Explaining away poverty: Soviet residential childcare and social problems after 1953

By Mirjam Galley

Until Stalin’s death, Soviet children’s homes had been orphanages, housing children who had lost their parents to war, disease, or Stalin’s own terror campaigns. His successor Nikita Khrushchev set out to change that system of institutions for good. Khrushchev renounced his predecessor’s rule of terror in his so-called Secret Speech (1956) and, in some sort of ideological rebooting, promised to lead the peoples of the Union to communism within 20 years.

In order to bring up the generations that would ‘build’ communism, Khrushchev pledged to expand the state education system to educate every child according to socialist ideology in state-run boarding schools.[1] However, lacking financial means – and the simple fact that parents did not want to give their children away – this project was never completely realized.

Visit of Khrushchev to a television factory, 1963 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

So, Khrushchev’s policies did not result in an all-encompassing network of boarding schools, but in a network of residential childcare institutions (children’s homes, boarding schools, and children’s colonies). These mainly housed and educated children from ‘problem families,’ orphans, and children with disabilities. They were meant for children who, in the leadership’s opinion, were not or could not be properly cared for by their parents.[2]

Yet, because of this complicated formation of the residential childcare system, its practical aims are not easy to make out. Soviet files from central as well as regional administrations mention three of them: the ideological purpose of turning children into productive, useful contributors to (socialist) society; the provision of social welfare, helping children in need; and the enforcement of public order, of removing ‘undesirables’ from the public eye.

Ideology is the most explicitly stated purpose of that childcare system in both legal documents and everyday bureaucratic correspondence. Several texts are quite explicit about the network of boarding schools being set up to raise the younger generations as ‘the most active builders of communism.’[3] Documents about more specific aspects of

Accepting new Komsomol members on Red Square, Moscow, in 1968 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

institutional education tend to name the values that these schools should convey, such as ‘collectivism’ and a ‘communist attitude towards work’. Children were supposed to work for the common good and help the state,[4] in order to turn out ‘healthy, happy, and useful’.[5]

The second purpose, of isolating unwanted groups of people, tends to be stated more implicitly. This attitude towards the children becomes apparent in different forms of institutionalized neglect. Staff in such institutions worked for much lower wages than teachers or educators in general schools or kindergartens.[6] Agencies in charge of helping ‘difficult’ children individually often just sent kids to reformatory colonies without even meeting them.[7] Explicit statements about isolating children tended to refer most frequently to delinquent children and children with disabilities.

When in the late 1950s a regional Party organization wanted to close a reform colony, they argued that it was too close to an important railway, where tourists and travellers (some of whom were foreign) might see them.[8] In 1961, an internal document from the Soviet Council of Ministers stated that children with a significant intellectual disability should be institutionalized so as not to hinder the parents in raising healthy children.[9]

In terms of these two aims, there is no clear change throughout the years, but the third element of social support for needy families only seemed to occur from the 1970s onwards. A draft law by the Council of Ministers in 1974 mentioned the social function of such institutions, and the Soviet state’s obligation to bring up children whenever their parents could not.[10]

Ten years later, the chairman of the Soviet Children’s Fund Al’bert Likhanov again stressed the responsibility of bringing up ‘state’ children, ‘meaning our common (obshchii) children’.[11] These examples seem to suggest that the Soviet leadership began to admit to the existence of social problems. However, paying attention to the language used by Soviet bureaucrats to describe these problems, it becomes clear that this concession was very limited. For instance, words like ‘poverty’ or ‘social problem’ are never mentioned.

Official documents do not present social problems as a phenomenon concerning society as a whole or at least parts of it, but rather individual families. Awkward formulations like

‘Sobriety – a norm of life’ 1985 stamp (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

‘families in which bad conditions for raising children prevail’ are used instead.[12] The most common term to label ‘bad’ families is neblagopoluchnyi, which in the context of families means ‘dysfunctional,’ denoting in practice phenomena like poverty, alcoholism, neglect, or domestic violence.[13] Common labels for ‘bad parents’, such as ‘previous offender,’ ‘drunkard/alcoholic,’ or ‘mentally ill,’ also tended to pathologise general social problems, or place the blame on individual shortcomings.[14]

These findings suggest that the Soviet leadership failed to admit to the existence of social problems like poverty in Soviet society and, more importantly, to their responsibility to solve those problems. Instead, state agencies tended to blame individual people (for being alcoholics, for being bad parents) for more general social phenomena and tried to keep such ‘deviant’ people out of sight as much as possible.

Mirjam Galley is a first-year PhD student in Sheffield’s History Department. Her doctoral research deals with children in care in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953, exploring both how the Soviet leadership sought to ‘form’ children in institutions into productive workers, and how children coped in these institutions. Her research interests include cultural history, especially the history of everyday life, of violence, and of marginalised groups. She is one of the co-founders of the Sheffield Modern International History Group. You can reach her on Twitter @M_E_Galley.


[1] See for example: Polly Jones (ed.), The Dilemmas of De-Stalinization: Negotiating Cultural and Social Change in the Khrushchev Era (London/New York: Routledge, 2006); Melanie Ilic/ Jeremy Smith (eds.), Khrushchev in the Kremlin: Policy and government in the Soviet Union, 1956-64 (Routledge: London, 2009).

[2] Catriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing up in Russia, 1890-1991 (London/New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p.267.

[3] GARF, f. A259, op. 42, d. 9624, l. 81.

[4] GARF, f. A385, op. 26, d. 204, l. 63r; GASO, f. R233, d. 1471, l. 35; GARF, f. R5446, op. 145, d. 1258, ll. 33-34.

[5] GASO, f. 1427, op. 2, d. 115, l. 32.

[6] GARF, f. R5446, op. 145, d. 1258, l. 29.

[7] GARF, f. A385, op. 26, d. 203, ll. 6-10.

[8] GARF, f. A259, op. 42, d. 2718, l. 3. Evidently the motive behind wanting to close that institution might have been a different one but the fact that individuals thought that this was a valid point hints to their perceptions of such children.

[9] GARF, f. R5446, op. 95, d. 240, l. 17.

[10] GARF, f. R5446, op. 109, d. 1079, ll. 3-4.

[11] GARF, f. R5446, op. 145, d. 1258, ll. 13.

[12] GARF, f. R5446, op. 109, d. 1079, l. 3.

[13] TsDOOSO, f. 4, op. 69, d. 181, ll. 2, 22, 43-44, 60; GARF, f. A385, op. 26, d. 203, ll. 1-2; GARF, f. 9527, op.1, d. 2124, l. 43. Officials either use the adjective neblagopoluchnyi, or even more complicated formulations like neblagopoluchno v sem’e or semei v kotorykh neblagopoluchno s vospitaniem detei, which makes it sound like a disease.

[14] TsDOOSO, f. 4, op. 69, d. 181, ll. 175-179; GARF, f. R8131, op. 32, d. 5042, ll. 52-54.

Full image attributions

Image 1: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0118-0010-027 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: RIA Novosti archive, image #705239 / Lev Polikashin / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 3: Scanned and processed by Andrei Sdobnikov (Personal collection) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons


The Costs of Omission in Soviet Central Asia

Central Asian Studies_AlunThomas1
Photo by Alun, from an April 1927 issue of Pravda

by Alun Thomas

The first complete census of the population of the Soviet Union was produced in 1926. Soviet authorities had conducted major censuses before, in 1920 and 1923, but the former was highly geographically limited and the latter was restricted to urban spaces.[i] Nor had been made a meaningful study of Soviet Central Asia, the region today constituted by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkestan and Uzbekistan. The 1926 All-Union census drew together information from all over the new socialist polity including its southernmost Islamic regions.

A result of collaboration between Communist Party members and scholars trained in the Tsarist era, the census was mammoth in its ambition. Soviet administrators had been unhappy with the results of earlier censuses because, they said, these studies had been insufficiently rigorous and scientific in the way they categorised the population.

This is indicative of the intellectual atmosphere of the early Soviet period: it was believed that objective social knowledge could be utilised to govern society rationally, thereby hastening the arrival of communism.

For example, rather than simply asking respondents for their nationality and recording the response, an approach which produced a dizzying range of answers, the census-takers hoped to assign citizens a correct national appellation scientifically by considering a series of factors including not only ethnicity but also language, lifestyle (in Russian, byt) and so on.[ii]

This was despite the fact that, for many Soviet citizens including many Central Asians, the national category they were assigned was not meaningful. Before the fall of the Tsar, the most widespread signifiers of identity in Central Asia were those of tribe,

Soviet Stamp commemorating 40 years of the Kazakh Socialist Soviet Republic (1960)

kin, or faith.[iii]

The complete published census is a vast and comprehensive document spanning many volumes.[iv] Section one, volume eight; section two, volume fifteen; and section three, volume forty-two all contain information about the Kazakh Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, the second Soviet iteration of the territory which preceded contemporary Kazakhstan.

These volumes offer enormous amounts of data on the population of 1920s Kazakhstan. Neatly delineated into numbers is information on marital status, profession, literacy, gender, native tongue, nationality and other qualities. The figures are valuable for what they reveal, and what they overlook.

Overlooked in particular were the more that one million Kazakhs who still lived a nomadic life in the mid-1920s. As a new PhD student some years back I was surprised to find that there was no ‘nomadic’ characteristic listed here, let alone a detailed division between nomads who migrated all year round, nomads who migrated only twice a year, and other variations of practice. Aspects of the nomadic identity emerge in other categories, such as those listed as ‘cattle-herders’ under profession, but in this instance cattle-herders could certainly be permanently sedentary.

Like all such studies, the 1926 census speaks of the priorities of the regime which produced it. For all the specificity of the Soviet regime’s language regarding class and nationality – a specificity born of scientific pretensions and ideology – documentation in the Soviet archives is frustratingly reticent on the nomadic practises of its citizens in Kazakhstan. What I learned from the 1926 census was that the Communist Party’s conceptual understanding of nomads in Central Asia could be critically underdeveloped.

Beyond the census, in everyday documentation, administrators spoke of citizens who were ‘settled-agricultural’, ‘agricultural semi-settled,’ ‘cattle-herding semi-nomadic,’ and ‘nomadic with cattle-herding’ in an abortive attempt to communicate the breadth and

Eurasian Steppe in Altyn Emeil National Park, Almaty Region, Kazakhstan. Photograph: Walton Lloyd Burns (via WikiMedia Commons)

diversity of lifestyles and practises in evidence in Central Asia, before eventually succumbing to a crude dichotomy between ‘nomadic’ and ‘agricultural’ for the purposes of taxation, social provision and economic planning.[v] By so diminishing the social realities of the Kazakh Steppe, the Communist Party lost any real opportunity – assuming it was sought – to govern nomadic peoples with humanity.

What were the implications of the census-takers’ decision? Collectivisation of the rural economy came earlier to Kazakhstan than elsewhere in the Soviet Union and the impact of the campaign was profound. Astonishing numbers of Kazakhs, many of them nomads, starved to death or succumbed to epidemics as a result of the state’s actions.[vi]

Part of the justification for the brutal treatment of Kazakhstan’s nomads submitted by Filipp Goloshchekin, then First Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party, was that the inherent poverty of the nomadic lifestyle necessitated decisive action to save nomads from a cycle of deprivation.[vii] Poverty there was in evidence, but this was partly a product of the state’s mismanagement, precipitated by a stubborn refusal to speak of nomadism as a nuanced social reality in census data and elsewhere.

Alun Thomas is currently Lecturer in Russian History at Nottingham Trent University. His first monograph, Nomads and Soviet Rule: Central Asia from Lenin to Stalin, is forthcoming and will be published by I. B. Tauris. Find him on Twitter @AlunR_Thomas


[i] Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005), pp. 105-107.

[ii] Francine Hirsch, “The Soviet Union as a Work-in-Progress: Ethnographers and the Category Nationality in the 1926, 1937 and 1939 Censuses,” Slavic Review 56, no. 2 (1997), pp. 251-278.

[iii] Marianne Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling under Communism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), p. 62.

[iv] A complete printed copy of the multivolume census can be found in Oxford’s Bodleian library.

[v] Tsentral’nyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Respubliki Kyrgyzstan (TsGARKy) fond 847, opis 1, delo 14, list 13; Tsentral’nyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Politicheskoi Dokumentatsii Kyrgyzstanskoi Respubliki (TsGAPDKR) f. 10, op. 1, d. 33, l. 99.

[vi] Gulnar Kendirbaeva, “Migrations in Kazakhstan: Past and Present,” Nationalities Papers 25, no. 4 (1997), pp. 741-751.

[vii] Talas Omarbekov, Golomodor v Kazakhstane: prichiny, masshtaby i itogi (1930-1931 g.g.) (Almaty: Kazakhskii Natsional’nyi Universitet im. Al’-Farabi, 2009), p. 77.

Full image attribution for image 3: By Walton Lloyd Burns (en:User:KZblog) (en:File:AltynEmeil.jpg) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


‘It is not the Maghreb that Islamised itself… It is Islam that maghrebised itself’

By Imen Neffati

Located on the Western tip of the Arab world, Tunisia shares with Algeria and Morocco certain historical and cultural characteristics. They are all Arab Islamic societies of Berber ancestry. They all experienced a period of French colonization before becoming independent nation-states in the mid 1950s to the early 1960s. And, crucially, nowhere in the Maghreb was there a broad-based, grassroots women’s movement demanding the expansion of women’s rights; rather, such action came from the top.[1]

President Habib Bourguiba (Source: Wikicommons)

In Tunisia, national family law took the form of the Code of Personal Status (CPS) in 1957, a series of progressive laws aiming to establish equality between women and men in the public and the private domains, and instituted by Habib Bourguiba, the first President of Tunisia after independence in 1956. [2]

The Code, drafted (even before the Constitution) by fifteen jurists —all Arabic speakers, under the supervision of the Minister of Justice Ahmed Mestiri— outlawed polygamy and abolished repudiation. It entitled women to file for divorce on the same grounds as men, and increased mothers’ custody rights. In the years following independence, women obtained the right to work, move, open bank accounts, and establish businesses without the permission of their husbands. The Code was followed by other endorsing measures: the contraceptive pill was made freely accessible throughout the country. July 1st 1965 saw a law allowing abortion, for social as well as medical reasons. Wearing the veil at school was also forbidden.

High-profile religious leaders protested. A fatwa of fourteen members of the former Islamic tribunal denounced the new policies as ‘religiously reprehensible and incompatible with the Quran’, to which Bourguiba responded that ‘this change represented a choice in favour of progress …the end of a barbaric age and the beginning of an era of social equilibrium and civilization, [we must] fight anachronistic traditions and backward mentalities.’[3]

Bourguiba removes the veil of a female onlooker (image source: ina.fr)

The Code was thus revolutionary, with one exception: inheritance law, which remained unchanged and based upon Islamic principles.[4] Bourguiba yielded to conservative wishes, ignoring pressure from his entourage and members of his government who wanted to reform inequality in heritage. Muslim scholars explain this by looking at Islamic law in its entirety, which bestows the responsibility and accountability on men to provide for women.

Another explanation is that Islam decrees that women, upon marriage are entitled to a ‘dowry’ from the husband (in addition to any provision by her parents). The ‘dowry’ is, therefore, essentially an advance of inheritance rights from her husband’s estate (the CPS clearly kept the dowry as it was).

In 1956, upon gaining sovereignty, Tunisia faced pressure from two authoritative spheres when it came to developing its national institutions: the immediate kin-based community or tribe,and the world Islamic community.[5] I believe that the kin-based structure of Tunisian society in the pre-colonial and colonial periods was an important factor in the failure of the CPS to modernize inheritance/property law.

In fact, until the beginning of the twentieth century there had been a history of tension between whichever social group held power in the political centre, and autonomous local collectivities resisting its control. Pre-colonial states, with varying degrees of administrative capacity, expanded and contracted depending on how much control they could have over tribal areas on the periphery. The resistive nomadic way of life is often glorified in Maghribi culture, and even today, it is not uncommon to hear that whoever has Bedouin blood (i.e., nomadic ancestors), belongs to the authentic core of Maghreb society.

Reflecting on the importance of kin-based solidarities in the Maghreb, there has recently been a revival of the work of Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), who was concerned with what held a collectivity together, gave it strength and power, and prevented its atomization. His concept of asabiyya, is useful for the analysis of Maghrebin society. Asabiyya is often translated as “solidarity” with an emphasis on unity and group consciousness. A more accurate translation, proposed by David Hart, is ‘unifying structural cohesion’ or ‘agnation in action’.[6]

What mattered for the history of any group was the strength of its asabiyya: its ‘unifying structural cohesion’ based on ties among agnates, or male kin in the paternal line. The groups with the greatest asabiyya were those best capable of resisting control by others, including central authority, sometimes even displacing central authority altogether. The French anthropologist Germaine Tillion captures this linkage between kinship and politics effectively, referring to the many ‘republics of cousins’ in the traditional political order of the Maghreb. Throughout the Maghreb after independence, political leaders faced the challenge of transforming locally based societies into centrally integrated nation-states.

As is the case with other world religions, Islamic principles and local cultures have intermingled over the course of history. This has combined with various interpretations of the original texts by religious scholars to give rise to different schools of thought within Islam.[7]

The school called Maliki has historically predominated in the Maghreb because it has been the best adapted to the social structure of Maghribi societies, allowing them to adopt Islam with minimal adjustments to kinship structure so that it conforms to the extended patrilineage.[8] According to Emile Felix Gautier : ‘It is not the Maghreb that ‘Islamized itself . . . it is Islam that ‘maghrebized’ itself.’

Bourguiba surrounded by women (Source: Wikicommons)

As the old Tunisian saying goes: ‘Angels and men work towards unity. The devil and women work towards division’. This captures the culture of kinship in the country. Two contradictory principles have historically operated: a principle of unity, based on ties among men in the agnatic lineage, and a principle of division, introduced by the necessity of accepting into the kin group a number of women from other lineages.

The particularism of conjugal units represents a potential threat to the solidarity of the agnatic kin group, since conjugal units may break away and thus bring division. Many of the social norms governing kin and gender relations have functioned to strengthen the unity among the men of a lineage and to keep at bay the threat of division, symbolized by women. Clearly, when women marry into a different family, they should be restricted on how much property they are allowed to take out of their own lineage and in to the husband’s lineage.

In one of his most famous speeches in Jericho in 1965, Bourguiba explained his policy as follows: ‘It often happened to me to resort to the “policy of stages” when I found myself in the obligation to be the master of certain situations’. Bourguiba is famous for refuting the policy of the ‘whole or nothing’ that characterised the Arab world political vision for a long time – particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

CPS did not radically change the inheritance law but it did eradicate the vision of the family as an extended kinship group built on strong ties crisscrossing a community of male relatives, and replaced it with the vision of a conjugal unit. Bourguiba never pretended to be a radical.

Imen Neffati is a PhD student currently at the end of her first year of study. Her thesis, Beyond Charlie: Anticlericalism and Freedom of Speech, explores how stock themes and images migrate across the anticlerical press, challenging contemporary boundaries of good taste and ideas of radical and moderate politics. She has previously been awarded the Fulbright Scholarship 2012-13 at the University of Scranton Pennsylvania, where she also taught Arabic at intermediate level. Imen has also taught EFL with the Ministry of Tunisia. Find her on Twitter at @Carmen_2505.


[1] Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, argued that family laws in Tunisia were a ‘state matter, an act that must be supervised by public law and society in its entirety’.

[2] After independence, Bourgiba  ruled until 1987. He is known as the liberator and negotiator of independence from French colonisation. He was very progressive, and made Tunisia an exception in the Arab world in terms of liberties. In my own opinion, he turned into a dictator in the 1970s and 80s.

[3] The term ‘fatwa’ means a ‘formal legal opinion’. Although in the West the term is frequently understood as a death sentence against those who blaspheme, its actual definition is much broader.

[4] The Koranic text was clear: ‘A male’s share shall equal that of two females’. Surat Al-Nisaa (fourth chapter) verse 11.

[5] The term “tribe” refers to the social organisation based on kin grouping which constituted the basic community in the Maghreb, where there are entire regions in which individuals continue to identify themselves as members of a tribe.

[6] The tracing of common descent exclusively through the male line.

[7] Four major legal schools have developed within the dominant Islamic Sunni tradition. They present slight, yet noteworthy, variations in legal regulations pertaining to women, family, and kinship. The four schools are also called the four “rites” of Islam. Imam Abu Hanifa of Kufa, Imam Malik bin Anas of Medinah, Imam Muhammad al-Shafi of Medinah, Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal of Baghdad. Religious authorities within each school consider different scholastic interpretations of the doctrine acceptable and trustworthy.

[8] A group of descendants traced through men on the paternal side of the family

Image credits:

President Habib Bourguiba: Wikicommons

Bourguiba removes veil: ina.fr

Bourguiba surrounded by women: Wikicommons