Children of Revolution
PETER MAIN is the boy who drives our tractor. Three other boys have learned to drive it, but Marin has it most of the time. He never gets tired of machinery. He can make the tractor plough eight acres of land in an eight-hour day--land that has grown hard and tangled from many years' neglect.
When Marin comes home from his eight hours with the tractor, he looks around for other machinery to work with. He hunts through the mill to see if they are getting it properly repaired for autumn. He hangs around the thresher to see if the belts are getting loose. If he can't find any machines to handle either in the fields or the mill, he comes around to repair my alarm clock which is always getting out of order. Or he fixes up some of the cheap lamps around the place.
Marin comes naturally by his love of machinery. His father was a mechanic who moved to the tiny village of Veshnik on the other side of the Volga, when Peter was two years old. The older Marin helped run a mill in the winter, and in summer he repaired ploughs and wagons. He joined the Red Guards at the very beginning of the Revolution and marched away to fight the White Guards. He never came back from the civil war: he was killed in some city somewhere. Peter does not know where; he only knows the word came back to him slowly that his father died for the Revolution. It is almost the first thing that Peter remembers.
For the memory of Peter Marin's childhood is very dim. He remembers first a horrible headache that seemed to last forever. After that he was in bed for many months. This was when he had typhus, the terrible disease that comes from the bite of a sick louse, and that raged over Russia together with hunger and cholera in the days of the Revolution. Peter was sick for six months with typhus, and when at last he could work again, the memory of the past was almost gone. He remembered his father vaguely, but he cannot remember anything his father ever did--except one thing: it is burned into his brain proudly that his father died for the Revolution. Everything else was blurred out by the typhus.
So the first thing Marin remembers, after the typhus was over, is one day when he was twelve years old and the Red Army came through the village. There was one long ragged road that ran between the houses, and at one place it opened out into a wider irregular space around a church. The soldiers stopped in this open space and Peter, with other boys, came running to look at them. They were fine looking soldiers now, not like the ragged, dirty troops that first conquered the Volga, for it was the second or third year of the civil war, and they had uniforms and shoes now, and a regular Red Army, with Trotsky at its head. They were driving back the last of the White Guards and clearing the land of bandits.
"Hello, children," cried the soldiers in the open square of the village. "Who wants to come with us?" And twelve-year-old Marin cried out: "My father died for the Revolution. I want to go." Then a big soldier hit him on the shoulder and said: "Come along, kid."
So Marin went with the army. He did not even go back home to tell his mother or to get his things. For he hadn't any things to get. The shirt and trousers of worn white linen, and a tattered sheepskin that belonged to his father were all his belongings and these he already had on his back. And what was the use of telling his mother when she was sure to object? So Marin's little brother of six ran home and told the mother: "Peter's gone with the soldiers." And Peter's mother cried, but not very long, for she was too busy raising food for four other children to bother about one.
Marin was very useful in the army. Four other boys from the village also went with him; there were in all fifteen youngsters with a thousand soldiers. The boys were never given rifles or revolvers, but they did the most dangerous work of scouting. When the soldiers drew near to the enemy and did not know in what village he lay in ambush, then Marin and the other boys went to look the ground over.
In their worn linen suits they wandered into the villages, played with the village boys, mixed with the crowds in the markets and listened to what was going on. Russia had many wandering orphans asking for bread, and no one paid much attention to them. Then in the evening Marin would slip out of the village and make his way back to the army and report what he had learned. When the time for fighting came, the soldiers shooed the boys out of the way.
"Get to the rear, kids," they ordered. "There's going to be shooting." Marin wanted very much to see the shooting, but he knew that orders are orders in an army, and he always obeyed.
So Marin doesn't think he really saw the war at all, or was in any danger. When I ask him if it was dangerous being a scout, he laughs at the idea. "Dangerous going into villages like the one he was born in? What danger could be in that?" "But if the enemy had known who you were and what you were doing?" "Oh, then of course they would have shot me," he says. "But how could they ever find out? I was away and on to the next village. I never went back to the same village twice."
After eleven months the fighting was over in the district where Marin served. He went back home to his mother and she scolded him for running away and asked why he had gone. "Oh, just to see and know," said Marin. "My father, too, died for the Revolution."
And now, at home, Marin began working in earnest. He was thirteen and oldest man in a family of six. The land of the lord who once owned the village was now empty and unploughed for the Revolution had driven the lord away and taken his land. So Marin's mother went to the Land Committee and told them that she was the widow of a soldier who died for the Revolution, and that even her little boy of twelve had fought in the Red Army, and she asked for land for her family. They gave her ten acres.
On these ten acres Marin ploughed and raised grain. It was very heavy work for a boy of thirteen and he worked far beyond his strength. In the fall of the year, lifting many times the heavy wooden fork loaded with grain, he at last strained his wrist. Even now when he bends it a certain way, you can hear it crack.
But all this heavy work did not save Marin and his family. For the Hungry Year came next to the Volga. With it came cholera in the summer, and Marin's mother caught it. "It finished her off quick in two weeks," says Marin. "For cholera is a proper disease that kills quick and sure." And now the food began to fail in the house where Marin lived with his five brothers and sisters. For Marin's work on the land was not as good as a grown man's, and so his harvest was even smaller than the other peasants'. There was so much hunger in Marin's village that people ate other people. But there was a young peasant living near them who had food enough for himself and one more person. He wanted Marin's older sister for his wife, so she went to live with him. And after that the rest of the children were put in a children's home in the town of Kvalinsk.
Two years he lived in the children's home and in all that time he never tasted butter or sugar. There was only black sour bread and not enough of that. But Marin learned to read and write in the home, and that was something. Then he was sixteen and they turned him out and told him he must shift for himself now, for there were many younger children who needed to be fed.
Back Marin went to his home across the river. But now he could no longer farm his land, since he had neither horse nor cow. He went to work for a peasant who wanted an extra farm hand. All year he worked for the peasant but he never got any wages. Just some more black sour bread and a dirty second-hand shirt. But for all that Marin liked it better than in the children's home.
"For I wanted to work," he tells me. "I can't sit without work. My head turns round and I get dizzy if there isn't any work to do. It was dreadful in the children's home, just sitting and sitting. They taught you reading and writing, but that was all; there weren't any workshops. There wasn't anything you could learn to do."
At last one day, Marin came to Kvalinsk on a market day to sell and buy goods for the peasant he worked for. There in the market he met Nazipaef and Putoff, two boys he had known in the children's home. "What are you doing now?" they asked him. And Marin said he was working for a peasant.
"We are in a colony of other boys, working the land. There we are living quite well now from our own work, and are learning machinery," they told him. "Why don't you come with us?"
So Marin went to the leader of the colony and said he wanted to join. And Yeremeef told him: "Write out an application of what you want to do." Marin wrote that he was sixteen years old and his father was a mechanic who died for the Revolution, and he wanted to learn machines. There was a general assembly of the children and they voted to take Marin in. In the winter he worked in the mill, as his father once did before him, and when summer came and a new tractor arrived at Alexeivka, Marin was already so good at machinery that they chose him to learn the tractor, together with two other boys.
Marin is used to hard knocks and hard work. He takes them all grinning. The other day he had an accident on the tractor. It caught in some heavy weeds and the bottom part stopped, but the top part went right on going and turned over, carrying Marin with it. He managed to jump just in time to save his life, but his head was cut clear open to the skull with an ugly gash mixed with dirt. He tied a handkerchief round it and hiked four miles down to Alexeivka to the little hospital there. They washed the wound and tied it up, and told him he must go to the town of Kvalinsk for proper treatment. So Marin came to my room cheerfully grinning and asked me for his boat fare to Kvalinsk.
To go to Kvalinsk you must wait at the dock all night, for the boat is due at midnight, but it is likely to come any time before morning. Marin, with his bandaged head, lay curled up on the dock till four in the morning, and then rode on the boat till six, and then walked seven miles to the town of Kvalinsk and waited till the hospital clinic was open and it came his turn to be cared for. They sewed up his wound properly, and he walked back to the dock again and spent another night on the way back. He reached Alexeivka at dawn and walked at once to the fields to work. That was the way Marin always acted about any wounds or hurts.
In all the general assemblies Marin always demands that the older boys like him shall have more work than the younger ones. There is always a big discussion on this; sometimes it is settled one way, sometimes another. "I can work all day from sun-up to dark," boasts Marin, "and it won't hurt me now. But when I was little, I sprained my wrist from working too hard and it will always be a bad wrist. And our younger ones now are working beyond their strength; I see them with heads and backs aching in the hot sun. Then they come back and drink lots of cold Volga water and get sick with malaria. There should be two standards of work, for the older ones and the younger ones."
But the younger boys always argue against Marin, for they will not admit that he can do any more work than they can.
Marin and ten of the older boys want to organize their own grown-up commune and have land of their own and farm it together. Marin explained the idea to me one evening. "We are eighteen years old; why should the state help support us like children? But we do not wish to leave the colony one by one to earn our living. We wish to organize a group together. And since we have no horses or cows or machines, let us live for a year more in the colony, keeping accounts of our own work. If we use the horses and tractor so many days, we will pay for it after harvest. Then from the land that we work we will soon have horses and a tractor of our own, and shall build a house and some day get married."
But so far Yeremeef will not let Marin and the others work as a separate group. He says he needs them to teach the younger boys to work; he cannot let all the older ones separate off at once. So Marin has settled down now to work in the mill till spring. "I must be a real machinist," he says, "and learn how to repair all sorts of tractors and machines as well as run them. Then perhaps we can start our grown-up commune here, or I will go to Moscow or maybe even to America and see all the kinds of machines there are."