- A Farewell to Childhood
A widely accepted and common practice in Russia, child labour existed well before modernized factories appeared in that country. Children worked in agriculture, where they performed various types of work according to their ability, gender, and strength, in cottage industries, in manorial and state factories, and in mines. Parents were willing to send their offspring to these various work places, because they saw work as an excellent way of preparing their children for adult life and of contributing to family income.
The middle decades of the nineteenth century witnessed rapid population growth, the emergence of new capitalist forms of production, and the employment of free, no longer bound, labour. Coming to industrial areas with their parents and their relatives or recruited in the countryside by employers, children made up a significant part of this enlarged labour force, particularly in textile production. For many an entrepreneur, child labourers were cheap, better able than adults to learn to work with the new machines, and better fitted physically to perform delicate operations. But low wages were not the only challenge affecting children’s employment conditions; long work hours, poor ventilation, cramped spaces, intense heat, dangerous moving belts, high noise levels, shifting parts, dust and the use of hazardous chemicals (in the match-making industry, for example), work-related accidents, sickness, even death attested to an industrial environment that exposed children to more harmful conditions than the ones they were used to in the countryside and that explained, at least according to police reports, the strong desire of many of them to return home.
During the 1870s, public figures, intellectuals, and even state officials who had, like the parents, perceived child labour as a normal practice essential [End Page 189] for the upbringing and education of children, became increasingly concerned about the potential consequences of these health problems for the security and ultimate wellbeing of the tsarist empire. As a result, they appealed for child labour protection laws to replace the timid pre-emancipation legislation of the 1840s that had lacked provisions for implementation or penalty for its violation. Entitled “Public Debates and Legislative Efforts,” Gorshkov’s third – and most interesting – chapter introduces the voices of those who opposed child industrial labour; indeed, some strongly doubted that the factory was an appropriate place for a child’s apprenticeship and work, while others questioned the moral aspects of employing children in industries. Industrialists also participated in these debates. Not too surprisingly, most of them rejected state intervention, arguing that restrictions on the length of the workday for children would reduce the incomes of workers’ families, affect the labour of adult workers and, par ricochet, the production process, increase the production costs, make their enterprises unprofitable, place Russian industry at a disadvantage to foreign competitors who, to one degree or another, utilized child labour, and finally hamper the industrial development of Russia. These public debates about child labour – a testimony to the emergence and development of a civil society in nineteenth-century Russia – laid the foundations for the 1880s laws concerning children’s employment, work, welfare, and education. The result of an interactive process among state officials and society, the 1882 law decisively restricted the industrial employment of children: it banned work for children under the age of twelve, nighttime labour, and work in dangerous industries; it created a corps of factory inspectors responsible for the enforcement of child labour regulations – a task that proved to be somewhat challenging, “because employers often evaded them with the complicity of parents and children themselves (p. 152);” and it required industrial establishments to allow children time for schooling. Labour conditions for children working in industries did...