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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Grazing the Limits of Provincial Philanthropy

Christine Grant

In a sand-floored forest not far from the Ukrainian town of Poltava, an icon of Stalinist pedagogy was born. The Gorky Labour Colony for homeless youth was founded in 1920 by Anton Makarenko, a former teacher who would go on to become the leading expert on Soviet education. His fictionalised account of the collective’s early years, Pedagogical Poem, became a beloved classic from its first publication in 1935. But if Makarenko claimed to be breaking new ground with his pedagogical methods, the actual land on which the colony stood bore the trace of others’ labours. The site had once belonged to the Poltava Agricultural Colony and Industrial Asylum, founded in 1891 to house and train local boys aged ten to eighteen who had run afoul of the law or lived in extreme poverty. This institution was the work of Poltava’s pre-revolutionary gentry and professional classes as they carved out a role for themselves in public life in uneasy partnership with the tsarist state.

Detainees harvest potatoes at the Gorky Labour Colony, 1921, reproduced in Anton Makarenko, The Road to Life: An Epic of Education. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1955.

Like reform-minded elites across the Russian Empire, these Poltavchane studied Western models and adapted them to local circumstances. Alexander II’s Great Reforms, crafted to modernise the Russian Empire while keeping autocratic rule intact, included an 1866 judicial reform that defined juvenile criminals as a special category requiring correctional education rather than harsh punishment. The reform echoed Western practice. In France the Colony of Mettray had, from the 1840s, pioneered the idea that young criminals could become honest and productive adults through moral guidance and practical training. Mettray, like its many imitators across Western Europe, was run as a philanthropic venture, financed by a combination of government allocations and private donations. In 1870, a penitentiary agricultural colony was founded in St Petersburg, and others followed in the provinces. It was not until 1891 that a group of Poltava’s notables gathered to inaugurate their own institution. They formed a voluntary association with an executive committee of civic-minded Poltava landowners, intelligentsia, and government officials; most, but not all, were men. Their remote, provincial location limited their access to resources, yet they mobilised their connections with the local authorities as well as information about Western models to create a colony that would serve local needs.

The Poltava notables had to rely almost entirely on published accounts of Western practices. In comparison with the St Petersburg colony, which had benefitted from state grants to send its first co-directors on a tour of penitentiary agricultural colonies in Western Europe, and which sometimes received Western visitors, the Poltava colony was both cash-strapped and remote. The town is almost 1200 km from St Petersburg, and even today it takes a full twenty-four hours to get there by train. A few of the committee members ventured out on fact-finding missions to other colonies, but travelled only as far as the Ukrainian cities of Khar’kov, which had a rail line to Poltava, and Kiev. The colony’s patrons made up for this physical distance, however, by closely following Western debates and adhering to Western models. In 1895, the executive committee hired a land technician to draw up plans for the colony’s buildings, but then rejected them, leading the expert to quit and the colony’s establishment to be further delayed, because the plans did not conform to the ‘pavilion system.’ This was a key feature of the original Mettray model, in which boys were grouped into separate ‘families’ of up to twenty, each with a dedicated employee named ‘father of the family’, expected to show paternal care for his wards. Although the St Petersburg colony had by this time abandoned the ‘family’ system in favour of a more disciplinary regime, these provincial philanthropists cleaved to the more prestigious Western model so vividly evoked in articles and reports.[1]

The Poltava Colony exemplifies the key role played by provincial zemstvos in founding welfare institutions. The zemstvos—elected bodies responsible for certain aspects of local administration—had been created by an 1864 reform. They became a focal point for civil society, and eventually for political opposition in the late imperial period. Although an independent voluntary association ran the Poltava Colony, it depended heavily on the zemstvo for support. The association’s first president, Aleksei Zalenskii, also presided over the Poltava province zemstvo. However, the Poltava association’s privileged access to the zemstvo could provoke resentment from similar associations located in other cities in Poltava province. When the executive committee requested that the Kremenchug Society for Correctional Asylums (another voluntary association, by then defunct) hand over the 4,854 roubles it had raised to build a colony that never materialised, it received a curt refusal. Poltava, the Kremenchug Society complained, had a smaller population but far more educational and charitable institutions and ‘both the government and in particular the province zemstvo render[ed] significant assistance to Poltava for their upkeep’. Moreover, Kremenchug was a port city whose docks attracted ‘the whole mass of depraved people from almost the whole province’ in search of work, which ‘yield[ed] a new depraved generation, a heavy burden for society, and so there [was] no justification for giving the money collected in Kremenchug for an asylum to benefit the city of Poltava’. [2]

Vacation cottages at the Verkholy Relax Park, near the site of the Poltava Colony. Like the colony, the park has sandy soil and is surrounded by forest; the terrain sustains rest, not labour. (photo credit: YOD Studio;

The state support which the Kremenchug Society so envied was, however, less generous than it appeared. Under the terms of the 1866 law on juvenile criminals, the government had pledged to make state land available for penitentiary agricultural colonies. However, the colony’s request went unanswered and in 1895 it accepted a plot of land from a private donor. Poltava is located amid tracts of fertile black earth, but this plot had, the association reported, the ‘dejected look of a barren, sandy plain’. It had previously been forest, but since the lumber had been cut twenty years before it had been rented out to peasants for grazing cattle and their hooves had eroded the sandy soil. To shore up the quicksand, and to enable the future colonists to train in gardening and forestry, the association planted thousands of pines, as well as ‘ash, elm, maple, oleaster, yellow and white acacia, lilac, sumac, honey-locust, black and Crimean pine’ and an orchard of apple, pear, plum, walnut, apricot, and cherry trees. It sowed lupins and vines to improve soil fertility. [3] However, by 1912, only seven of the thirty-nine boys housed at the colony were training in farming or cultivation of any kind, while the others learnt to turn wood, make boots, or work at the smithy. Despite the Society’s best efforts, the land was not suited for training future farmers.

Forest near Sosnivka, Ukraine, close to the site of the Poltava Colony (photo credit: Sergei Kulyk, Viktor Boycko)

Later, the Soviet educator Anton Makarenko echoed this assessment: ‘The very soil on which our colony stood was unsuited to agricultural purposes. It was little better than sand, which a breath of wind sent shelving into dunes’. [4] It didn’t help that the neighbouring peasants had claimed all the fruit trees, or that the local soviet had not allocated the forested land to the colony. Makarenko soon moved his Labour Colony to a richer piece of property, previously owned by a local noble family (one of whose scions had served on the committee of the pre-revolutionary colony). He relinquished all claims to the former site, recommending be turned into a children’s sanatorium or recreation facility—it could support only rest, not labour.

In the end, the Poltava association’s interminable battles to procure funds, land, saplings, and materials had not resulted in a scaled-down version of Western philanthropic models. Although these models had been premised on the power of a rural environment to restore boys to moral and physical health, the would-be provincial philanthropists had managed to provide only degraded, exhausted, and marginal land for the marginalised children they sought to help. As a result, the association’s work—the study, the networking, the fundraising, and the physical labour of those it hired—quickly faded from view after the Revolutions of 1917, leaving few traces apart from ledgers that dutifully recorded corporal punishments inflicted on boys who infringed the strict discipline. While the association had given local gentry and intelligentsia a chance to participate in civil society without threatening the autocratic regime, it had failed to provide effective re-education for Poltava province’s impoverished and vulnerable youth.

Christine Grant is an early-career historian of Russia and France. Her research focuses on how rural spaces have been used to solve the urban problem of juvenile crime and homelessness and on what happens when ideas, practices, and models cross national borders. She teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and tweets at @Christorical

[1] For more on why the St Petersburg colony abandoned the ‘family’ system, see [2] Otchet pravleniia Poltavskago Obshchestva Ispravitel’nykh Priiutov za pervyi god sushchestvovaniia Obshchestva (c 7-go iiunia 1891 goda no 7-e iiunia 1892 goda) (Poltava: Tipografiia L. Frishberga, 1892), 7. [3] Otchet pravleniia Poltavskago Obshchestva zemledel’cheskikh kolonii i remeslennykh priiutov za 1895 i 1896 gody (Poltava: Tipo-Litografiia L. Frishberga, 1897), 10–12, 26. [4] Anton Makarenko, The Road to Life: An Epic of Education. (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1955), 1: 89.

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