Salvation and Liquidation: Two Sides of the Same Coin

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.

Vagrant Minors in Post War USSR

Fürst’s article concerning the orphans and those who were living on the streets aims to distinguish the USSR’s claim of trying to save the children, while also subtly hiding this problem and keeping it out of the public eye.

Fürst begins by declaring that the the original ideal of the Soviet Union was to save the children and relieve them of their horrible state.  Fürst claims that this position was most prominent during the 1930’s and the beginning of the war period.  However, the problem became more about solving the issue, rather than the issue itself near the war’s end.  Fürst states the Soviets wanted this “-as a phenomenon- […] to be liquidated” as subtly as possible, as the mere fact that children existed in this state was “an embarrassment to the government” (233).

Fürst first looks at the 1930’s and how children were vital to the USSR, as the new generation that will become productive and helpful members of society.  While education had significant undertones of communism and the Soviet party, students nonetheless excelled in academic and artistic endeavors.  This devotion to the next generation continued until the end of the Second World War.  ‘Saving’ the children was of utmost importance, and those who had their parents killed during the war were to be saved by other members of society.

At the end of the war, it was clear to the Soviet government that the children were going to be a hindrance to the populace.  With tens of thousands of children being orphaned, many resorted to street gangs and criminal activity, which mostly consisted of theft.  Fürst points out that a large number of these children had already been ‘saved’ once and were, in fact, trying to run away from the  orphanages, factory schools or foster places”, where the children had previously been residing.  The Soviet government became increasingly frustrated with its failed efforts, as well as the embarrassment of being unable to uphold one of its core ideologies: that children were one of the most vital part of the USSR.  Fürst describes the decline into ‘liquidation’ of the soviet police, which she equates to “animal hunts” (250).  These raids resulted in a substantial number of arrests made on homeless children, resulting in being sent to their parents, factory schools, and sometimes labor camps.

Do you agree with what the Soviet Union did, in terms or resorting to arresting these vagrant children?

Do you think the Soviet government exaggerated the embarrassment they felt with this ‘black mark’ on both a national and international scale?

Children of the War

The drive for the collective propagated the Soviet image during World War II. In his article “Between Salvation and Liquidation,” Furst notes that images of crying, bedraggled children could be found between posters of heroic soldiers and dutiful citizens. The presence of street children and orphans was not to be blamed solely on their parents; the Soviet Union, as a collective, was at fault. Therefore, it was the duty of the Motherland as whole to find a solution. Thousands of prospective foster-parents flocked to orphanages, eager to play their part in vanquishing Germany. But were the children really better off with unqualified, duty-bound parents? There is no doubt that the vast majority was physically better off in their new homes; begging is not a consistent food source. However, most of these children carried psychological scars unimaginable to those untouched by war. They deserved a second chance, a fresh start with loving parents who could care for them unconditionally. Clearly, by the number of reports of both runaways and foster-children with “nervousness,” their psychological states were not being well looked after. So did families feel obligated to adopt children? Did they reluctantly take in little girls and boys into homes where they played second fiddle to biological children? Did the Soviet state’s efforts to encourage adoption help or hurt the waifs and orphans?

Between Salvation and Liquidation

Children were the future of Communism. Childhoods were to be happy and foster the next generation of “good” comrades. How would the regime spin the existence of thousands of parentless, homeless, and post traumatically stressed thieves? During the war the humane slogan quickly rose to save these children, adopt them and do your part for the war against the evil fascist. For those living behind the line of the war torn frontlines the people naturally embrace this idea. The rates of adoptions rose significantly. Everyone wanted to help in the war effort. As on teacher said, “Let’s banish the word “orphan” from our usage. There cannot be orphans in our country, where all are mothers.[….] We are raised by the Great Stalin, educated by the Party of Lenin and Stalin, we live in the Soviet Union. Here we cannot speak of orphans. We will speak of wonderful mothers, loyal to the Party of Lenin and Stalin, and of our own children, not of orphans.” ((Julian Furst, Between Salvation and Liquidation: Homeless and Vagrant Children and the Reconstruction of Soviet Society. The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 86, No. 2, The Relaunch of the Soviet Project, 1945-64 (2008) p.243)) Emotions ran high because much was at stake, namely, the achievement of the entire nation.

The war eventually ended and in its wake, the number of street children quickly began to plaque the Soviet regime. The dilemma was difficult to resolve, continued for many years, and surprisingly grew because the street appealed to some children who had parents and homes. Many of these children ran away when caught. Many adopted children exhibited significant indicators of posttraumatic stress. The psychologist could not help with this condition because they had all been victims of the purges. Unfortunately, this problem of street riff raff seemed to be growing like a plaque. Of course, this could not continue and immediate action needed to take place. The creation of children work camps became the solution to do away with these children from public view. As in most correctional institutions, reforms of inappropriate behavior did not take place. Sadly, these victimized children of the war continued to flaunt authority and many became hardened criminals. Silence on the problem of the nonexistent orphans became the new slogan of propaganda.