Who were these masked kids?
June 29, 2007 1:17 AM   Subscribe

Can you provide context for a gas masked army of children?

I'd like to know the who, where and when of this photo, a piece of internet flotsam that washed up via fffound1. It's both creepy and intriguing. I've cursorily tried to identify the uniforms, and gas masks - probably Soviet WWII, but I'm quite open to being wrong. A flickr copy of it suggests that it was originally posted to vintagephoto.
1. possibly nsfw.
posted by zamboni to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know the origin of the picture, but it looks like this might have inspired a (very creepy) episode of Doctor Who last year, called "The Empty Child".
posted by ukdanae at 1:28 AM on June 29, 2007

Just a guess.
posted by dreamsign at 1:34 AM on June 29, 2007

I doubt it's an "army", although they may have had paramilitary or civil defense duties. The kerchief uniform suggests that they were Pioneers -- basically the Communist gloss on Scouting.

Given the realities of gas use in WWI, the armies and civilians of WWII were well-prepared for an eventuality that never came.
posted by dhartung at 1:55 AM on June 29, 2007

Best answer: On second look, there aren't as many kerchiefs as I thought; that looks more like a Soviet school uniform. I'm willing to bet that this was a Soviet partisan youth wing in an area prior to invasion. They don't seem to have much in the way of weapons on close examination, let along official and standard equipment. The guy front center seems to be wearing some type of Red Army uniform.

The flags are a bit strange. It was commonplace for Soviets to really vigorously wave that hammer and sickle, but I suppose there's a parade rest formation too. But you'd expect something to show their unit or identify them as Russians. The star on the one guy's cap is about it. All the flags seem to have the same filigreed standard, though.

The truck is interesting. It doesn't seem to be any of the better-known Lend-Lease trucks. It is probably a ZiS due to the unusual windscreen arrangement -- 1/3 in front of the driver, 2/3 in front of hte passenger. If it had been an import it would help date the photo.

On the far left you can see some un-masked figures who seem to be older, maybe even scruffier, and they look armed to me. Also, once you get past the truck's position there are quite a few mask-less individuals, some older and taller.
posted by dhartung at 2:29 AM on June 29, 2007

My guess: A photo of the wartime equivalent of a school fire drill.
School children in many areas of many countries were supposed to keep their gasmasks with them at all times, and know how to put them on. (But they often weren't allowed to play with the masks - they could only use them in supervised training or in event of an actual attack).
posted by -harlequin- at 2:39 AM on June 29, 2007

Yes, those are Soviet/Eastern bloc gas masks, post WWII I think. Full face fitting rubber. Agree with the Young Pioneers or maybe other communist youth organisation.
posted by A189Nut at 3:04 AM on June 29, 2007

See equivalent masks here
posted by A189Nut at 3:05 AM on June 29, 2007

based on the truck's appearance, and the uniforms, this could be set in the beginning stages of operation Barbarossa, and the children are the tip of a column of refugees fleeing the German invasion.

That a column of refugees could stop for a photo op is entirely believable because propaganda was a very important weapon of war to every nation. And 'let's not forget, in Soviet Russia the photos take you.

Whoever these people are, I hope they managed to evade Stukas and make it to a safe(r) place behind the Volga.
posted by spacefire at 7:11 AM on June 29, 2007

My first impulse was that its a still from the movie of the Pink Floyd album The Wall, but I haven't been able to verify that with YouTube.
posted by anastasiav at 8:27 AM on June 29, 2007

Best answer: That's an interesting picture.

I was a Pioneer in Yugoslavia until the late 1980's, and can offer the following thoughts:

1) The most important part of a Pioneer's outfit is the kerchief. They would have this even if they had nothing else, so though it may be an organized youth group, I doubt it's the Pioneers. None of the kids appear to have badges or medals, which were given out for all sorts of things in the Pioneers, and the kids who had earned them would most certainly be near the front.

2) They do look like school uniforms to me. The general Soviet school uniform didn't vary a lot for decades and always made me laugh a little because it still resembled school uniforms from the days of the tsar - as this one does. (Obviously, I'm not that old, but I grew up on a staple diet of quasi-historical docudramas from the early days of the Soviets, and many of those stories were from the point of view of kids supposedly "like me.")

3) A few of the kids in front have musical instruments that were pretty typical of the set-up used to lead school marches. Not many musicians, just enough to create a little march music.

4) I doubt it's anything like the wartime equivalent of a fire drill - way too many people, the picture is far too militaristic, and I doubt actually that kids were issued gas masks in the Soviet Union at this time. Supplies of such things were ridiculously short even for soldiers!

5) I don't know much about the specifics, but this seems like a youth partisan group-in-training or something like that more than an actual youth partisan group. For one, barely any weapons - which clearly would be a focus of the picture if there were any. Also, the picture's mostly of boys (from what I can tell.) They've massed all the heavy stuff (the truck, the band, the flags, the 40 or so kids with masks) up front, but it's still not much. The picture was clearly organized to be propagandistic.

6) I could see this group having the "official" duties of being a kind of civic defense group. All the adult men have gone to war, this group is next but still a bit too young, and real training equipment is scarce. The blurry guy on the side of the road on the right definitely looks like a schoolmaster type to me.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:09 AM on June 29, 2007 [3 favorites]

Piggyback: surely some gun nut can confirm my hunch that the machine gun in the left foreground is a dummy?
posted by Meatbomb at 1:01 PM on June 29, 2007

I found this, a page from a Soviet Children's Book from 1931 called Parad Krasnoi Armii (The parade of the Red Army). Not extremely illuminating, but I'd say it helps date the picture some.

As for the gun, it looks a lot like an old Russian M1910 Maxim, but not on the standard Sokolov mount. Whether it was part of a village 'self defence' force with a wheeled mount rigged up locally for an unmounted unit or just a mockup of one I can't say.
posted by pupdog at 2:58 PM on June 29, 2007

Best answer: I found a link to the picture on a Russian site with a caption saying Leningrad 1937.
posted by JJ86 at 4:14 PM on June 29, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for all the awesome answers. Thanks to JJ86 and dhartung for providing the magic google strings that allowed me to get a specific answer- it's Pioneers in Defense Drill, Leningrad, 1937 by Viktor Bulla.
posted by zamboni at 12:36 AM on June 30, 2007

Response by poster: Whoops, that link's munged. Try here.
posted by zamboni at 12:39 AM on June 30, 2007

From a forum thread at rottentomatoes:

Its a photograph entitled "Viktor Bulla's Pioneers in Defense Drill, Leningrad (1937)"

It appears on page 79 of a book of photographs called "Propaganda and Dreams" by Leah Bendavid-Val.

Mad props to zamboni and t3h Google.
posted by mbrutsch at 12:34 PM on October 31, 2007

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