deGraffenried on White, 'A Modern History of Russian Childhood: From the Late Imperial Period to the Collapse of the Soviet Union'

Elizabeth White
Julie deGraffenried

Elizabeth White. A Modern History of Russian Childhood: From the Late Imperial Period to the Collapse of the Soviet Union. The Bloomsbury History of Modern Russia Series. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. Illustrations. 224 pp. $26.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4742-4021-5; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4742-4022-2.

Reviewed by Julie deGraffenried (Baylor University) Published on H-Russia (January, 2021) Commissioned by Eva M. Stolberg (University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany)

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Elizabeth White’s A Modern History of Russian Childhood: From the Late Imperial Period to the Collapse of the Soviet Union is a much-needed and most-welcome survey of the history of childhood in Russia. Despite the subtitle, White’s compact chronological overview begins in the seventeenth century and ends in post-Soviet Russia, with the lengthiest chapters devoted to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In charting the process by which “children and childhood ... [began] to be seen as the preserve of the state,” she centers the dual processes of education and upbringing (vospitanie(p. 1). Throughout, elements of continuity and change are highlighted, making clear that the project of modernizing childhood in Russia bridged the revolutionary divide. Supplementing published secondary works with primary source data and texts, White’s synthesis doubles as a state-of-the-field project for the history of childhood as practiced by historians of Russia, a valuable contribution to the discipline in and of itself.

A Modern History of Russian Childhood opens with an introductory chapter that provides a quick primer on the history of childhood and sets parameters for this overview. White describes the work of two landmark historians of childhood: Philippe Ariès, whose 1961 Centuries of Childhood nearly singlehandedly created the field and established the concept of childhood as socially constructed, and Viviana Zelizer, whose 1985 Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children explains the newfound social value placed on children at the turn of the twentieth century in the West. White places the development of Russian conceptions of childhood squarely in that Western context by conflating elements widely accepted to reflect “modern childhood” universally—a childhood centered on education, not labor; reduced birth rate and infant mortality rate; and the increased role of the state in regulating childhood—with ideas specific to modern Western conceptions of childhood. These include Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s natural child, John Locke’s malleable child, and the innocent child in need of protection from the adult world. White focuses on Russian or culturally Russified/Soviet children of school age (age seven to an undefined mid-adolescence) living in families, asserting these as majority experiences.

Tracing the concept of childhood through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, chapter 2 leans heavily on studies of educational texts acknowledging children’s unique instructional needs and texts of the Enlightenment published in Russia. Beginning with Peter I, tsars decreed education for elite children, state care for orphans, and parochial school training, all in the service of the state. In the late eighteenth century, Catherine II drew on Enlightenment ideas to reconceptualize education and upbringing as “inner transformation for the use of the state” (p. 18). According to White, this ambitious, intentional claim on the childhood of her subjects as special preserve of the state set a pattern for future rulers. Since Catherine ultimately banned Rousseau’s work and sought to inculcate submission, diligence, and acceptance of the sociopolitical order in children, it is not entirely clear what distinguishes the effect of her actions from Peter’s or from that of other enlightened despots. Moreover, the autocrats’ decision to preserve serfdom—with its useful agrarian childhood—affected millions more children than their ideas on education, at least in the short term.

The next four chapters comprise the heart of the book, covering the late imperial and Soviet eras. White systematically outlines the state’s role in the lengthy, complex transition from a premodern, agricultural childhood to a modern, Western childhood. Chapter 3 contrasts elite and peasant childhoods in the nineteenth century, childhoods bifurcated by state decisions. Children of the gentry shifted toward norms associated with the West’s urban middle class (that is, the child-as-student, the innocent child), while peasant children remained locked into an agrarian model that viewed children as labor and childhood as training for adulthood, with little effort made to separate young from old. Dynamic changes in pedagogy, in children’s health care, in attitudes toward child labor, and in family law introduced by reformers in the post-emancipation era challenged tradition and influenced state practices. These reforms connect Russia with other Western states whose “child-savers” tackled similar issues. Less apparent are the means by which Russian adults of influence learned the romantic ideal of the sheltered child—was it the gentry’s Anglophilia? consumer culture? the monarchy?—and adopted it as the preferred model of childhood.

For White, the Bolshevik revolution acted as an accelerant, not the spark, for efforts to modernize childhood, reflected in the array of decrees and committees created in the first decade of Soviet power and described in chapter 4. Some, such as feeding programs, reflected the modern welfare state’s view of the child in need of protection, while others, such as Dewey-inspired education or campaigns attacking the patriarchal family, appeared to empower the child as participant in building a new world. Peppered with compelling primary source evidence, White’s summary of early Soviet acts to regulate children succeeds not only in demonstrating the aspirations and limits of state reach but also in connecting Russia to the wider world. White’s expertise on displacement shines here, drawing details from essays of Russian émigré children to illuminate the ways they understood the revolutionary era.

Intentions outpaced outcomes in the 1920s, but the next six decades saw the foundations and fruition of a modern Soviet childhood established. Chapter 5, the longest of the chapters by far, describes the meaning of the Stalinist revolution for the Soviet conception of childhood throughout collectivization, repression, and a world war. With socialism declared accomplished, the “happy childhood” appeared, provided by a paternalist state and housed (once again) within the family, to legitimize the Stalinist system and create a measure against which to define deviance. White details its effects on family policy, juvenile law, children’s culture, and, above all, the expansion in access to education. Despite the hardship of a disruptive war in the 1940s, the groundwork for a modern childhood was laid, elusive for most but realized in the coming decades, as described in chapter 6. Postwar peace created conditions in which Russia’s version of the Western model of modern childhood thrived: by the 1960s, universal education, childcare, and dramatic reductions in infant mortality rates and birth rates were all evident. Increased housing led to the privatization of family, while an increase in children’s culture, entertainment, and consumer goods fed a child-centered family life. Children, still at the “symbolic centre of Soviet life,” could act as activists on state-approved topics, such as world peace and wars of liberation, but enjoy nature in summertime Pioneer camps—the best of both rational and Rousseauian worlds (p. 123). The communist collapse in 1991 left Russia in search of a post-Soviet conception of childhood. White’s evaluation of the Soviet state’s claim to privilege its children succeeds in demonstrating the nonlinear process by which a dominant concept of modern childhood with roots in late imperial Russia emerged in the postwar twentieth century, a process frequently interrupted and complicated by conflict, violence, political shifts, rural-urban migration, and insufficient funding.

In a brief postscript on childhood in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, White highlights the state’s ongoing concerns about childhood, including low birth rate and foreign influences on traditional values, and suggests that the state’s emphasis on patriotic upbringing brings Russia full circle to Catherine’s co-opting of childhood to serve state aims. White’s conclusion (chapter 8) raises important questions about the influence of power, social order, space, and ideology on conceptions of childhood in modern Russia. It includes some of the author’s most interesting analysis in an attempt to answer the perennial question: what is unique about the Russian case?

White’s Modern History of Russian Childhood will help introduce historians of childhood to Russian conceptions of childhood, a vital contribution to a field dominated by studies of Western Europe, Scandinavia, and the United States. They may be surprised by White’s uncritical acceptance of Ariès’s contention that childhood was “discovered” in early modern Europe, an argument that has been roundly refuted by historians of Western Europe but nearly ignored by historians of early Russia/Muscovy (pp. 2, 5). In fact, the entire book poses a challenge and opportunity to scholars of Russian childhood, literally exposing (via the length of chapter 5) that the bulk of our work is concentrated in the 1930s-40s. While this makes for an uneven history, it means rich avenues for future research. Further, White’s conflation of Peter Stearns’s elements of modern childhood (Childhood in World History [2011]) with West-specific characteristics, such as children’s innocence, the “blank slate,” or the child-centered family, has benefits and drawbacks. While locating Russian childhood in the Western tradition makes Russia less “other,” that same Western tradition may shape the questions asked about Russian childhood, threatening to elide the non-Western influences that are essential in the Russian context.

In constructing a survey so concise, the author must make choices. Focusing on the state and childhood is logical, given the nature of autocracy and the Soviet system. One wishes, though, for more on the roles of religion and tradition, particularly in regulating children’s sexuality, daily lives, and education. After all, the modern state superseded roles previously held by church, tradition, and local community as dominant influences in premodern childhood. Further, the omission of empire or imperial identity as a method of refining the Russianness of state conceptions is unfortunate. These critiques aside, White’s crisp, comprehensive book makes a key contribution as the first succinct survey of Russian childhood; it is essential reading for scholars seeking a topical overview yet accessible enough for use with undergraduate students. The fourth addition to the Bloomsbury History of Modern Russia series, edited by Jonathan Smele and Michael Melancon, this reasonably priced work should enjoy wide use in the classroom.

Citation: Julie deGraffenried. Review of White, Elizabeth, A Modern History of Russian Childhood: From the Late Imperial Period to the Collapse of the Soviet Union. H-Russia, H-Net Reviews. January, 2021. URL:

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