Lisa Kirschenbaum is a professor of History at West Chester University. Her research explores how people come to represent and understand their life stories as part of history, focusing on the linkages between individual, private lives and the momentous, often traumatic events of Russia’s twentieth century. She is the author of three books: Small Comrades: Revolutionizing Childhood in Soviet Russia, 1917-1932 published by Routledge; The Legacy of the Siege of Leningrad, 1941-1995: Myth, Memories, and Monuments published by Cambridge University Press; and International Communism and the Spanish Civil War: Solidarity and Suspicion also published by Cambridge University Press.
Woody Guthrie, “Jarama Valley,” 1944.
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By Sean — 12 years ago
To my delight and surprise, Russia Profile continues to feature articles on Russian youth. “The Roads Not Taken” by Dmitry Babich examines post-Soviet youth organizations as avenues for youth politics, instilling patriotism, and participation in social life. Babich is correct to note the important role youth played in putting pressure for reforms in the Soviet system; and he is right to place youth on the forefront for changes in Russia. As he notes, youth played a vital role in the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. The protests during the Belarusian elections were mostly comprised of youth. There is a possibility, if not an anticipation that Russian youth will play a similar role in 2008.
If youth are slated to play such an important role in Russia’s present and future politics, it is important to get an idea about their history. The history of Russian youth organizations parallels the history of youth organizations globally. Fraternities, nascent youth groups and organizations began in Russia around the middle of the 19th century in universities. The first mass youth organizations like the Boy Scouts were founded in Europe, the United States, and Russia in the late 19th century. Adults like Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scout movement, began organizing youth out of fear of their corruption and the degeneration of the social body. Similarly, the German Youth Movement was a direct reaction to modernity and the perceived corruption of society. It looked to German tradition and nature as a way to purify the young body politic. Like many groups today, they also focused on cultivating mostly male youths into leaders and had a strong concentration of physical fitness, military preparedness, religious worship, nationalism, and morality. For this reason, 19th century youth organizations were primarily open to middle class youth. Working class and peasant youths tended to be excluded.
In Russia, this began to change with the February Revolution in 1917. There were small worker youth groups in the pre-revolutionary period, but these tended to be localized in factories. By May 1917, working class youths began to organize themselves into citywide groups that had aspirations for a national organization. In Petrograd there were two main groups: Labor and Light and the Socialist Worker Youth League (SSRM). In Moscow, youth politics was mostly dominated by the III International. SSRM and the III International were organized by young Bolshevik Party members along with other socialist parties. Labor and Light was more liberal based and despite having socialists as their organizers, the most famous was G. Driazgov who was a Menshevik, they shied away from class based politics. This led to it being overtaken by the end of the year by SSRM as the revolution radicalized. In mid-1918, SSRM and III International came together and formed the Russian Communist Youth League, or Komsomol. Despite the fact that it claimed to be an autonomous organization in its program, but the middle of the decade it was touted as the “helper and reserve of the Bolshevik Party.”
Determined to become a mass organization for worker and peasant youth, the Komsomol grew rapidly in the 1920s becoming in some places in the country the only representation of Soviet power. By 1928, its membership was 2 million; in 1939 it reached 9 million. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that the Komsomol made significant inroads into the Soviet Union’s youth population. In 1954, it boasted a membership of over 18 million.
While I don’t disagree with Babich that the Komsomol became completely moribund by the 1970s, I am rather astounded by the following:
Semyon Charny, a Moscow historian who studied the social movements of the late Soviet period for the Russian State Humanities University (RGGU), thinks that the passivity displayed by the youth at the time can be explained by a lack of experience.
“I looked at the secret reports which were sent to the party bosses in the 1970s and 1980s on the hooliganism of soccer fans,” Charny said. “The party bosses, and even the KGB people, were shocked and talked about the ‘negative political implications’ of the fights between Russian Spartak Moscow fans and Ukrainian Dynamo Kiev fans. Why? Because soccer games were the only outlet for rowdy behavior in public that was even semi-legal. If even this small valve produced a semblance of mass riots, the party and the KGB saw it as an indicator of a sort of fever within society as a whole.”
I have no idea why they were “shocked”. Such reports were standard fair in the 1920s and I can present several examples of such and even worse behavior among Komsomol youth. In the countryside, for example, Komsomol mass meetings sometimes turned into mass brawls as “non-party” youth showed up from neighboring villages. Usually the cause of this had to do with, you guessed it, girls. Often youths from neighboring villages showed up to village parties (posidelki). Tensions between males would arise with the outsiders would begin hooking up with local girls. Drunken fights often ensued.
In fact, in 1926 the Komsomol leadership came up with a name to encapsulate misbehavior among its members: “sick phenomena” (bol’eznennie iavleniia). “Sick phenomena” meant hooliganism, drunkenness, and sexual perversity. The late 1920s saw an increasing number of expulsions for these offenses as the Komsomol tried to get a handle on the activities of its membership. Unfortunately for them, their efforts were to no avail. While many would like to perceive the Komsomol as some unified and totalitarian organization that had Russia youth in its grip, a quick glance at the newspapers from the period shows otherwise.
Yet, despite the problems, youth were and continue to be a main source for political cultivation and mobilization. However, as Babich points out, the state and political parties continue to treat youth as passive political players that are to be molded to adult’s whims:
The tradition of not listening to the “base” is still very much alive in Russia, and the strategy of some youth movements is built on fighting what they label an unresponsive and irresponsible state. One charge against the present regime is that it increasingly looks to the young to demonstrate their patriotism while offering little in return a criticism also heard in Soviet times. One example was the negative reaction on the part of opposition party youth groups to the publication of the Program for the Patriotic Education of Russian Citizens, signed into law in June 2005.
The program attempts to instill patriotic values through portraying national symbols in the media and arts as well as developing patriotic sports clubs and summer camps. The idea behind the program is that Russian patriotism can no longer be taken for granted, but must be reinforced by all segments of society that touch upon the lives of young people including the arts, education and business.
For some groups, however, the contents of the report were another opportunity to criticize the current government, and the presidential administration in particular.
It is telling though that the criticism of such patriotic initiatives is coming from liberal youth organizations, which are the ones that are stagnant in growth and political influence. However, the youth groups that are making any, albeit small, inroads in Russian society whether it be in raw numbers or generating controversy are Nashi and more radical Leftist and Rightist groups like the National Bolsheviks, the Eurasian Youth League, and skinhead groups. The political center while Yabloko represents has all but dropped out or is now taken over by Nashi. Babich quotes Ilya Yashin, the leader of Yabloko’s youth wing saying,
“There is no place for the state in matters like believing in God or loving one’s motherland. As [19th-century Russian satirist Mikhail] Saltykov-Shchedrin said, if state officials start talking about patriotism, it means they want to steal something.”
However, such a view is in the minority among youth organizations. If the state supported Nashi is any indication, many politically organized youths believe that the state does and should have a role in these areas.
Finally, there is one story about youth organizations in Russia that is now starting to be told: the role of the Komsomol in perestroika and in planting the seeds for Russia’s capitalist economy. As Babich reminds us, many of the Oligarchs began their road to riches in Komsomol enterprises in the late 1970s and 1980s. Komsomol cooperatives in computer technology and construction became not only vehicles of economic reform (the Communist Party essentially flooded them with hard currency to buy computer equipment from the West to refurbish), when the system collapsed they were some of the few sectors of society that had reserves of Western currency. Many of the Oligarchs that we’ve come to know and love formally took control of those assets when the system imploded. This is a fascinating story that has yet to be fully uncovered, though I know a few people in Russia now working on it.Post Views: 640
By Sean — 9 years ago
There isn’t much by way of new information about the raid on Memorial. Why the human rights organization was raided still remains a mystery. Work has renewed at the organization’s office but day to day activities remain disturbed. After all, the police did confiscate a laundry list of materials. According to a statement issued by Memorial, those materials include several hard drives that contain “biographical information of tens of thousands of victims of Stalinist repression collected by Memorial over the last 20 years, a unique collection of photographs and copies of archival documents on Stalinist terror, the results of searches of camp cemeteries and firing ranges in the territory of the former USSR, and an archive of audio interviews with former GULAG prisoners.”
Memorial, of course, wants their stuff back unmolested and as soon as possible. When Irina Flige, the director of Memorial St. Petersburg, presented this request to the investigative committee, they told her that an official response will take about a month.
The seizure of historical documents relating to terror unsurprisingly raises the specter of Stalinism and its place in Russian historical memory. Stalin still remains a controversial figure. He’s continues to be loved and hated, sometimes in the same breath. Historians have provided no satisfactory unified narrative for this complex period of Russia’s history. This failure is not for lack of documentation. The problem is more than how one interprets those documents continues to have political resonance for the present.
Still, the Memorial raid does raise the issue about documents and whether, as Clifford Levy argued in a recent article in the NY Times, “many archives detailing killings, persecution and other such acts committed by the Soviet authorities have become increasingly off limits.”
The declassification of documents has ebbed and flowed in the last 15 years. In the 1990s, the archives were simply opened without any process of declassification. The process was formalized in the mid-1990s with the law “On the process of declassification and extending the period of classification of archival documents of the Soviet government.” Moreover, declassification committees are underfunded and understaffed. There is also little incentive. Now there seems to be a cultural atmosphere that suggests that Russians want to move on. They’ve heard enough about the horrors of the Soviet system and seem to either not care anymore or would rather look to the future rather than the past. There have been instances at the federal level to re-classify documents. A partial list for 2005 and 2006 can be found here. But these seem to have little do with Stalinist terror.
The amount of available materials on the Soviet period are enormous. According to Sergei Mironenko, the director of the State Archive of the Russian Federation, said the following in response to a question about materials on Stalinism in a press conference yesterday:
“I cannot say for certain, but I presume that three-fourths of such documents have been declassified. A quarter remains classified,” he said. “According to our laws, any document must be declassified automatically after 30 years. Unfortunately, this law is not fulfilled,” he said. “Russia has a very awkward and costly declassification system. It takes 27 resolutions of experts to declassify any document,” Mironenko noted. It is difficult to get access to declassified documents, as well, he remarked.
One should emphasize that the 30 years does not pertain to documents relating to individuals. There is a 75 year wait for those unless you get special permission from any surviving family members. Also, getting access to declassified documents depends on what you’re working on. It’s has always been a dance with archivists to get materials if you are interested in seeing blood. I’ve gotten the “You’re requesting a lot of negative material” talk from archivists and I don’t do any research on terror. Part of the reason for this is that most archivists were trained in the Soviet system, so their first impulse is to protect information and not dole it out. The other reasons is that they are particularly sensitive about foreigners sniffing around their archives looking to, in their view, defame their national heritage. Given the legacy of English language historiography on Russia, I can’t say I blame them.
It is important to remember that not all declassifications pertain to Stalinism. For example, one of the holdings declassified this year was the Commission on Paper under the Council of People’s Commissars SSSR, 1928-1929. Anyone interested in what has been declassified in the last few years are encouraged to take a look at Rosarkhiv’s yearly bulletins on declassification. This of course doesn’t include regional archives where access can be hit or miss and depend more on the temperament of local archivists.
Basically, while the Memorial documents are important and must be returned, they are but a drop in a vast ocean of available documentation.
Still, the issue is about historical memory, and in particular the memory of Stalinism. Many are often aghast that Stalin retains a positive image among many Russians. Again and again you hear people ask why Russians have yet to contend with Stalinism. Yet, I wonder whether those who repeatedly ask this question are really asking for Russians to contend with Stalin the way they want them to. They want Russians to see Stalinism as a singular death machine where one man, Stalin, stood at the apex. History is far more complicated and contingent and unfortunately, Stalinism cannot be reduced to this no matter how many victimologies you construct, no matter how many mass graves you dig up, or even however many documents you declassify. if it was our job would be all too easy.
This is why I agree with Slavoj Zizek’s statement that “We should . . .admit that we still lack a satisfactory theory of Stalinism.” Namely, Stalinism was a historical phenonmena, and frankly, to locate its horrors only in the personage of Stalin is whitewashing the millions of people who actively participated in those horrors. In my view, really contending with Stalinism would mean understanding it as a phenonmena where the line between perpretrator and victim was blurred. It would mean coming to terms with the perverse carnivalesque at its core. It would require Russians to look into the mirror and peer deeply into themselves, not to locate victims or even perpretrators, but to ask how a society could cannabalize itself.Post Views: 372
By Sean — 3 years ago
Gordon Hahn, analyst and Advisory Board Member at Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation and Adjunct Professor at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey. He is the author of several books, most recently of The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond. You can read his current analysis on Russia at his blog Russian and Eurasian Politics.Post Views: 532