‘Road to Life’ by Anton Makarenko

The Key Texts are the classics from the past, which helped to shape today’s services. Some are books, some are research reports, some are papers or chapters in books and one is a Government policy document. We have selected a score of texts, and are offering a “digested read”. They are being published at a rate of two a month. The digests cover a standard pattern, setting the context of the text, describing its contents, analysing its impact then and its relevance now, and suggesting further reading.

The digests prepared to date have been written by Robert Shaw, but if any reader wishes to contribute, please get in touch, to ensure that we have not already prepared a digest on the text in question. We are pleased to announce that the series is sponsored by the Scottish Institute for Residential Child Care, and we are most grateful to them for their support.

Anton Makarenko (1936) Road to Life Translated by Stephen Garry London: Stanley Nott

In Road to life (Pedagogicheskaia poema) Anton Makarenko (1888-1939) tells the story of his struggle to make sense of the theory he had been taught and to put it into practice in a home for young people who were at the end of the road between 1920 and 1923 in Ukraine. At the time the Bolsheviks were still mopping up the opposition and there was widespread suffering and food shortages. His ideas became the foundation for child care in eastern Europe.

Key Ideas

  • Staff must have personal boundaries.
  • Staff must insist on certain standards.
  • Staff must share the life of the residents.
  • Punishments have a place in child care.
  • Young people who run away or are expelled should normally be given another chance.
  • Coercion may sometimes need to be used.
  • A young person’s past should never affect your response to them in the present.
  • Young people respond positively to opportunities to operate in groups and to be leaders.


This summary of Road to Life is based on Stephen Garry’s 1936 translation which treats the book as autobiographical. Later translations, made after Makarenko’s death, present the book more as a work of fiction.

In the ‘Prologue‘ he describes how, as a newly qualified teacher in 1920, he was just told to get on with the job.

In Chapter I ‘An inauspicious beginning’, he visits the old home on the road to Kharkiv in Ukraine which had been left abandoned in 1917 and subsequently looted and meets the business manager, Kalina, and the two women teachers who have been appointed to his staff. The first six pupils arrive and he gives them a speech on the new socialist life. However, they completely ignore him and do what they want; one of them is arrested for robbery and murder. Over the first few months things do not improve; he reads all he can to find out what to do.

One day he asks Zadorov to chop some wood for the kitchen; when he replies, “Go and do it yourself” – the first time he had actually spoken disrespectfully – Makarenko strikes him on the cheek and sends him flying. “Forgive me”, Zadorov says. After this Makarenko insists they all work and Zadorov quietly says, “That was good”, referring to the way Makarenko had hit him.

In Chapter II ‘Some elemental necessities’, the lads respond to his insistence on discipline and, while one of his fellow teachers criticises Makarenko for abandoning socialist principles, the other cannot understand why boys have so much affection for him. He argues that, in taking a personal risk (he could have been sacked) rather than expelling them, he has convinced them that he wants to do something for them.

In February 1921 15 more boys arrive and by March the total had risen to 30; by this time they had been joined by a married couple and a housekeeper and had succeeded in repairing two dormitories as well as accommodation for staff. But they lack clothing which wears out because of the work the boys are doing. He keeps trying to raise the rations allocated to the home and sends carefully worded begging letters to other sources of food.

The boys steal fish from nets until one boy steals the nets as well and the villagers placed guards on the nets. The same boy ‘acquires’ some nets and initially begins fishing for himself and a few cronies; when Makarenko finds out, he insists on him sharing his catches with the whole home.

Some boys also ‘acquire’ food on shopping trips; in fact, the staff are just as badly off as the boys because their wages were often not paid.

In Chapter III ‘An internal operation’, some money is taken from his box but ‘found’ when Makarenko asks the boys to return it. However, thefts continue with some boys arguing they should hire guards; things come to a head when various things are stolen from the housekeeper and the thief turns out to be a boy Makarenko had not suspected; at the ‘People’s Court’ the boys get very angry as everything comes out; the culprit confesses, is sentenced to three days solitary confinement with bread and water and never steals again.

In Chapter IV ‘Work of national importance’, they respond to the general state of lawlessness by setting up a military style operation to keep the road clear; they are also asked to become forest rangers, preventing unauthorised tree felling.

In Chapter V ‘We capture an iron cistern’, while in patrolling the forest, they come across an abandoned house which has a cistern; after fruitless applications to be given the cistern, they apply to have the whole estate and are granted it.

In Chapter VI ‘Even a flea has its points’, they acquire a horse after a horse thief is caught but the owner cannot be traced, and the local smith becomes an instructor. A carpenter-instructor arrives and a wheelwright on the run from his wife takes refuge with them and is protected from her by the boys. The wheelwright’s shop which he sets up brings in money to the home.

Numbers increase as the civil war comes to an end.

In Chapter VII ‘Character and culture’, Makarenko remarks on how few runaways they had and puts this down to the fact that most of the young people were not homeless but former members of gangs. Over the first winter there are quite a lot of fights until he collects in all the knives and later expels one boy for using a knife; however, when the boy returns a month later, he is allowed to stay.

In Chapter VIII ‘Chivalry still lives in Ukraine’, he deals with the problem of drinking among staff and boys by getting permission to destroy all the illicit stills in the area (which the boys know about anyway) and breaks up a gambling ring among the young people (now including girls) after a boy runs away because of his debts.

In Chapter IX ‘Heroes of social education’, he describes how he insisted on staff eating with the young people, one of the games they played and how things gradually improved. In addition to teaching duties, every day one member of staff is in overall charge, one is responsible for work and one for the evening activities when they play games, tell stories or read books. It is through reading the stories of Gorki and his life that they decide to adopt the name ‘Gorki home’ without his permission.

They also acquire a nurse who looks after the younger boys and to whom the older boys respond by sharing in their care.

In Chapter X ‘The battle of Osier Lake’, a confrontation between some boys from the home and three drunk villagers is eventually settled in the boys’ favour.

In Chapter XI ‘A victorious chariot-ride’, over the summer their second home is gradually repaired and its fields cultivated. However, some local officials are unhappy about the home’s assignment to Makarenko’s home because they had ‘appropriated’ the land belonging to the abandoned house. After the boys ‘capture’ their sower and there is a fight, the officials finally agree to the home’s ownership of the land,

In Chapter XII ‘Bratchenko and the District Food Commissioner’, one of the boys, Bratchenko, who has made himself responsible for the horses, finds in early 1922 that there is no food for the horses; so he persuades the villagers to pay their food tax in the form of hay for the horses (as they are state animals); though Makarenko fears the worst when the Commissioner comes to investigate, Bratchenko captivates him and no further action is taken.

In Chapter XIII ‘A difficult problem’, the arrival of a number of Jewish boys in autumn 1921 is followed by serious bullying which comes to light when one boy attacks two Jewish boys; Makarenko is so incensed he has to be restrained by Zadorov. The chief culprit is sentenced to four days bread and water and leaves afterwards.

In Chapter XIV ‘A neighbourly exchange of inkpots’, Makarenko describes how this incident created a deep sense of depression in him. However, the culprit eventually asks to return and is later involved in an incident when local youths start shooting at the young people from the home because the local girls fancy them more than locals; the boys from the home retaliate and in the subsequent fight the local village hall is destroyed. But, when the local official comes to sort things out, he wants a low key solution because the village youths should not have had the guns anyway.

In Chapter XV ‘Ours was the finest’, the teachers encourage one girl to study with a view to attending the local college which she does for six months over the winter of 1922-23; however, she has a liaison with a boy who had been expelled for, among other things, planning to rob the home and there are various allegations that she is pregnant all of which she denies. When a dead baby is found in her room, she says that she strangled it at birth when it started to cry, to avoid disturbing other girls, though not everyone believes her. She gets an eight-year suspended sentence and is returned to the home but the other girls ask for her to be removed. So Makarenko gets her a job in an underwear factory; she later meets and marries someone else and thanks Makarenko for standing by her.

In Chapter XVI ‘Oatmeal soup’ there is an outbreak of typhus fever from which all those affected recover.

In Chapter XVII ‘Summary execution!’ he argues that discipline is necessary and that coercion sometimes needs to be used – an unfashionable view at the time.

He gets into a dispute with local officials when he accepts a boy from another authority and is arrested for insubordination. But, when his replacement arrives, the boys riot over the decision and the education officer sent to sort it out is so impressed by what Makarenko has achieved that he decides to support him.

In Chapter XVIII ‘Alliance with the peasantry’, they are able to raise money by selling the bricks from the old stables at their new home but continuing thefts which are always traceable back to the home cause continuing friction and a series of hold-ups on the road is eventually traced back to a boy who is then almost killed by the other boys.

In Chapter XIX ‘A game of forfeits’, during the feud with officials at the village near the new home, two boys are caught stealing clothes and all the young people have to apologise. At the time Makarenko looks so depressed that the young people are afraid he will shoot himself.

In Chapter XX ‘On stock and equipment’ they manage to hire three horses for the spring planting, six boys move into the new home and they get rid of the smith for drunkenness. However, the skills of the wheelwright lead to continuing demand for his services and they are able to hire a new smith.

At the end of the lease the horses are not returned and one is exchanged by one of the boys for a reaper; in the end the education officer agrees they can keep the reaper and buy the remaining two horses.

In Chapter XXI ‘Dangerous old gaffers’ though the lads gradually enforce discipline, there is at least one kleptomaniac in the home and one older boy probably stealing everywhere else while the boys are still raiding the villagers’ water melon fields.

In Chapter XXII ‘A surgical operation’ the theft of two bee hives leads Makarenko finally to get rid of the older boy he suspected of stealing everywhere else. He takes another boy with him and they appear to have carried on robbing.

In Chapter XXIII ‘Selected grain’ their first season as farmers has not been as successful as they had hoped and this leads to a period of depression for staff after which he introduces military exercises for the boys.

By August 1922 20 boys are living at their second home with a teacher and Shary, an agricultural expert, has arrived. His quiet, unruffled approach bemuses the boys but he is a hard worker who insists on everyone following his rules which they do.

In Chapter XXIV ‘Seed fallen by the wayside’ Makarenko reflects on the impact of Shary who shows no overt tenderness to the young people.

    I knew very well that they by no means justified the general ‘advanced’ opinion that children only take to adults who are kind to them and fondle them. . . . but if you were brilliant and successful in your work, in your knowledge, there was no need for anxiety: they were all on your side and would never let you down (1936, pp. 236-237) .

The following February the boy who had left with the thief returns and starts working for Shary. Makarenko sends him to collect 500 roubles and gives him a gun to defend himself. Then he sends him to collect 2000 roubles which provokes great anxiety in the boy. Makarenko tells him that he is sending him for money because the others are younger and he is more likely to be able to deal with robbers.

In Chapter XXV ‘Education as commanders’ fuel shortages in the winter of 1923 lead to organising the young people into detachments, one to collect fuel, one to work in the workshops and so on. The leaders are initially appointed by Makarenko and later by the group of leaders; leaders have no privileges over members of their detachment. Later they develop temporary detachments assembled for a specific purpose on a specific day which are normally led by people who do not have a permanent leadership role in order to train them as leaders.

In Chapter XXVI ‘Trouble at Trepke’ the pattern of work begins to settle down and the local villagers and children begin to admire the boys. Unfortunately, the original young people do not want to live at the new home; so it is mostly made up of newcomers. They also have two unsatisfactory teachers sent to them and then one who turns out to be a local prostitute.

In Chapter XXVII ‘We capture the Young Communist League’, though members of the Young Communist League might visit to see the work of the home, there is resistance to accepting ex-criminals in the League and it is a long time before, following an inspection of the home, it is decided that residents can become members of the Young Communist League. Makarenko comments that he believes in offering young people a fresh start and is not interested in their past.

In Chapter XXVIII ‘The problem of personnel’ Makarenko describes some of the problems with one of the teachers he had and how he is able to recruit a PE instructor just by being in the right place at the right time.

In Chapter XXIX ‘The march triumphant’ he takes time to describe a number of individual boys before concluding by saying that on 3 November 1923 they all moved to the new home.


Of all the practitioner texts, Makarenko’s is the most open and honest. He says bluntly that what he learned at college and what he read afterwards did not help him; rather he learned how to deal with young people through his experiences with them. He acknowledges a range of unprofessional actions alongside the more professional ones. Like Aichhorn (1951), he does not flinch from describing the violence that young people will mete out nor from acknowledging that it sometimes brought the young people advantages. However, while acknowledging his own loss of control on two occasions, he does not see violence as having a place in child care.

Like Carpenter (1853), Trieschman et al. (1969) and O’Neill (1981) he sees activities as playing a central role in child care but these are normally under the leadership of the young people (who in any case were mostly much older than the young people whom Trieschman et al. were describing).

He does not avoid using punishments such as expulsion or a few days on bread and water, but only on a handful of occasions in the three years of the book and always for the most serious offences; they are not part of the day to day running of the home. In this he is closer to Carpenter (1851) and diametrically opposed to the approach of Sir James Robertson (Clegg and Megson, 1968) who argues that punishment should be reserved for minor offences.

Even expulsion is not seen as irreversible and every young person who asks to return is allowed to do so. He also acknowledges that he may have held on to some too long because he is an incurable optimist.

He argues that the low number of abscondings related to the type of young person in the home but Millham et al. (1978) found, as Carpenter (1853) had suggested would be the case, that low absconding rates for approved schools were associated with the general standard of care and that those who took back absconders were more likely to be effective.

One aspect of that standard of care is his insistence that staff eat with the young people and have no special privileges, something which is carried over into the groups he later sets up whose leaders have no special privileges over the members of the group.

But in his early, unprofessional, response to Zadorov he discovers a truth which many child care workers fail to understand – if you do not have self-respect, young people will not respect you.

When, at the outset, Makarenko appears to have set no boundaries for the young people, their respect for him slowly declines until Zadorov crosses the boundary into open disrespect. Zadorov knew that Makarenko had acted unprofessionally but what was important was that he had learned that Makarenko had self-respect and he could begin to respect him and, later, protect him from himself during his later unprofessional outburst.

In Shary Makarenko finds another example of relationships with young people which flouts the conventional wisdom, a hard working member of staff whose relationships are exclusively instrumental and yet who, because he never, unlike Makarenko, allows the boys’ responses to him to disturb him, manages to gain their respect.

It is in this context that we need to consider his views on coercion in child care – views as unfashionable in his own day as they are in many circles today. Shary insists that everyone, staff and young people, stick by his rules and, when Makarenko insists that the young people work, he is doing no more than he does with the staff. He is not arguing for coercion between individual members of staff and individual children; rather that there are certain things which everyone in the home, staff and young people, are required to do and that it is entirely appropriate to insist that all members of the home do these things. For example, in some therapeutic communities, both staff and residents are required to attend community meetings.

Unlike many child care workers, Makarenko is not interested in what a young person may have done in the past but in what they are doing now. He believes that, by meeting their needs in the here and now, by setting standards for their behaviour and by giving them opportunities for achievement both individually and as members of a group, he can provide an environment in which they can develop as people. Though he acknowledges he has not always been successful and he has had to take some painful decisions, he is always prepared to give a second chance to anyone who asks for it.

Finally, it is perhaps worth pointing out that, at the end of the story, Makarenko is only 25 years old – apart from the young people represented in Page and Clark (1977), the youngest contributor in this series.

Aichhorn, A (1951) Wayward youth London: Imago First published 1925 Verwahrloster Jugend Wien: Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag

Carpenter, M (1851) Reformatory schools for the children of the perishing and dangerous classes and for juvenile delinquents London: Charles Gilpin

Carpenter, M (1853) Juvenile delinquents, their condition and treatment London: W & F G Cash See also Children Webmag November 2008

Clegg, A B & Megson, B E (1968) Children in distress Harmondsworth: Penguin

Makarenko, A (1936) Road to life: translated by Stephen Garry London: Stanley Nott Originally published as Pedagogicheskaia poema

Millham, S, Bullock, R, & Cherrett, P (1975) After grace, teeth: a comparative study of residential experience of boys in approved schools London: Human Context

Millham, S, Bullock, R, & Hosie, K (1978) Locking up children: secure provision within the child care system Farnborough: Saxon House

O’Neill, T (1981) A place called Hope: caring for children in distress Oxford: Blackwell

Page, R & Clark, G A (Eds) (1977) Who cares? Young people in care speak out London: National Children’s Bureau See also Children Webmag November 2008

Trieschman, A, Whittaker, J, & Brendtro, L (1969) The other 23 hours: child care work with emotionally disturbed children in a therapeutic milieu Chicago: Aldine

2 thoughts on “‘Road to Life’ by Anton Makarenko”

  1. my late father was a Communist and has a lot of Russian books translated into English i work in a school and he asked me to read a road to life which was a good read and thought provoking are there any other books that he might have that i would enjoy reading . sorting through them wondering what to keep and what to give away many thanks Kate

  2. One of the greatest books I ever read! I was brought up during Perestroika and new Russia age of so-called rising democracy and freedoms. Makarenko was not popular neither at school nor college. Like many other good things, his ideas were even mocked and often laughed at as they were so pro-soviet. I enjoyed every bit of every chapter and read it voraciously in a week. Apart from a great story, the book boasts a beautiful language. This book is a must-read!


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