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

Budem Zdorovi! Na Zdravi! Prost! The Uses and Abuses of Alcohol in the Communist Bloc.

A new study claims that heavy drinking and cases of alcoholism were widespread in communist East Germany. Extracts from a forthcoming book by Thomas Kochan, The Blue Strangler: Drinking Habits in the GDR, recently published in Deutsche Welle describe how drinking to excess was ‘the norm’ in the GDR, with alcohol consumed ‘at the workbench, in the office and at party headquarters’. Kochan also estimates that by the close of the 1970s around 5% of all adults were suffering from alcohol addiction (four times the rate in West Germany) and that by the 1980s the average GDR citizen was drinking 23 bottles of liquor (double the average in West Germany), 12 litres of wine and 146 litres of beer annually. Recently, I too have been reading about the uses and abuses of alcohol in the communist bloc, in relation to an article I’m writing about social deviance under communism, so news of Kochan’s study caught my eye. The GDR was by no means an isolated case however, and many of Kochan’s findings can be more broadly applied across the Soviet bloc.

Thomas Kochan's new book 'The Blue Strangler' explores drinking habits in the GDR, where Kochan claims that drinking to excess was 'the norm'.


Alcohol Consumption in the Communist Bloc.

Kochan’s analysis of drinking habits in the GDR paints a rather contrary picture to the image that the East European regimes attempted to cultivate. Alcohol dependency was presented very much as a ‘western problem’. Alcohol, it was claimed, was used as something of a placebo, to dull proletarian perception and inhibit the formation of revolutionary consciousness, while excessive drinking was portrayed as a product of the inequalities and frustrations of capitalist society. Under communism, the authorities confidently predicted that levels of alcoholism would soon begin to decrease.

Even gauging the true level of alcohol consumption in the communist bloc is something of a difficult task however. Only limited statistical information is available. Sales of alcohol were often recorded under the more general classification of ‘other foodstuffs’ (a category which also included ice cream, coffee and spices) and the official statistics collated also failed to account for the popular consumption of samogon – varieties of illegally produced ‘homebrew’, distilled from potatoes, grain and sugar – which was cheaply produced and readily available on the black market. By the 1980s samogon is estimated to have accounted for up to 50% of total alcohol consumption in the USSR (Treml, Alcohol in the USSR, 1982). From the 1960s no statistics relating to alcohol production, consumption or addiction were openly published and the state-controlled media gave only occasional coverage to drunkenness, which tended to be presented as a small scale ‘aberrant’ behaviour, only afflicting a minority of citizens.  

However, the available evidence points to a clear increase in the consumption of alcohol generally and in cases of alcohol abuse and dependency more specifically, throughout the communist bloc. McKee’s study Alcohol in Russia (1999) suggests that Soviet consumption more than doubled between 1955 and 1979, when the average annual level of alcohol consumption reached 15.2 litres per person. Stephen White’s book Russia Goes Dry (1996) estimates that during the 1970s expenditure on alcohol accounted for 15-20% of the average households disposable income in the USSR (a figure he describes as ‘exceptionally high by international standards’), and from the 1970s to the 1980s legal sales of alcohol rose by a total of 77%. A similar trend was also recorded across Eastern Europe: between 1960 and 1985 levels of recorded alcohol consumption tripled in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and doubled in Bulgaria and in Poland during the 1970s, food spending increased by just 4%, while spending on alcohol increased by as much as 45%! (Volgyes, Social Deviance in Eastern Europe). Although this increase can partly be explained by inflation and general price rises, these figures still represent a disproportionate increase in consumption.

"нет!" - Communist propaganda discouraged excessive drinking but in reality levels of alcohol consumption remained high across the communist bloc.


I’ve been giving some thought as to why levels of alcohol consumption may have remained so high in the communist bloc:

Social Acceptability: Although the regimes’ officially tried to discourage heavy drinking, in practice social attitudes remained much more tolerant. Alcohol continued to play a significant role in the social sphere under communism, remaining popularly associated with a wide range of public holidays, festivities and celebrations involving family, friends and workmates. Social drinking was common practice regardless of an individuals’ socio-economic status, level of education, age or gender. While heavy drinking was traditionally perceived as being a male activity, it also became increasingly acceptable for women to drink socially and cases of alcoholism among women increased across the communist block For example, in 1940 only 4% of women were classed as ‘heavy drinkers’ in the USSR but by the early 1990s this had increased to 15%, while almost 90% of women admitted to more moderate consumption of alcohol on a regular basis (White). In The Blue Strangler Kochan even talks about womens’ magazines promoting a ‘Vodka and Sausage Diet’ to East German readers in the 1980s!

Economic Function: Good quality Russian vodka, Hungarian palinka (fruit brandy) and French cognac were all popular commodities on the communist-era black market, with bribes involving alcohol commonly used to ‘grease the wheels’ of economic exchange. Kochan points out that in the GDR, a good imported cognac cost around 80 marks at a time when the average workers salary was only 500 marks, so was a popular ‘gift’, often presented to those in positions of authority or influence as a mark of respect, to secure favours and establish beneficial relationships. For those who could not afford access to such ‘luxuries’ however, the black market also provided ready access to the aforementioned samogon – illegally distilled, cheaply produced and often highly concentrated ‘moonshine’.

Escapism: Many individuals who drank heavily claimed they did so because alcohol provided them with a means of escapism; a temporary refuge from the deprivation, drabness and frustrations of everyday life under communism. One report, compiled in 1970s Bulgaria, suggested that ‘the monotonous lives led by many youngsters, disillusionment and imitation of bad Western habits’ encouraged high levels of youth drinking, while a second report, compiled by Charter 77 in 1983, claimed that alcoholism in Eastern Europe was ‘aggravated by the drabness, monotony and regimentation’ of everyday life under communism.

 The Hangover.

The latter decades of communism saw increasing official concern about levels of drunkenness and alcohol dependency across the communist bloc. Lower levels of economic production were blamed on excessive alcohol consumption. Absenteeism from work was frequently the result of alcohol-related illness and it is noticeable that levels of absenteeism tended to spike on days directly following payday and public holidays! The growing practice of drinking during working hours was also blamed for increasing the number of accidents in the workplace. More broadly, drunkenness was often cited as a causative factor for other social ills including divorce, juvenile delinquency, crime, suicide, illness, birth defects and rising mortality rates. Drunkenness was cited as the biggest single cause of accidental drowning inEastern Europeand each year during the harsh winters there were numerous reports published about hapless drunks who had fallen asleep outside and died due to exposure to the elements.

As time wore on the economic and social ‘hangover’ became increasingly difficult to ignore. However, state policy remained primarily reactive, based on a combination of promoting re-education, disseminating anti-alcohol propaganda (leaflets with such enticing titles as How Drink Corrupts Man were frequently distributed in schools, workplaces and subway stations, while some fine examples of Soviet anti-alcohol propaganda can be viewed here!) and attempts to restrict the availability of alcohol through legal channels. A number of ‘sobriety clubs’ were also promoted across Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. Some short-term custodial care was provided, most commonly in the form of meditsinskii vytrezvitel or ‘sobering up stations’, which operated in many communist bloc countries including Czechoslovakia, Poland and the USSR. These ‘stations’ aimed to get drunkards off the streets and provide them with a hot shower or steam bath and a bed for the night while they sobered up, in exchange for a nominal charge. A handful of more intensive rehabilitation centres were established but were under-funded and under-resourced. Generally, little in the way of longer-term treatment to reduce alcohol dependency was developed because ideologically, alcoholism continued to be viewed as a ‘culpable deviancy’ rather than as a medical sickness.

Soviet Anti-Alcohol Propaganda: the caption on the poster reads "Prisoner".

Anti-Alcohol Campaigns.

As early as 1958 however, Soviet Premier Khrushchev called for a ‘more determined struggle against alcoholism’. Memorandums encouraged Communist Party officials to ‘set a good example’ by not publicly indulging in heavy drinking or attending drunken parties! Despite this, several communist leaders gained reputations as voracious drinkers – one of Brezhnev’s contemporaries described how, in the evenings, he ‘laced into vodka at a terrifying rate’. A number of ‘anti-alcohol’ campaigns were implemented in various countries across the communist block throughout the 1970s and 1980s but these early campaigns were half hearted at best and met with very limited success, as they failed to tackle the root cause of the problem.

It was under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev during  the final years of the USSRthat the most serious state-led attempt to reduce alcohol consumption occurred, in the form of the infamous Anti-Alcohol campaign launched in May 1985. Gorbachev’s campaign introduced stricter legislation regulating the production and sale of alcohol, higher prices, promotion of a new propaganda campaign and the emergence of a temperance movement which came to boast 12 million members. At the same time, the Glasnost of the 1980s provided the first real indications that the scale of alcohol dependency in the communist bloc was significantly higher than the regimes had previously allowed, as the media began to publish stories that really addressed the true extent of the problem.

Although launched with the best of intentions, the campaign was deeply unpopular, quickly earning Gorbachev the derogatory title of the ‘mineral’nyi sekretar’ – the ‘Mineral-water Secretary’. Long queues formed outside of state sanctioned liquor stores during the limited hours when they were open and illegal alcohol production became ‘big business’. Gorbachev’s campaign thus had an effect similar to that of prohibition in 1920s America, as illegal distillation was quickly taken over by criminal gangs. Methods of production became increasingly sophisticated and much more extensive – even leading to a sugar shortage in 1986-87! As a result, the number of samogon producers prosecuted in the USSR increased from 80,000 in 1985 to 397,000 by 1987 (Tarschys, The Success of a Failure: Gorbachev’s Alcohol Policy, 1985-88, 1993). Many of the most desperate drinkers turned to other substitutes, consuming cleaning products, cologne and narcotic drugs, which placed a larger burden on the already overstretched medical sector. Between 1986-1987 more than 10 million individuals were arrested for violation of the new anti-alcohol legislation. Perhaps most damaging however, were the economic results of the campaign. Between 1960s-1980s sales of alcoholic beverages in theUSSR had nearly quadrupled in value and by the mid-1980s receipts from alcohol equated to about 1/3 of total government revenue (White). The anti-alcohol campaign thus led to a total estimated loss in revenue to the Soviet state of 50-100 billion rubles, at a time when economic revitalisation was seen as a priority. Little wonder then, that the campaign was prematurely abandoned in October 1988!



June 21, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment