In ‘Little Soldiers’, Olga Kucherenko contextualizes the role children played in the Soviet Union’s war effort and how their appearance on the frontlines, behind the front, and on the high seas was hardly out of the ordinary in a country that was regularly bombarded by propaganda in the pre-war period predicting a future war, which all sectors of the population were expected to take part in. This is a highly researched and detailed work based on archival material, interviews, and a wide variety of secondary sources from not only the field of history, but also anthropology and psychology. Contextually, this study can be placed alongside the recently published Soviet Women in Combat by Anna Krylova and Why Stalin’s Soldiers Fought by Roger R. Reese, as this is more a social than military history.
Little Children is broken into two parts. In the first part, Kucherenko focuses on the pre-war period featuring discussions of children in the Soviet Union, their education, the type of propaganda they were regularly exposed to, and the atmosphere as a whole within the Soviet Union throughout the 1930s. The second section concentrates on the war itself and the role children played in the various branches of the Armed Forces of the Soviet Union.
Although rare, there are instances in the first section when the breadth of the territory the author is covering moves the focus away from the children themselves and various historical arguments and debates centering on the entirety of the Soviet Union take center stage. By no means does this mean that this text is solely written for those with in-depth knowledge of the Soviet Union. On the contrary, the amount of ground covered in the first part of the text makes for an excellent overall introduction to not only the topic of children in the Soviet Union and the Great Patriotic War, but the subject of the Soviet Union itself. Additionally, the author regularly has to walk a fine line in analyzing her sources and interviews due to the fact that around the Great Patriotic War a cult was crafted and a government endorsed ‘master narrative’ all too often impeded a more nuanced and personalized characterization of what veterans experienced. Specifically, this means that often veterans will retain a politicized language when recalling their experiences from the war and their recollections will either mimic or regurgitate a state sponsored rhetoric. While this tells us a great deal about the society these men and women participated and lived in, it becomes a task in itself to separate their version of the Great Patriotic War from that of the state, which was regularly forced onto the Soviet population through a variety of mass media.
Estimates of how many children actually participated in the war effort range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. By no means were these youngsters instrumental in the outcome of the war as their numbers hardly made up one percent of the Soviet armed forces. Nevertheless, Kucherenko shows quite well what kind of impact these adolescents had on the frontlines in not only fighting the enemy but in boosting the morale of their fellow soldiers. For instance, when a former partisan commented on children in partisan ranks he mentioned how ‘tough’ it was for them, but seeing that they never complained about the conditions they found themselves in ‘gives us strength; a march seems less strenuous, and privations not as hard’ (226). Additionally, in many ways, child soldiers were an important future generation that was highly inculcated into the Soviet ethos on the eve of and during the war itself, serving as guardians of Stalinist ideology in the post-war period. Their actions during the war, however, were a result of more than just the indoctrination they, as well as the entirety of the Soviet population, underwent during the 1930s.
From an early age children participated in youth movements and were encouraged to join clubs that created an atmosphere where collective experiences permeated everyday life, teaching kids that ‘only through teamwork could they acquire strong socialist moral standards’ (40). Furthermore, propaganda regularly stressed hero worship (be they Civil War heroes, arctic/polar explorers, aviators, etc.) and children were encouraged to give back to the state, the collective, which provided them with the ‘best’ quality of life possible, through heroic acts. But the propaganda within which these acts were enmeshed omitted any type of suffering on the part of the hero, death itself was a topic regularly avoided, as was any ‘senseless destruction of a human life’ (144). In some respects this idealized reliance on human heroism seems to have reinforced the misleading belief that bravery would compensate for technological backwardness, as when young volunteers for the front ‘recited or paraphrased’ the ‘proverbial line: “A bullet fears the brave!”’ (149) Thus, when the Soviet Union was invaded, children were eager to participate in a romanticized version of a war they could only imagine based on their interaction with Soviet media before it was too late.
There can be no doubt the Soviet state sent mixed messages to children when it discussed war. They were encouraged to actively contribute to the war effort in the rear while at the same time seeing propaganda that lauded images of children fighting. Kucherenko, however, is adamant that the education system cannot be accused of pressuring children to take part in hostilities. On the contrary, she offers more than enough proof to show how the government did everything to prevent adolescents from such participation. The front line, however, was a separate world from occupied territory. Here everyone was encouraged to take part in the fight against the enemy, although children’s acceptance into partisan units was often left to the discretion of local commanders, something also seen in studies of women’s role in the Soviet war effort (198). But for an age group that regularly exhibits a fascination with war, even a restrained propaganda campaign proved too much for some and resulted in adolescents actively seeking a way, any way, to get to the front and contribute to the war effort. More importantly, boys were not the only ones eager to arrive at the front. In one instance, on the third day of the war, the head of the Leningrad Red Cross complained that school girls, mothers and daughters, and even an old lady, were all petitioning to go to the front (143). Yet while boys were eager to play war, it was girls who had a greater chance of being accepted into the ranks of the Red Army since they endeavored to attain certain skills to make their presence in the armed forces a necessity.
Blind reliance on propaganda affected not only children. When war finally did come to the sole socialist state in Europe, there resonated a belief that the enemy would be quickly defeated on their own soil. In effect, propaganda that highlighted the invincibility of the Red Army created an environment that saw utter shock when Soviet civilians learned of the advances made by the Wehrmacht against Soviet troops. The amount of children eager to gain admittance to the front, however, only increased as the war dragged on into 1942. Ultimately, the motivating factors in the actions of future child soldiers, according to Kucherenko, seemed ‘to be rooted in the romantic notion of one’s usefulness and a sense of moral duty, a naïve conception of war, and unshakable loyalty to the country, all of which were externalized in defiance of its enemies’ (111). Transformed into acts of bravery and heroism, reckless endangerment of their own lives was something children were prone to do when working with a flawed definition of war. When a former child partisan, who at one point was arrested and beaten while on a mission, was asked if he was afraid of being tortured or killed, he replied ‘No. But now I wouldn’t do what I did back then when I was 13’ (223).