- Review Essay:The Russianists Love Their Children, Too
Historical study of children and children’s culture in Russia and the Soviet Union has burgeoned.1 The historiography has begun to reach critical mass and move us closer toward a more integrated and nuanced understanding of children’s experience and culture in addition to adult representations of that culture. Over the course of the twentieth century, Russian children—like their American counterparts—grappled with far-reaching changes, with each decade or era characterized by diverse childhood experiences.2 Russia’s children played, attended school, ate sweets, acted in plays, and learned to ballroom dance. But, for many of them, the twentieth century was an extraordinarily brutal one. Like adults, children faced family disruption, starvation, arrest, disease, and death.
Catriona Kelly’s book, Children’s World, is a big one in many ways. Much of what this voluminous study of Russian children over the course of “the long twentieth century” contains is new.3 Kelly fuses the best of Western historiography with fresh sources relating to the quotidian world of Russian and Soviet children as well as allegorical and theoretical representations of childhood. “The history of childhood experience in Russia over the twentieth century,” writes Kelly, “is a narrative of infinite variations, of difference according to generation, but also according to social status, to gender, and to age” (570). Themes include the gap between the official and the lived childhood; continuities and discontinuities between Tsarist and Soviet Russia; the degree to which children alternately internalized or subverted official narratives; how children joined the modern consumer world; and shifts in the understanding and experience of childhood over the decades. The resulting work looms large for our field. At last, the study of childhood and youth in the Russian and Soviet context has a cohesive text. [End Page 445]
Taking her cues from the historiography of everyday life that flowed from the opening of Soviet-era archives, the expansion of cultural history, and the reconceptualization of the Stalinist system,4 Kelly sets out to write “a history of daily life as experienced by Russian children over the course of the twentieth century” (13). Although childhood was celebrated everywhere, children’s real needs were often neglected by the state. The state placed children’s affairs at the core of its political legitimacy, boasting that Soviet children were treated with the greatest care. Childhood became a centerpiece for the modernizing ambitions of the Soviet state, which sought to expand formal education, provide an all-encompassing network of institutional care, and intervene in the child-rearing practices of parents, especially where these were seen as “backward” or “failing” (1–2).
“The degradation to which Soviet power reduced its human subjects is not to be underestimated. But in a system where most were treated badly,” Kelly underscores, “children were often treated better than most” (21). The author argues convincingly that the position of children under Soviet power was often “different in terms of degree, rather than intrinsically different” from that of children in other societies. For Kelly,
in the international context, much in the history of twentieth century childhood is familiar—from the dire straits of the inmates at the institutions that were laughably misnamed ‘homes,’ to the progressively greater intervention of the state in education, leisure, and family life, to the reinscription of family relationships in the wake of urbanization and the expectation that children would remain ‘children,’ in the sense of non-productive members of society, for ever longer stretches of their lives(598).
Throughout the West, including Russia, the twentieth century “saw childhood ‘modernized,’ in the sense of shaped and transformed by governments that saw their own role as being to impose ‘modern’ values on the population and to combat neglect and mistreatment of children within the family and within society” (3).
Kelly’s undertaking is an ambitious one. Children’s World draws from an astounding array of primary and secondary sources. In addition to newspapers, pedagogical journals, pamphlets, and diaries, she taps local and regional depositories, as well as...