Children of 1917 (1917–28)


Elizaveta Drabkina did not recognize her father when she saw him at the Smolny Institute, the Bolshevik headquarters, in October 1917. She had last seen him when she was only five years old, just before he had disappeared into the revolutionary underground. Now, twelve years later, she had forgotten what he looked like. She knew him only by his Party pseudonym. As a secretary at the Smolny Institute, Elizaveta was familiar with the name ‘Sergei Gusev’ from dozens of decrees which he had signed as Chairman of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, the body placed in charge of law and order in the capital. Hurrying along the Smolny’s endless vaulted corridors, where resting soldiers and Red Guards jeered and whistled as she passed, she had distributed these decrees to the makeshift offices of the new Soviet government, housed in the barrack-like classrooms of this former school for noblewomen. But when she told the other secretaries that the signature belonged to her long-lost father, none of them saw anything remarkable in that fact. There was never any suggestion that she should contact him. In these circles, where every Bolshevik was expected to subordinate his personal interests to the common cause, it was considered ‘philistine’ to think about one’s private life at a time when the Party was engaged in the decisive struggle for the liberation of humanity.1

In the end, hunger drove Elizaveta to approach her father. She had just finished lunch in the smoke-filled basement dining hall when a small but muscular and handsome man in military dress and a pince-nez came in, trailed by a retinue of Party workers and Red Guards, and sat down at the long central table, where two soldiers were serving cabbage soup and porridge to the eager proletarians. Elizaveta was still hungry. From a smaller table in the corner, she watched the new arrival as he ate his soup with a spoon in one hand and, with a pencil in the other, signed the papers his followers placed in front of him.

The four secretaries of Iakov Sverdlov, chief Party organizer of the Bolsheviks, the Smolny Institute, October 1917: Drabkina second from right

Suddenly I heard someone call him ‘Comrade Gusev’.

So this must be my father, I realized. Without thinking, I stood up and squeezed my way around the crowded tables towards him.

‘Comrade Gusev, I need you,’ I said. He turned to me. He looked very tired. His eyes were red from lack of sleep.

‘I am listening, comrade!’

‘Comrade Gusev, I am your daughter. Give me three roubles for a meal.’

Perhaps he was so exhausted that all he heard was my request for three roubles.

‘Of course, comrade,’ Gusev said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a green three-rouble note. I took the money, thanked him, and bought another lunch.2

Lenin loved this story. He often called on Drabkina to retell it in the years before his death, in 1924, when she became close to him. The tale took on legendary status in Party circles, illustrating the Bolshevik ideal of personal sacrifice and selfless dedication to the revolutionary cause. As Stalin was to say, ‘A true Bolshevik shouldn’t and couldn’t have a family, because he should give himself wholly to the Party.’3

The Drabkins were a good example of this revolutionary principle. Elizaveta’s father (whose real name was Iakov Drabkin) had joined Lenin’s Social Democrats as a schoolboy in 1895. Her mother, Feodosia, was an important agent (‘Natasha’) in the Party’s underground who took her daughter along as a foil on the frequent trips she made to Helsingfors (Helsinki) to purchase ammunition for the revolutionaries in St Petersburg (the dynamite and cartridges were smuggled back in a bag containing Elizaveta’s toys). After the abortive Revolution of 1905 Elizaveta’s parents were driven into hiding by the tsar’s police. The five-year-old girl went to live with her grandfather in Rostov, where she remained until the February Revolution of 1917, when all the revolutionaries were released by the newly installed Provisional Government.* Elizaveta was reunited with her mother in Petrograd (as St Petersburg was then called). She joined the Bolshevik Party, became a machine-gunner in the Red Guards, took part in the storming of the Winter Palace during the Bolshevik seizure of power on 25 October and was hired as a secretary to Iakov Sverdlov, chief Party organizer of the Bolsheviks. The job brought her to the Smolny, where her father, Gusev, worked.4

The Bolsheviks in power urged their rank and file to follow the example of the revolutionaries in tsarist Russia who had ‘sacrificed their personal happiness and renounced their families to serve the working class’. They made a cult of the ‘selfless revolutionary’, constructing a new morality in which all the old commandments were superseded by the single principle of service to the Party and its cause. In their utopian vision the revolutionary activist was the prototype of a new kind of human being – a ‘collective personality’ living only for the common good – who would populate the future Communist society. Many socialists saw the creation of this human type as the fundamental goal of the Revolution. ‘The new structure of political life demands from us a new structure of the soul,’ wrote Maksim Gorky in the spring of 1917.5

For the Bolsheviks, the radical realization of the ‘collective personality’ involved ‘blowing up the shell of private life’. To allow a ‘distinction between private life and public life’, maintained Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaia, ‘will lead sooner or later to the betrayal of Communism’.6According to the Bolsheviks, the idea of ‘private life’ as separate from the realm of politics was nonsensical, for politics affected everything; there was nothing in a person’s so-called ‘private life’ that was not political. The personal sphere should thus be subject to public supervision and control. Private spaces beyond the state’s control were regarded by the Bolsheviks as dangerous breeding grounds for counter-revolutionaries, who had to be exposed and rooted out.

Elizaveta rarely saw her father after their encounter. They were both preoccupied with revolutionary activities. After 1917, Elizaveta continued to work in Sverdlov’s office; during the Civil War (1918–20), she served in the Red Army, first as a medical assistant and later as a machine-gunner, fighting the White, or counter-revolutionary, armies and the Western powers that supported them in Siberia, the Baltic lands and south Russia. During the campaign against Admiral Kolchak’s White Army on the Eastern Front she even fought under the command of her father, who by that time held a senior position in the Revolutionary Military Council, the central command organ of the Soviet forces, headed by Leon Trotsky. Elizaveta frequently heard her father address the soldiers, but she never approached him, because, as she later put it, she did not think that Bolsheviks should ‘concern themselves with personal affairs’. They met only twice during the Civil War, once at Sverdlov’s funeral in March 1919 and then, later that year, at an official meeting in the Kremlin. In the 1920s, when both father and daughter were actively involved in Party work in Moscow, they met more frequently, and even lived together for a while, but they never became close. They had spent so long apart that they could not form a familial relationship. ‘My father never talked about himself to me,’ Elizaveta recalled, ‘and I realize now that I got to know him only after he died [in 1933], when people told me stories about him.’7

The Civil War was not just a military struggle against the White armies: it was a revolutionary war against the private interests of the old society. To fight the Whites the Bolsheviks developed their first version of the planned economy (War Communism), which would become a model for Stalin’s Five Year Plans. They tried to stamp out private trade and property (there were even plans to replace money with universal rationing); seized the peasants’ grain to feed the cities and the troops; conscripted millions of people into labour armies, which were used on the ‘economic front’ to cut down trees for fuel, build roads and repair railways; imposed experimental forms of collective labour and living in dormitories and barracks attached to factories; waged a war against religion, persecuting priests and believers and closing hundreds of churches; and silenced all dissent and opposition to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. On the ‘internal front’ of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks unleashed a campaign of terror (the ‘Red Terror’) against ‘the bourgeoisie’ – former tsarist officials, landowners, merchants, ‘kulak’ peasants, petty traders and the old intelligentsia – whose individualistic values made them potential supporters of the Whites and other ‘counter-revolutionaries’. This violent purging of society, the Bolsheviks believed, offered a short-cut to the Communist utopia.

By the spring of 1921, the policies of War Communism had ruined the Soviet economy and brought much of peasant Russia to the brink of famine. One-quarter of the peasantry in Soviet Russia was starving. Throughout the country the peasants rose up against the Bolshevik regime and its grain requisitionings in a series of rebellions which Lenin himself said were ‘far more dangerous than all the Whites put together’. In much of rural Russia Soviet power had virtually ceased to exist, as the peasants took control of the villages and cut off grain supplies to the cities. Hungry workers went on strike. The sailors of the Kronstadt naval base, who had helped the Bolsheviks seize power in nearby Petrograd in October 1917, now turned against them in a mutiny whose Anarchist-inspired banners of revolt called for free elections to the Soviets, ‘freedom of speech, press and assembly for all who labour’, and ‘freedom for the peasants to toil the land as they see fit’. It was clear that the Bolsheviks were facing a revolutionary situation. ‘We are barely holding on,’ Lenin acknowledged at the start of March. Trotsky, who had called the Kronstadt sailors the ‘pride and joy of the Revolution’, led the assault against the naval base. Military might and ruthless terror were used in equal measure against the peasant uprisings. An estimated 100,000 people were imprisoned or deported and 15,000 people shot during the suppression of the revolts. But Lenin also realized that to stem the tide of popular revolt and get the peasants to resume food deliveries to the cities, the Bolsheviks would have to abandon the detested policies of War Communism and bring back free trade. Having defeated the White armies, the Bolsheviks surrendered to the peasantry.8

The New Economic Policy (NEP), which Lenin introduced at the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921, replaced food requisitioning with a relatively lenient tax in kind and legalized the return of small-scale private trade and manufacturing. It favoured agriculture and the production of consumer goods over the development of heavy industry. As Lenin saw it, the NEP was a temporary but necessary concession to the smallholding peasantry – wedded to the principles of private family production – to save the Revolution and get the country on its feet again. He talked about it lasting ‘not less than a decade and probably more’. The restoration of the market brought back life to the Soviet economy. Private trade responded quickly to the chronic shortages that had built up in the years of Revolution and the Civil War. By 1921, the Soviet population was living in patched-up clothes and shoes, cooking with broken utensils, drinking from cracked cups. Everybody needed something new. Traders set up booths and stalls, flea-markets boomed, and peasant traders brought foodstuffs to the towns. Licensed by new laws, private cafés, shops and restaurants, night clubs and brothels, hospitals and clinics, credit and saving associations, even small-scale manufacturers sprang up like mushrooms after the rain. Moscow and Petrograd, graveyard cities in the Civil War, suddenly burst into life, with noisy traders, busy cabbies and bright shops lighting up the streets just as they had done before 1917.

To many Bolsheviks the return to the market seemed like a betrayal of the Revolution. The introduction of the NEP was met with deep suspicion by the Party’s rank and file (even Lenin’s ‘favourite’, Nikolai Bukharin, who later became the main defender of the NEP, warmed to it only slowly during the course of 1921–3), and Lenin had to use all his powers of persuasion and authority to force it through at the congress. Among the urban workers, in particular, there was a widespread feeling that the NEP was sacrificing their class interests to the peasantry, which was growing rich at their expense, because of higher food prices. It seemed to them that the boom in private trade would inevitably lead to a widening gap between rich and poor and to the restoration of capitalism. They dubbed the NEP the ‘New Exploitation of the Proletariat’. Much of their anger was focused on the ‘NEPmen’, the private traders who thrived in the 1920s. In the popular imagination, formed by Soviet propaganda and cartoons, the ‘NEPmen’ dressed their wives and mistresses in diamonds and furs, drove around in huge imported cars, snored at the opera, sang in restaurants and boasted loudly in expensive hotel bars of the dollar fortunes they had wasted at the newly opened race-tracks and casinos. The legendary spending of this newly wealthy class, set against the backdrop of mass unemployment and urban poverty in the 1920s, gave rise to a bitter feeling of resentment among those who thought that the Revolution should end inequality.

On the ‘internal front’ the NEP entailed a reprieve for the vestiges of ‘bourgeois culture’ which Communism had promised to eliminate but could not yet do without. It brought a halt to the war against the old middle class and the professional intelligentsia, whose expertise was needed by the Soviet economy. Between 1924 and 1928 there was also a temporary relaxation in the war against religion: churches were no longer closed or the clergy persecuted at the rate that they had been before (or would be afterwards); although the propaganda war against the Church continued apace, people were allowed to observe their faith much as they had always done. Finally, the NEP allowed a breathing space for the old domestic habits and family traditions of private life, a source of real concern among many Bolsheviks, who feared that the customs and mentalities of Russia’s ‘petty bourgeoisie’ – the millions of small-scale traders and producers whose numbers were swollen by the NEP – would hold back and even undermine their revolutionary campaign. ‘Imprisoning the minds of millions of toilers,’ Stalin declared in 1924, ‘the attitudes and habits which we inherited from the old society are the most dangerous enemy of socialism.’9

The Bolsheviks envisaged the building of their Communist utopia as a constant battle against custom and habit. With the end of the Civil War they prepared for a new and longer struggle on the ‘internal front’: a revolutionary war for the liberation of the communistic personality through the eradication of individualistic (‘bourgeois’) behaviour and deviant habits (prostitution, alcoholism, hooliganism and religion) inherited from the old society. There was little dispute among the Bolsheviks that this battle to transform human nature would take decades. There was only disagreement about when the battle should begin. Marx had taught that the alteration of consciousness was dependent on changes to the material base, and Lenin, when he introduced the NEP, affirmed that until the material conditions of a Communist society had been created – a process that would take an entire historical epoch – there was no point trying to engineer a Communist system of morality in private life. But most Bolsheviks did not accept that the NEP required a retreat from the private sphere. On the contrary, as they were increasingly inclined to think, active engagement was essential at every moment and in every battlefield of everyday life – in the family, the home and the inner world of the individual, where the persistence of old mentalities was a major threat to the Party’s basic ideological goals. And as they watched the individualistic instincts of the ‘petty-bourgeois’ masses become stronger in the culture of the NEP, they redoubled their efforts. As Anatoly Lunacharsky wrote in 1927: ‘The so-called sphere of private life cannot slip away from us, because it is precisely here that the final goal of the Revolution is to be reached.’10

The family was the first arena in which the Bolsheviks engaged the struggle. In the 1920s, they took it as an article of faith that the ‘bourgeois family’ was socially harmful: it was inward-looking and conservative, a stronghold of religion, superstition, ignorance and prejudice; it fostered egotism and material acquisitiveness, and oppressed women and children. The Bolsheviks expected that the family would disappear as Soviet Russia developed into a fully socialist system, in which the state took responsibility for all the basic household functions, providing nurseries, laundries and canteens in public centres and apartment blocks. Liberated from labour in the home, women would be free to enter the workforce on an equal footing with men. The patriarchal marriage, with its attendant sexual morals, would die out – to be replaced, the radicals believed, by ‘free unions of love’.

As the Bolsheviks saw it, the family was the biggest obstacle to the socialization of children. ‘By loving a child, the family turns him into an egotistical being, encouraging him to see himself as the centre of the universe,’ wrote the Soviet educational thinker Zlata Lilina.11 Bolshevik theorists agreed on the need to replace this ‘egotistic love’ with the ‘rational love’ of a broader ‘social family’. The ABC of Communism (1919) envisaged a future society in which parents would no longer use the word ‘my’ to refer to their children, but would care for all the children in their community. Among the Bolsheviks there were different views about how long this change would take. Radicals argued that the Party should take direct action to undermine the family immediately, but most accepted the arguments of Bukharin and NEP theorists that in a peasant country such as Soviet Russia the family would remain for some time the primary unit of production and consumption and that it would weaken gradually as the country made the transition to an urban socialist society.

Meanwhile the Bolsheviks adopted various strategies – such as the transformation of domestic space – intended to accelerate the disintegration of the family. To tackle the housing shortages in the overcrowded cities the Bolsheviks compelled wealthy families to share their apartments with the urban poor – a policy known as ‘condensation’ (uplotnenie). During the 1920s the most common type of communal apartment (kommunalka) was one in which the original owners occupied the main rooms on the ‘parade side’ while the back rooms were filled by other families. At that time it was still possible for the former owners to select their co-inhabitants, provided they fulfilled the ‘sanitary norm’ (a per capita allowance of living space which fell from 13.5 square metres in 1926 to just 9 square metres in 1931). Many families brought in servants or acquaintances to prevent strangers being moved in to fill up the surplus living space. The policy had a strong ideological appeal, not just as a war on privilege, which is how it was presented in the propaganda of the new regime (‘War against the Palaces!’), but also as part of a crusade to engineer a more collective way of life. By forcing people to share communal apartments, the Bolsheviks believed that they could make them communistic in their basic thinking and behaviour. Private space and property would disappear, the individual (‘bourgeois’) family would be replaced by communistic fraternity and organization, and the life of the individual would become immersed in the community. From the middle of the 1920s, new types of housing were designed with this transformation in mind. The most radical Soviet architects, like the Constructivists in the Union of Contemporary Architects, proposed the complete obliteration of the private sphere by building ‘commune houses’ (doma kommuny) where all the property, including even clothes and underwear, would be shared by the inhabitants, where domestic tasks like cooking and childcare would be assigned to teams on a rotating basis, and where everybody would sleep in one big dormitory, divided by gender, with private rooms for sexual liaisons. Few houses of this sort were ever built, although they loomed large in the utopian imagination and futuristic novels such as Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We (1920). Most of the projects which did materialize, like the Narkomfin (Ministry of Finance) house in Moscow (1930) designed by the Constructivist Moisei Ginzburg, tended to stop short of the full communal form and included both private living spaces and communalized blocks for laundries, baths, dining rooms and kitchens, nurseries and schools. Yet the goal remained to marshal architecture in a way that would induce the individual to move away from private (‘bourgeois’) forms of domesticity to a more collective way of life.12

The Bolsheviks also intervened more directly in domestic life. The new Code on Marriage and the Family (1918) established a legislative framework that clearly aimed to facilitate the breakdown of the traditional family. It removed the influence of the Church from marriage and divorce, making both a process of simple registration with the state. It granted the same legal rights to de facto marriages (couples living together) as it gave to legal marriages. The Code turned divorce from a luxury for the rich to something that was easy and affordable for all. The result was a huge increase in casual marriages and the highest rate of divorce in the world – three times higher than in France or Germany and twenty-six times higher than in England by 1926 – as the collapse of the Christian-patriarchal order and the chaos of the revolutionary years loosened sexual morals along with family and communal ties.13

In the early years of Soviet power, family breakdown was so common among revolutionary activists that it almost constituted an occupational hazard. Casual relationships were practically the norm in Bolshevik circles during the Civil War, when any comrade could be sent at a moment’s notice to some distant sector of the front. Such relaxed attitudes remained common throughout the 1920s, as Party activists and their young emulators in the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) were taught to put their commitment to the proletariat before romantic love or family. Sexual promiscuity was more pronounced in the Party’s youthful ranks than among Soviet youth in general. Many Bolsheviks regarded sexual licence as a form of liberation from bourgeois moral conventions and as a sign of ‘Soviet modernity’. Some even advocated promiscuity as a way to counteract the formation of coupling relationships that separated lovers from the collective and detracted from their loyalty to the Party.14

It was a commonplace that the Bolshevik made a bad husband and father because the demands of the Party took him away from the home. ‘We Communists don’t know our own families,’ remarked one Moscow Bolshevik. ‘You leave early and come home late. You seldom see your wife and almost never see your children.’ At Party congresses, where the issue was discussed throughout the 1920s, it was recognized that Bolsheviks were far more likely than non-Party husbands to abandon wives and families, and that this had much to do with the primacy of Party loyalties over sexual fidelity. But in fact the problem of absent wives and mothers was almost as acute in Party circles, as indeed it was in the broader circles of the Soviet intelligentsia, where most women were involved in the public sphere.15

Trotsky argued that the Bolsheviks were more affected than others by domestic breakdown because they were ‘most exposed to the influence of new conditions’. As pioneers of a modern way of life, Trotsky wrote in 1923, the ‘Communist vanguard merely passes sooner and more violently through what is inevitable’ for the population as a whole.16 In many Party households there was certainly a sense of pioneering a new type of family – one that liberated both parents for public activities – albeit at the cost of intimate involvement with their children.

Anna Karpitskaia and her husband Pyotr Nizovtsev were high-ranking Party activists in Leningrad (as Petrograd was called after Lenin’s death). They lived in a private apartment near the Smolny Institute with their three children, including Marksena,* Anna’s daughter from her first marriage, who was born in 1923. Marksena rarely saw her parents, who left for work before she awoke in the morning and returned very late at night. ‘I felt the lack of a mother’s attention,’ recalls Marksena, ‘and was always jealous of children whose mothers did not work.’ In the absence of their parents the children were placed in the care of two servants, a housekeeper and a cook, both peasant women who had recently arrived from the countryside. However, as the eldest child, from the age of four, as far as she recalls, Marksena had ‘complete authority and responsibility for the household’. The cook would ask her what to make for dinner and ask her for the money to buy food from a special store reserved for Party officials. Marksena would report to her mother if the servants broke the household rules, ‘or if they did something I didn’t think was right’, but more often, she recalls, ‘I would tell them off myself if they did anything I did not like.’ Marksena felt responsible – she understood that it suited her mother to leave her in charge – and accepted this as natural: ‘My mother made it clear that what went on at home was no concern of hers, and I never questioned this.’

Brought up to reflect the values of the new society, Marksena was a child of 1917. She was regarded by her parents as a ‘small comrade’. She had no toys, no space of her own where she could play freely as a child. ‘My parents treated me as an equal and spoke to me as an adult,’ recalls Marksena. ‘I was taught from an early age to be independent and to do everything for myself.’ On her first morning at primary school, when she was only seven, her mother walked her to the school and told her to memorize the route – a complex journey of nearly three kilometres – so that she could walk home on her own that afternoon. ‘From that day on, I always walked to school,’ recalls Marksena. ‘It never crossed my mind that anyone should walk with me.’ Marksena bought all her own books and stationery from a shop in the city centre which took her an hour to reach by foot. From the age of eight she was going to the theatre on her own, using the pass her parents had for Party officials which let her sit in one of the boxes by the side of the stalls. ‘No one ever told me what to do,’ recalls Marksena. ‘I brought myself up on my own.’

Marksena’s parents were distant figures in her life. Even during holidays, they would travel on their own to one of the resorts for Party officials in the Crimea, leaving the children in Leningrad. Her parents did, however, impose their ideological rigidities, which Marksena recalls as a source of annoyance. Her mother would reprimand her for reading Pushkin and Tolstoy instead of the didactic books for children favoured by the Party, such as Vladimir Obruchev’s scientific adventure Land of Sannikov (1926)or The Republic of Shkid (1927) by Grigorii Belykh and Aleksei Panteleyev, a story about homeless orphans sent to school in Leningrad, both of which were brought home by Anna and dutifully read by Marksena but then put in a cupboard and forgotten. Marksena was forbidden by her mother to invite friends home from school, because, she said, it was better that they did not see how comfortably the Party’s leaders lived – albeit modestly and in a Spartan style – compared with their families. She was very seldom praised or given compliments by her parents, and almost never kissed or held. Her only source of affection was her grandmother, who looked after her when she was ill. ‘I liked going to her house,’ remembers Marksena. ‘She paid me lots of attention. She taught me how to sew, how to thread a bead necklace. She had toys for me and even bought me a little wooden toy kitchen, which she set up in the corner of her room, where I liked to play.’17

An absence of parental affection was described by many children born to Party families after 1917. In this respect the child-rearing customs of the Soviet elite were not that different from those of the nineteenth-century Russian aristocracy, which took little interest in the nursery and left the children, from their earliest days, in the care of nannies, maids and other household servants.18

Angelina Yevseyeva was born in 1922 to a family of Bolsheviks. Her parents had met when they were fighting for the Red Army in the Civil War. Returning to Petrograd in 1920, her father became a commander of one of the divisions involved in the suppression of the Kronstadt mutiny. In 1925, he enrolled in the Military-Medical Academy, where he spent his evenings studying. Angelina’s mother was an official in the Commissariat of Trade. Shortly after Angelina’s birth she began attending the Institute of Foreign Trade, also studying in the evenings. Angelina recalls a childhood spent largely in the care of a housekeeper:

My mother loved me, she was patient and attentive, but not affectionate, she never indulged me or played with me as a child. She expected me to behave like an adult, and treated me like one… My father was entirely preoccupied by his work. I felt that I got in his way. I must have been a nuisance to my parents. I didn’t like being at home. I grew up in the courtyard and the street and was a naughty child. Once, when I was 8, my father brought a fish tank back from a work trip to Moscow. Because he would not let me go out and play, I tipped over the tank and let all the fish spill out on to the floor. He beat me with a hose, and I shouted back: ‘You’re not a father, you’re a stepmother, a stepmother!’19

Maria Budkevich was born in Moscow in 1923 to the family of a Party functionary at Military Encyclopedia, the main publisher of the Soviet armed forces. Her father lived in a separate apartment from the rest of the family, not because he was separated from Maria’s mother, a researcher on the Party’s history of the Civil War, but because he found it more convenient for his work to live on his own. Maria saw her father so infrequently that, at the age of five or six, she began to doubt that she had one. ‘I did not understand what a father was,’ she recalls. ‘I knew that other girls had someone they called “papa”, but I hardly ever saw my own father. He would suddenly appear one day from a trip abroad. There would be a great fanfare, with presents for everyone, and then he would disappear again.’20

Elena Bonner’s parents were Party activists in Leningrad. They worked from early in the morning until late at night and rarely saw their children, who were left in the care of their grandmother. Elena longed for her mother’s affection. She ‘played at being a crybaby’ and frequently pretended to be sick in order to force her mother to stay at home. She was envious of other children whose mothers did not work and seemed ‘always very cheerful’ by comparison. Even when her parents were at home they were so preoccupied by their Party work that they paid little attention to the children. When she was nine or ten, Elena recalls, ‘my parents spent their evenings and nights writing brochures, which they said were on “questions of Party construction”. For a long while I thought the Party built houses.’21

The Bonners lived in a special hostel for Party workers in the former Astoriia Hotel in Leningrad. Everything in the sparsely furnished rooms was geared towards their work. Until the 1930s, when Stalin started to reward his loyal officials with luxury apartments and consumer goods, most Party members lived in a similarly minimalist style. Even senior officials lived quite modestly. The family of Nikolai Semashko, the Commissar for Health from 1923 to 1930, occupied a small and barely furnished flat in the Narkomfin house in Moscow. ‘They were never interested in any sort of byt [bourgeois comfort] or décor,’ recalls one of their neighbours.22

The Bolshevik idealists of the 1920s made a cult of this Spartan way of life. They inherited a strong element of asceticism from the revolutionary underground, the source of their values and their principles in the early years of the Soviet regime. The rejection of material possessions was central to the culture and ideology of the Russian socialist intelligentsia, which strove to sweep away all signs of ‘petty-bourgeois’ domesticity – the ornamental china on the mantelpiece, the singing canaries, all the plants, soft furniture, family portraits and other banal objects of the domestic hearth – and move towards a higher and more spiritual existence. The battle against ‘philistine byt’ was at the heart of the revolutionary urge to establish a more communistic way of life. As the poet Maiakovsky wrote in 1921:

From the wall Marx watches and watches

And suddenly

Opening his mouth wide,

He starts howling:

The Revolution is tangled up in philistine threads

More terrible than Wrangel* is philistine byt


To tear off the canaries’ heads –

So Communism

Won’t be struck down by canaries.23

In the Bolshevik aesthetic it was philistine to lavish attention on the decoration of one’s home. The ideal ‘living space’ (as the home was called by Soviet officials) was minimally decorated and furnished. It was purely functional, with space-efficient furniture, like divans that doubled as beds. In the Bolshevik imagination this simple way of living was a form of liberation from bourgeois society in which people were enslaved by the cult of possessions. In Cement (1925), Fyodor Gladkov’s influential novel, a man and wife, both Party activists, sacrifice their personal happiness and leave their home and daughter to help rebuild a cement factory destroyed by the Civil War. When the husband Gleb begins to miss the old domestic comforts of their home, he is soon reminded of a higher purpose by his wife: ‘Do you want pretty flowers to bloom on the windowsill and a bed piled with pillows? No, Gleb, in the winter I live in an unheated room, and I eat in the communal kitchen. You see, I am a free Soviet citizen.’24

Among the Bolsheviks there was a similarly austere attitude towards personal appearance – fashionable clothes, elaborate hairstyles, jewellery, perfume and cosmetics were all consigned to the realm of vulgar byt. The ‘new people’ of the Party vanguard dressed in plain and simple clothes – in pseudo-proletarian or quasi-military dress – without any hint of adornment. During the time of the NEP, when the Bolshevik leaders were anxious that the Party rank and file might be corrupted by the comforts and temptations of the ‘bourgeois’ culture that had suddenly become available to them, these Spartan attitudes were promoted as a symbol of ideological purity. In 1922, Aron Solts, the Party’s leading spokesman on Communist ethics, warned that the NEP might seduce members into believing that ‘there exists some sort of personal life in which they are completely free to follow their own tastes, and even to imitate what bourgeois society considers elegant’. Solts called upon the Bolsheviks to purge this bourgeois instinct from within themselves by changing their aesthetic attitudes. It was ‘ugly for a person to have rings, bracelets, gold teeth’, and in his view such behaviour ‘must arouse asethetic indignation’ within the Party’s ranks.25

Valentina Tikhanova was born in Moscow in 1922. She grew up in the household of the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, the man who led the storming of the Winter Palace in October 1917. Her mother had met the famous Bolshevik in Prague, where Vladimir was the Soviet ambassador, and had left Valentina’s father, an editor at a publisher, to marry him in 1927. Valentina recalls the small apartment where her family had lived in Moscow in the 1920s as ‘simply furnished with the most ordinary furniture and wrought-iron beds’. The only thing of any value was a large malachite box which belonged to her mother. There were no ornaments or decorations in the apartment, and her parents had no interest in such things. Even when her mother became the wife of an ambassador, she did not wear jewellery. Asceticism ruled in the Antonov-Ovseyenko home as well. Their apartment in the Second House of Sovnarkom, a large apartment block for senior Party officials in Moscow, consisted of four small rooms. In Valentina’s cell-like room the only furniture was a fold-up bed, a writing desk and a small bookcase. Recalling this austere atmosphere, Valentina describes it as a conscious element of her family’s intelligentsia principles (intelligentnost’) and Soviet ideology. ‘We were Soviet people (sovki),’ she reflects. ‘We lived for our beliefs in the future happiness of our society, not for the satisfaction of our own needs. There was a moral purity about the way we lived.’26

Liudmila Eliashova grew up in the family of a Latvian Bolshevik. Her father, Leonid, had run away from Riga and joined the Bolsheviks in Petrograd as a teenager in 1917. He was ashamed and resentful of his wealthy Jewish parents, who had been strict and cruel, and part of his attraction to the workers’ movement was its Spartan way of life, which, as he acknowledged in a letter to his wife in 1920, he embraced as a ‘renunciation of my bourgeois class’. According to his daughter Liudmila, Leonid attached personal significance to the words of the Internationale, ‘We renounce the old world / We shake its dust from our feet!’ ‘He needed to renounce not just his class,’ she says, ‘but also his family, and the lifestyle to which he had grown accustomed, with its comfortable apartments and dachas, fine cuisine, fashionable clothes, games of tennis, and much more.’ He brought up his daughters, Liudmila (born in 1921) and Marksena (in 1923), to be ashamed of any wealth or comfort that set them higher than the working class. He would tell them that they should feel guilty eating a good breakfast, when there were other children, poorer than themselves, who had less to eat. At mealtimes he would say: ‘It is shameful we are eating fish or sausage when everybody else eats bread and eggs. What makes us better than others?’ He believed strongly in the ‘Party Maximum’ – a system of capping the salaries of Party members in the 1920s – and brought up his family to live within its means. The girls were not allowed to buy new shoes unless the old ones were literally falling apart. They were allowed sweets only on the major Soviet holidays. ‘We lived very modestly,’ recalls Liudmila.

Leonid Eliashov, 1932

Our furniture was cheap – it was all purchased from the government. We ate simply, our clothes were plain. I never saw my father wearing anything but his military uniform, a vest and boots. Mother had her ‘special outfit’ for the theatre and one or two other dresses, but that was all… Trips to the theatre were our only luxury – that and lots of books.

Like many children of 1917, Liudmila and her sister were brought up to believe that self-denial was synonymous with moral purity and with the revolutionary struggle for the future happiness of everyone. In 1936, she wrote on the cover of her diary: ‘Suffering destroys the insignificant and hardens the strong.’27

For some families, the asceticism of the Party activist was too much of a strain. The Voitinskys are a case in point. Iosif Voitinsky was born in St Petersburg in 1884 to a liberal family of Russified Jews. His father was a professor of mathematics, his brother Nikolai an engineer, and, like his other brother, Vladimir, Iosif was a graduate of the Law Faculty at St Petersburg University. The family was broken up by the October Revolution. Iosif’s parents fled to Finland. Vladimir, a former Menshevik and a leading figure in the Provisional Government of 1917, emigrated to Berlin, where he became a vocal critic of the Bolsheviks. Iosif and his sister Nadezhda were the only members of the family who remained in Petrograd. Like Vladimir, Iosif was a former Menshevik, but he hoped to make good by joining the Bolsheviks and fighting in the Civil War. To prove his loyalty he even wrote to his brother in Berlin – no doubt with an eye to the letter being read by his superiors – pleading with him to ‘re-evaluate his political principles and return to Soviet Russia for our common work’. Terrified of punishment for his brother’s counter-revolutionary activity, Iosif gave himself entirely to the Party’s cause. ‘Because of my sins in a former life, they have only made me a probationary member,’ he wrote to Nikolai, ‘but I am taking on a lot of Party duties, and like a good Communist, I am always ready to be sent to hell.’28

In fact he was sent to Yekaterinoslav, where he worked in the legal department of the local trade union organization. Iosif lived with his wife Aleksandra in a damp and barely furnished basement room. ‘We cannot find anything better,’ Aleksandra wrote to Nadezhda in 1922. ‘Everywhere is very expensive and only the NEPmen can afford the rent. As for our domestic life, we are lacking the most basic things – linen,clothes, needles, thread. In a word, we are lacking everything.’ Iosif was too preoccupied to deal with such ‘domestic details’. He was ‘impractical and disorderly in everything except his work’, according to his wife. The couple had no money, because the ‘Party Maximum’ left them with a small amount, most of which they sent to Iosif’s mother in Finland. Aleksandra did her best to supplement their income by picking up casual jobs. But she resented having to work and blamed the Party for ruining her ‘dreams of a family’. In 1922, Aleksandra had an abortion. As she explained in a letter to Nadezhda, she had wanted to have the child but had terminated her pregnancy because she was ‘worn down by ill health’ and did not want to ‘add to Iosif’s burdens’ at a time when he was ‘weighed down by his Party work’. The couple’s marriage was suffering. There were constant arguments about money. Iosif had been having an affair with another woman, who gave birth to a son in 1924, and he was supporting them financially as well. Relations with Aleksandra were strained to breaking-point. Iosif would often go away on Party work, either to Moscow, where he taught a course on labour law, or to the Kuban, where he worked for the trade unions. ‘I rarely see my Iosif,’ Aleksandra wrote to Nadezhda in 1925. ‘It makes me bitter that it has ended up this way, but such is our way of life these days. There is no place for private life, and we must bury romance as a relic of the past.’29

Iosif and Aleksandra, Yekaterinoslav, 1924


The Bolsheviks saw education as the key to the creation of a new society. Through the schools and the Communist leagues for children and youth (the Pioneers and the Komsomol) they aimed to indoctrinate the next generation in the new collective way of life. As one of the theorists of Soviet schooling declared in 1918:

We must make the young into a generation of Communists. Children, like soft wax, are very malleable and they should be moulded into good Communists… We must rescue children from the harmful influence of the family… We must nationalise them. From the earliest days of their little lives, they must find themselves under the beneficent influence of Communist schools… To oblige the mother to give her child to the Soviet state – that is our task.30

The primary mission of the Soviet school was to remove children from the ‘petty-bourgeois’ family, where the old mentalities of private life undermined the cultivation of social instincts, and to inculcate in them the public values of a Communist society. ‘The young person should be taught to think in terms of “we”,’ wrote Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissar for Education, in 1918, ‘and all private interests should be left behind.’31

The dissemination of Communist values was the guiding principle of the Soviet school curriculum. In this sense, as Soviet educational thinkers acknowledged, the role of Marxism in Soviet schools was similar to the role of religion in tsarist schools. In the more experimental schools there was a strong emphasis on learning through practical activities rather than theory. Even in the United Labour Schools, which were meant to provide a national framework for all Soviet schoolchildren from the primary level to university, the programme was usually organized around a series of workshops (instead of classrooms) where children were taught technical and craft skills as an introduction to the mainstream academic subjects, particularly science and economy.32

Political indoctrination was geared towards producing activists. The propaganda image of the ideal child was a precocious political orator mouthing agitprop. Communism could not be taught from books, educational thinkers maintained. It had to be instilled through the whole life of the school, which was in turn to be connected to the broader world of politics through extra-curricular activities, such as celebrating Soviet holidays, joining public marches, reading newspapers and organizing school debates and trials. The idea was to initiate the children into the practices, cults and rituals of the Soviet system so that they would grow up to become loyal and active Communists.

Children were indoctrinated in the cult of ‘Uncle Lenin’ from an early age. At kindergartens they were called ‘October children’ (oktiabriata) from the moment they were able to point towards the picture of the Soviet leader. After Lenin’s death, when it was feared that a generation of children would grow up without knowing who he was, schools were instructed to establish ‘Lenin Corners’, political shrines for the display of propaganda about the god-like founder of the Soviet state. Legendary tales about Lenin and the other heroes of the Revolution were an important means of political education. Most children did not understand the ideology of the Soviet state – they saw the Revolution as a simple struggle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ – but they could identify with the heroic deeds of the revolutionaries.

A Lenin Corner, 1920s

Progressive schools were organized as miniature versions of the Soviet state: work plans and achievements were displayed in graphs and pie-charts on the walls; classes were organized like regiments; and the daily running of the school was regulated by a bureaucratic structure of councils and committees, which introduced the children to the adult world of Soviet politics. There were schools where the children were encouraged to organize their own police; where they were invited to write denunciations against pupils who had broken the school rules; and where they even held classroom trials. To instil an ethos of collective obedience some schools introduced a system of politicized drilling, with marches, songs and oaths of allegiance to the Soviet leadership. ‘We marched as a class on public holidays,’ recalls Ida Slavina of her schooldays in Leningrad. ‘We were proud to march as the representatives of our school. When we passed a building with people watching from the windows, we would slow down and chant in unison: “Home-sitters, window-watchers – shame on you!”’33

Aleksei Radchenko was born in 1910 to a family of famous revolutionaries. His uncle Stepan was a veteran of the Marxist underground movement from its pre-Lenin days, while his father Ivan was a founding member of the Bolshevik Party, charged with developing the Soviet peat industry (seen as a vital source of energy) after 1917. The family lived in Shatura, a small town to the east of Moscow, in a large and comfortable house near the power plant, which turned peat into electricity for the Soviet capital. Aleksei’s mother Alisia came from a petty-bourgeois German-Swedish family in Tallinn, and there were traces of that middle-class upbringing in her personal tastes, in her aspirations to respectability and in her preoccupation with domestic happiness. But ideologically she was committed to the Communist ideal of sweeping away this old bourgeois culture and creating a new type of human being. A pioneer of Soviet pedagogical theories and a close associate of Krupskaia in her educational work, Alisia saw the schooling of her son as a laboratory for his communistic education. Her theories were derived largely from the ideas of Pyotr Lesgaft, the founder of Russian physical education, whose lectures she attended in St Petersburg in 1903–4, and from the writings of Maksim Gorky, in whose honour she had named her son (Gorky’s real name was Aleksei Peshkov). She taught Aleksei languages, made him study the piano and the violin, set him chores around the house and the garden allotment to encourage his respect for manual labour and arranged visits to the houses of the poor to develop his social conscience. The head of Shatura’s United Labour School from October 1917, Alisia organized the school as a commune, combining academic lessons with agricultural labour on a farm so the children would understand from the beginning what it was to live a communist life.34

Aleksei was brought up to venerate his father and other revolutionaries. A sickly boy who suffered from a spine disease that made it hard for him to walk, Aleksei lived in a world of bookish fantasies. He idolized Lenin and took to heart his father’s words of encouragement that he ‘should become like him’. Hearing about Lenin’s mortal illness in December 1923, he confessed to his diary: ‘I would run away from home and give Lenin all my blood, if that would help save his life.’ After the Soviet leader died, Aleksei set up a Lenin Corner in his room, covering the walls with pictures of the Soviet leader and texts of speeches which he learned by heart. Alisia kept a journal of Aleksei’s political development, which she filled with entries from his diaries, examples of his school-work and drawings, supplemented by her own commentaries on the education of her son. As she herself described it, her journal was a ‘scientific log’ that might serve as a ‘guide to the question of Communist education in families and schools’. Alisia encouraged her son to mix with the other children in Shatura – who came from the families of the mainly peasant workers at the power plant – and tried to make him feel that he was a leader of these less privileged friends by arranging games and activities for them at their large house. ‘Follow the example of your father,’ Alisia wrote in the margins of her son’s diary.

Aleksei and Ivan Radchenko, 1927

‘Learn to be a leader to your little friends, just as he is a leader to the working class.’ Encouraged by his mother, Aleksei established a ‘secret’ organization with some of his school comrades: the Central Bureau of the Russian Committee of the Association of Children of the World. They had their own insignia, their own revolutonary song (‘The Beginning’) written for the children by Alisia and their own home-made red banners, with which they marched through Shatura on public holidays.35

The children of 1917 were encouraged to play at being revolutionaries. Soviet educational thinkers were influenced by the ideas of ‘learning through play’ promoted by European pedagogues such as Friedrich Froebel and Maria Montessori. They saw structured play as an educational experience though which children would assimilate the Soviet values of collectivity, social activism and responsibility. The whole purpose of the Soviet school, with its wall newspapers, Lenin Corners, councils and committees, was to instil in children the idea that they too were potential revolutionaries and should be ready to rise up in revolt – if necessary, against their own parents – if called upon to do so by the Party leadership. Raisa Berg, who grew up in an intelligentsia family in Leningrad during the 1920s, recalls her schoolfriends’ comradeship and readiness for battle:

The students of our class were united by a great spirit of friendship, trust and solidarity. Between ourselves and our wonderful teachers, whom we all loved, without exception, there was nevertheless a ceaseless battle, a real class war. We had no need for calculated strategies or conspiracies, we lived according to an unwritten code: the only thing that mattered was loyalty to our comrades. We could not tell our parents anything: they might betray us to the teachers.36

One of the most popular courtyard games of the 1920s was Reds and Whites, a Soviet Cowboys and Indians in which the events of the Civil War were played out by the children, often using air-guns (pugachi) marketed especially for the game. Reds and Whites often ended up in actual fights, for all the boys wanted to be Lenin, as one of them recalls:

We would fight for the right to play the role of the leader. Everybody wanted to be the Reds, the Bolsheviks, and no one wanted to be the Whites, the Mensheviks. Only the grown-ups could end these quarrels – by suggesting that we fight without assigning names, and whoever won would be the Bolsheviks.

Another game was Search and Requisition, in which one group (usually the boys) would play the role of a Red Army requisitioning brigade and another group (the girls) would act as ‘bourgeois speculators’ or ‘kulak’ peasants hiding grain.37

Games like Reds and Whites and Search and Requisition encouraged children to accept the Soviet division of the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’. Studies carried out in Soviet schools in the 1920s showed that children, on the whole, were ignorant about the basic facts of recent history (many pupils did not know what a tsar was) but that they had been influenced by the dark and threatening images of the supporters of the old regime in Soviet propaganda, books and films. These images encouraged many children to believe that ‘hidden enemies’ continued to exist, a belief that was likely to produce irrational fears, hysteria and aggression against any sign of the old regime. One young schoolgirl asked her teacher: ‘Do the bourgeois eat children?’ Another, who had seen a classmate wearing an old shirt with a crown embossed on the starched cuff, suddenly shouted out in class: ‘Look, he is a supporter of the tsar!’38

Many of the children of 1917 had their first experience of politics in the Pioneers. Established in 1922, the Pioneer organization was modelled on the Scout movement, one of the last independent public bodies in Communist Russia which had been outlawed by the Soviet government in 1920. The ethos of the Scouts, which had sought to foster in its youthful members a sense of public duty through practical activities, continued to prevail in many of the Pioneer organizations (as it did in some elite Soviet schools) during the 1920s. About one-fifth of Soviet children between the ages of ten and fourteen were enrolled in the Pioneers by 1925, and the fraction increased in subsequent years. Like the Scouts, the Pioneers had their own moral codes and rituals. They had an oath which every Pioneer was meant to learn by heart (many can recall it after three-quarters of a century): ‘I, a Young Pioneer of the Soviet Union, before my comrades do solemnly swear to be true to the precepts of Lenin, to stand firmly for the cause of our Communist Party and for the cause of Communism.’ The Pioneers did a lot of marching and singing, gymnastics and sport. They had a responsive chant (‘Pioneers, be prepared!’ Answer: ‘Always prepared!’) which was borrowed from the Red Army. They were organized in brigades. They had their own banners, flags and songs, and their own uniform (a white shirt and a red scarf), which was a source of immense pride and, it seems, for many the main attraction of the Pioneers. ‘I did not understand the obligations of the movement. Like everybody else, I just wanted the red scarf,’ recalls one Pioneer. Vera Minusova, who joined the Pioneers in Perm in 1928, remembers: ‘I liked the uniform, especially the scarf, which I ironed every day and wore to school. These were the only smart and neat clothes I had. I was proud and felt grown-up when I wore them.’ Valerii Frid, a schoolboy in Moscow in the 1920s, was so proud of his red scarf that he slept with it on for several nights after he joined the Pioneers.39

Vera Minusova, early 1930s

Through the Pioneers Soviet children experienced a strong sense of social inclusion. Every child wanted to become a Pioneer. It was glamorous and exciting to be a Pioneer, and the red scarf was an important mark of social acceptance and equality. Children excluded from the Pioneers – as many of them were, because of their social background – experienced intense feelings of shame and inferiority. Maria Drozdova was expelled from the Pioneers because she came from a ‘kulak’ family. So intense was her desire to be reinstated that she wore the scarf concealed underneath her shirt for many years. Sofia Ozemblovskaia, the daughter of a Polish nobleman, was banned from the Pioneers after she was spotted in church. She still recalls her expulsion with emotion:

Suddenly they posted an announcement – a ‘news flash’ – on the wall-newspaper in the corridor at school: ‘Form lines immediately!’ Children came running out of all the classrooms and formed ranks in the playground. I was made to stand in front of the whole brigade to be shamed. The children shouted: ‘See what shame she has brought to our brigade by going to the church!’ ‘She is not worthy of the scarf!’ ‘She has no right to wear the scarf!’ They threw dirt at me. Then they tried to tear the scarf from me. I began to cry. I shouted: ‘I won’t give you the scarf! I won’t give you the scarf!’ I fell down on my knees and begged them not to take the scarf from me. But they took it all the same. From that day on, I was no longer a Pioneer.40

The purpose of the Pioneer organization was to indoctrinate Soviet children in Communist values and discipline. The were subject to the same regime of ‘work plans’ and ‘reviews’ used in the Komsomol and the Party. According to the psychologist and educational theorist A. B. Zalkind, the Party’s leading spokesman on the social conditioning of the personality, the aim of the Pioneer movement was to train ‘revolutionary-Communist fighters fully freed from the class poisons of bourgeois ideology’. Krupskaia believed that the Pioneers would replace the family as the main influence on Soviet children. Pioneers were taught to be hard-working and obedient, pure in thought and deed. ‘Through the Pioneers I learned to be smart and tidy, to finish all my tasks on time, and to be disciplined in everything I did,’ reflects Minusova. ‘These became my principles for life.’41

Pioneers were activists. There was a wide range of club activities – organizing demonstrations, editing wall-newspapers, voluntary work (subbotniki),* plays and concerts – designed to instil social activism and a sense of leadership in the Pioneers. Vasily Romashkin was born in 1914 to a peasant family in Moscow province. Looking back on his school career and his involvement in the Pioneers during the 1920s, he recalls this emphasis on public activity:

What did being a ‘Soviet person’ mean? It meant loving the Soviet motherland, working hard and setting an example, as we were taught at school and in the Pioneers. I took these words to heart. In my third school year [in 1924] I was already the chairman of the school committee. Later I became the chairman of the school court, a prosecutor in school trials, and deputy chairman of the school’s trade union. I was an active Pioneer. Through the Pioneers I learned to love my school and country more than my own family. I loved the head-teacher of our village school as if she were my own mother.42

Not all Pioneers were as active as Romashkin. For many children, the activities of the Pioneers were really just a form of play. Ida Slavina, the daughter of a prominent Soviet jurist, recalls forming her own club in the apartment block where she grew up in Leningrad:

I liked to read the children’s journal Murzilka, which had on its cover the slogan: ‘Mama! Papa! We shall overthrow your power!’ The journal called on children to establish a new way of life by pooling all their toys and organizing themselves as a club, similar to the Pioneers. I was the leader of the children on our staircase. I read aloud from the journal and explained the meaning of the articles to the members of my club. The building administration allowed us to use a basement room for our meetings. We covered the walls with pictures of our revolutionary heroes, and stored all our toys there.43

Other Pioneers were more serious about their political activities. Encouraged by their seniors, they would imitate the practices of adult Communists and perform the roles of bureaucrats and policemen. These precocious enthusiasts would bring briefcases to ‘executive meetings’, where they would speak in Party slogans, recording formal minutes, and denounce those teachers they suspected of holding counter-revolutionary views. There were even Pioneers who helped the police hunt out ‘spies’ and ‘enemies’ by acting as informers on the street.44

At the age of fifteen, Soviet children progressed from the Pioneers to the Komsomol. Not all children made the transition. In 1925, the Komsomol had a million members – about 4 per cent of the Komsomolage young (from the age of fifteen to twenty-three) – a fraction five times smaller than the percentage of children in the Pioneers.45 To join the Komsomol was to enter on a career path towards Party membership. There were many jobs and college courses that were open only to members of the Komsomol, or which selected such members over candidates who were better qualified. Nina Vishniakova recalls joining the Komsomol as a ‘huge event’:

To this day [she wrote in 1990] I can remember every word of the rule book – it stirred so many feelings in me: I recall thinking that I was now suddenly a responsible adult… It seemed to me that I could do far more than I had been able to do before I joined. It had always been my dream to belong to the Soviet elite, to achieve something important, and now that dream was coming true.46

The poet Yevgeny Dolmatovsky, who was born in 1915 to a family of Moscow lawyers, recalls his graduation from the Pioneers to the Komsomol in 1930. Arriving late at the admission meeting, Dolmatovsky was reprimanded by the secretary of the Komsomol, who said that he was ‘evidently not mature enough to join the Komsomol’ and was ‘only joining as a careerist’. When Dolmatovsky told his father about the incident, he was criticized for making light of it. ‘They are watching you,’ his father warned, ‘and you must prove that you are ready to give yourself to them.’ At the next meeting Dolmatovsky was questioned by a girl, who asked him if he was ‘ready to sacrifice his life for Soviet power’.47

Belonging to the Komsomol entailed accepting the orders, rules and ethics of the Communist Party. Members of the Komsomol were supposed to put their loyalty to the Revolution above their loyalty to the family. They were no longer children, but young Communists, expected, like Party members, to live their lives in the public sphere. The Komsomol functioned as a reserve army of youthful activists and enthusiasts for the Party, providing volunteers for Party work as well as spies and informers ready to denounce corruption and abuse. Such tasks held a broad appeal for Soviet youth in the 1920s and 1930s, shaped as they were by the ideals of the Revolution and the Civil War, when action and energy had carried the day. Many young people joined the Komsomol not because they were Communists, but because they were activists: they wanted to do something, and there was no other channel for their social energy.48 Members were charged with exposing ‘class enemies’ among parents and teachers and, as if in training for the job, took part in mock trials of ‘counter-revolutionaries’ in schools and colleges.

Born too late (between 1905 and 1915) to be raised in the values of the old society, and too young to have taken part in the bloody fighting of the Civil War, these young activists had a highly romantic view of the Revolution’s ‘heroic period’. ‘We yearned to be associated with the revolutionaries, our older brothers and fathers,’ recalls Romashkin. ‘We identified ourselves with their struggle. We dressed like them, in a military style, and spoke a type of army jargon, which we copied from the older village boys who had brought this language home from the Red Army.’ The activists embraced the Spartan culture of the Bolsheviks with a vengeance. Having grown up in the barren economic landscape of the First World War, the Revolution and the Civil War, they were no strangers to austerity. Even so, they were especially militant in their ascetic rejection of all personal (‘bourgeois’) wealth and pleasure that detracted from the revolutionary struggle. Some formed communes and pooled all their money and possessions to ‘abolish individualism’. In moral terms, too, they were absolutists, struggling to break free of the old conventions.49

The Komsomol idealists of the 1920s were a special group – one that would play a major role in the Stalinist regime. Their guiding ethos was described by Mikhail Baitalsky, a Komsomol activist in the Odessa region, who formed a club together with his friends. ‘Everyone was pure, ready to give his life if need be to defend Communism,’ Baitalsky writes in his memoirs. ‘Those who showed off or complained were called rotten intellectuals. “Rotten intellectual” was one of the most insulting labels. Only “self-seeker” was worse.’ In these circles there was total commitment to the Party’s cause. Nobody was shocked, for example, when it was reported that an agent of the Cheka (the political police) had confiscated his own father’s hardware shop for the Revolution’s needs. Thoughts of personal happiness were considered shameful, and should be banished. The Revolution demanded the sacrifice of today’s pleasures for a better life in the future. As Baitalsky put it:

With hopes fixed on the future, a feeling of personal participation in the world revolution, which was imminent, and a readiness to share full responsibility for it, we felt uplifted and fortified in all matters, even in very ordinary ones. It was like waiting for a train that was to take us somewhere to accomplish something wonderful and happily straining to hear its whistle in the distance…50

Intimate relations between young men and women were seen as a distraction from the collective passion for Revolution. Marriage was dismissed as a ‘bourgeois’ convention. ‘It is inadmissable to have thoughts of personal relationships,’ declared a Komsomol activist in the Red Putilov Factory in Leningrad in 1926. ‘Such ideas belong to an era – before the October Revolution – that has long passed.’51 Baitalsky had a long courtship with a Jewish girl called Yeva, the secretary of the local Komsomol cell. But there was little opportunity for romance because Yeva was zealously devoted to her work, and all he could hope for was to hold her hand and steal a kiss when he walked her home from Komsomol meetings. Eventually they married, and Yeva had a son, whom they named Vi, in honour of Lenin (the letters of Lenin’s first two names). In 1927, Baitalsky was expelled as a ‘Trotskyist counter-revolutionary’, following the expulsion of Trotsky from the Party. Yeva put her loyalty to the Party first. Assuming that her husband had been guilty of counter-revolutionary activity, she renounced him and made him leave their home. Baitalsky was arrested in 1929.

Looking back on these events from the perspective of the 1970s, Baitalsky thought that Yeva was a good person, but that her goodness had retreated before a sense of duty to the Party, whose articles of faith had predefined her response to ‘good’ and ‘evil’ in the world. She had subordinated her own personality and powers of reason to the collective and ‘unapproachable authority’ of the Party. There were ‘tens of thousands’ of Yevas among the Bolsheviks, and their unquestioned acceptance of the Party’s judgement persisted even as the Revolution gave way to the Stalinist dictatorship:

These people did not degenerate. On the contrary, they changed too little. Their internal world remained as before, preventing them from seeing what had begun to change in the outside world. Their misfortune was their conservatism (I would call it ‘revolutionary conservatism’), expressed in their unchanging devotion… to the standards and definitions acquired during the first years of the Revolution. It was even possible to convince such people that for the good of the Revolution they needed to confess to being spies. And many were convinced, and they died believing in the revolutionary necessity for doing so.52


‘We Communists are people of a special brand,’ Stalin said in 1924. ‘We are made of better stuff… There is nothing higher than the honour of belonging to this army.’ The Bolsheviks saw themselves as the bearers of virtues and responsibilities that distinguished them from the rest of society. In his influential book on Party Ethics (1925), Aron Solts compared the Bolsheviks to the aristocracy in tsarist times. ‘Today,’ he wrote, ‘it is we who form the ruling class… It is according to how we live, dress, value this or that relationship, according to how we behave that customs will be established in our country.’ As a ruling proletarian caste, it was unacceptable for the Bolsheviks to mix closely with people from a different social class. It was ‘bad taste’, for example, argued Solts, for a Bolshevik to take a wife from a class outside the proletariat, and such marriages were to be condemned in the same way as ‘the marriage of a count to a housemaid would have been condemned in the last century’.53

The ethos of the Party rapidly came to dominate every aspect of public life in Soviet Russia, just as the ethos of the aristocracy had dominated public life in tsarist Russia. Lenin himself compared the Bolsheviks to the nobility, and indeed, joining the Party after 1917 was like moving up a class. It brought preferment to bureaucratic posts, an elite status and privileges, and a personal share in the Party-state. By the end of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks had entrenched themselves in all the leading positions of the government, whose bureaucracy ballooned as almost every aspect of life in Soviet Russia was brought under state control. By 1921, the Soviet bureaucracy was ten times bigger than the tsarist state had ever been. There were 2.4 million state officials, more than twice the number of industrial workers in Russia. They formed the main social base of the regime.

Elite attitudes took root very quickly in the families of Bolsheviks, and they were passed down to their children. The majority of Soviet schoolchildren took it for granted that Party members had a higher status than other members of society, according to a study using controlled games in various schools in 1925. Left to themselves to decide a dispute between two boys, the other children usually decided in favour of the boy who claimed priority on the grounds that his parents were Bolsheviks. The study suggested that Soviet schools had engineered an important change in children’s values, replacing the old sense of fairness and equality that had once ruled within the working class with a new hierarchical system. The children of Party members had a well-developed sense of entitlement. In one controlled game a group of children were playing trains. The boys wanted the train to go and would not wait for a little girl to get aboard, but the girl said: ‘The train will wait. My husband works in the GPU [the political police] and I do as well.’ She then boarded the train and demanded to be given a free ticket.54

The defining qualification of this self-proclaimed elite was ‘Communist morality’. The Bolshevik Party identified itself as a moral as well as political vanguard, whose messianic sense of leadership demanded that its members prove their worthiness to belong to that elite. As one of the elect, every member was obliged to demonstrate that his private conduct and convictions conformed to the Party’s interests. He had to show himself to be a true believer in Communism; to demonstrate that he possessed a higher moral and political consciousness than the mass of the population; that he was honest, disciplined, hard-working and selflessly devoted to the cause. This was not a moral system in the conventional sense. The Bolsheviks rejected the idea of abstract or Christian morality as a form of ‘bourgeois oppression’. Rather, it was a system in which all moral questions were subordinated to the Revolution’s needs. ‘Morality,’ wrote one Party theorist in 1924, ‘is what helps the proletariat in the class struggle. Immorality is everything that hinders it.’55

Belief was the crucial moral quality of every ‘conscious’ Bolshevik. It distinguished the true Communist from the ‘careerist’ who joined the Party for personal ends. And belief was synonymous with a clear conscience. The Party purges and show trials were conceived as an inquisition into the soul of the accused to expose the truth of his or her beliefs (hence the importance attached to confessions, which were regarded as the revelation of the hidden self). Belief, moreover, was a public matter rather than a private one. Perhaps it was connected with the Orthodox tradition of public confession and penance, which was so different from the private nature of confession in the Christian West. Whatever the case, Communist morality left no room for the Western notion of the conscience as a private dialogue with the inner self. The Russian word for ‘conscience’ in this sense (sovest’) almost disappeared from official use after 1917. It was replaced by the word soznatel’nost’, which carries the idea of consciousness or the capacity to reach a higher moral judgement and understanding of the world. In Bolshevik discourse soznatel’nost’ signified the attainment of a higher moral-revolutionary logic, that is, Marxist-Leninist ideology.56

Not all Bolsheviks were expected to possess a detailed knowledge of the Party’s ideology, of course. Among the rank and file it was enough to be involved in the daily practice of its rituals – its oaths and songs, ceremonies, cults and codes of conduct – just as the believers of an organized religion performed their belief when they attended church. But the Party’s doctrines were to be taken as articles of faith by all its followers. Its collective judgement was to be accepted as Justice. Accused of crimes by the leadership, the Party member was expected to repent, to go down on his knees before the Party and welcome its verdict against him. To defend oneself was to add another crime: dissent from the will of the Party. This explains why so many Bolsheviks surrendered to their fate in the purges, even when they were innocent of the crimes of which they stood accused. Their attitude was revealed in a conversation reported by a friend of the Bolshevik leader Iurii Piatakov not long after Piatakov’s expulsion from the Party as a Trotskyist in 1927. To earn his readmission Piatakov had recanted many of his oldest political beliefs, but this did not make him a coward, as his friend had charged. Rather, as Piatakov explained, it showed that

a true Bolshevik will readily cast out from his mind ideas in which he has believed for years. A true Bolshevik has submerged his personality in the collectivity, ‘the Party’, to such an extent that he can make the necessary effort to break away from his own opinions and convictions… He would be ready to believe that black was white and white was black, if the Party required it.57

Nevertheless, because he had changed his views so radically, Piatakov, like other ‘renegades’, was never fully trusted or believed by Stalin, who ordered his arrest in 1936.

The purges began long before Stalin’s rise to power. They had their origins in the Civil War, when the Party’s ranks grew rapidly and its leaders were afraid of being swamped by careerists and ‘self-seekers’. The targets of the early purges were entire social groups: ‘regenerate bourgeois elements’, ‘kulaks’, and so on. Bolsheviks from a working-class background were exempt from scrutiny, unless a specific denunciation had been made against them at a purge meeting. But during the 1920s there was a gradual shift in the practice of the purge, with a growing emphasis on the private conduct and convictions of individual Bolsheviks.

The shift was accompanied by an ever more elaborate system for the inspection and control of Party members’ private lives. Applicants to join the Party had to demonstrate belief in its ideology. Great stress was placed on when they were converted to the cause, and only those who had fought with the Red Army in the Civil War were taken to have proved their commitment. At regular intervals throughout their lives, Party members were required to write a short autobiography or to complete a questionnaire (anketa), giving details about their social background, their education and career, and the evolution of their political consciousness. These documents were essentially a form of public confession in which the Party members reaffirmed their worthiness to be of the elect. The key thing was to show that the formation of their political consciousness owed everything to the Revolution and the Party’s tutelage.58

A tragic incident at the Leningrad Mining Academy served to buttress the Party’s insistence on supervising its members’ private life. In 1926, a student committed suicide at the academy hostel. It turned out that she had been driven to it by the cruel behaviour of her common-law husband. Konstantin Korenkov was not brought to trial, though he was excluded from the Komsomol on the grounds of ‘moral responsibility for the suicide of a comrade’. The Control Commission of the regional Party organization – a sort of regional Party court – overruled this decision, which it considered harsh, and replaced it with a ‘severe reprimand and warning’. A few weeks later Korenkov and his younger brother robbed the cashier’s office at the Mining Academy, stabbing the cashier to death and wounding his wife. The case was seized upon by Sofia Smidovich, a senior member of the Central Control Commission, the body placed in charge of Party ethics and legality, who portrayed ‘Korenkovism’ as an ‘illness’ whose main symptom was indifference to the morals and behaviour of one’s comrades:

The private life of my comrade is not of my concern. The students’ collective watches how Korenkov locks up his sick, literally bleeding wife – well, that is his private life. He addresses her with curse words and humiliating remarks – nobody interferes. What’s more: in Korenkov’s room a shot resounds, and a student whose room is one floor beneath does not even think it necessary to check out what is going on. He considers it a private affair.

Smidovich argued that it was the task of the collective to enforce moral standards among its members through mutual surveillance and intervention in their private lives. Only this, she argued, would foster real collectivism and a ‘Communist conscience’.59

The system of mutual surveillance and denunciation which Smidovich envisaged was not entirely an invention of the Revolution of 1917. Denunciations had been a part of Russian governance for centuries. Petitions to the tsar against officials who abused their power had played a vital role in the tsarist system, reinforcing the popular myth of a ‘just tsar’ who (in the absence of any courts or other public institutions) protected the people from ‘evil servitors’. In Russian dictionaries the act of ‘denunciation’ (donos) was defined as a civic virtue (‘the revelation of illegal acts’) rather than a selfish or malicious act, and this definition was retained throughout the 1920s and 1930s.60 But under the Soviet regime, the culture of denunciation took on a new meaning and intensity. Soviet citizens were encouraged to report on neighbours, colleagues, friends and even relatives. Vigilance was the first duty of every Bolshevik. ‘Lenin taught us that every Party member should become an agent of the Cheka, that is, he should watch and write reports,’ argued Sergei Gusev, who had risen to become a senior member of the Central Control Commission.61 Party members were instructed to inform on their comrades, if they believed that their private thoughts or conduct threatened Party unity. In factories and barracks a list of candidates for membership was posted outside the office of the Party cell. Members of the collective were then invited to write denunciations against the candidates, pointing out their personal shortcomings (e.g. heavy drinking or rudeness), which would then be discussed at a Party meeting. Reports of private conversations became an increasingly common feature of this denunciatory practice, although some Party leaders expressed reservations about the morality of such actions. At the Fourteenth Party Congress in 1925 it had been decided that reporting on a private conversation was generally to be frowned upon, but not if such conversation was deemed ‘a threat to Party unity’.62

Invitations to denunication were central to the culture of the purge that developed during the 1920s. In Party and Soviet organizations there were regular purge meetings where Party members and officials were made to answer criticisms solicited from the rank and file in the form of written and oral denunciations. These meetings could get very personal, as the young Elena Bonner discovered, when she observed one in the Comintern hostel:

They asked about people’s wives and sometimes about their children. It turned out that some people beat their wives and drank a lot of vodka. Batanya [Bonner’s grandmother] would have said that decent people don’t ask such questions. Sometimes the one being purged said that he wouldn’t beat his wife anymore or drink anymore. And a lot of them said about their work that they ‘wouldn’t do it anymore’ and that ‘they understood everything’. Then it resembled being called into the teacher’s room: the teacher sits, you stand, he scolds you, the other teachers smile nastily, and you quickly say, ‘I understand,’ ‘I won’t,’ ‘of course, I was wrong,’ but you don’t mean it, or just want to get out of there to join the other kids at recess. But these people were more nervous than you were with the teacher. Some of them were practically crying. It was unpleasant watching them. Each purge took a long time; some evenings they did three people, sometimes only one.63

Increasingly, there was nothing in the private life of the Bolshevik that was not subject to the gaze and censure of the Party leadership. This public culture, where every member was expected to reveal his inner self to the collective, was unique to the Bolsheviks – there was nothing like it in the Nazi or the Fascist movement, where the individual Nazi or Fascist was allowed to have a private life, so long as he adhered to the Party’s rules and ideology – until the Cultural Revolution in China. Any distinction between private and public life was explicitly rejected by the Bolsheviks. ‘When a comrade says: “What I am doing now concerns my private life and not society,” we say that cannot be correct,’ wrote one Bolshevik in 1924.64 Everything in the Party member’s private life was social and political; everything he did had a direct impact on the Party’s interests. This was the meaning of ‘Party unity’ – the complete fusion of the individual with the public life of the Party.

In his book on Party Ethics, Solts conceived of the Party as a self-policing collective, where every Bolshevik would scrutinize and criticize his comrades’ private motives and behaviour. In this way, he imagined, the individual Bolshevik would come to know himself through the eyes of the Party. Yet in reality this mutual surveillance did just the opposite: it encouraged people to present themselves as conforming to Soviet ideals whilst concealing their true selves in a secret private sphere. Such dissimulation would become widespread in the Soviet system, which demanded the display of loyalty and punished the expression of dissent. During the terror of the 1930s, when secrecy and deception became necessary survival strategies for almost everyone in the Soviet Union, a whole new type of personality and society arose. But this double-life was already a reality for large sections of the population in the 1920s, especially for Party families, who lived in the public eye, and for those whose social background or beliefs made them vulnerable to repression. People learned to wear a mask and act the role of loyal Soviet citizens, even if they lived by other principles in the privacy of their own home.

Talk was dangerous in this society. Family conversations repeated outside the home could lead to arrest and imprisonment. Children were the main source of danger. Naturally talkative, they were too young to understand the political significance of what they overheard. The playground, especially, was a breeding ground of informers. ‘We were taught to hold our tongues and not to speak to anyone about our family,’ recalls the daughter of a middle-ranking Bolshevik official in Saratov:

There were certain rules of listening and talking that we children had to learn. What we overheard the adults say in a whisper, or what we heard them say behind our backs, we knew we could not repeat to anyone. We would be in trouble if we even let them know that we had heard what they had said. Sometimes the adults would say something and then would tell us, ‘The walls have ears,’ or ‘Watch your tongue,’ or some other expression… But mostly, we learned these rules instinctively. No one explained to us that what was spoken might be dangerous politically, but somehow we understood.65

Nina Iakovleva grew up in an atmosphere of silent opposition to the Soviet regime. Her mother came from a noble family in Kostroma that had fled the Bolsheviks in the Civil War; her father was a Socialist Revolutionary* who had been imprisoned after taking part in the large-scale peasant uprising against the Bolsheviks in Tambov province in 1921 (he escaped from jail and ran away to Leningrad, where he was rearrested in 1926 and sentenced to five years in the Suzdal special isolation prison camp). Growing up in the 1920s, Nina knew instinctively that she was not allowed to speak about her father to her friends at school. ‘My mother was demonstratively silent about politics,’ recalls Nina. ‘She made a declaration of her lack of interest in political affairs.’ From this silence Nina learned to hold her tongue. ‘No one laid down specific rules about what could be spoken, but there was a general feeling, an atmosphere within the family, that made it clear to us that we were not to speak about father.’ Nina also learned to mistrust everyone outside her immediate family. ‘I love no one, I love only Mama, Papa and aunt Liuba,’ she wrote to her father in 1926. ‘I only love our family. I love no one else.’66

Galina Adasinskaia was born in 1921 to a family of active oppositionists. Her father was a Socialist Revolutionary; her mother and grandmother Mensheviks (all three were arrested in 1929). In the 1920s, when it was still possible for former SRs and Mensheviks to work in the Soviet government, Galina’s parents lived a double life. Her father worked in the administration of cooperatives, an economic organization promoted by the NEP, and her mother in the Ministry of Trade, yet in private both retained their old political opinions. Galina was protected and excluded from this secret sphere of politics. She was brought up to become a ‘Soviet child’ (she joined the Pioneers and the Komsomol). ‘Politics was something that my parents did at work, or wrote about. But at home they never spoke about such things… They thought of politics as a dirty business.’67

The households Nina and Galina were brought up in may have been extreme, but the rules of silence which they learned instinctively were observed by many families. Sofia Ozemblovskaia, the daughter of the Polish nobleman who was banned from the Pioneers after being spotted at church, lived with her family in the front half of a wooden house in a village near Minsk. ‘At home we never talked about politics or anything like that,’ she remembers. ‘Father always said, “The walls have ears.” Once he even showed us how to hear our neighbours’ conversation by listening through a glass against the wall. Then we understood. From then on we too were afraid of our neighbours.’68

Liubov (Liuba) Tetiueva was born in 1923 in Cherdyn, a small town in the Urals. Her father, Aleksandr, an Orthodox priest, was arrested in 1922 and held in prison for the best part of a year. After his release he was put under pressure by OGPU (the political police) to become an informer and write reports on his own parishioners, but he refused. The Cherdyn soviet deprived the Tetiuevs of civil rights and a rationing card when rationing was introduced in 1929.* Aleksandr’s church was taken over by the ‘renovationists’ (obnovlentsy), church reformers who sought to simplify the Orthodox liturgy and who had the backing of the Soviet regime. Shortly afterwards, Aleksandr was arrested for a second time, following a denunciation by the obnovlentsy, who accused him of sowing ‘discord among believers’ (by refusing to join them). Liubov’s mother was dismissed from her job in the Cherdyn Museum, where she worked on the library catalogue, while the elder of her two brothers was expelled from his school and the Komsomol. The family depended on the earnings of Liubov’s older sister, who worked as a schoolteacher. Liubov recalls her childhood in the 1920s:

The Tetiuev family (Liubov, aged four, seated centre), Cherdyn, 1927

If my parents needed to talk about something important, they would always go outside the house and speak to one another in whispers. Sometimes they would talk with my grandmother in the yard. They never held such conversations in front of the children – never… Not once did they have an argument or talk critically about Soviet power – though they had much to criticize – not once in any case that we could hear. The one thing my mother always said to us was: ‘Don’t you lot go chattering, don’t go chattering. The less you hear the better.’ We grew up in a house of whisperers.69


Many families experienced a growing generation split during the 1920s: the customs and habits of the old society remained dominant in the private spaces of the home, where seniority ruled, but young people were increasingly exposed to the influence of Soviet propaganda through school, the Pioneers and the Komsomol. For the older generation the situation posed a moral dilemma: on the one hand, they wanted to pass down family traditions and beliefs to their children; on the other, they had to bring them up as Soviet citizens.

Grandparents were the main transmitters of traditional values in most families. The grandmother, in particular, played a special role, taking prime responsibility for the upbringing of the children and the running of the household, if both the parents worked, or playing an important auxiliary role, if the mother worked part-time. In the words of the poet Vladimir Kornilov, ‘It seemed that in our years there were no mothers. / There were only grandmothers.’70 The influence of the grandmother was felt in a variety of ways. By running the household, the grandmother had a direct effect on children’s manners and habits. She told the children stories of ‘the old days’ (before 1917), which in time could serve as a reference-point or counterweight to Soviet history, enabling them to question the propaganda they were fed in school. She kept alive the cultural values of the nineteenth century by reading to the children from pre-revolutionary Russian literature, little read in Soviet schools, or by taking them to the theatre, galleries or concert halls.71

Elena Bonner was brought up by her grandmother. ‘Batania, not Mama, was the centre of my life,’ she later wrote. As Party activists, Elena’s mother and father were often absent from the Bonner home. In her relationship with her grandmother Elena found the love and affection she longed for but did not receive from her parents. Batania provided a moral counterbalance to the Soviet influence of Elena’s mother and father. As a child, Elena was aware that her grandmother – a plump but ‘astonishingly beautiful’ woman with a ‘calm and imperious manner’ – inhabited a different world from the Soviet one in which her parents lived.

Batania’s friends and acquaintances rarely came to our building, where only she and the children were not Party members. But I often went with her to call on them. I saw that they lived differently – they had different dishes, different furniture. (At our house Batania was the only one with normal furniture and a few nice things…) They talked about everything differently. I felt (this impression definitely came from Papa and Mama) that they were a different sort of people – what I couldn’t tell was whether they were worse or better.

Batania Bonner with her grandchildren (from left: Zoria, Elena, Yegorka), Moscow, 1929

Batania’s conservative moral outlook was rooted in the world of the Russian-Jewish bourgeoisie. She was hard-working, strict but caring, entirely dedicated to the family. During the 1920s Batania worked as a ‘specialist’ (spets) – a much-derided but still necessary class of ‘bourgeois’ experts and technicians – in the Leningrad customs office, where she was an accountant. She earned more than Bonner’s parents on the ‘Party Maximum’. Batania had old-fashioned frugal attitudes about money and housekeeping that were a source of constant friction with the ‘Soviet regime’ Elena’s parents imposed on the household. She read a lot but ‘stubbornly refused to read contemporary literature’ and did not go, ‘on principle’, to the cinema, such was her disdain for the modern world. She had ‘nothing but scorn for the new order’, talked disaparagingly of the Party leaders and scolded her own daughter for the excesses of the Bolshevik dictatorship. When she was really angry she would say things starting with the phrase: ‘Let me remind you that before that Revolution of yours…’ After the Soviet government banned the Shrovetide holiday, the most colourful in the Orthodox calendar, Batania, who sympathized with all old customs, told her granddaughter: ‘Well, you can thank your mummy and daddy for this.’ Not surprisingly, Elena was confused by the clash of values in her family. ‘There was a colossal conflict over our education,’ she recalls in interview.

Grandmother would bring home books for me from the Children’s Golden Library, various stupidities, and Mama disapprovingly would purse her lips, though she never dared say anything to grandmother. Mama brought home different books, Pavel Korchagin,* for example, which she brought home for me in manuscript, and I read that too. I didn’t know which type of book I liked better.

Elena loved her grandmother and respected her ‘more than anyone else in the world’, but, not surprisingly, she wanted to identify with her parents and their world: ‘I always perceived Papa’s and Mama’s friends as my own kind and Batania’s as strangers. In essence, I already belonged to the Party.’72

In the Moscow home of Anatoly Golovnia, the cameraman for most of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s films in the 1920s and 1930s, Anatoly’s mother Lydia Ivanovna was a domineering influence. Born into a Greek merchant family from Odessa, she had been educated at the Smolny Institute, where she acquired the refined attitudes and habits of the Russian aristocracy. Lydia passed on these customs to the Golovnia household, which she ran with iron discipline in the ‘Russian Victorian’ manner. Lydia was contemptuous of the ‘vulgar’ manners of Anatoly’s wife, a film actress of extraordinary beauty called Liuba, who had come to Moscow from a poor peasant family in Cheliabinsk. She thought her taste for expensive clothes and furniture reflected the material acquisitiveness of the ‘new Soviet bourgeoisie’, the class of peasants and workers rising through the ranks of the bureaucracy. In a heated argument, after Liuba came home from a shopping spree, she told her that she represented ‘the Revolution’s ugly side’. Lydia herself had simple tastes. She always dressed in the same black full-length dress with deep pockets in which she kept a powder case and a lorgnette. A survivor of the famine that swept through south-east Russia and Ukraine at the end of the Civil War, she lived in fear of starvation, although Anatoly’s earnings were more than adequate to provide for the household, which also included Liuba’s sister and her daughter Oksana. Lydia planned out every meal in a small notebook, with exact quantities of the necessary items that needed to be bought. She had her favourite shops, the elite Filippovsky bakery and the Yeliseyev store on Tverskaia Street, where ‘she would allow herself the luxury of drinking an iced glass of tomato juice’. Looking back on her childhood, Oksana wrote in 1985:

Grandmother was a very modest and disciplined person. She was something of a moralist, a pedagogue perhaps. She always tried to do the ‘correct thing’. I remember how she liked to say to her son, who was a convinced Bolshevik: ‘If you did things as I do them, you would have built your Communism long ago.’ She was fearless about what she said, and concealed nothing of what she thought or did. She believed strongly that ideas should be spoken clearly and aloud, without pretence, deceit or fear. She often said to me: ‘Do not whisper, it is rude!’* Now I realize that she behaved this way to set a moral example to her granddaughter – to show me the correct way to behave. Thank you, Grandmother!73

Grandmothers were also the main practitioners and guardians of religious faith. It was nearly always the grandmother who organized the christening of a Soviet child, sometimes without its parents’ knowledge or consent, who took the children to church and passed down religious customs and beliefs. Even if they retained their religious faith, the parents of Soviet children were less likely to communicate it to them, partly out of fear that the exposure of such beliefs, say in school, could have disastrous consequences for the family. ‘My grandmother took me to be christened, although my father and mother were violently opposed,’ recalls Vladimir Fomin, who was born into a family of factory workers in Kolpino, near Leningrad. ‘It was all done in secret in a country church. My parents were afraid that they would lose their jobs at the factory if people found out that I had been christened.’74

A grandmother’s religious beliefs could set the child on a collision course with the ideological system in Soviet schools. Born in 1918 to a family of wealthy Tiflis engineers, Yevgeniia Yevangulova spent much of her childhood with her grandparents in Rybinsk, because her father, Pavel, who was Chief of Mines in the Soviet Mining Council, was frequently on work trips in Siberia, while her mother, Nina, who was studying in Moscow, could not cope with the child care. A devout merchant’s wife of the old school, Yevgeniia’s grandmother was a major influence on her upbringing. She gave her a little cross to wear beneath her blouse on her first day at school. But a group of boys discovered it and made fun of her. ‘She believes in God!’ they pointed and shouted. Yevgeniia was traumatized by the incident. She turned inward. When she was invited to join the Pioneers, she refused, a rare act of protest among children of her age, and later on refused to join the Komsomol.75

Boris Gavrilov was born in 1921. His father was a factory manager and senior Party member in one of the industrial suburbs of Leningrad. His mother was a schoolteacher. Boris was brought up by his maternal grandmother, the widow of a wealthy ivory merchant, whose religious faith had a lasting influence on him:

Grandmother had her own room – we had five rooms altogether – where the walls were covered with religious images and large icons with their votive lamps. It was the only room in the house where icons were allowed by my father. My grandmother went to church and took me along with her, without telling my father. I loved the Easter service, although it was very long… This church was her only joy – she didn’t go to the theatre or the cinema – and all she read were religious books, which were also the first books I learned to read. My mother was religious too, but she didn’t go to church. She didn’t have the time, and my father wouldn’t have allowed it in any case. At school I was taught to be an atheist. But I was more attached to the beauty of the church. When my grandmother died, and my parents were divorced [in 1934], my mother encouraged me to keep going to church. Sometimes I even received communion and went to confession. I have always worn a cross, although I don’t consider myself to be especially religious. Naturally, I never said a word about my religion at school, or when I joined the army [in 1941]. Things like that had to be concealed.76

The division between home and school created conflicts in many families. Children were often confused by the contradiction between what their parents said and what they were taught by their teachers. ‘At home you hear one thing, and at school another. I don’t know which is best,’ a schoolboy wrote in 1926. The issue of religion was particularly confusing. One schoolgirl noted feeling ‘torn between two forces’: at school she was taught that ‘there is no God, but at home my grandmother says that God exists’. The question of religion divided young and old, especially in the countryside, where teachers encouraged children to challenge the beliefs and authority of their elders. ‘Over tea, I argued with my mother about the existence of a God,’ wrote one rural schoolboy in 1926. ‘She said that Soviet power was wrong to fight religion and crack down on the priests. But I assured her: “No, Mama, you are wrong. Soviet power is correct. The priest is a liar.”’ Once they joined the Pioneers, children grew in confidence. They became conscious of themselves as members of a movement dedicated to sweeping away the backward customs of the past. ‘One day during Lent, when I came home from school, my grandmother gave me just potatoes for my tea,’ wrote one Pioneer. ‘I complained, and my grandmother said, “Don’t be angry, the Lenten fast has not yet passed.” But I replied: “For you that may be so, because you are old. But we are Pioneers, and we are not obliged to recognize these rituals.”’ This assertiveness was even more pronounced in the Komsomol, where militant atheism was considered a sign of a ‘progressive’ political consciousness, and almost a prerequisite of membership.77

Parents had to choose very carefully what to tell their children about God, often making a conscious decision not to give their children a religious upbringing, even if they themselves had religious leanings. They recognized that their children needed to adapt to Soviet culture if they were to succeed in their adult lives. This compromise was particularly common in professional families, who understood that the fulfilment of a child’s ambitions was dependent on accreditation from the state. One engineer, the son of an architect, recalls that his parents were brought up before the Revolution to believe in God and to follow the principles which they had been taught by his grandparents. But he was brought up to honour different principles, ‘to be decent’, as he put it, ‘and to respond to all the social demands made of him’. A similar situation prevailed in the Moscow household of Pyotr and Maria Skachkova, both librarians. Although they were religious and always went to church, they did not educate their three daughters to believe in God. As one of them recalls:

My parents thought this way: once religion was prohibited, they would not talk about it with their children, because we would have to live in a different society from the one in which they had grown up. They did not want to make us lead a double life, should we join the Pioneers, or the Komsomol.78

Many families did lead a double life. They celebrated Soviet public holidays like 1 May and 7 November (Revolution Day) and conformed to the regime’s atheist ideology, yet still observed their religious faith in the privacy of their own home. Yekaterina Olitskaia was a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. In the 1920s she was exiled to Riazan, where she moved in with an old woman, the widow of a former railway worker, and her daughter, a Komsomol member who worked in a paper factory. The old woman was devoutly religious but, on her daughter’s insistence, she kept her icons in a secret cupboard concealed by a curtain in the back room of the house. Her daughter was afraid that she would be fired if the Komsomol discovered that there were icons in her home. ‘On Sundays and big holidays they would draw the curtains in the evening and light the votive lamps,’ writes Olitskaia. ‘They would usually make sure to lock the doors.’ Antonina Kostikova grew up in a similarly secretive household. Her father was the peasant chairman of a village Soviet in Saratov province from 1922 to 1928, but he privately maintained his Orthodox faith. ‘Our parents were very religious,’ recalls Antonina. ‘They knew all the prayers. Father was especially devout, but he rarely spoke about religion, only when at home at night. He never let us [his three children] see him pray. He told us that we had to learn what they told us about God at school.’ Antonina’s mother, a simple peasant woman, kept an icon hidden in a compartment inside a table drawer which Antonina only found on her mother’s death in the 1970s.79

The secret observance of religious rituals occurred even in Party families. Indeed it was quite common, judging from a report by the Central Control Commission which revealed that almost half the members expelled from the Party in 1925 had been purged because of religious observance. There were numerous Party households where Christ rubbed shoulders with the Communist ideal, and Lenin’s portrait was displayed together with the family icons in the ‘red’ or ‘holy’ corner of the living room.80

The nanny, another carrier of traditional Russian values within the Soviet family, was a natural ally of the grandmother. Nannies were employed by many urban families, especially in households where both parents worked. There was an almost limitless supply of nannies from the countryside, particularly after 1928, when millions of peasants fled into the cities to escape collectivization, and they brought with them the customs and beliefs of the peasantry.

Virtually all the Bolsheviks employed nannies to take care of their children. It was a practical necessity for most Party women, at least until the state provided universal nursery care, because they went out to work. In many Party families the nanny acted as a moral counterweight to the household’s ruling Soviet attitudes. Ironically the most senior Bolsheviks tended to employ the most expensive nannies, who generally held reactionary opinions. The Bonners, for example, had a series of nannies, including one who had worked in Count Sheremetev’s household in St Petersburg, a Baltic German (an acquaintance of Batania’s old landowner friends) who taught the children ‘good manners’, and even one who had once worked for the Imperial family.81

Peasant nanny, Fursei family (Leningrad)

Nannies could exert a profound influence on family life. In the Leningrad household of the Party activists Anna Karpitskaia and Pyotr Nizovtsev, for example, there was a peasant nanny called Masha, a devout Old Believer,* who observed her religious rituals in their home. She ate separately using her own plates and cutlery, prayed every morning and evening in her room and involved the children in the elaborate rites of her belief. Masha also practised as a healer, as she had done in her native village in the northern Russian countryside, making herbal remedies to cure the children of various illnesses. A kind and caring person, Masha earned the respect of her employers, who protected her from the Soviet authorities’ pursuit of religious activists. Her presence contributed to the rare liberal atmosphere that prevailed in this household. ‘We did not think it strange to have an Old Believer in the family,’ recalls Anna’s daughter Marksena. ‘There was no trace in our household of the militant atheism found in other Party households at that time. We were brought up to be tolerant of all religions and beliefs, although we ourselves were atheists.’82

Natasha Ovchinnikova

Inna Gaister was another child of Bolsheviks who was deeply affected by the counter-values of her nanny. Inna’s father, Aron Gaister, was a senior economist in Gosplan (the State Planning Commission); her mother, Rakhil Kaplan, an economist in the People’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry. Both her parents came from labouring families in the Pale of Settlement, the south-west corner of the Russian Empire, where the tsar’s Jews had been forced to live. The couple met in Gomel, a town in Belarus; they joined the Party in the Civil War and in 1920 moved to Moscow, to a communal apartment. Aron studied at the Institute of Red Professors, while Rakhil worked in the Textile Workers’ Union. Like many Soviet Jews, the Gaisters invested their hopes in the programme of industrialization, which they believed would end all backwardness, inequality and exploitation in the Soviet Union. Two months after the birth of their first child, Inna, in 1925, they hired a nanny called Natasha, who moved into their new home. Natasha Ovchinnikova came from a peasant family in Riazan province, south of Moscow, whose small farm had been ruined by the Bolshevik grain requisitionings of the Civil War. During the famine of 1921 Natasha fled to the capital. She rarely spoke about her family in the Gaister home. But even at the age of eight or nine, Inna was aware that the world her nanny grew up in was very different from the one in which her parents lived. Inna noticed how Natasha prayed in church; she heard her crying in her room. She saw the poverty of her relatives from Riazan – who had also made their way to the capital and were living as illegal immigrants in a crowded barracks – when she went with her to visit them. Natasha’s niece, a girl with whom Inna liked to play, had no shoes, so Inna brought her a pair of her own and then lied that she had lost them when her parents asked about the missing shoes. Although still too young to question anything politically, Inna had already formed a tacit alliance with Natasha and her family.83

The peasant world from which these nannies came was largely dominated by the traditions of the patriarchal family. In 1926, the peasantry represented 82 per cent of the Soviet population – 120 million people (in a total population of 147 million people) dispersed in 613,000 villages and remote settlements across the Soviet Union.84 The peasantry’s attachment to individual family labour on the private household farm made it the last major bastion of individualism in Soviet Russia and, in the view of the Bolsheviks, the main social obstacle to their Communist utopia.

In some areas, especially in central Russia, urban ways were filtering down to the countryside, and literate peasant sons were displacing fathers at the head of family farms, or breaking free from extended families to set up households of their own. But elsewhere the traditions of the patriarchal peasant family remained dominant.

Antonina Golovina was born to a peasant family in 1923, the youngest of six children. Their village, Obukhovo, 800 kilometres north-east of Moscow, was an ancient settlement of wooden houses in the middle of a forest; there was a pond in the middle of the village and a large wooden church, built in the eighteenth century. The Golovins had always lived in Obukhovo (twenty of the fifty-nine households in the village were occupied by Golovins in 1929).85 Antonina’s father, Nikolai, was born in the village in 1882, and apart from the three years he had spent in the army in the First World War, he lived his whole life there. Like many villages, Obukhovo was a tightly knit community where family and kin relations played a crucial role. The peasants thought of themselves as a single ‘family’ and taught their children to address other adults in familial terms (‘aunty’, ‘uncle’, and so on). Bolshevik attempts to divide the peasantry into separate and warring social classes – the ‘kulaks’ (or the ‘rural bourgeoisie’) and the poor peasants (the so-called ‘rural proletariat’) – failed miserably in Obukhovo, as they did in much of Soviet Russia during the Civil War.

As a hard-working, sober and successful peasant from the largest village clan, Nikolai was a well-respected figure in Obukhovo. ‘He was a quiet man – he did not talk to pass the day – but worked honestly and got things done, and the peasants valued that,’ one of the villagers recalls. After his return from the First World War, Nikolai became a leader of the peasant commune in Obukhovo. Governed by an assembly of its leading farmers, the peasant commune was an ancient institution, set up under serfdom, which regulated virtually every aspect of village and agrarian life. Its powers of self-government had been considerably broadened by the Emancipation of the serfs in 1861, when it took over most of the administrative, police and judicial functions of the landlords and became the basic unit of rural administration. The commune controlled the peasants’ land, which in most parts of Russia was owned communally but farmed individually; set the common patterns of cultivation and grazing necessitated by the open-field system of strip-farming (where there were no hedges between the strips or fields); and periodically redivided the arable land among the peasant farms according to their household size – an egalitarian principle that also helped the commune pay its taxes to the state by ensuring that the land was fully worked by families with labourers. In 1917, the commune became the organizing kernel of the peasant revolution on the land. After the collapse of the old rural order and the flight of most of its leaders, the gentry and the clergy, from the countryside, the peasants throughout Russia seized control of all the land and – without waiting for any direction from the central government or the revolutionary parties in the towns – redistributed it through the peasant commune and the various village councils (soviets) and committees which they had set up to rule their own affairs during 1917.86

Before the Revolution, Nikolai had rented arable from the village priest. Like most peasants in Russia, where overpopulation and inefficient farming resulted in shortages of land, he had depended on this rented arable to feed his family. In 1917, the commune seized control of the Church’s land and divided it with the communal land among the peasants. Nikolai was given four hectares of ploughland and pasture, a norm set in proportion to the number of ‘eaters’ in his family (i.e. household size). He now had almost twice as much land as he had farmed before 1917, and none of it was rented any more. But four hectares were not enough to live on in Obukhovo, or anywhere in northern Russia, where the soil was poor and the land broken up by woodland into disparate plots and then (to make sure that every peasant received an equal share of these small plots) broken up again by the commune into narrow strips, each one no more than a few feet wide and unsuitable for modern ploughs. The Golovins’ arable land consisted of about 80 separate strips in eighteen different locations – numbers not unusual for peasants in the Vologda region. To supplement their income the peasants worked in trades and crafts, which had always played a vital role, almost as important as agriculture, in the economy of the northern villages, and which now flourished in the NEP, when the government encouraged rural trades and even subsidized them through cooperatives. Nikolai had a leather workshop in the backyard of his farm. ‘In our household,’ recalls Antonina,

we had enough to live on, but only as a result of our own hard work and thrift. All six children laboured on the land, even the youngest, and Father worked long hours making shoes and other leather goods in his workshop. When he bought a cow from the market, he made sure to get everything from it. He slaughtered the cow, sold the meat, dressed the hide himself (every peasant in our region knew this craft), manufactured boots from the leather and then sold them at the market too.87

This work ethic was ‘the main philosophy of our education as children,’ she recalls. It was typical of the most industrious peasant families that children were brought up to work on the farm from an early age. These peasants took pride in their labour, as Antonina remembers:

Father liked to say that everything we did should be done well – as if it was done by a master. That is what he called the ‘Golovin way’ – his highest words of praise… When we went to school he told us all to study hard and learn a good profession. In his eyes the good professions were medicine, teaching, agronomy and engineering. He did not want his children to learn shoe-making, which he considered a hard life, though he was an artist in his craft, and we children and anybody else who came to our house were inspired by the beauty of his work.88

Nikolai built his own house, a long, whitewashed single-storeyed building near the millstone in the middle of Obukhovo. The only brick house in the whole village, it had a dining room as well as a bedroom sparsely furnished with factory furniture bought in Vologda and two iron beds, one for Nikolai and his wife, Yevdokiia, the other for their two daughters (the boys slept on the floor of the dining room). Outside the kitchen, the only entrance to the house, there was a sheltered yard for animals, with a cowshed, a pigsty, a stable and two barns. The yard also contained a bath-house, a toilet, a tool store and a workshop, and, beyond the yard, there was a garden full of apple trees.

Nikolai was a strict father. ‘All the children were afraid of him,’ recalls his daughter Antonina, ‘but it was a fear based on respect. As our mother liked to say, “God is in the sky and father in the house.” Whatever father said we took as law. Even the four boys.’ In this type of patriarchal household there was little tenderness or intimacy between adults and children. ‘We never kissed or hugged our parents,’ Antonina says. ‘We did not love them in that way. We were brought up to respect and revere them. We always obeyed them.’ But that did not mean there was no love. Nikolai adored his youngest daughter, who recalls a tender moment from her childhood, when she was only four. Dressed in his best cotton shirt for a holiday, her father carried her in his strong arms to the village church.

Suddenly, he took my hands and held them tightly to his lips. He closed his eyes and kissed my hands with real feeling. I remember that. Now I understand how much I meant to him, how much he needed to express his love. He was so clean, so sweet-smelling, in that new shirt laced with brown embroidery.89


For the elites of the old society the passing-down of family traditions and values to the next generation was particularly complicated; if they wanted to succeed in the new society, they could not simply stick to their customary ways, but had to adjust to Soviet conditions. To maintain a balance between old and new, families could adopt various strategies. They could, for example, lead a double life, retreating to a private world (‘internal emigration’) where they secretly held on to their old beliefs, perhaps concealing them from their own children, who were brought up in a Soviet way.

The Preobrazhenskys are a good example of a formerly elite family that secretly maintained some aspects of their old life even as they largely adapted to Soviet conditions. Before 1917, Pyotr Preobrazhensky had worked as a priest at the Priazhka Psychiatric Hospital in St Petersburg. He was one of the ‘spiritualists’ to whom the Empress Aleksandra had turned for help to cure the tsarevich from haemophilia before the arrival of Rasputin at the court. Pyotr’s wife was a graduate of the Smolny Institute and a confidante of the Dowager Empress Mariia Fyodorovna. After 1917, Pyotr and his oldest son worked as porters at the hospital. His younger son, who had been a choir master at the Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery, joined the Red Army and died fighting in the Civil War. Pyotr’s eldest daughter became a secretary in the Petrograd Soviet, while his younger daughter, Maria, gave up her career as a concert pianist to become inspector of collective farms in the Luga area. Maria’s husband, a singer, became a sanitary worker in the Priazhka Hospital. Throughout the 1920s, the family lived together in an office at the back of the hospital. They never grumbled about their desperate poverty, but lived quietly, accepting the tasks set them by the new regime – with one exception. Every evening the icons were brought out of their secret hiding place, the votive lamps lit, and prayers held. The family went to church, celebrated Easter and always had a Christmas tree, even after Christmas trees were banned as a ‘relic of the bourgeois way of life’ in 1929. Maria and her husband made their daughter Tatiana wear a gold cross on a necklace, which they told her to keep concealed. ‘I was brought up to believe in God and at the same time to learn from Soviet school and life,’ recalls Tatiana. The Preobrazhenskys inhabited the margin between these two worlds. Pyotr secretly continued to work as an unofficial priest for people who still preferred to bury relatives with Christian rites – the silent majority of the Soviet population.* ‘We never earned enough to make ends meet,’ explains Tatiana, ‘so my grandfather went around the cemeteries of Leningrad performing sacraments for a small fee.’90

For the old professional elites there was another way to adapt to Soviet society whilst maintaining their traditional family way of life. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, engineers and economists could put their skills at the disposal of the new regime, thereby hoping to safeguard some parts of their privileged existence. They could even live quite well, at least in the 1920s, when the expertise of these ‘bourgeois specialists’ was badly needed by the new regime.

Pavel Vittenburg was a leading figure in the world of Soviet geology and played an important role in the development of the Arctic Gulags, or forced labour camps, at Kolyma and Vaigach. He was born in 1884, the eighth of nine children in a family of Baltic Germans in Vladivostok in Siberia. Pavel’s father came from Riga, but he was exiled to Siberia after taking part in the Polish uprising against tsarist rule in 1862–4. After his release he worked for the Vladivostok Telegraph. Pavel studied in Vladivostok, Odessa and Riga, and then went to Tübingen, in Germany, before moving to St Petersburg, a young and serious-minded Doctor of Science, in 1908. He married Zina Razumikhina, the daughter of a railway engineer and a distant relative, who was then studying medicine in St Petersburg. The couple bought a large and comfortable wooden house in the elite dacha resort of Olgino on the Gulf of Finland near St Petersburg. Three daughters were born: Veronika in 1912, Valentina in 1915 and Yevgeniia in 1922. It was a close and intimate family. As a father, Yevgeniia recalls, Pavel was ‘attentive, patient and loving’, and at Olgino they ‘lived a happy life, with music, painting and evenings of reading as a family’. There were long summer walks, and lazy meals that were beautifully prepared by the nanny Annushka, who had nursed Zina as a child. The Vittenburgs were often joined by artists and writers, like the famous children’s writer Kornei Chukovsky, who spent several summers at their house. This Chekhovian existence continued throughout the 1920s.

The Vittenburgs were driven by a strong ethos of public service, which was almost the defining feature of the nineteenth-century intelligentsia. After 1917, Zina used her medical training to set up a hospital in the neighbouring town of Lakhta, where she treated patients free of charge. Pavel, elected chairman of the Lakhta Council in 1917, organized a school to teach technology to children of the labouring poor. ‘He was always working,’ Yevgeniia recalls. ‘If he was not writing, he was planning explorations for the Polar Commission or organizing papers for the Geological Museum. He was always doing something and rarely could relax.’ Pavel was committed to the cause of polar exploration and geology, then still in its infancy, in which the Soviet Union led the world. Polar explorers were portrayed as heroes in Soviet books and films, and during the 1920s, the Soviet government invested a large share of its scientific budget in geological surveys of potential mining operations in the Arctic zone. Pavel was not interested in politics but he welcomed the attention from the Soviet regime and the opportunity it gave him to pursue his science in an organized and disciplined environment. ‘The past ten years have been a heroic period of polar exploration,’ Pavel wrote in 1927, shortly before leaving Olgino to carry out a survey of the gold-fields at Kolyma. ‘The future promises even greater achievements.’91

The Vittenburg family at Olgino, 1925

Another elite couple who adapted to Soviet conditions in this way were the parents of the writer Konstantin Simonov, who stands at the centre of this book. Simonov was another child of 1917. His mother Aleksandra descended from the Obolenskys, a grand and ancient clan of princely bureaucrats and landowners, who occupied a prominent position in the Imperial system, although her father Leonid, like many noblemen, had entered commerce in the 1870s. Born in 1890, and a graduate of the Smolny Institute, Aleksandra was a woman of the ‘old order’, whose aristocratic attitudes were frequently at odds with Soviet ways. Tall and imposing, ‘Alinka’, as she was known within the family, had old-fashioned notions of ‘correct behaviour’ – rules of conduct she passed down to her son, who was well known for his gentlemanly manners throughout his life (even at the height of his career in the Stalinist establishment). Alinka expected people to be courteous, especially to women, loyal to their friends and constant in their principles. She was ‘a pedagogue’, recalls her grandson, and ‘never tired of telling other people how they should behave’.92

In 1914, Aleksandra married Mikhail Simonov, a colonel of the General Staff who was almost twice her age, and a year later Konstantin was born.* An expert on military fortifications, Mikhail fought in Poland in the First World War, rising to become a general-major in the Fifth Army and the chief of staff of the 4th Army Corps. In 1917, he disappeared. For the next four years, Aleksandra did not hear from Mikhail, who was, it seems, in Poland on some secret mission that prevented him from making contact with his family in Soviet Russia. Perhaps he joined the Polish Army, or possibly the Whites, with whom the Poles were allied in the Russian Civil War. In any case he was reluctant to return to Russia, where his status as a tsarist general, if not as a counter-revolutionary, might well lead, at the very least, to his arrest by the Bolsheviks. It is unclear how much Aleksandra knew about the activities of her husband. Whatever she knew, she concealed it from her son, no doubt to protect his interests. In 1921, Mikhail wrote to Aleksandra from Poland. He begged her to come with their son and live with him in Warsaw, where he had become a Polish citizen. Aleksandra could not make up her mind what to do. She took seriously her marriage vows, and Mikhail was gravely ill. But in the end she was too much of a patriot to leave Russia. ‘My mother reacted with sad incomprehension to the Russian post-revolutionary emigration, even though she had friends and relatives who had fled abroad,’ recalled Simonov in later years. ‘She simply could not understand how it was possible to leave Russia.’93

Aleksandra joined the army of young women from noble and bourgeois families who worked as typists, accountants and translators in the offices of the new Soviet government. In the autumn of 1918, she was evicted from her apartment in Petrograd. It was the height of the Red Terror, the Bolshevik campaign against the old elites, when ‘former people’ like the Obolenskys, ruined nobles and members of the ‘bourgeoisie’ were kicked out of their homes and stripped of all their property, put to work in labour teams, or arrested and imprisoned by the Cheka as ‘hostages’ in the Civil War against the Whites. After many months of unsuccessful petitioning to the Soviet, Aleksandra and the boy Konstantin left Petrograd for Riazan, 200 kilometres south-east of the Soviet capital, where they lived with Aleksandra’s older sister Liudmila, the widow of an artillery captain killed during the First World War, whose regiment was based in the Riazan garrison. They were among the millions of urban-dwellers who fled the hungry cities in the Civil War to be closer to supplies of food.94

Riazan was a town of about 40,000 residents in the early 1920s. One of its main institutions was the Military School, established by the Bolsheviks to train commanders for the Red Army in the Civil War. Among its staff was Aleksandr Ivanishev, a colonel in the tsarist army, wounded twice (and three times the victim of a poison-gas attack) in the First World War, who had been enrolled by Trotsky in the Red Army as a commander. Aleksandra married Ivanishev in 1921. For a daughter of the elite Obolensky clan, it was no doubt a case of marrying down: Aleksandr was the son of a humble railway worker. But Aleksandra had fallen on hard times and in her husband’s military ethos she found a reflection of the principles of her own noble class, not least its ideals of public service, from which, it seems, she took some comfort in these uncertain circumstances.95

Aleksandr was a consummate ‘military man’ – punctual, conscientious, orderly and strictly disciplined – although kind and gentle-hearted in nature. He ran the household in Riazan like a regiment, recalls Konstantin:

Our family lived in the officers’ barracks. We were surrounded by military personnel, and the military way of life ruled our every step. The morning and evening parades took place on the square in front of our house. Mother was involved in various army committees with the other wives of officers. When guests came to our house the talk was always about the army. In the evenings my stepfather drew up plans for military exercises. Sometimes I helped him. Discipline in the family was strict, purely military. Everything was planned by the hour, with orders given to the .00. You could not be late. You could not refuse a task. You had to learn to hold your tongue. Even the smallest lie was strictly frowned upon. In accordance with their service ethic, my mother and father introduced a strict division of labour in our home. From the age of six or seven, I was burdened with more and more responsibilities. I dusted, washed the floor, helped wash the dishes, cleaned the potatoes, took care of the kerosene and fetched the bread and milk.96

This upbringing had a crucial influence on Simonov. The military values which he assimilated as a child (‘obedience and conscientiousness, a readiness to overcome all obstacles, the imperative to say “yes” or “no”, to love strongly, and to hate as well’, as he himself defined these qualities) prepared him to embrace the quasi-military Soviet system of political command in the 1930s and 1940s.

At thirteen years I knew:

That what is said is meant.

Yes is yes. No is no.

To argue is in vain.

I knew the meaning of duty.

I knew what sacrifices were.

I knew what courage could achieve,

There is no mercy for cowardice!

(From ‘Father’, 1956)97

Simonov revered his stepfather (‘a man I never saw in anything but military uniform’) and from an early age considered him to be his real father. The military principles of duty and obedience he assimilated from Aleksandr were combined in him with the ideas of public service he received from his mother and her aristocratic milieu. These principles were reinforced by the books he read as a boy, which were infused with the Soviet cult of the military. He was inspired by legendary stories of the Civil War, like Dmitry Furmanov’s Chapaev (1925), a ‘Soviet classic’ read by every schoolchild. His boyhood heroes were all military men. His schoolbooks were filled with doodles of the soldier he wanted to become.98 Just as early, Simonov was conscious of the need to take his place in a hierarchy of command. He was brought up to think of himself not just as a soldier, but as an officer, with responsibility for lesser men. At the same time, his hypertrophied sense of public duty and obedience also required subordination to his superiors. As he himself would write, his idea of ‘being good’ was synonymous with ‘honesty’ and ‘conscientiousness’ (poriadochnost’) – a concept that would later form the basis of his support for the Stalinist regime. All his formative relationships involved figures of authority. As an only child, he spent most of his time in the company of adults, and he was quite adept at winning their approval. Without close friends at school, he never really learned the moral lessons of friendship, or loyalty to peers, which might have worked against his growing tendency to please superiors, although comradeship was a dominating theme of his poetry (a sphere for his yearnings) in the 1930s and 1940s. Simonov was clever and precocious. He read a lot and studied hard. He joined lots of clubs, took part in plays and was a Pioneer. Aside from his doodles, his schoolbooks reveal a serious boy who spent long hours drawing maps and graphs, making lists and charts and organizing tasks like a bureaucrat.99

Konstantin (far left), Aleksandra and Aleksandr Ivanishev (right), Riazan, 1927

In his memoirs, written in the last year of his life, Simonov maintained that his parents had accepted the Soviet regime. He could not remember any conversations in which they had voiced their disapproval of the government, or regretted not having emigrated after 1917. In his presentation,

Page from Simonov’s school notebook (1923)

his parents took the view that, as members of the intelligentsia, it was their duty to stay and work for Soviet Russia and, even if their own values were not ‘Soviet’, it was their obligation to bring up Konstantin as a ‘Soviet’ child. But this is only half the truth. Behind her appearance of political loyalty, Aleksandra concealed a critical opinion of the Soviet regime, which had, after all, brought disaster to her family. Aleksandra’s brother Nikolai was forced to flee to Paris after 1917 (as a former governor of Kharkov province, he would have been arrested by the Bolsheviks). She never saw him again. The rest of the family – Aleksandra, her mother and three sisters – lived in fear and poverty, first in Petrograd and then in Riazan. After the Civil War, Aleksandra’s sisters Sonia and Daria returned to Petrograd; and when their mother died in 1923, Liudmila went back to Petrograd as well. Left on her own in Riazan, Aleksandra struggled to adapt to the Soviet environment (‘I was born in another world,’ she wrote to her son in 1944. ‘The first twenty-five years of my life were spent in conditions of comfort… Then my life was suddenly destroyed… I washed and cooked and went to the shops and worked all day’). In addition to passing on the values of the aristocracy, Aleksandra also strove to keep religious practices alive. She took her son to church until he was twelve (in his later letters to his aunts he continues to greet them in religious terms on Orthodox holidays). Yet she also taught him that his noble origins were dangerous and that they needed to be hidden if he was to advance.100 Despite the relatively liberal climate of the NEP, the class war unleashed by the Revolution had only come to a temporary halt, and, beneath the peaceful surface, pressures were growing for a renewed purge of the old elites which threatened families like the Simonovs.

In 1927, Simonov was taken by his mother to stay with relatives of his stepfather in the countryside near Kremenchug. ‘Aunt Zhenia’ lived with her husband, Yevgeny Lebedev, an old general who had long ago retired from the tsarist army on account of his wounded leg, which left him paralysed and dependent on his younger wife. The general was a liberal type, good-natured and optimistic, and he did not grumble or complain about the Soviet government. Konstantin enjoyed his company, because he was interesting and told stories well. One day, after walking in the woods, Konstantin came back to his aunt’s house. The door was opened by a stranger, who turned out to be one of several OGPU men, who had come to search the house for incriminating evidence of counter-revolutionary activity prior to the arrest of the general. In his memoirs Simonov recalls the incident:

At the moment I entered one of the OGPU men was lifting up the mattress, on which the old man was resting, and searching underneath… ‘Sit down, boy, and wait,’ he said to me, pointing to a stool. He was not exactly rude, more imperious, and I understood that I had to sit and obey him… The search was being conducted by two men in uniform, but they had not produced a search warrant, and the old general was cursing them, getting very angry, and threatening to complain about their unlawful behaviour. Aunt Zhenia, it seemed to me, was relatively calm, fearing most of all that her husband might have a heart attack, and tried to calm him down without success. The men carried on with the search, leafing through the pages of every book in turn, looking under oilcloths and embroideries that were stacked on shelves. The old man, propped up against the wall and half-lying on the bed, continued cursing… Finally, the search came to an end, and, without taking anything, the men left. They behaved with restraint, they did not swear or scold, because they were dealing with an old man who was paralysed… In my consciousness this event did not appear as something frightening, tragic or disturbing; it seemed more or less normal.

The interesting thing about this episode is the way it was perceived by Simonov. He had witnessed an illegal act of state repression against his family, but he was not frightened by it, or so he later claimed; somehow he even saw it as a routine (‘normal’) procedure. Simonov would respond in a similar manner to the arrest of other relatives, including his stepfather and three aunts, during the 1930s, rationalizing the events as ‘necessary’ acts – mistakes, perhaps, because his relatives were surely innocent, but understandable in the broader context of the state’s need to root out potential counter-revolutionaries.101

In 1928, Simonov moved with his parents to Saratov, a large industrial city on the Volga, where Aleksandr became an instructor in the military school. The family lived in the barracks, occupying two adjoining rooms, and shared a communal kitchen with several other families. Simonov began at a secondary school, but in 1929, at the age of just fourteen, he abandoned it, deciding not to complete the academic education planned for him by his parents, but to switch to a Factory Apprentice School (FZU), where general education was combined with technical training. Like many children of the old intelligentsia, Simonov was eager to fashion a new ‘proletarian’ identity for himself so as to break free of his social origins, which were certain to hold him back in Soviet society. The FZUs and higher technical institutions of the late 1920s were full of children from intelligentsia families who, refused entry to university (which now favoured applicants from the working class), had gone instead to factory or technical schools to qualify as ‘proletarians’, a qualification that would open doors to further jobs and education. Like Simonov, who registered his mother as an ‘office worker’, many children from the old elite concealed their social origins, or made selective use of their biographies, to gain admission to technical schools and colleges. Most went on to become engineers or technicians in the industrial revolution of the First Five Year Plan (1928–32), developing a new professional identity that liberated them from the great dilemma about social class – because all that mattered was their dedication to the cause of Soviet industry. Simonov’s rejection of the academic education chosen for him by his parents was significant: it was the moment when he turned his back on the old civilization, into which he had been born, and adopted a ‘Soviet’ identity.

At the FZU Simonov learned to become a lathe-turner. In the evenings he worked as an apprentice at a munitions factory in Saratov. Simonov had ‘no real talent for industrial work’, as he later came to recognize, and only persevered ‘from vanity’. In his letters to his aunt Sonia in Leningrad, the teenage boy displayed his social activism and enthusiasm for the Soviet cause:


Dear Auntie Sonia!

Forgive me for taking so long to reply to your nice letter. I have never been so busy. I am a member of four clubs: I’m on the governing committee of two of them, and the chairman of one (the young naturalists). Besides that, I’m a member of the commission of [socialist] competition, the reading group, the school’s editorial board and the chemical brigade [against posion-gas attacks]. I’m also an instructor in collective assistance, a member of the management committee [reporting to the school administration on the political activities and opinions of the students at the FZU] and part of MOPR [the International Society of Workers’ Aid]. At the moment, I’m also organizing anti-religious propaganda through the management sub-committee and running the class committee. Recently I was placed in charge of organizing a chess club in the school. I think that’s all of it.102

It is hard to say what lay behind this frenzy of activity – the energies of a teenager brought up in the public-service ethos, the calculation that through these commitments he might hide his social origins and secure his position in Soviet society, or a passionate belief in the Communist ideal. But it was the start of Simonov’s involvement in the Stalinist regime.


The mercantile class, too, found ways to adapt to the new regime, especially after the introduction of the NEP. In 1922, Samuil Laskin, his wife and their three daughters left the town of Orsha and settled in Moscow. The family moved into a basement room near the Sukharevka market, which was then a by-word for the private trade that flourished under the NEP. Samuil Laskin was a small tradesman, a dealer in herring and other salted fish. Like many Jews, he had come to Moscow to take advantage of the new opportunities for private traders. He had all sorts of dreams for his daughters, wanting them to benefit from Soviet schools and universities so that they could join the professions, from which, as a Jew, he had been barred before 1917.

Born in 1879, Samuil came from a large clan of traders in Orsha, a market town of single-storeyed wooden houses, without running water or sewers, in the Pale of Settlement. His father, Moisei, a wholesale merchant of salted fish, lived in a run-down wooden house between the Orthodox and Catholic churches on the busy road to Shklov. Orsha was a multi-cultural town where Russians, Poles, Belorussians, Latvians and Lithuanians lived together with the Jews (there was one small pogrom in 1905). The Laskins spoke Yiddish and Russian. They observed the Jewish rituals, went to synagogue and sent their children to the Jewish school, but they also placed a high value on their children’s education and advancement in Russian society. Moisei had six children. The three oldest (Sima, Saul and Samuil) were all schooled at home; but the younger children (Fania, Iakov and Zhenia) went to university and qualified as doctors, somehow managing to circumvent the tsarist restrictions that barred Jews from Russian universities and professions.* It was an extraordinary achievement for those times, especially for the two girls, Fania and Zhenia.103

Samuil followed Moisei into trade. In 1907, he married Berta, the daughter of a Jewish trader in the neighbouring town of Shklov, where the couple lived with their three daughters, Fania (born in 1909), Sonia (1911) and Yevgeniia (1914), until the Revolution of 1917. A kind and gentle man, practical and wise, with a lively interest in literature and international politics, Samuil embraced the Revolution as the liberation of the Jews. He had always dreamed of educating his beloved daughters, and with the declaration of the NEP, which made it possible for him to make a living in Moscow, he thought his dream would at last come true.

The NEP turned Moscow into a vast market-place. The city’s population doubled in the five years after 1921. After the hardships of the Civil War, when private trade had been outlawed, there was a huge demand for anything the market could provide. Great crowds flocked to the street markets, like the Sukharevka, where traders dealt in everything, from scrap-iron to clothes, pots and pans, and works of art. Samuil had a herring stall on Bolotnaia Square, a food market that catered to the city’s busy restaurants and cafés, on the south side of the Moscow River, not far from the Kremlin. No one knew more than Samuil did about the herring trade. He could open a tin of the salted fish and tell at once where it had come from – the Volga River or the Aral Sea, near Astrakhan or Nizhny Novgorod.

Life was hard at first. The Laskins’ basement room on First Meshchanskaia Street was bare. They slept on mattresses on the floor and suspended a curtain from the ceiling to separate the children’s sleeping area from the adults’. They shared a toilet and a kitchen with the other residents on the upper floor. But by 1923, Samuil’s herring business was thriving, and the Laskins moved into a rented flat on the second floor of a once-grand house on Sretenskaia Street. It was a comfortable apartment with three spacious rooms, a large bathroom and its own private toilet and kitchen, a rare luxury in Moscow in those days. Samuil was doing so well that he was able to send money every month to his parents in Orsha, and to help his nephew Mark, who had also come to Moscow with his family. There were regular Laskin outings to the Bolshoi Theatre, where Samuil always bought a box.104

But then, in 1923–4, shortages of goods and price inflation inflamed proletarian resentment of the NEPmen and their new wealth, and to quash popular unrest the city Soviets closed down 300,000 private businesses.105 The Laskins became victims of the backlash. Samuil’s business survived, but he was forced to pay a special tax to the Moscow Soviet and, like many small tradesmen, he was relegated to the sub-class of lishentsy – people who were deprived of electoral and other civil rights. Samuil endured these punishments calmly. For several years he paid the excessive ‘business rent’ on his corrugated-iron stall – one of many special taxes imposed by the Moscow Soviet on private traders to appease the working class’s resentment of the NEP. In 1925, Samuil turned down an invitation to move to Iran, where the fish industry was heavily dependent on Russian expertise. He wanted his three daughters to grow up in the Soviet Union, to take advantage of the many opportunities he believed – mistakenly, as it turned out – had opened up. Fania was the eldest and most practical of the three girls. In 1926, she passed her school exams with distinction, but because of her father’s status as a lishenets, she was rejected when she applied to a medical college, so she worked instead in a factory and studied economics at night school. Sonia was a serious-minded girl, articulate and bright with a striking beauty, who had suffered from polio as a child, which left her partly paralysed. Barred like her sister from higher education, Sonia studied statistics in evening classes at the Sokolniki Industrial School in Moscow, before enrolling at the Institute of Steel in 1928. Like many Jews, including her cousin Mark, who became an engineer, Sonia embraced the industrial programme of the First Five Year Plan, which promised to modernize the backward peasant Russia, the Russia of pogroms, from which the Laskins had come to the city to escape. Yevgeniia (Zhenia), the youngest of the girls, was more artistic in her temperament and studied literature, a passion shared by all her family. The Laskin household was ‘always in the middle of a literary debate’, recalls Fania. When Sonia was rejected by the Komsomol, as a child of a lishenets, in 1927, the three girls formed a reading circle of their own with Mark and children of their parents’ friends who lived nearby. They would discuss politics and hold ‘show trials’ of characters from literature. Once they held a trial of the Old Testament: they found a copy of the Bible and studied it together for a month.106 Public trials of literary works, ideologies and religious customs were popular agitprop events in the 1920s and 1930s.

The Laskin family (from left to right): Berta, Sonia, Yevgeniia (Zhenia), Fania, Moscow, 1930. Samuil was in exile at this time

The Laskins were typical of the first generation of Soviet Jews. They identified with the Revolution’s internationalism, which promised to eradicate all national prejudice and inequalities, and with its liberating vision of the modern city, which offered Jews unprecedented access to schools and universities, science and the arts, professions and trades. Within a generation of 1917, Russia’s Jews had become an urban people, as the population of the rural shtetls in the former Pale of Settlement either emigrated or died out (by the start of the Second World War, 86 per cent of Soviet Jews lived in urban areas, half of them in the eleven largest cities of the USSR). Moscow’s Jewish population grew from 15,000 in 1914 to a quarter of a million Jews (the city’s second largest ethnic group) in 1937.107 The Jews flourished in the Soviet Union. They made up a large proportion of the elite in the Party, the bureaucracy, the military command and the police. Judging from the memoirs of the period, there was relatively little anti-Semitism or discrimination, although there were many Jews, like Samuil Laskin, who were deprived of civil rights because of their social class and their connection with private trade. It is true that numerous synagogues were closed, but this was a result of the general Bolshevik campaign against religion in the 1920s and 1930s. The family continued as the real centre of Jewish religious life, with the older generation taking charge of the traditional prayers and rituals, which in most households coexisted with the observance of Soviet public holidays and the acceptance of Soviet beliefs by the younger in particular. There was a thriving secular Yiddish culture, actively promoted by the Soviet government, with Yiddish language schools, Yiddish cinema and Yiddish theatres, including the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre, under the direction of Solomon Mikhoels, which became a focal point for many Bolsheviks and left-wing Jewish intellectuals. In most Jewish families in the big cities the attachment to traditional Jewish culture lived side by side with an intellectual commitment to Russian-Soviet literature and art as a means of entry to the wider culture of the international world.108

This complex multiple identity (Jewish-Russian-Soviet) was retained by Samuil and Berta. Neither was religious. They never went to synagogue or observed Jewish rituals and holidays, though Berta always prepared Jewish food on Soviet holidays. Samuil and Berta knew Yiddish, but Russian was the language they spoke at home. Their daughters understood them when they spoke Yiddish, but did not speak it properly and made no effort to learn the language, which they regarded as an ‘exotic relic’ of the past. For the daughters, the question of identity was simpler. ‘We did not want to think of ourselves as Jews,’ recalls Fania. ‘Nor did we want to be Russians, though we lived in Russia and were steeped in its culture. We thought of ourselves as Soviet citizens.’ The family looked to education, industry and culture as the road to personal liberation and equality. Samuil took an active interest in Soviet politics and drew enormous pride from the achievements of prominent Jewish Bolsheviks like Trotsky. Although not an educated man, he filled his house with books and newspapers and loved to discuss political events, especially events abroad, on which he was extremely well informed. He held a ‘kitchen parliament’ with friends and relatives who came on Sundays for the famous ‘Laskin suppers’; Berta’s Jewish cooking was said to be unrivalled in Moscow.109

In some Jewish families the desire to be ‘Soviet’ was reflected in the suppression of any lingering identification with Jewish culture or religion. In the Gaister household, for example, Jewish customs were so minimal, consisting of little more than the odd Jewish dish, or phrase in Yiddish, or family legends about the pogroms in tsarist times, that even as a teenager Inna was not really conscious of herself as a Jew. Rebekka Kogan, born in 1923 to a Jewish family in the Gomel area, where Inna’s parents met, recalls her own childhood in Leningrad as ‘entirely Soviet’. Her parents observed the main Jewish customs and spoke Yiddish on occasion, especially when they did not want Rebekka to understand, but otherwise they brought her up ‘in a modern way’, she says, ‘without religion, or the influence of my grandparents, who still clung to Jewish ways’.110

Ida Slavina had a similar childhood. She was born in Moscow in 1921 to the family of a prominent Soviet jurist, Ilia Slavin, who had played an important role in the emancipation of the Jews in Belorussia. Ilia had been born in a small town near Mogilyov in 1883, the eldest son in a large family of poor Jewish labourers. From the age of twelve, Ilia worked and studied in a local pharmacy. By qualifying as a pharmacist, he was legally entitled to live outside the Pale of Settlement.* In 1905, he enrolled as an external student at the Law Faculty of Kharkov University. Despite his lack of formal education beyond the age of twelve, Ilia came top in the first-year examinations, which allowed him to enrol officially, as one of the 3 per cent of Jewish students permitted by the government’s quota. After he had graduated from the university, Ilia was offered a position in the faculty, provided he converted to Christianity. But he turned the offer down and returned to the Pale of Settlement, where he worked as an assistant to a barrister in Mogilyov. During the First World War, when the Germans occupied the western territories, Ilia moved to Petrograd, where he worked in the headquarters of the Union of Towns, helping Jews from the Pale of Settlement to resettle in Russia. After 1917, Ilia was elected as a judge and worked in the People’s Courts of Mogilyov, Gomel and Vitebsk. He moved to Moscow in 1921 and continued to rise in the Soviet legal establishment. A handsome, brilliant man, kind and gentle-hearted, Ilia had high ideals, which he invested in the Soviet experiment, even to the point of denying his Jewishness.

From 1903, Ilia had been an active Zionist, a well-known member of the Proletarians of Zion Party, which aimed to establish a socialist society in Palestine. Ilia’s Zionism was a product of his life in the Pale of Settlement, where the Proletarians of Zion were mainly based. But once in Petrograd, where he came into contact with Jews who were Europeanized and assimiliationist, Slavin began to move away from Zionism to Social Democracy. Having embraced the Revolution as an international cause, Slavin accepted the need to subordinate Jewish national interests to the class struggle. As the Chairman of the Vitebsk Court, he even defended the perpetrators of a working-class pogrom against the Jews in 1919, on the grounds that it was an expression of their class hatred of the Jewish factory managers.111 In 1920, Ilia left the Zionist movement, briefly joining the Bundists (Jewish Marxists) before moving to the Bolsheviks in 1921. Slavin acknowledged his ‘political mistakes’ (Zionism and Jewish nationalism) in his autobiography, written when he joined the Bolsheviks, and from that moment on he banished Jewish culture from the Slavin home. He taught his wife Esfir to read and write in Russian, forbade her to speak Yiddish and brought up his two children, Isaak (born in 1912) and Ida, to be Soviet people without any Jewish traditions. Ida remembers:

Father tried so hard to be correct, to live the life of the ideal Bolshevik. We had no Jewish customs in our home, and we never spoke Yiddish – we children did not even know it. Once he had become a Bolshevik, my father made an effort to purge from our home everything that reminded him of the ghetto and the Pale of Settlement. As an internationalist, he believed in the equality of nations, in the Soviet Union, and filled our house with Soviet things. His prized possession was a marble miniature of Lenin’s mausoleum that he kept on his desk.112

The Slavin family, 1927. Ida is with her father Ilia (centre), her mother Esfir to his right

Prospects for the new urban Jews, however, shone less brightly as the NEP came under further attack. In 1928, the Moscow Soviet again imposed a special business tax on small traders. For Samuil Laskin, the tax came at an awkward time. The NEP had re-established rights of private and cooperative ownership in housing, and earlier that year he had put money into a building project on Zubov Square: speculative builders were constructing a two-storeyed house in the courtyard of a large apartment block in this fashionable district of Moscow, and with his investment Samuil was set to own a three-room apartment on the upper floor. Samuil had dreams of private property – he wanted to provide for his three daughters while they were still studying – and so he refused to pay the tax in full. He was arrested, imprisoned briefly in Moscow and then sent into exile in Nizhny Novgorod.113 The arrest was part of a nationwide assault on private trade, which began in 1927 and led eventually to the overturning of the NEP. This campaign against the NEP was inextricably linked to the rise of Stalin and the defeat of his two main rivals in the Party leadership, Trotsky and Bukharin, who continued to support the policies of a mixed economy introduced by Lenin in 1921.

The Bolsheviks had always been ambivalent about the NEP, but many of their proletarian supporters, who could not afford the prices charged by private shops, were firmly opposed to it. Their mistrust of the NEP was reinforced by the wild fluctations of the market, which drove up prices whenever shortages of goods in the countryside led the peasants to withhold their foodstuffs from the towns. The first major breakdown of the market had occurred in 1923–4, when the Soviets had launched their initial attack on the NEPmen, largely to appease the grievances of the working class against the price inflation. In the middle of the 1920s the market stabilized, but a second major breakdown took place in 1927 – 8, when a poor harvest coincided with a shortage of consumer goods. As the price of manufactures rose, the peasantry reduced its grain deliveries to the state depots and cooperatives; the fixed procurement prices were far too low for them to buy the household goods they needed. Instead the peasants ate their grain, fed it to their cattle, stored it in their barns or sold it on the private market rather than release it to the state. Supporters of the NEP differed on the correct way to respond to the crisis. Bukharin favoured raising the procurement prices, mainly to preserve the market mechanism and the union with the peasants which Lenin had said was the basis of the NEP, although he acknowledged that the greater state expenditure would slow down the rate of investment in industry. Trotsky, Kamenev and Zinoviev (the United Opposition) were wary of making more concessions to the peasantry, which they feared would only postpone the Soviet goal of socialist industrialization. In their view, the state should resort to temporary requisitioning of the peasants’ grain to secure the stocks of food and capital it needed to boost production of consumer goods, and only then restore the market mechanism with the peasantry. Stalin sided with Bukharin – but just until the defeat of Trotsky and Zinoviev at the Fifteenth Party Congress in December 1927 – after which he turned against Bukharin and the NEP. Denouncing the grain crisis as a ‘kulak strike’, Stalin called for a return to the requisitionings of the Civil War in order to support a Five Year Plan to industrialize the Soviet Union. He spoke in violent terms about rooting out the final remnants of the capitalist economy (petty trade and peasant farming), which, he claimed, had blocked the country’s progress to socialist industrialization.

Stalin’s violent rhetoric – his calls for a return to the class war of the Revolution and the Civil War – appealed to a broad section of the Party’s proletarian base, among whom there was a growing sense that the bourgeoisie was returning in another form through the NEPmen, the ‘bourgeois specialists’ and the ‘kulaks’. Many felt that the NEP was a retreat from the Bolshevik ideal of social justice and feared that it would lead to the restoration of a capitalist economy. ‘We young Communists had all grown up in the belief that money was done away with once and for all,’ recalls one Bolshevik. ‘If money was reappearing, wouldn’t rich people reappear too? Weren’t we on the slippery slope that led back to capitalism? We put these questions to ourselves with feelings of anxiety.’ Stalin’s call for a return to the methods of the Civil War had a special appeal to younger Communists – those born in the 1900s and the 1910s – who were too young to have taken part in the revolutionary fighting of 1917 – 21 but who had been educated in the ‘cult of struggle’ based on stories of the Civil War. One Bolshevik (born in 1909) maintained in his memoirs that the militant world-view of his contemporaries had prepared them to accept Stalin’s arguments about the need for ‘renewed class war’ against the ‘bourgeois specialists’, NEPmen, ‘kulaks’ and other ‘hirelings of the bourgeoisie’. Young Communists had become disheartened, as one Stalinist explains:

The Komsomols of my generation – those who experienced the October Revolution at the age of ten or younger – chafed at our fate. In the Komsomol, in the factories, we lamented that there was nothing remaining for us to do: the Revolution was over, the harsh but romantic years of the Civil War would not come again, and the older generation had left us only a boring, prosaic life devoid of struggle and excitement.

Aleksei Radchenko wrote in his diary in 1927:

Progressive youth today has no real interest or focus for activity – these are not the years of the Civil War but just the NEP – a necessary stage of the Revolution but a boring one. People are distracted by personal affairs, by family matters… We need something to shake us up and clear the air (some people even dream of war).114

Stalin played on these romantic notions, of the Civil War as the ‘heroic period’ and the Soviet Union as a state engaged in a constant struggle with capitalist enemies at home and abroad. He manufactured the ‘war scare’ of 1927, filling the Soviet press with bogus stories about British ‘spies’ and ‘invasion plans’ against the Soviet Union, and used this fear to call for mass arrests of potential ‘enemies’ (‘monarchists’ and ‘former people’). He also used the threat of war to support his arguments for a Five Year Plan and building of the armed forces. The NEP, he argued, was too slow as a means of industrial armament, and not secure enough as a means of procuring grain in the event of war. Stalin’s conception of the Five Year Plan was wholly predicated on ceaseless struggle with the enemy. In his political battles with Bukharin for the control of the Party in 1928 – 9, Stalin accused him of subscribing to the dangerous view that the class struggle would lessen over time and that ‘capitalist elements’ could be reconciled with a socialist system (in fact Bukharin argued that the struggle would continue in the economic sphere). This view, Stalin argued, would lead the Party to lower its defences against its capitalist enemies, allowing them to infiltrate the Soviet system and subvert it from within. In a precursor to the claims by which he rationalized the expanding waves of state repression in the Great Terror, Stalin insisted, on the contrary, that the resistance of the bourgeoisie was bound to intensify as the country moved towards socialism, so that renewed vigour was constantly required to ‘root out and crush the opposition of the exploiters’.115 This was the rationale that rallied Stalin’s forces and secured his victory against Bukharin. Terror was the inspiration, not the effect, of the Five Year Plan.

The assault against the private traders was the opening battle of a renewed revolutionary war. Thousands of NEPmen were imprisoned or driven from their homes. By the end of 1928, more than half the 400,000 private businesses registered in 1926 had been taxed out of existence or closed down by the police; by the end of 1929, only one in ten remained. New restrictions on the lishentsy made life even harder for the families of the NEPmen. Rationing cards (introduced in 1928) were denied to the lishentsy, who were thus forced to buy their food from the few remaining private shops, where prices rose dramatically. More frequently than before, their families were expelled from state housing, and their children barred from Soviet schools and universities.116

Samuil Laskin returned to Moscow from exile in Nizhny Novgorod at the height of this class war. In the spring of 1929 the Laskins moved into their new home on Zubov Square. Samuil and Berta had one room, Sonia another, while Fania and Zhenia shared the living room. But Samuil’s dreams of owning his own home were soon dashed by the abolition of private ownership, which followed the overturning of the NEP. The Laskin home was nationalized by the Moscow Soviet, which turned it into a communal apartment and moved in an old couple (both well known as police informers), who were given the two largest rooms, leaving all the Laskins to share just one rented room. In November 1929, Samuil’s herring business was expropriated by the state. Samuil was arrested for a second time, held for several weeks in the Butyrki jail, and then exiled to Voronezh, from which he returned in 1930 to begin a new life as a Soviet employee in the fish trade.117

Samuil had lost everything. But he bore his reduced conditions, as he bore everything, without complaining once about the Soviet regime. Nadezhda Mandelshtam, a friend of Zhenia in the 1950s, wrote about this aspect of Samuil’s character in her memoirs about the Stalin years:

Zhenia’s father was a small, indeed, the smallest imaginable, tradesman, who brought up three daughters and dealt in salted herring. The Revolution made him blissfully happy: it proclaimed equal rights for Jews and enabled him to realize his dream of giving his three clever daughters a good education. When the NEP was launched, he took it at face value, and, to feed his daughters, started up his salted herring business – only to have it confiscated when he was unable to pay his taxes. No doubt he too did sums on his abacus to see how he could save his family. He was shipped off to Narym, or some such place. But he was broken neither by this nor by his previous stretch in prison – to which he went at a time when ‘new methods’, that is, tortures of a more refined kind than primitive beating, were being introduced in cases involving ‘the confiscation of valuables’. From his first place of exile he sent a letter of such heartrending tenderness to his wife and three daughters that they decided to show it to no one outside the family. His whole life was spent in and out of exile, and later the same thing started with his daughters and their husbands, who also went into exile and camps. If it had not been for the father, who stood at the centre of it and never changed with the years, the fate of this family would have epitomized the typical Soviet life story. He was the quintessence of Jewish saintliness, possessing those qualities of mysterious spirituality and goodness which sanctified Job.118

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