Children of Revolution

V. The Story of Stesha

STESHA is seventeen years old now. She has three times been elected secretary of the Children's Organization in the Colony; she is known to all as one of our most responsible girls. She came to the Cherumshan Houses in the second month of the colony, and helped organize the sewing of mattresses. Because she was so dependable, they sent her also with the pioneer group that took Alexeivka the next winter.

Stesha was one of three girls who had shoes and a winter coat. But she loaned her shoes to ail the other girls when they had to go outdoors in the snow. And she often loaned her coat to the boys when they went to cut wood from the distant forest. Always she thought of the good of the colony before her own. So her shoes wore out and her coat wore out, and in midsummer she fell sick from malaria, and they sent her up to the Cherumshan Houses to rest.

In the Cherumshan Houses she was now the only responsible older girl. She organized the drying of pears and other fruit from the old orchard, so that there would be better food in the winter for the whole colony. She organized the special baking of white bread for the sick children. All the life at Cherumshan she tried to organize.

At last she was well enough to go back to Alexeivka. She wanted very much to go, for I was staying there, her friend from America, and she wanted to be with me for the two weeks before I must go away again. I promised to drive her down in the wagon the very next day. But then someone of the girls said: "But who will manage the drying of fruit?"

Stesha looked at me hard for a moment and her eyes filled with tears. She got up suddenly and left the room; I followed and found her weeping. "I want so much to go down with you," she said, "but it is true, I cannot go. Or else there will be only bread and potatoes and kasha all winter to eat. But if I stay here now and organize the work, we will all have stewed fruit on Sundays."

So Stesha stayed in the Cherumshan Houses all through the autumn months, drying fruit for the colony's winter food. But before I left her, she told me the story of her life, sitting on the covered steps of one of the Cherumshan Houses, while the first beating rains of late August poured down.

Far away in the South Ukraine live Stesha's two brothers and her aunt. But she does not remember any of them. For her father came to the town of Saratov when Stesha was very young. There he died and her mother also, and Stesha was put in an orphan asylum long ago in the days of the czar and when she was only six years old.

The very first thing she remembers is how she came to the asylum and they put on her a long blue dress reaching her ankles and a long white apron and a bib at meals. Stesha cried when they did this, for ordinary children wore short dresses. And now from her long blue dress everyone would know she was an orphan, kept by charity in an orphan asylum. All the orphans hated those long clothes.

But the worst thing Stesha remembers were the terrible long prayers on Sunday. The director of the asylum was a priest and so was his first assistant. He intended that orphan children should be specially religious. So every Sunday morning at four o'clock, Stesha and the other girls went to church without any food. They stood there on the hard, cold stone floor, looking very straight ahead of them at the priest and the candles and the swinging golden censer. For hours and hours they stood, and dared not look to right or left. If any child so much as glanced aside, the director would scold her afterwards. Stesha wanted very much to be a good girl, and she wept when she was scolded. But it was hard to stand still, looking straight ahead, all Sunday morning.

Sometimes in the middle of the morning was a little stop in the church service, and the children could go outdoors and talk with each other; but it was not long enough to go home. Then the service would begin again and last till noon. After that Stesha went back to the asylum and they had house prayers. There was a special prayer room in the asylum for prayers every morning and evening. One of the children read the prayers and the others stood looking straight ahead. Nobody sits down in a Russian church.

Then the children went to the dining room, and standing around the table, they sang a hymn asking Cod to give them food. After this they ate, and they rose and thanked Cod for the meal. Then they could go to their rooms or walk in the courtyard till four o'clock. At four o'clock came evening service in the church, standing again, looking straight ahead, till seven o'clock or later. If there was a big holiday, the church lasted long into the night.

"Nothing in all my life was so dreadful as praying to God," Stesha told me. "We used to hide under the beds to get away from it." This was what religion meant in the orphan asylums of old Russia.

Week days were not so bad. Stesha rose at six in the morning, washed and went to the prayer room for an hour of morning prayers. Then came breakfast and at nine o'clock she began work in the summer or school in the winter. The older girls did beautiful embroidery; they sat in their room all day long doing it, and the asylum sold it for them, and put the money in a bank for them to have when they grew up and got married. After lunch the children were allowed to go out in the courtyard, but never in the street. Life was like a prison without any freedom. But the children were so used to it that they hardly minded it. Then in the evening they stood for an hour at evening prayers in the prayer-room, and went to bed.

Stesha remembers very clearly the time when the czar fell, though she was only nine years old. The old priest told it to the children in a frightened whisper. He said they must pray and pray very hard for the czar to come back, or nobody knew what terrible things might come to pass in the world without the czar. There might be earthquakes and fires and floods and the end of the world! Stesha was terrified and she wept every night and prayed for the czar to come back.

Then came the real revolution. There was shooting in the streets; the children could hear it. The frightened old priest gathered them all together in the cellar and there they stayed all day in terror, praying to God and weeping. At night the shooting stopped and they came upstairs to sleep. But they could look from the windows and see the red glow of fires where buildings were burning. They knew that this was the end of the world that the priest told them about. So they wept and prayed God not to send them to hell. Next morning they ran to the cellar again when the shooting began. This they did for three days and nights. Once a bullet came through the upstairs of their house.

But for all that the end of the world did not come. On the third day the shooting stopped, and everything was quiet again. Only now the director was even more terrified for he said there was a new government of Bolsheviks and they were sure to do something bad. And after a week there came some men from the new government to the orphan asylum and took the director away. At this the children cried again, for they were used to the director and he had filled them with such fear that they did not know whether the end of the world might not after all be coming.

And then a tall young Bolshevik stepped over to the children, and put his hand on the shoulder of one of them. "Don't cry, kids," he said, "we'll send you a better director, and you can wear short dresses and not pray to God any more." After this they all stopped crying.

And sure enough, a new director came, and gave them all short dresses. And they did not have to go any more to church. They were just like other children. All at once there was freedom; everyone could do as she pleased. Only no one knew how to act, for they had been used all their lives to obeying orders, and doing only what they were told, and believing whatever was said to them.

So now at first there was very much disorder. Every girl got up in the morning when she wished, or stayed in bed if she preferred. Sometimes the breakfast was ready and sometimes it wasn't. The girls who had always helped in the kitchen and in the bed-making suddenly decided that they wouldn't do it any more. And the girls who had always been most orderly, began throwing their clothes about, just to see if they could do it. And the whole house got so dirty that no one could keep it clean. Even the servants and teachers couldn't clean up as fast as the girls got it dirty.

But after a little while the girls began to say to each other that this was no way to live. Then some organizers came from the Education Board and called a meeting of the children. And they said: "We are going to organize self-government. You must choose your own Children's Committee to govern the life of the home, and your own Children's Court to keep order. And if any girl does anything wrong, she must be brought before the Children's Court and punished. For you cannot all live together in comfort without order."

So now for a time all went well. But now there began to be more and more children in the children's homes, for everywhere in the land was fighting, and hundreds of thousands of people dying of war and diseases. And the children's homes in the city of Saratov got very crowded. At first they took houses of rich people who had run away from the Revolution, and put the children in these new houses. But there were not enough of these, because the fighting had destroyed many houses. Besides, the cost of food in the city kept going higher and higher.

When at last there were twenty-one children's homes in that one city, they began sending them out into the country, where they could live more cheaply in the big estates of the former nobles. So Stesha was sent away to a fine farm seventy miles away across the River Volga.

And now came the Hungry Year! But, strange to say, Stesha was not hungry. For a thousand miles around people were dying of famine, and the farm where she was staying was in the very center of the worst part of it. But it was an irrigated farm, far away in the hills and it had fine gardens. There was plenty of food on this farm, when everywhere else people died of hunger. The children on this farm would not believe that there was a Hungry Year.

So they took the children on an excursion to see the terrible things that were happening in the land. Stesha went to the town of Kvalinsk and she saw people dropping in the streets from hunger. She saw them shoveled into a great grave, a hundred or more people together; for there was no time or strength to bury so many dead separately.

After the Hungry Year the children's home where Stesha lived was closed, and she came to John Reed Colony. Already there were fourteen boys and girls who had been making wooden bunks and tables. But now Stesha, who knew much about sewing, began to help organize the sewing of mattresses. She took two worn sacks of burlap, that the peasants used to carry grain to market, and put them together for mattresses filled with straw. The girls also made two sets of underwear all around, and then they heard that there would be more children in the spring, so they began making underwear for them also.

"Life was good in the colony that first winter," says Stesha. "For there was only a small number and we were friendly like a family. The fighting between the boys and the girls had not started. For there was plenty of soap from the Quakers and the boys did not get their clothes so dirty in winter. So they did not blame the girls for dirty clothes, and the girls did not blame them either. Also we had sugar to eat, the first time in two years, and cocoa and fat. Until spring we had plenty to eat, and life was good. But then Saratov sent us too many children and no food. And we were hungry again and without soap for washing. And the boys and girls began to hate each other. Because the undershirts were not enough, and the boys would not give them to be washed till they were too dirty, and there was no soap, so the shirts wore out with much rubbing. And after every washing there were shirts that had turned to a heap of rags. Then the boys called out: 'Give us a shirt,' to the laundry girls; and the girls ran away and wept, because they had no shirts to give.

"It is easy to organize order when there is only a little family. But when there is a whole commune of a hundred children, then it is very hard. When you are all in a few rooms together, you can see every moment what happens to the sheets and the shirts and the lamps. Then people take care of things because others see them. But to make order, and to have people take care of things that belong to a big commune is much harder. I think it is the hardest thing there is. But also the most important. For if we cannot live together in peace and order in a commune of one hundred children, how will we ever build the Great Commune, of all the people in the Soviet Union, and some day of all the people in the world?"

This is the problem that worries Stesha, who is secretary of our Children's Committee. When there were only twenty-two boys and seven girls, they already elected the Orkom (the Committee of the Organization), and the Children's Court and the Committee on Civic Instruction. For a whole year Stesha was secretary of the Orkom, the highest committee in the colony, and Nazipaef, the young miller, was president. Then Vera said: "Why should those two have all the chance to learn how to run public affairs? We also want to take our turns in offices."

The children's assembly elected Vera then, and gave her a chance to be secretary. But after a month, they didn't like the way she worked, and they tried someone else. This time it failed also, so again they elected Nazipaef and Stesha for another year. For Nazipaef also did his work well and the boys listened to his advice.

It was not till after I left Stesha that I learned the tragedy that has come to her personally. For she talked so much of the life of the colony that she quite forgot to mention her own life at all. But down in Alexeivka they told me how in the long cold months of winter, crowded all together under their heaped up straw and blankets in a single room, Stesha had got trachoma from another girl who had it. So she must leave the colony and go for a long time to a special hospital in Saratov where her eyes can be cared for. And her heart, too, is not very good. The doctors say it comes from nerves, because she has worried so much over the disorder in the colony, trying to make things better. He says if she has good food and rest in a place where she does not feel responsible, her heart will be soon well again. But Stesha is one of those girls who will always feel responsible for others. Not till she sees the whole colony at peace and happy will she herself be able to be happy and at peace.