Homeless Children

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

The term “besprizornye,” literally translated as the “unattended” or “neglected” but generally understood to mean homeless children, refers to a mass phenomenon occasioned by war, revolution and civil war. How large a phenomenon it was remains unclear, for accurate data on many social phenomena were themselves one of the casualties of the early years of Soviet power, and countless abandoned children managed to elude attempts to count them precisely. It has been estimated that by 1921 there were some 4.5 million besprizornye throughout Soviet Russia. The People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment, which claimed responsibility for rehabilitating street children, set their number in 1922 at five million for the Russian Republic alone. Other sources give higher estimates of seven to 7.5 million by the end of the famine which swept many of the central Russian provinces in 1921-22.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of besprizornye were from working-class or peasant families. Many such families disintegrated under the cumulative impact of combat, flight, hunger and disease. Children found themselves homeless either because of the incapacitation or death of their parents, or because they were discarded by parents incapable of supporting them. Whereas there existed a tradition of relatives or neighbors taking in and adopting abandoned children, the general decline in living standards militated against them being able to do so. The homeless children could appear pathetic and helpless, as undoubtedly many of them were. Abandoned children formed gangs, roamed the streets and alleys in search of sustenance or pleasure, engaged in pilferage, prostitution, and gambling, created their own argot, rode the rails, and pursued other classic pastimes of the criminal underworld. They were, thus, both victims and victimizers, the preyed upon and predators, to be both pitied and feared.

What did the Soviet state do about the proliferation of besprizornye? Initially, responsibility for handling abandoned children was shared by the Commissariat of Health (Narkomzdrav), the Commissariat of Social Security, and the Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros). Throughout the civil war, a myriad of commissions, departments and sub-departments of these commissariats functioned to provide food, medical assistance, housing, education and vocational training. Assistance was also provided by the American Red Cross and other foreign or international famine-relief agencies. By the early 1920s, Narkompros had developed three stages of institutions, those responsible for removing children from the street; those observing and evaluating them; and those dedicated to rehabilitation. The most common site for rehabilitation was the children’s home (detdom). The Russian republic contained over six thousand in 1921-22, some 2,800 by 1925 and less than two thousand by 1928. The number of children housed in the Russian republic was 125,000 in 1919, 400,000 in 1920, and 540,000 in 1921 and 1922, after which it declined, reaching 129,000 by the end of the decade. Facilities were often makeshift, supplies were short, and, especially at the height of the famine, mortality was extremely high.

Labor communes, some administered by Narkompros and others by the OGPU, comprised another institution that sought to rehabilitate besprizornye. Best known of all of them was the OGPU’s Dzerzhinskii Labor Commune, established near Kharkov in 1927 and directed by Anton Makarenko. Makarenko’s imposition of strict discipline and regimentation was criticized by many but was also celebrated in the 1931 film, Road to Life. Towards the end of the 1920s it was assumed that the number of besprizornye would continue to dwindle and that soon there would not be a single abandoned child in the Soviet Union. Indeed, by 1931 when Road to Life premiered, it was accompanied by statements that the problem was largely if not entirely historical. Yet, thanks to collectivization and dekulakization, a new cycle of destitution, famine, disease and child abandonment occurred. This time, however, the state was far less willing to publicize the existence of children roaming the countryside and the towns. It also dealt more harshly with them, de-emphasizing their victimization and rehabilitation and resorting to incarceration.

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