Guest: Seth Bernstein on Raised Under Stalin: Young Communists and the Defense of Socialism.
Svetlana Stephenson is a Reader in Sociology at London Metropolitan University. Her research has involved studying informal and criminal social networks in Russia as well as perceptions of social justice and human rights in a comparative context. She is the author of Gangs of Russia, From the Streets to the Corridors of Power published by Cornell University Press in 2015.
N.W.A, “Straight Outta Compton,” Straight Outta Compton, 1988 (clean version, unfortunately).
Julie Hemment, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts where she specializes in Russia, post-socialism, gender and transition, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and global civil society. She is the author of Youth Politics in Putin’s Russia: Producing Patriots and Entrepreneurs.
Cathy Frierson, professor of modern Russian history at the University of New Hampshire. Her books include Peasant Icons: Representations of Rural People in Late 19th Century Russia, All Russia is Burning: A Cultural History of Fire and Arson in Late Imperial Russia, Children of the Gulag, and most recently Silence was Salvation: Child Survivors of Stalin’s Terror and WWII in the Soviet Union.
“Who has the youth has the future!” Martin Luther declared. As object-subjects of modern states, youth serve as the key to reproducing of the means of reproduction. They perpetuate the nation and its institutions. Adults, therefore, seek, to play on Marx, to create youth after their own image. Yet, Russian youth defy capture. According to a recent study by Olga Kryshtanovskaya, Russian youth remain unmoored, disorientated, and incapable of finding their footing in present day Russia. Twenty years after the collapse of communism, “they have no established sense of Russian society and their place in it.” When young Russians look across the political landscape and peer at its various parties, movements, and personalities, they feel a profound sense of alienation. “This is one of the signs that the Russian political system finds itself in crisis,” says Pavel Salin, the director of the Center of Political Research.
Or is it? They certainly threaten the stability of Putin’s political corporatism. But they speak directly to the other side of Putinism: neoliberalism. And their experience with an economic structure that requires an unmoored, apathetic, cynical, and individuated citizenry places them on par with destabilized educated young people the world over. Like their Western counterparts, the respondents in Kryshtanovskaya survey are urban, educated, “middle class,” and politically liberal yet socially and economically adrift. The system doesn’t represent them, and they don’t have or desire a collective social identity to represent themselves.
If there is one word that characterizes the neoliberal experience of Russian youth it’s paradox. Kryshtanovskaya’s report is suffused with it suggesting a cohort split between pathos and reason, present doom and future salvation, and heralds of the nation and its discontents. Statements like “many working youth consider themselves unemployed;” “parties in the present Russian political system don’t correspond to their ideological labels;” young people talking of social calamity but don’t see “a national catastrophe as a serious danger;” and they are politically apathetic but speak of a “revolutionary apocalypse” suggests a non-place in Russia’s current conjecture. Russian youth inhabit the crevices of a paradoxical present.
Just when you thought Pussy Riot would fade into the media ether (Gazeta.ru removed its “Pussy Riot Affair” link from its main page, after all.), the rage continues–from all sides. And now there’s plans to form a new Orthodox youth organization. Will it help swell the ranks of the street fighting faithful. Initial signs appear doubtful.
Still, there’s been a burst of Orthodox militancy of late. Here’s a list of recent events: A call for Orthodox believers to form patrol squads to tag along with police to combat “enemies of the faith” (Thankfully, the police declined). The outspoken Father Vsevolod Chaplin blesses the measure, saying that “It’s a step in right direction.” A group of Orthodox activists descends on G-Spot, a museum of erotic art in Moscow, with bricks in hand and threaten its curator, Alexander Donskoi. A similar group of Orthodox, accompanied by a NTV camera crew, no less, burst into Teatr.doc to disrupt a so-called “Eyewitness theater” where a panel of witnesses to the Pussy Riot trial were giving their impressions.
Then there are reports that Alexandr Sidyakin, the United Russia deputy who came up with the law upping the fines on protests, is working on a blasphemy law based on the German and Austrian codices. He later denied that any such law is in the works.
For their part, the so-called “enemies of faith” have not remained silent. On 17 August, the bare-chested activists of FEMEN cut down a cross in central Kiev to protest Pussy Riot’s two year prison sentence. Then ten days later, a previously unknown group, Narodnaya Volia, or People’s Will, the namesake of the 19th century Russian terrorist group, took a chainsaw to three crosses in village of Smelovsky in Chelyabinsk Province and another in the district of Varavino-Faktoriya in Arkhangelsk. According to Narodnaya Volia’s statement:
“The cutting down of the Russia Orthodox Church crosses in the village of Smelovsky, Verkhneuralsky District of the Chelyabinsk Region and in the city district Varavino-Faktoriya in Arkhangelsk is part of our operation against the Russian Orthodox Church called Krestopoval and was carried out by the military wing of our Movement, the flight combat units Neizvestnyye [the Unknown]. . . Russian Orthodox Church signs are a response to the statement on the creation of Orthodox militia, the Russian Orthodox Church’s reprisal of the Russian girls from Pussy Riot, and the insult by Archpriest Dimitrii Smirnov of the prominent Russian revolutionary movement leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. . . We demand the immediate release of the Pussy Riot members. Attacks against the Russian Orthodox Church will continue until our demands are fully met.”
Then there is this week’s Russian tabloid sensation: two women were found murdered in Kazan with “Free Pussy Riot” written on the wall in their blood. RuNet was immediately ablaze with all kinds of conspiracy theories (Why didn’t initial reports mention the blood tinged “Free Pussy Riot”? The cops must have planted it . . . ) and cries of provocation from Pussy Riot supporters, and their denunciation by Pussy Riot foes (Archpriest Smirnov: “The blood of the murdered women of Kazan is on the conscious of Pussy Riot’s supporters”). The cops immediately dismissed any real connection to Pussy Riot and passed it off as the work of a crazy person.
The police were right: the killer turned himself in and revealed that his Charley Mansonesque scrawl was meant to throw off the cops.
Sill, the discourse on Pussy Riot gained new intensity.
And now Vedomosti reports that there are plans to create the All-Russian Association of Orthodox Youth. Interesting timing. Actually, the idea seems that have been in the works as Putin was asked about it at this year’s Seliger summer bash. He supported the idea as long as it didn’t become “a new quasi-Orthodox Komsomol.” Wouldn’t that be ironic if it did?
The Pussy Riot Affair only gave the idea of a Orthodox youth organization more purpose. According to Vadim Kvyatkovskii, the meeting’s coordinator, Pussy Riot showed that missionary efforts among youth require intensification. Surveys have shown that youth tend to support Pussy Riot more and often have negative views of the Orthodox Church. That said, Pussy Riot bogey-women have the potential to draw religiously inclined youth into defending the faith. During the trial, the church affiliated group Georgievtsy increased its membership from 400 to 600. Even United Russia’s youth wing, Molodaya gvardiia is looking to get into the act. It’s leader, Maksim Rudnev, said that there is room to work with Kvyatkovskii’s new Orthodox youth organization.
But perhaps its too soon to lump Kvyatkovskii’s group in with the Orthodox fanatics. Pussy Riot may spark new earnest, but not militant urgency. One sign of this is that Kvyatkovskii has ruled out the idea of his new youth group joining the Orthodox patrols. When asked about his position on the matter in an interview on Slon.ru, he responded:
Militias are a form of united citizens, but no more. In general, I don’t know of a single such voluntary patrol really existing. I know that where were several PR efforts, but I am not confident that this most effective way to unite youth. For example, we have young guys actively participating in helping Krymsk. This experience showed them that such volunteer groups now have much more demand. We aren’t very close with the tendencies toward some conservatism. On the contrary, we talk about the openness of the church and our activities, and we are prepared to make steps towards any interested people. Therefore we are not close or interested in the idea of a street patrol as some kind of watchdog.
It seems that in the search for new militants, Russian Orthodoxy’s street fighting men will have to look elsewhere.
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.