Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Bolshevik Assault on Childhood

As a high-ranking Soviet official for many decades, and one of Mikhail Gorbachev's chief political lieutenants during the era of Perestroika, Alexander Yakovlev often came face to face with many of the worst features of Soviet political life. For instance, even as a successful party leader he often came very close to being cast in the role of scapegoat for bureaucratic or even anti-Semitic purges. Written in the twilight of his life, Yakovlev's brilliant diatribe against his country's seventy year experiment in Communism, A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia, is a damning indictment of the whole of Soviet history. According to Yakovlev, the Soviet experiment was morally bankrupt right from its inception, with Lenin sharing in much of the blame for what went wrong. Yakovlev's polemic against the Bolshevik Party is neatly organized into chapters that explain the Soviet government's villainy toward specific social sectors, including children, peasants, clergymen, intellectuals, and non-Bolshevik socialists.

Let's examine one of these oppressed social sectors. Social historians often concentrate their attention on the peasantry, who suffered so mightily at the hands of the proletarian brothers. To be sure, the collectivization campaigns, kulak repressions, and man-made famine deserve to be studied in depth by historians of early Bolshevism. However, Yakovlev asks readers to consider Lenin's brutal treatment of children, since their defenselessness was cynically and fully exploited by the Communist regime at its inception.

The exploitation of children may be a byproduct of any form of authoritarian government. But Yakolev points out that the Bolshevik government deserves special opprobrious for its legalistic approach to hurting children. In the first place, Bolshevik decrees consistently lowered the legal age at which children could be held accountable for any number of so-called crimes against the state, including vague formulations related to anti-Soviet "sedition." This of course inevitably led to the legal execution of ever-younger children, to mention only the most extreme of a host of execrable Soviet punishments. Accordingly, a twelve year old could be punished severely, perhaps even killed, for a crime. The fact that this crime might be little more than stealing food to survive or observing a religious holiday adds another dimension to Soviet conceptions of justice and legality.

In the second place, Bolshevik morality made children as well as other family members accountable for the crimes of parents and other relatives. Therefore, it was very common for children to be exiled or imprisoned for something their parents were alleged to have done. The sins of the father were truly the sins of the sons. The Bolsheviks even created the concept of "disgraced childhood." If your parents had been a political or even class enemy, you could expect social ostracism and economic handicaps at the very least. Another common practice during the Civil War was for children to be held hostage to encourage the good behavior of their parents, although it should be noted that the White Guard was guilty of equally abominable actions. And Yakovlev is at pains to demonstrate that this type of policy was explicitly endorsed by Lenin and other top Bolsheviks.

In the end, Soviet children suffered most from the generic policies of a government that sponsored violence as a matter of course. Collectivization, the Ukrainian famine, ethnic deportations, purges, and the similar policies, directly or indirectly led to the death or suffering of countless Soviet children throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Most of these policies did not deliberately target children, but children could be expected to die more quickly and frequently than adults during periods of state-sponsored violence, disease and famine. And when children survived, often their parents did not. The result, a large population of unregulated juveniles in Moscow and other cities, were dealt with mercilessly by Soviet authorities. So-called delinquency was unacceptable in a socialist paradise in the making.

Yakovlev is right to examine Bolshevik attitudes toward children, for they certainly provide a clearer picture of the consequences of illiberalism. The classic story of the tsar's murdered children--Alexei was only fourteen was he was shot to death with his parents and siblings--was merely the opening salvo in a century of violence against the most vulnerable segment of Russian soviety. The mythic story of the Soviet child hero Comrade Pavlik, who denounced his parents and was then martyred for his troubles by an enraged uncle, is another sad reflection on the state's attitude toward children. Encouraged to privilege the nation over loyalty to parents, generations of Soviet children were taught to admire the example of the murdered child whose schooling had eveidentally helped him to become detached from his own family members.

One irony of the Soviet Union's early brutality toward children can be seen in the fact that Stalin not only killed his leading enemies, who were shared responsibility with Lenin for the policy of targeting children for political and legal persecution, he had their children killed as well. Thus died the sons of Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, among countless others. One final grim irony is that the children of the politically suspect were frequently educated by the Cheka or its successors in what amounted to re-education barracks.

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