On Shattered Selves and Young Communists

28 Aug

My article, “The Shattered Self of Komsomol Civil War Memoirs,” has come out in the Fall 2012 issues of the Slavic Review. You can download it here.  Here are the opening paragraphs:

Komsomol literature in the 1920s repeatedly evoked the memory of the civil war as a means to inspire young communists to sacrifice themselves for the construction of socialism. In the words of Alfred Kurella, “The heroic times of the civil war presently take on a great role in satisfying youth’s romantic proclivities.” The war, he explained, bound the Komsomol around a “single principle,” for it recalled a time when all “surrendered to one great purpose” and “individual identity was significant only as part of a large family. Everybody conformed to the principle that bestowed life or death.” Like other European nations, which used memories of World War I in the construction of national unity, the Komsomol recalled the civil war in order to unite youth around a common heroic memory. The civil war functioned as a “meaningful and sacred event,” providing “ever-present saints and martyrs, places of worship and a heritage to emulate.”

The desire to codify the civil war as a foundational event began with the creation of the Komsomol’s historical commission in December 1920: Istmol, or the Commission for the Study of the History of the Russian Youth Movement. Throughout the 1920s, Istmol collected documents and organized evenings of reminiscence and exhibitions to commemorate the participation in the civil war by members of the Komsomol. Istmol also solicited civil war veterans to write memoirs that would bring revolutionary heroism to life, adding color and depth to the official documents. Their publications varied in content and style, and recollections were often published with very few revisions. The result was a heterogeneous body of literature lacking a dominant narrative for civil war memory. The recollections constituted the main literary form of civil war commemoration since the obituaries, tributes to fallen Komsomol leaders, and articles highlighting the enthusiasm of and service provided by members of the Komsomol that were published during the war.

Komsomol civil war memoirs display an ambivalence toward the civil war. This contrasts with our broader understanding of the war’s memory as a heroic period in which communists sacrificed themselves wholeheartedly for the revolution. Alongside a narrative that framed the war as a “heroic epoch,” veterans voiced confusion, personal loss, hardship, physical suffering, and fear in the face of death. It is precisely because of these elements that Komsomol civil war narratives can be seen as part of the important phenomenon of war remembrance at the turn of the century. These narratives, like many of their European counterparts, are ultimately personal stories that attempt to come to terms with the personal transformations that war brought upon young soldiers and to render the strangeness of these experiences understandable to both the readers and the soldiers themselves.