Rear Cover: The Forgotten Victims: Childhood and the Soviet Gulag, 1929–1953

Elaine MacKinnon


This study examines a facet of Gulag history that only in recent years has become a topic for scholarly examination, the experiences of children whose parents were arrested or who ended up themselves in the camps. It first considers the situation of those who were true “children of the Gulag,” born either in prison or in the camps. Second, the paper examines the children who were left behind when their parents and relatives were arrested in the Stalinist terror of the 1930s.  Those left behind without anyone willing or able to take them in ended up in orphanages, or found themselves on their  own, having to grow up quickly and cope with adult situations and responsibilities. Thirdly, the study focuses on young persons who themselves ended up in the Gulag, either due to their connections with arrested family members, or due to actions in their own right which fell afoul of Stalinist “legality,” and consider the ways in which their youth shaped their experience of the Gulag and their strategies for survival.  The effects of a Gulag childhood were  profound both for individuals and for Soviet society as a whole.  Millions of children’s lives were torn apart by the Stalinist terror; they not only lost loved ones and friends, but they also faced social stigmatization,  political and economic marginalization, and compromised  opportunities for upward mobility and security. For some whose parents were rehabilitated, this brought a degree of normalcy, and they felt that the state had redeemed itself and their families. But for others it contributed to a process of alienation that ended up in political dissidence and emigration.   Any history of post-Stalinist society must take into consideration the fact that the Gulag did not just affect those who served time in the camps and colonies, but also the children they left behind.  Further studies are needed to determine to what extent the experiences of children of the Gulag informed social patterns during the last decades of the Soviet regime, and in particular, responses to Gorbachev’s efforts at reform.

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