Children of Revolution

II. The First Ploughing

ALL through the long winter months on the Volga, the colony named for John Reed had been growing, buried deep from sight or transport in the hills of Cherumshan. The ten boys who began it had grown to fourteen, then thirty; they had made tables, beds, benches, stools; they had made shoes and underwear and mattresses; they had repaired and run the mill. But now, with the coming of spring there were already fifty-seven children ready to begin the real work of the colony --farming.

They had many more houses now than when they started. The first boys began in a large wooden house of fifteen rooms, set in a deep ravine with high wooded hills around it and a distant view of the great river. It was the biggest of all the Cherumshan houses and needed the least repair. They called it October House, in memory of the October Revolution, and also because they came to it in the month of October. Then during the winter they took also a barn, a mill and two broken shacks to make beds with.

There were only two or three warm winter coats in the colony, and four or five pair of winter felt boots. But, taking turns, they went scouting in the ravines around the houses, to see what they could find. Half a mile away on a large level place by a good stream of water lay a whole cluster of little houses, with even one building of brick. Most of these needed repair before they could move into them. But during the winter they made windows and fixed up these buildings also, and called it Center Town, because it was the most central spot among all the houses. Still another half mile away, up a little ravine that at first they had hardly noticed, they found a long wooden house of one story, with many tight rooms; near it was a pond and a stream and a bath-house. Into this place the girls of the colony moved as soon as warm weather made it unnecessary to crowd together in one big house for warmth. They called this May Day House, in memory of the May-Day holiday, on which they moved in.

The lands of the colony also had grown. The town of Kvalinsk had given them almost one hundred and sixty acres. But these were badly scattered, in the old peasant style. The largest field was ten miles away from their houses, and the other fields were three and five miles away in different directions. This was the way the peasants were used to farming their land for ages.

When the American guardian of the colony saw this land, she said that was no way to farm, and that there was no use getting a tractor from America to work on such tiny scattered pieces of ground. Wasn't there anywhere a big farm where the colony could have land all in one piece? Yes, they said, there was a place like this, a wonderful big estate right on the great river Volga, sixteen miles away from the Cherumshan houses. But it would take more horses and ploughs and children and money than the colony had to farm it. It would take at least five thousand dollars just for tools and horses and machinery. So the American Guardian went away across the ocean to raise the money.

Meantime the boys and girls of the colony worked on their scattered acres, planning them as well as they could. The nearest fields they decided to sow to sun-flower and millet, for these crops need much work and weeding, and the children would have to go to them often. But the big piece of land ten miles away was for wheat, which could be ploughed and sown by one group of boys camping out. But the best and richest of all the land was in the Cherumshan ravines right next to the houses. Only it was in many small places between the hills. Here it was decided to grow vegetables, potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes, watermelons and squash. For this land could be easily worked even by the girls; and if the summer proved dry, they could water it from the streams. There were twenty acres of this garden land.

When the snow was gone and the season of mud was over, the boys of the colony divided themselves into groups and set off to the distant fields to do their ploughing, with the home-made ploughs from their blacksmith shop. It was too far away to come back every evening, so they intended to camp out in the fields. As soon as they got there, two boys went hunting for poles and the others began scraping up straw and stubble and grass from the fields. They set up the poles in the form of a low tent with one side open and the other side sloping down to the ground. Then they covered the poles over thickly with straw and grass. Soon they had made for themselves a rough shelter that would keep out the rains and wind. They gathered more straw and covered the ground inside the shelter so that it would be soft and warm for sleeping. Into this place ten or twelve boys could crowd at night.

Outside the shelter they arranged a place for cooking. Two upright sticks with a third stick horizontally across them, and a pail hanging from this horizontal pole. That was the whole of their kitchen. Every few days when the horses came down from the Cherumshan houses, they brought enormous leaves of black rye bread, fifteen or twenty inches across, and a load of potatoes and cabbage, and a little oil or lard. The boys boiled i the potatoes and cabbage and fat in the pail to make soup, and ate it with the black bread. In the morning they had bread with "sweet tea." But the tea was not made of real tea, for that is very expensive and comes from far away China. So they took wheat grains and roasted them, and steeped them in boiling water, and added a little sugar and called it tea. Sometimes there was milk in it, but not often, for the cows were far away at the Cherumshan houses.

As long as they had this food they did not complain, for it was better than they had had since the Hungry Year. There was plenty of bread so that they did not feel empty, and there was the good sugar and lard from the Quakers. When the older girls cooked the bread, all went well, but sometimes when it came the turn of the younger girls to cook, the bread turned sour and heavy. Then the boys in the distant fields felt they had a right to complain, when a whole week's supply of bread came down at once, and it was all of it hard and sour.

Yet still they kept on ploughing steadily through the spring. They began on the very first day that ploughing was possible. But all around them the lands of the peasants lay bare and unploughed, for it was Easter Week and the peasants were celebrating. That also was an ancient custom of the peasants, to plough in connection with the times of church festivals. All Easter Week they were going to church, and on Easter Eve they stayed up all night in church and then went home to get drunk, as a celebration because Christ was risen. So it was two or three days after Easter before the peasants began in their fields.

But the boys of the John Reed Colony cared little about church festivals. They began in the fields as soon as the weather was good. They got free seed from the government because they were famine children. All day long they ploughed, working in two shifts. And the day after their seed was in the ground, there came a warm, soaking rain. It was almost the only good rain of the spring.

For after that rain the sun began to beat down with all its strength, and the ground grew hard and dry. The seed of the peasants went into this hard, dry soil, and did not grow. So another Hungry Year came to the Volga Valley, not so bad as the great Hungry year when a million people died, but still bad enough. But in the fields of the John Reed Colony there was grain. Not very much grain, for the dry weather hurt their harvest also. But they had three times as much as the peasants. So now a new motto spread among the peasants, that "God loves work more than Easter celebrations."

Seventy acres of wheat the boys planted, and forty acres of sun-flowers for oil, and twenty-five acres of millet for porridge. And when the harvest came they had thirty thousand pounds of wheat, and fifteen thousand pounds of millet, and over twenty thousand pounds of sun-flowers. But best of all was the garden. For when the summer turned hot and dry, and they knew that the crops in the fields would not be good, the boys and girls together turned their attention to the little streams that ran through the Cherumshan ravines. With spades and mattocks they dug little ditches, leading the waters gently from the streams down over all their garden. Thus they irrigated their vegetables, and when autumn came they had two hundred thousand pounds of potatoes and cucumbers and cabbage and squash. They had enough to trade for meat and bread and sugar. They had enough to feed for a whole year the fifty-seven who had planted it. And they felt very proud to think that they could make their own living.

But by this time there were many more children in the colony to eat the food. In the month of May, as soon as the big steamers began to move on the Volga, the children's homes of Saratov sent twenty-five children to the Houses of Cherumshan to work in the gardens. But it took them all summer before they learned really how to do this work. Then in the month of August, when it was time to begin gathering harvest, thirty more boys and girls came from Saratov to help in this work.

They came hungry and without shoes or underwear or coats. The children's homes of Saratov promised to send food for them, but they also were poor, with many hungry children. So all through the summer months these new children ate the food of the colony. By this time the Quaker food, of sugar and lard, was gone. In the very hardest months of work the children were most hungry.

Sores began to come on their bodies for lack of fats. And they had no soap to wash their clothes or their faces and hands.

This was the very hardest time for the whole colony, these months before harvest. Everywhere in the Volga Valley it was hard also for the peasants. Few of them had enough bread to last till harvest. Many were again eating bread of straw and grass. The children of Cherumshan were better off than many peasants. But now they no longer had enough even of the black bread. They began to ration it, giving each one just enough to keep from starving. Yet for ail that they went on ploughing and sowing and weeding the gardens. For they were famine children who had seen their parents die of hunger. They knew that only hard work lay between them and another Hungry Year.

But now, in the midsummer just before harvest, the American Guardian came back across the ocean, bringing money for horses and cows and tools, and to buy extra underwear and food. And by the fall of the year, Saratov also began sending money regularly to pay for extra food for the children. And their own harvest came, with its big stores of potatoes, and smaller amounts of wheat and millet and sun-flowers.

So they began to lay their plans now to take Alexeivka, the big farm on the Volga river, sixteen miles away. Here there were over a thousand acres, and great houses, enough for two hundred children. Enormous stables, for forty cows and horses. A brick factory that could turn out a million bricks a year. Big workshops for repairing farm machinery and for making tools. And a giant flour mill that once ground grain for a score of miles around. Even across the Volga on the ice in winter the peasants used to come to this mill, in the days before the war and revolution, when it belonged to a grand duke.

But now the whole place lay idle and empty. The grand duke himself had never lived here, for he spent his time in Paris drawing only the revenues, from his estate. And the German overseer who ran it for him departed early in the Great War. During the long years of revolution, and civil war and disorder, the peasants helped themselves to horses and grain and cows and tools, for they were hungry and their horses had been long since taken for the armies. Then when the Hungry Year came, and thousands of peasants fled across the land in all directions, they camped out in the houses of this big estate and tore up doors and floors for fuel. Till at last order came again in the land, and the new government sent guards to take possession, and afterwards some workmen to repair and farm it.

But there were hundreds of estates like this scattered all over Russia, without money or workers enough to put them in order. The big farm at Alexeivka was far away from the center, and control was hard. One manager after another came, and some were thieves and some did not know their business, and even the good ones did not have enough money. So they took only the apples from the two hundred acres of orchard, but more than a thousand acres of farm land lay idle. This was the great estate that the children could have if they could farm it.

Already through the long, hard summer they had learned something of farming. And money had come from America to buy horses and tools. So they sent to the government at Saratov and said they were ready to start in Alexeivka. They wanted two hundred and sixty acres of land to begin with. They wanted the right to repair the Big House and the stables, and to use the old ploughs that were lying unused in the barns.

At the same time they chose a committee of boys to go with Yeremeef to Saratov and buy horses. For already it was seen that the bad harvest that summer would mean cheap horses, since many peasants were trying to sell. At the same time another committee went out into the villages, buying cows for the colony. And down in the big barn at Alexeivka they found many ploughs, unused for seven years and somewhat rusty. These they repaired in the blacksmith shop and began ploughing.

With the month of October came the first birthday of the colony, and they celebrated it in the Cherumshan Houses. In the October House they built a theater and held a big celebration. The president of the town soviet was invited and all the town officials and the heads of education. Delegates from other children's homes came also. Even from far away Volsk, the county town, came representatives. Nazipaef, the young miller, was elected chairman, and one after another the children made reports of the work of the year--of the harvest, and the carpenter shop, and the shoe shop, and the plans to take Alexeivka.

After this came feasting. There were little pigs in the colony by this time, and one of these was killed and cooked. There were potatoes in plenty from their own garden. There was also one hundred pounds of honey. But there were no dishes. All night long the girls worked in the kitchen, peeling potatoes for the soup, for they had just one kitchen knife. All night they took turns, and all next morning and afternoon. So when dinner time came, the older ones were so tired that they could not keep order. So something happened before all the guests that made everyone ashamed.

It was the tradition of the colony that everyone should share equally, and that the committee in charge of food for the day should do the dividing. For this they had their self-government and organization. Two days before the festival I bought fifty cents worth of candy and gave it to the girls in the kitchen to serve for supper. But they locked it up instead. "Not till Saturday," they said, "when everyone is back from the fields." They did not wish the ones who were working far away to lose their share.

But now, on the day of celebration, while most of the colony was busy in the meeting, some of the smaller boys discovered the honey and made a rush for it. They spread great hunks of it on their bread and got it all over their faces. Then suddenly one of the older girls discovered them and ran to call the chairman. After that there was order, but much of the honey was gone, and everyone was ashamed that on the day of celebration, when guests were around, the smaller ones had shown themselves so piggish.

But this was soon forgotten for at the end of the celebration, Yeremeef arose and announced that the colony had been given as much land as they could plough in Alexeivka, and also the Big House by the river, and the big stable, and the Horseman's House and the old brick barracks, where a hundred soldiers used to sleep at harvest, when they got in the grain for the grand duke. More and more land we could hope for, as fast as we could use it. And the colony began its plans for taking Alexeivka, and building there a big farm colony that should be known up and down the Volga, and where homeless children for hundreds of miles might come and learn farming.