Daily Archives: 3 March 2008

Marksena, the Little Red Princess

From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 11-13 (reviewed here and here):

Anna Karpitskaia and her husband Pyotr Nizovtsev were high-ranking Party activists in Leningrad (as Petrograd was called after Lenin’s death). They lived in a private apartment near the Smolny Institute with their three children, including Marksena,* Anna’s daughter from her first marriage, who was born in 1923. Marksena rarely saw her parents, who left for work before she awoke in the morning and returned very late at night. ‘I felt the lack of a mother’s attention,’ recalls Marksena, ‘and was always jealous of children whose mothers did not work.’ In the absence of their parents the children were placed in the care of two servants, a housekeeper and a cook, both peasant women who had recently arrived from the countryside. However, as the eldest child, from the age of four, as far as she recalls, Marksena had ‘complete authority and responsibility for the household’. The cook would ask her what to make for dinner and ask her for the money to buy food from a special store reserved for Party officials. Marksena would report to her mother if the servants broke the household rules, ‘or if they did something I didn’t think was right’, but more often, she recalls, ‘I would tell them off myself if they did anything I did not like.’ Marksena felt responsible—she understood that it suited her mother to leave her in charge—and accepted this as natural: ‘My mother made it clear that what went on at home was no concern of hers, and I never questioned this.’

Brought up to reflect the values of the new society, Marksena was a child of 1917. She was regarded by her parents as a ‘small comrade’. She had no toys, no space of her own where she could play freely as a child. ‘My parents treated me as an equal and spoke to me as an adult,’ recalls Marksena. ‘I was taught from an early age to be independent and to do everything for myself.’ On her first morning at primary school, when she was only seven, her mother walked her to the school and told her to memorize the route—a complex journey of nearly three kilometres—so that she could walk home on her own that afternoon. ‘From that day on, I always walked to school,’ recalls Marksena. ‘It never crossed my mind that anyone should walk with me.’ Marksena bought all her own books and stationery from a shop in the city centre which took her an hour to reach by foot. From the age of eight she was going to the theatre on her own, using the pass her parents had for Party officials which let her sit in one of the boxes by the side of the stalls. ‘No one ever told me what to do,’ recalls Marksena. ‘I brought myself up on my own.’

Marksena’s parents were distant figures in her life. Even during holidays, they would travel on their own to one of the resorts for Party officials in the Crimea, leaving the children in Leningrad. Her parents did, however, impose their ideological rigidities, which Marksena recalls as a source of annoyance. Her mother would reprimand her for reading Pushkin and Tolstoy instead of the didactic books for children favoured by the Party, such as Vladimir Obruchev’s scientific adventure Land of Sannikov (1926) or The Republic of Shkid (1927) by Grigorii Belykh and Aleksei Panteleyev, a story about homeless orphans sent to school in Leningrad, both of which were brought home by Anna and dutifully read by Marksena but then put in a cupboard and forgotten. Marksena was forbidden by her mother to invite friends home from school, because, she said, it was better that they did not see how comfortably the Party’s leaders lived—albeit modestly and in a Spartan style—compared with their families. She was very seldom praised or given compliments by her parents, and almost never kissed or held. Her only source of affection was her grandmother, who looked after her when she was ill. ‘I liked going to her house,’ remembers Marksena. ‘She paid me lots of attention. She taught me how to sew, how to thread a bead necklace. She had toys for me and even bought me a little wooden toy kitchen, which she set up in the corner of her room, where I liked to play.’

An absence of parental affection was described by many children born to Party families after 1917. In this respect the child-rearing customs of the Soviet elite were not that different from those of the nineteenth-century Russian aristocracy, which took little interest in the nursery and left the children, from their earliest days, in the care of nannies, maids and other household servants.

*After Marx and Engels—one of many Soviet names made up from the annals of the Revolution after 1917. Other common ‘Soviet’ names included: Vladlen (Vladimir Lenin), Engelina, Ninel, Marlen (for Marx and Lenin) and Melor (for Marx, Engels, Lenin and October Revolution).

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