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Childhood in Russia 1890-1991 : A Social and Cultural History

 

 

 

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David Ransel, author of several pioneering studies of children’s lives in Imperial Russia, observed in 1987 that Russia has no history of childhood’. This statement still holds, despite the existence of numerous excellent studies of selected aspects of childhood experience – education, child abandonment and institutional care, games and folklore, and the representation of childhood in memoirs. Yet a comprehensive history of childhood would make a fundamental contribution to our understanding of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. Nowhere, perhaps, has childhood experience been more culturally and politically charged than in twentieth-century Russia, where national supremacy was insistently promoted even in the kindergarten, and where children were themselves pushed to the foreground of political iconography, shown either as future model citizens or as images of the state’s beneficent provision for its subjects.

This large-scale history of childhood in Russia during the ‘long twentieth century’ is intended to synthesize the atomized work on children’s lives that has been carried out to date, to investigate areas that have previously been neglected, and to bring to Russian history the insights that have been made in the important body of scholarship on childhood in Western countries such as France, Germany, Britain and America. The peculiarity of the Soviet situation did not lie in the commitment of the state to institutionalized child-care, but in the self-consciousness with which state intervention was propounded as a benefit in itself, and the extent to which improving children’s lives, ‘modernising’ childhood, became associated with the legitimacy of successive regimes. From icons of Lenin and Stalin with small children, to election propaganda in the 1990s and 2000s urging voters to consider the future of their children, the idea that children’s welfare was the central concern of society held sway.

Yet the preferred image of the child also changed over time. If the 1920s saw priority being given in propaganda to child activism, with the ideal juvenile presented as a precocious political orator and mouthpiece of agitprop, by the mid-1930s, the perfect child was more often shown as the instrument of adult wishes and the recipient of paternal bounty. Emphasis on child protection edged out the stress on child rights that had been the dominant theme in the 1900s, 1910s, and 1920s. More attention to child autonomy came back in the 1960s, but it was not until the post-Soviet era when ideas such as ‘free education’ started to be discussed again on a large scale.

The propaganda notions to which children were exposed, such as the idea that all Soviet children enjoyed a childhood of unclouded joy, and were warmly loved by the Soviet leadership, inevitably shaped children’s own perceptions and views of themselves. Hence, the project gives myths and constructs of childhood their due weight. It brings together a wide range of sources that were highly influential in their time but have never come under sustained scholarly scrutiny: legislation, memoirs and fiction, popular psychology, and literature and propaganda directed at children. The story begins with the emergence in the 1890s of a wholesale ‘cult of childhood’ directly associated with national prestige, and concludes with the collapse of the ‘Victorian’ ideal of childhood that endured to the end of the Soviet period. In between, the analysis traces fluctuations in the Soviet official understanding of childhood’s appropriate place in symbolism and in society, and concentrates on the central paradox (especially evident from the mid-1930s) according to which childhood was at once deemed as central to ideology and as a space beyond ideology. At the same time, due attention is given to the huge discrepancy between the wide-ranging ambitions of policy-makers to improve children’s lives, and their rather modest achievements at a practical level.

Archive materials and oral histories show how children’s institutions (orphanages, kindergartens, schools) often differed sharply from the propaganda images of how such places should function: material difficulties and problems with staffing were persistent. The focus of the study, though, is what might be described as ‘normal’ childhood experience – the life cycle of a child from a solvent, reasonably settled family (albeit one that might consist of grandparents rather than parents, or one grandparent and a parent, or a mother and an aunt, or of relations spread over several generations, rather than the two parents plus children model of the nuclear family). The study pays close attention to the different phases of the child’s existence (infancy, nursery, school, home life, leisure), and to how these changed over time. The emphasis is on day-to-day practices rather than on the top-level policy that has traditionally been highlighted, e.g. in studies of the Russian education system. Here, memoirs and above all oral history are particularly helpful in constructing an alternative view.

 

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