Red Diaper Babies

In America, school is preparation for “real” life. In the early Soviet Union, school was filled with life.

I worked in a private day care for three years, giving tours to parents obsessed with risk and liability. Did we fingerprint and background check employees? How often? Did male staff do diapers? And if so, could their child have her diaper changed by the female teacher instead? It was sad that these questions were foremost on parents’ minds, above ones about what their child would be doing all day in our care.

In capitalist societies, each nuclear family is thought to be a private entity, operating in opposition to each other and distinct from the state. Evangelicals might insist there be a patriarch at the head of that family, while liberals envision a broader spectrum of possible arrangements. But the family form is the same: atomized, and financially self-reliant. The child is the responsibility of the parents who almost solely invested in her, and parents are expected to vigilantly monitor risks to their investment, even when they aren’t around. If your child is harmed or becomes ill, damage has been done to you, not to society, and it’s your job to fix it.

The United States has the worst child abuse record in the industrialized world — but the vast majority (about four out of five cases) are perpetrated by parents, not day-care providers. Still, parents’ anxieties about leaving their child in day care are not unfounded. American childcare is highly unregulated and availability is mediated by family wealth, leaving it to individual families to exercise “choice” and monitor program quality. A 2007 survey by the National Institution of Child Health Development found that only 10 percent of American childcare centers offer high quality care. Most were rated “fair” or “poor.” And an OECD report on child well-being found that the United States ranks twenty-fourth out of thirty countries on health and safety, due in part to a lack of social policies for children.

This situation is perpetuated, on the one hand, by conservatives’ commitment to the idea of the patriarchal nuclear family and hostility to state interference in parental rights. The only serious attempt to provide a federally funded universal childcare system in the US was vetoed by Nixon due to its “family-weakening implications.” For their part, American liberals have failed utterly to articulate a positive vision for social upbringing — instead, attempting to justify programs for children through a kind of morbid accounting, in which kids are entitled to care today because it’s cheaper than imprisoning them down the line. “ROI” or return on investment is a favorite metric of both Democratic politicians and billionaire education reformers.

School systems are the spaces in which modern societies balance the needs, rights, and interests of parents, children, and the state. From schools, parents need childcare; children need an upbringing; and the state needs a future. But where Americans tend to view these as conflicting interests, the Bolsheviks saw state-run schools as having the potential to liberate mothers from the private drudgery of housework and economic dependence, while freeing children to participate in public, collaborative play. Almost immediately upon seizing power, they declared education from preschool to university the right of every citizen.

Before the October Revolution, 70 percent of Russians were illiterate. Under the tsar, schools were generally reserved for the rich and overseen by the church. Catherine II had made it known that she believed too much education was dangerous for the monarchical social order. The Bolsheviks agreed — identifying illiteracy as “an enemy of communism,” they launched likbez in 1920, a campaign demanding all citizens learn how to read and write in their native language. For the first time, textbooks were produced in hundreds of minority languages. Trade unions and youth organizations organized reading groups to promote literacy, with great success: according to the 1926 census, most people could read.

The early years of the revolution saw the planning and ad hoc creation of thousands of schools, distribution centers, children’s clubs and communes, playgrounds, and crèches — many of them, initially, in the former homes of aristocrats. Libraries, art galleries, and museums which had once been open only to scholars were made public and heated to attract visitors. Women were given paid leave at childbirth, and “Palaces for the Protection of Maternity and Childhood,” offered food and medical services. Despite a profound lack of resources, Alexandra Kollontai, the People’s Commissar of Social Welfare, aimed to cover the country with a network of institutions for the social upbringing of children. “I considered it to be my main task to chart the course that the labor republic should adopt in the sphere of protecting the interests of woman as a labor unit and as a mother,” she recalled. By 1921, there were 7,784 institutions serving 350,000 children.

Children were enticed to the new schools with free meals. But what to teach them once they were there? How should a young communist learn? The Bolsheviks had an ambitious political agenda — children could have been seen as nothing more than blank slates on which to write this radical new reality into existence. Yet rather than attempt to engineer the future with a didactic curriculum, they designed an educational system informed by America’s then-progressive teaching methods, emphasizing self-expression, collaborative play, “hands on” activities, and student-directed group projects. Preschool students were to be taught to run their own games instead of having teachers run them for them. Fourth-year students spent the entire year writing and producing a play about a theme they chose. To learn about anatomy, children examined each other’s skin before and after a run. Teachers of all ages were instructed to use children’s interests to determine a course of study. As one American principal put it, “Soviet Russia is actually giving to the masses in its state-supported public schools the kind of education that progressive private schools in this country and in Europe have been striving earnestly to give to the relatively few who come to them.”

Lucy Wilson was an American educator who interviewed hundreds of Russian teachers working around the world and visited the USSR twice in the 1920s. In a book recording her observations of “the new Russia,” she described both utter deprivation and a sense of incredible possibility. Teachers who didn’t have paper and pencils instead took children on field trips and nature walks, and “everywhere, every pleasant day, in the streets, round the town walls, in public buildings, in industrial establishments, in museums, in art galleries, may be seen groups of school children of all ages, oblivious of the world, absorbed in seeing and understanding.” The early Bolshevik school system more closely resembled the experimental “real city as school” vision of anarchists like Paul Goodman than it did anything out of 1984.

In capitalist societies like the United States, where public schools are increasingly used as tax-funded training camps for corporate workplaces, curriculum and standards focus more on preparing children for the demands of adulthood than on their immediate needs and development. Tech CEOs from Bill Gates to Mark Zuckerberg to Tim Cook have advocated that coding be taught starting as young as kindergarten, and policymakers like Obama agree (meanwhile, the trendiest private schools in Silicon Valley don’t allow computers in the classroom). In America, school is preparation for “real” life. In the early Soviet Union, the school was life; maybe even more real than the adult world outside its doors.

Another American who toured the Soviet Union with a group of educators in 1927, John Dewey, was convinced that the Bolsheviks were attempting on a large scale a democratic project which had only been tried by philanthropists and private schools in the United States. Dewey was called a communist dupe by conservatives for his praise of Soviet educators, but the admiration was mutual: Nadezhda Krupskaya, the influential deputy Commissar of Education, read and enjoyed discussing his work, and School and Society was official recommended reading for Soviet teachers. Dewey documented his observations on unofficial excursions as well as official tours of “model” schools, which during famine and civil war served as articulations of what every Soviet school of the future should look like — inside schools and out, he wrote, children’s work was taken seriously and always intended to culminate in authentic participation in social life. In one model school, for example, charts documented improvements to the children’s working-class neighborhood that they’d planned and brought about over the course of ten years. Meanwhile, all over the country, self-governing youth groups supported by Krupskaya promoted student engagement with local politics.

A constant refrain among American educators who observed the Soviet system was that it seemed to take seriously the democratic values to which American schools only paid lip service. While it’s true Soviet educators borrowed inspiration from bourgeois theorists abroad, homegrown psychologists were hard at work trying to apply historical materialism to theories of human development. The greatest of these, Lev Vygotsky observed that individual development was inextricable from social interaction and human progress, arguing that the language and tools available to us shape our intellectual possibilities as learners. Thus, skills like reading and writing should be honored in the classroom as complex cultural activities, and taught in ways that are meaningful to children and relevant to life, with teaching “organized in such a way that reading and writing are necessary for something.” Only when children embraced reading and writing as tools for shaping their environment, he argued, would they be motivated to master them.

It is striking that a society whose literal existence was every day under siege made the conscious choice to affirm children’s present value over their future value-added, while a society as powerful as the United States continues to place anxiety over future productivity on the shoulders of students. Dewey was shocked by how little job training went on in Soviet schools compared to their American counterparts. Despite the Soviet Union’s urgent need for trained workers as it attempted to industrialize, every administrator from Lenin to Krupskaya to People’s Commissar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky insisted that technical education take place only after primary and secondary education.

Both Dewey and Wilson were surprised to find no evidence of the indoctrination or intolerance they’d expected to encounter in Soviet schools. In a speech before the Third All-Russia Congress of the Russian Young Communist League, Lenin insisted that pamphlets and propaganda had no place in the schools, and that the way to raise communists was by promoting equality and self-governance:

The old society was based on the principle: rob or be robbed.… When the workers and peasants proved that they were able, by their own efforts, to defend themselves and create a new society — that was the beginning of the new and communist education, education in the struggle against the exploiters…. That is the reply to the question of how the young and rising generation should learn communism.

In contrast, the United States integrated preschools into the public school system during World War I with the express purpose that they would serve as tools for Americanizing immigrant families. US kindergarten teachers were told to make home visits to check up on immigrant mothers, and to teach English in mothers’ meetings, “because of the ‘danger’ of the ‘new electoral power’ these women’s husbands wielded.”

During the famine years, millions of bezprizorni (orphaned children) roamed the streets, and the Bolshevik promise of free, universal public childcare went unfulfilled. In response to widespread starvation, malnutrition, and tuberculosis, mid-1920s NEP reforms slashed government funding for all but the basic necessities of life. Nevertheless, Soviet teachers and parents were vocally critical of school closures and worked to ensure they remained open, not just as feeding points, but as educational institutions were children encountered art, music, and stories. To keep schools open until the economic situation improved, parents volunteered in classrooms and pooled their resources to pay for supplies.

Compared to attempts in the famished Soviet Union, developments in the booming United States were unimpressive. In the late 1920s, just before the Great Depression, only 800 nurseries — more holding cells than educational programs — and about 300 preschools were in existence. Surveys of day nurseries in Chicago, New York City, and across Pennsylvania found inadequate hygiene, health care, and nutrition in many day nurseries. The basic safety regulations that social workers won in the mid-1920s went largely unenforced.

Even in 1944, at the height of the war effort, with 19 million American women in the labor force, the Lanham Act provided funding for just 1,900 childcare centers serving 75,000 children across the nation. The federal government provided about two-thirds of the funding with parents supplying the rest, and the program ended after the war. Until the mid-twentieth century, the dominant enduring childcare policy in the United States was “mothers’ pensions,” which offered low-income women payments to stay home and take care of their children. Finally recognized as inadequate, these were replaced with childcare tax credits which “permitted the taxpayer to hold gainful employment.” But tax credits do little to make childcare more affordable for American families. The lowest-income families in the United States receive a tax credit worth a maximum of $1,050 a year per child.

For Bolsheviks, schools were important both as public spaces where the youngest communists could be cared for while their parents worked, and as the means through which the oppressive, traditional nuclear family form would be destroyed, transcended, or remade. Meanwhile, the United States remained ideologically committed to upholding the nuclear family with a housewife at its core, even as industrialization and the integration of women into the workforce made this effort increasingly futile. Childcare policy has changed little since Roosevelt’s 1909 instructions to promote child welfare by strengthening the family and Nixon’s refusal to “commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to communal approaches to child rearing against the family-centered approach.” In the absence of a broad social solution, or even recognition of the problem, families struggle on their own to manage, and working-class women often end up taking on the burden of housework and childcare on top of their jobs.

Before long, things weren’t that different abroad. With the rise of Stalinism, the Soviets abandoned the dream of socialized childcare and began to sentimentalize housewives like Americans. Historian Lisa Kirschenbaum writes, “Stalinist ‘emancipation’ meant a double, even triple shift for women, who were enjoined to work outside the home, undertake public political work, and devote themselves to the task of raising future communists.” Sadly, after years of aggressive economic liberalization, Russia is back where it started, with elite private schools and rampant inequality. One contemporary financier and founder of “the Orthodox Eton” aims to literally prepare students for the reinstatement of Russian monarchy (“For me it’s very important to restore the traditions that were broken off in 1917”).

It’s not a surprise, given the economic and political limitations of the time, that the Bolshevik vision of creating schools that were tools of self-actualization rather than exploitation was ultimately a failure. Far more shocking to the conscience is the fact that this goal continues to be seen as impossible in the richest country in world history.

At my old job — a high-quality, state-licensed nonprofit with a sliding tuition scale — the wait list was three to four years long. For those paying full cost, the program was $30,000 annually. The only parents who were able to secure spots were those who joined the wait list while their child was still in utero. The only children who started with us as infants were siblings of kids that had been enrolled. Every day I spent at least an hour fielding desperate phone calls from parents. But there was a reason demand was so high. Our program was regulated and safe, a rarity in the United States, where the death rates for infants in home-based day care is seven times higher than in day-care centers. Some home-based day cares are great; others are horrifying. One parent told me that when she left her son with a provider in the morning, he was crying hysterically in a high chair — and when she returned that evening, the toddler was in the same high chair, screaming hysterically, while the provider ignored him.

Such is the way things are done in the United States.