Perception in the Soviet Union was one of the most critical concerns of the government, from identifying “kulaks,” real or imagined, to outing prisoners-of-war turned German spies, and the legions of orphaned vagrants in the streets were no exception. The prospect of orphaned children in the public eye created a challenge to the effort to portray the Soviet Union as an idyllic society free of the capitalist-based sins of the West. Eventually, however, children were subjected to the same “work or starve” ethic that their elders found themselves placed under, and the focus of rescuing wayward children became an initiative to build socialism rather than add any particular meaningful happiness to their lives. Children were considered a symbol of the state, an innovative presence to foster for the future, and thus could not be allowed to become tainted or lose their value to the state.
More than merely failing to contribute to the image of a healthy Soviet family life, many vagrant children became beggars or thieves living on railways. This blatant lawlessness struck at the regime as an inability to police their own house, as it were. The government response to child-crime was a far cry from the salvation campaigns aimed at rescuing orphans. Waifs were to be ousted from their train station hideouts in raids reminiscent of hunting game. Just as children were measured in productivity by the same measure as older Soviets, so too were they subject to the same level of prosecution.