Fighting Capitalism with Capitalism: NEP and Russian Youth

The image above is a poster titled “6,000,000 Children Not Served By Schools” (1923). The poster warns that homeless children will resort to crime and begging if they are not helped.

The New Economic Policy (NEP) was introduced in the Tenth Party Congress in March 1921 as a means to reinvigorate the Russian economy following the Civil War. As mentioned by Freeze, the NEP had several aims: “to ease public resentment against the emergency measures of the civil war; to regularize supply and production through a limited reintroduction of the market; to invigorate the grass-roots economy and generate investment capital for industrialization; and, in general, to lay the foundation for the transition to socialism at some unspecified but inevitable future date” (Freeze, 309).

An interesting aspect of the NEP is its seeming separation from the revolutionary vision of the Bolshevik Party. As a result, the Party faced a great challenge in rebuilding the Russian economy while avoiding returning to the ways of the old regime. With a wider socialist revolution in mind, the Bolsheviks naturally concerned themselves with posterity. As with all ideologies, the most effective way of preserving and evolving the Bolshevik ways was through Russian youth and a cultural revolution.

By the end of the Civil War and the 1921-22 Famine, it was believed that there were up to 7.5 million besprizornye, or homeless children, throughout the Soviet Union (Siegelbaum). Thus, the Bolsheviks established institutions for housing, feeding, and rehabilitating homeless children through the 1920s before collectivization was instituted (Siegelbaum). As seen on the poster above, the purpose behind educating and rehabilitating homeless children was to preserve the revolution and prevent youths from straying from “Communist values” (Neumann, 248). Nikolai Bukharin spearheaded the campaign to bring about a “fundamental change in the virtues of men, in their habits, in their feeling and desires, in the way they lived their daily life” (Neumann, 243). However, fostering the “New Soviet Man” came with its own challenges.

Despite efforts to educate Russian youth to be “a lively, active, healthy, disciplined youngster who subordinates to the collective and is prepared for and dedicated to learn, study, and work” like a good communist, the NEP was innately counter-revolutionary. The dire economic circumstances forced the Bolsheviks to compromise “in response to public pressure and in keeping with their own ideological predilections” and postpone the transition to socialism in favor of economic recovery and development (Neumann, 248)(Freeze, 308-309). As a result, educating Russian youth meant instilling the beliefs and principles of Bolshevism and the revolution despite the Bolshevik Party not acting on said beliefs.

What is most interesting about how the Bolsheviks handled children, especially homeless children, is that it seemed less about the public welfare and more about maximizing the number of devoted Bolsheviks under Party control through rehabilitation/indoctrination of children who otherwise had no family or opportunities. Regardless, the institutions established to combat homelessness among Russian youth saw horrible living conditions and high mortality rates (Siegelbaum). Additionally, the introduction of collectivization greatly increased the number of homeless children in the Soviet Union and the institutions for homeless children slowly withered and dissolved.

Overall, Soviet policies for educating youth and reducing the number of homeless children was wrought with inconsistency in planning and execution. The Bolsheviks constantly faced the challenge of preventing the Russian population from returning to pre-revolutionary social norms and practices, and attempted to bring about cultural revolution through the Union’s youth. However, the capitalist aspects of the NEP contradicted the socialist principles taught to youth and was ultimately a failed cause that was overturned by Stalin along with the NEP itself.

Works Cited

Neumann, Matthias. “Revolutionizing Mind and Soul? Soviet Youth and Cultural Campaigns during the New Economic Policy (1921-8).” 2008.

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

11 thoughts on “Fighting Capitalism with Capitalism: NEP and Russian Youth

  1. I thought this was a very interesting post on how the Bolsheviks dealt with the countries homeless problem. It is a problem that is a t first not seen as very important, but once you look at the human toll these conflicts took on Russia( WW1, civil war, collectivization) it is easy to realize that this could be a major problem the state has to face. While the Soviet response to the youth problem was at first inefficient, I think it is important to note that many things involving socialist construction at this point were not done properly. With different instructions on how to properly run things coming from various party and state institutions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make an excellent point about the initial inefficiencies of the early Soviet state. Like the NEP itself, the state programs to reduce homelessness among children occurred during one of the most experimental periods of Soviet communism and was understandably imperfect. I appreciate you pointing out this fact so it can be clarified. The Bolshevik party itself was not consolidated and united in thinking and policy and thus neither were the policies of the 1920s. I appreciate the feedback!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Eric, I enjoyed this post about how the Bolsheviks dealt with the problem of the increased number of homeless children. I also wrote my blog post on the inconsistencies of the NEP but I focused on the Scissors Crisis in particular. After reading your post, it made me think about how contradictory the NEP was in aspects other than economics (agricultural and industrial prices) and I think our posts compliment each other.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Natalie, I agree completely! I thought the same thing when I was reading your post. It is interesting how the Bolsheviks were willing to stray from their beliefs to consolidate power following the civil war even if it harmed the social classes that were supposed to benefit the most from Bolshevik rule. I appreciate the feedback!


  3. Eric, i agree that it is super interesting how the Bolsheviks seemingly strayed away from the core concepts and values it represented. Its almost like they indirectly admitted the problems that the system they envisioned really had. I also think it was a clever act on their part to seize the opportunity to “brainwash” some children. It seems like every hardship the Bolsheviks faced, they were able to turn it around in their advantage.


    1. Tanner, I agree that it is very interesting how the Bolsheviks tried to turn problems into opportunities for them to further consolidate their power. Though the homeless children programs were initial failures, they seemed like a preview of the indoctrination methods the Bolsheviks would use throughout their reign to increase party membership and ensure their control over the Soviet Union. I appreciate your comments!


  4. Agree with all of your informed commenters — what intriguing issues you raise in this discussion! And thanks very much for pointing me to the Naumann article (if you could include the bibliographic info as well as the link, that would be awesome). The party’s approach to youth, and especially homeless youth seems so contradictory and so important — just like the reforms aimed at gender roles and the family (in Lauren and Alyssa’s posts) the efforts to deal with homeless youth often seemed to undercut what they were supposed to support. It’s complicated, for sure!


  5. This was an interesting read. With the children that were raised to respect Bolshevism, do you think they would question it since Bolshevism did not commit to its principles to help the economy? Also with the horrible living conditions and deaths, would the homeless children see communism as worse than the regime before?


    1. Matt, I am sure that many Russian youths who were homeless and taken on by the state viewed Bolshevism in a negative light due to the Party’s departure from the principles of the revolution. The programs implemented to help homeless children before Stalin took power were a failure in that many children raised by the state were true believers in communism but not necessarily the Bolshevik party. I appreciate the feedback!


  6. I really enjoyed reading this post, and agree with you on how the Bolsheviks valued power in numbers as opposed to the well being of the children! However, I’m left wondering where all of these homeless children came from, and how they ended up homeless in the first place?


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