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.

607px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-B0118-0010-027,_Werk_für_Fernsehelektronik,_Besuch_Chruschtschow
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

800px-RIAN_archive_705239_Accepting_new_Komsomol_members_on_Moscow's_Red_Square
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

1985_CPA_5686
‘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.

References

[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

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