‘An amoral lifestyle’ – criminalizing female sexuality in the Soviet 1960s

by Mirjam Galley

That the USSR did not turn out to be the utopia of gender equality that some revolutionaries had dreamt of in 1917 can no longer really surprise anyone. A glimpse into how the Soviet authorities dealt with juvenile delinquency allows us to fathom the extent to which boys and girls were thought of and treated differently. Looking at how deviance and sexuality were addressed in the 1960s also point to the limits of so-called ‘liberalization’ under Nikita Khrushchev.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet leaders were left with a difficult legacy. His successor Khrushchev had to find a way of reinventing Soviet socialism and removing the taint of Stalinist terror. To prevent the destabilization of the Soviet regime, Khrushchev needed to come up with a way to ensure public order and impose certain norms of behaviour without ubiquitous state terror.

The Soviet 1960s were shaped by a fear of deviance, a fear which was rekindled time and again by actual or perceived waves of juvenile crime. These fears were predominantly evoked around the image of unsupervised youths hanging out in the streets, in staircases, and in the dvory (courtyards), where they were thought to be drinking, smoking, and gambling, all seen as gateways into delinquency and crime.[1]

These anxieties were often personified by the ‘hooligan.’[2] The ‘hooligan’ was the concept most widely invoked in Soviet society to label deviant behaviour. As Brian LaPierre has shown, hooliganism was mainly a ‘crime’ committed by working class

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Group of young people walking through Moscow, 1964 (courtesy of CREEES, UVA, via Wikimedia Commons)

men. This might suggest that in the Soviet Union, deviance was ‘male’. A closer look at convictions of underage boys and girls, however, shows that there was also ‘female’ deviance, and that Soviet notions of delinquency and deviance were deeply gendered. Archival documents reveal surprisingly conservative notions of gender roles and sexuality within the Soviet system of justice and even among youths.

At first glance, this seems surprising in a state claiming to have ‘freed’ women and reached the equality of the sexes. Instead, bureaucrats worked with crude impressions of ‘fallen women’ and resorted to victim blaming in cases of sexual abuse and rape. Although there were also girls who committed crimes, it seems like girls were mostly sent to institutions for delinquent minors (reform colonies or ‘special’ schools) for promiscuity (amoral behaviour), or even prostitution – if they could prove that money had been exchanged. Boys, on the other hand, would be sent away most frequently for hooliganism, theft, or assault.

To compare these gendered notions of deviance, I will look at two inspection reports from 1962 about so-called collection and distribution points (priemniki), one for boys in Leningrad and one for girls in Pushkin. Minors would be brought to these places by the police, and wait there to be transferred to an institution. The Leningrad priemnik mostly held boys waiting to be sent to a reform colony. These boys were accused of theft, hooliganism, drunkenness, and ‘refusing to study or work.’ The report also mentions particularly bad previous cases, such as stealing state property, breaking into apartments, organizing gangs, escaping from a colony, and rape.[3]

In contrast, the report about the 11 girls waiting in the Pushkin priemnik for their place in a colony shows most interest in their sexual behaviour, which is vividly described. The girls would either roam around at night or had left home to stay with some guy. The men in question are named as shady people, foreigners (in one case Swedish tourists), soldiers, delinquent people, ‘unknown’ men, people from the Jazz scene – covering every possible stereotype of a bad match for ‘good Soviet girls.’ According to the report, most of the girls were either skipping school, misbehaving or drinking and smoking. Five of them lived in a boarding school, two were students, four had dropped out or were between jobs. Their families (often single parents) are mostly described as drinkers, as leading ‘an amoral lifestyle,’ or as mentally ill.

The report emphasizes cases in which girls exerted a bad influence on their environment, either literally by catching (and potentially spreading) venereal diseases – two of them had been hospitalized for gonorrhoea – or more metaphorically by ‘having amoral conversations in her boarding school’s dorm,’ and ‘tainting’ the other girls at her school. Another common feature is the failure of other agencies to influence or re-educate them, be it schools, factory ‘collectives’, the Komsomol, the police or house committees.

Only one of the girls committed an actual crime; aside from all of her deviant acts, she committed a rather grim act of cruelty against animals.[4] Although the boys and

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Young women walking through Revolution Square, Moscow, 1964 (image courtesy of CREEES, UVA, via Wikimedia Commons)

girls found themselves in similar institutions and came from similar social(ly destitute) backgrounds, they are convicted for very different offenses and could hardly have been described more differently.

Another such case demonstrating the gendered notions of deviance is the conviction of a 14-year-old girl to a reform colony for leading an ‘amoral life style’, which included running away from school and petty theft. The Latvian prosecution chose to protest against this conviction, as the story behind it is rather tragic, and the girl was not known for misbehaving. A 20-year-old man had (illegally!) started a relationship with this girl and was terrorizing her emotionally. When her schoolmaster found out that the girl was sexually active, he persuaded her mother to send her to a boarding school. The man continued pursuing the girl and threatened to break up with her if she did not come to see him at once.

Scared, she ran away from school, stole some clothes to wear, and went to meet him. She was picked up by the militsiia (police) and brought back to school, where the headmaster chose to put her in ‘quarantine’ for three weeks and then had her sent to a colony, bullying her mother into agreeing to this. At the time of the prosecution’s protest, the girl was stuck in a priemnik, awaiting transfer. The prosecutor demanded for her to be sent back, and for the security forces to charge the guy who had abused and pressured her instead, as seemingly no one had thought of this before. The commission in charge followed that recommendation, although this came quite late for the girl: the trail of documents suggests that between the decision to send her to a colony and its reversal a whole year had passed.[5]

The tendency to blame girls for having sex even goes as far as influencing the outcome of rape trials. In the 1960s in Latvia, a rapist was charged but not arrested, because the victim had been a ‘promiscuous’ girl – which is a gross, but sadly familiar, trivialisation of rape.[6] In a discussion about juvenile crime among senior Latvian education, health, and juvenile justice officials, a law scholar considers rape a serious problem amongst minors. He inexplicably links it to the phenomenon of uneducated single mothers, somehow implying that it is the father’s job in a family to tell his sons not to rape anyone, or that such basic moral ground rules require a certain level of schooling. To explain the status of rape among such youngsters, the scholar evokes the case of three boys being tried for raping a 26-year-old. Towards the end of the trial, one of the accused admitted that he actually did not take part in the crime, but asked the court ‘not to tell anyone because it would embarrass him in front of his friends.’[7]

These examples bear witness to an underlying culture of criminalizing female but not male sexuality, and of victim blaming in the case of rape – a culture so widespread and unquestioned that not to rape a girl could apparently be cause for embarrassment.

Mirjam Galley is a third-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] Susan Reid, ‘Building Utopia in the Back Yard. Housing Administration, Participatory Government and the Cultivation of Socialist Community,’ in Karl Schlögel (ed.), Mastering Russian Spaces: Raum und Raumbewältigung als Probleme der russischen Geschichte (Munich, 2011), (149-186), pp. 171-172.

[2] Deborah Field, Private Life and Communist Morality in Khrushchev’s Russia (New York, 2007), p. 22.

[3] GARF, f. A385, op. 26, del. 203, ll. 126-133. (1962)

[4] GARF, f. A385, op. 26, del. 203, ll. 119-125. (1962)

[5] LVA, f. 270, ap. 3, lie. 1982, pp. 7-8. (1963)

[6] LVA, f. 270, ap. 3, lie. 2283, (86-115), p. 100. (1964)

[7] LVA, f. 270, ap. 3, lie. 2283, (86-115), p. 100-101. (1964)

 

Full Image Attributions

Image 1: By CREEES.UVA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: By CREEES.UVA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Educating the ‘Uneducable’: Soviet Deaf-Blind Education and the New Soviet Person

By Charles Beacroft

In 1928, Lucy Wilson, an experienced educator and pedagogue, travelled from the United States to the Soviet Union to compile an accurate account of the advances of Soviet education for the Vanguard Studies of Soviet Russia. In her travels, she arrived to a school for the deaf-blind in the Ukraine and was stunned. She concluded that ‘in Kharkov… there is an experimental school for the scientific study of the deaf-blind which in its ideal, its equipment, its teachers and its results is far ahead of anything that I have chanced to see in any other country.’[1]

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Three children being led by their teacher at the Kharkov School for the Deaf-Blind

Wilson’s amazement concerned the Kharkov Institute for the Deaf-Blind, a school-clinic that remained the focal point for surdotiflopedagogika (deaf-blind education) within the Soviet Union during the interwar period. The founder of the school, Professor Ivan Sokolyansky, who was considered the father of surdotiflopedagogika, had formulated a method that involved the use of self-care techniques, educational practices and mechanical prosthetics to educate previously ‘uneducable’ deaf-blind children.

 

This was representative of the transformative mind-set of social constructivism during the 1920s and 1930s, personified through the proliferation of the New Soviet Person myth. His system, termed ‘humanization’, ensured that deaf-blind children, despite their sensory deprivation, could lead productive, purposeful lives within Soviet society.

Congenital deafblindness is defined as the combination of both sight and hearing loss, often through the catching of tuberculosis, meningitis or Usher’s syndrome at an early age.[2] Children who have not developed language before the onset of their multi-sensory deprivation, face an enormous challenge in communicating with others. They are unable to form relationships or interact successfully with their environment, yet they have a perfectly functioning brain.

Sokolyansky retorted that ‘the child himself will never reach full mental development through his own efforts. Without special pedagogical help, a child is totally disabled for life.’[3] Sokolyansky wished to bring about an ‘awakening’, to create the means for the deaf-blind child to utilise their active mind and develop a method of communication with others.

Before the deaf-blind child could be taught how to speak, Sokolyansky wished to teach such children how to form their own independence. All of his pupils were reliant on others to feed, dress and take care of them before they entered the school. Sokolyansky’s method relied on the formation of their own self-care skills. One particular method,

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A Deaf-Blind man using a ‘reading machine’

known as ‘direct installation’, had the teacher place their hands on the inside of the palms of a deaf-blind child.[4] Together, they would complete a series of activities, such as dressing, washing and eating, so that the child would passively learn how to complete such activities.

 

Over a period of time, the child would eventually take a dominant role and would learn how to successfully complete these actions themselves, independent of their teachers. Sokolyansky was concerned with the creating of useful, industrious children who could think for themselves, form their own opinions and make decisions. His method began the process of ‘humanization’ and lay the foundation for subsequent development.

Language was the next step in surdotiflopedagogika. The ‘oral method’ was shunned by Sokolyansky, and he promoted a teaching curriculum that involved gesticulation, the learning of the dactyl alphabet and Braille.[5] The development of their tactile sense was paramount to the creation of language within the mind of the deaf-blind child. Language would lead to the formation of independent thought and the advancement of their education. With such an education, they could learn to live within Soviet society, free of the confines of their pre-institutionalized selves.

Mechanical prosthetics also formed a significant part of Sokolyansky’s approach to
language development, specifically through his creation and development of both the ‘reading machine’ and the ‘teletaktor’. Both of these machines had developed to allow for the deaf, blind and deaf-blind to successfully have an artificial means of communication within Kharkov.

The ‘reading machine’[6] was developed in Kharkov to allow for the transfer of electronical oscillations that passed through the tips of fingers of a blind or a deaf-blind child, thus creating language through tactile means. Likewise, the ‘teletaktor’[7] served deaf or deaf-blind children and converted sounds into vibrations.

Hence, the child would be able to ‘hear’ their own voices, the voices of others and from what direction the noises came from through the feeling of the vibrations. It was an example of mechanical social engineering and utilised the availability of modern contemporary technology to overcome the sensory impairments of the deaf-blind child.

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Ivan Sokolyansky (left) helps transcribe Olga Skorokhodova’s (right) memoirs

Sokolyansky’s revolutionary methods bore fruit, with every single child within the Kharkov school being able to read, write and communicate (through various mediums) with each other and their peers. Wilson also reiterated how ‘none of the pupils hear, none of them see, but all of them have acquired the necessary basic habits, meaning that they can take care of themselves efficiently, making their own beds, eating like refined human beings, playing and working together happily.’ [8]

One student, named Olga Skorokhodova, became the triumph of surdotiflopedagogika after eventually writing her own autobiography in 1947, entitled How I Perceive the World, and defending her PhD thesis in 1961.[9] She succeeded in becoming a productive, useful member of Soviet society and her achievements paved the way for others to follow in her footsteps in the late Soviet period.

Charles Beacroft is a second year CHASE funded PhD student within the University of East Anglia’s History Department. His doctoral research deals exclusively with the education of deaf-blind children in the early Soviet period. His research interests revolve around the history of disability, social history, and marginalised groups, specifically homeless children and orphans.

References

[1] Lucy Wilson, The New Schools of New Russia (Vanguard Press, New York, 1928), p. 86

[2] David Bakhurst and Carol Padden, The Meshcheryakov Experiment: Soviet Work on the Education of Deaf-Blind Children, Learning and Instruction (1991) Vol. 1, Issue 1, pp. 201 – 215

[3] GARF, f. 10049, op. 2, d. 389, l. 3

[4] Tatiana A. Basilova, Istoriya Obucheniya Slepogluhih Detei v Rossii (Eskmo Punlishers, Moscow, 2015), pp. 88 – 89

[5] Tatiana A. Basilova, ‘About Sokolyansky and his Method of Teaching Deaf-Blind Children’, Cultural Historical Psychology Journal (2006), Issue 3, p. 12; Irina Sandomirskaya, ‘Skin to Skin: Language in the Soviet Education of Deaf-Blind Children, the 1920s and 1930s’ (2008), Studies in East European Thought, Vol. 60, pp. 332 – 333

[6] S-FPS, f. 1, op. 3.2, d. 51, l. 43

[7] S-FPS, f. 1, op. 3.2, d. 49, l. 62

[8] Wilson, New Schools, p. 86

[9] O. I. Skorokhodova, How I Perceive and Imagine my World (Pedagogy Publishers, Moscow, 1972)

Image Attributions

Image 1: S-FPS, f. 8, op. 189, d. 14, l. 1

Image 2: S-FPS, f. 8, op. 190, d. 21, l. 1

Image 3: S-FPS, f. 8, op. 191, d. 30, l. 1

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.

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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

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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

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‘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