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

Review: Vera Timenchik, Семья у нас и у других (2006)

Social Issues in Ludmila Ulitskaia’s Children’s Book Series: Family (2)

families_2007Vera Timenchik’s book, Семья у нас и у других (2006) conveys liberal sensibilities and openly discusses questions that until recently were never raised in Russian schools: xenophobia, school bullying, war in the Caucasus, ethnic intolerance, divorce, homosexual marriage, and marital age. Timenchik centers the book’s plot on two 12-year old friends: Kirill is a native Russian born in Moscow; Daut is a recent immigrant from Abkhazia, an area in the Caucasus. Kirill’s family is small and liberal; Daut’s family is, on the contrary, large and patriarchal. Yet, despite their differences, the Kirill and Daut become friends and learn to accept each other’s differences.


Семья у нас и у других challenges the traditional concept of “we” vs. the “other” as she discusses the issue of “normalcy” in marriage practices. From Kirill’s mother, the boys learn that in some European countries, marriage between people of the same sex is legal and that in some liberal democracies, including the US, gay couples can adopt children. This is perhaps the first Russian children’s book in which homosexuality is mentioned at all and in which gays are not treated as the criminal “other.” What is also interesting in this discussion of gay marriage is that Kirill’s mother does not tell the boys what’s right and what’s wrong with sexual practices but rather presents other practices as alternatives.


Timenchik rejects a monological authorial solution of controversial issues, as is usually the case in educational children’s literature, but rather lets her readers know that mainstream culture is not the only one and that there are many marginal or marginalized cultures that should not be suppressed or neglected. Timenchik offers her young readers not answers but choices and makes them think about diversity and ways of dealing with it. The book warns, however, that challenging cultural stereotypes often goes hand-in-hand with struggle or conflict.


Reviewed by Larissa Rudova

Interview with Liudmila Ulitskaya

families_2007Don’t miss Galina Iuzefovich’s interview with Liudmila Ulitskaya for Itogi, published today.  In the interview, Iuzefovich asks Ulitskaya about her children’s book series project–Другой, другие, о других.  Iuzefovich asks, “Если уж говорить о людях не вполне взрослых, то хотелось бы спросить о вашем книжном проекте — цикле познавательных книг для подростков. Почему вы, писатель, а не редактор, не издатель, вообще за него взялись?”

Ulitskaya’s answer is very interesting.  She says:

  • Я бы предпочла, чтобы проектом «Другой, другие, о других» занимался кто-нибудь другой. Другого не нашлось, а у меня было такое ощущение, что проект этот необходим. Если бы наше государство вкладывало деньги в воспитание уважения к другому человеку, к другой культуре, то это могло бы сбросить то напряжение, которое мы сегодня наблюдаем. Те бывшие мальчики, которые вышли на Манежную площадь в декабре, может, не были бы так агрессивны, если б их больше любили, прижимали к груди и объяснили с малолетства, что мир велик, история длинна, культура разнообразна, другой человек имеет право на жизнь, даже если у него другого цвета кожа, он ест другую еду, носит другую одежду и у него иные обычаи. Интересно же.”

If you’re interested in Ulitskaya’s book project, you can read the first four books in the series in English at the UNESCO site.


Welcome to the Working Group for Study of Russian Children’s Literature and Culture blog. My name is Kelly Herold (Grinnell College, Russian Department) and I am the blog administrator.

On this blog, you will find news about Russian children’s literature and culture, links to reviews, and announcements from the Working Group for Study of Russian Children’s Literature and Culture (WGRCLC).  We will be posting a few times per week, so check back often or put us in your blog reader.

If you are interested in blogging on Russian Children’s Literature and Culture on a regular basis, we welcome your participation.  Posts may be written in Russian or in English.  If you are interested in participating, please send me an e-mail.