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Children's World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890-1991.

Children's World: Growing Up in Russia, 1890-1991. By CATRIONA KELLY. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2007. xxi+714 pp. $45; 29-99 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 978-0-300-11226-9.

Catriona Kelly's monumental account of Russian childhood demonstrates how the prevailing values about modernization and education shaped the childhood experiences of those who were born and raised between 1890 and 1991. The book explores how the Bolsheviks' utopian dream of creating an efficient system of pre-school, primary, and secondary schooling determined the manifestations of Soviet children's public and private lives that were often influenced by prescriptive literature and the media. The book examines the success story related to the high standards of literacy achieved during the Soviet period, and gives a detailed account of children's lives in institutions, orphanages, and Stalin-era camps, highlighting the shortcomings of the notion of rational education based on the utopian impulse to bring about the rapid modernization of Russian society. Kelly's study offers numerous illustrations of how the legacy of the Enlightenment in Soviet Russia led to the exclusion from the curriculum of any religious and pagan forms of thought, including suppression in the 1920s-1930s of fairy tales and many popular pre-Revolutionary books. Kelly suggests that the Bolsheviks inherited an inadequate system of education, along with Western ideas on child development, that were incorporated into the project of an accelerated childhood subordinated to the concerns of the cultural elite and its rationalistic vision of social engineering. Kelly's study outlines briefly the impact on Soviet education of the policies and ideological beliefs of such well-known figures as Nadezhda Krupskaya, Maksim Gorky, Anton Makarenko, and Vasily Sukhomlinsky. The book pays tribute to Soviet children's literature, focusing on such writers as Samuil Marshak, Korney Chukovsky, Aleksey Tolstoy, and Arkady Gaidar, and explores themes and values articulated in Soviet films, radio programmes, and plays.

Kelly's book contains three parts: 'Imagining Childhood', 'Children on their Own: Street Waifs, Orphanage Inmates', and 'Family Children'. It covers much ground on such topics as the representation of childhood in Russian books and media; the ideological concerns of Soviet education; the relationship between adults and children; prevailing ideas about childhood and parenting; children's leisure and sport activities; the experience of mothers; social and health institutions, including childbirth services and provision for abandoned children and orphans; children's rights; and special emphasis on children's creativity and high literacy standards. In a well-balanced manner, Kelly assesses the move from very low literacy levels to a respectable position among the developed countries and convincingly demonstrates that the policy of an expanded education system gave most children wide access to sports and the arts. The concluding pages briefly examine the situation in 1991, suggesting that the introduction of the market into education and other vital areas of young people's lives might undermine the achievements of the Soviet period.

With such a vast amount of information, it is not exactly clear how the material was selected and organized. There are no evident conceptual clusters or theoretical frameworks that could help readers find information easily. Thus, Soviet children's literature is discussed in various chapters; it features in a chapter entitled 'Reading Practices' (pp. 456-61), but there is no discussion of the fact that many writers either escaped from the censorship into children's literature or were labelled as children's writers because their works could not fit into the rigid framework of socialist realist literature. Veiled criticism of the Soviet regime in children's books is ignored. For example, Kelly mentions briefly Tolstoy's 1935 adaptation of Pinocchio, The Little Golden Key (pp. 100-01), but fails to discuss some of the book's subversive qualities satirizing RAPP critics, the Moscow Art Theatre, and the Russian police. She omits to say that it inspired Elena Dan'ko to write her own book Conquered Karabas: A Fantasy Tale (1941) in which Tolstoy's villain Karabas shares distinctive traits with Stalin and the USSR is depicted allegorically as a puppet theatre, where the puppets hate their master and the best actors escape. Surprisingly Kelly does not discuss Mikahil Prishvin, a most interesting writer of stories about nature and animals, themes which helped him to survive the regime, as his diaries published in the 1990s clearly suggest. Aleksandr Grin is mentioned only in passing on page 137 with the suggestinn that his 1923 novel Scarlet Sails was popular during the Thaw period, but no explanation is given for the cult of Grin and the rediscovery of his philosophical tales disguised as fantasy literature. Unfortunately, the role of the illustrations produced by the constructivist artist Vladimir Lebedev in the success of Marshak's pioneering picture books for children of the 1920S is overlooked, even though Lebedev's illustrations revolutionized Soviet graphic art and his work in Marshak's book Circus is seen today as a graphic masterpiece of the 1920s.

It would also have been useful to address the acid criticism of societal values and children's education found in the late Soviet period, exemplified by Vladimir Tendriakov's story The Night after Graduation published in the September 1974 issue of Novyi mir, and Dinara Asanova's 1983 film Rough Lads. I would also have liked to see extensive treatment of children's urban folklore; gender stereotypes; children with special needs; and analysis of history textbooks. Yet as it stands Kelly's encompassing study is likely to remain the major reference book on Russian childhood for years to come. Undoubtedly, it will be of immense interest to a wide range of readers, including social historians, anthropologists, cultural studies specialists, and anyone seeking to understand the effects of a Soviet childhood and the problem of trying to generalize about the diversity of educational practices.


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Author:Smith, Alexandra
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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