7. Russian Childhood

Catriona KellyThis week’s Podularity podcast features an interview with Catriona Kelly, who has just published a monumental new history of childhood in twentieth-century Russia. The book, Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia 1890-1991, draws not only on a vast amount of archival research but also on hundreds of interviews with Russians of all ages in which they discuss their memories of childhood, both happy and unhappy.

What quickly becomes clear is that the familiar western impression of identically dressed children paying homage to ‘Beloved Stalin’ is a crude caricature of a much richer, more complex reality. The book reveals what childhood was really like for millions of Soviet children, shedding light on everything from the swaddling of peasant children to life in orphanages or children’s games and toys.

Children's World coverAs Catriona explains in our interview, she wanted to convey ‘what Russian schools looked like, what school food was like, what people’s relations to their parents were like in single-room communal apartments – essentially to show how the “children’s world” was not just a cliché, but also the way I’m trying to see the context of the everyday life experience of children.’

Here are some extracts from the reviews:

‘Kelly is good on historical context and change, and fair to the infinite variety of what went on, from the appalling to the heroic and imaginative … Her level-headed tackling of her subject serves to remind us that an account of public provision for children in Britain from 1890 onwards would not be a tale of unalloyed triumph, and that there were impressive achievements in the Soviet Union: the move from very low literacy levels to a respectable position among the developed countries of the world, an expanded education system and access for most children to sports and the arts.’

Jane Miller, Guardian

‘Kelly’s huge and compelling panorama of the experience of children in the world ruled by Moscow draws on an impressive range of literary, political and oral-history material. It delves into everything from Tsarist-era peasant birthing habits and developments in potty training to the politics of writing books for children and modern teenagers’ attitudes to shopping. Yet Kelly’s spare, sardonic style, and her fair-mindedness, distil an apparently diffuse subject into an admirably clear analysis of the development of Soviet thinking.’

Vanora Bennett, Independent

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  1. Pingback: Catriona Kelly on shadows of St Petersburg’s past | Podularity

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