A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 2


Soon rafter Olga's wedding, a long-expected calamity overtook us--the time had come for our Rabfak candidates to leave us. Although we had begun talking about the Rabfak as long ago as the days of Raissa and her baby, and had been preparing for it daily ever since; although there was nothing we had longed for so eagerly as having our own Rabfak students, and although the whole business was a joyous and triumphant one--when the day of parting came there was a lump in every throat, and tears welled up in everyone's eyes. No one wanted to face the terrible fact: the colony had lived, worked, and laughed, and suddenly its own members were leaving it. Somehow no one had quite expected this fact to materialize.

After breakfast, everyone put on clean suits, and set out the festive tables in the garden, while the standard-bearers removed the cover from the banner in my office, and the drummers slung their drums over their stomachs. But not even these festive notes could quench the gnawing flames of melancholy. Lydochka had been crying her blue eyes out since the early morning, the girls were frankly blubbering on their beds, and Ekaterina Grigoryevna, who could hardly restrain her own emotion, was trying in vain to console them. The lads were grave and silent, Lapot divested of all his charm. The younger ones ranged themselves in lines of unprecedented straightness, like so many sparrows on a telegraph wire. Perched demurely on benches and railings, their hands folded between their knees, they fixed their eyes on objects a great deal higher than their usual field of vision--roofs, treetops, the sky. And never before had there been so much nose-blowing.

I shared their childish dismay, I shared their grief--the grief of those who have an inordinate respect for justice. I agreed with Toska Solovyov --why was Matvei Belukhin not to be in the colony tomorrow? Could not matters be arranged nationally enough for Matvei not to leave, and Toska not to cherish his vast, irremediable, unmerited sorrow? But Toska was not the only chum whom Matvei was leaving, and Matvei was not the only one to be leaving. Burun, Karablanov, Zadorov, Krainik, Vershnev, Goles, Nastya Nochevnaya--they were all leaving, and each of them had dozens of chums, and Matvei, Semyon, Burun were real human beings, human beings whom it had been bliss to imitate, whose absence would mean beginning life all over again.

And it was not these emotions alone which oppressed the colony. It was apparent, both to myself and to the colonists, that the colony had its head placed on the executioner's block, and that the axe was ready to descend upon its neck.

The Rabfak candidates themselves looked as if they were being prepared for sacrifice to the "innumerable gods of necessity and fate." Karbanov never left my side, smiling and saying:

"Life's like that--something's always wrong. It's the greatest good fortune to get into the Rabfak, it's a dream, you might say, it's what everybody's always looking for, it's God knows what! But when you come up against it, perhaps it isn't, after all! Perhaps really our happiness is ending today. It's sad to leave the colony, so sad.... I could howl--if it weren't for people seeing me, how I'd howl! Perhaps I'd feel better if I could! There's no such thing as truth in the world!"

Vershnev, angry-eyed, regards us from a corner of the office.

"There's only one truth--human beings."

"I like that!" laughed Karabanov. "D'you mean you've been looking for truth among cats?"

"N-n-n-no, it isn't that ... it's that people have got to be good, or else what the hell's the good of truth? You see, if a person's a swine, he'll be a nuisance when we reach socialism, too. That's what I've learned today."

I looked intently at Nikoliai.

"Why today?"

"Today you can see people like in a mirror. I don't know how it is: everything used to be just work, and every day a working day, and today everything is suddenly c-c-clear. Gorky wrote the truth, but I couldn't understand it before, at least I did understand it, but I didn't realize how important it was. A Man--that's not just any rotter! And it's true--there are some who are just ordinary people, and some who are real men."

With words like these the Rabfak candidates tried to conceal the fresh wounds inflicted by their departure from the colony. But their efforts were less strenuous than ours, for the luminous Rabfak awaited them, while nothing luminous awaited us.

The night before, the teachers had gathered together in the porch of my apartment, some seated, others standing, all thinking and huddling shyly together. The colony was asleep, and the night was still, warm, and starry. The world seemed to me a sort of magic potion of the most complex consistency--delicious, seductive. But it was impossible to resolve it into its ingredients, and no one could tell what bitternesses were dissolved in it. At such moments a man is beset by philosophical conjectures, by the longing to gasp the incomprehensible. And if the morrow is to carry away "forever" the friends whose social development he has, not without difficulty, helped to create out of chaos, a man is apt to gaze speechlessly into the calm sky, and almost, at moments, to believe that the nearby popbars, willows, and lime trees are whispering the solutions to his problems.

And we, a helpless huddle of mortals, each of us individually, and all of us together, maintained silence, indulging in our own thoughts, listening to the whispering of the leaves, and looking into the eyes of the stars. It is thus that savages behave after an unsuccessful hunt.

And there was I, thinking, thinking with the rest. On that night, the night on which I turned out my first real batch of graduates, I indulged in a lot of nonsensical meditations. I told nobody of them at the time, and it probably seemed to my colleagues that they alone had weakened, that I remained unshakable, sturdy and deep-rooted as an oak. They may even have been ashamed to show their weakness in my presence.

I thought how full of hardship and injustice my life bad been. How I had sacrificed the best period of my life simply that half a dozen "delinquents" might enter a Rabfak, how at the Rabfak, and in the big town, they would come under new influences, which I could not control...and who could tell how it would all end? Perhaps my labour and my sacrifices would turn out to have been simply a useless clot of misapplied energy!

And I thought of other things, too. Why all this injustice? Hadn't I done good work myself? Hadn't it been a hundred times harder and more worth while than singing songs at a club concert, or even acting in a good play, even in such a theatre as the Moscow Art Theatre? Why, then, should actors be applauded by vast audiences, why should they retire to rest in their own homes, conscious of human attention and gratitude, and I have to while away the dark night in a godforsaken labour colony? Why did no one, not even the inhabitants of Goncharovka, applaud me? Not only this--I was perpetually reverting anxiously to the fact that I had spent a thousand rubles for the outfitting of my Rabfak candidates, that such expenditure was act provided for in our budget, that the inspector from the Department of Finance had looked at me severely and critically, saying in answer to my inquiry:

"Lay out the money, if you like, but bear in mind that any deficit will have to come out of your own salary."

The memory of this conversation made me smile. A whole department suddenly set to work in my brain. In one room someone was eagerly composing savage philippics against the inspector, in the next room was a daredevil loudly exclaiming: "What the hell!", and next door, bending over the tables, an obsequious rabble seemed to be calculating how many months it would take to cover the deficit of one thousand rubles out of my salary. This department worked conscientiously, despite the fact that other departments were also working in my brain. In a neighbouring building a solemn meeting was being held, all our teachers and Rabfak students were on the platform, an orchestra a hundred strong was thundering out the "Internationale," and a learned pedagogue was making a speech.

Once again I could smile. What on earth could the learned pedagogue have to say that was any use? He hadn't seen Karabanov, revolver in hand, on the highroad, or Burun perched on someone else's window sill--Burun the agile burglar, whose companions in burglary had been shot. What had he seen?

"What are you thinking about all the time?" Ekaterina Grigoryevnla asked me. "Thinking and smiling."

"I'm holding a solemn meeting," I said.

"That's obvious. But now just tell us what we're going to do without a nucleus?"

"Aha! Another field for the future science of pedagogics--the field of nuclei!"

"What field?"

"I'm talking about the nucleus. If there's a collective, there has to be a nucleus."

"It all depends what sort of nucleus."

"The sort we require. We must have a higher opinion of our collective, Ekaterina Grigoryevna. Here we are worrying about a nucleus, and the collective has already produced one without our so much a noticing it. A good nucleus multiplies by division. Put that down in the notebook for the future science of education."

"All right, I will," agrees Ekaterina Grigoryevna meekly.

The next day the teaching collective was listless, and the celebration went off in a stiff, official manner. I had no desire to intensify this mood, and acted as if I were on the stage, impersonating a cheerful individual celebrating the attainment of his most cherished desires.

At noon we dined at the festive tables and, somewhat to our own surprise, there was much laughter. Lapot, acting the parts, showed what our Rabfak candidates would be in seven or eight years. He showed us engineer Zadorov, dying of consumption, with doctors Burun and Vershnev st his bedside, sharing the fee, while the musician Krainik came in demanding immediate payment for the funeral march, which, otherwise, he threatened not to play. But both in our laughter and Lapot's jokes, it was not so much genuine amusement, as well-trained wills, that prevailed.

At three o'clock we lined up and brought out the colours. The Rabfak candidates ranged themselves on the right flank. Anton came out of the stables driving Molodets, and the younger boys loaded the cart with the baskets of the departing ones. The command was given, the drums rolled, and the column set out for the station. Half an hour later we emerged from the shifting sandy valley of the Kolomak, and entered with relief upon the tough, short grass of what had once been a spacious highroad, traversed long ago by Tatars and Dnieper Cossacks. The drummers squared their shoulders, and the sticks in their hands became lighter and more spirited.

"Dress the line! Heads up!" I commanded sternly.

Karabanov turned without stopping or losing step, displaying his unique talent of conveying in a simple smile his pride, his joy, his love, his confidence in his own powers, his own splendid future. Zadorov, who was marching beside him, understood his movement immediately, and hastened shyly, as always, to conceal his emotion, merely directing a swift, animated glance at the horizon, and looking up at the banner. Suddenly Karabanov broke out into shrill, buoyant singing. The others, delighted, took up the song. Immediately all within me was as festive as a May Day parade. I seemed to feel that the colonists shared my mood; the great fact had suddenly dawned on us--the Gorky Colony was seeing off its first and best. It was to do them honour that the silken banner rippled, the drums thundered, the columns swayed in their stately march; the sun, which seemed to be glowing with joy, sank into the west as if making way for us, as if singing a sweet song with us, a cunning song, that seemed to be about an enamoured Cossack, but was really about the detachment of Rabfak students leaving for Kharkov, on the orders given yesterday by the Commanders' Council to the "seventh mixed detachment under the command of Alexander Zadorov." The boys enjoyed their own singing, and kept casting sidelong glances towards me--they were glad I was enjoying myself with them.

Eddies of dust had long been revolving in the distance behind us and soon we could make out a rider in its midst. It was Olya Voronova.

Jumping down, she offered her horse to me.

"Get up! It's a good saddle--a real Cossack one. I was nearly late."

"I'm no General," I said. "Let Lapot ride, he's S.C.C. [Secretary of the Commanders' Council.--Tr.] now."

"Right!" said Lapot, and, clambering into the saddle, he moved to the front of the column, swaying in his seat, and twisting a nonexistent moustache.

The command "at ease" had to be given, partly to enable Olya to have her say, and partly because Lapot's antics were too much for the colonists.

At the station a mood of solemn melancholy, streaked with reckless gaiety, prevailed. The students got into their carriage, and looked proudly down upon our ranks and the people on the platform--these latter somewhat agitated by our arrival.

When the second signal had been given, Lapot made a brief speech.

"See you don't let us down, sons! Shurka, you keep them in order, and don't forget to send this carriage to a museum. And let there be an inscription on it: 'In this carriage Semyon Karabanov went to the Rabfak.'"

We went back by the meadows, by narrow footpaths and planks laid across streams, every now and then jumping brooks and ditches. This caused us to break up into small friendly groups, and under cover of the falling dusk, souls were turned inside out and displayed, in no boastful spirit. Said Gud:

"I'm not going to any Rabfak. I'm going to be a shoemaker, and make good shoes. Is that any worse? Not a bit! But it is sad the kids have left us, isn't it?"

Gnarled, bowlegged, massive Kudlaty regarded Gud sternly.

"You'll make a rotten shoemaker, too," he said. "You put a patch on for me last week, and it had come off by the evening. That sort of cobbler is worse than a doctor. A good cobbler, now, he might be better than a doctor."

An exhausted stillness prevailed in the colony that evening. And then, just when the signal "Bedtime" had been given, Osadchv the commander on duty, brought in Gud--drunk. Or maybe not so much drunk, as lyrically sentimental. Paying no heed to the general indignation, he stood in front of me and said softly, gazing at my inkstand:

"I've been drinking, because it's the right thing to do. I may be a shoemaker, but I have a soul, haven't I? I have. Can I bear it quietly when Zadorov and so many of our boys have gone the devil knows where? I can't bear it quietly. So I just went and drank on my own earnings. Did I put soles on the miller's boots? I did. I drank on my own earnings. Did I cut anybody's throat? Did I insult anybody? Did I so much as lay a finger on a girl? I did not lay a finger. And he starts yelling: 'Come on to Anton! Come on, then!' Who's this Anton? Is it you, Anton Semyonovich? Who is it? A wild beast? No, it's not a wild beast. What sort of a man is he--perhaps he's a worthless man? No, he's not a worthless man. Very well, then. I've come. Here I am. You see before you the bad shoemaker Gud."

"Are you in a state to listen to what I say?"

"I am. I can listen to what you say."

"Very well, then, listen! To make boots, that's a necessary, a fine thing. You'll be a good shoemaker, and you'll become the director of a boot factory so long as you don't drink."

"Not even when such a lot of people leave us?"

"Not even then."

"So, in your opinion, I've been wrong to drink."

"You've been wrong."

"And since we can't do anything bout it now," here Gud's head dropped low, "you'll have to punish me."

"Go to bed. I won't punish you this time."

"What did I tell you?" exclaimed Gud to the onlookers. Then, with a scornful glance around, he saluted in the colonist way:

"Very good, Comrade!"

Lapot took him by the arm and led him solicitously to the bedroom, as if he felt him to be the quintessence of the colony's grief.

Half an hour later Kudlaty came to my office to see about the issue of boots for the autumn. He drew the new boots lovingly out of the box, allotting them according to the colonists' detachments on his list. There were constant cries:

"When are you going to change them? These are tight for me!"

Kudlaty answered again and again, till he lost patience, and shouted:

"I've told you over and over again--I'm not going to change today, tomorrow they can be changed. Blockheads!"

Seated at my desk, the weary Lapot, screwing up his eyes, said to Kudlaty:

"Salespeople and customers must be mutually courteous, Comrade."