“A World Apart” – Soviet Children’s Homes as Social Periphery
By Mirjam Galley
Хорошо у нас в школе!
Afanasenko/Kairova (eds), Piat' let shkol-internatov (Moscow: Izdat APN RSFSR, 1961), p. 32.
The dichotomy of centre and periphery has shaped historiography on Russia and the Soviet Union for many decades. These both describe ‘geographical’ regions which might differ in terms of population and culture, but mostly regarding capital or power, and the relations with the political leadership. Since researchers have started to think about space in a different way, in what became known as the spatial turn, ‘space’ has become a category of analysis transcending the realms of geography. In this article, I will apply the concepts of the spatial turn to the question of in which respects the centre/periphery is a helpful analytical tool in historical research. I will look at ‘social peripheries’, what people have called the ‘margins of society’, and how different aspects of ‘space’ help to understand the marginality of certain groups. The Soviet system of closed childcare institutions (1956-1991) will serve as an example.
The Soviet child welfare system brought together young people who were excluded from the “new” Soviet society for various reasons: Orphans, social orphans (children from so-called problem families), and children with disabilities were to be found inside this complex, closed system of children’s homes, boarding schools, and colonies. Originally, the Soviet leadership had claimed to raise all Soviet children to form the next socialist generations, a promise taken up again by Nikita Khrushchev after Stalin’s death. Khrushchev strove to bring up the generation of children that later would bring about communism. After World War II, which strained the children’s home system extremely, the institutions were about to be reformed in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the children’s home never became the place of “new socialist generations”, and the gap between ideological standard and reality loomed larger than ever in the 1980s.
Therefore children in care, driven to the margins of society for their “problem family” origins, their deviant behaviour or their physical and mental conditions, are particularly suitable for exploring state practices of inclusion and exclusion as well as for studying socially marginalized groups in socialist societies. Scholars, as well as people who worked or lived in such institutions, have called childcare institutions a ‘world apart’, further marginalizing the marginalized. To clarify the extent of this process and to show why the conceptualization of a ‘social periphery’ in spatial terms might be useful, I will look at a rather early example of Soviet investigative journalism, an article called 'Pobeg' published in the Literaturnaia Gazeta in 1974. The Soviet media did not usually address children’s homes much after the orphans of the Second World War had grown up – at least not until Perestroika, when scandals about conditions in children’s institutions were a common occurrence.
Literaturnaia Gazeta 7/1974 (11 February), p. 12.
This article, though, describes the fate of Vitia, who had run away from his children’s home in Zagorsk. He was found unconscious, almost frozen to death, and brought to hospital. A couple of days later Vitia woke up from his coma. His doctors found the boy’s story very disturbing and therefore contacted the newspaper, which in turn forwards the case to the Moscow (oblast’) prosecution office. A few days before his escape, the komandir (commander, usually one of the older and stronger boys designated by the staff to help them with their work) of his division and some other boys had beaten him up several times, allegedly as a punishment for his smoking on the premises. Staff of the children’s home took no notice of him running away. They seemed indifferent, even cynical. Vitia’s caretaker did not show any sympathy for the boy and his illness: ‘It seems hard to believe that a person could become so ill from a few blows,’ she replied.
The power relations present in this children’s home seem similar to those in the Soviet GULag or to a phenomenon known from the Red Army called dedovshchina. Goffman also describes such structures in Asylums. It usually means that the director of an institution bases his management on the influence of the (often physically) strongest inmates, giving them power and privileges to impose order. Members of staff thus take up already existing power structures among inmates and use them for their purpose of making the institution easier to control. Violence is not always encouraged, but certainly accepted. Staff and inmates from Vitia’s children’s home explained this system by ‘tradition’. This shows that these closed institutions are an isolated social space of their own, working by their own rules. This idea of a separate social space can help to explain why it was so difficult for former institution inmates to integrate into society once they left the home – because the world outside worked fairly differently than they were used to.
The children’s home does not only represent a separate social space, it is also isolated from the rest of society in another respect: Nobody knew who lived in these institutions and what was going on there. Most people assumed that children’s homes were just for orphans, but the journalist (rather dramatically) points out that only about 10% of the children living there were orphans – all the others had at least one living parent. This hints at severe social problems (alcoholism, neglect, overstrained single parents), but also to the strong grip of the state on these ‘problem families’. The author of the article is shocked and repulsed by these facts, accusing parents of a lack of morals. As he goes on talking about the children’s home, he reveals that his notion of the children’s home goes back to the 1920s and 1930s, as he invokes the Civil War and people like Feliks Dzerzhinskii and Anton Makarenko. He concludes: ‘Back then, we had a clear tragedy, but now we have a filthy farce – enacted by saturated and cruel mums and dads.’
On the one hand this mutual isolation of overall society and the ‘institutional world’ lead children to grow up with different social norms than most people ‘outside’, although they often lived just yards (sometimes miles) away from each other. On the other hand, the ignorance of the population helped to breed stereotypes about these children, causing stigmatization, and cementing these practices in institutions. Although this newspaper article had some bureaucratic repercussions in the ministries of both the USSR and individual republics, it did not have any actual political consequences. In extension, the Soviet network of childcare institutions can be described as a ‘social periphery’: it is ruled by a centre, by the laws and norms set by the leadership, but internally works by rules and norms on its own. Finally, a children’s home could have been located very centrally in geographical terms, but be peripheral in terms of social space.
Mirjam Galley is a first-year PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Her thesis 'Builders of Communism: "Defective" Children and Social Orphans' is an examination of Soviet children in care after 1953. She has previously studied and worked at the Universities of Berlin (Humboldt University) and Bamberg.