Soviet Childhood in the Age of Revolution


A review of Empire’s Children: Soviet Childhood in the Age of Revolution, by Loraine de la Fe.

Loraine de la Fe’s dissertation is an impressive examination of the ways in which Soviet officials used children and childhood to construct Soviet empire in the two decades following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The transformation of childhood was part of the Soviet project to engineer the New Soviet Man, the goal being a thoroughly modern creation, conversant in the norms of the new socialist society and contributing to the building of socialism. Comparing Moscow and the Autonomous Republic of Kalmykia, de la Fe uses children’s institutions (children’s homes, kindergartens, primary schools, and camps) as “the backdrop to explore how…children from different ethnic backgrounds…encountered and experienced these changes in their everyday lives” (p. 2). Relying primarily on discourse analysis, she effectively demonstrates how the goal of constructing a common Soviet childhood found its way into children’s places, spaces, bodies, diet, education, and language. Examining childhood through the lenses of empire and the everyday, she provides a fascinating look not only into the schools, canteens, and activities of Soviet children in the 1920s and 1930s, but also into the evolving policies that designed these spaces, the personalities who tried to implement these policies, and the children they were intended to shape. Challenging the prevailing view that experiences of modernization and Sovietization in “the metropole” and “the periphery” were vastly different, de la Fe argues that convergences in the everyday lives of children in Moscow and Kalmykia suggest otherwise.

Kalmykia became an autonomous republic in 1920, giving it the right to retain and promote a national identity. The choice of the Kalmyk Republic as a foil to Moscow is both intriguing and effective. De la Fe notes that Kalmykia is “particularly useful” because of “its long history of confrontation with Russian Tsarist politics and its unique Mongolian-ethnic and Buddhist religious demographic”: in fact, the Kalmyks were and are the sole and largest Buddhist population in the West (pp. 2; 24). Kalmyks had their own written language and literature, but prior to 1917 restricted education to the small percentage of boys who entered religious service, or an even smaller percentage of girls attending special schools in Russian-Kalmyk languages. Located on the Caspian Sea, just north of Dagestan and west of Astrakhan’, even the climate of Kalmykia differs dramatically from that of Moscow.

An introductory chapter demonstrates just how many threads de la Fe skillfully weaves together in this study. As the title of the dissertation suggests, imperial practice and identity are critical to her project, and she follows Douglas Northrop’s lead (Veiled Empire: Gender and Power in Stalinist Central Asia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004) in emphasizing that Soviet ideas and policies from the center were continuously and alternately contested, redefined or embraced by ethnic minorities on the ground. She distinguishes between Russification and Sovietization in her study to great effect. She builds on post-Soviet nationalities studies on the Kalmyks that are generally critical of Soviet policies in order to highlight how profoundly Kalmyks themselves managed to influence the execution of state initiatives. Inspired by the work of Alf Ludtke, Michel de Certeau, and Svetlana Boym, de la Fe focuses on the everyday as “the most useful category of analysis in understanding the transformation of children’s lives” (p. 9) and as a way to recover the voices of individual officials, professionals, and the children themselves. This approach has the benefit of allowing her to show that this transformation was uneven, delimited, and manipulable. Her dissertation joins a growing number of studies in the field focusing on children and childhood, correctly positioning the Bolshevik creation of a common childhood within an ongoing dialog about modernization that was viewed as essential to Soviet success. One of the great contributions of this dissertation is de la Fe’s effort to bring together three hitherto unrelated objects of scholarship: empire, the everyday, and children/childhood. The remainder of the dissertation is organized thematically into five chapters and a conclusion and includes ten illustrations and five statistical tables.

Chapter 2, entitled “The Child Compass: Space and Place in the Soviet Imagination,” is a keystone for the remainder of the dissertation. In it, de la Fe discusses the importance of building new places – physical environments such as children’s homes or schools – and imagining spaces – “experiences or interactions within any given place, such as holiday celebrations, political conflicts and other events” (p. 34) – that together formed the foundation of “a Soviet childhood no matter where in the empire a child resided” (p. 35). These places and spaces supply the setting for the topics de la Fe explores in Chapters 3-5. A central goal in this chapter, as in others, is to show both the Bolshevik ideal(s) for children and childhood as well as the everyday realities. To do so, the author draws on a vast array of sources from both Moscow and the Kalmyk Republic, ranging from inspector’s reports, inventories, children’s literature, and newspapers to local officials’ notes, school instruction manuals, and interviews. She convincingly demonstrates that the ideal for the metropole and the peripheries was the same: in theory, all Soviet children were to experience a feeling of unity in socialism despite diversity in nationality through rational, modern education and educational places designed to monitor and engender enlightened children. De la Fe reveals that successes in Moscow and Kalmykia were similar, as schools and children’s homes were built, children’s parks and camps were opened, common Soviet holidays were celebrated, and religious venues were re-tasked. Equally effectively, she shows us that the problems encountered by local officials in implementing these plans differed only by degree in Moscow and the Kalmyk Republic: both complained of insufficient funds, lack of adequate space or resources, poor planning, and an inattentive Narkompros. In both sites, some children undermined the plans of the authorities by refusing to cooperate, and local officials had to adapt to challenges from parents. Though official Soviet propaganda by the late 1930s presented Moscow’s children’s culture as more advanced than any in the peripheries (a claim we have largely accepted!), de la Fe suggests there is far more similarity in this experience of childhood transformation than we have been led to believe.

Chapter 3 explores the child’s body as a site for transformation. “‘A Child’s Heath is Dependent on Distortions of the Byt’: Physical Culture, Dress, and Hygiene in Early Soviet Russia” traces the efforts of pedagogues, pediatricians, and children’s institutions to demonstrate how modernity was instilled through new hygienic routines in children. Extending the existing studies in the field that focus solely on the body and sexuality, de la Fe takes on children’s medicine, cleanliness, fashion, and physical culture. These changes in children’s everyday lives, or byt, were expected to be both external (good grooming) and internal (self-regulation). The same standards for “healthy children” were used in Moscow as in Kalmykia, and the author demonstrates that these standards were unevenly met in both locations. Local officials attempted to implement them, but expressed similar frustrations in their abilities to maintain sanitary environments and to deal with ingrained habits and lack of resources. The imperial layer in de la Fe’s analysis uncovers interesting contradictions: though official photographs portrayed Kalmyk children in traditional dress, interviews and orders for clothing illustrate the Soviet homogenization of children’s clothing in the region by the mid-1930s.

The fourth chapter, “Socialization in the Lunchroom: Children’s Food Consumption in Early Soviet Russia,” aside from effectively providing more fodder for the author’s main argument, is simply absorbing and fun to read. Here, the author takes us on a spatial and gastronomic tour of the stolovaia to explore the cuisine and eating practices (e.g. use of utensils, etiquette, and so on) that were part of the common Soviet childhood construct. De la Fe emphasizes food and its provision as an important signifier of imperial health and of Soviet success in modernization and in the protection of children. This chapter makes the evolution of this transformation abundantly clear, as she is able to show us how menus and orders for particular foods changed over the course of two decades, resulting in a fairly uniform diet and eating schedule for children across the Soviet Union by the 1930s. Difficulties in procuring food or maintaining ideal environments for meals, however, plagued officials in both center and periphery.

Language education and literacy are explored in Chapter 5, “Into the Light: Language and Cultural Enlightenment in Soviet Schools.” Moving away from the body to consider the mind, de la Fe considers the “Bolshevik project of language acquisition in both native and Russian language as a way to instill Soviet values and civility among children” (p. 145). We might assume that language acquisition would be one area of great difference between children in the Russian capital and non-Russians on the periphery. The author, however, uses local education officials’ and school directors’ reports to show that both Kalmyk children and Russian children were reportedly deficient in their abilities to speak and write Russian correctly. Both groups had to come to grips with the vocabulary of a new society. Concerns about children’s mastery of proper, Sovietized history and culture were expressed as well. While these were blamed on inadequate funding and resources in the 1920s, the culture of criticism shifted blame for student failures onto teachers, parents and even children themselves by the late 1930s. Alongside a passionate reminder of children’s agency in these processes, de la Fe concludes with the provocative suggestion that the usefulness of examining the creation of a common childhood as an imperial tool might be extended beyond the borders of the Soviet Union to Soviet spheres of influence in the wider world.

Evolving concepts of empire are foregrounded throughout de la Fe’s study. In the chapters on health and hygiene, food, and language education, the author argues that, over time, Sovietization increasingly meant Russification. On the other hand, she also consistently notes that the pan-Soviet childhood did not completely eliminate national minority traditions. The number and variety of voices she is able to bring to the conversation about Soviet children reminds us there is nothing simple about empire, its policies, its people (including children), or its legacies. Rather than a story of top-down modernization, de la Fe suggests a “new narrative of Soviet imperialism,” a “lateral relationship between the different ethnic regions of the Soviet Union, in terms of the development of…children’s institutions and policies” (pp. 3, 187).

Unquestionably, this work will be of interest to Soviet historians as well as to scholars of empire, of children and childhood, and of culture in all its variations. The author’s articulation of the “common childhood” construct will be especially valuable for social historians. Based on extensive work in federal, republic, oblast, and city archives in Moscow and the Kalmyk Autonomous Republic, this dissertation challenges widely held views about Moscow’s unique status in the Soviet experiment and center-periphery relations in the Soviet empire. The Bolsheviks revolutionized childhood across geographies of empire, a process that Soviet children themselves influenced.

Julie deGraffenried
Assistant Professor
Department of History
Baylor University

Primary Sources

Central Archive of the City of Moscow (TsAGM)
Central Archive of Moscow Oblast (TsAMO)
National Archive of the Republic of Kalmykia (NARK)
National Museum of the Republic of Kalmykia (NMRK)
Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System, Russian Research Center Library, Harvard University

Dissertation Information

Florida International University. 2013. 204 pp. Primary Advisor: Rebecca Friedman.

Image: “Pioner lager” (1936), Natsional’nii Musei Respubliki Kalmykia (NMRK), KP 1133/25.

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