The Children of the Revolutions
The fall of the Soviet Union and the consequences for it's children
When a person falls in love they will do anything to be with the object of their love. Owen Mathews wrote about his parent’s quest to be together in his novel “Stalin’s Children” and almost the entirety of the book describes their efforts to overcome the physical and psychological barriers of the iron curtain.
When I met and fell in love with my Russian wife on 19th August 1991, we heard the news of Gorbachev’s house arrest while we were at my parent’s home in Stratford Upon Avon. The attempted coup d’etat was over by the 22nd August and the Soviet Union was finished. Once she returned to home I spent every moment of my existence trying to get to Moscow for Christmas, at the end of my first term at University. It wasn’t easy to find the money or arrange the visa but, in the end, I found myself on a plane to Sheremetyevo airport, smoking cigarettes in the back seats with teenager in a puffer jacket called Robbie, on his way to visit his diplomat uncle.
From my arrival at Sheremetyevo to the moment I left Moscow, I experienced a feeling of profound and almost painful sensory shock. It wasn’t just a sense of disorientation, it was the sense it which the foundation of all my most basic perceptions had been taken away and replaced by a sombre, profound and serious world in which all colours were grey and everything unimportant and superficial had been eradicated. This was still, in every practical sense, still the Soviet Union and, to the romantic naiveté of a wide-eyed twenty-year-old, all the greys were beautiful and all the unhappiness merely a sign of authenticity.
The trance-like state that romantics attain when they first visit Russia is well-documented. George Bernard Shaw was taken on a grand tour of the achievements of the soviet state and many others have been taken in by the socialist utopia illusion. However, there are just as many who have been bewitched by the art and literature of the country. As Hannah Arendt points out in “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, the intelligentsia of the west (pre-1917) was spell-bound by the depth and profundity of Russian literature, fine art and music. The novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were considered more serious, more spiritual, more truly real than the novels of other European writers. This imparted a sense of respectability and cultural superiority that blinded them, or at least distracted them from, the true unfolding horror of mass famine and the systematic dehumanisation that was the essence of the Gulag.
So my experience of the end of the Soviet Union was, for a time, also cult-like. I was a believer, not in a socialist utopia but in a seemingly aesthetically superior world. The muted palettes, exotic sounds and stripped-back architecture, where ideology was king and everything subservient to the so-called “communal good”. Needless to say, over the years, my enchantment waned and I, through hard experience, came to understand that a striking and aesthetic “feeling” was no replacement for a deep and meaningful human relationship with individuals and a community. The consequences of a slavish adherence to ideology can be seen in the effects on family relationships and on society’s most vulnerable.
I remember seeing these consequences on my 45-minute train commute from the family dacha into Komsomolskaya station in the centre of Moscow. In the early 1990s the station resembled a kind of middle-eastern bazaar from middle ages. Extreme poverty and hardships, shoulder to shoulder with the emerging middle-classes and metropolitan elite. For a few years homeless people set up something akin to a small town on the platforms, concourses and abandoned carriages of the three main stations in the area. The collapse of institutions and support structures in the provinces meant that the homeless, the sick, the mentally ill and children from state orphanages made a bee-line for the capital and, once they arrived at the station they set up camp and just didn’t leave. I guess they found their most effective human support networks in these stations, despite the dirt and the squalor.
Another phenomenon at this time was the sudden encroachment of the Moscow underworld onto the main thoroughfares of the city and, indeed, into the fabric and public face of society. In the same way that gangsters were businessmen and businessmen were gangsters (there was no clear delineation between the categories), the city’s prostitutes were front and centre of what, I guess, was the new capitalism. Lines of vulnerable young women and girls, newly arrived from the provinces, would line up on the main streets leading to the Kremlin and huge Mercedes SUVs would turn their headlights on a group of about 20. They would select the young woman they wanted in about 20 seconds flat and drive off after a quick payment to a pimp.
The road to Sheremetova airport was even more stark. A minibus trip along the tree-lined approach road would present one with a continuous line of women , perhaps 10 metres apart, standing on the side of the road, waiting to be picked up by a passing car. The terrible snaking vista of poverty-stricken young provincial women continued for perhaps 10 or 15 minutes, with our driver never doing less than about 50 miles an hour.
The state of the children was the most striking of all the post-soviet anomalies. The children of Komsomolskaya had emerged from the underfunded and morally distressed orphanages of the provinces. Each platform and each abandoned railway carriage was full of apparently tiny shaven-headed ex-convicts, who happened, in reality, to be about 10 years old. It is only after the complete collapse of a society that one can see what happens when children are truly neglected by the whole of society, rather than by simply their family, for example. I remember meeting a little boy, perhaps about 11 years old, who had the rasping voice of a hardened alcoholic - the women at the cigarette kiosks occasionally stood him plastic cups of pure vodka (filled to the rim and downed in one). They treated him like any other “Bomzh”, or homeless person, and bantered with him in the coarse and ribald language of the street. Other kids would roam around the streets and the metro system in gangs and pick up half-eaten bread rolls from the hot dog stand bins. The older ones were the artful dodgers I suppose and the younger ones keen to learn the art of aggressively smoking a papirossi (cardboard filtered cigarettes), hustling for change or finding the best place to sleep on the underground hot water pipes - too hot and risk 3rd degree burns, too cold and you freeze to death when it gets to 20 below.
The phenomenon of roaming gangs of street kids in the city of Moscow can be quite precisely dated. It start in the early nineties when the institutions basically lost all the their funding and moral compass and ended in the second half of the decade when the city mayors came to understand that it wasn’t a good look when visiting dignitaries came to town - when Kim Jong Il arrived in Moscow by train from North Korea, they shipped all the homeless people out to the countryside and left them there to find their own way home. It became more systematic later on and the institutions became more efficient in keeping hold of their residents and preventing a kind of societal shame that every city in the world would want to avoid.
So when Vitali Kanevsky made his seminal documentary on Russian street children it was very easy for a Russian to date. There was no way it could have been made in the Soviet Union and, after about 1995, Yuri Luzhkov, the autocratic mayor of Moscow would have instructed the city’s police force to “clean the streets of undesirables”. To be precise, his film, “We, the Children of the 20th Century” was made in 1994. The film was notable both for its compassionate record of the way vulnerable children were treated at this time and for its first person encounters with street children on city centre roof-tops and in the children’s prisons on the outskirts of the city.
In retrospect, the 19th August 1991 was a watershed moment that led gradually but inexorably to a tidal wave of social and cultural changes. Changes that were often devastating to the most vulnerable. The fate of the street children of Moscow was like a litmus test applied to the whole of society and, although repairs were done to the facade, it could be argued that the fault lines are still very present and that, since that date, nothing was ever the same again.
For us this could all be seen as an exotic and alien world which could never be experienced here. But we have our own date now, although not everyone agrees on its significance. The 16th March 2020, the date of the first UK lockdown, was the precursor to profound social change, particularly for the vulnerable, and the consequences for vulnerable children continue to be marked. Whatever our view of the pandemic and the lockdown policies that were used to counteract this, it is clear that the closure of schools, lack of integration with peers, use of masks, shift to an online world and mental health issues have fundamentally harmed children, particularly the most vulnerable in ways that are hidden from immediate view but have gradually become more apparent as we become more aware of the children disengaged from society and immersed in a self-referential internet silos and the quick-sand of social media.
In some ways, we have also had our revolutionary attempted coup d’etat. The date of 16th March 2020 was the beginning but, whilst the attempted Moscow coup ended 3 days later, this one, nearly 2 years still hasn’t ended yet. And it hasn’t yet failed.