The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

‘The Littlest Enemies’: Children of the Stalinist Era


The next post in the 2012 student showcase explores how the terror and repression of the Stalinist era had an impact which extended far beyond those directly targeted by the regime. Stalinist propaganda claimed that the USSR was the best place in the world to raise a child, presenting childhood as an innocent, happy and fulfiling time. However this was not the case for the millions of children whose parents were caught up in Stalin’s terror. Some of these children were raised in the Gulag camps, some in state orphanages. Some were sent into exile with their families and others were left to fend for themselves on the city streets. All found themselves dispossesed, displaced, marginalised and rejected. In this article Victoria Bird discusses the experiences of these children, Stalin’s ‘Littlest Enemies’.


‘The Littlest Enemies’: Children of the Stalinist Era

By Victoria Bird.

The Stalinist era was characterized by extensive terror and repression, with large numbers of the Soviet population living in fear of the ‘knock on the door’ that could signify arrest, exile, imprisonment or execution. This climate of fear even extended to young children, many of whom were terrified of the day when their parents would ‘disappear’. Children who lost their parents as a result of Stalin’s Terror were affected in a number of different ways. Some were interned in Gulag camps along with their parents; some were deported to live in exile in remote regions with their families and some were forced into Soviet orphanages. Those who were left behind were stigmatised and ostracised, often even by other family members who feared punishment if they were seen to be helping the child of an ‘enemy of the people’, so were left to fend for themselves on the city streets. Whatever their ultimate fate, these children all found themselves marginalised, persecuted, rejected and forgotten by mainstream society. Instead their lives became dominated by a daily battle for survival, a battle that sadly many did not win.


‘Thank You, Dear Comrade Stalin for a Happy Childhood!’


Stalinist propaganda worked very hard to present childhood as a happy and positive time. Children were presented as the loyal socialists of the future, and Stalin was portrayed as the ‘little father’ raising the next generation of new Soviet men and women. Posters showing children praising Stalin were put up everywhere, often including the caption ‘Thank You, Dear Comrade Stalin, for a Happy Childhood’, while communist youth groups such as the Young Pioneers (for children aged 9-14) and the Komsomol (ages 14-18) were set up to provide children with a range of extra-curricular activities including parades, theatre outings, sporting events and summer camps which many would otherwise not have had access to.


“Thank you, Comrade Stalin for our Happy Childhood!” (1936) available online at:


Catriona Kelly argues that the state was attempting to back up the claims of the ‘fairy tale reality’ that supposedly characterized life in the Soviet Union, with sentimental visions of childhood pervading throughout all propaganda and claims that the Soviet Union was the best place in the world for children to grow up.[1] But, this fairy tale concealed the dark reality of many children’s lives during the Stalinist era, something which is illustrated by the image below. This famous photograph, entitled “Friend of the Little Children” was published on the front page of Izvestia in 1936, showing a happy, smiling young girl being lovingly held up by Stalin. However, the young girl’s smiles hide her dark background. Her name is Gelya Markizova, and her mother was mysteriously murdered after her father, Ardan, was shot for allegedly plotting against Stalin during the Terror years. Her real story was, of course, hidden by the state’s propaganda machine to perpetuate the vision of happy childhoods that Soviet propaganda was desperate to portray.


“Friend of the Little Children” (1936)


Gelya’s tale illustrates a much wider issue: that while some children do recall their Stalinist-era childhoods with fond memories today, their experiences were far from universal.  Many other children were marginalised, rejected and persecuted. Far from having the happy childhoods that they were supposedly entitled to, they were instead faced with great hardships and a struggle for survival.


Children of the Gulag


As a result of Stalinist terror and mass repression, hundreds of thousands of parents were arrested and placed in the infamous Gulag camps.  Resolution No 2213 stated that children up to the age of two must be kept in confinement along with their mothers, so many young children were taken to the Gulag and placed in camp nurseries.[2] Other children were actually born in the Gulag, because some prisoners were pregnant on arrival while others became pregnant in the camps (for more on pregnancy and childbirth in the Gulag see the previous blog post HERE). Life for children who found themselves in the camp nurseries was horrendous. They were often forced to live in extremely unhygienic conditions, in the coldest, oldest barracks, with a shortage of blankets, while the meagre food rations provided lacked essential nutrients and vitamins. The quality of care provided was terrible; children were neglected and given minimal attention with reports that nurses would feed the children scalding hot food and often left them sitting for hours on their potties causing many to suffer from prolapsed rectum.[3] As a result, the rate of infant mortality in the Gulags was extraordinarily high and those children who survived suffered extensive physical and psychological damage. In her memoir, Evgenia Ginzburg commented on how shocked she was on discovering that many older children in one camp nursery would not even speak, communicating instead via inarticulate howls.[4]


Children in a Gulag camp nursery being fed – image from Cathy Frierson, and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag (Yale University Press, 2010), 311


In 1935 the introduction of Article 12 of the Criminal Code also permitted children from the age of twelve to be sentenced as adults and interned in the Gulags. This law was used to round up the children of those who had earlier been arrested for political crimes based on the belief that ‘an apple never falls far from the tree’.[5] Many street children, the waifs and strays, commonly known as Bezprizorni also committed crimes (most commonly theft) and many were sent to the camps as punishment, where they found themselves living in bare, dirty cells in a brutal world where they mixed with older, more dangerous criminals. Oleg Khlevniuk described how many older criminals treated these youngsters brutally, often using them for sexual favours or forcing them into prostitution.[6]


Identity photographs of arrested children – image taken from Catriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia 1890-1991 (Yale University Press, 2007), 235


Banished: Childhood in Exile


Many children also had to face the terrifying prospect of exile. Those commonly targeted included devout religious followers, ethnic minorities and ‘kulak’s’ (peasants who resisted collectivisation). Numerous families were rounded up and forcibly relocated to remote and uninhabited regions in Russia’s far north, such as the Urals, Northern Siberia or the open steppe of Kazakhstan. Many families were given little more than an hour to gather together sufficient food and provisions for their ‘new lives’. Antonina Golovin recalls her mother quickly wrapping her in a warm woollen shawl when the order came to leave, but this was removed and she was not allowed to take it, even though they were heading for Arctic conditions.[7] The journey into exile was arduous and exhausting, with families packed into overcrowded, under-heated and filthy cattle trucks for days or weeks on end. One letter to the Chairman of the VTsIK told how thousands of children died of starvation or disease during the journey into exile, to be buried in mass unmarked graves.[8]


Unmarked graves of ‘special settlers’ who perished – some are only 4ft long. Image taken from Cathy Frierson and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag (Yale University Press, 2010), 103


On arrival, the surviving settlers had to make do with living in primitive zemlianki, mud holes that had been dug out of the ground and covered in branches and mud to keep in as much heat as possible.[9] Whilst digging out these cold, damp shelters, the exiles also had to struggle to find food for their families: they arrived with few tools or other provisions to aid them and many settlements were completely cut off by the snow. This meant thousands more children died from starvation. Exiled children also faced a variety of other life-threatening diseases. The lack of vitamins caused scurvy and malnutrition, while many fell sick with typhus, malaria, tuberculosis and pneumonia with no prospect of medical aid. As Werth explains, the situation in exile was critical for children, who were the chief victims of disease and death. For example, in one settlement consisting of 350 families, 180 children died during the first few months due to an epidemic of scarlet fever. On another island settlement, of the 14,000 deportees who died there between June and August of 1931, 76% of them were under 12 years old and one report in January 1932 recognized that in the Narym region, mortality for children under three years old was as high as 12% per month, with Siberia becoming the setting for a huge amount of child deaths.[10]


Stalin’s Orphans


Homeless children along ‘children of the enemies of the people’ increasingly found themselves being placed in state-run orphanages, where their fates were far from happy. Alan Ball argues that conditions in some Soviet orphanages were just as bad, if not worse, than life on the streets, and Deborah Hoffman agrees that during the Stalinist era the high influx of children into state-run orphanages (absorbing 5,000-10,000 children each year during the 1930s; while in Moscow alone, by June 1st 1938, 15,347 children of repressed parents had been sent to orphanages) meant conditions became increasingly dire, leading to overcrowding and severe shortages.[11]


Starvation and malnutrition were a routine occurrence in the orphanages with many children forced to raid nearby rubbish bins to find sustenance and there were reports of children lapping thin soup directly from cupped hands due to the shortage of bowls.[12] Shortages of clothes and shoes meant that children often had to go around barefoot in the snow and in one orphanage an inspector recorded 46 children who were suffering from frost-bitten feet.[13] Three to four children would often be required to share a filthy mattress lacking any blankets, while others slept in stoves or huddled on the bare floor, covering themselves with whatever came to hand, such as old curtains. One orphanage in Viatka even issued sacks for the children to sleep in.[14]


The institutions themselves had crumbling walls, no heating and a total lack of washing facilities which resulted in orphanages being increasingly referred to as ‘cesspools’. Children only received baths at intervals of several weeks; one group of children even wrote of how they were only allowed to visit the bathhouse every other month, and were given clean underwear even more rarely. Many orphanages had no lavatory so children would relieve themselves in yards, hallways and even their own beds.[15] Orphans commonly suffered from diseases such as typhus, malaria, dysentery, scurvy, rickets, ringworm and lice as a result of their dire surroundings and poor hygiene. Former inmates described how the bodies of those who had died being stacked in piles, where they were kept until there were enough to be taken away and cremated, while one inspector’s report described how he had witnessed children having to live and sleep for several days in the same bed as the corpses of other children. Mortality rates among children in some Ukrainian orphanages actually stood at one hundred per cent.[16]


Those who managed to survive disease and death in the orphanages were also faced with the threat of beatings, abuse and bullying from the older inhabitants, while there are also countless stories of the warders in charge violently assaulting the children or even raping the young orphans in their care. Many children received brutal beatings from their directors, while others remember being thrown into ‘punishment cells’ for the slightest offence. One child told of how the director would frequently drag children out of their beds by their hair, bang their heads against the wall and then threaten them with his revolver.[17]


Bezprizorni: Life on the Streets


Some children avoided life in the orphanage by running away. These gangs of homeless children or Bezprizorni became a common sight in Soviet cities during the Stalinist era. Most scraped a living through scavenging, begging, pickpocketing, petty theft and prostitution. Many quickly became addicted to cigarettes, alcohol and even cocaine in an attempt to escape from the terror and hardships of their everyday lives. They lived in appalling conditions, particularly during the freezing winter months, dressed in ‘lice-ridden, grimy garments’ with ‘bare feet wrapped in newspapers’. To keep warm at night, the Bezprizorni would sleep in dirty cauldrons, rubbish bins, public toilets and some even buried into the earth into shallow dugouts.[18]


Gang of street children sheltering in a dirty cauldron – image from Alan Ball, And Now My Soul is Hardened: Abandoned Children in Soviet Russia (University of California Press, 19914), 118


Initially, the state made some attempts to ‘rehabilitate’ Bezprizorni, through the establishment of special children’s homes, communes and colonies which aimed to re-educate and reintegrate homeless children into respectable society.[19] However, most Bezprizorni stubbornly refused to enter these institutions and those who were forcibly rounded up fled by the thousands, returning to life on the streets. From 1935, a special Soviet decree extended full adult penalties to juvenile criminals, which meant any Bezprizorni who were apprehended could simply be imprisoned.




While Stalinist propaganda may have presented an idealised ‘fairy tale’ image of Soviet childhood characterised by happy innocence, for some the reality was very different. Many children were ripped away from their families, condemned to the Gulags, forced into exile, sent to orphanages or left to fend for themselves on the streets. Most of these children endured severe physical and psychological trauma and those who survived often carried this stigma with them into adulthood.


For more information see:  Film: Children of the Gulag (Java Films)

About the Author:

Victoria Bird has just completed her BA in History at Swansea University, UK. In her final year of study Victoria specialised in the history of communist Eastern Europe and she also researched and wrote her History Dissertation about “Bezprizorni: The Result of Mass Arrests and the Labour Camp System”.


[1] Catriona Kelly, Children’s World: Growing up in Russia, 1890 – 1991 (Yale University Press, 2007)

[2] Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Penguin Books, 2004), 292; Cathy A Frierson and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag (Yale University Press, 2010), 310 – 313

[3] Evgenia Ginzburg, Within the Whirlwind (Collins Harvill, 1989) 4; Catriona Kelly, Children’s World, 241

[4] Evgenia Ginzberg, Within the Whirlwind, 4

[5] Catriona Kelly, Children’s World, 237

[6] Oleg Khlevniuk, The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror (Yale University Press, 2004) 124

[7] Orlando Figes, The Whisperers, 95

[8] Cathy Frierson, and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag, 100 – 103

[9] Deborah Hoffman, The Littlest Enemies: Children in the Shadow of the Gulag, (Slavica Publishers, 2008), 41

[10] Nicholas Werth, Cannibal Island: Death in a Siberian Gulag (Princeton University Press, 2007), 44-56

[11] Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened: Abandoned Children in Soviet Russia 1918-1930 (University of California Press, 1994) 98; Deborah Hoffman, The Littlest Enemies,81; Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary life in extraordinary times; Soviet Russia in the 1930’s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) 150

[12] Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 115

[13] Cathy Frierson, and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag, 254

[14] Jehanne Gheith, and Katherine Jolluck, Gulag Voices, Oral Histories of Soviet Incarceration and Exile (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 125; Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 115

[15] Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 116; Deborah Hoffman, The Littlest Enemies, 98

[16] Cathy Frierson, and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag, 58, 117; Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 115; Catriona Kelly, Children’s World, 201

[17] Cathy Frierson, and Semyon Vilensky, Children of the Gulag, 56

[18] Alan Ball, And Now My Soul Is Hardened, 30 – 32 , 72

[19] Lucy Wilson, The New Schools of New Russia, (Vanguard Press, 1928), 100

June 21, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I would love to read your dissertation. I have been interested in Post Czarist Russian history since as a child. Of course I’ve read The Wild Children by Felice Holman. It is very hard to find books on this subject matter. Very well written!

    Comment by Natori | September 8, 2012 | Reply

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