I want to tell you something real. Then a myth. And then, hopefully, what I can piece together of the truth. To characterize propaganda in the Soviet Union.
You’re listening to the show that uses journalistic tools to look inside the Christian church. We press pause on the culture wars to explore how we got here and how we can do better. I’m Chris Staron. This is Truce.
This part is true.
When Joseph Stalin came to power in 1922 in Russia, things went from bad to worse. Then, in 19321, forced collectivization tore farmers from their fields. Forced them to move to collective farms. Food was to be harvested for the people. But there were shortages. Massive shortages. Some families ate as much of the reserves as they could. Better to gorge themselves and then starve than to let the food fall into the hands of the communists. Collectivism brought about the death of millions of farmers. Stalin hoped it would teach the kulaks, the landowning peasants, a lesson.
Now… the lie.
There once was a boy of 14. Handsome. Brave. Named Pavlik Morozov. In the paintings he is strong, proud, blonde-haired boy. He was smart, never missed school, was a good kid. An all-American… excuse me, all Soviet golden boy2.
But he found out something about his father. Something forbidden under collectivization. His father, the father of the ideal Russian child, was hoarding grain. Keeping it for himself instead of surrendering it for the collective good. What was a boy to do? This was his dad. The man who brought him into the world. Had held him as a baby. Maybe told him stories of the revolution, how evil the capitalists were. His own father was hoarding grain. Stealing from the people.
But Pavlik was a good boy. A Soviet hero. He informed on his father, who was dragged away. Found guilty. Sentenced to prison. The boy, according to the state, did the right thing. He was a true patriot.
Then, on September 3, 1932, Pavlik and his little brother went into the woods to pick berries. One can imagine them with baskets, out there among the insects, in the light breeze of the late summer. Their fingers turning colors with the juice of each berry.
But their perfect day turned out to be their last. According to the official story, they were murdered, possibly by their grandfather, for their treachery. A knife was supposedly found. Relatives of theirs were blamed. They too were imprisoned, away from the society. For killing the golden boy, the Marxist ideal.
That’s the lie. From here on out I’ll do my best to piece together what may have happened.
Pavlik, little brave Pavlik, went on to become a legend in the Soviet era. They built monuments to him. The little village from which he came, Gerasimovka, became somewhat of a tourism hub, it’s one road buzzing with busses. Because children were brought out to see his grave and the place where he went to school. The government even gave him a catchy name: pioneer #1.
He was a hero because he dared to believe in the Soviet dream, even to the imprisonment of his own father. Citizens were expected to turn each other in, to report suspicious behavior if they saw it. Investigations were shams. The secret police didn’t have time to do research. They just gathered up who they could, forced confessions, and locked people up. Like in the fictional, but all too real work o Orwell’s 1984.
He was their paragon of virtue.
Until, 70 years later, historians started to question the myth of a young boy whose purity could not be corrupted. It turns out that Pavlik was not a good student. Some say he couldn’t read. Despite the handsome paintings, the one remaining photograph of him shows a small, skinny, dark-haired boy in the back row of his class picture.
His father, the one who we can imagine spoke to him of revolution… had long since walked out on the family. Leaving his mother to raise the children by herself. It’s more likely that she coerced the boy to speak about his father in court. So she could get revenge on the man who left her destitute.
Pavlik was not really the exemplar of Soviet purity. But a child caught between two unhappy parents. A kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. He really was murdered, though. One can imagine why: if you knew there was a child in your school, your neighborhood, your house who could land you in a gulag. Send your family to a hard labor camp. Get your people killed. You’d walk on eggshells every day of your life. What if he saw you resting during a hard day’s work? Eating food that belonged to the government, even though you were starving? Your children were starving? You’d live in fear every day, every moment, for the rest of your life.
Nobody can afford a liability like that. So the child was murdered. His relatives were blamed, though, who really knows in that era of witch hunts.
Imagine that myth in your culture. Holding up a boy who narced on his starving father, sent his own family to jail. That was the power of Soviet mythology. To make people so afraid and also so patriotic at the same time that they were willing to praise a mutinous child.
There is something to be said about the danger of unchecked patriotism. Of the power of shared myth. Of the danger of not questioning our leaders. Of letting fear rule us. Pavlik Morozov was a lie, tarted up and sold as truth. But his story wasn’t real. It now is less a picture of the ideal Soviet and idealism, and more a vignette, a small window, into the everyday hell of life under Stalin and later Khrushchev. The depths of darkness to which the human soul can sink.
If ever there were an argument for the sinfulness of mankind, it was this. A small boy, turned martyr to encourage the policing of everyday people. To ensure that nobody, nobody questioned their leaders.
God help us all.
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