Children and young criminals in Soviet cities (1923)




Boris Cederholm was a Finnish diplomat who travelled frequently in Soviet Russia. Cederholm was later arrested and interrogated by the CHEKA and detained in the gulag system. He wrote about these experiences in a 1929 book. Here, Cederholm reflects on the orphans, street children and young criminals he observed in Soviet cities in 1923-25:



“Petrograd, and still more Moscow, astonish the newly arrived foreigner by their swarms of hooligans and uncared-for children. In many public places in Soviet Russia, placards are hung up bearing the words: ‘Children are the flowers of our life’. From time to time a sentimental, moving article is published in the Soviet papers, inviting people to subscribe [donate] to children’s colonies and refuges. All this is humbug, pretty fancy, theory. As if people could possibly be expected to subscribe when the whole population has been impoverished! There are many children who are uncared-for because they have no parents.

The colonies for juvenile offenders and the ordinary prisons are filled to the brim with young criminals. I myself in Moscow and Petrograd saw dozens of little girls engaged in prostitution in broad daylight and continually saw small boys of 12 or 13 taking cocaine.

I was returning from Tsarskoe Selo late one evening by the suburban railway. The compartment was crammed full of ragged boys of 12 or under, who conversed on sexual subjects with frank cynicism. The guard made a sign to me to leave the compartment and suggested that I should move to another carriage. “It’s dirtier there but it’s safer”, he said. “Those boys are a pack of ruffians; they wouldn’t stop at murder. They all take cocaine”…

In the alleys of Petrograd and Moscow, child criminals in regular gangs fall upon any at all decently dressed woman and extort money from her by threatening to pour acids on her face or to bite her in order to infect her with venereal disease. A lady of my acquaintance was set upon at 11 o’clock one night near the Alexandrovsky market by a crowd of small girls and boys, who threatened to let loose typhus germs, specially preserved in a small box, on her fur coat. She ransomed herself for five roubles and thought she had got off very lightly.

According to official statistics for the year 1925, there were nearly a million orphan children in Soviet Russia, maintained in 2,500 different refuges and homes. But these statistics tell us nothing of the children who… are left to themselves and return to their parents only to sleep, and that not always.

Owing to the peculiarities of the Soviet system of life, the majority of parents find it quite impossible to look after their children. Both husband and wife are on duty, or at work, from morning till evening. On their return from work they have to fetch wood, take their turn at the kitchen range and cook the dinner. Then they have to hurry off to some election meeting or to a lecture or to the party school. Everything connected with Communist propaganda is obligatory…

These people make a living as best they can by means of casual labour, involving a prolonged absence from home. When to all this is added the fact that several families live in one flat – families of entirely different social position and educational level – it will be understood that there is a menacing increase in the numbers of uncared-for children, child criminals, their immature minds infected by the sin-laden atmosphere of a great city, demoralised by years of revolution, anarchy and terror.”

soviet children
Street children in the Soviet city of Kazan, 1920s
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