- Children, Childhood, and Stalinism
The field of children’s history in Russia and the Soviet Union cannot compete with the extraordinary number of books and articles in British and American historical childhood studies. Still, an increasing number of historians have lately been fascinated with the topic. In the field of Soviet history, the interest in childhood studies developed chronologically. First, scholars mostly focused on the revolutionary years and the upheavals of the Civil War.1 Now a new wave of studies has appeared, including articles, dissertations, and monographs that deal with childhood in the years of Stalinism. Many of them focus on the period of the Great Terror and World War II. The three new volumes under review here all deal with these crucial years of Stalinist rule and are focused on children’s experiences. At the same time, they represent different approaches to the problem of childhood in historiography. [End Page 628]
Cathy A. Frierson’s carefully edited collection of conversations with child survivors of terror and war follows up on earlier projects, such as her own Children of the Gulag or Semen Vilenskii’s Deti GULAGa.2 Her new volume is a valuable combination of interview transcripts and a sensibly crafted introduction that describes the historical context but also offers insights into the methodology and possible pitfalls of oral history. The conversations reveal fascinating details of children’s everyday lives under Stalin, emotionally engage the reader, and illustrate the mechanisms by which children’s stories are perceived and commemorated.
Olga Kucherenko’s study discusses the plights of children in the war-ridden Soviet Union. Having authored a monograph on child soldiers in World War II, she now turns her attention to street children, orphans, and child laborers in the Soviet interior during the war.3 The book’s subject may partly be a reaction to the somewhat unfair criticism of her Little Soldiers by a reviewer who questioned her focus on the military and pointed to the supposedly higher relevance of the experiences of street children.4 But taken together, Kucherenko’s two books provide a broad panorama and at the same time an in-depth discussion of children’s lives during wartime. Kucherenko explores a wide range of archival materials and provides detailed numbers and statistics on children in the Soviet interior, something other authors have grappled with.
Julie deGraffenried’s monograph deals with a topic very similar to Kucherenko’s. She too is interested in children’s lives during the Great Patriotic War, but her approach is strongly informed by cultural studies. Thus her theoretical framework is different from Kucherenko’s rather descriptive study, which presents a social history of children at war. DeGraffenried’s argument is based on an intriguing observation about childhood ideology under Stalin: the “happy childhood” ideal of the prewar years did not continue after the summer of 1941 but was instead transformed into a new ideology of a “sacrificing childhood.” This premise challenges the conclusions of Catriona Kelly’s influential study of Russian and Soviet children, on [End Page 629] which deGraffenried heavily draws (as probably all historians of Russian and Soviet childhood do).5 Whereas Kelly claims that there was a continuity in policies toward children throughout the Stalinist period, deGraffenried emphasizes the necessity to distinguish between Stalinism in the 1930s and wartime Stalinism. Focusing on a period that Kelly does not treat in detail, deGraffenried convincingly claims that both the circumstances and the concepts of childhood changed when the Soviet Union entered World War II.
Despite their diverse approaches, all three studies under review have one goal in common: giving children of the past a voice. This ambition and...