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And now my soul is hardened : abandoned children in Soviet Russia, 1918-1930 /
Alan M. Ball.
Berkeley : University of California Press, c1994.
xxi, 335 p., [32] p. of plates : ill. ; 24 cm.
0520080106 (alk. paper)
More Details
Berkeley : University of California Press, c1994.
0520080106 (alk. paper)
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. 311-324) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

Children of the Street

Who has not seen them, sleeping in caldrons and garbage bins, traveling under train cars, singing songs and begging in every station?

Mikhail Kalinin

. . . waifs in drab tatters who scurried hither and thither thieving and warming themselves at asphalt caldrons on the streets, without whom one could not picture the urban life of the twenties . . .

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

By the early 1920s, abandoned children crowded cities and towns across much of the new Soviet state. Their wretched appearance advertised misery already endured, and an untold number, weakened by hunger and disease, soon perished as anonymously as they had arrived. Survivors were left to confront a world in which sustenance issued from practices both alien and disagreeable, for little in their lives had prepared most to face the street alone. Their responses, shaped to some extent by age and other personal characteristics, reflected in a broader sense the imperatives of this harsh environment--a setting that must be explored to understand the conduct of besprizornye .

Waifs did not scatter evenly over the Soviet Union. Nor did they always congregate in areas with the greatest population densities. Efforts to account for clusters of them in various regions focused time and again on the following questions: Had a province recently experienced famine or some other misfortune? Did the territory contain a major rail junction or sit astride an important waterway? Was the district's climate mild? If not, was refuge accessible? Just as important, did the area, if not a goal itself of vagrants and refugees, lie along a main route to popular destinations? The more closely a locale met such criteria, the more homeless children it drew.

Within these general limits, cities exerted a far more powerful attraction than did the countryside. During the famine, starving children poured from villages to the capitals of their provinces, and subsequent years did not reverse the current. To a homeless youth, the train stations, markets, crowded streets, and derelict buildings of a city offered a more promising field for begging and shelter than did a rural hamlet. For those seeking escape from the street, the concentration of government assistance in urban areas further enhanced their appeal. Others of more incorrigible bent also preferred cities, where amusements and thieving opportunities eclipsed anything the countryside could offer.

Cities situated at major railroad junctions or along important waterways often acquired throngs of abandoned offspring--not just from their own environs but from throughout the country--while towns well removed from these arteries generally tempted fewer. In Nizhnii Novgorod, for example, the number of young visitors began to increase each spring with the opening of navigation on the Volga and Oka rivers, and before long the waterfront quarters teemed with dirty, barefoot children. This homeless host continued to expand through the summer months, peaking at the time of the city's famous fair, which summoned youths from all parts of the nation. During opening day alone in 1925, authorities apprehended over a hundred inside the fair's boundaries in a largely futile effort to preserve the premises from depredation.

Numerous cities, not destinations themselves, nevertheless accumulated sizable populations of nomadic children during certain times of the year, owing to their location along well-traveled routes. Orenburg, for instance, found itself the first extended stop for many venturing in early summer from their winter quarters in Tashkent or Samarkand to resort towns of the Northern Caucasus or Crimea. Along the Volga, cities such as Samara did not maintain their large homeless populations solely with local victims of the famine. By linking the river with rail lines leading to and from Siberia and Central Asia, Samara collected year after year a considerable transient community of juveniles, especially during navigation season on the Volga.

No city, however, could match the potent attraction exerted by Moscow. "It would be difficult," wrote secret police chief Feliks Dzerzhinskii, "to find in the entire republic a city or town from which there has not been a pilgrimage to Moscow of abandoned children. . . . [Moscow] has become the national refuge to which besprizornye stream from all ends of the country." Only the most reclusive resident of the capital could fail to notice the bedraggled flocks in central squares, train stations, and markets--a multitude twenty thousand strong according to an estimate for the beginning of 1923. Leningrad, because of its location in the far northwest corner of the country, did not share Moscow's magnetism. Asked why they journeyed to Moscow, youths often responded simply, "Moscow is the center," "Here is the power," "They say food is given out in Moscow." Peasant children, traveling to the metropolis to obtain food through begging, stealing, or petty street trade, sometimes described the trip as "going to pasture." Rumors and reports of better conditions in the center--more food or easier access to welfare institutions, for example--passed among homeless juveniles in all corners of the country, even prompting some to flee remote orphanages and set out for the capital. This allure produced such an influx that native Muscovites numbered no more than 10-20 percent of the city's waifs in the middle of the decade, earning Moscow the informal title "All-Russian Receiver" of besprizornye .

In years following the famine, the Northern Caucasus region possibly contained more street children than any other section of the country, and its principal city, Rostov-on-the-Don, probably absorbed more than any site but Moscow. Many gathered in Rostov with much the same expectations that propelled others to the nation's capital. Here, they thought, waited opportunities to acquire food, shelter, and perhaps admission to government boarding institutions. In one estimate the Northern Caucasus, with a mere thirteenth of the Russian Republic's total population, accommodated fully a seventh of all abandoned youths in the republic midway through the decade. Only a third of these were indigenous. Early in the 1920s, most came as refugees from neighboring famine provinces of the Volga basin, but Rostov continued to woo others long after. The city's relatively warm climate and location at the hub of a rail network--with tracks leading south to the Caucasus, north to Moscow, and west to the Crimea--insured for years a steady stream of new arrivals.

One day, on just such a line to the Crimea, a passenger noticed that the railroad bed was covered in sand along stretches near the sea. Well-scrubbed boys and girls, traveling on vacation, jumped out at a stop and plunged under the cars to gather seashells from the sand. No less abruptly they recoiled from the train as if stung, crying to their parents in fright, " Besprizornye ! besprizornye !" They had discovered other young passengers ensconced in the undercarriage, as determined as anyone else on the train to reach the sunny resorts. Hospitable weather and the food it nurtured lured thousands of urchins to the Crimea and Black Sea coast, augmenting the ranks of native youths left adrift by the Civil War and, in southern Ukraine, famine. As word spread among homeless children elsewhere in the country, cities such as Krasnodar, Simferopol', Sevastopol', Feodosiia, Kerch', and Odessa mustered large crowds. In particular, when pale citizens headed south in the summer to Black Sea sanatoriums, waifs followed close behind, hoping to secure a living during the resort season by begging or stealing directly from the crowds of vacationers or from the stores, markets, and restaurants they frequented.

Many other regions and cities also hosted considerable numbers of besprizornye . In Ukraine, Khar'kov deserves special mention, while along the Volga, in addition to Samara, cities such as Kazan', Simbirsk, and Saratov retained sizable homeless populations well after the famine. The quest for food and shelter (or warm weather) even carried youths over the frontiers of European Russia. During the famine, they followed the rails to the Urals and often far beyond--to cities in Siberia (such as Omsk and Novosibirsk) and Central Asia (notably Tashkent and Samarkand). In the years thereafter, the prospect of accessible food and a mild climate continued to attract them to Central Asia--and through the Caucasus to Baku and Tiflis. They made these treks in surprising numbers, so large in fact that Tashkent's population of abandoned juveniles reportedly ranked third among all Soviet cities in the middle of the decade.

A city's complement of street children fluctuated considerably during the course of a year, even in the absence of such misfortunes as an epidemic or poor harvest that always produced a local proliferation of homeless minors. More than anything else, apart from famine and war, seasonal changes dictated their travel. As chilly nights heralded the approach of autumn, major cities found their streets sheltering larger numbers of youths. They crowded into train stations, abandoned buildings, and any crevice affording protection from the wind. Some had spent the warm season living on the outskirts of cities or deeper in the countryside, perhaps engaged by peasants for agricultural work. Others, typically the more experienced and adventurous, had departed in the spring or summer to journey around the country, often south to the resorts of the Northern Caucasus and Crimea. At the end of the season, beaches and mineral baths lost much of their clientele, prompting markets, restaurants, and hotels to close or scale back their activity. Because dormant resort towns could not support large numbers of young beggars and thieves, many left until the following summer. Some remained in the general area of the Black Sea's mild temperatures, but more headed north again to major cities.

Veterans of the circuit often entered a city in the fall intending to gain admission to a children's institution, live there through the winter, and then run away with the return of warm weather. Some repeated this pattern year after year, returning each winter to one city or another like migratory birds. These "seasonals" ( sezonniki ) effectively transformed certain orphanages into way stations providing food and shelter (but not rehabilitation) to juveniles waiting for the spring thaws to trigger their escape. On occasion, as winter approached, streetwise youths even committed intentionally clumsy crimes, planning to be apprehended and placed in institutions--from which departure in the spring, experience taught, would be a minor challenge.

Winter survival, then, required that street children avoid exposure to frigid weather in one of two ways. They could seek shelter, or they could attempt to outrun the approaching frost by traveling south to such havens as Odessa or even farther to Transcaucasia or Central Asia. Though the number journeying to remote ranges for the winter did not equal the total remaining in European Russia, southbound traffic of diminutive stowaways on the railroads did strike observers each autumn, as did the swollen numbers of tattered youths in cities as distant as Baku and Samarkand.

While most homeless juveniles settled in one area or another for at least a few months, some (approximately 10 percent, according to one estimate) traveled incessantly. Whether lodged aboard ships or clinging to trains, they roamed the length and breadth of the land. Astonishing odysseys took them across Siberia, Central Asia, and to every important municipality in European Russia. "They discuss Khar'kov, Moscow, Baku, and Sverdlovsk," marveled an observer, "as if they were talking about the streets of a single large city." One boy, hidden on a ship, even reached Marseille and thereafter several other cities in France, Belgium, and Germany before he was evacuated back to Russia along with former prisoners of war. These travels often amounted to a quest for more favorable living conditions, inspired by rumors of greener pastures down the line. But other youths remained on the move because they enjoyed it or at least felt restless staying long in any one location. Years after reentering society, some reported that, come spring, they still sensed the call of the road.

Such instincts guided Vasilii G------shev, a thirteen-year-old boy dispatched to a children's colony at the beginning of 1923. Information gathered during the handling of his case portrayed a difficult life at home. His father, who worked for the postal service and then in a railroad telegraph office, drank heavily and beat the rest of the family. In 1915 he moved in with another woman, leaving his former wife and eight children with nothing but a modest monthly payment, which he cut off two years later. Vasilii's mother, prematurely aged by her travail, worked as a messenger for wages insufficient to lift the family from poverty. At some point, probably the early 1920s, Vasilii began to disappear from home for periods of a few days. He would return hungry, dirty, and emaciated, refusing sullenly to disclose his itinerary. This pattern continued until he was sent to the colony for examination by personnel from the Commissariat of Health. His mother did not conceal her skepticism and asserted (with Vasilii's affirmation) that he would not remain long in any institution. He seemed to have a passion for travel and yearned to journey as far as America. According to the colony's log book, the slender boy with sparkling eyes did not adjust well to the facility's regimen or the other youths. An entry for January 16, 1923, reads: "Vasilii does not get along with the other children; he fights with them and is always beaten. Even Vitia D------kov, who is always beaten when he fights others, manages to pummel Vasilii and celebrate a victory. Whether as a result of this abuse, as Vasilii claims, or because of his own insurmountable urge to roam, he has already tried to flee the colony three times." Four days later he escaped. At the end of the month his mother arrived to declare that he had come home and would not be returning to the colony. When questioned later, he spoke with contempt of the institution's residents, who he felt had surrendered their freedom for life in a "stone sack." Before long his wanderings commenced again. At first the forays consumed no more than a week, but in the middle of April he departed for two months, apparently turning back only after failing to breach the Romanian border. Shortly thereafter he bolted once more, and his family concluded as the months passed that he had perished. Eventually, word arrived through one of Vasilii's friends that he had reached the Siberian city of Chita, beyond Lake Baikal, and would not be returning to Moscow.

Official documents, journalists' reports, and children's autobiographical sketches portray rail journeys as routine among homeless youths. A handful traveled legally, using money they had stolen or begged to purchase tickets. But far more concealed themselves on board, in a wide variety of locations accessible to slight physiques. Coal bins, storage boxes, footsteps, bumpers, roofs, recesses inside the cars, rods underneath, and cavities deep among the pipes and moving parts of the engine all served as accommodations. At the station in Tashkent, Langston Hughes encountered an insouciant waif who indicated that his destination was Moscow. " 'Have you got your ticket?' we asked. 'Sure, ten of 'em,' he said, and held up his hands," revealing the fingers with which he intended to grasp his perch on the train.

Many factors--including body size, experience, weather, vigilance of conductors, and availability of spots not already claimed by other young stowaways--influenced the choice of "berths." Each presented drawbacks that an experienced vagabond knew all too well. Clambering into coal bins was difficult, for instance, and, once inside, lack of oxygen posed a serious threat. Some children carried nails with which to claw air holes in the walls and thus avoid suffocation amid the coal dust. Nooks in the bowels of a steam engine were hot, grimy, and cramped--not to mention dangerous if located near moving parts. Mechanics tending engines gaped at the dexterity and hardiness of creatures, completely blackened by grease and dirt, who crawled out of the machinery like imps before their eyes. A boy who traveled to Khar'kov from the Kuban' described just such a niche under the engine: "It was like a bathhouse there, but I didn't climb out [at stops]. You can't do this because you may return too late and find new passengers in your place. In Khar'kov I climbed out and everyone looked at me wondering whether I was a human or a devil. I ran around the station and people hurried out of my way."

Those who chose to ride in one of the small storage compartments, or "dog's box" ( sobachii iashchik ), underneath a car did not face coal dust, grease, or a boiler's heat, but they often had to remain curled up in the tiny, dark chambers for long intervals--prepared to defend their quarters from challenges at stations by other would-be squatters, all the while hoping to escape the eye of railroad personnel. Izvestiia reported that, on occasion, conductors who noticed children in these boxes locked the covers and left the victims trapped inside for hours or even days. Farther underneath a car, axles and beams offered billets less cramped but more exposed to cold temperatures. They were also more precarious as the tracks whizzed by inches below, ending suddenly the lives of many a careless or clumsy traveler. Those who hid inside cars sidestepped these problems but risked discovery by conductors, who might administer a beating and hand them over to the police at the next station.

Hardships associated with the various toeholds aboard trains did not exhaust the list of a young vagrant's concerns. Simply reaching the train (or ship) was itself often a challenge. Conductors and policemen kept a close eye on children loitering at stations and guarded the cars waiting to take on passengers. If faced with such obstacles, hopeful stowaways usually concealed themselves as close to the tracks as possible and waited for the sound of two bells, signaling the train's imminent departure. At that moment (or even later, as the train lurched into motion and the conductors climbed into the cars), they darted across the tracks and slipped aboard. Some waited inside a station for the two bells to summon a crowd of passengers pushing toward the train. Inserting themselves into this human tide, they attempted to evade a policeman or conductor at the station door and then disappear into or under the cars.

Not all boarded successfully, as Theodore Dreiser noticed while on a ship docked at the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. A girl discovered on the vessel and placed ashore tried repeatedly to dodge sailors and dart back up the gangplank.

But regularly one of the large, genial sailors is picking her up and carrying her a little way down the dock; shooing her off, as it were. But always as he releases her she eludes him and runs screaming toward the plank. And now the other sailor repeats the process. Only, like so much of all that one comes upon in Russia, it is all so casual. No real excitement in so far as any one else is concerned, passengers or sailors or officers all going their several ways. Some soldiers conversing indifferently on the dock. Stevedores taking up hay, crates of geese, boxes of canned goods. Altogether quite a brisk industrial scene. But here is the child, still screaming and kicking. And the sailors always heading her off or carrying her away again, her ragged little skirts far above her waist, her naked legs exposed to the cold. And one sailor carrying her far down the dock to a gate guarded by soldiers.

No one mourned the passing of summer more deeply than did abandoned children, and no one waited more impatiently for its return. The icebound months racked them so severely that people in Dnepropetrovsk dubbed the unseasonably warm weather of early December 1923 an "orphan's winter." Across most of the country, as the temperaturefell along with the leaves, a source of protection from the icy winds became a matter of survival. Indeed, whatever the season, virtually any location offering concealment and protection from the elements did not long escape attention. Youths slept under boats upturned on river banks, in forests on the edge of towns, under bridges, in discarded trunks and barrels, under or along fences, inside wooden columns set up for displaying posters, and in stalls vacated overnight in bazaars and markets. The entryways to apartment complexes (and sheds in the yards of these buildings) provided warmth and thus attracted many. Custodians often drove the waifs away, but only the most closely watched or securely locked structures did not acquire new complements of squatters. Public toilets and garbage bins also served as domiciles. An investigator in Odessa reported that one could walk the streets at night opening trash bins and find in most of them clusters of young lodgers sleeping on top of the litter. In parts of Moscow, during warm weather, there appeared to be something of a rule among them that no more than six could sleep in a single bin. "This is not a tram!" one lad proudly informed an inquirer, meaning that the youths did not wish to duplicate the crowding prevalent in public transportation. A few turned up in the most unlikely places--on board ships anchored overnight, for example, and even on the roof of a building in the Kremlin.

The search for shelter sent children burrowing into woodpiles, haystacks, reserves of coal at train stations, drainage pipes, mountains of industrial waste products, and even a cemetery's burial vaults. Garbage dumps, in particular, served as refuge for considerable numbers. Here, social workers, newspaper correspondents, and others seeking homeless youths found them living like nests of insects in rotting waste amid an overpowering stench. Juveniles also fashioned shelters by tunneling directly into the earth. Their warrens ranged from the simple and temporary--a shallow dugout or a cavity scraped out under the edge of a sidewalk--to quite elaborate subterranean chambers. Hillocks, sides of ditches, and river banks engaged these excavators, who sometimes produced extensive networks of tunnels or caverns large enough to accommodate dozens, along with campfires and watchdogs. A group living in a cave near a rail depot in Tashkent even planned to run electrical wires from the station into their dwelling. (They had to abandon the scheme when one of their number, a boy claiming to possess the expertise required for the project, was taken into a reformatory.) Natural grottoes, too, in parks or in hills and cliffs on the outskirts of cities, harbored waifs and highlighted most vividly their animal-like existence.

Ruined or otherwise abandoned buildings, frequently in slums or on the fringes of town, beckoned irresistibly to the homeless. Virtually any unutilized structure, including cellars, old bathhouses, storage facilities, and buildings destroyed by fire, could provide at least a wisp of shelter--and to far more people than the casual eye imagined. In Odessa, large groups of children lived in the skeletons of buildings destroyed by French naval bombardment and the explosion of German ammunition dumps. The remnants of an edifice in the center of Dnepropetrovsk housed youths in such number that it was dubbed their "headquarters" for the city. Abandoned structures that remained comparatively intact sometimes drew so many new inhabitants (adults as well as juveniles) that investigators entering at night had difficulty proceeding without stepping on the dark shapes sprawled at every turn. A newspaper correspondent, exploring a large cement granary in the "Rostov slums," encountered the following scene in 1925:

Snoring, moaning, and delirious babbling can be heard from all corners of the building. We strike a light and behold a scene recalling our train stations during the years of ruin and civil war. Human beings, shivering from the advancing predawn cold, lie along the walls and in the corners in "heaps," pressing close to each other. . . . Disturbed by the light and our voices, they begin to stir, poking their heads out from under the rags that cover their bodies, and regarding their night visitors with fright.

Half an hour later, as the light of early dawn struggled through cracks in the building, they arose and set off "to fill the streets and bazaars" in their daily search for food.

Many cities retained ramshackle portions of walls and towers built in earlier centuries as fortifications or embellishments. Often constructed by filling a stone or brick shell with a softer core of dirt and debris, these walls developed large cavities as time erased their original function. But if municipalities no longer valued the protection they afforded, street children had a different view. Just east of Moscow's Kremlin, stretches of the kitaigorod wall housed a hundred or more at a time, prompting some Muscovites to dub it "the dormitory." The wall's inhabitants dragged in junk to serve as furniture, cooked food and warmed themselves over campfires, and, in the case of one group, deployed a watchdog to warn of outsiders approaching. Youths also slept in old structures such as the famous tower at Moscow's Sukharevskii Market and the watchtower at the Red Gates. Over a period of a few months in 1922/23, the police removed several hundred from the second tower alone, netting up to forty in a night.

As Soviet cities recovered in the 1920s from the turmoil of the previous decade, repair and construction projects dotted the urban landscape. Pedestrians passing these sites after the working day often noticed strange noises emanating from large tanks used to heat asphalt or tar. If curiosity prompted closer investigation, they discovered children prattling inside. The caldrons, heated during the day, did not surrender their warmth until long after the workers departed, thus attracting those seeking shelter for the night. In Moscow, to cite one instance, city officials decided to remove streetcar rails from the Arbat and repave the thoroughfare with asphalt. During the project, immense boilers for the asphalt stood on each block and soon acquired flocks of urchins. "There were dozens and scores of them there," recalled a resident of the street, "tattered, half-famished, dirty, all of them sneaking about these big warm boilers like little animals." Residue in caldrons, which left inhabitants black and sticky, seemed a small discomfort to endure in return for sanctuary. Even as the night wore on and the vats cooled, they continued to offer some protection from the wind (and the rain or snow, if tenants devised a means to cover them). The tanks could generally accommodate half a dozen occupants, though the bottom of the caldron--the choicest spot in winter because it retained heat longest--could typically hold no more than three or four. In some cases, fights determined the distribution of places, with losers relegated to the vessel's sides. Once in their vats, youths remained vulnerable to eviction by watchmen and the police--though one group managed to secure a watchman's indifference by supplying him with stolen food. In any case, such hazards were routine on the street and did not diminish significantly the caldrons' appeal.

Almost any other source of heat also enticed waifs. Institutional garbage incinerators, for example, remained warm long after their fires had died, and children often tried to slip onto the premises and crawl into the openings of furnaces. One could sometimes see their rag-covered legs protruding from the brick burrows where they lay asleep. Electric-power generators, too, resembled oases to shivering figures who spared no effort to approach the buildings. Even if unable to secure places near boilers and steam pipes, they might find warmth huddled next to reservoirs of hot water discharged by the plants. In the absence of shelter and heat produced by other sources, youths sometimes resorted to sleeping on the ashes of their own campfires after lighting second fires alongside. Others, frequently the weakest or most inexperienced and thus the most helpless and exposed, tore down posters tacked up around every city and used them as blankets.Even those able to secure a niche in a train station or derelict building did not entirely escape the frigid winter temperatures. They often slept--like their less fortunate brethren bunched on the sidewalk under posters--pressed tightly together, resembling a nest of shivering mice. In some cases, these grimy piles clutched live dogs for additional warmth.

Street children who gained a few coins by the end of the day might opt, especially in the winter, to spend the night in a flophouse ( nochlezhka ). Moscow's Ermakovskii nochlezhnyi dom (located near the Riazan' Station and dubbed the Ermakovka) was the best known, but the capital contained several, as did other major cities. A relatively modest fee, typically ten to twenty kopecks, secured entry and thus a night's protection from the elements. Adults--thieves, prostitutes, drunks, drifters, the unemployed, and other people down on their luck (including a sixty-two-year-old Princess Viazemskaia, reduced to begging in Leningrad)--made up most of the clientele, but youths were admitted too, as long as they could pay.

Each day unruly crowds formed outside the institutions, waiting noisily for the doors to open in the late afternoon or early evening. If the "line" contained more people than could possibly be admitted, the pushing, cursing, and pleading grew energetic. Policemen helped restrain the crowds at some locations, but in their absence, fights broke out periodically. At the Ermakovka one afternoon, over twenty men reportedly raped a drunken woman without intervention by the building's administration. People lacking enough money for admission sometimes tried to beg a few kopecks from others in line or sold pitiful possessions to entrepreneurs on hand for such opportunities. More brazen individuals simply seized money from the docile and weak who waited along with them to purchase admission tickets.

Some flophouses accepted only adult men or only women and juveniles, but others designated sections for a variety of people. Those who could afford to pay more than the regular entry fee had the option in certain institutions of sleeping in comparatively clean portions of the building. In any case, when the doors opened, children entered along with unsavory company. Thieves tutored them in the underworld's values and diversions (including cocaine, hashish, and other drugs) and drew them into their gangs. The Ermakovka contained six floors, and as people purchased their tickets, the cashier sized them up and assigned them to one or another of the levels. Women went to the second floor (food was sold on the first), while men able to pay a bit more--and judged by the cashier not to be criminals or unacceptably rank--were directed to one of the three upper floors. Urchins found themselves steered to the third floor, reserved for the most unpalatable lodgers.

Flophouses commonly sold tickets in numbers far exceeding their legal capacities. An investigation of two institutions in Khar'kov, for instance, found that in 1925 approximately one thousand people occupied space suitable for no more than two hundred. Reports from many cities described rooms so crowded that only the most fortunate lay on bare plank beds. Many slept side by side on the floor--under the beds, in the halls and stairways, and on windowsills. As one would expect, the level of sanitation left much to be desired. In some facilities people relieved themselves wherever they pleased, but even in the absence of this practice, putrid air remained the rule. Marauding armies of bedbugs, typically reinforced by lice and other vermin, held sway throughout the buildings, and numerous infectious ailments flourished. As the years passed, establishments began to set aside rooms for disinfecting clothing, which improved conditions somewhat. These efforts reportedly purged so many lice from garments in Leningrad's flophouses that the creatures had to be removed from the floor with scoops and shovels. In fact, lice infested some of this clothing so thoroughly that officials included samples of the apparel in an exhibition at the Pasteur Museum in Paris.

Unlike flophouses, which few abandoned children could regularly afford, train stations and their immediate environs sheltered more youths than any other area of comparable size in most cities. During the Volga famine, when people fled the stricken provinces in droves, juveniles traveled along the rails in such force that scores might crowd even a minor provincial station. In the years thereafter, while the number of waifs diminished, stations lured many who remained. Several of Moscow's terminals, none more notorious than the Kursk Station, long bore reputations as their dens. Far to the east, in the Siberian city of Omsk, an investigation of the local station in February 1924 turned up fifty children ranging from eight to seventeen years of age. Repeatedly apprehended in the past and turned over to the police, many reappeared before long at the depot and set about supporting themselves through begging and thievery.

Railroad stations of ample size commonly housed a wide variety of youths. These included vagabonds who arrived in cities by train, stayed for a time, and then set off again. Newly homeless juveniles, too, fresh from the countryside and completely at sea in the urban environment, typically remained, at least initially, in or near the stations at which they arrived. Conspicuous in their peasant clothing and palpably intimidated by the stations' noise, they made a painful impression on many observers. They also served as prey for more experienced street children, who beat newcomers and stripped them of their possessions. A lad who arrived at a station wearing relatively serviceable clothes likely found himself forced at knife point in a dark corner to surrender his garments or footwear--in return, perhaps, for foul lice-infested attire.

Many others as well, neither transients nor novices, spent much of their time at stations. The ever-changing crowds of travelers attracted youths intent on begging or such endeavors as shining shoes, carrying baggage, and selling water in the summer. The bolder or more desperate among them found stations rewarding areas in which to steal from passengers, vendors, or freight shipments. Terminals also sustained those, primarily girls, who had turned to prostitution, for the buildings furnished both customers and secluded nooks. Others went out into the city during the day to beg or steal, returning "home" most evenings to sleep in or around the station. Some clambered aboard local trains to solicit or rob the passengers, ending the day back at the depot to await the next morning's tide of commuters.

Children sought refuge in even the most squalid or uncomfortable corners of stations. In Saratov, a census of abandoned juveniles conducted in 1924 found twenty-seven, from six to seventeen years of age, living in a derelict lavatory. Though emaciated and covered with filthy rags, they stubbornly refused to enter an orphanage. In Omsk, the departure of the last passenger train each evening left the terminal almost deserted. Officials must then have closed the building, for a crowd of youths departed to spend the night in a dilapidated empty barracks behind train cars on the siding. Adopting the station's language, they referred to their quarters as "first class." Those with venereal diseases were compelled by the others to sleep "second class" in the station's latrine--a fetid series of outdoor pits covered by a few boards encrusted with excrement. Here they huddled, soaked by the rain and covered with sores, beseeching investigators for access to "first class." One even complained that two boys in the barracks had gonorrhea but were not expelled because they stood watch and ran errands for the others.

Many stations, especially the larger ones in major cities, contained basement cavities and underground passages for heating pipes and other equipment. Offering a measure of security from outsiders as well as shelter from severe weather, these caverns enticed throngs. The maze under the station in Khar'kov, known locally as the catacombs, housed over a hundred youths as late as the second half of the decade. Eerie whistles from invisible children, signaling to their comrades the approach of strangers, greeted census takers (escorted by policemen) descending the dark spiral staircase into the catacombs at the end of 1926. Upon reaching the bottom and electing to push on, the officials negotiated long, narrow corridors lined with burning-hot steam pipes that produced a stifling atmosphere. When the passageway widened at last, they found themselves in a chamber packed with scores of juveniles.

Others lived above ground in the recesses of main terminal buildings. Here, of course, they were generally more visible and thus more likely to be driven out periodically by policemen and station officials. In this event, they often departed for a few hours, or all night, and then returned. Upon eviction from their train-station home in Khar'kov, two young girls--described as having the faces of children and the voices of old prostitutes--commonly spent the night in a public lavatory across the street but soon slipped back to the terminal. In Moscow, early in the decade, youths (along with adult criminals and tramps) moved from the Riazan' Station when it closed at 2:00 to the Kursk Station, which opened at 4:00 , where they lounged in the corridors and waiting rooms. Investigators choosing to search outside the main buildings could expect to find juveniles living in empty train cars, especially in derelict rolling stock on the fringes of rail yards. At Moscow's Kursk Station alone, the 1926 census recorded 131 children so sheltered. Here and at other depots a single car might house an entire colony, as described in an article titled "How I Lived Free," written for a newspaper issued by a children's colony:

There were about 30 of us living on the railroad. In the summer we slept wherever we pleased, out in the open on the ground. Winter was a different matter. We did not go into the station building because another group of kids, hostile to us, lived there. If someone from our group appeared at the station, he was driven away immediately with kicks and blows. In turn, if we caught an outsider on our turf, he, too, got it hot. And so came the rainy days of a long autumn. We chose an empty train car with warm boarding and occupied it as our own fine dwelling, feeling ourselves the masters. We worked in the following manner: at daybreak we took sacks to the park where the steam engines were kept. We knew some mechanics there, and they gave us coal in return for cigarettes. Each of us got nearly a sack full of coal, which we carried away and sold. This was what the older boys did. The younger kids, whom we called " patsany ," had their own duties and work. One remained in the train car, swept it out, and kept it warm until evening. The rest went out after food. Into the station came the Minsk-Khar'kov train. Before the passengers had even climbed out of the cars, the " patsany " were scouring the train, looking for bread. On the tables they found pieces of fat, sausage, apples, and the like. We lived on this. It also happened on occasion that a passenger would leave in too great a hurry and forget to take along a bundle, suitcase, or basket. Ten minutes later he would run back to the car--too late. His possessions had long since disappeared. In the evening, after such a success, we enjoyed cocaine, cards, liquor, and all sorts of bread. When the watchmen came by, they were treated royally, given cigarettes, and good-bye! Only by morning did it grow quiet in the car as everyone fell asleep. That is how I lived free.

Case histories and autobiographical sketches of homeless youths indicate that many, after arriving at city stations, sooner or later shifted the focus of their activity to bazaars. Some discovered the markets rapidly and on their own; others were introduced to these bustling sites only after coming under the influence of those more experienced. In any case, whether or not their paths had previously taken them through train stations, numerous street children spent their days (and often nights) in and around markets. Moscow's Zemlianyi Val--a large bazaar located in the relative vicinity of six stations--contained thousands of petty entrepreneurs and a sea of shoppers that beckoned temptingly to abandoned juveniles early in the decade. Of all the city's markets, however, none matched the fame and notoriety of the Sukharevskii and the Khitrovskii. Known popularly as the Sukharevka and Khitrovka (or Sushka and Khiva in the jargon of the street), these bazaars drew so many waifs that a survey of the Sukharevka in 1925 counted 123 in a matter of two or three hours.

As sites containing large concentrations of food in accessible booths and stands--as well as numerous customers carrying cash, handbags, and bundles--markets attracted forsaken children all across the country. Hungry young thieves on the prowl found them fertile stalking grounds, and the terrain also offered opportunities to beg scraps of food, perform odd jobs, or engage in petty trade oneself. If nothing else, a youth could wander the rows of stalls, gathering meals from discarded peelings, apple cores, and similar garbage. When policemen or vendors chased them away, they often scattered for an hour or two and then returned to their former activities.

Wherever they lived, street children frequently did so in groups. Typically numbering under a dozen members (though occasionally much larger), bands developed customs and rules of conduct that were often quite similar from one region of the country to another. In many cases, they patterned their behavior after the example set by gangs of adult thieves, whose domain overlapped their own. Seasoned toughs predominated, of course, but the very nature of street life often prompted novices as well to join forces. A group could seize and defend more effectively a desirable location to spend the night or lay claim to a section of street or market square. Teamwork, such as the participation of a lookout or decoy, made possible various thefts beyond the capability of loners. Gangs, in short, enjoyed advantages in most areas vital to homeless youths.

The longer the members of a band remained on the street, the more likely they were to develop a sense of their group as removed or isolated from the society around them. Outsiders came to represent a threat from whom the group's secrets and turf had to be protected. Whether a nonmember appeared to the gang as a menace or as their intended victim, the person could expect no restraint or pity. The most cohesive, tightly knit bands were those in which a sense of separation and alienation had fully matured. At the other end of the spectrum, clusters of juveniles who still returned occasionally to the homes of relatives for sleep or a meal tended to display a less wary or hostile outlook.

The suspicion and enmity brandished by gangs toward the outside world often extended to other abandoned children, especially to green youths newly on their own. Regarded as outside the pale ( ne svoi ) by hardened adolescents, many a novice found himself stripped of his clothing and beaten by a group whose path he crossed while groping about in a harsh, unfamiliar environment. The outcome was grimmer for sixteen-year-old Vasilii Riabov, fresh on the street in November 1924. Facing ever colder nights, he sought shelter in the ruined basement complex of a large building on Moscow's Tverskaia Street, a frequent refuge of the homeless. As he entered the cellars, other pairs of eyes noted the comparatively good condition of his apparel, and after he had fallen asleep a group of four (three besprizornye and a twenty-three-year-old man) sprung to action. Grabbing his arms and legs, they suffocated him by stuffing ashes into his mouth and then removed his clothing. The corpse they buried in the cellar.

Recently a Russian student of organized crime pointed to underworld slang as an indication that the nation's criminal stratum amounted to a subculture distinct from the rest of society. Much the same could be said of experienced besprizornye in the 1920s. The argot developed in their groups, with hundreds of words and expressions unintelligible to ordinary citizens, underscored the gulf between the street and the sur-rounding population. In Moscow, for example, a committee investigating the case of a fourteen-year-old girl found her testimony so studded with this jargon as to be nearly inaccessible, and youths conspiring among themselves sometimes took advantage of the language barrier to confound adults within earshot. There were even reports that veterans employed their patois as a test to determine whether others just arrived in the area were "genuine"--that is, experienced members of their world. Those unfamiliar with the language of the street found themselves regarded as informers or novices--and thus targets of abuse.

Waifs acquired much of their slang from the lexicon of adult thieves, testimony again to the close contact between the two groups. However, they also added words of their own and altered the meaning of some terms borrowed from their older neighbors in the underworld, which resulted in a new dialect. While a thorough study of the language lies beyond this book's scope, a few examples will provide a sense of the flavor and subjects commonly encountered:

psy : a derogatory term used to denote children new to the street and unfamiliar with its ways. Sometimes applied contemptuously to youths who supported themselves by begging rather than stealing.

shpana : a streetwise, veteran besprizornyi .

fraier (sometimes rendered fraer ): a person having no understanding of the street world. Often applied to the victim of a theft.

liagavyi : a betrayer or informer. Used by some as a strong term of reproach for almost any occasion.

ban : a train station.

maidan : a train.

shalman : a den or haunt.

chinar : a cigarette butt.

stirki (or stirochki ): playing cards.

marafet : cocaine.

shmara : a street girl taken as a lover by a besprizornyi .

puliat' : to beg.

kanai : go away!

shirmach : a pickpocket.

mil'ton or ment : a policeman.

kicha : a prison.

Among a minority of youths, the influence of the criminal world also appeared in the form of tattoos, which urchins as young as nine sought to acquire in imitation of the adornments sported by older thieves around them. Prisons, the street, and even orphanages here and there all sheltered practitioners able to oblige. A study of 146 juveniles in the Moscow Labor Home discovered 37 with at least one tattoo in 1924, and a later investigation reported such decorations on "nearly all" the residents. Popular motifs included nude figures, the sex organs, and emblems signifying membership in a gang. Nearly any part of the body might carry a design, including locations chosen to allow the characters a semblance of animation. A naked man on one shoulder blade, for example, and a naked woman on the other, or a cat and mouse on the buttocks, could be moved in provocative or amusing fashion.

Some adolescents, including a sixteen-year-old orphan dubbed Odessit, managed as well to ape adult criminals' lusty, unbridled lifestyle. In Odessit's case, the models who swayed him inhabited Ukraine and the port that inspired his nickname. Since 1922, this bold and resourceful boy had ranged through all the republic's principal cities, imbibing the underworld's habits and vocabulary. Eventually his travels brought him to Khar'kov, where he joined the Sumskaia Street group mentioned in the Introduction and turned the boys more resolutely to crime. Apart from facilitating thefts, membership in the group provided Odessit with a setting for his favorite amusements. He had a passion for gambling, drink, and ostentatious displays of money when treating comrades--among whom he developed a reputation for strictly honoring obligations. A rough-edged dandy, he dressed well by the standards of the street and rarely stood in need of cash.

Like Odessit, most experienced waifs--and especially those in groups--went by nicknames. In fact, with the passage of time, many forgot their original surnames and identified themselves only with street names. This evolution, too, symbolized and further emphasized the void between them and the surrounding society. Nicknames often sprang from a youth's physical appearance--hence appellations such as Krivoi (one-eyed), Kosoi (cross-eyed), Riaboi (pock-marked), and Ryzhii (redhead). Those with a countenance wasted by heavy consumption of cocaine or vodka might answer to Starik (old man). One pale thin lad acquired the name Monashka (nun), and another, whose blanched, oblong face suggested an icon figure, became known on the street as Bogomaz (icon dauber). In addition to physical features, children's special skills or experiences provided inspiration for names. The moniker Sevastopol'skii (from the Crimean city Sevastopol'), for example, referred to a youth who had traveled extensively in the southern part of the country, while the leader of a gang in Odessa received the name Simuliator because of his ability to assume a variety of roles in order to escape capture. Diminutive forms of girls' names, applied to boys, also enjoyed circulation, as did names of animals such as Medvezhenok (bear cub), Lebed' (swan), and Krysa (rat). In at least a few instances, girls' nicknames stuck to boys who worked as prostitutes.

With the passage of months, a group's Krysa or Kosoi would fall into the hands of the police or depart for other reasons. The band's core of veterans therefore took in new boys now and then, typically from among recent arrivals at a station, market, or other location that served as the gang's base. An initiate often underwent a trying, sometimes brutal, probationary period of beatings and orders to perform difficult tasks. If he proved himself by enduring these tests, which could last for weeks, the group accepted him as a reliable member. Those who ran away to escape the torment were dismissed by the others as sniveling babies or worse.

According to some observers in the 1920s, many gangs divided stolen goods among all members equally or, failing that, in proportion to their involvement in the theft. No doubt something of the sort occurred here and there, though the true extent of the practice remains difficult to determine. One sometimes senses in these accounts an author's eagerness to emphasize the cooperative nature of street children, even to the point of suggesting that they harbored embryonic collectivist qualities that educators could cultivate to transform them into builders of a communist society. Other reports, while noting that youths on occasion displayed considerable unity inside their groups, stressed as well that dominant members often tormented the rank and file. This abuse--which included beatings, appropriation of the most desirable portions of food, and sexual exploitation of other boys or girls in the gang--stood in vivid contrast to any custom of communal disposition of spoils.

However sharply the conduct of groups might differ in some respects, certain rules of behavior and discipline gained wide currency, especially among adolescents experienced on the street. Loyalty to comrades, for example, was embedded deeply enough to prevent many, when questioned by police or social workers, from informing on the gang. "Betrayal" represented a sin of such proportions that young boys raped by older residents of the Moscow Labor Home complained to the staff only with great reluctance, fearing the merciless retribution likely to follow. Also, while respecting those of their world most adept at deceiving outsiders, vagrant children typically regarded cheating at cards or other games played among themselves--not to mention failing to pay debts incurred--as a grave transgression. Offenders risked savage reprisals, usually in the form of beatings, though the authors of one study witnessed instances of gang rape of group members considered guilty of such offenses. In a few reported cases the exaction of vengeance resulted in the victim's death.

A youth who fled his group after violating one of its rules might well find that word of his act followed in short order. Gangs sometimes maintained connections with groups in other markets and train stations--even other cities--and could pass information along regarding the misdeeds of former members. In one such case, a boy who had fled from Tula to Moscow was eventually tracked down and dragged out of an institution. Only the staff's intervention saved him. In a few instances, children arriving at shelters requested permission for a brief visit to the street in order to "earn" some money with which to settle their obligations before entering the institution. Among other things, they apparently felt that a safe return to the street in the future hinged on paying their debts.

Most groups featured a leader (sometimes more than one), known in the youths' slang as a vozhak , glot , or glavar' . In some cases, leaders reportedly attained their preeminence by exercising such qualities as resourcefulness, intelligence, and strength of will, but this seems to have been the exception. Usually the oldest and strongest members (who might also possess the traits just mentioned) employed their physical attributes to intimidate others in the gang and thereby assume the dominant position. A leader made the group's important decisions, enforced discipline as he saw fit, and in some cases demanded payment of tribute (cigarettes, perhaps, or something similarly desirable) from other members. While he might experience a challenge periodically, observers were more often struck by the unhesitating obedience his commands received. Some groups depended so entirely on a leader's initiative that they crumbled when arrest or other misfortune removed him from the scene. Cohesiveness returned only with the emergence of a new vozhak from the ranks or the arrival of a strong figure from outside. The most submissive and dependent members followed their leaders with blind determination, whether to commit a risky crime or to enter an orphanage.

One day, a man looking over the waifs gathered in the reception room of Narkompros's Moscow branch found his eye drawn to an older lad who sat smoking cigarettes and spitting frequently on the floor. There could be no mistake; it was Chainik. As the boy haughtily surveyed the room's other ragged children, the adult recalled their previous encounter in Moscow's Alexander Station. Like other large railway terminals, the station sat above a basement labyrinth of tunnels and steam pipes that sheltered many homeless youths from winter's frost. When Narkompros officials learned of this lair, they organized a foray to collect its urchins and place them in institutions. The man in the reception room had been among those in the search party that descended with quivering nerves into the station's basement. Aided by a single lantern, they groped down a long passage, clambering over pipes and turning several corners. With each step, oxygen seemed to grow scarcer, until one of the group lost consciousness. After carrying her from the basement, the others retraced their steps and arrived at an oval aperture in the wall--the mouth of a steam-pipe conduit so narrow that it could be negotiated only by crawling. A few minutes of this squirming sapped two members' resolve, leaving the party's leader to continue down the channel alone, his lantern now extinguished. The others backed out of the duct and crouched at its entrance, where they could hear muffled cries of besprizornye awakened in their chambers. The expedition had penetrated Chainik's winter home, and before long he stood among a score of cohorts herded out of the basement and assembled in the station for processing.

Years before, as it happened, his mother had brought the seven-year-old boy to this same hall with the apparent intention of deserting him. She placed her son on a bench and then lingered to watch from a distance, perhaps reluctant to take the final parting step. In any case, as evening approached, she told him that she would go out for a minute to buy a roll in the bazaar--and disappeared. That night, when the station closed, someone noticed the boy asleep under the bench with a raw carrot protruding from his mouth like a pacifier. He stuck to the premises for weeks, living on handouts from passengers, until he overcame his shyness and adjusted to the city's bustle. His nickname derived from the ploy of carrying a teakettle ( chainik ) to impersonate passengers, who often took pots and kettles into stations to obtain hot water. Under this cover he ran less risk of challenge while stealing baggage for his group to sell in the Sukharevskii Market. Come spring he migrated to the Crimea and did not return to Moscow until autumn, when stinging temperatures drove him into the caverns underneath "his" station.

Chainik's experience illustrates the challenge faced by all children thrust out on their own, for even the most Spartan set of requirements included shelter from winter and other perils. The very young, weak, or ailing--those most handicapped on the street--could often hope for nothing beyond garbage piles, ditches, and the like. Unless admitted to institutions, few survived long. Others, more experienced or fortunate, managed to sniff out and cling to niches in structures that afforded securer refuge. But sanctuary lay not only in the basement of a train station or an abandoned building; it also resided in numbers. Like an irresistible force, the advantage of teamwork in activities essential for survival drew many into groups. With life a matter of competition reduced to its most unvarnished form, those who could not defend their dens soon lost them. Under these stark rules, gangs wielded the upper hand. This applied not only to the apportionment of shelter, but to all other matters of importance in an environment that prompted more than one observer to recall the name of Charles Darwin.

Excerpted from And Now My Soul is Hardened by Alan M. Ball. Copyright © 1994 by the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 1994-06:
A short review cannot do justice to the rich detail of this book. Basing his work on archival materials and a wealth of other primary and secondary sources, Ball argues that war and famine played a part in creating the phenomenon of millions of abandoned children in the early Soviet state. However, he also contends that economic and social conditions such as high divorce rates, simple abandonment, and single-parent families fostered by state policies contributed to this situation. Beginning with the origins and causes of homelessness, the book treats, among other aspects, the government's efforts to cope with child abandonment and the institutions created to perform this task. The book contains a glossary of terms and abbreviations, 13 pages of period photographs and reproductions, more than 100 pages of reference notes, a full index, and a 13-page bibliography. The work is completely accessible to specialists and nonspecialists alike. All levels. G. E. Snow; Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania
This item was reviewed in:
Choice, June 1994
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Long Description
Warfare, epidemics, and famine left millions of Soviet children homeless during the 1920s. Many became beggars, prostitutes, and thieves, and were denizens of both secluded underworld haunts and bustling train stations. Alan Ball's study of these abandoned children examines their lives and the strategies the government used to remove them from the streets lest they threaten plans to mold a new socialist generation. The "rehabilitation" of these youths and the results years later are an important lesson in Soviet history.
Table of Contents
List of Tables and Illustrations
Terms and Abbreviations
A Note on Conventions
A Note on Renamed Cities
Introduction: Tragedy's Offspringp. 1
Children of the Streetp. 21
Beggars, Peddlers, and Prostitutesp. 44
From You I Can Expect No Pityp. 61
Children of the Statep. 87
Primeval Chaosp. 108
Florists and Professorsp. 127
Progress and Frustrationp. 151
Conclusion: On the Road to Life?p. 176
Notesp. 201
Select Bibliographyp. 311
Photo Creditsp. 325
Indexp. 327
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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