Barefoot Boys: Russia

Figure 1.--

Russia before the October 1917 Revolution was an extremely divisive society. The great bulk of the population still lived in rural areas. Rural laborers were composed primarily of sevewly exploited serfs who generally went barefoot, especially in the summer. Serfdom was abolished in the 19th century, but the lives of the rural poor and industrial laborers was one of abject poverty. Many families could not afford shoes for their children, especially during the summer so boys went barefoot. It was a sign of poverty. The airistocracy and the small urban middle class never let children go barefoot. This was different in rural areas where going barefoot was common, even during the Sovier era. Interestingly while Russian peasant boys perhaps never conceived of the idea of fashionable European clothes. Their characteristic loose fitting tunics became the inspiration for the Russian blouse which was worn by stylish European boys in the early 20th century.


Early 19th century

Russian in the early 19th century was the most backward country in Europe. It's huge reserves of manpower and the force of the Russian winter helped to defeat Napoleon and reverse the course of European history. The great bulk of the Russian people were mired in the feudal system. They were serfs on huge landed estates with no contact with western thought and culture. There labor support a wealthy airistocracy which prefered to speak Russian and in fact looked with distain on the culture and people of their own country. The middle class which proved the back bone of Western European nations was very small and less important in Russia. Boys clothing reflected these dichotomies. Peasant boys wore loose fitting blouses and baggy trousers and went barefoot. Most serf boys went barefoot in rural Russia during the summer and warmer months.

Soviet era

A Russian reader reports that even in late-Soviet times going barefoot for children and teens was not considered inproper, and for rural areas was officially recommended. He tells HBC, "I have book issued by the Ministry of Public Health Services of USSR in 1980 for the parents and devoted to education of children. Officials advise parents, "During the Summer, in rural areas, the teenagers should go barefoot most of the time".


Serdom, the Russian form of feudalism, played a major role in Russian life through the 19th century when it was abolished. Serfdom was more humane than American race-based chattle slavery, but serfdom as also a brutal system which tied millions of Russians to the land. Even freed slaves were descriminated against. The influence continued into the 20th century. An assessment of Russian boys' clothing would thus be incomplete withoutan assessment of serfdom. Some Russian boys even in the 19th century look much like European boys. Other Russian boys, especiall serf boys and rural village boys dressed very destinctly.

Popular Image

As result of heavy work and going barefoot, the serf boys who survived were very healthy and are hardy. Them bare feet with strong heels and soles were brown from sunburns. The barefoot serfboy always was a positive image in Russian literature. A Russian reader reports at school reading stoies about the boys of old Russia. He writes, "To you can seem strange, but we frequently envied them. Certainly, serfboys lived uneasily. But barefoot Russian serfs who were not knowing of evil of drugs and terrorisms, lived in many respects happier than boys of our new "democratic" Russia.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: January 16, 2002
Last updated: January 16, 2002