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.
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.