Integrating Children, Childhood, and Youth into the Undergraduate Russian Survey

Since Jackie so ably made the case for the importance of introducing childhood and youth to history students, I’ll move on to discuss how this can be done in the undergraduate classroom. Like many of you, I teach a two-semester introductory survey, broken into “Russia to 1861” and “Russia Since 1861.”

Getting students to think about age as a useful category of analysis is both easier and harder than you might think. For whatever reasons, exercises involving children/youth are among the most popular I do in survey courses. Maybe analyzing children seems “easier” to undergraduates than probing gender or class or economics. After all, students know they have experience as children. For traditional college students, their childhoods are still quite near. The idea that age (both chronological and developmental) is a key factor in how people experience, interpret, and engage the world around them makes sense to them. Students often express that they find sources about or by children relatable, and their collective reactions – often passionate and empathetic – affirm this engagement.

The flipside of this enthusiasm is that students tend to think they “get” childhood and youth because they ARE (or were) children and youth – in the same way that American college students think they “know” American history simply because they are American. Without some prodding, their analysis can be limited in depth or sophistication, or limited by their own childhood experiences. There is a tendency to overpersonalize and underanalyze – i.e., “If I were in this situation, I would …” or “This was not a normal childhood because …” – which is not necessarily the point of the exercise. The trick, then, is to draw students in with the accessibility and interest that sources about children seem to generate, while continually pushing them to think like a historian.

There is a wealth of resources available for and relevant to childhood and youth in Russian history, though most are applicable to the second half or a twentieth-century survey. In addition to those listed by Jackie in her previous post, here are some of my favorite primary sources.

Russia to 1861Domostroi is a great way to introduce the concept of childhood, and to questions about parent-child relationships, gender and childhood, definitions of childhood, upbringing, Orthodoxy and childhood, and, as an elite document, class and childhood. Students can use Carolyn Pouncy’s edition or excerpts like these. Another kind of childhood can be explored using either A Life Under Russian Serfdom: The Memoirs of Savva Dmitrievich Purlevskii by Savva Purlevskii, translated and edited by Boris B. Gorshkov, or Up from Serfdom: My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804-1824 by Aleksandr Nikitenko, translated by Helen Jacobson. With these, childhood can be related to serfdom, society, material culture, family, and transitions to youth and adulthood. A comparison of Nikitenko’s memoir with Leo Tolstoy’s semi-autobiographical Childhood could be productive. Karolina Pavlova’s A Double Life helps to illuminate the position and options of girls in elite imperial society, while Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is the quintessential generations novel.

Russia Since 1861 – Tian-Shaanskaia’s Village Life in Late Tsarist Russia, edited by David Ransel, leads to excellent discussions about “modern” childhood. Memoirs about childhood include S. I. Kanatchikov’s From the Story of My Life, Nina Lugovskaya’s I Want to Live, Anatole Konstantin’s A Red Boyhood, Ella Fonyakova’s That Winter’s Bread: A Child’s View of the Leningrad Siege (fiction, but autobiographical), or Elena Gorokhova’s A Mountain of Crumbs. Don Raleigh’s recent oral history project, Soviet Baby Boomers, provides another way to explore Soviet childhood and youth. The website Seventeen Moments has a wealth of resources: for example, the 1921 subheading “Homeless Children” includes an essay by Lewis Siegelbaum, 8 images, a musical selection (with lyrics translated into English), and two videos. Children feature prominently in Soviet posters, and good collections can be found in the Swarthmore Peace Collection and, where you can create a customized collection based on date or topic. Young Pioneer music can be found here. Film excerpts – i.e., Eisenstein’s Odessa steps scene or the Teutonic Knights burning children in “Aleksandr Nevskii” –  provoke discussion about the constructs and uses of childhood/children in the arts and propaganda, as can whole films such as “Ivan’s Childhood,” made available with English subtitles by MosFilm, and Soviet animation such as “Pioneer Violin” or “The Millionaire.” Material culture and questions of place and space can be explored at the excellent virtual museum at “Communal Living in Russia” where students can create their own tours utilizing the site’s essays, photographs, videos, and documents.

Incorporating childhood and children’s history into your Russian survey courses has several benefits. For most of your students, children offer a “new” historical voice they have never considered. Talking about children or the construction of childhood will complicate their perceptions of the family, education, and culture in Russian history. It will certainly enrich your discussions about Soviet society, generational change, and memory: because the creation of the New Soviet Man so depended on the state’s success (real or imagined) in bringing up children properly, children were critical symbols of Soviet achievement. Pedagogically, the topic adapts easily to primary source, media, or image analysis, writing assignments, or book discussions. Perhaps most importantly, you will provide your students with a set of questions and an approach that can be used productively in their other history courses or future research.