The factory workers in the small Russian community of Nizhni-Novgorod are an impoverished, soulless, brutal lot. Their work in the factory dehumanizes them and robs them of their energy; as a result, they live like beasts.
When the worker Michael Vlasov dies, his wife, Pelagueya, fears that her son Pavel will lead the same anguished, brutal life. Gradually, however, she notices with joy and apprehension that Pavel is turning out differently and that he is given to reading. One day, Pavel informs his mother that he is reading subversive literature and that a group of his socialist friends are coming to visit him. Pelagueya is naturally frightened, but when his friends arrive she notices that they are much warmer, much more gentle than the people with whom she lived all of her life. Though they engage in heated arguments, no one seems to get angry at the others. Pavel’s friends seem full of hope and vitality, and Pelagueya quickly warms up to them. In particular, she likes Andrey, who is bighearted and full of laughter, and Natasha, a frail, gentle girl who reads aloud during the meetings. Others in the group are Sashenka, a commanding girl who loves Pavel, and Vyesovshchikov, the village misanthropist. They are idealistic young people, hopeful about the future of working people and prepared to put their ideas into action. Pelagueya agrees to take Andrey in as a roomer out of her motherly love for him.
Gradually Pavel’s home became the center of their activities, but at the same time the group becomes the focus of village suspicion. Pavel and his comrades print leaflets and distribute them among the workers, spelling out their miserable condition. Soon afterward, the police drop in unexpectedly and arrest Andrey and Vyesovshchikov. Several others are arrested as well.
While the workers are generally hostile to Pavel because of his strangeness, he also inspires a certain confidence in them by virtue of his stern intelligence. Pelagueya is flattered that the sharp peasant, Rybin, an old bear of a man, should go to her son for advice. One day, the workers are notified that their pay will be cut. The workers are behind Pavel when he makes a speech to them and to the manager in protest against the cut; however, because of the speech, Pavel is arrested and sent to jail.
Distressed by her son’s arrest, Pelagueya learns that about sixty others were arrested as well and that Andrey sent her his regards from prison. She thereupon decides to become involved in her son’s activities and takes a job as a caterer to the factory laborers. Under cover of her work she distributes revolutionary literature. Meanwhile, she continues to see Pavel’s socialist friends.
(The entire section is 1115 words.)