Thank you beloved Stalin for a Happy Childhood
Thank you beloved Stalin for a Happy Childhood!

Although it doesn’t attract near as much attention as the Kremlin, the Bolshoi Theater, or the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow’s largest toy store, “Children’s World” (Detskii mir / Детский мир), has long been a popular destination for visitors to the Russian capital.

An early sign of the Soviet state’s new emphasis on producing consumer goods in the post-Stalin years, “Children’s World” was the largest toy store on the planet when it opened its doors in 1957. It immediately became a major attraction for native citizens and foreign tourists interested in acquiring gifts and souvenirs for younger loved ones.

As luck would have it, “Children’s World” was built across the street from Lubyanka — the headquarters of the state secret police. Under Stalin, Lubyanka served as the point of departure both for countless innocents dispatched to the GULag and the untold thousands summarily shot in its basement.

The close proximity of the colossal toy store to the prison cells and interrogation chambers of the state organs gave rise to numerous jokes in the decades that followed the store’s opening. Among the most popular was to introduce first-time visitors by noting:

“Here on your left — “Children’s World,” and there on your right — “Adults’ World.'”

“Children’s World” closed between 2000-2015 in order to complete a $200+ million dollar renovation. Now under the management of the Russian Federal Security Service (or, FSB), “Adults’ World” has remained continually open for business…

The juxtaposition of innocent children and innocent victims was one of the more phantasmagorical features of the Culture and Civilization of Stalinism. As the 1930s progressed, images of children and references to youthful happiness became increasingly prominent in official culture. The movement peaked between 1936-38. The Years of the Terror coincided with a veritable celebration of childhood.

Amid well-publicized show trials, widespread private denunciations, and the frenetic search for wreckers, spies, and saboteurs, new children’s theaters opened across the USSR; toys began to appear with regularity in otherwise poorly stocked state stores; and sales of children’s books reached record levels. Film adaptations of classic fairy-tales (including Vasilisa the Beautiful and The Frog Princess) together with original features bearing titles such as Adventures in the Air and Adventures of Perushka debuted on screen. Increasingly, state-sanctioned writers, filmmakers, and artists released works intended for young audiences or focused on subjects involving childhood experiences. Even musicians were caught up in the moment. In 1936, the great Soviet composer Sergei Prokofiev debuted a children’s orchestral suite accompanied by spoken narrative; Peter and the Wolf has since become an international classic.

Aleksandr Deineka, Future Flyers (1938)
Aleksandr Deineka, Future Flyers (1938)

Though less well known outside of Russia, one of the most memorable images of that terrible time is Aleksandr Deineka’s 1938 composition Future Flyers. A dream-like depiction of three young boys gazing into the sky at a passing seaplane, the painting joins the hopeful innocence of youth to a near-universal metaphor of freedom or escape…

Of course, millions did not escape Stalin’s Great Terror. Included among those affected by the purges were hundreds of thousands of children whose parents disappeared into the bowels of Lubyanka. Made orphans by the state, these children of “enemies of the people” became wards of the state. The lucky were taken in by brave relatives or merely dispatched to “children’s homes” (detdomy / детдомы); the less fortunate were swept up into the network of children’s prison labor camps that had emerged in the the mid 1930s. For these poor souls “Children’s World” and “Adult’s World” represented a distinction without a difference.

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