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?