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Archiving the Voices of Children – reviewing Stalin’s Niños: Educating Spanish Civil War Refugee Children in the Soviet Union, 1937-1951 by Karl D. Qualls4 min read

 In Culture, Review, Russia
Stalin’s Niños is an interesting account of the three thousand refugee children sent to the Soviet Union during the Spanish Civil War. With so much archival data and accounts drawn from journal entries, Karl D. Qualls magnifies the voices of children during this time with nuance. His retelling of their experiences gives a voice to one of the lesser-known international crossovers during this time. 

When the children arrived in Moscow and Leningrad, some were traumatized from their experience in war-torn Spain, some were excited, many never to see their parents again. In response, unlike the way students were treated in other parts of the Soviet Union, the Spanish refugee children were never forced to assimilate. Soviet educators did not view the children as “blank slates” but rather children who could learn to adapt Soviet ideals and balance them with preexisting practices and culture from their home country. They attended classes together with Soviet classmates but were typically kept apart in boarding schools designed just for them, with Spanish-speaking teachers. 

This book goes in-depth about what lessons were taught and what kind of extracurricular activities, such as athletic training and summer camps, they participated in. Their journal entries are fascinating, and hilarious at times, as they recount their experiences ice skating or eating Russian food for the first time, in the blunt honesty of children. In understanding the schooling of Stalin’s Niños, “we can not only learn about Spanish experiences but also contribute to our understanding of Soviet education and nationality policies.”

The privilege of Stalin’s Niños 

Studying the lives of the Spanish refugee children does not paint an accurate portrayal of how other refugee groups were treated in the Soviet Union. Qualls writes about this paradox: “While the Soviet regime was murdering its own citizens in the Great Terror and deporting ‘unreliable elements’ like Germans, Poles, Koreans, Chinese, Turks, and Bulgarians, it was also spending lavishly for fourteen years to protect and provide for Spaniards… Unlike Polish children, the Spaniards were from a ‘heroic[…]’ diaspora.” The language that newspapers and media used to describe the arrival of these children is cloaked in care and adoration. These “little heroes” represented a promise of the fight against fascism. 

Their privileged place in Soviet society changed over time. “The ubiquitous 1936 recitation of ‘Thank you, comrade Stalin, for our happy childhood’ placed Stalin as the gift giver and children as the grateful and deserving recipient of his largesse. There were hierarchies in the doling out of Stalin’s gifts: urban over rural, party members over non-party residents, and heroes of labor and art over cogs in the machine. Children as a group were also near the top of the hierarchy, and just as there was a hierarchy among workers, there was also a hierarchy among children.” Over time, the students who adhered more to the Soviet ideal and excelled in school and sports received prizes and vacations to the Artek Pioneer Camp in the Black Sea. While the children were not forced to assimilate, the state rewards definitely motivated them.

New home, new skills

According to accounts from both the refugees and the staff that took care of them, initially, the niños refused to clean floors, toilets, and even wash their own food. They did not take good care of their furniture or toys. But wartime conditions changed that. Within two years they learned to communally clean, dig anti-tank ditches, and chop wood. “Teaching political, cultural, and social values in schools was part of the typical Soviet educational system, but with the start of the Russo-Finnish War in 1939 labour and military training became more important as a vehicle to train the body, develop discipline and friendship, and learn how to be bold, resourceful, and successful.”

Since the children that arrived ranged from two years old to eighteen, some entered adulthood right away upon arrival in the Soviet Union. Some were even conscripted into the army. However, one of the limitations of the Spanish boarding schools was the lack of preparation for adulthood. Classes and training instilled a Soviet sensibility but did not prepare them for financial independence. Their privilege allowed them wonderful pastimes but not rigorous vocational training. The government subsidies blinded them in preparation for the difficult life outside. 

After World War II, some returned to Spain while some went abroad. A sizable part of the group remains in the former Soviet territory and has been absorbed into Russian society. Given that there are so many different experiences, Qualls follows their lives and portrays many of their attitudes. He also draws from Soviet media to reveal how the public reacted to their arrival and settling-in. This might be the first comprehensive text ever written about this group of students and Qualls does a great job digging into the archives and following their lives. Anyone interested in Soviet education would find this book a compelling read. I selfishly hope someone writes a historical-fictional account of their diaries like the books I enjoyed reading as a child.

Book details: Qualls, Karl D. Stalin’s Niños: Educating Spanish Civil War Refugee Children in the Soviet Union, 1937-1951, 2020. University of Toronto Press. It is available to buy here.

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