. But Zinovi Ivanovich, before he ever took up his pencil, astonished us by another side of his artistic nature.

A few days after his arrival, the boys informed me that every morning he emerged naked from his room, with his coat slung over his shoulders, and went to bathe in the Kolomak. By the end of November the Kolomak had already begun to freeze, and soon became the colony skating rink. Zinovi Ivanovich, with the help of Otchenash, made a hole in the ice, and continued every day his terrible bathing. Soon after, he took to his bed with an attack of pleurisy which lasted a fortnight. The moment he recovered he was again clambering into the hole. In December he had bronchitis, with complications. Butsai missed lessons and upset our schedule. At last I lost patience, and requested him to stop this nonsense. Zinovi Ivanovich replied huskily:

"I have a right to bathe whenever I see fit! This is not prohibited in the labour code. I have a right, also, to be ill, and therefore no one can make any official accusations against me."

"But Zinovi Ivanovich, old man," I protested, "I'm not doing it officially. Why should you torture yourself? I'm just sorry for you as a human being."

"In that case, I'll explain--my health is poor, my constitution is a scamped job. It's simply disgusting, you see, to have to live with such a constitution. I've made a firm resolution--either I'll harden it, so that I may be able to live with it in peace, or--to hell with it. Let it rip! I had four attacks of pleurisy last year, and this year, it's already December; and I've only had one. I don't think I shall have more than two. I purposely came to you, because there's a river so close at hand here."

I summoned Silanti and shouted at him:

"What's this nonsense? Here's a man going out of his mind, and you make holes in the ice for him."

Silanti extended his arms apologetically.

"Don't be cross, Anton Semyonovich! I couldn't help it, don't you see! I've had to do with a chap like this before. He wanted to depart this life, you see. He had made up his mind to drown himself. The moment you turn your back on him, there he is in the river, the beast. I simply exhausted myself, as they say, dragging him out again and again. And what d'you think--the lousy guy went and hanged himself. And that was a thing that had not come into my head. You see how it is! So I'm not going to get in this one's way, and that's all about it!"

Zinovi Ivanovich went bathing in the ice hole right up to May. The boys at first laughed at the presumption of this weakling, then they gradually began to feel respect for him, patiently tending him when he was laid up with pleurisy, bronchitis and common colds.

But there were weeks at a stretch during which the process of hardening Zinovi Ivanovich's organism was not accompanied by a rise in his temperature, and then it was that his truly artistic nature showed itself. An art circle rapidly came into being under his auspices, its members obtaining a small room in the attic, which they fitted out as a studio.

On sociable winter evenings enthusiastic work went on in Butsai's studio, and the walls of the attic shook with the laughter of the artists and admiring onlookers.

Several persons would be working at a huge cartoon in the light of a great oil lamp. Scratching his coal-black head with the handle of a paint brush, Zinovi Ivanovich would boom out like a choir leader recovering from a drinking bout:

"Add some sepia to Fedorenko! He's a muzhik, and you've made him into a merchant's wife--you lay on crimson lake, whether it's necessary or not!"

Vanka Lapot, carroty, freckled, with a lowbridged nose, mimicking Zinovi Ivanovich, would answer in the same hoarse bass voice: "I've used up all the sepia on Leshy." It used to get quite noisy of an evening in my office, too. A couple of girl students had recently arrived from Kharkov, bearing a paper stating:

"The Kharkov Pedagogical Institute sends comrades K. Varskaya and R. Landsberg for practical acquaintance with the pedagogical system of work in the Maxim Gorky Colony." I received these representatives of the young pedagogical generation with extreme curiosity. Both K. Varskaya and R. Landsberg were enviably youthful, not more than twenty years apiece. K. Varskaya was a pretty, plump blonde, small and active; she had a tender subtle blush which could only have been done justice to in water colour. Continually knotting her fine, almost invisible brews, and dismissing with an effort of her will the smile that kept rising to her lips, she subjected me to a regular interrogation.

"Do you have a pedagogical room?"

"We have no pedagogical room."

"How do you study personality, then?"

"The personality of the child?" I asked as gravely as I could.

"Yes, of course. The personality of your pupil."

"Why should it be studied?"

"Why? How can you work otherwise? How can you work on material you know nothing about?"

K. Varskaya piped out her words with energy and sincere emotion, continually turning towards her friend. R. Landsberg, dark-skinned, with glorious black plaits, lowered her eyes, restraining her natural indignation with patient indulgence.

"What dominants predominate among your charges?" asked K. Varskaya, sternly resolute.

"If the personality is not studied in the colony," interpolated R. Landsberg quietly, "it's no use talking about dominants."

"Not at all," I said seriously. "I can tell you something about dominants. The same dominants predominate here as they do with yourselves."

"How d'you know what we're like?" asked K. Varskaya in unfriendly tones.

"Aren't you sitting in front of me and talking?"

"Well, what about it?"

"Well--I can see night through you. You sit there just as if you were made of glass, and I see everything going on inside you."

K Varskaya blushed, but just then Karabanov, Vershnev, Zadorov and a few other boys burst into the room.

"May we come in, or are you talking secrets?"

"Of course you can!" I said. "Let me introduce you--our guests, students from Kharkov."

"Guests! That's fine! What are your names?"

"Ksenia Romanovna Varskaya."

"Rakhil Semyonovna Landsberg."

Semyon Karabanov smote his cheek with the palm of his hand, exclaiming in mock alarm:

"Oh, my! Must it be so long? You're just Oksana, aren't you?"

"Very well!" agreed K. Varskaya.

"And you're--Rakhil. Will that do?"

"Just as you like," whispered R. Landsberg.

"All right! Now we can give you some supper. Are you students?


"Why didn't you say so right away--you must be as hungry as--well, what--Vershnev land Zadorov would say--as dogs. But let's say--as kittens, shall we?"

"As a matter of fact, we are hungry," laughed Oksana. "Is there anywhere we can wash?"

"Come on! We'll hand you over to the girls. You can do what you like there."

Thus passed our first acquaintance. Every evening they came to me, but only for a brief moment. The talk about the study of personality was never revived--Oksana and Rakhil had no time. The kids drew them into the shoreless ocean of colony affairs, amusements and conflicts, familiarizing them with a host of fundamental problems. It was hard for a live human being to avoid the whirlpools and little eddies appearing now and then in the collective; before one had time to turn around, one got sucked in and carried off. It sometimes happened that the current brought somebody right into my office, and threw him there, as if on shore.

One evening an interesting group--Oksana, Rakhil, Silanti and Bratchenko--was thrown up.

Oksana was holding Silanti by the sleeve and laughingly exclaiming:

"Come on, come on, what are you hanging back for?"

Silanti really was hanging back.

"He's carrying out a demoralizing policy in the colony, and you've never noticed it," said Oksana.

"What's the matter, Silanti?" I asked.

Silanti freed his sleeve angrily, and smoothed the top of his bald head. "It's like this, you see," he said. "This here sleigh was left in the yard. Semyon, and these here, took it into their heads to go tobogganing, you see. Anton--there he is!--let him tell you himself."

"They went on and on at me--tobogganing!" said Anton. "Well, I gave Semyon one with the saddle strap, so he was away. But these two would listen to nothing, and kept on tugging at the sleigh, what could I do? If I used the saddle strap, they'd cry. And then Silanti said to them--"

"That's just it!" cried the indignant Oksana. "Let Silanti repeat what he said!"

"What's there to make such a fuss about?" said Silanti. "I told them the truth, and that's all about it. I said: 'You want to get married, and that's why you break up sleighs.' You see how it is."

"That's not all! That's not all!"

"What more? That's all I said."

"He said to Anton: 'Harness her to the sleigh and make her pull you to Goncharovka, that'll quiet her down in a jiffy. Is that what you said?"

"And I'll say it again--they're healthy wenches, with nothing to do, and we haven't enough horses, you see how it is!"

"Oh!" exclaimed Oksana. "Get out! Get out of here! Quick march!"

Silanti laughed and escaped with Anton from the office. Oksana threw herself on to the sofa, on which Rakhil had been dozing for some time.

"Silanti is an interesting personality," I said. "You should take up the study of it."

Oksana rushed out of the office, but stopped in the doorway to say, in laughing imitation:

"I can see right through him. He's made of glass!"

Rushing out of the door with these parting words, she fell into a crowd of colonists. I heard her voice ring out and then lose itself in the familiar colony vortex.

"Go to bed, Rakhil," I said.

"What? I'm not sleepy, am I? Are you?"

"I'm going."

"All right then.... Of course...."

Rubbing her left eye with her fist, like a child, she pressed my hand and blundered out of the office, catching her shoulder in the frame of the door.