University of Toronto Press Blog

  • Urban Resilience in a Time of Global Uncertainty

    Sadly but not unexpectedly, the Urban Affairs Association Annual Conference, due to be held this weekend in Washington, D.C., was cancelled due to the current coronavirus outbreak. However, we reached out to acquisitions editor Jodi Lewchuk, and asked her to talk us through the latest goings on in Urban Studies. Enjoy!


    By Jodi Lewchuk, Editor, Urban Studies

    Empty freeways. Deserted downtown squares. Markets. Beaches. Cafés and restaurants. Parks. All unoccupied, closed. It’s not how we’re used to seeing — or living in — our cities and their peripheries. In a matter of mere weeks, a global pandemic has altered life as we know it and promises we will never be the same once it passes.

    But if urban studies teaches us anything, it is that cities are resilient. They have risen from devastation. They have grown back up around the ravages of wars, natural disasters, and social upheavals. They adapt and change and evolve over time. And they do so because of what is at their heart: People. It is the ingenuity and tenacity of urban populations that have allowed cities to reimagine and reinvent themselves over centuries, and this time we are in is no different. People will see their cities through this crisis, and what an unprecedented global opportunity we have to address social, economic, and cultural issues in its wake.

    And so while COVID-19 is preventing us from gathering in person to celebrate a year’s work in urban studies; to share current research, ideas, and innovations; and to spend time together in the spirit of both academics and friendship, the work of scholars in urban issues has never been more important.

    As the new titles from University of Toronto Press in urban studies showcase, cities are sites of both struggle and triumph, giving us insight on human values and development and, ultimately, providing us with a deeper understanding of ourselves.

    In The Life of North American Suburbs, the latest addition to Global Suburbanisms, the first academic series to undertake a systematic study of worldwide developments in suburbanization, editor Jan Nijman and his contributors paint a compelling portrait of suburban North America and the critical role it plays in the cultural, economic, political, and spatial organization of the metropolis structure. Far from being the stereotypical post-war “sitcom” suburb of the middle-class, single-family home, peripheries in North America represent the significant shifts in society at large, as demonstrated in case studies from Los Angeles to Montreal to Atlanta to Mexico City.

    With their unique engagement with socialism on a global scale, editors Lisa B.W. Drummond and Douglas Young bring together a collection that examines the special qualities that define socialist and post-socialist cities. Socialist and Post-Socialist Urbanisms: Critical Reflections from a Global Perspective offers fourteen case studies from Asia, Latin American, and Africa to examine how housing, planning and architecture, and governance come to bear on their cities and their inhabitants and how globalization has impacted and shaped their trajectories.

    Editors Jesook Song and Laam Hae also bring a rich and interdisciplinary perspective to their collection, On the Margins of Urban South Korea: Core Location as Method and Praxis. Each chapter focuses on how place can be viewed in an increasingly complex globalized world and is framed by scholars with backgrounds in urban politics, geography, architecture, and anthropology. From the Jeju English Education City to activist sites, greenbelts, textile factories, and Chinatowns, this volume delves into multiple modes of urban marginality and shapes a discussion of social justice and decolonized scholarship.

    Not everyone sees eye-to-eye on what the ideal city looks like — not today and certainly not in the past. In The Urban Archetypes of Jane Jacobs and Ebenezer Howard: Contradiction and Meaning in City Form, Abraham Akkerman juxtaposes Howard’s conception of city as The Garden, and Jacobs’ view of the city as The Citadel, tracing how each drew its enthusiasts and detractors and paved the way for a future generation to forge a new path and blend the most promising aspects of each.

    Finally, it my great pleasure to introduce a title we would have been previewing at UAA2020. Solved: How the World’s Great Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis is an imperative title forthcoming from UTP’s new trade imprint in October 2020, authored by C40 climate leader and former City of Toronto mayor David Miller. If our planet is going to avoid climate catastrophe, we need to act immediately. Yet national governments have failed to take the urgent steps needed to keep the average global temperature rise to the scientifically proven 1.5 degrees require to stave off cataclysmic consequences. Miller’s clear-sighted narrative argues that cities are our best hope for taking real and measurable action to reduce emissions. He demonstrates that if replicated at pace and scale, the actions leading cities have already taken to protect citizens and become more resilient can put the world on track to avoid devastation by climate change.

    Action. Change. Resilience. These are the threads that run through all of UTP’s offerings in urban studies. Taken together, those threads create a fabric of hope — hope that our global cities and their peripheries will be places where all-comers can live and thrive. We need our cities to be these places of creativity and safety more than ever.

    If you’re interested in any of our titles or would like to discuss your own work, please reach out. We may not be congregated in Washington, D.C., as planned, but that doesn’t mean the important conversations we would have had and the work we have yet to do cannot come to fruition.

    In the meantime, please stay well and please stay safe.

  • Healthy Organizational Responses to the Coronavirus Pandemic

    Graham Lowe's latest book, Creating Healthy Organizations, makes a compelling case for resilient and humanly sustainable businesses by focusing on improving employees’ well-being. This advice is just as prevalent to organizations today, as employees are forced into working from home, and where the lines between work and home and family life have dissolved. Graham Lowe writes in this post about why following the principles of a healthy organization can be helpful.


    By Graham Lowe

    I begin the revised and expanded edition of my book, Creating Healthy Organizations: Taking Action to Improve Employee Well-Being with a basic question: how can we make organizations humanly sustainable so they can succeed in the future? This question takes on new urgency now that we’ve been blind-sided by a global pandemic. Human resource, workplace wellness, and occupational health and safety professionals are confronting what surely will be the greatest test of their career. Following the principles of a healthy organization can be helpful.

    Pervasive Public Pessimism

    First, here’s the backdrop to what’s happening to workers and employers. Unlike the 2008-2009 financial crisis and Great Recession, which resulted from weaknesses in the financial system, the coronavirus pandemic generates anxiety and fear on two fronts: health and economic.

    Evidence of this comes from EKOS Research Associates’ latest polling of Canadians (March 17-24, n=1,710, MOE +/- 2.4%, 19 times out of 20). Three quarters of those surveyed believe the economy is already in recession and expect it to get worse in the next 6 months. Just over half think they will be worse off financially in 6 months. The typical respondent sees a 50% chance of them personally being infected by the coronavirus. Most (80%) are experiencing stress due to the pandemic. On an optimistic note, Canadians do grasp the severity of the crisis and understand what they need to do to stay safe. And they endorse governments’ responses so far.

    Shifting Healthy Practices into High Gear

    Pre-pandemic, organizations in all industries operated in an environment rife with ever-greater risks and uncertainties, and sweeping transformations. More employers recognize that survival depends on getting the fullest commitment and energy from each and every employee. The goal of making the entire organization healthier moved into the mainstream of corporate wellness. Companies are striving to make workplaces psychologically healthier and safer. Expanded corporate sustainability frameworks have opened up discussions about the sustainability of a company’s human resource practices.

    This solid progress – coupled with strong economies in Canada and the US leading up to the pandemic – will enable many of us to weather the storm.

    Cultivating Resilience

    Healthy organizations cultivate workforce resilience. Resilient people don’t bounce back; they bounce forward, finding new strength and equilibrium. They move to a new normal that enables them to keep progressing toward a better future. Resilient people don’t just adapt to change, they find opportunities and renewed strength as they confront it. In the language of positive psychology, the goal is to help organizations and their members flourish and thrive.

    Workers need a supportive environment to be resilient. To do this, leaders must develop their own resilience. Resilient leaders skillfully and proactively respond to stressors, practice self-care, learn from failure, develop renewed strengths, and show others how it is possible to thrive when the going gets tough. In this way, they foster a resilient workforce that is prepared to deal with the unexpected.

    Individual and team resilience is a hallmark of a psychologically healthy and safe workplace. The National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace highlights the key workplace features that contribute to resilience:

    1. Supportive managers and coworkers
    2. A culture that values individuals’ well-being
    3. Skilled people leadership
    4. Respectful working relationships
    5. Support for employees’ personal growth and development
    6. The resources needed to manage workloads and job demands
    7. Employee involvement in decisions
    8. Recognition for contributions
    9. The flexibility needed to achieve work–life balance

    Maintaining, and even strengthening, the above workplace features must be a priority. Building a healthy organization is a shared responsibility. While demonstrated support from senior leaders is a key enabling condition for change, equally important is the active participation of all the organization’s members, right down to the front lines. Ideally, all employees should feel motivated and encouraged to find ways to make their jobs and work environment healthier and safer. Now the bar is raised, because this has to happen virtually.

    Lessons from Recessions Past

    The change process can be designed to be healthy. We can derive lessons from research on corporate downsizing and restructuring during the recessions of the ‘80s, 90s and 2000s. Here’s what’s well documented: 1) downsizing increases stress and diminishes the health of those laid off and the ‘survivors’ (who suffer from what’s called ‘survivor syndrome’); 2) poorly executed downsizing or restructuring reduces an organizational capabilities, ranging from learning, reduced tacit knowledge, social capital (relationships), collaboration, and innovation.

    Survivor syndrome (the negative psychological and physical impact of remaining in a downsized organization, including guilt) can be avoided by empowering workers to redesign work tasks and processes to fit the renewed mission, responding to issues and concerns raised by employees, and supporting employees to individually and as teams actively manage the changes.

    During the 2008-2009 Great Recession, some companies came out stronger because they used the downturn as an opportunity to engage all employees to reinvent the business strategy and find better ways of working. Leaders in these organizations built trust by openly communicating with employees, involving them in the changes, and supporting them at every step of the way. The big take-away for employees: this company cares about me so I am committed to its future success.

    Signs of Mutual Support

    As the Economist recently observed: “Downturns are capitalism’s sorting mechanism, revealing weak business models and stretched balance-sheets.” But there’s more to the survival story. Beyond balance sheets and the type of business (pity the cruise lines), it comes down to people practices, reinforced by shared corporate values. Values are the essential guideposts when the going gets tough. And rarely has it been tougher.

    Small businesses face more acute challenges. But from what I’ve seen locally, owners may be more inclined to treat their workers like family, knowing they will need them back as the pandemic threat recedes.

    I see signs of this today in my own community. A restaurant quickly shifted to a reduced take out menu, turning waiters in to delivery drivers, and offering customers the option of buying an inexpensive meal for a family in need. Gyms offer free daily on-line workouts. Musicians stream live performances. A craft distillery now is producing hand sanitizer. My friend Todd Ramsay and his wife Ashley, who run Kelowna-based Yeti Farm Creative, an animation studio, proactively set up their employees to work at home in early March. Their team feels virtually connected (Todd’s accompanying graphic captures this) and are committed to coming out of this ordeal even stronger. The common theme here is people pulling together and helping each other. And just as with fires, floods and other natural disasters, people are engaging in acts of kindness. Local TV news images of empty foodbank hampers quickly resulted in a $10,000 donation, plus lots of smaller ones.

    Work and social life have been transformed in a matter of weeks into virtual experiences. Video chat service Zoom has, well, zoomed into widespread use. The lines between work and home and family life have dissolved. What about those workers faced with school closures and kids at home needing constructive activities? It’s time for your team to talk about what adaptations are needed to support these members.

    Let’s Not Forget…

    There are other groups of workers who desperately need help. Foremost are front-line healthcare workers. We’ve seen shocking videos of doctors and nurses working around the clock in Spain and Italy, risking their safety, tending to patients lying in hallway floors without proper equipment. How can we prevent that scenario from happening here? And as a New York Times editorial put it yesterday: “In this hour of crisis, those at the bottom of the economic pyramid are in the greatest need of help.” This includes low-paid workers and those in the gig economy. There’s an essential role for governments here.

    Yes, the coronavirus pandemic will end. The Chinese city of Wuhan, the original epicenter of the coronavirus, has reduced the number of new infections to the point that people are returning to work and some semblance of normal daily life. All the more important to ensure that today’s responses to the pandemic will ready us to resume our social and economic lives. So think of where you want to be one year from now.


    Graham Lowe is president of The Graham Lowe Group Inc., a workplace consulting and research firm, and a professor emeritus at the University of Alberta.

    Click here to read an excerpt from Creating Healthy Organizations.

  • Uncontested Fields? Global Football and the Coronavirus

    Football, just like almost everything on the international sports calendar, has been greatly impacted by the recent coronavirus outbreak. Alan McDougall, author of the recently released Contested Fields: A Global History of Modern Football, writes about the impact COVID-19 is having on football, and delves into the history of a sport that has faced many major disruptions across its 150-year history.


    By Alan McDougall

    @ picture-alliance/dpa/C. Charisius

    The 2020 European Football Championship was meant to be a celebration of the world’s most popular sport. For the tournament’s 60th birthday, the European governing body (UEFA) dreamed up a continent-crossing tribute to what the tournament’s founder, Frenchman Henri Delaunay, once called “a Europe of football.” Matches in Euro 2020 were scheduled for twelve cities in twelve countries, from Bilbao in Spain to Baku in Azerbaijan. Even before recent events, many observers felt that this was a European vanity project gone too far. The rapid global spread of Covid-19 then took a wrecking ball to UEFA’s “zany but good idea” (as ex-President Michel Platini described it). On 17 March, UEFA postponed the tournament. Euro 2020 will now become Euro 2021. Like almost everything on the international sports calendar – from South America’s version of the Euros, the Copa América, to the MLB, NBA, and NHL seasons in North America and prestigious events such as the Masters (golf), the French Open (tennis), and the Tokyo Olympics – the European Championship has been forced into cold storage.

    The Olympic Stadium in Baku is the only Euro 2020 venue that is actually located in Asia

    In researching my new book, Contested Fields: A Global History of Modern Football, one thing constantly surprised me: football’s sheer ubiquity. This was a sport played and watched everywhere, however difficult the circumstances – from Stalin’s gulags to Indigenous villages in Amazonian Peru. Football has a 150-year history as a global activity. The desire for international connections drove the Europeanization of football in the 1950s, when UEFA, the European Championship, and the European Cup (today’s Champions League) were all created. A generation earlier, similar ambitions motivated FIFA to create the World Cup, first played in 1930 in Uruguay. Like air travel, cinema, photography, and tourism, football represented the coming world. Fluid and mobile, it transcended borders and, often unwittingly, broke down class and race divisions. Football, as Tony Collins noted, quickly supplanted other sports as “a symbol of global modernity.” By the early twenty-first century, the “global game” may have become a FIFA marketing slogan, but it was also a fact. Worldwide, 265 million footballers were registered in 2007. Roughly half of the planet’s seven billion people watched the 2014 World Cup final between Germany and Argentina.

    What happens to football now that global sport has come to a juddering halt? The short answer is that nobody really knows. In terms of major disruptions to international sport, history offers only rough guides. During the First World War, professional football was suspended in England and Scotland, creating a vacuum that women’s football temporarily filled. International matches stopped across Europe, though not elsewhere: the first South American Championship (today’s Copa América) took place in 1916. The disruption caused by the war perhaps masked the catastrophic impact of the influenza pandemic that killed 50 million people between 1918 and 1920. While sports such as hockey were more visibly compromised (the 1919 Stanley Cup final was cancelled), football was hardly unscathed. Influenza victims included ex-French international, Marius Royet, who died in a German P.O.W. camp, and Chelsea’s former Scottish international Angus Douglas. The Armstrong-Whitworth’s team that faced North-East Marine Works in England’s Munitionettes Cup in November 1918 mustered two fit players, as the deadly virus decimated the squad. The match only went ahead after six women were plucked from the crowd.

    An officers versus other ranks football match being played by members of the 26th Divisional Ammunition Train near the city of Salonika on Christmas Day 1915.
    @ IWM (Q 31574)

    By the Second World War, political authorities were warier about shutting down sport. One British report noted in 1939 that “people find the war at present completely unsatisfactory as a compensation for sport.” Football in Europe often continued in one form or another. Only Poland, ground zero of the Nazis’ war of racial extermination, cancelled its national championship for the whole conflict. Big crowds watched Bologna claim the 1940/41 Italian league title, as Mussolini’s fascist regime edged towards collapse. In 1942, while the Germany army besieged the Soviet city of Leningrad, crowds of 8,000 still attended games. Football was played in Nazi ghettoes (Theresienstadt) and death camps (Auschwitz), as prisoners such as Tadeusz Borowski recounted. In the Third Reich itself, competition was not suspended until 1944.

    Football has faced serious interruptions in the past. But nothing really compares to the potential impact of Covid-19. This is for two main reasons. First, football during previous hiatuses was not the lucrative international business that it is in 2020. When Spanish flu struck in 1918, it was twelve years before the first World Cup, a tournament attended by only 13 teams and largely ignored in the European press. The Second World War meant no World Cup in either 1942 or 1946, but the tournament – like football generally – had yet to fall under the revolutionary influences of television and affordable air travel. Second, and most importantly, the current public health crisis demands a far more sweeping end to playing and spectating than any previous event. Football’s post-1918 boom in Germany owed much to soldiers playing the game so frequently during the First World War – most famously, or mythically, in the Christmas 1914 truce match against British troops on the Western Front. Crowds of 20,000 regularly watched Chelsea play in the London Combination League at the influenza pandemic’s peak in 1918 and 1919. The show went on during World War Two as well, as it did during disruptions to British football in the “big freezes” of 1946/47 and 1962/63. There is no such room for manoeuvre now. Effective treatment of the coronavirus requires physical distancing. This makes team training impossible and large gatherings in stadiums dangerous.

    Though it’s too early to know for sure, Covid-19’s economic impact on football may be ruinous. The postponement of Euro 2020 cost UEFA an estimated 400 million Euros. But the real pinch will not be felt by global mega-events, powerful governing bodies, or highly-paid stars. It will be felt lower down the food chain. Small clubs, reliant on income from gate receipts rather than television, may be driven to the wall. The end of matchdays for the foreseeable future will devastate the small businesses (concession stall owners, food vendors, local pubs, and cafes) and club staff (cleaners, receptionists, stewards) that make up modern football’s gig economy. And prospects for the women’s game – one of football’s recent growth stories – are suddenly shrouded in uncertainty.

    Jürgen Klopp with Liverpool at the 2019 UEFA Super Cup

    When Covid-19 stopped English football in its tracks, Liverpool supporters (including me!) took the news hard, given the club’s 25-point lead at the top of the Premier League. Would the season be voided, and the club denied its first league title in thirty years? Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp quickly put such worries in perspective: “First and foremost, all of us have to do whatever we can to protect one another… This should be the case all the time in life, but in this moment I think it matters more than ever. I’ve said before that football always seems the most important of the least important things. Today, football and football matches really aren’t important at all.” This contrasted with a famous remark once made by the most illustrious of Klopp’s predecessors, Bill Shankly: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

    Rationally at least, we all know the provocative wrongness of Shankly’s claim. Yet the fact remains that football’s sudden, blanket absence – with odd exceptions such as the Belarusian Premier League – cuts deeply for millions of players and supporters around the world. This is not just about sport as the great distraction, a bread and circuses diversion from the important things in life. It’s also because football can mean so much more than the mere kicking of a ball. Football is politics. It is community. It is identity. It is mental health. It is friendship. It is family. It is livelihood.

    Is there a chance that football’s eventual reappearance might offer new and better ways of doing things? Can we dream of a football world (to return to Klopp) of “sound judgment and morality”? Given the greed and inequality in world football, a healthy amount of skepticism is warranted here. Many expect (and many will desire) business as usual when the big events, teams, and players return to our stadiums and screens. But there are signs that the Covid-19 crisis provides a genuine opportunity for what UEFA President Alexsander Čeferin has called “a reset of world football.” Clubs and governing bodies (including long-time rivals FIFA and UEFA) have so far shown an unusual willingness to cooperate in the logistical nightmare that is reorganizing the football calendar. Serie A clubs, players, and supporters have raised millions of Euros for victims in the coronavirus hotspot of Italy. In Britain, clubs big and small have started community outreach projects, donating money to foodbanks, setting up call centres for isolated fans, or opening facilities to health workers. Many stadiums in Brazil have been turned into coronavirus field hospitals. In the conclusion to Contested Fields, I wrote the following about football in the twenty-first century: “many observers felt that it had made a Faustian bargain with money and power, the price of which was the game’s soul.” Perhaps a little of that soul can be recovered in these extraordinary times.


    Alan McDougall is a professor of History at the University of Guelph.

    Click here to read an excerpt from Contested Fields.

  • UTP’s Physical Distancing Reading List

    In these challenging times, it can often seem difficult to grasp the truth of what is going on around us. In an overwhelming flow of media and information, sometimes what’s missing is some context and perspective. As a university press, we are proud to publish the work of leading scholars who tackle important issues – like the ones we are facing today – with intelligence and expertise.

    For those who are looking for a little context – or just something to focus your mind while you’re maintaining physical distance from others – we offer a few suggestions of books that we’ve published over the years that might provide exactly the perspective you need.

    Be well, stay connected, and keep reading.

    Books that will provide some historical perspective:

    Epidemics and the Modern World

    By Mitchell L. Hammond

    Published in January 2020 (we never could have imagined how timely this publication would become), this new textbook uses "biographies" of epidemics such as plague, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS to explore the impact of disease on the development of modern societies from the fourteenth century to the present. We highly recommend Chapter 8 on the 1918 influenza pandemic for some necessary perspective – you can read the entire chapter for free here. You should also check out this Literary Review of Canada article which manages to artfully draw from Hammond’s textbook alongside works by Defoe and Camus.


    Influenza 1918: Disease, Death, and Struggle in Winnipeg

    By Esyllt W. Jones

    The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed as many as fifty million people worldwide and affected the vast majority of Canadians. Yet the pandemic, which came and left in one season, has remained difficult to interpret. What did it mean to live through and beyond this brief, terrible episode, and what were its long-term effects? Influenza 1918 uses Winnipeg as a case study to show how disease articulated and helped to re-define boundaries of social difference. Jones concludes that social conflict is not an inevitable outcome of epidemics, but rather of inequality and public failure to fully engage all members of the community in the fight against disease. This is a valuable lesson for today.


    Hunting the 1918 Flu

    By Kirsty Duncan

    To this day medical science has been at a loss to explain the origin of the Spanish flu. Responding to sustained interest in this medical mystery, Hunting the 1918 Flu presents a detailed account of Kirsty Duncan's experiences as she organized an international, multi-discipline scientific expedition to exhume the bodies of a group of Norwegian miners buried in Svalbard – all victims of the flu virus. Duncan's narrative reveals the turbulent politics of a group moving towards a goal where the egos were as strong as the stakes were high. The author, herself a medical geographer (and known to most Canadians as the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Member of Parliament), is very frank about her bruising emotional, financial, and professional experiences on the “dark side of science.”


    The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada

    By Mark Osborne Humphries

    In The Last Plague, Mark Osborne Humphries examines how federal epidemic disease management strategies developed before the First World War, arguing that the deadliest epidemic in Canadian history ultimately challenged traditional ideas about disease and public health governance. Using federal, provincial, and municipal archival sources, newspapers, and newly discovered military records – as well as original epidemiological studies – Humphries situates the flu within a larger social, political, and military context. His provocative conclusion is that the 1918 flu crisis had important long-term consequences at the national level, ushering in the “modern” era of public health in Canada.


    From Wall Street to Bay Street: The Origins and Evolution of American and Canadian Finance

    By Christopher Kobrak and Joe Martin

    The 2008 financial crisis rippled across the globe and triggered a worldwide recession. Unlike the American banking system which experienced massive losses, takeovers, and taxpayer funded bailouts, Canada’s banking system withstood the crisis relatively well and maintained its liquidity and profitability. The divergence in the two banking systems can be traced to their distinct institutional and political histories. From Wall Street to Bay Street tackles the similarities and differences between the financial systems of Canada and the United States – offering useful insight into our current financial predicament.


    In addition, a couple of books that will provide some medical context include Treating Health Care: How the Canadian System Works and How It Could Work Better by Raisa B. Deber and Public Health in the Age of Anxiety: Religious and Cultural Roots of Vaccine Hesitancy in Canada, edited by Paul Bramadat, Maryse Guay, Julie A. Bettinger, and Réal Roy. As people start to think about food security in new ways, we recommend Growing a Sustainable City?: The Question of Urban Agriculture by Christina D. Rosan and Hamil Pearsall. For those who are thinking more about crisis communication, we suggest Duncan Koerber’s recent guide, Crisis Communication in Canada. And finally, for some political and economic context, consider Backrooms and Beyond: Partisan Advisers and the Politics of Policy Work in Canada by Jonathan Craft; Back from the Brink: Lessons from the Canadian Asset-Backed Commercial Paper Crisis by Paul Halpern, Caroline Cakebread, Christopher C. Nicholls, and Poonam Puri; and Bureaucratic Manoeuvres: The Contested Administration of the Unemployed by John Grundy.

  • What Stalin can teach us about raising refugee children

    Stalin's Ninos presents in fascinating detail how the Soviet Union raised and educated nearly 3,000 child refugees of the Spanish Civil War. In this post, author Karl D. Qualls discusses the research that went into the project, revealing the Soviet transformation of children into future builders of communism and highlighting the educational techniques shared with other modern states.


    Calisthenics at One of the Spanish Children´s Homes in the USSR

    By Karl D. Qualls

    As I talk to friends and students about children put in cages in the United States and schools bombed in Syria, I remind them that even Stalin treated some (though not all) refugees with great humanity. I’m not trying to whitewash Stalin. I know very well the atrocities. However, research serendipity can lead to some remarkable revelations.

    I came across the material for Stalin’s Niños in 1995 (!) when I was doing pre-dissertation work. I was confused as to why there would be boxes of materials in a Moscow archive about boarding schools for Spanish children. Each time I went back to Moscow over the next decade to finish my dissertation that became From Ruins to Reconstruction: Urban Identity in Soviet Sevastopol after World War II (Cornell, 2009) I checked to see if anyone had been working in the main fond in the State Archive of the Russian Federation. I didn’t know anything about the topic and thought I might be able to find a story to tell out of the 2,500 item groups. My two children were learning Spanish in school and refugees started becoming more frequent in the news after I began my research around 2010, so it seemed like something timely to do. I don’t like rehashing well-worn historical events – a legacy of my time studying with Richard Stites; I prefer new stories, and there was nothing in English on the topic and only a handful of oral histories in Spanish.

    Spanish Pioneers with the Puño Salute at the Artek Pioneer Camp

    With my curiosity piqued, I sought to understand why the USSR accepted nearly 3,000 refugee children from the Spanish Civil War. Refugees typically trek to contiguous countries hoping to soon return to their homeland. Refugees also are typically neglected by their “host” countries, as was the case in Britain and France for the niños. In the Soviet Union, however, the children arrived in sea-side resorts like Artek, were housed in deluxe hotels, and eventually studied in well-appointed boarding schools that far exceeded the conditions of their Soviet counterparts.

    As I read through the oral histories that began to be collected about fifty years after the dislocation, I was amazed at the glowing terms with which most of the Spaniards described their time in the USSR. “It was like paradise,” said one child, “after living in hell.” Phrases like this forced me to consider why this was, especially because the Spanish children had to live through the horrors of WWII and the Nazi invasion. As engaging as the memories of the children are, they could not tell me anything about Soviet intentions and they are almost silent on educational practices. This shouldn’t surprise us; our memories tend to recall moments of joy and sadness and rarely the prosaic and banal pedagogical strategies employed by a geography teacher. I therefore moved from the conclusions of other scholars’ oral histories to investigate the causation for those memories.

    Embassy of Vietnam (formerly Home No. 7)

    As I read in the nearly untouched archival files, it eventually became clear. The Soviet system of “non-Russian” education in which children learn Russian as a second language and their subjects in the native tongue, when applied to the niños, created a hybrid identification I call Hispano-Soviet. The niños’ national cultural values – their Hispanidad – of language, song, dance, and more blended with Soviet values of comradery, hard work, patriotism (for two homelands now), friendship of peoples, and much more. In short, the boarding schools for Spanish children fostered the “national in form, Soviet in content” that was typical for the era.

    When we examine the educational practices in the schools, we find a blend of uniquely Soviet approaches like the “non-Russian” education above with the more widely modern educational practices common in democracies and dictatorships of disciplining bodies and minds while instilling patriotism in young minds. Most of these primarily poor working-class kids, particularly the girls, would have had little to no access to education in Franco’s Spain. Soviet boarding schools taught them how to stand in line, wash hands and linens, and respect people in positions of authority. Time discipline came in the form of thoroughly scheduled days that moved students through study, meals, and leisure. The most important part of disciplining bodies was the regular health care that took pains to inoculate, provide adequate diets, and to control epidemics.

    Patriotism, in this case patriotism for two countries, took place primarily but not exclusively in the classroom. History, geography, and politics courses taught about the Soviet and Spanish experiences. But even in the sciences students would study flora and fauna and natural resources of the Soviet Union that was then used to explain the country’s abundance. Frequent visitors to the children’s homes – including artists, military officers, and heroes like aviator Valery Chkalov – spoke with the children about how the regime’s investment in them had allowed them to do great things for others. Role modeling like this became a seminal tool for remolding the Spanish children and youth much as it was for Soviet students more generally.

    Soviet Officer Visits with Spanish Children and Youth

    Even during the 1941 arduous evacuation deep into the Soviet interior to avoid the Nazi advance, Soviet educators did all they could to maintain proper schooling. With teachers mobilized to the front, educational materials in short supply, ink freezing in the Siberian cold, and local officials reluctant to provide food and shelter, the niños’ lives took a turn for the worse. Many had to resort to theft to survive. Three remember finding their blind camel dead in the snow and finally having meat in their diet. Adolescents left the boarding schools to take jobs in factories, and many tried to enlist in the Red Army to fight the fascists, seeing WWII as a continuation of the Spanish Civil War. As the war came to a conclusion and they returned to homes outside Moscow, the youngest of the original refugees again felt the largess of the regime with well-appointed schools and regular outings to the zoo, museums, the Bolshoi, parks, and more. Unlike their older peers who went into factories during the war, these younger Spaniards increasingly entered higher education and became professionals, some assisting Fidel Castro in rebuilding Cuba, others becoming prize winning Soviet artists and athletes.

    Those who chose to return to Spain as relations normalized in the mid-1950s found that their Sovietness was at least as important as their Hispanidad. Women in particular realized that in this case western Europe was backward because Francoist misogyny prevented them from using their professional training. Many highly trained men also became laborers instead of leading the professional lives they had in the USSR. The obscurantism of the Catholic church and its support for Franco’s abuses led many of these former refugees to return to their “second homeland,” the Soviet Union.

    There was a long journey to completing this research. I had to teach myself a new language (Spanish), retrain from an urban historian to an historian of education, childhood, and nationality policy. My knowledge of the Spanish Civil War was spotty, so I had a lot of catching up to do there as well. I thought these sacrifices were worth it because I had so much archival material that was begging to be interpreted by someone.

    Stalin’s Niños came about completely by accident, but it complicates our notions of Soviet educational policy, national identification and nationality policy, and commitment to internationalism. Equally importantly, it places the oral histories and handful of memoirs into a historical context, moving beyond aging memories to explore Soviet intentions and practices, successes and failures.

    Quite surprisingly, Stalin’s Niños can teach us how to treat refugees, and especially refugee children, more humanely. “Relief” organizations are only now beginning to understand that refugees need to have their dignity as human beings affirmed and restored. This comes from education and meaningful work. Warehousing refugees in camps and children in cages dehumanizes them. The Spaniards’ overwhelming, although not exclusive, praise for their Soviet upbringing reminds us that refugees can become friends, allies, and essential contributors if only given the opportunity.


    Karl D. Qualls is the John B. Parsons Chair in Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of History at Dickinson College.

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