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Russian Child Science, 1881-1936

Child Science in Russia and the Soviet Union

1880s - 1910s

Russia was among the first countries to start developing ‘child science’, and arguably the country that went furthest in formally institutionalizing it in the early Soviet era. By 1900 Russian ‘child science’ was growing independently, creating a fast-expanding network of psychological laboratories, training courses for those working professionally with children, institutes devoted to child development and education research, medico-pedagogical sanatoria for children with developmental and behavioural problems, and large-scale conferences for professionals involved in the field (especially teachers, psychologists and doctors).

At the same time, ‘child science’ was a volatile arena of intra-disciplinary squabbles between rival scientific groups (especially within psychology) as well as of inter-professional politics that involved strategic collaborations and bitter jurisdictional conflicts between different professions – namely teachers, psychologists, doctors and jurists – around ‘children’ as a common territory of enquiry and expertise.

Early 1920s

After the collapse of tsarism in 1917, state interests and ideological concerns emerged as decisive factors on which the fate of ‘child science’ in Russia depended. In the 1920s ‘child science’ was strongly supported by leading Bolsheviks. At this time ‘child science’ was given considerable intellectual freedom and wide scope for institutional development. In this period Soviet ‘child science’ produced such major theorists of developmental psychology and education as Lev Vygotsky, whose influence in these areas is felt internationally to this day.

Late 1920s

Whilst in the West the ‘child science’ movement tended to fragment into discrete disciplinary and professional specialisms, in the USSR, especially in the late 1920s, the state promoted ‘child science’ into an integrated interdisciplinary ‘super-science’ that brought together all forms of research into child development and socialization. ‘Child science’ was meant to be one of the cornerstones of the Bolshevik programme for rationally planned and scientifically-grounded radical social reform, especially their efforts to build mass education and other forms of socialist state welfare.

Early 1930s

However, in the late 1920s-early 1930s (the period known as the ‘Great Break’ when Stalin took over the running of the country) the early-Soviet ‘child science’ network became subjected to much more stringent political scrutiny by the Communist Party. At first Soviet ‘child science’ seemed to benefit from this attention, with the Party elite sponsoring paedology’s first (and only) all-Union congress and launching a journal specially dedicated to it. And yet, in the course of the early 1930s, mounting ideological criticism of the ‘child science’ movement eventually led to the notorious 1936 Party decree on the so-called ‘paedological distortions’ in the Commissariat of Education. In a remarkable reversal of fortunes, ‘paedology’ was denounced as a ‘reactionary pseudoscience’ and expunged from the institutional map of Soviet research and education. All scientists involved in this research had to publicly denounce their ‘errors’. ‘Paedology’ became an odious word.

Afterlife

It was only during perestroika of the late 1980s and after the collapse of Communism that interest in the ‘purged science’ of ‘paedology’ truly remerged, with calls for it to be ‘rehabilitated’ as another one of Stalin’s victims. At issue here is also the significance of the legacies of early-20th century 'child science’ for contemporary disciplines involved in the study of child development, psychology, and education in the context of extensive reforms in child welfare and education that are currently being debated in the Russian Federation.