Olga Kucherenko, Little Soldiers. How Soviet Children Went to War
Olga Kucherenko, Little Soldiers. How Soviet Children Went to War
Oxford University Press, 2011, 320 pages
Countries :Soviet Union
Research Fields :History
1In 2011, when Olga Kucherenko's book appeared, the countries of the ex-USSR were commemorating the 70th anniversary of the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi forces. Seventy years : the Soviet troops who were twenty at the beginning of the war are ninety now. As time passes, the veterans of the regular army are fewer and further between and other veterans find themselves in the limelight : those who joined the Red Army or the resistance when they were still only children. Nonetheless, the commemorations in recent years for the Great Patriotic War have centred around the same narrative of the fighting hero, the soldier in the trenches, the fighter pilot or the partisan opposing the enemy in the occupied territories. The veterans themselves duplicate this narrative, erasing any specificity of their experience as children, teenagers or young adults in the war.
2Kucherenko's book, devoted to the fighting children of the Second World War in the USSR, fills a real gap. The imposing quantity of published memoirs and official commemoriations, entrenched as they are in the official glorifying discourse, hide a profound unfamiliarity with what led certain Soviet children to take up arms and the specificity of their fighting experience. Using diverse sources, the author's mission is to reconstitute and understand the path followed by the soldier children.
3The approach of 'Little Soldiers' is original in the way it tackles the paths followed by the children. The book is not limited to the war in the strictest sense of the term, but draws on the children's pre-war socialisation to explain why some among them decided to take up arms. As such, the author succeeds remarkably in avoiding a description of the young fighters as puppets manipulated by Soviet propaganda. The book shows the 'little soldiers' as active individuals who, through determination, stubbornness and courage, change the course of their destiny, and as children shaped by upbringing and ideology and manhandled by war.
4The book is structured in two parts, of equal importance. Its argumentation is based on a body of interviews with former child soldiers and archive documents relating to the war and pre-war periods, but the author also makes abundant use of memoirs, press interviews and literary works. The text refers to a wealth of Soviet, post-Soviet and foreign literature about the Great Patriotic War in the USSR.
5The first part analyses the patriotic and militaristic propaganda aimed at the children of the 1930s, the ways in which ideological discourse was transmitted and the effect of patriotic upbringing on the pre-war generation of children. The author puts forth that the children's fierce determination to take part in the conflict can only be understood in the light of the upbringing they received.
6The first chapter gives a rather general outline of the upbringing of Soviet children by analysing the main tenets of socialisation : family, school, literature and media, theatre and cinema, communist youth organisations. Preference for the collective interest over personal interests and sense of self-sacrifice for the common good are among the essential values inculcated to children.
7The cult of the Soviet homeland is the subject of the second chapter. The author gives an account of the educational work through which Soviet identity overrides all the children's other references. The Soviet homeland is adorned with all imaginable qualities and systematically contrasted to a backward and hostile outside world. The socialisation of children in the 1930s is a laboratory for building the new Soviet individual, detached from past allegiances. Reading this second chapter leaves an impression of déjà vu on the reader familiar with the history of the USSR, the work of Soviet patriotic propaganda having received such a high level of interest from researchers. However, in Kucherenko's analysis, patriotic propaganda is less important as a project than as the formation of a field of possibilities which guides children in their decisions when war comes.
8This field of possibilities is further pinpointed in the third chapter, which examines the militarisation of children's upbringing, embracing the cult of fighting heros, the fear of spies in the pay of foreigners, paramilitary games and exercises, as well as literature and cinema. If the Soviet authorities are so attentive to paramilitary preparation, it is because they recognise the necessity of training future generations for armed conflicts that the USSR considers as inevitable. Patriotism is mingled with the will and aptitude for sacrificing one's life for the country in combat. War becomes, thus, a logical and even desirable horizon for many young Soviets, who try to enlist in the armed forces at the outbreak of war.
9In the second part, the author gives a precise description of the process by which Soviet children came to serve in the Red Army during the Second World War. Having children take part in combat was never the aim of the Soviet authorities, as Kucherenko repeats several times. A combination of antimilitaristic and, later, anti-Nazi propaganda, and the disorganisation in families and daily life, explains the enlistment of children. Enlistment through ideological adhesion and enlistment for survival are mixed in the history of the young fighters. The armed forces often saw the arrival of orphans or children separated from their families in the chaos of war, for whom the Red Army was synonymous with a chance of survival, but also children who had left their homes wishing to be at the centre of the struggle against the Nazi occupying forces.
10The first chapter considers the effect produced on children by propaganda in the first years of the war. The injunction to rise up against occupying forces, addressed to the whole country, did not explicitly mention the participation of everyone in the combat : the war effort could equally be contributed to by hard work behind the lines. However, as the war dragged on, the idea of general participation in armed conflict progressed and the ideological and military preparation of children intensified. The ambiguous attitude of the Soviet authorities, refusing to enlist children, while encouraging them to acquire military skills to be ready for combat, gave rise to an idealistic and fanatical generation wishing to take up arms with adults to defend their country.
11The final three, somewhat similar, chapters are given over to three types of experiences undergone by young fighters : enlistment in the Red Army, in partisan movements and in the Soviet fleet. The author goes into the details of each experience : arriving at the front or in a group of partisans, often by unlikely methods, the first experiences of combat, training, relationships with adult fighters. The book is full of precious details which help build up a precise picture of the young fighters' daily lives. These children, who had often had to be crafty to arrive at the front, were at first received with reticence by the commanders and were limited to non-military tasks. Nevertheless, with time child soldiers were generally allowed to take part in combat or intelligence missions, thereby gaining an equal footing with adults. Kucherenko draws on memoirs and interviews with these veterans to write of friendship and courage, but also of fear and cold.
12The author tempers the stereotypical image of the heroic child 'adopted' by a regiment or group of partisans without really challenging it. This can be explained by the nature of her sources. It is easy to imagine that first-hand accounts, collected half a century after the event, are reconstructions of childhood memories by adults who have lived through a Soviet adulthood. Moreover, the memoirs published in Soviet times may have been reworked and touched up in accordance with the remembrance policy of the USSR. How do the aged veterans of today remember the childhood experiences that they have surely recounted many times during their lives ? If it is now admissable to speak of the fear and squalor of daily life in wartime, what is it still unacceptable to remember ? It is noteworthy that the image of the adult Soviet soldier is, in these childhood memories, an exact copy of the archetypal Red Army soldier : good, paternal, honest, protective of the weak and small. Any violence in the former child soldier's tales is invariably on the Nazi side, an exact copy of the enemy described by Soviet propaganda.
13The author may lack distance in relation to her sources, not paying enough attention to the social construction of the young soldiers' war memories. Nevertheless, such methodological bias takes nothing away from the qualities of this precious work, which brings together rich and informative material and displays complex and subtle human experiences, lively and active people who were never objects manipulated by the authorities.
Anna Colin Lebedev, « Olga Kucherenko, Little Soldiers. How Soviet Children Went to War », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 14/15 | 2013, Online since 13 June 2013, connection on 30 March 2017. URL : http://pipss.revues.org/4039Top of page
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