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Mothers of Misery: Child Abandonment in Russia

Mothers of Misery: Child Abandonment in Russia

by David L. Ransel

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At the height of its operation in the second half of the nineteenth century, the central foundling home in Moscow was receiving 17,000 children each year. The home dispatched most to wet nurses and foster care in the countryside, where at any one time it supervised over 40,000 children in Moscow province and six adjoining provinces. Established by Empress Catherine II


At the height of its operation in the second half of the nineteenth century, the central foundling home in Moscow was receiving 17,000 children each year. The home dispatched most to wet nurses and foster care in the countryside, where at any one time it supervised over 40,000 children in Moscow province and six adjoining provinces. Established by Empress Catherine II in the middle of the eighteenth century, the two central foundling homes (the other was in St. Petersburg) were intended to deal humanely with the growing problems of abandonment and infanticide and to serve as social laboratories for educating artisans and craftspeople. David Ransel explores the creation and management of these institutions, shows how they functioned as a point of contact between educated society and the village, and compares them to the European foundling care programs on which they were modeled. "There were two central foundling homes in Russia, one in Moscow, one in St. Petersburg. . . . [In this book] no significant aspect of their history is left untouched, and many issues are described and analyzed in rich detail. . . . the book becomes, in part, a history of rural Russia over a one-hundred-fifty-year period, or, more accurately, of the provincial hinterlands of the two capitals. . . . The interaction between city and countryside turns out to be much more than a clich in this fascinating study." --Reginald E. Zelnik, American Historical Review

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Princeton University Press
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Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Mothers of Misery

Child Abandonment in Russia

By David L. Ransel


Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05522-0



This study began when I was casting about for a way to learn more about peasant life than could be found in standard ethnographic accounts. Russian ethnographic studies, though excellent for their genre, are static, even formulaic. They do not help historians of the peasantry solve their most difficult problem, which is to penetrate the apparent stasis of village life and map the processes of change. An inventive historian like George Yaney has tried to overcome this difficulty by composing parables that describe transformations of village life. To move beyond parables and ethnographic accounts, it was necessary to find an unexplored point of contact between educated society and the village. The foundling homes suggested themselves because these urban institutions had maintained regular and documented links with the countryside since the early 1760s. The records kept by the homes could shed light on at least some aspects of peasant life over the period of about 150 years during which they operated.

Before choosing the subject, I had not been aware of the magnitude of the Russian enterprise in this area or of the many possible ramifications of the data the foundling homes generated. The size of the operation was astounding. No other country's metropolitan social services handled the volume of abandoned children that Russia's did. At the height of its operations in the second half of the nineteenth century, the central home in Moscow was receiving 17,000 children a year. It dispatched the majority of these infants to wet nurses and foster families in the countryside, where at any one time the home was supervising more than 40,000 children who were spread over some thirty districts of Moscow province and six adjoining provinces, covering an area larger than 50,000 square kilometers. The central foundling home in St. Petersburg ran a similar program, taking in about 9,000 infants each year and supervising in its fosterage program over 30,000 children. It was clear that if I wanted to exploit the materials of the foundling homes for information about the behavior of peasants, I would also have to explain the appearance of these institutions in Russia and, in particular, the unusual size and scope of their operations. My attempt to find an entry point into peasant life thus became a study of child abandonment in Russia.

The investment by Russians in this large institutional structure for the care of unwanted children cannot be understood apart from the development of similar institutions, albeit on a smaller scale, in western and central Europe. Russia was not like India or China, where western missionaries imported child-care facilities in order to combat established family regimes that permitted the exposure and killing of unwanted infants. Russians adopted these care facilities for their own reasons and in their own good time. But they did so very much under the influence of developments in the west that occurred as the result of new ideas about the value of human life and the need for the community or state to assist in preserving young lives.

In the ancient West, the decision about whether to spare the lives of newborns was left to the family or, more accurately, to the father. This circumstance changed little during many centuries of the Christian era. The rural people of ninth-century Europe evidently practiced infanticide on a large scale for the purpose of maintaining a balance of population and resources. The church in those early Christian centuries even showed some tolerance for this practice, so long as it was not an excuse for unlicensed sexual pleasure. The early church fathers drew a distinction between infanticide to avoid the consequences of satisfying one's lust, on the one hand, and infanticide for economic reasons, on the other. Penetentials accordingly proposed much lighter penalties for infanticide arising from the poverty of the mother than for the same act on the part of a wealthy woman, a stance that was common in the West until at least the eleventh century.

If the church protected poor women by conceding something to the prevailing family strategies, it was also the first institution to come to the aid of the innocents by establishing foundling homes. The religious orders of the Italian cities led the way in the thirteenth century with the establishment in Rome of the San Spirito hospital (1212), to end the scandal of women throwing babies into the Tiber River. Similar hospitals soon appeared in other Italian cities. The best-documented case is the city of Florence, where in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries two hospitals, the Santa Maria da San Gallo and the Santa Maria della Scala, made room for unwanted children. Like most early care facilities, these were multipurpose institutions that accepted, in addition to abandoned infants, poor people needing medical assistance. Growing pressure on the limited resources of the hospitals led in time to differentiation and specialization. In 1445, the city fathers in cooperation with the silk guild established an institution solely for the care of foundlings, the great hospital of Santa Maria degl'Innocenti. The Florentines understood the work of these hospitals to be essential to the worth and the stability of their community. The failure of a Christian community to aid exposed and abandoned children not only undermined society by reducing population and menacing family stability. It also eroded the myths of solidarity that both bound the community together in its earthly life and linked it to the heavenly city. Children left to die were not just a sanitation problem but lopped off limbs of the communal body and unbaptized souls lost to God. Efforts to save the children drew the community together, and the rescued children played an important role in the salvation of the community because of the blessings that the prayers of these innocents brought to the city.

The approach to foundling care that the Italians worked out during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance relied on large institutions supported by a combination of religious, corporate, and municipal resources. The procedure usually involved an initial screening of the infants brought to the institution, their early removal to wet nurses in the town or more often the surrounding countryside, eventual return of the survivors for education at the institution, and finally assignment to apprenticeship, military service, menial labor, or marriage. This approach became known as the Latin or Catholic system. It moved across the Alps and became rooted in France and Austria, where in the sixteenth century humanist writers began stressing the need for organized relief and other measures of public welfare to curb increasing problems of urban disorder. Begging and vagrancy were chief concerns, but humanist values also promoted a new solicitude for poor children. The belief in education as an instrument for making good citizens of the poor and unsupervised children of the towns led to the establishment of institutions designed for the care and training of children. For the smallest and most helpless children, the abandoned and exposed, many towns provided foundling homes on the Italian model.

Although this model at first reached as far north as many of the German cities, it did not endure there. The influence of the Reformation may have been important, because of its emphasis on personal responsibility and the centrality of the family as the instrument of moral guidance. But these ideas may only have reinforced a preexisting family system and moral climate, for, even in the Catholic principalities of Germany, cities soon turned away from large central foundling hospitals and sought to lay the cost of support for illegitimate children on the parents. In contrast with Latin Europe, paternity searches were legal in the north, and families were expected to maintain control over their members without the assistance of the community to dispose of the products of misbehavior.

France probably offers the best example of the development of the Latin system north of the Alps. The Grand Hôtel-Dieu de Notre-Dame-de-Pitié in Lyons was taking in children as early as the beginning of the sixteenth century, and perhaps earlier. Marseilles and Paris may have provided such assistance earlier still. By 1536, the state began to play a role. Francis I, following the example of the Florentines, opened a hospital designed exclusively for the care of foundlings and called the "Hospice des Enfants-Dieu." Better known in this field was, however, the clergyman Vincent, later St. Vincent de Paul, who devoted much of his life to caring for abandoned children. With the help of the Dames de la Charite, he opened the Hopital des Enfants Trouvés in Paris in the 1630s, which within a few decades had difficulty managing its increasing population of foundlings. These difficulties arose even before the great explosion of illegitimacy and child abandonment in Europe. By the early eighteenth century, the sight of infant corpses lying in ditches, on garbage heaps, and in sewer drains was familiar throughout Europe. Sewers, being less visible, were the most popular points of deposit. After a fire that devasted Rennes, France, in 1721, workers rebuilding the city opened the sewers and found the skeletons of over 80 babies. The slaughter had been disturbing enough even earlier that the crown ordered every municipality to use its local Hôtel-Dieu as a receiving point for abandoned children. But upon seeing the cost of this burden, many local institutions discouraged admissions, and people began to bring their unwanted children to the Paris hospital, often over long distances, because the Paris home had support from the crown and accepted nearly everyone. By the second half of the eighteenth century, a brisk trade had sprung up between the provinces and the capital, as carters earned a fee conveying babies to the Paris foundling home. Some local facilities, overwhelmed by the number of abandoned infants, even organized their own expeditions to take children to the Paris institution. In this same period, England and Denmark briefly instituted large central foundling homes on the lines of the Paris home. It was during this time, when large centralized institutions heavily supported by the crown were in fashion, that Russians made the decision to provide public care for abandoned and unwanted children.

When the Russians started their foundling homes, the French system served not merely as an encouragement and instance of one type of institution. The Russians adopted the French system as a model; that is, they introduced it in Russia without reference to any needs or traditions peculiar to Russia and without any of the practical compromises and modifications that had been worked out in France. The Russians adopted the system as a pure form. Because the social matrix and the evolution of directing institutions were much different in Russia from what they were in France, the impact of these welfare institutions on society and the social outcomes they generated were also bound to be different. Despite these differences, the history of foundling care in Russia and the West converged at many points, if only because the Russians were keenly observant of trends and problems in the West. The daring, even Utopian, approach of the Russians to foundling care and the high visibility they gave to their large welfare operations may also have had some influence on Western practices.

More important, however much the practices and policies of foundling homes may have diverged between Russia and the West, the institutions in both regions functioned as a means of easing their societies through a period of rapid change in the pattern of relations between town and country. It was a period in which the older family regime was weakening and public authorities sought institutional solutions to the resultant disorder. In the case of the Russian foundling homes, the institutions soon became hostages to their desperate clientele and to the rhetoric of tsarist care for the unfortunate. The fosterage programs of the homes evolved quickly from a temporary solution to overcrowding in the central institutions to a far-flung commercial system that came to be an important source of nonfarm income to peasant villages over a large area of central and northern Russia.


Illegitimacy and Infanticide in Early Modern Russia

The exposure and killing of infants first became a matter of government concern in Russia at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Peter I issued a decree in 1712 deploring this needless waste of human life. "Children of shame," as he called them, were being left in various places to die or were being killed outright soon after their birth. He ordered the establishment of hospitals (shpitalety) in every province, places where mothers of illegitimate children could deposit them in secret and thus avoid "committing the still greater sin of murder."

A half-century later, Ivan Betskoi (of whom much more will be said later), with Empress Catherine II's encouragement, spoke eloquently about the fate of unwanted children. In a decree of 1763 that he composed for the empress, Betskoi told of many children abandoned in the streets of Moscow, left by their mothers to cruel fortune, and the majority of these children died. An even bigger problem, in Betskoi's view, was outright child murder. However great might be the number of children exposed in the city, he wrote, "it is indisputable that an incomparably greater number, barely having managed to draw their first breath, are deprived of it secretly by merciless mothers and their inhuman accomplices." The solution undertaken by Catherine's government was to build two large foundling homes, one in Moscow and another in St. Petersburg, which would collect and care for unwanted children of those cities and the surrounding countryside.

This decision to allocate substantial resources to deal with child abandonment and infanticide is somewhat puzzling. It was not a response to a public outcry. Apart from the isolated work of a few clergymen, the initiative belonged exclusively to the central government. An explanation of this concern has to rest on three alternative premises. It is possible that before the eighteenth century, infanticide and child abandonment were so rare and aberrant in Russia as not to constitute a serious problem. If this was so, circumstances must have changed in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries so as to produce a large number of cases in a short time, and these new conditions alerted the government to the need for action. It is also possible that in early times, exposure or direct killing of infants was common but took place in the woods and marshes of rural Russia and did not come to general notice. In this case, conditions would have had to change in a way that concentrated the practice in a public sphere and made it visible to the authorities. Finally, the disposal of unwanted infants may have been customary and accepted in early Russia and therefore evoked no particular concern on the part of either the government or the people. If this was the case, the initiation of actions to combat this loss of life should be attributed to a shift in values, a new appreciation of infant life.

Validation of one or another of these explanations is difficult, owing to the thinness of the documentary record of social behavior in early Russia. To the extent that scholars have commented on infanticide, they have offered opinions rather than evidence. The prolific nineteenth-century historian S. M. Solov'ev was one of the few to take up the issue, and he firmly rejected the notion that early Russians exposed or killed their children. This custom, he wrote, belonged chiefly to warlike peoples, who did not wish to burden themselves with the weak and crippled; according to Solov'ev, it was not practiced by the Slavic tribes. He failed, however, to explain why Slavic people would be more inclined to maintain weak, crippled, or simply "surplus" children. More recently, Soviet scholars seem to have adopted Solo'ev's view, implying that even during natural calamities and famines, Russians did not kill their children, because the law permitted them to sell or give the children away.

The Legal Evidence

The lack of social data with which to test these hypotheses leaves scholarship at present with little more to go on than the surviving legal record. Though normative rather than descriptive, laws are still worth investigating for the clues they may contain about official attitudes and general constraints.


Excerpted from Mothers of Misery by David L. Ransel. Copyright © 1988 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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