Tolstoy's Childhood in Russia

Childhood in Russia was a literary invention, and it appeared more or less fully formed in the pseudo-autobiographical novel Childhood (1852), the debut work by Lev Tolstoy (1828–1910). This is not to assert that before the publication of Tolstoy's work Russians did not experience childhood as a separate phase of life subject to its own laws. However, those who had had such experiences failed to record them in anything more than rudimentary form. The appearance of Tolstoy's novel, and a complementary one by the lesser-known writer Sergei Aksakov in 1858 entitled The Childhood Years of Bagrov's Grandson, allowed for the systematization of Russian childhood. Henceforward, autobiographically oriented works by Russians not only tended to include extensive sections devoted to childhood, but autobiographers almost invariably recalled their childhood through a Tolstoyan filter. It should be noted that at least through the early twentieth century we can speak about Russian childhood almost exclusively in connection with the gentry, which made up some 10 percent of the population. Other Russians generally lacked the leisure to reflect on their childhood memories, whatever they might have been.

First and foremost, Russian childhood is distinguished by the fact that it is supposed to have been the happiest stage of life, a time that can never be equaled by adult experience. Chapter 15 of Tolstoy's work begins with what may have been the most influential sentences Tolstoy ever wrote as far as the Russian cultural mind was concerned: "Happy, happy unforgettable time of childhood! How can one not love, not cherish its memories?" Certainly for the next eighty years, practically every first-person description of childhood in Russia, whether in fictional or nonfictional form, was oriented to them. Nineteenth-century autobiographers not only repeated Tolstoy's overall interpretation of childhood, they also borrowed typically Tolstoyan situations, cadences, and turns of phrase. Of course, to say that Tolstoy invented a paradigm that was used for understanding childhood by generations of Russians does not mean that he made this view up out of whole cloth. Rather, it is likely that Tolstoy's vision had such staying power because it coincided with existing Russian views. In any case, it has become quite impossible to separate literary reality from real life, particularly because in a highly bookish country like Russia, no one who sits down to recall his or her childhood or who thinks about the kind of childhood society should provide does so without having Tolstoy's work in mind.

While some autobiographers contented themselves with mere variations on themes of Tolstoy, others strove to develop the myth of childhood as a golden age. Their authors maintained that there was a qualitative difference separating the world in which they grew up from that in which they lived as adults. Eventually, and particularly as the gentry decayed as a class, a happy childhood was seen as their last possession, a synecdoche for traditional Russia itself. Novels and memoirs written in exile after the Soviet revolution, such as Ivan Bunin's The Life of Arseniev or Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, continued this tradition, linking a happy childhood to pre-Bolshevik Russian life itself.

The myth of the happy childhood is generally accompanied by some corollaries, including the myth of the perfect mother, the myth of the impotent father, and the equation of the locus of childhood–the country estate–with paradise. As Ekaterina Sabaneeva put it:

The rivers, the groves, the village paths on which we rode with our parents left such deep impressions on me that my entire moral nature has been woven of them, as if from threads. It is clear to me that my attachment to my homeland, to its people, and to the church grew from this foundation: those threads and impressions of childhood gave a direction to the whole contents of my life. (p. 2)

The idealization of the rural paradise in which upper-class autobiographers grew up is often set against the cities in which they spent the latter part of their youth. Constant descriptions of paradise lost lend a nostalgic and elegiac accent to their autobiographies. As a result, instead of viewing life's journey in terms of gradual growth and improvement through the course of one's life, the Russian model is based on a gradual falling away from the perfection of childhood.

One might have expected that the complete destruction of the gentry class in the twentieth century would have led to the appearance of new paradigms of childhood in Russian culture. To be sure, the early twentieth century did witness some new cultural models. One should note, for example, the modernist ideal of childhood as the time in which an observant artistic individual's first impressions are formed, as described in works such as Kotik Letaev by Andrei Belyi, The Noise of Time by Osip Mandelstam, and Zhenya Luvers' Childhood by Boris Pasternak. Such rarified literary work could not, however, provide a general paradigm for Russians. A more potentially influential model was provided by Maxim Gorky in his pseudo-autobiographical novel Childhood. In this work, the overall impression is one of childhood as a time of difficulty and hard knocks. In the gentry tradition, recalling childhood leads to nostalgically pleasant reminiscences. By contrast, for Gorky the past must be remembered in order for it to be "exposed to its roots and torn out of grim and shameful life–torn out of the very soul and memory of man" (p. 302). Autobiography is not a nostalgic attempt at eternal return but a means of overcoming the past. Human-kind, for whom the child is a synecdoche, is seen growing ever upward toward the sun, which provides the light for the "bright future." Gorky's work thus does not merely express the experience of a writer from a different socioeconomic background; it challenges the Russian notion of childhood as such.

Nevertheless, despite his iconic status for Soviet literature, Gorky and his Childhood did not provide the ultimate model for Soviet writers or society. By the 1930s the Soviet government announced that Socialism had been "achieved and won" in the USSR. As a result, a paradigm of childhood which saw it as a period of misery leading to gradual improvement and enlightenment was inappropriate. Instead, the myth of the happy childhood was fated to make a comeback, not precisely in Tolstoyan terms, but in a formula that every Soviet child of the 1930s and 1940s was expected to know by heart: "Thank you for our happy childhood, Comrade Stalin."

See also: Autobiographies.


Aksakov, Sergei. 1984 [1858]. A Family Chronicle: Childhood Years of Bagrov's Grandson. Trans. Olga Shartse. Moscow, Raduga Publishers.

Belyi, Andrei. 1999 [1917–1918]. Kotik Letaev. Trans. Gerald J. Janecek. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Brooks, Jeffrey. 2000. Thank You, Comrade Stalin! Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Bunin, Ivan A. 1994 [1930–1939]. The Life of Arseniev. Trans. Gleb Struve and Hamish Miles (books 1–4), and Heidi Hillis, Susan McKean, and Sven A. Wolf (book 5). Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

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Harris, Jane Gary, ed. 1990. Autobiographical Statements in Twentieth-Century Russian Literature. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kirschenbaum, Lisa A. 2001. Small Comrades: Revolutionizing Childhood in Soviet Russia, 1917–1932. New York: Garland.

Mandelstam, Osip. 1988 [1925]. The Noise of Time, And Other Prose Pieces. Trans. Clarence Brown. London: Quartet.

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Pasternak, Boris. 1986 [1922]. Zhenya Luvers' Childhood. In Boris Pasternak: The Voice of Prose, trans. Christopher Barnes. Edinburgh: Polygon.

Roosevelt, Priscilla. 1995. Life on the Russian Country Estate: A Social and Cultural History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Sabaneeva, Ekaterina A. 1914. Vospominaniia o bylom. St. Petersburg: M. Stasiulevich.

Tolstoy, Leo. 1930 [1852]. Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wachtel, Andrew. 1990. The Battle for Childhood: Creation of a Russian Myth. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.