Lynne Viola is a Professor of History at the University of Toronto specializing in the political and social history of 20th century Russia. Her books include The Best Sons of the Fatherland: Workers in the Vanguard of Soviet Collectivization; Peasant Rebels Under Stalin: Collectivization and the Culture of Peasant Resistance; The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930; and The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements among other edited volumes, document collections, and articles. Her most recent book is Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial published by Oxford University Press.
AC/DC, “For Those Who Like to Rock (We Salute You),” Who Made Who, 1986.
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- By Sean — 9 years ago
I don’t usually comment on American politics. I rarely devote my time to reading about the place. The level of hyperbole and rhetorical inanity makes me want to vomit. Also, since I’ve been in Moscow, the US looks even crazier than it does when I’m there (the strange effect of this is that Russian politics looks downright normal). I’ve also totally shied away from US-Russia foreign policy issues. I used to. Not anymore. There are people out there who do it better, and frankly, the debate is so locked in Cold War binaries, I can’t help to find it all a bit boring, repetitive, and quite nauseating. So if you’re here looking for a treatise on START, ruminations on the Great Game, or how America is encircling Russia or how
- By Sean — 10 years ago
The Russian media is abuzz with reports on the 90th Anniversary of the Komsomol. Local celebrations, museum exhibits, and conferences are planned all over the country to commemorate the youth organization. In Pskov, the local office of the Committee for Youth Policy and Sport has organized festival called “My Komsomol Youth.” Arkhangelsk has a series of events planned through November 4 “to give an objective judgment of the activities of the League, remember old friends, and impart our experience to young people,” says Arkhangelsk governor Ilya Mikhalchuk. “On these days we will celebrate the organization, which without exaggeration, gave us admission into life.” The Volgograd provincial museum will host an exhibit titled “Milestones Glorious Path of the Komsomol.” Other cities holding events include Nizhni Novgorod, Cheliabinsk, Amur, Novosibirsk, Kursk, and Irkutsk, to name a few. The biggest event was held on Sunday in the State Kremlin Palace in Moscow where Komsomol Congresses used to be held. The event, titled “Soviet Russia,” was a who’s who of the new Russian elite. There are also a few NTV reports: here and here. Celebrations weren’t just confined to Russia. Even Belarus’ Aleksandr Lukashenko took a moment honor the Komsomol’s history.
It is estimated that almost two-thirds of Russian adults have been members of the Kosmomol, and most have fond memories of it. Zhores Alferov, the winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physics, told RIA Novosti that “The Komsomol was an absolute organization of the masses. It educated people in a lot of things, including management and ethics.” Vladimir Sungorkin, the editor of Komsomolskaya pravda, said that “Lots of people today say that they hated the Komsomol, that they knew they had to keep as far away from it as they could. But that’s just rubbish. The Komsomol was founded on Christian, humanitarian ideals, the ideas of equality and brotherhood.” Some agree with this idea that the Kosmomol was founded on Christian ideals. In an interview with RIA Novosti, Nikolai Mesiatsev, a Komsomol veteran who was in the league in the 1930s, said that Patriarch Aleksei I told him in 1957, “You know, my boy, that the ethical norms of your League coincide with those of Orthodox Christianity.” You don’t have to dig into so-called “Komsomol ethics” that deep to see that he’s right no matter how much the League’s founders would have been aghast at the thought. By the late 1920s, ideas of sexual monogamy, family values, social conformity, and conservative mores were at the center of the League’s unwritten “code of conduct.”
Even more interesting is that by the 1980s, the organization had become a center of primitive capitalist accumulation. The Komsomol was Gorbachev’s vanguard in economic reforms which eventually allowed people like Mikhail Khodorkovsky to make millions. Such is the irony. Perhaps this is why Daria Mitina could write the following about the “Soviet Russia” event on Sunday,
On this day, all they gather in one hall: governors and ministers, former governors and former ministers, oligarchs and pensioners, functionaries and managers, bankers and scientists, cosmonauts and engineers, left and right, red, white and blue polka dotted, and all they extol the organization that made them real people.
There’s something mystical when bankers and oligarchs, highest officials and people of power come to the stage and with fiery eyes, in a voice trembling from tears, talk about the battles for the Soviet power, about feats of labor, about the tents on the construction site of the Bratsk power station… Today all they are the veterans of the Komsomol. (Translation Dmitri Minaev.)
While most agree that reviving a Komsomol-like organization that would dominate youth politics is no longer feasible, there appears to be a consensus among Russians that youth organizations are a positive thing. True, much of the perceived need comes from the usual older generation’s belief that youth are on a downward slope to utter corruption. “I’m very concerned about the situation [of Russia’s] youth,” says Nikolai Mesiatsev. He went on to lament the typical influence of television and its dangers to children and teenagers. You could find the substance of Mesiatsev’s statements uttered repeatedly over the last 150 years.
Enter state sponsored organizations like Nashi, Molodaia gvardiia, and Mestnyi. While lacking the scope and power that the Komsomol had, these organizations, especially Nashi, look to trained Russian youth in the ideological-economic mores of the day: capitalism, business, and nationalism.
How does an old Komsomol view the youth of Nashi? Here are a few excerpts from an exchange between Viktor Mishkin, the former First Secretary of the Komsomol and Irinia Pleshcheva, a commissar from Nashi published in Moskovskii Komsomolets:
MK: The Komsomol and the Nashi movement are often compared. To what extent is such a comparison pertinent?
Viktor Mishkin: I don’t see anything in common. The Nashi movement has only just been formed. To call it an organization which would united a large part of youth is in my view too early. It is not because when I worked in the Komsomol it was an organization of 42 million people and Nashi is considerably smaller. The main distinction is that the Komsomol had a history, it was an organization that was present everywhere, and Nashi this is a small project. It carries out actions and then disbands. After half a year it carries out the next, and then disbands again. There is only one thing in common between the Komsomol and Nashi. They are organizations of the party in power.
Irina Pleshcheva: I disagree. You had in your charter that you were the fighting helper and reliable reserve of the KPSS. And we have nothing like this. Yes, there were very many komsomols. But then almost everyone joined. If not then your life ended up on the side of the road. Who wants to join [Nashi], joins, and who doesn’t . . . and we are not forged as cadres for United Russia. We are forged to be cadres for various spheres of society.
Viktor Mishkin: But your organization was created to support United Russia.
Irina Pleshcheva: We support the course of the President. When Putin was president, it means his course, Medvedev, it means his. And whoever will be there [we will] still support. . . providing that he will stick to a course of sovereign democracy, the building of civil society, and the making of Russia into a leader in the 21st century.
Viktor Mishkin: And how do you prepare cadres? There was the seminar at Seliger (the Nashi’s yearly summer camp–Sean). I read a report from it that said that the main theme was to build a future elite for Russia.
Irina Pleshcheva: Yes, our purpose is to bring up an elite for Russia. And there are various ways. I’m, for example, a member of the Public Chamber, but I don’t want to be any kind of deputy or politician. In the future I want to work as a journalist. For me there has been definite growth troward my future profession.
Viktor Mishkin: For you this is interesting. But the program, the organization must work for all youth. Yes for the President–that’s great. You will personally be in the elite.
Irina Pleshcheva: Your words are music to my ears!
Viktor Mishkin: And what kind of results are there for the rest of youth?
Irina Pleshcheva: There are programs to fight against the illegal sale of alcohol to children. For example, we have in Voronezh guys who picket stores where they sell vodka to minors. After this an agreement was made that these stores would not sell hard alcohol. four stores were almost closed, but now any parent can send their child for bread and not be afraid that he will buy something else. Also there is a program devoted to young families.
Viktor Mishkin: And what does that give?
Irina Pleshcheva: In the three years that this program has been running we’ve had eight couples marry. They already have three children.
Viktor Mishkin: Here is your impart–eight couples. All of these are isolated cases. Today to compare Nashi with the Komsomol is absolutely impossible because the scale of Komsomol work was collossal. Not to idealize the Komsomol, but I want to remind you about the Komsomol housing complexes which built residences for young families.
One can go to Seliger three times and meet with the President twice but this does not make you a leader. Its not possible to train cadres with two seminars. And the Komsomol trained and routinely led from the simple to the complex. It was the best school for managers!
A bit of generational rivalry for sure. I’ll provide more of this interview tomorrow.
- By Sean — 11 years ago
Russia’s consolidation into a two party system took a small step this weekend when the Communist Youth League (Союз коммунистической молодежи, СКМ) voted 98-1 to support Just Russia at its 6th Congress. Constantine Zhukov, SKM’s leader, told Congress delegates that the decision was because the Communist Party was “in stagnation.” “The Party has degenerated, there is no genuine Communist Party in the county that we can orientate ourselves toward.” Just Russia, Zhukov explained, “doesn’t practice demagoguery, but real politics. In the upcoming elections we will work with Just Russia.”
SKM’s moved quickly gained the support of Just Russia and its youth wing, “Ura!“. “I’m glad that Zhukov had enough courage and wisdom to understand the political situation. Unfortunately, there is nothing except for empty rhetoric and political speculation remaining in the KPRF. It’s an organization which forgot about the interests of the people,” Ura! leader Sergei Shargunov said in his speech at the Congress.
SKM’s announcement to support Just Russia is yet another chapter in the drama of infighting and splits of the Russian communist youth movement. The SKM, which hails itself as the successor to the Soviet era Komsomol, became the youth wing of the Russian Communist Party in 1999. But splits within the youth wing and then between it and the Party quickly erupted. The KRPF moved against Zhukov, replacing him with Iuri Afonin in October 2003. A month later, the All-Russian Leninist Communist Youth League (VLKSM) was formed, formerly splitting it from the KPRF, with Zhukov at its head. The new communist youth group changed its name to SKM shortly thereafter and pledged its allegiance to the All-Russian Communist Party of the Future, which was liquidated in 2005. As of now there are at least three organizations claiming to be the true successor to the Soviet Komsomol. The Communist Youth League, SKM, the Communist Youth League of the Russian Federation, SKM RF, and a small splinter group called the Revolutionary Communist Youth League (Bolshevik), RKSM(b). The only ones that matter in communist political circles are the dueling SKM and SKM RF. The former claims a membership of 10,000, while the latter posts a number of 26,000. It’s enough to make your head spin.
Iuri Afonin, who leads the SKM RF and still supports the KPRF, saw the move as illegitimate and that it would have no real political impact. He told Kommersant that “nothing was lost” with the SKM’s defection. “This congress is illegitimate because the regional leaders of the organization weren’t present . . . All the regions work with us and all headquarters are registered as members of the KPRF.” The Moscow Times quoted Afonin calling the whole move a “farce” and suggested that Just Russia simply bought off Zhukov for “30 pieces of silver.”
Claims that the KPRF are out of touch with young Russians are understatements. Its constituency remains mostly among pensioners, which it rallies support with nostalgia for a Soviet past that could never be reclaimed. Judging from the organization’s rhetoric, it appears unwilling to accept that a new generation of post-Soviet youth has now been born, who have little knowledge of or interest in the past outside of vague feelings of national pride. Unfortunately, for the Communists this pride appears impossible to transform into real political capital.
The generational divide isn’t just between the Communists and potential new supporters, but as the statements from sympathetic communist youth attest, the generation gap is internal. But it seems that the reality is slowly setting in on some level. Gennady Zuganov recently announced that the KPRF will use the images of Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Alexandr Lukashenko as its main propaganda symbols during the upcoming election. The move is certainly a scheme to attract left wing youth who hold up these four as symbols of a global leftism and defiance to U.S. hegemony. The KPRF thinks that it can conquer cool. Good luck.