Orphans in the Soviet Union
At certain periods, there were huge numbers of orphans in the Soviet Union to handle by the state, due to a number of turmoils in the history of the country, from its very beginnings. Major contributors to the population of orphans and otherwise homeless children included World War I, the October Revolution followed by the brutal Russian Civil War, famines of 1921–1922 and of 1932–1933, unprecedented scale of political repression, massive forced migrations, and the Soviet-German War theatre of World War II.
Abandoned children, 1918–1930
By the early 1920s, millions of orphaned and abandoned children, collectively described in Russian as besprizornye, besprizorniki (literally "unattended")  crowded cities, towns, and villages across the new Soviet state. By 1922, World War I, Russian Revolution, and Civil War had resulted in the loss of at least 16 million lives within the Soviet Union’s borders, and severed contact between millions of children and their parents. At this time, Bolshevik authorities were faced with an estimated seven million homeless youths.
The great Volga famine of 1921–1922 accounted for some five million deaths and played a huge role in depriving children of their homes. Vast numbers of children were deserted, many abandoning their families themselves, and many parents actively abandoning their children. By the spring of 1921, one-quarter of the peasantry in Soviet Russia was starving. The famine brought with it severe typhus and cholera epidemics which killed off those already weakened by hunger. By the summer of 1921, starvation had become so extreme that official plans were begun for mass evacuations of juveniles from afflicted provinces. From June 1921 to September 1922 the state evacuated approximately 150,000 children and moved trainloads of youths across the country in order to lessen the burden placed on institutions and clinics in hungry regions. Foreign relief organizations fed nearly 4.2 million children. The American Relief Administration (ARA) took on 80% of this total. Altogether, including both the state’s and foreign organizations’ distribution of food, close to 5 million youths received occasional meals. However, millions more went unfed.
Begging, peddling, and prostitution were the means by which besprizornye survived. Of these three endeavors, begging was the most widely practiced; it demanded no experience or inventory, and could be carried out anywhere. The majority of citizens regarded stray children as nuisances or threats and refused appeals, but many offered aid without hesitation. Official campaigns spoke out against contributions to young urchins in the fear that such gifts sustained drug addictions and contributed to the ruin of youths. When alms grew scarce, children with more experience and energy sought money through trade. The line between peddling and begging was often indistinct, and urchins possessed meager inventories, but with the elimination of large private enterprises and the Soviet state’s inability to ensure a reasonable supply of consumer products, population came to rely heavily on this small-scale trade. Therefore, waifs could try to support themselves by hawking food, flowers, cigarettes, and all kinds of cheap haberdashery. Tobacco trusts and newspaper companies employed urchins to sell merchandise in the street. Besprizornye also sold their own raw labor; they hauled loads and held places for people in long lines. Swarms of young beggars and peddlers permeated train stations, markets, stores, nightclubs, cinemas, and theaters. Waifs made daily rounds at apartments. On Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, they crowded churches and cemeteries. Restaurants, cafeterias, snack bars, taverns, and all manner of establishments were beset by hordes of homeless youths. Competition for locations was fierce and those who trespassed others’ territories fell victim to knives and beatings. Thousands of children, unable to support themselves through begging and peddling turned to prostitution. Girls especially turned down this path. The height of desperation occurred throughout the famine crisis of 1921–1922. Many youths would sell their bodies for as little as a piece of bread. In 1920, a survey of 5,300 street girls up to the age of fifteen revealed that 88% had engaged in prostitution. Among a smaller assortment of children taken off trains of the Northern Caucasus Railroad at the end of the decade, every one of the girls had worked as a prostitute. The majority of young prostitutes were girls, but many boys were similarly experienced. In Kharkov in the mid-1920s, boy prostitutes tended to be extremely young, usually seven to nine years of age. The number of children forced to sell their bodies increased during harsh winter conditions, when other means of survival became difficult or near impossible. Prostitution had begun to decrease by the middle of the decade, but the number of homeless children continued to rise and child prostitution remained a cause of extreme concern for Soviet authorities.
The existence of millions of homeless youths led to widespread juvenile delinquency throughout Russia. When street children looked beyond begging and petty trade, they turned to stealing. Juvenile crime rose rapidly during World War I with its growth rate increasing during the famine of 1921–1922, at which point juvenile crime was increasing more rapidly than adult crime. Minors arrested by the Russian police stood at 6% of all people apprehended in 1920, and reached 10% by the first quarter of 1922. More than other factors, hunger prompted waifs to steal. Robberies became routine, a natural feature of survival on the street. On the street, crime could be a form of amusement and adventure. For many waifs, particularly boys, it was an essential “means of proving one’s reliability and prowess” to the rest of a gang. Abandoned children arriving from the countryside were often slower to embrace thievery than those from urban backgrounds, but in general, the longer a child was left astray, the more likely he or she was to succumb to crime. Gangs and groups of children as large as ten or thirty ambushed individuals for their belongings; even healthy men of substantial strength were constantly at risk of being beaten and robbed. Constant illegal activity and life in the street insured contact between besprizornye and the criminal underworld of adults; older vagabonds schooled young newcomers in the art of crime. Street life also forced abandoned children into a torrent of drugs and sex. Tobacco and alcohol addictions ran rampant, and the first half of the 1920s saw the influx of a larger supply of cocaine as well as the development of a more extensive network of drug dealers. Urchins lived and worked in the midst of this network and drug expenses spurred on juveniles’ thefts. In addition to drugs, the street introduced large percentages of its inhabitants to early sexual activity. Waifs generally began their sex lives by the age of fourteen, many girls as early as seven. Rape was pervasive in the underworld and waifs were quickly saturated with sexually transmitted diseases. Crime, drugs, sex, and the harsh nature of life on the street caused a deep imprint on generations of abandoned children. Besprizornye developed and vividly displayed qualities considered threatening by the rest of society. Homelessness yielded bitter fruit: the revolution’s offspring were victims of personality problems, terrible hygiene habits, and severe psychopathic disorders. Despite besprizornye’s deep moral and physical deformities the Soviet government set out not only to save them, but also to develop them into the builders and inheritors of a new, communist society.
Following the October Revolution the new Bolshevik government had taken on the ambitious task of feeding, clothing, and raising a significant share of the country’s children. Government agencies prepared to construct a network of socialist orphanages that would be capable of raising the nation’s offspring. In a “heady” atmosphere of revolutionary triumph, the regime confidently advocated its vision of replacing the traditional bourgeois family environment with socialist asylums and institutions administered by the state. Communist pedagogy aimed to create a “vast communistic movement among minors.” Narkompros (People’s Commissariat of Education) assumed primary responsibility for reclaiming homeless juveniles. It relied mainly on orphanages (literally called "children’s homes" (detskiy dom, abbr.: detdom) in Russian) to accomplish this. Orphanages provided room and board, education, and activities, all of which were intended to “win” children from the street. These institutions also implemented systems of “self-service” which meant that youths took on chores and made administrative decisions; the intention was for them to gain a sense of self-control and an instinct for the “collective.” The orphanages were inaugurated in a spirit of revolutionary idealism, but were soon overwhelmed by a relentless deluge of stray children. Even before famine struck the Volga region in 1921, spawning millions of additional starving refugees, Russia’s homeless host of children roamed the country in numbers that far exceeded the government’s capacity to respond. The Volga famine unleashed a new wave of abandoned youth upon orphanages that were already overflowing with victims of previous calamities. Institutions swelled and conditions inside them deteriorated to a level of chaos. Facing conditions that rendered original hopes of education and rehabilitation impossible, officials’ priorities shifted to sheer survival. The state had to save the new generation before it could train it.
By the mid-1920s, the Soviet state was forced to realize that its resources for orphanages were inadequate, that it lacked the capacity to raise and educate the USSR’s stray children. The Soviet government now initiated new policies, which combined revolutionary idealism with strategic concession. The state reached out to society for assistance. Foster care was a primary manifestation of the regime’s “bow to necessity;” the original goal of socialist upbringing in state institutions had to be supplemented with the enlistment of private families to raise homeless children. Night shelters were also strategic concessions: they acted as an inexpensive, “stopgap” source of minimal care where orphanages had failed. The Soviet Union entered the second half of the 1920s having deployed a new range of measures to save homeless youths, and no longer faced anything like the catastrophes that had struck five years earlier. The latter half of the decade brought with it a renewed hope to reclaim the “Revolution’s children.”
During the second half of the 1920s, the conditions of orphanages improved significantly, but enduring deficiencies remained. The Soviet state succeeded in saving stray children, but its mission of socialist upbringing stagnated. Most homeless children now received rudimentary shelter and food where before they had not, but the majority of orphanages, especially those in the provinces, wallowed in defects. A report in 1927 presented to "The All-Russian Conference of Detdom Personnel" stated that over 80% of children’s institutions in the Russian Republic were not organized or operating properly. Troubling questions lingered concerning the health of orphanages and the fate of future Soviet generations. These questions carried over into the 1930s, a decade which brought with it new calamities and new waves of abandoned children.
Children of "enemies of the people", 1937–1945
The mid-1930s witnessed the peak of persecution of perceived political enemies, with millions of Soviet citizens imprisoned and hundreds of thousands executed. Up until 1937, there were no specific guidelines on how to treat the children of these “enemies of the people”. Yet after the Great Purge there were "...at least several hundred thousand children [that] lost their parents". Now the government was forced to confront the problem of managing this new category of orphans.
In 1937, the Politburo decided to accommodate children of the enemies of the people in normal orphanages administered by the Narkompros. Educational staff underwent training by the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs), and the orphans’ names were kept on record. This reflects the Communist Party’s theory of socially inherited criminality, often informally described by the traditional Russian proverb, “an apple never falls far from the tree”. Orphanages existed not only to provide welfare, but also to prevent counter-revolutionary ideas from contaminating society.
There were no official orders to discriminate against children of enemies of the people. Yet orphanage staff often beat, underfed, and abused such pupils. Any misbehavior was understood as the product of a counter-revolutionary upbringing, and punished harshly. Treating children like budding criminals had diverse effects. In some cases, the induced "class guilt" inspired orphans to prove their loyalty to the ideals of Communism. In other cases abusive treatment was to incite resentment toward the state.
If judged to be “socially dangerous,” the NKVD sent orphans to either a colony for young delinquents or a Gulag labor camp. The tendency was to place all difficult orphans in colonies, which sought to re-educate children using a labor regime. Children over fifteen were liable for at least five years in camp for being a “family member of a traitor to the motherland”.
War orphans, 1945–1953
With World War II came a new wave of orphans. After 1945, the NKVD was responsible for accommodating 2.5 million homeless children. However, the war softened attitudes towards bereaved children, a shift which eventually led to the improvement of the welfare system. The public regarded war orphans as innocent victims rather than subversives, and many citizens dedicated themselves to providing relief. There was a reversal of the previous era’s stigma; adults caught in occupied zones did not pass their criminality on to their children. The state nurtured these children alongside other war orphans.
Orphanages now focused on making children feel at home. Special orphanages were built exclusively for children of officers and soldiers. Soviet trade unions and the Komsomol supported these homes with additional funding. In 1944, the government placed legal protection on the property of orphans. Developments like these reflect the leverage of children orphaned by war. In the words of one girl, “We used to dwell on our rights… we’re not to be blamed for having lost everything in the war!” In 1949, the Council of Ministers of USSR created the decree “On Measures to Further Improve the Operation of Children’s Homes” to provide the appropriate funds to orphanages. Wartime shortages meant that most orphanages were still undersupplied, but children fostered a sense of patriotic sacrifice as opposed to resentment towards the state.
Adoption as well as long-term fostering and short-term fostering became popular during the war. From 1941–1945, 200,000 children were adopted in the Soviet Union. ‘Model workers’ featured in propaganda were often adoptive parents. Courts preferred to place children with families, taking into account the importance of love, security, and happiness in childhood. The population of homeless children declined in the years after the war, largely due to the public’s participation in the foster care system.
Orphans after Stalin, 1953–1991
The government’s approach to child homelessness continued to advance in the decades following Stalin’s death. During the 1960s–1980s, rising prosperity reduced the orphan population, easing the problem of overcrowding. Most ‘orphans’ actually had parents, but left their families due to abuse or lack of security. These factors contributed to the shift from orphanages to boarding schools beginning in the mid-1950s. The Communist Party lauded such schools for combining education with labor regimes to produce hardworking Soviet citizens. In the 20th Congress of the CPSU, Khrushchev called boarding schools “schools of the future”. He launched a long-term campaign in 1959 to expand the boarding network. Many orphanages were converted into schools, while the remainder became more exclusively refuges for handicapped children. A positive effect of integrating homeless children with other school children was the further de-stigmatization of orphans.
This period experienced a continuation of the previous era’s endorsement of foster care and adoption. Perestroika and glasnost ended press censorship, exposing the decrepit state of orphanages to the public. Journalists contrasted the spiritual warmth of family life to cold institutions. This, in conjunction with Gorbachev’s partial marketization in 1987, spurred the creation of private children’s charities. Adoption was now the favored solution to child homelessness, providing children with permanent and stable homes.
During the second half of the 20th century, there was a shift in Soviet law enforcement, from pure punitive and "resocialization" approach to crime prevention, which also targeted social orphanhood. Decrees such as the 1981 “On Measures to Strengthen State Assistance to Families with Children” reflect these changes. Parents became increasingly responsible for their children’s misdeeds. In the late eighties, a young offender was commonly characterized as “an adolescent deprived of family warmth”. The amount of children sent to penal colonies decreased in favor of re-education programs. Special boarding schools were created for juvenile offenders.
As the Soviet Union moved toward its collapse, the orphan population began to rise once more. In 1988, 48,000 children were classified as homeless; in 1991, this number climbed to 59,000. The economic downturn, ethnic conflicts, and food shortages contributed to these statistics. Poverty defined the plight of family life in the years to come.
- Orphans in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union
- Alan M. Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened: Abandoned Children in Soviet Russia, 1918–1930 (London: University of California Press, 1994), xi.
- Alan M. Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened: Abandoned Children in Soviet Russia, 1918–1930 (London: University of California Press, 1994), 21
- Orlando Figes, A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891–1924 (New York: Penguin, 1996), 780.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 9; Figes, A People's Tragedy, 775.
- Vladimir Zenzinov, Deserted: The Story of the Children Abandoned in Soviet Russia (London: Herbert Joseph, 1931), 62–63.
- Figes, A People's Tragedy, 776.
- Alan M. Ball, "State Children: Soviet Russia's Besprizornye and the New Socialist Generation," Russian Review Vol. 52, No. 2 (1993): 232.
- Ball, "State Children," 233.
- Figes, A People's Tragedy, 781.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 60.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 52–54.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 46–47.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened 56.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 57.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 60.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 61–62.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 63.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 71.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 76.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 78.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 80–83.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened 87.
- Zenzinov, Deserted, 32.
- Ball, "State Children," 230–231.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 125.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 107.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 149.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 150.
- Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 174.
- John A. Getty, Gabor T. Rittersporn, and Viktor N. Zemskov, "Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of Archival Evidence," The American Historical Review 98 (1993): 1017.
- Corinna Kuhr, "Children of ‘Enemies of the People’ as Victims of the Great Purges," Cahiers Du Monde Russe 39 (1998): 210.
- Kuhr, "Victims of the Great Purges," 211-12.
- Catriona Kelly, Children's World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890–1991 (New Haven: Yale UP, 2007), 238.
- Kuhr, "Victims of the Great Purges," 216.
- Kelly, Children's World, 238.
- Kelly, Children's World, 328.
- Kuhr, "Victims of the Great Purges," 209-15.
- Kuhr, "Victims of the Great Purges," 211.
- Kelly, Children's World, 233.
- Kelly, Children's World, 237.
- M. R. Zezina, "The System of Social Protection for Orphaned Children in the USSR," Russian Social Science Review 42.3 (2001): 49–51.
- Kelly, Children's World, 243-46.
- Laurie Bernstein, "Communist Custodial Contests: Adoption Rulings in the USSR after the Second World War," Journal of Social History 34 (2001): 843–61.
- Zezina, “System of Social Protection,” 53.
- Kelly, Children's World, 243-44
- Marina Balina and Evgeny A. Dobrenko, Petrified Utopia: Happiness Soviet Style (London: Anthem, 2009), 13.
- Zezina, “System of Social Protection,” 54.
- Kelly, Children's World, 247-50.
- Bernstein, "Communist Custodial Contests," 844.
- Kelly, Children's World, 243.
- Bernstein, "Communist Custodial Contests," 845.
- Zezina, “System of Social Protection,” 56.
- Kelly, Children's World, 267.
- Zezina, “System of Social Protection,” 56–57.
- Kelly, Children's World, 260.
- Zezina, “System of Social Protection,” 57.
- Kelly, Children's World, 262-67.
- Zezina, “System of Social Protection,” 61.
- Kelly, Children's World, 269-70.
- Zezina, “System of Social Protection,” 60.
- Kelly, Children's World, 277.
- Kelly, Children's World, 272-74.
- Zezina, “System of Social Protection,” 62.
- Fiona Werge, “Child Poverty Soars in Eastern Europe,” BBC News (2000)