Reviewing “A Modern History of Russian Childhood: From the Late Imperial Period to the Collapse of the Soviet Union” by Elizabeth White4 min read

 In Review, Reviews, Russia
Our perception of children is shaped by culture and they undoubtedly shift over time. For a millennium, people thought that children were just tiny adults. Popular psychology shifted and children were seen as blank slates that needed to go to school to learn everything, not that they learned from their parents, and their environment as well. As a schoolteacher, I’m well aware of the backwardness of old-school child psychology but diving into the history of childhood is still a very interesting project that helps us understand and hopefully change modern education systems.

I really enjoyed A Modern History of Russian Childhood: From the Late Imperial Period to the Collapse of the Soviet Union by Elizabeth White because I think it is one of the first comprehensive guides on childhood in Russia, written in English. I think this book is invaluable for anyone wanting to work with youth in Russia and gain a greater understanding of the differing attitudes on child rearing and education across cultures.

Where it started

Like most agricultural societies, children were brought up in the middle ages as workers on the land, with hope to join their parents in the workforce. By the eighteenth century, the Russian elite showed greater interest in the formal education of noble boys. As a result, many programs such as Cadet Corps were established to educate boys outside of the home. In the eighteenth century, Peter the Great and Catherine both had a hand in shaping education to be more about training a boy in self-restraint and self-discipline, traits necessary to become a better citizen. It wasn’t until Enlightenment ideas of child development or the fact that children needed further nourishment from their parents that this did begin to change. White does a great job in cataloguing this history.

Schooling grew in late Imperial Russia. Under Nicholas II, the number of schools rose and pupils doubled, though this did not have an effect on the overall population or gentry. About eight million children were being educated and only one-third were girls. The late 1860s saw bourgeois modernization. Women began keeping pregnancy diaries, and girls were being sent off to work, but at the same time, family relations grew closer as mothers saw their own role in educating their young daughters on home rituals.

Through the revolution and the 1920s, the state still did not have funds to educate the populace and most educational resources were devoted to training adults or higher education. The state began establishing policies for care for children without parents but there was so much more work that had to be done.

The Stalinist years

The greatest change to education and the family was during the Stalin period. Article 121 in the 1936 Stalin Constitution stated that all children have the right to be educated, the first law of its kind in all of Russian history. The Soviet schooling system grew to 31 million pupils. Despite the enthusiasm, much of this education had to do with political ritualism, where kids were trained to celebrate state holidays and other ritualistic tasks. Students were taught self-discipline and self-restraint, a holdover from the Tsarist days. There were inklings of a change in attitude that children were fundamentally different from adults and that children should enjoy their childhood, rather all activities in preparation of being a future citizen and future worker. 

It wasn’t until after World War II that a major shift in the household happened once again. With the growing population of grandmothers taking on child rearing like they once did during the Great Terror, the state increased funding for summer camps and art schools, and schoolchildren enrolled in such programs en masse. These camps and devotion of arts and fitness is still seen in Russia and reminiscent of child-rearing attitudes from the post-war Soviet days.

What’s next?

The post-Stalin generation was the first Soviet generation to live in relative stability – the “promised generation” or “‘the generation of cosmic utopia, communal pedagogy, children of physicists and lyricists’”. This optimism followed them into the Kruschev years, though this book presents an even larger question: would this care and optimism follow the generations after the fall of the Soviet Union? White’s research stops there, but she invites other thinkers, politicians, educators, and mothers to decide what comes next.

I enjoyed White’s book because it’s the first of its kind in English. I prefer when Russian children are the center point of a book, rather than an afterthought. She doesn’t use hearsay or othering when talking about Russian children, nor does she highlight how far “behind” Russian child psychology is behind other Western ideologies. For that, I found her research factual as much as it is impactful. I hope this book is used in decision-making wherever children are involved, such as the UN Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights or other governing bodies, as we shape a better world for all children.

Book details: White, Elizabeth, A Modern History of Russian Childhood: From the Late Imperial Period to the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 2020, Bloomsbury Academic. Buy it here.

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