A. S. Makarenko Reference Archive

The Road to Life
Volume 2


Chobot hanged himself on the evening of May the 3rd.

I was awakened in the early morning by the night-watch detachment, and I guessed what had happened as soon as I heard the rap on the window pane. They had just cut Chobot down, close to the stables, and were trying, by the light of lanterns, to bring him back to life. After prolonged efforts Ekaterina Grigoryevna and the boys had managed to restore his breathing, but he never regained consciousness, and died towards evening. The doctors called from the town explained to us that it would have been impossible to save Chobot. He had hanged himself from the ledge over the stables--standing on this ledge, he had evidently placed and tightened the noose round his neck, and then jumped, the fall breaking the spinal cord in his neck.

The boys received the news of Chobot's suicide guardedly. No one expressed any special grief, though Fedorenko said:

"Poor Cossack--he would have made a good Budyonny soldier!"

But Lapot answered Fedorenko:

"He would never have made a Budyonny soldier! He lived and died a kulak, and it was greed which killed him."

Koval looked with scornful ire towards the curb, where Chobot's coffin stood, refused to be one of the guard of honour around it, and did not come to the funeral.

"I would hang fellows like Chobot myself--getting under people's feet with their idiotic affairs."

Only the girls cried, and even then Marusya Levchenko would dry her eyes, and exclaim wrathfully:

"The fool, the blockhead! How d'you like that --go and keep house with him, indeed! What a bit of luck for Natasha! A good thing she didn't go with him! There's plenty of Chobots in the world--she can't make them all happy! Let a few more of them hang themselves!"

Natasha was not crying. She looked at me with terrified astonishment when I went to the girls in their bedroom and asked in a low voice:

"What am I to do now?"

Marusya answered her for me.

"Perhaps you'd like to go and hang yourself! Be thankful that fool had the sense to get out of the way! He would have tortured you your whole life if he had lived. What's she to do, indeed! When you're in the Rabfak, there'll be time enough to think...."

Natasha raised her eyes to the wrathful Marusya, and snuggled up to her.

"All right, then."

"I'll be Natasha's guardian," said Marusya, looking at me with defiantly blazing eyes.

I bowed, scraping my foot facetiously. "Oh, do, Comrade Levchenko!" I said, "and may I join in with you?"

"Only if you promise not to hang yourself! You know there are guardians who are absolutely worthless. Not so much guardians as nuisances!"

"Very good!" I replied, saluting. "I'll try to avoid the noose."

Natashia broke away from Marusya and smiled at her new guardians, even flushing up a little.

"Come and have breakfast, poor little girl," said Marusya gaily.

My heart was somewhat easier about this aspect of the matter.

In the evening there arrived the coroner and Maria Kondratyevna. I persuaded the coroner not to interrogate Natasha, and he showed himself a man of tact, merely drawing up a brief statement, and, after eating the dinner we gave him, taking his departure. Maria Kondratyevna remained behind to mourn. Very late, when everyone was asleep, she came into my office with Kalinla Ivanovich, and sank wearily on to the sofa.

"Your colonists are brutes! Their comrade dies, and they go on laughing! And that Lapot of yours fools about just as before."

The next day I went to see the Rabfak students off. On the way to the station Vershnev expressed his thoughts and feelings:

"The fellows d-d-d-on't understand what it's all about. A m-m-man decides to die because life is not good. They think it's b-b-b-because of Natasha, it's just his life he couldn't bear."

Belukhin wagged his head.

"Nothing of the sort! Chobot would never have had a decent life. He wasn't a man, he was a slave. There aren't any more masters, so he tried to make a kind of god of Natasha."

"You're going too deep into things, lads." said Semyon. "I don't like that! A fellow hangs himself, very well,--strike him off the rolls! We must think of the morrow. I tell you what: the colony bad better get the hell out of here, before you all begin hanging yourselves."

On the way back I pondered over the paths open to our colony. A full-grown crisis seemed to have sprung up in our midst and many of the things I valued most were threatening to hurl themselves into an abyss--things bright and living, created almost miraculously duping five years of work by the collective, things the immense value of which no conventional modesty could make me conceal from myself.

In a collective like ours the obscurity of individual paths could not form a crisis. Individual paths are never clearly defined. And what could a clearly defined individual path imply? Nothing but isolation from the collective, concentrated pettiness--the old tedious thought of where bread for the morrow was to come from, of the eternally vaunted qualifications. And what qualifications? Carpenter, cobbler, miller.... No, no, I am perfectly convinced that for a sixteen-year-old boy in our Soviet life the most precious qualification is the qualification of the fighter and the human being.

I thought of the strength of the colonists' collective, and suddenly I realized what was wrong. Why, of course--how could I have taken so long to discover it? It had all come about because we were at a standstill. A standstill can never be allowed in the life of a collective.

I was as happy as a child. How wonderful! What marvellous, all-embracing dialectics! A free working collective can never mark time. The universal law of general development was only just beginning to show its true strength. The forms ruling the existence of a free human collective implied progress. The forms ruling death--a standstill.

Yes, for almost two years we bad been at a standstill--the same fields, the same flower beds, the same carpentry shop, and the same yearly round.

I hurried back to the colony to look into the eyes of the colonists and test my great discovery.

At the porch of the White House two hired cabs were standing, and Lapot met me with the information:

"A commission from Kharkov has come."

"That's good," thought I. "We'll get this matter settled right away."

Three persons were waiting for me in my office: Lyubov Savelyevna Dzhurinskaya; another woman, stout and no longer young, but with bright, steady eyes, in a dark crimson dress past its first freshness; and an insignificant individual, betwixt blonde and carroty, who had either no beard at all, or a very little one. He held a briefcase in one hand, and his glasses sat very much awry, so that he was always having to straighten them with the other hand.

Lyubov Savelyevna forced a cordial smile, while introducing me to her companions.

"And here's Comrade Makarenko! Let me introduce you! Varvana Victorovna Bregel, Sergei Vasilyevich Chaikin."

I had nothing against receiving in the colony Varvara Victorovna, who was the highest authority over me, but why this Chaikin? I had heard of him as a professor of pedagogics. Was he perhaps the manager of some children's home?

"We've come specially to look into your method," said Bregel.

"I protect categorically," I said. "There's no such thing as my method."

"What method do you use then?"

"The usual Soviet method."

Bregel smiled sourly.

"It may be Soviet, but it certainly isn't a very usual one. We must look into it, however." Then began one of those highly unpleasant conversations, in which people play with terminology, in the full conviction that terminology can define reality. To cut it short, I said:

"I'm not going to talk like this. If you like I'll make you a report, but I warn you it won't take less than three hours."

Bregel agreed to this. We sat down there and then in the office, and locked ourselves in, while I applied myself to the desperate task of putting into words the impressions, conceptions, doubts and experiments accumulated during the period of five years. It seemed to me that I was speaking eloquently, finding precise expression for extremely subtle ideas, using the dissecting knife with bold caution in spheres hitherto mysterious, throwing down lines for the future, and for the difficulties of the morrow. At any rate I was absolutely sincere, sparing nobody's prejudices, and not afraid to show that "theory" seemed to me in certain of its aspects to have become both ineffective and alien.

Dzhurinskaya listened to me with a joyful, burning countenance, Bregel remained inscrutable, and I did not worry my head over Chaikin. When I had finished Bregel rapped with her plump fingers on the table, and said in a manner which made it hard to say whether she was being sincere or sarcastic:

"Aha...very interesting, I must say, exceedingly interesting. Isn't it, Sergei Vasilyevich?" Chaikin tried to straighten his spectacles, bent over his writing pad, and, very courteously, as becomes a scholar, with all sorts of mincing grimaces, and a flimsy assumption of respect, uttered the following speech:

"Of course all this needs thorough elucidation ...but even on the face of it I feel a certain doubt about some of the--er--theorems, which you have been good enough to expound to us with an enthusiasm which, of course, testifies to your sincerity. Very well. For example, a thing we already knew, but you seem to have passed over in silence--a certain, as it were, competition has been organized here, between your charges: the one who does the most gets praised, the one who does the least is blamed. You ploughed your fields, and there was such competition, wasn't there? You said nothing about this, probably unintentionally. I should like to hear from you whether you are aware that we consider competition a method grossly bourgeois, inasmuch as it substitutes for the direct attitude to things, an indirect one. That's one thing. And then--you give pocket money to your charges, on red-letter days, of course,--and the amount of the pocket money is not the same for everyone, but varies in accordance, so to say, with each one's deserts. Doesn't it seem to you that you are substituting for the inner stimulus an external one, and a grossly materialist one at that? To proceed: punishment, as you style it. You must be aware that punishment breeds slaves, while what we want is a free personality, whose behaviour shall be determined, not by fear of the stick, or any other penal measure, but by inner stimuli, and by political consciousness...."

He said a lot more, this Chaikin. Listening to him, I remembered Chekhov's story about the man who killed a bore with a paperweight. Then I decided that there was ~o need to kill Chaikin--all he needed was a good whipping, not with a birch, of course, or any such old-regime instrument of chastisement as a whip, but with an ordinary belt, such as a worker keeps his trousers up with. That would have been the ideologically correct way. Bregel, interrupting Chaikin, asked me:

"What are you smiling at? Is it funny, what Comrade Chaikia says?"

"Oh, no," I Said. "It's not a bit funny."

"Is it sad, then?" said Bregel, for the first time herself smiling.

"No! Certainly not! It's not sad either. It's just commonplace."

Bregel gazed at me attentively, and sighed.

"We make it hard for you, don't we?" she said humorously.

"Never mind--I'm used to people making things hard for me. Some are even worse."

Bregel suddenly began to shake with laughter.

"You're always joking, Comrade Makarenko," she said, when she had composed herself. "But still, can't you give Sergei Vasilyevich any answer at all?"

I cast an imploring look at Bregel and said:

"I think the Scientific Pedagogioal Committee had better take up these questions, too. They do everything the right way there, don't they? Let's have dinner, instead!"

"All right," said Bregel, slightly offended. "Oh, yes, and what's all this about turning out your pupil Oprishko?"

He has been expelled for drunkenness."

"And where is he now? On the streets, of course!"

"No, he's quite near, living with a kulak."

"D'you mean you sent him there as a ward?"

"Something of the sort," I smiled.

"He's living there? You're sure of that?"

"Yes, I'm quite sure. He's living with a local kulak, Lukashenko. That worthy man already has two other waifs as 'wards.' "

"We shall have to look into that."


We went to dinner. After dinner, Bregel and Chaikin desired to look about for themselves, and I took off my cap to Lyubov Savelyevaa, with the words:

"Dear, sweet, darling People's Commissariat for Education! We're cramped here, and we've done all we can. We'll all be neurasthenics in six months' time. Give us something big, something to make our heads go round with work. You've got all sorts of things. Principles aren't all that you have!"

Lyubov Savelyevna laughed, and said:

"I quite understand you. That can be done. Come on, let's talk it over! But wait a bit--you talk of nothing but the future! Are you very offended by this inspection?"

"Oh, not a bit! How could it be otherwise?"

"And the conclusions--don't Chaikin's questions worry you?"

"Why should they? The Scientific Pedagogical Committee will take them up, won't it? It's their funeral!"

That night Bregel told me her impressions before going to bed.

"You have a splendid collective. But just the same your methods are awful."

I rejoiced in the depth of my soul--thank goodness she didn't know how our drummers were trained!

"Good night," said Bregel. "Oh, by the way--no one thinks of blaming you for Chobot's death...."

I bowed in token of my profound gratitude.