Children of the State

Children of the State

On one of the posters carried by participants of the sports parade on Red Square on July 6, 1936, the following phrase was written: "Thank you father Stalin for our happy childhood!" Later this slogan could be heard in many songs and seen on posters depicting healthy and happy pioneers under the protection of the state, which was supposed to guarantee them a carefree childhood.

Although the state assumed the role of supreme protector, it also exercised the right to judge who was worthy of such a carefree childhood and who was not. The state was responsible for causing immense suffering and distress. Millions of children became direct or indirect victims of the totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Civil War, famine, unemployment, collectivization, dekulakization (raskulachivanie), repression, and the Second World War were tough trials for many. All of these events also affected the most vulnerable members of Soviet society—children. Without the opportunity to change or determine their destinies, children were probably the most powerless and forgotten victims of the Soviet regime. Many of them lost their childhood, parents, real names, dates of birth, and often their lives.

Stalin and children. Photo: family archive of Galina Ivankina
Law and order

As the Bolsheviks came to power, children’s education, state wardship over children, and the fight against homelessness soon became major political issues. The State Council of Children’s Protection was established within the Council of People’s Commissariat in February 1919. Anatoly Lunacharsky was in charge of the council. The League for Children’s Salvation, which had been founded in 1918 by public officials and teachers, worked in parallel with the council. It actively raised money for charity from abroad. Within a single year, the league managed to open fourteen children’s colonies, several kindergartens, clubs, and a children’s sanatorium in Moscow. By the beginning of January 1921, all food supplies provided by foreign organizations were prohibited. Control over all childcare facilities was transferred to the Moscow Department of National Education.

Soviet poster, 1950. Source:

Soviet poster, 1950. Source:

On January 27, 1921, a special committee for the advancement of children’s lives (Detkomissiya or Children’s Committee within the All-Russian Central Executive Committee) was established. Famine in Moscow increased due to disruptions in transportation between the countryside and cities. The Extraordinary Commission for Combating Children’s Homelessness was founded in September 1922 within MONO (Moscow Department of National Education) on the initiative of Moscow’s pedagogues. It was commonly called the Children’s Extraordinary Commission (similar to the Cheka). Special collection points for orphans were set up at all railway stations in Moscow. From September to November 1922, workers from the Children’s Extraordinary Commission picked up around seven thousand homeless children from these collection points and off the streets.

However, homelessness and abandonment went hand in hand with the increase in delinquency among children. Indeed, one of the first decrees was related not to the protection of children, but to defining their liability and punishment. Yet on January 14, 1918, courts and mixed prisons for children under the age of 17 were abolished by a decree of the Council of People’s Commissariat. In practice, such court cases were only transferred to non-judicial organs—committees for minors, which were subordinate to the People’s Commissariat of Public Welfare.

In the 1920s, the principle of keeping children and adult prisoners in separate facilities was regularly violated. Teenagers were often sent to normal prisons designed for adults, and infants lived with their mothers in prisons and other sites of imprisonment. 

In 1922, the punitive policy for juveniles aged 16-17 years old was strengthened: now they could be punished with the same methods as adults. However, minors could not be sentenced to death.

Efforts to solve the problem of orphanhood continued. The decree of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee and the Council of People’s Commissariat on March 8, 1926 clearly distinguished between children who were in need of full state support and those who only needed protection and temporary help. Full social welfare was guaranteed to a) orphans; b) children who had lost contact with their relatives; c) children who had been taken away from their families by court order; and d) children who had been thrown out of their homes. Protection and temporary help was guaranteed to children who a) were abandoned by their parents due to serious illness, and children of unemployed single mothers who did not receive financial support from their husbands; and b) children who became homeless due to their parents’ or other guardians’ temporary absence (due to deprivation of liberty, hospital stays, etc.).

At the same time, an article on criminality was established in 1926. According to it, children above the age of 14 could be sentenced for serious crimes such as theft, assault, and murder. However, death sentences remained prohibited. Additionally, a new regulation on the mandatory mitigation of sentences came into effect: children from the age of 14-16 were due to serve half of the normal sentence, and from the age of 16-18, two-thirds. The law of 1936 was a turning point in the state's attitude towards children. From that moment onward, the use of capital punishment for children above the age of 12 became legal.  The 1930s were characterized by the extensive use of repressive and isolative measures. The fight against homelessness often became a war against children themselves.

Change of measures

The idealistic image of orphans as children who required intensive care underwent a radical transformation in the 1920s and 1930s. Homeless children continued arriving in the capital city even during relatively stable periods. Already by the mid-1920s, orphaned and homeless children were considered potential criminals who threatened the public order.

This change in attitude contributed to the general approval of the forced elimination of homelessness and the radical change in the means of preventing juvenile criminality. Educational authorities and social workers were required to carry out the police’s work by keeping a strict registry of children. By 1935, all committees that had worked with juvenile offenders in the field were eliminated. Juvenile offenders’ cases were sent back to the court.

Stricter norms for punishing children were established. According to the decree of 1935, children above the age of 12 could be prosecuted for serious crimes such as theft, assault, bodily harm, murder, or attempted murder. Later, agitation and counter-revolutionary activities were added to the list. The practice of mitigating children’s punishments ceased and control in colonies was tightened. In 1935, a department of labor colonies for minors was founded within the NKVD.

Children and repression

According to the order of August 15, 1937, children who were considered “enemies of the people” and who were under the age of three were sent to orphanages and nurseries. Children under the age of 15 were supposed to be held in special orphanages outside of Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Tbilisi, Minsk, and other large cities.

A new wave of newly orphaned children, most of whom had been waiting for a “bright future,” poured into already overcrowded orphanages. By August 4, 1938, a total of 17,355 (and later an additional 5,000) children had been taken away from their repressed parents. This number did not include children who stayed with their other relatives after their parents had been imprisoned. In these cases, children’s fates were varied and depended on the relationship between the relatives and individual NKVD officials. Relatives themselves did not always accept custody and often refused to take children. Caring for relatives’ children not only made life more difficult, but it was also a great risk for the foster family.

Camp children (who had been born during imprisonment), kulak children (who had managed to avoid deportation during the forced collectivization of villages), and Spanish children formed three more groups that also suffered at the hands of the Soviet regime. Many of them had been sent to camps at the age of 10–15 for "anti-Soviet agitation." One may also add to this list children deported together with their parents and children living close to the camps and observing camp life on a daily basis. They also did not belong to the target group at whom posters and slogans about a happy and carefree childhood were aimed.

Children from nearly all of these categories could be found in Moscow during the Stalinist era. Among the most characteristic features of everyday life in Moscow in the 1920s were the thousands of homeless children living on the streets. They settled on the streets, in rubbish dumps, and other places that were difficult for the police to access. If children ended up participating in small street thefts, hooliganism, or even robbery, they were often sent to one of Moscow’s reception shelters. After 1930, they were sent along with all other homeless children to the Danilovskii children’s shelter, which was subordinate to the Moscow Criminal Investigation Department. There they found themselves together with children whose parents had been imprisoned as “enemies of the people.” Children were sent from the Danilovskii shelter to the NKVD labor commune, to Moscow’s truddom (labor house), to areas of isolation, and even to arrest houses and concentration camps. Many children who had been imprisoned for political reasons were later rehabilitated, but those imprisoned as criminals still have not been rehabilitated.

Children’s reception shelters

Children’s shelters (children’s reception centers, wagon shelters, children’s collectors, reception shelter points) were established during the first years of the Soviet regime. Shelters were the first places where children were sent from the streets, railway stations, or their homes after their parents’ deaths or arrests. Workers in the shelters were supposed to identify the children, take their pictures and fingerprints, conduct sanitary checks, and then transfer them to one of the pedagogical, educational, or other institutions for minors. According to the plan, shelters were not meant to be more than temporary stops on the way to orphanages. In practice, some children stayed at shelters for several months due to overcrowding in orphanages. The Pokrovskii shelter for boys was the largest shelter in Moscow during the 1920s. After 1930, the Danilovskii children’s shelter of the MUR (Moscow Criminal Investigation Department) in the Danilovskii Monastery became the largest shelter through which thousands of children passed each year. It was an inevitable stage for all children whose parents had been arrested in Moscow.

Portraits of so-called removed children from families of "state traitors." The photograph is from a special orphanage of the Narkompros (Ministry of Education). Source: Children of the Gulag 1918-1957​

Portraits of so-called removed children from families of "state traitors." The photograph is from a special orphanage of the Narkompros (Ministry of Education). Source: Children of the Gulag 1918–1957

General orphanages

According to the decree of the Council of People’s Commissariat on January 9, 1918, all children’s institutions and orphanages were converted into state orphanages where children of all ages were placed. Children were often divided into two classes according to their age. The first class was designed for children aged 8-13 years old and the second class for children aged 14-17 years old. It was declared that all orphans, without exception, had to live in state-governed (free) institutions.

Orphanage for “defective” children

Starting in the mid-1930s, children classified as “morally defective” or “difficult” were no longer considered a separate category from “neglected” children as in the 1920s. More often than not, "defective" children were segregated from society and isolated in NKVD labor colonies for juvenile criminals.

The homeless, 1926. Source: Russian State Documentary Film & Photo Archive (RGAKFD)
Children’s community villages

Children’s community villages emerged at the beginning of the 1920s. They were mainly located outside of cities in rural areas. These community villages consisted of a dozen orphanages for children of different ages. Moscow's most famous children’s community village was located in Malakhovka. Community villages were supposed to be self-sufficient because of their own agricultural production and small industry.

Kolkhoz orphanages

Kolkhoz orphanages were established in 1943 in an attempt to resolve the problem of orphanhood and mass homelessness. At the same time, it was a way to shift responsibility from the state to the kolkhozes (collective farms). Each orphanage was connected to one or several kolkhozes, which were responsible for providing children with food and other essentials. The orphanages also had their own vegetable gardens. Children of front-line soldiers and war victims often lived in these orphanages. Boys and girls and children of different ages were all brought up together in kolkhoz orphanages. In this way, siblings were not separated from each other. After the war, many kolkhoz orphanages were abolished and some of them were converted into conventional orphanages.

Labor commune of the OGPU/NKVD

Labor communes were institutions for juvenile offenders, which were established within the OGPU on the initiative of Felix Dzerzhinsky at the beginning of the 1920s. In labor communes, children were taught a profession and they were required to do industrial work. They were also taught to adopt a sense of collective responsibility. Children who practiced small-scale production and supported the upkeep of their communal household alongside their education could receive some financial support from the government. It was expected that over time the communities would not only be able to make up the costs, but also generate a profit.

Labor homes for minors

Labor homes for minors were special institutions located in cities and designed for juvenile offenders from the ages of 14-16 who had been sentenced by the court to imprisonment in 1924–1933. Truddoms were supposed to eliminate the most severe forms of homelessness. Correctional methods were mostly medical and pedagogical.

Isolators for minors

In April 1935, the Department of Labor Colonies was transferred to the Ministry of Justice and it became subordinate to the Gulag system. The Administration of Children’s Colonies was also established within it. At this point, Soviet penal institutions for children became very similar to those designed for adults. Their objective was to isolate “socially dangerous” children from the rest of society. For this purpose, the institutions were appropriately renamed as “isolators” in 1939. Teenagers aged 12-16 could be held under investigation in prison for no more than six months. However, isolators did not become a well-established means of correction, and they did not exist for long.