“A long sleep.”
“It’s when you win at cards.”
These are some of the answers Soviet children gave when asked to define the word “slum” in a survey conducted by the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper in the mid-1960s. Their responses were later translated into English and printed under the title “Out of the Mouths of Babes” in the February 1965 issue of Soviet Life, a magazine published in the United States by the Embassy of the Soviet Union as part of a reciprocal agreement with the U.S. government from 1956 to 1991. Soviet Life’s mission was to educate Americans about life in the U.S.S.R: the February 1965 issue included features on Soviet public health services, traditional folk costumes from different regions of Russia, and Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. It hoped to clear up “misperceptions” American readers might have about the communist system, and its letters from the editors extolled the virtues of peace and coexistence—while remaining firm in their belief in the superiority of their own model.
Set alongside a “Children’s Corner” advertising a picture-drawing competition, “Out of the Mouths of Babes” appears at first to be a simple, humorous human-interest story. The survey it describes was conducted among 1,000 third-graders from two separate locations within the Soviet Union: the city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Russian Far East, and the rural Komsomol District in the Ivanovo region. It asked the children to define fifty different words—specifically, those that “seem to be dropping out of usage” in the new generation.
The answers that appear in Soviet Life are funny and touchingly human. Asked to define a “bureaucrat,” Valya Bekesheva replies: “A kid beat me up in school, and Mom called him a bureaucrat.” Describing a “toady,” Kolya Kurochkin explains: “A magician. He moves from city to city and does tricks and makes a lot of money. That’s not nice. They live mainly in Paris.” Meanwhile, under “quack,” Olya Pavlenko says: “A medicine man. Says he knows everything, but doesn’t know anything—like Kolya Kurochkin.”
Yet, on reading the adult commentary published alongside the children’s answers, it becomes clear that there’s a purpose for their inclusion beyond simple interest and entertainment. Lev Kassil, writing the introduction, explains that the responses are “not only an indication of the freshness of a child’s mental perception, [but] a sign of the great social changes that have taken place in the U.S.S.R.” These are, after all, supposed to be words falling out of usage in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, and the specific words chosen reflect ideas about the progress of socialism and hope for the Soviet future.
In the feature itself, the words children are asked to define describe poverty (slum, hobo), exploitation (miser, quack, bigot, toady), or even simple capitalism (bazaar, hawker, pawnbroker). Some of them do manage to approximate accurate definitions. Nadya Malegina knows that a bazaar is “A sort of market,” and Vova Malinin identifies a pawnbroker as “ A man who sells old things.” But because most of the answers are charmingly inaccurate, the piece sends a clear message: Soviet children are unfamiliar with the language of oppression and social blight. The implication, which is drawn explicitly in the article’s copy, is that Vova Shumilov of Komsomol District can describe a “hoarder” as “a member of a tribe” because hoarding wealth does not exist in the contemporary Soviet Union—and neither do slums, misers, or quacks.
The authors’ commentary goes even further. Komsomolskaya Pravda writers Tamara Gromova and Galina Ronina explain that, for Soviet children of 1965, the word “kulak” does not invoke memories of “the harsh class struggle waged in the Soviet countryside during the period of collectivization.” Instead, it’s reverted to its original meaning of “fist.” Other words the nine- and ten-year-old participants could not define included “mealy-mouthed,” “hanger-on,” and “troublemaker. Gromova and Ronina do, however, concede that the majority of the children displayed a thorough understanding of the term “black-marketeer.”
The children’s answers, the adults’ explanations, and their inclusion in the pages of Soviet Life all indicate the kind of image the magazine sought to project for its American readers. “Out of the Mouths of Babes” indirectly describes a Soviet Union of equality, prosperity, and progress, where greed and poverty are nonexistent to the point that the children of the 1960s don’t even know what they are. This has implications for the prosperity of the Soviet Union, the stability and support of its government, and the superiority of its economic and social arrangements. In translating this piece and presenting it to an English-speaking audience, the editors of Soviet Life were pursuing a dual purpose: to humanize the Soviet Union, and to broadcast its achievements to the world.