Thursday, May 7, 2015

Neglected Children, Russian Children, Neglected Russian Children, and Russians Neglecting Children

Neglected children.

I was being excited about reading Ms. Rapscott's School for Girls and my co-worker Beth said, "Nope." She said she cannot handle books about neglected children, like I cannot stand whatever it was I hate about mystery novels. I said, "Murder treated lightly for entertainment?" We agreed that I am opposed to fun murder and she cannot bear child neglect, even when they are the neglected children of the rich and busy, as in Ms. Rapscott's Girls, written by Elise Primavera of Auntie Claus. (We just won't tell Beth about the other books I've been reading.) Ms. Rapscott's Girls is uproariously boarding school, with Lemony Snickett-style anachronism, and a little Mary Poppins in Ms. Rapscott's inexplicable insistence that the girls' first adventure down Less Travelled Road never happened. The girls are the daughters of Busy Parents, too busy even to apply to the school; Miss Rapscott simply sends out postage paid boxes that the parents may pack their daughters into, because they are so busy. Mildred, Bea, Fay, and Annabelle land safely at the school, but Dahlia Thistle's parents forgot to close the self-sticking tape on her box and she fell out. Mildred, Bea, Fay, and Annabelle receive academic instruction on How to be Lost, well-supplied with such things as rain bonnets, mittens, and paper on which to write thank-you notes, and learn to Find Their Way, thus culminating on a mission to find Dahlia at an indoor dream-state iteration of the Alps. Meanwhile, I was also reading Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920-1935: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times because somebody left it on my hold shelf and I am prone to reading things people leave on my hold shelf. Stunning children's book reproductions scattered with text introduce Western adult art snobs about the colorfully modernist art of a new society, storybooks that throw off the bourgeois shackles of tsars and princesses, witches and fairies. This is socialist literature for socialist children and society grinds joyfully like a well-oiled machine, but with plenty of fun because "play is the work of children." Also, if you were anybody in Russian literature at the time, you were apparently writing for children and not mentioning it so much, but it's where the paychecks were coming from. I've read plenty about poets like Mayakovsky and Mandelstam and not a word about their vast bodies of work for young people. Not to mention Kornei Chukovsky, the Dr. Seuss/Roald Dahl/Edward Lear of Russian children's literature began writing around the time of the revolution, and several of his poems are printed in full here. Inside the Rainbow excerpts stories in English, or includes them in the reproduction of book art. There's a fantastic hodgepodge of stuff, from fiction about Civil War child soldiers to poems to photo montages to Lenin's gripings to memoirs of Soviet childhoods. The trouble is when funnest of books are not reproduced in full, like the fantastic rhyming story of a letter mailed from Leningrad to London and delivered by that most efficient of Soviet workers, the postman. Will the letter be delivered? Will Maksim Maksimovich write a letter back? Why are postmen so cheerful? I'll never know. But I can substitute my lack of closure in a children's story for knowledge of the plight of millions of Soviet homeless children, the ones whom nobody was buying Revolutionary children's books for. Inside the Rainbow had And Now My Soul is Hardened: Abandoned Children in Soviet Russia: 1918-1930 by Alan M. Ball in its index and I wildly ordered it from the library, as I am wont to do. I'd come across mentions of Soviet Russia's homeless child problem before, but the reality is so much more appalling than any occasional mention, and Ball doesn't even get to the generations of homeless children after 1930. Tsarist Russia had street children too, meaning for the first few years after the revolution the problem could be regarded as a relic of the old regime, but the Volga famine hit in 1922, after years of Civil War, and the population of street children soared into the millions. And Now My Soul is Hardened spends half its time on street children and their attempts at living and the other half on policy reactions, not because Soviet policy on homeless children could affect more than a fraction of them, underfunded and unstaffed as it was, but early policy on an immediate domestic crisis is an interesting facet of Soviet history and its attempts to deal with a real problem while staying in bounds of revolutionary idealism, and Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissar of Enlightenment, comes off as more human in his response to street children than he does elsewhere in history. Plenty of children passed through children's homes and other institutions, but not many made it out and into productive careers as model Soviet citizens. In Gladkov's boring Cement (which I'm never going to get around to finishing) his daughter is placed in the children's home in a wave of kibbutz-style enthusiasm for children's collective upbringing that swept revolutionary backers in the early days and she ends up starving; the few children who were placed in children's homes for ideology's sake were quickly outnumbered by war orphans and famine victims as the children's homes went without government funding ample to provide amenities like shoes, clothes and food. Plenty of children died in children's homes, and others ran back to the streets where they could at least steal edibles and everything else they could manage. Ball's research here is amazing. There is a sort of Dickensian charm to kids climbing into train engines and summering in Crimean resort towns, organizing into boy gangs, and begging charmingly. But charm evaporates on any close scrutiny about the unspeakable conditions children lived in around the train stations where they were often abandoned, in markets, basements, haystacks, and anywhere else warm enough. More experienced children formed gangs and divided resources and fought bloody battles with other gangs, older boys and adult criminals threw their weight around and assaulted smaller and outcast boys; drinking, gambling, murdering other children for serviceable clothes, rampant STDs, and boy rape. Most girls were raped too and almost a hundred percent had worked as prostitutes. By the late 1920s, the problem of street children diminished by attrition and aging into the adult criminal population, some were rescued, and Ball is only able to hint at the coming waves of orphans from the collectivization of the 1930s and another world war, whose childhoods would be as chilling as those of their predecessors. But it doesn't stop there, because next I read The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine which continues to be Russian, involve children, and end nowhere good. Damn you, Europa Editions, with your beautiful bindings and your promises of erudite international fiction. This was the first Europa Edition I've actually got through, and that's because Alina Bronsky tricked me into enjoying the first few chapters of her unreliable narrator, Rosa Achmetowna, orchestrating her pregnant daughter's life in the late Soviet Union and throwing her over for love of her smarter granddaugter, whom she tries to raise in her own image. Rosa, for love of her granddaughter and her own ambitions, is the cunning of a Soviet woman who had to stand in line for hours to find a bag of oranges in a shop or find a pair of black-market pantyhose exaggerated and alarmingly cold, and she's funny, but her insistence that her daughter marry anybody, hopefully foreign, to get them and especially herself out of the crumbling USSR, and attempting suicide because she can't go to Israel, bartering her granddaughter to a man who might be a pedophile, crushing people around her like bugs or trying to, and being completely self-assured regardless, it's a disturbing stereotype of Russian immigrants combined with dark comedy that's too dark to be funny, and then, because modern novels can't leave off insta-celebrity, Germany's American Idol wraps everything up in an ambiguous package, leaving me feeling dirty again, because there's enough evil in the world without celebrating it in fiction. Next we will read about Science.

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