Children of Revolution

III. We Take Alexeivka

THE first boys who went to Alexeivka were a small detachment of twelve who ploughed the fields by day and slept in the barn on the cold October nights. They were camping out, just as they had done in one field after another; for the center of the colony was still in the Cherumshan Houses. The Big House in Alexeivka lay cold and empty on the edge of the river, with windows and stoves broken from seven years neglect. They must repair this house before they could live in it. Meantime, the important thing was the ploughing. For soon the land would freeze and the autumn ploughing would come to an end. And if the colony made a good record, they could count on more land in the spring.

So the twelve boys knew that on them depended the growth of the colony. Every morning and evening they worked, but they rested in the middle of the day. At first the noon-day rest was a long one, when the days were hot, and the morning and evenings light and cool. But as the days grew shorter and colder, the two shifts of boys began to follow each other more closely. The bread still came down to them from the Cherumshan Houses, and their soup they made as before in a big pail over an open fire.

It was here that I found them one day in late September, as I came up the river from Saratov. With me went a boy of eighteen from Moscow, to visit his brother in the colony. He took with him a suitcase full of books, which he had begged from many officials in the big city--books on farming, and bee-keeping and cows and horses, that he was taking down as a present to the colony.

Already the great Volga was running low in its muddy banks, for the summer had been hot and the year was growing late. The boats ran very irregularly, waiting for each other to pass the sand-banks. It was after one o'clock in the morning when we came to Alexeivka, and we hardly knew whether to get off or go on to the next stop, and make for Cherumshan. But some of the men on the dock at Alexeivka told us that a group of boys were already ploughing here, so we decided to get off and find them.

It was very dark along the road; we could see neither houses nor barns. After stumbling over the beach for half an hour we saw a light. Some of the workers on the big farm were still awake. We hailed them with a shout, and between the barking of many dogs they answered: "Yes, there are twelve boys here from John Reed Colony. They are camping in the big stables."

We turned in the other direction to hunt the stables. And again stumbled in the darkness through the uneven fields. At last we decided to untie our blankets and wait in the fields till dawn, which was not far off. But hardly had we spread the blankets on the ground when we heard the tramp of horses. Nearer and nearer they came in the darkness but we did not know who they were. Then we heard voices--they sounded like young voices. We shouted: "Do you know where the John Reed Colony is?" Back came the answer in high boyish treble: "We are John Reed!" Then they came nearer, and we saw that they were two boys who looked after the horses by night, giving them pasture and taking them down to the river for water, and watching them so that they should not wander away before morning. Quickly they showed us the way to the stables. There inside we found ten other boys and an older horseman, curled up on a pile of straw with a thin blanket wrapped around each. They brought out great armfuls of straw for us to sleep on and we lay down in the stable door with a thin moon shining on our blankets. It seemed hardly a moment till I was awakened by the rustle of boys going out to begin the morning ploughing. It was already red in the east, but the sun was not yet up.

About nine o'clock the first group of boys came back from ploughing, and the cooks had already made ready the thin tea and bread. After breakfast young Vanya, who had come with me from Moscow bringing books, opened the big suitcase which he had carried all night in our wanderings, and brought out magazines and pamphlets. The boys fell on them, each picking out the subject that interested him most, and began to read until time for dinner, sitting in the shade of the stables. They had to knock away the flies with one hand and hold the book with the other.

Before dinner-time the committee of cooks approached me. "Can't we buy some fat in the village?" they said. "No one has come from Cherumshan for a week and we have had no fat for two days..." "What kind of fat?" I asked. "Oh, any kind, to put in the soup. Whatever is the cheapest. Butter or lard or sun-flower oil; we think the sun-flower oil is only a few kopeks a pound. And also we need some straw sandals to tie on our feet for the ploughing. The stubble in the fields is hard and at night the ground is cold." We bought the sun-flower oil, and also some milk for the soup, and a dozen pair of straw sandals at about five cents apiece.

So steadily the ploughing went on, by dawn and evening, and even by moonlight. A few days later the committee sent to Saratov to buy horses came back with four new ones, riding them bareback for a hundred miles along the river bank for several days. Then work speeded up in earnest, for there were only a few weeks left till the ground would freeze and the ploughing be over. And by the record these boys made would the future of the colony be judged.

And now came the cold rains of autumn beating down on the fields and on the thin coats and bare legs of the boys. It was not always possible to plough now, both because of the condition of the ground and because of the lack of warm coats. The ones who tried to work in the rain fell ill from colds and fevers. Yet still, between times, they went out to the fields. The ones who had sheepskin coats worked longest; then they loaned their coats to other boys, and they themselves crouched under the straw in the stables for warmth while the others ploughed. And when at last the winter fell, more than two hundred acres of land lay black and ready for the spring sowing, besides some fifty acres already sown to rye on the other side of Cherumshan. And there was a promise now to give the colony another two hundred acres or more in the spring because of the fine record the boys had made. They had done far more than any of the grown-up managers who had held the farm since the revolution. And all around the peasants were saying: "See how that colony works. It is sure to get ahead."

And now the ploughing group went back to the Cherumshan Houses, and a new group came down to take possession for the winter. Eleven boys and three girls were the first detachment. Four of the boys were young millers, who came to repair and open the big mill at Alexeivka. Three were carpenters, to repair the houses. Four were horsemen, to look after the horses; for it had been decided to keep all the horses for the winter in the big stables on the new farm. Three girls came also, Shubina, Infelina and Yershova, to wash and cook. A little later came Stesha and five more carpenters. By the time Alexeivka lay snow-bound there were 26 boys and 7 girls encamped here, to repair houses and mill, and look after the horses. The rest remained in Cherumshan till spring.

When the first group came down it was already the season of mud. The roads on the side hill were slippery and deep with mire and the horse that brought the tools could hardly travel. The boys and girls who had shoes took them off to save them, for they must wade at least ankle deep in mud and water all the way. From time to time on the side hills they stopped to help the horse or to hold the wagon from sliding. It took all day and far into the night to make the sixteen-mile journey. So they knew that no other horses would make the trip until the season of mud was over, and that meantime they must depend on themselves and the supplies of food and tools they had brought with them.

They camped out at first in the big stable, as the ploughing group had done. But the heavy rains were leaking badly through the roof, which had not been repaired for many years and was full of holes. Near by was the Horseman's House that had been given to the colony. But families of workmen from the big estate still lived in it and refused to move out till the season of mud was over. "For where can we go in all this mud?" they said.

So they turned to the big brick barracks where once a hundred soldiers slept in summer. This also was not built for winter use and had no heat. Its floor was of brick, now badly torn up in many places. But at one end of it, towards the river, there were two rooms with a stove and a wooden door and a basement beneath them. The biggest room was painted bright blue, and they called it the Blue Room. Into these rooms the boys and girls all moved together.

Here at least the roof was good and kept out the rains. But all the windows were broken and the cold winds blew in from the river. Far away to Kvalinsk they must go for glass, and twenty miles of mud lay between them. So they piled straw from the stables in the most sheltered corner (since the bunks they brought from Cherumshan were too cold), and all huddled together under their thin blankets, except when they were actively working. But day by day, as the cold grew more bitter, they comforted themselves with the thought that when at last the ground froze hard and firm, their horses could go to town and get glass for windows.

At last came the heavy freezing, and the snow. Then life that had been immovable, swamped by seas of mud, began to move again along the snowroad. The workers moved out of the Horseman's House, taking with them the panes of glass that belonged to them. But the boys of the colony went to Kvalinsk by sleigh for glass, and began rapidly mending windows everywhere, in the Blue Room and in the Horseman's House.

For a month longer the girls lived in the Blue Room, while the boys had already moved to two rooms of the Horseman s House and were repairing the other two. But, although the windows had been repaired, the Blue Room was very cold. Beneath it was a large, open basement, into which the wind blew great drifts of snow. There was not glass enough to repair this basement; they merely stuffed the window-holes with straw, but the stronger winds blew this out. The cold came into the Blue Room through cracks in the floor and doors and through cracks in the walls around the windows, where the old barracks had settled for seven years into the ground.

In the corners of the Blue Room the potatoes froze and the walls were covered with frost. So the girls put their plank beds together in the middle of the room near the stove and all slept together as closely as possible under both blankets and straw. They took into the Blue Room one of the little pigs that might freeze to death in the stables; the boys had the other two piss in their rooms. All night long the little pig could not sleep, for he also was cold. He went walking under the beds making noises, and keeping the girls awake. One night he found the basket where the bread was kept and managed to open it and eat all the bread before morning. But it was still warmer here than in the stables, so the little pig did not freeze to death.

Colder and colder grew the winter. At last, in January when all the four rooms in the Horseman's House were tight and sound, the girls left the Blue Room and moved over all together to the same bunk house with the boys. The millers slept in one room, the horsemen in another, the carpenters in a third, and the girls in the fourth. Seven girls in one small room, and twenty-six boys in three rooms. They took with them three little pigs and a young calf.

But here also there were troubles. For the heat in the girls room came only from the kitchen. If they wanted to shut the door and be alone, they froze; but if they opened the door then the three pigs and the calf walked around their room all night and kept them awake. And even then there was not enough wood to keep warm always. Wood could be brought from the forest four miles away, and the boys went for it with horses. But the horses were cold and without enough grain to eat; and the boys had not coats to go round.

On bright, sunny days the girls would lend all their coats to the boys, and the sleighs would set out for the distant woods to bring in fuel. But on stormy days the coats of all the girls and boys together were not enough, and they dared not face the blizzards with so little protection. So when many stormy days came at once, the fuel gave out and the house grew cold. Then the girls would sit on the big kitchen oven, all seven together, dangling their feet and trying to absorb the last little bit of heat.

Coldest of all it was in the bath-house and laundry overlooking the frozen river. When the girls went there to wash clothes, they could look up from the steaming tub and see right through the cracks of the wall the ice of the river. The clothes froze there long before they dried, almost before they could be hung on the line. So quarrels arose between the boys and girls. For the girls said the boys got their clothes dirty too often and refused to wash them in the frozen laundry. Even their own clothes they washed very seldom. And the boys cried that the girls were selfish, and refused to chop wood for the girls' quarters.

But between these quarrels they knew that they must work together and help each other, if they were to live through the winter at all. Only three of the girls, Stesha, Garshina and Gudkova, had shoes, and kerchiefs for their heads. But they loaned these to all the other girls, whenever anyone had to go outdoors in the snow. By the time spring came, the three pair of shoes were quite worn out, and when the snow began to melt under the sun's rays, the girls went everywhere barefoot in the melting snow. But even when Stesha saw her shoes wearing out, she knew she could not refuse the other girls the chance to wear them. And however bad the quarrels grew between boys and girls, the girls never refused to give their coats when the boys went for fuel.

Meantime the work went on. The eight young millers with an older miller from the village to help, made a new drum for the mill and mended the silken sieve that was worn by many years of wear and began even in the autumn to run the mill. There were three mill stones, any one of which would grind 7,000 pounds of flour in an eight-hour day. But they had not money enough to repair more than one mill-stone, and this was quite enough. For not since the Hungry Year had there been enough grain in the whole district to give work to all the mill-stones of this giant mill. But now, from all the villages around the peasants came with their stores of grain, and the single mill-stone did all the grinding that was needed, piling up all the time three pounds from every forty for the food of the children's colony. And the John Reed Colony became known for many miles as the first folks that were able to open the big mill at Alexeivka after the civil war and revolution.

Meantime, during the long winter, the carpenters were also busy. They tore down some broken drying-sheds and from them made wooden bunks, just as they had done the first winter at Cherumshan. Fifty more boys and girls had come from Volsk to the Cherumshan Houses, so more beds were needed there also. But the longest, hardest job of the winter was the repairing of the Big House, that lay right on the river bank, with over thirty rooms, enough for a hundred children. Here were many windows to be made, and tables, and benches; and holes in the plastering to be patched, and walls to be calsomined. Almost to the end of the winter the carpenters worked, repairing the Big House.

One day when Yeremeef went on a trip to the town of Volsk, forty miles away across the snow, he met there a fisherman from Astrakan, the fabled Tartar city from the southern end of the southern end of the great Volga River. And the fisherman said: "We have rented some fine summer houses not far from you on the Volga, for the use of the fishermen of Astrakan next summer. And we need some furniture for our houses--tables, bureaus and stools."

Then Yeremeef answered: "Give us the order to make them in our carpenter shop." And he got the order with money paid in advance for material and some tools. So the carpenter shop worked also making tables and bureaus for sale; they made twenty tables and twenty-nine stools and fifty little cupboards and bureaus. And after they had paid for their lumber and paint, they had money enough from their work to buy a cow for the colony.

So, little by little, the colony grew in strength. But life still was hard. There was a teacher who came from the village to give lessons in reading and writing. But when she came there was no school-room, and the girls were lying in bed to keep warm, except for the two who had to get up to cook. So the teacher sat down in the room with her sheep-skin and her high felt boots, and gave them pencils and copy-books to write under the blankets. Even their heads they covered with the blanket, leaving only a little crack for light to work by· That was the way they studied that winter in Alexeivka.

But at last the springtime sun, shining longer and longer each day, began melting the snow. Down from the hills through little ravines it ran away to the Volga, leaving little channels of muddy brown. By the early days of April the snows all over the land were soft with water, and the roads were long lines of impassable mud. Soon the higher land was free and brown in the sunlight, while the waters that had poured from it lay in a great floor on top of the still frozen river, till under its weight the solid ice of the Volga began to break. Great cracks ran across it, great masses of ice broke loose and slipped sluggishly downwards, till under the blue skies of mid-April, the brown and swollen waters ran steadily and unbroken to the sea. And still the spring moved north, releasing yet newer floods of waters to pour downwards into the ever widening channel. At Aiexeivka the river was two miles wide; the low farther shore could no longer be seen across the muddy waters. They rose to the very edge of the Big House and washed the door-steps. The river steamers appeared, going up and down the river, making again connections with the outer world that had been broken during the long winter.

With the close of April the ground was dry for ploughing, and all the old horses and the new ones that had been bought with money from America began moving forth over the new land given to the colony. Twenty horses there were now, and day after day they ploughed. By the time the roses bloomed in the tangled gardens of the old forgotten grand duke, more than four hundred acres lay sown, waiting for the summer rains and suns, to decide the future fate of John Reed Colony. And another hundred acres of good hay land, covered with lucerne that had not been cut for ten years, was given to the colony in recognition of its work. For nowhere, for a hundred miles along the Volga, was there such a great stretch of ploughed land as ours, belonging to a single organization.

The village, also, began to come to us for help. Poor and hungry and cold and ragged as the colony was, it was able to help others. For we had more horses and ploughs than anyone in the village. And the Self Help Committee asked us to plough over fifty acres for the widows and orphans of Alexeivka. In return for this they brought us an order for grinding 40,000 pounds of grain for all the village organizations. And since from every 40 pounds we got three pounds for our work of grinding, we got from our mill in May almost bread enough till harvest.