Review: Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia,1890-1991,  by Catriona Kelly. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.

Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia,1890-1991,  by Catriona Kelly.
New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007.


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. Kelly’s encompassing study 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.

Reviewed by Alexandra Smith, University of Edinburgh