DeCommissioning Families

 “ … we must rescue children from the harmful influence of the family… We must nationalise them…To oblige the mother to give her child to the Soviet state-that is our task.”  V. Zenzinov  1918

If you want to get away from the strident furore over the appointment of Christine Rankin as one of seven commissioners to New Zealand’s Family Commission get hold of Orlando Figes’  The Whisperers. It is an intimate portrayal of family life, to the limited extent that it was still possible, in Stalin’s Russia.

After the euphoria of the Bolshevik victory, the deadly trials of a civil war and the death of Lenin, the tyranny which developed under Stalin created an uncivil society where everybody spoke in whispers either to protect their families and friends, or to inform on friends and neighbours. 

The tentacles of tyranny controlled every aspect of private life. In fact, for the regime, there was no such thing as private life. All was the domain of the state  involved in the historic struggle. The aim was nothing less than the eradication of individualistic  “bourgeois” behaviour inherited from the old society. The battle was to transform human nature. Marx, of course, had taught that the alteration of consciousness was dependent on changes to the material state, not vice versa.

In the 1920s the Bolsheviks took as an article of faith that the bourgeois family was socially harmful because it was introspective and conservative. They do not quite set up an Anti-Families Commission but they may as well have done. The approach was much more totalitarian than that of the Nazis, where at least senior personnel could come home from a hard day’s work at the concentration camp to an eerily normal family life.

In its social dimension the Bolsheviks saw education as the key to the creation of the brave new society. In the vanguard were the pioneering leagues for children the Pioneers and the Komsomol. The dissemination of Communist values was the very raison d’etre of the Soviet school curriculum. “Lenin corners” in schools were secular shrines. The school was the anvil for reforging society.

In the words of the Soviet educational thinker Zlata Lilina “By loving a child, the family turns him into an egotistical being, encouraging him to see himself as the centre of the universe …”  No personalised learning here. 

The children of 1917 were involved in structured play to assimilate the Soviet values of collectivity, social activism and responsibility. Russian educationalists had been influenced by the ‘learning through play’ European pedagogues such as Maria Montessori.

 The young were certainly imbued with a sense of purpose through the power of their belief in the party’s cause. They also learnt that loyalty to the state was higher virtue than family ties and that informing on one’s family and friends was public spirited.

With the number of parents executed or sent to the Gulag  orphanages were a growth industry. Weak family ties and the strong collective approach made them one of the main recruiting grounds for the NKVD and the Red Army.

World War II brought a new sense of patriotism, purpose and pride which for a time transcended the fear of the regime. Fear and suspicion rolled back like a Moscow fog almost as soon as the war finished and whispering  became a gale.

Despite the revelations of the excesses of Stalin’s power by Krushchev at the 20th party Congress in 1956, Figes points out that many older Russians -from a demographic decimated by war and repression-today look back in pride at what was accomplished in the great Patriotic War with Germany and even by forced labour in the Gulags. The surviving innocent can still feel a sense of accomplishment from the gruelling work of their stolen years. The retrospective search for meaning allows myths and nostalgia to wipe out the manipulation, the betrayals, and the sheer fear which marked day-to-day life in Stalin’s Russia.

The whisperers left a lingering legacy.  In the words of Orlando Figes, “It was Stalin’s lasting achievement to create a whole society in which stoicism and passivity were social norms “. 

Despite that -or perhaps because of it- four years after Stalin’s death the Russians circled the Earth with the first satellite. In the engineered society the engineers had the last laugh.


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