Children’s World: Growing up in Russia, 1890–1991 by Catriona Kelly - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

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Children’s World: Growing up in Russia, 1890–1991


Yale University Press 714pp £29.99 order from our bookshop

There are many Russian memoirs of childhood, and many theoreticians. The trouble with memoirs is that mainly traumatic childhoods tend to be committed to the record, while those which describe idyllic childhoods – like Nabokov’s Other Shores or Elizaveta Fen’s memoirs – come from exiles remembering a lost Eden. Unfortunately, Russia never had a Peter and Iona Opie to record child folklore (although Russian children’s poets, such as Chukovsky and Marshak, rank alongside Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear).

But we have the dedication, industry and acumen of Catriona Kelly, who has attempted what would seem impossible. She did not have a Russian childhood (though she did play with matrioshkas and Kabalevsky studies in her infancy, as she recalls in her Introduction, explaining why she is such a Russophile), nor did she spend years working with Russian children; these disadvantages are battled with in this largely authoritative and admirable book.

Kelly makes a number of generalisations about childhood in Russia as opposed to in Western Europe. First, a child knows its ‘vertical’ family (and, in particular, forms a close bond with its grandmother) better than it does its ‘horizontal’ family, for instance cousins. Second, a child, if not an only

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