Children's World, by Catriona Kelly

The kindly side of Uncle Joe

Stalin was no slouch at PR. But his greatest success in this department was probably the pictures showing him grinning benevolently as he hugged a series of thrilled little girls and graciously accepted the bunches of flowers they offered. These photos of the Soviet ruler with child acolytes were published repeatedly from the mid-1930s onwards as the cult of personality (and the Terror) reached a peak. They were illustrations of Stalin's broader message – that he, and the Soviet state he embodied, was the ultimate arbiter of every citizen's happiness. Like a stern parent, he could mete out punishment. But he would reward the good and innocent.

As Catriona Kelly argues in Children's World: Growing up in Russia 1890-1991, the propaganda only worked because the Soviet state did genuinely make great efforts to improve the lot of children – and could, by extension, be presumed to be doing something equally well-meaning in its treatment of adults. Living conditions for children improved dramatically between 1917 and the late 1980s, in spite of the horrors brought by war, famine, forced migrations and the disappearance of parents, friends and teachers in Stalin's political terror.

The state took responsibility for schooling and health, so that by mid-century almost all children had at least basic education. Large numbers of institutions catered for abandoned children and those whose parents could not give them enough care. The Soviet system also made remarkable achievements in more sophisticated areas: allowing children access to the arts and sports.

There was plenty of cruelty in the 70-year Soviet experiment. But the notion that the state would do its utmost to provide the young with a happy childhood was seen as a key proof of the Soviet Union's status as a progressive society. The regime's humane treatment of children did more than anything else to popularise the Soviet order among sceptical intellectuals, as well as peasants and proletarians.

Even today, cared-for children are still turned out in extraordinarily stylised and hard-to-care-for uniforms. Little girls wear spotless white aprons and woolly tights bagging around the ankles. Their long blond plaits are decorated with huge bows. They are visibly the product of a culture that has long idealised, or sentimentalised, childhood.

Half a century after Stalin's death, the aspect of the passing of the Soviet state that Russians most genuinely mourn is the fading of this long-established reverence for childhood. The new Russian state has cut back on social programmes. Rising prices have made it hard for most people to afford the camp holidays and violin, or English or gymnastics, training for their children that were once available without cost.

Even if all Soviet children didn't, in reality, have the opportunity to live the myth, and even if the Soviet system collapsed, at least in part, because its own citizens began to question the value of having so much run by the state, nostalgia at this loss was inevitable. As one of Kelly's interviewees remarked, "Maybe the only good thing in the Soviet Union was the sense of a safe, secure childhood."

Kelly's huge and compelling panorama of the experience of children in the world ruled by Moscow draws on an impressive range of literary, political and oral-history material. It delves into everything from Tsarist-era peasant birthing habits and developments in potty training to the politics of writing books for children and modern teenagers' attitudes to shopping. Yet Kelly's spare, sardonic style, and her fair-mindedness, distil an apparently diffuse subject into an admirably clear analysis of the development of Soviet thinking.

The crisp policy history of the book's first section spells out the failings of Tsarist policy (too authoritarian, yet it left too much social policy in the hands of voluntary organisations, who were nonetheless treated with suspicion by the state) before dealing with the Bolsheviks' enthusiasm for noisy child activists who looked to the state, rather than their parents, for leadership, and with Stalin's U-turn back to favouring more docile child - and adult - citizens. Two subsequent sections deal in fascinating detail with the treatment of orphans and of "family children" – a categorisation that in itself suggests an adult society in crisis.

Unfailingly even-handed, Kelly doesn't shy away from describing the many horrors of the long 20th century in Russia, or from setting Russian experiences in their international context. Child-care practices which might seem cruel now were often regarded, at the time, as normal in other countries too.

She is gentle with the many who chose to believe that young Soviet citizens were supremely happy in childhood, despite all the obvious hardships. "One might," she writes, "move from seeing the idea of a 'fairy-tale childhood' as inevitably associated with false consciousness, and view it, rather, as a possible source of strength and survival in adults enduring pervasive wretchedness that they are not empowered to change." No less encouragingly, Kelly's examples leave the reader with the reassuring possibility that, however apparently crushing a system, with just a scrap of individual love a child may yet grow up all right.

Vanora Bennett's books include 'The Taste of Dreams: an obsession with Russia and caviar' (Headline)
Yale UP £29.99 (714pp) £28.49 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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