The Heroic Myth of Pavlik Morozov

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Imagine you were born in an era where loyalty to the state was more important than one’s loyalty to their family. Imagine if any word you spoke carried with it the burden of danger, potential incrimination. This is the era from which the young Soviet martyr’s story emerged. Pavliv Morozov was a thirteen-year-old boy who had heard of his kulak father’s withholding of grain and, knowing this action was against the state, reported his father to authorities. After his father’s arrest, the boy was murdered by his own family members for his denouncement. With his supposed murder came his fame. Soviet press capitalized on this story, spun by local authorities, to create a martyr for the mindset of the state over family. In the 30’s, it is said that, among the youth, “he did inspire awe as a manifestation of supreme commitment to the general good” (source.)

There remains a good deal of speculation regarding the truth of this story. Most of it can be called propaganda; a tragic story of a murder with unknown circumstance or perpetrators twisted to fit the narrative of a state vying for complete control. But the question I have for young Pavlik is not how accurate his story is. Rather, I wish to know how this tale shaped the society it is made for: how did the story of Pavlik alter family relationships and how did the popularity of this tale reflect the culture which both celebrated and feared it?

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Demonizing “Enemies of the State” as “Child Murderers”

The political socialization of children is a key factor in any state’s production of nationalist youth. In the United States, schoolchildren stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In Soviet Russia, students were taught that loyalty to the state came before loyalty to family and this was done using the tale of Pavlik Morozov. Children championed Pavlik as a martyr, saw him as an ideal, and this narrative was strongly supported by the institutions which taught them. In a 1934 interview, Trotsky says that, “no one can possibly deny that the education of Soviet children, too, is propaganda.” What was the goal, though, of this tale? Simply, it was to encourage loyalty to the state above all else.

Family relations because of this changed a good deal. With a simple slip of the tongue, a muttered phrase at the dinner table, or a snide remark in passing, heard by the wrong person, it could mean imprisonment or even death. This level of risk and fear created a tight-lipped family environment where parents feared any possible incrimination that may come from their own children. The change from family loyalty to state loyalty was fostered in the education system where, “rather than attach themselves most strongly to their families, Soviet children were taught to prioritize Communism above all” (source.) Thus, the story of the brave Pavlik resonated strongly. He was the ideal, a hero, a legend come true. (source.)

But what the state lacks that only family can provide is the development of a loving and familial environment. Trotsky was once asked “Does the Soviet State turn men into robots?” and while he answered in a context of industry, I wonder if perhaps this automatonic transformation occurs much sooner than when a man reaches working age. Is it born in the tight-lipped smile of a father, fearful to share with his son the fears he has for the future? Or is it born in the pride of a schoolchild, hearing the tale of a brave, state-committed Soviet Pavlik? Where does the human capacity for truth and love end and the makeup of Soviet loyalty begin? And does this love for the state over family alter how human they are, how robotic they can be?

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Morozov’s monument in Sverdlovsk (destroyed). Pioneer deposing oath.

This generation of children was raised by the state, for the state. In most government classes, you discuss the process of political socialization. Perhaps that action in and of itself is that of propgandic spread but where the Soviets differ is their emphasis on the state as a caretaker, as a parent. Our political views are most likely to align with those of our parents. But what happens when you are taught to value state over your family, see it as your real primary caregiver? Your political values are going to align not with the ones who created you but rather the one who reared you. This first generation of brought-up socialists were fed by propaganda and taught to love the always-present eyes of Joseph Stalin.

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Thank you, Comrade Stalin, for our Happy Childhood (1936) 

The Soviet child, raised to love Stalin and the state, is a hallmark of the time. Where parents could not speak freely and children were taught how to think, a generation of revolutionaries failed and a reign of terror was just beginning.

7 thoughts on “The Heroic Myth of Pavlik Morozov

  1. There is common debate on whether education is tied to government branding of its people but it would be interesting to know how Russians look on that story now. Do they care? Is it a controversial story in regards to social conduct and allegiances? Many countries twist stories to tell a narrative but this one could be the most asinine.

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    1. I agree, it does seem quite ridiculous to us. However, in forming a sort of totalitarian state, it makes a great deal of sense. By making yourself one of the only consistent sources of information and encouraging all children to look up to you, you create a generation of committed nationalists and dissent, such as was popular among their predecessor generation, is unlikely.

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  2. This is a fascinating post on a topic I didn’t consider when studying Soviet Russia history. An entire generation of people grew up being taught absolute loyalty to the state which must have had a profound effect on their childhoods. To grow up being suspicious and on the look out for any dissent of the state must have caused many of these kids to develop a deep sense of internal paranoia. It would be interesting to take a deep psychological look on this particular generation.

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  3. Understanding the role of education is vital to understanding society, especially the Soviet Union.This is where we see the making of Stalin’s cult of personality and the building of a personalist regime around him. Your post does a fantastic job framing the psychology of living under a regime like this. I especially like your last line, this indoctrination does not build a revolutionary socialist society. It builds a totalitarian police state. Great post!

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  4. Loyalty to the state–pretty remarkable story about Pavliv Morozov. I think that this story is especially important in attempting to frame the mindsets of Russians after the revolution. Can we draw comparisons to other, modern totalitarian state such as north korea?

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    1. I was thinking something quite similar to that comparison in regard to China’s 5-year plan and that way in which rule was established there. In many countries who have pursued some form of socialism, this seems to be a popular avenue of inspiring allegiance.

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