Children of Revolution
CONSTANTIN ODINTSOF has two pair of pants! And a pair of sandals! And a new shirt! The boys all gathered round him in his glory when he came back to Alexeivka at the end of the summer, and showed what he had earned as the result of his summer's work. But they said no word against all his new clothes, for he has earned this summer much money for the colony also, driving one of our horses every day for the fishermen of Astrakan in their summer resort in the hills.
For Odintsof is our faithful horseman, and we trusted him to work by himself far away from control, and to take care of one of the horses of the colony. And the Astrakan fishermen trusted him also, to take their trunks and hand-bags from the boat to their summer villa. And when they drove with him to market, they gave him tips to buy cigarettes. But Odintsof saved the money and bought himself all his new clothes. And now he is back in our fields, harvesting the lucerne.
He came to us a year ago at threshing time from the children's homes of Saratov, where he had spent four years since his father died. But long ago, young Odintsof came from the great plains of Siberia, where the farming land runs flat and fertile for more miles than anywhere else on earth. His father had plenty of land and two good horses, and ten children, four boys and six girls.
But there came the great war of the czar with the Germans. And the oldest brother, Vassili, went away to fight. He was taken prisoner and sent to Austria, and for a time he suffered very much in the, prison camps. But then he was given to an Austrian peasant to work on the land in Austria. His peasant boss was kind and had a fine daughter, so Vassili married the daughter of his boss and stayed in Austria to farm.
The war was lucky for Vassili, who fought and was taken prisoner. But it was very unlucky for the Odintsof family that stayed at home. Far out on those great plains of Siberia, the greatest plains of the world, where anyone might think himself safe, the Revolution and the Civil War found them. Cossacks came into the village and rode into the yards of all the houses. In the Odintsof stable they found two fine horses.
"Here are some good ones," shouted the Cossack leader, and began at once to saddle Odintsof's horses and take them away.
But the old farmer Odintsof came out and protested. "I have a large family and I need two horses to plough with." The Cossacks only laughed. But when he laid his hands on the horses' harness and tried to hold them, the Cossacks struck him in the face and kicked him. "Clear out, or you will be shot," they shouted. And as he started to move away, they ordered him, "Give us some oats."
So old man Odintsof gave his oats to the Cossacks, and then they killed his chickens and made his wife cook them. Last of all they took his oldest boy, that was left now in place of Vassili, to fight in their army. But the boy hated the Cossacks and ran away from their army and came home.
Now there was even greater danger for the Odintsof family. For the Cossacks considered his oldest son a deserter. So whenever the Cossack White Guards came through the village, their sympathizers would tell them: "Old man Odintsof has a son who deserted from you."
So they came at night to Odintsof's house seeking his son. "Tell us, old man, where he is," they demanded. Now the son was hidden in a potato cellar close by the barn, and the trap door that led down to it was covered with a heap of manure. So old man Odintsof said he did not know where his son was. But the White Guards did not believe him.
So they beat him on the head and took him out to a pond in the snow and made him cut a hole in the ice. "We will throw you in, old man," they said, "unless you give up your son." But still he refused to tell, so they threw him in, and when he was almost drowned they dragged him out again, saying again: "Tell us where is your son." This they did many times, till he was covered with ice. But he endured everything and at last they believed truly he did not know. And they let him stagger back to his house and take off his wet icy clothes and warm himself again. And all the time the son lay safe in the potato cellar under the heap of manure. After that the son did not trust the villagers any more and went away to join the Red Army.
After this came the Red Guards also to the village. But they didn't take any horses, because there weren't any left, and besides they had captured all they needed from the enemy. They cried: "Clear out of the village. There's going to be shooting." So old man Odintsof and his family took bread and water in a hand-cart and went into the forest where they sat all day and all night while the shooting went on in the village.
Many, many times this happened. Constantin does not remember how many. White Guards and Red Guards and White Guards again were always fighting in the village. But after many years the fighting stopped and life was good again and quiet. Only now the Odintsof family was beggared; they had nothing left, neither horse nor cow. So the mother and her oldest sons stayed on the land to hold it and try to farm it; but old man Odintsof took his five youngest children and set off for the town he had come from years before, far away in the old Ukraine. He did not know that there was even worse fighting there than in Siberia, and that all his old relatives were also ruined.
Old man Odintsof died of typhus in Saratov, and his five children were put in the children's homes. After this came the Hungry Year, and word came that the children should all be sent to places of bread. The two Odintsof boys were sent to Novgorod and the three Odintsof girls went to Voronezh, and since these places are hundreds of miles apart, Constantin has never seen his sisters since or heard from them. For nobody in the Odintsof family knew how to read and write.
Young Odintsof was twelve years old now; his brother was still younger. They put him with hundreds of other children in great freight cars and started them on the way to Novgorod. But the railroads were still badly broken after all the fighting, and full of cars of food going to feed the hungry. So the cars full of children moved slowly. Sometimes they would stop for many days at a station. The weather grew colder and colder till at last winter arrived. And still the car full of children was traveling on its way. Then the littlest children began to die; some of them froze to death and some died of hunger, but most of them died from different diseases that came because they were so weak with cold.
When children died on the train, they put the bodies in a separate car. Every morning they went through the train and took out the ones that died in the night and put them in this car. And then, when they came to a convenient place, they dug a great pit and buried together all the frozen stiff little bodies. And so at last they came to Novgorod where was a place of food. But here too it was very cold; there was no heat in the house. And Novgorod is very far north where the sun shines feebly in winter and the cold, damp winds come in from the Baltic Sea. The children had only thin shirts and trousers without any underwear or shoes. All they could do in the winter was to lie on the beds and shiver under thin blankets. But at any rate there was food and they did not die of hunger.
After two years the Hungry Time was over in Saratov and the children were told they could come back. Another freight train was filled with children and started on the homeward journey. But on the way young Odintsof fell sick with typhus. So they took him off at a station and put him in a hospital.
At last Odintsof got well and they let him out of the hospital and gave him a paper that he could go. But he could not read or write and he thought it was a paper to take him to Saratov. So he went to the station and tried to get on a train. But the station police stopped him and took him to headquarters and asked him what he was doing. He showed his paper to the man in charge, and the man read it through and said: "Well, what about it?"
"It is a paper to send me to Saratov," said Odintsof. "Oh, no, it isn't," answered the man. "It is just a paper that says you can leave the hospital." Then Odintsof found that there were no papers about him anywhere and no arrangement had been made to send him back to Saratov. But he told his story and the police believed him and put him on a train with a proper pass to Saratov.
All this took much time, and when at last Constantin Odintsof reached Saratov, he found that his brother had been sent home to Siberia just the week before. He also wanted to go, but they said: "You must wait till we have a whole party going." So he waited for two years, but they never had a party. All this time he lived in children's homes in Saratov.
At last some boys in the home heard of the John Reed Colony, where they could begin to work for their own living and learn different trades in workshops. Five of them went to the colony and wrote back that they liked it. So Odintsof also decided to go. And when Sergei, the shoemaker, came down to the big city, he took Odintsof back with him. Odintsof wanted to be a shoemaker, but Sergei said the workshop was full. He had only enough tools for six, and he was already trying to teach twelve. So Odintsof went to work in the stables caring for the horses.
"I have been here a whole year," says Odintsof, "and Yeremeef has not once scolded me. Everyone else he scolds, but he says I am faithful and look after the horses well. He would not send any other boy away for a whole summer with a horse, to work for the colony. But me he sent, because he knows I take good care and will not spoil the horses."
For the fishermen of Astrakan came north in the summer to find a Rest House, during their vacations, from the heat. It was they who ordered dozens of tables and bureaus and stools to be made in our workshops. They also asked if we could give them a horse and driver and milk for the whole summer. They paid some money ahead, and with this Yeremeef bought three cows, paying for them partly with this money, and partly later out of the milk. At the end of the summer the cows would belong to the colony.
So Odintsof went to spend the summer in the Rest House with the fishermen of Astrakan. Two other boys went with him, and one girl named Claudia, to milk the cow. Claudia lived in the house with the manager, and brought him his dinner, and helped take care of his little boy. The manager's wife wanted to take her back to Astrakan, but Claudia refused, for she did not want to leave the colony. But she got from the manager's wife a nice dress and a pair of sandals; while the colony got from the milk enough money to pay for all the cows.
The other two boys took the cows out to pasture and fed them. But Odintsof thought he had no work at all. He only had to drive to town twice a day, sitting comfortably in the wagon, and bringing back food for the Rest House. Often when the fishermen went with him, they gave him a few kopeks to buy cigarettes or sunflower seeds. Sometimes he bought sunflower seeds for all the boys and for Claudia, because they had no one to give them money. But most of the money he saved to buy clothes with.
He bought one pair of trousers second-hand but almost new for seventy cents, and a shirt for sixtyeight cents, and a pair of leather sandals for a dollar and twenty cents, for leather is scarce and expensive. Then he got a best pair of trousers for one dollar. They were all of cotton goods, but firm and new.
"It was a very fine summer," says Odintsof. "A pine woods is the finest woods there is. The fishermen's wives who came cried when they had to go back to Astrakan, for it is very hot there. We also had nuts and fruits. But I got tired of it, for I like to keep busy and not to sit around on the hills. As soon as I came back to the colony, I went right to loading wheat, and now that is finished and I am loading lucerne. It is a good thing to see at the end of the day the piles of work you have done.
"Some time soon I want to go back to Siberia, to find my brothers. I wanted to go in the spring, but they would not give me a ticket. And now it is too late. For if I should go in the autumn when all the work is over, then my brother would look at me and say: 'Why do you come now to eat when you did not come to work?' So I must eat here for the winter where I have worked and made a harvest. And next spring perhaps my sisters will come back from Voronezh and we will all go home together.
"I want to study here and learn to be a shoemaker. I told Yeremeef I would not be a horseman another winter. I like horses, but you cannot study when you are horseman. All last winter whenever I thought I was going to study, the boys would come and call: 'Odintsof, get the horses ready; we must go for wood!' This winter someone else can be horseman, and I will learn a-trade. It is not bad to be horseman just for a year, when it is your turn."
A sudden glow came into the face of Odintsof. "Besides," he said, "there will be an orchestra this winter, and they have promised to let me learn to play."