The Komsomol and Punk Rock

I’m currently reading Alexei Yurchak’s fascinating book, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation. Yurchak asks why did the Soviet system’s implosion “seemed so unexpected when it began, and at the same time so unsurprising and fast once it had occurred.” The contains numerous examples of the contradictory nature of Soviet life, where as citizens participated in the ritualized, pro forma ideological discourse, this very discourse allowed them to carve out what they called “normal meaningful life” that went beyond the state’s ideology.

Anyway, I hope to discuss Yurchak’s book in more detail once I finish reading it. What I want to present here is this interesting Komsomol document pictured on the left. The document has been floating around the internet for a while now. Yurchak states that it was published in Novaya gazeta in July 2003, but I didn’t find it in their archive.

Here is a translation:

Approved Copy

Workers of the World Unite!

For internal use only.

To Secretaries of Gorkoms and Raikoms of the Komsomol of Ukraine.

The following is an approximate list of foreign music groups and artists whose repertoires contain ideologically harmful compositions.

This information is recommended for the purpose of intensifying control over the activities of discotheques.

This information must be also provided to all VIA (vocal instrument ensembles) and youth discotheques in the region.

Secretary of the Obkom Komsomol, P. Grishin.

Approximate list of foreign music groups and artists whose repertoires contain ideologically harmful compositions.

Group Name

Type of Propaganda

1. Sex Pistols

Punk, violence

2. B-52s

Punk, violence

3. Madness

Punk, violence

4. Clash

Punk, violence

5. Stranglers

Punk, violence

6. Kiss

Neofascism, punk, violence

7. Crocus

Violence, cult of strong personality, violence, vandalism

8. Styx

violence, vandalism

9. Iron Maiden

Violence, religious obscurantism

10. Judas Priest

Anticommunism, racism

11. AC/DC

Neofascism, violence

12. Sparks

Neofascism, racism

23. Originals


13. Black Sabbath

Violence, religious obscurantism

24. Donna Summer


25. Tina Turner


14. Alice Cooper

Violence, vandalism

26. Junior English (reggae)


15. Nazareth

Violence, religious mysticism

27. Canned Heat


28. Munich Machine


16. Scorpions


29. Ramones


17. Gengis Khan

Anticommunism, nationalism

30. Van Halen

Anti-Soviet propaganda

31. Julio Iglesias


18. UFO


32. Yazoo

Punk, violence

19. Pink Floyd (1983)

Distortion of Soviet foreign policy (‘Soviet aggression in Afghanistan)

33. Depeche Mode

Punk, violence

34. Village People


35. Ten CC (10 cc)


20. Talking Heads

Myth of Soviet military threat

36. Stooges


37. Boys

Punk, violence

21. Perron


38. Blondie

Punk, violence

22. Bohannon



Head of the General Department of the Obkom of Komsomol E. Priazhinskaia

10 January 1985

This document is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it shows that Soviet youth were quite in tune to global youth culture. Soviet youth listened to the same metal and punk groups that were popular in the United States and Western Europe. Second, Komsomol moralists and ideologues had similar concerns of their Western counterparts. They were also afraid that rock, punk and metal spread violence, deviance, and sex among its listeners. Still, this list expresses concerns about ideology, specifically what the author’s labels “anticommunism” and “neofascism.” I am not sure what the latter means, but I can guess that it is a synonym for bourgeois ideology.

There are some funny miscategorizations in this list. For example, the Village People are denounced for “violence.” I have no idea where they got that idea. If anything they should have gotten the “homosexuality” label. Also Depeche Mode getting the “violence” label is equally laughable.

I suspect that while the documents shows that Soviet youth were quite hip to global youth culture, Komsomol leaders were not or at least played like they were. My guess this is a generational issue since the age between the Komsomol rank and file and their leaders grew in the postwar period. You could easily have a Komsomol Obkom secretary in his or her thirties, while the rank and file in the teens and twenties.

At any rate, I wanted to offer this document and its translation to readers so they could get a taste of the Soviet past.

Komsomol Capitalism

“Bastards! (сволочи!)” For the last week a women who sits in front of me in the reading room has been cursing documents as she thumbed through files of Komsomol protocols and resolutions from the late 1980s. I finally found out what she is working on the other day.

“They are all thieves,” she told me yesterday during tea. “They stole from me and Russia. During Komsomol meetings they were diving up the property of cooperatives, allocating money for projects and themselves.” The “they” are Russia’s oligarchs, many of which have fled the country as exiles. “Khodorkovsky’s name is everywhere,” she told me pointing to a document from 1991 that details funds going to one of the oil cooperatives and banks he “owned.” The protocol in the document allocated to him over a million dollars.

“You know,” I told her “many in the United States consider people like Khodorkovsky are considered heroes of democracy.” “Well, here they are all thieves.” And it was no wonder, she added, because Khodorkovsky was tied to American banks in the early 1990s.

This woman is working on an article she hopes to publish in Der Spiegel. The story of how leading cadres in the Komsomol allocated property to themselves is a fascinating story. It is a perfect picture of what might call primitive capitalist accumulation with all the theft, swindle and blood that goes with it. Everybody knows how elites the Communist Party, like Gazprom’s Viktor Chernomyrdin became instant billionaires. What is less known is how Communist Youth League cooperatives were used in the 1980s as a means to marketize the Soviet economy.

Gorbachev’s idea was good natured but na?ve. By rehabilitating the ideas of Nikolai Bukharin, Gorbachev hoped to revitalize the executed Bolshevik’s slogan “Enrich Yourselves!” and his ideas about socialist competition. Like in the 1920s, Komsomol cooperatives of the 1980s were subjected to market principles to foster competition with state enterprises. The competition, it was believed, would increase productivity and production quality. It is now called Komsomol capitalism.

Komsomol cooperatives were based in two industries: construction and technology. But archival documents might reveal a much wider breath of entrepreneurship. From the few documents, I was shown, the Komsomol was allocating funds to oil, banking, and publishing, all of which were run and later owned by key Komsomol cadres. This of course wasn’t Gorbachev’s idea. His idea was that using the Komsomol to experiment with market reforms was politically safe. The Party pumped funds into the organization for it to set up cooperatives. In the case of technology, it was hard currency since Komsomol members would buy old computer equipment from the West and refurbish it for big profits.

By the time the Soviet system collapsed, the now redundant Komsomol was awash with cash. The players in the organization quickly appropriated it and set up the first banks, and therefore were the first ones that had the ability to give credit. The Komsomol oligarchs also made out big in the privatization scandals of the 1990s where they took privatization shares for loans. The result was that many, like Khodorkovsky, became the owners of recently privatized state enterprises.

“I’ll take these documents to court if I have to,” the woman told me with hopes that an article based on archival documents will bring some justice. In fact, some of the documents she’s looking at were used in Khodorkovsky’s conviction. “The strange thing is that he didn’t believe he was guilty. This is why he didn’t flee to Israel or America like the others. But how could he think he was innocent!? His name is all over these documents. And there were laws on cooperatives that prevented their privatization. And the Komsomol was after all a social organization and therefore not theirs to take.”

The Russia that Was

The Library of Congress has an interesting online exhibit of photographs taken by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944). Prokudin-Gorskii’s photos record Russian everyday life around the on the eve of World War I. His subjects include peasants, monestaries, Russia’s many nationalities, agriculture and factory work as well as other subjects that give us an visual impression of Russia before its implosion in 1917. What is more, the Library of Congress took Prokudin-Gorskii’s negatives and turned them into color prints. The colorful portrait on the right of Alim Khan (1880-1944), the Emir of Bukhara, and the serene photo of the Church of the Resurrection in Kostroma are just two examples of an extraordinary collection. Another online exhibit of his work featured at the ?echtl and Vose?ek Museum of Photography in the Czech Republic can be found here.

Revisiting Florida’s Ban on "Revisionism"

Note to Readers: I’m veering away from Russia for a bit to revisit Florida’s Education Omnibus Bill.

For the last few days I’ve been looking for more media coverage of Florida’s Education Omnibus Bill (House 7087) which, among many things, provides standards for teaching history in Florida public schools. I first addressed the issue a few days ago here. Upon further research and thanks to a column written by David Davisson posted on George Manson’s University’s History News Network, it seems that Jonathan Zimmerman’s opinion on the matter is not entirely accurate. Davisson notes that Zimmerman’s quote, which I also quoted, “The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth…. American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed,” does not appear in the final version of the law. (Davisson also does us a service by providing us a link to the law so we can read it for ourselves. Readers can find it here. For the legislative history of the bill you can go here for the Florida Senate and here for the House.) This above quote appeared in earlier versions of the law, but was deleted from the final version. The LA Times has also printed a correction to Zimmerman’s column on this matter. The paragraph in question comes from this draft of the law. The entire paragraph reads:

“(g) The history of the United States, including the period of discovery, early colonies, the War for Independence, the Civil War, the expansion of the United States to its present boundaries, the world wars, and the civil rights movement to the present. The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth. American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” (italics mine)

This paragraph was added by Florida State Senator Mike Fasano (R). The italicized sentence above was removed from the paragraph and reads in the final version like this:

“(f) The history of the United States, including the period of discovery, early colonies, the War for Independence, the Civil War, the expansion of the United States to its present boundaries, the world wars, and the civil rights movement to the present. American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” (Section 1003.42, p. 22-3)

As both Davisson and Zimmerman note, all history is constructed. Historians gather evidence, interpret it and assemble it into a narrative. So to say that American history is factual is correct in the sense that something we call “facts” are used to write it. But to say that it is not constructed is a complete misunderstanding of a historian’s craft. People need to remember, history is not a science and historical narratives are not without interpretation. What one historians interprets in a text (and here I mean text in the broadest sense), may be interpreted differently by another. It is rather ironic that legislators, who spend hours arguing over the minutia of legal texts, can believe that texts, whether they are legal or otherwise, can stand above interpretation. All one needs to do is look at the legislative history of amendments and deletions of this law.

The fact that “postmodern” and “revisionist” are removed from the bill also doesn’t mean that they are not implied in the final version. To say that American history is not constructed is a veiled attack against those, like myself, who look at historical phenomenon as a result of contingency, power, ideology, culture, economics, politics etc, etc. To say that any history is based on incontrovertible facts suggests that facts stand outside of historical processes and matrices of power. To practice history the way Florida is suggesting is to essentially make history ahistorical. While people brandish “postmodernism,” “revisionist,” and “relativism” as political bludgeons, the truth of the matter is that those very people they accuse with such polemics are looking for, in my opinion, a deeper truth. It is not that so-called “postmodernists” say that there is no truth. They are saying that there is no truth without power, and mostly importantly these truths have very real material and ideological effects.

There is more in the law that suggests what I alluded to in my last piece with my reference to Louis Althusser and the role of education in maintaining hegemony of a particular class. In his seminal essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)” Althusser writes,

“[I]t is by an apprenticeship in a variety of know-how wrapped up in the massive inculcation of the ideology of the ruling class that the relations of production in a capitalist social formation, i.e. the relations of exploited to exploiters and exploiters to exploited, are largely reproduced. The mechanisms which produce this vital result for the capitalist regime are naturally covered up and concealed by a universally reigning ideology of the School, universally reigning because it is one of the essential forms of the ruling bourgeois ideology: an ideology which represents the school as a neutral environment purged of ideology . . .” (Lenin and Philosophy, 156)

This ideological concealment is found in sections of the law such as the following:

“(r) The nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy.” (Section 1003.42, p. 23)


“(t)(r) In order to encourage patriotism, the sacrifices that veterans have made in serving our country and protecting democratic values worldwide. Such instruction must occur on or before Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day. Members of the instructional staff are encouraged to use the assistance of local veterans when practicable.” (Section 1003.42, p. 24)

We shouldn’t pretend, whether you disagree with them or not, that these two sections are in any way ideologically neutral. To teach students the importance of “free enterprise” (they can’t even bring themselves to say capitalism) is to reproduce it as a foundational truth of American economy and society. It is to maintain the belief that there is no other “truth” but that one. It also functions to reproduce, as Althusser suggests, “the relations of exploited to exploiters and exploiters to exploited” since social relationship capital forms between those two groups is at the heart of “free enterprise.”

Such is also the case for the second quoted section. Not only does it sit well with the first since we are always taught that free enterprise and democracy have no contradiction, it serves to maintain, perpetuate and veil American foreign policy for the last century as an essentially selfless and virtuous enterprise committed to spreading “democratic values.” In addition, this ideological message is to be made real by employing those who have sacrificed for us and the unstated Other. American policy is not just for us; it is “worldwide.” As Althusser argues throughout his essay, the coordination of institutions (veterans organizations, the school), ritual (holidays mediated by the State like Memorial Day and Veterans Day) and ideology interpellates subjects making them into “concrete individuals” that embody the dominant ideology (for the discussion on interpellation see Althusser, p. 170-183).

There is more in this bill. Some of which is horrendous like “(3) Any student whose parent makes written request to the school principal shall be exempted from the teaching of reproductive health or any disease, including HIV/AIDS, its symptoms, development, and treatment” (Section 1003.42, p. 24) Sex education whatever, but HIV/AIDS!? The bill also places sexual abstinence under “comprehensive health: “(n)(m) Comprehensive health education that addresses concepts of community health; consumer health; environmental health; family life, including an awareness of the benefits of sexual abstinence as the expected standard and the consequences of teenage pregnancy” (Section 1003.42, p. 23). I guess students can’t get a written parental exemption to avoid being subjected to the tortures of abstinence rhetoric.

Some of the bill is good. It calls for including African-Americans, “Hispanics,” women’s contributions of the United States. It also includes a provision against Holocaust denial. And many other provisions stress community, charity, tolerance to religions, races, culture and ethnicities (though tolerance to different sexualities isn’t included). There is even a provision for teaching “kindness to animals.” Even with all this included in the history curriculum, we should be clear: they are present because they are part of or have been subsumed into the narrative of American history, a history where even with its paeans to tolerance, diversity, democracy is constructed to reproduce, not challenge the dominant ideology of the ruling class.

Muslims in the Russian/Soviet Empire

The historiography on the relationship between Muslims, the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union has become a cottage industry in Eurasian historical studies. A slew of books have come out in the last five years as researchers think about the reasons for the dissolution of the Russian/Soviet Empire and the state’s relationships with its Muslim subjects/citizens. Both the Chechen War and GWOT have made this interest even timelier.

There are too many books to list, and frankly my knowledge of this burgeoning topic is not as good as it should be. And that is more the reason to start putting my ear to the street and note new studies on the subject. First, for those who have access to academic journals, I point you to the Summer 2006 issue of the Slavic Review (vol. 65, no. 2). This issue features a forum called “The Multiethnic Soviet Union in Comparative Perspective.” Adeeb Khalid’s comparative essay on the Soviet and Turkish state’s relations with its ethnic groups and the applicability of postcolonial analysis is worth a read.

More accessible to readers is University of Michigan professor and specialist in Russian/Soviet nationalities, Ron Suny’s review in the Moscow Times of Stanford University professor Robert Crews’ For Prophet and Tsar. This potentially interesting new book examines the question of Russian-Muslim relations in the 18th and 19th century. Suny notes that Crews makes a novel contribution, if not a revision, of the standard story of Russian oppression of its Muslim subjects. Instead, Crews shows that while oppression did exist, the relationship between Tsar and Muslim religious elites were one of integration and collaboration. As Suny explains via Crews,

“Historians have usually depicted tsarist Russia’s treatment of its Islamic peoples as a story of repression, Russification and constant conflict between Christian rulers and their tens of millions of Muslim subordinates. That indelible image continued to color the analysis of Soviet rule of the Central Asian peoples, and conflicts like the war in Chechnya only confirm the idea of the eternal clash of Orthodox and Islamic civilizations. Stanford professor Robert D. Crews tells quite a different story in For Prophet and Tsar. He demonstrates how tsars used religion as a foundation for popular loyalty to the autocracy and as a means of disciplining and regulating the heterogeneous population of their vast realm. Religion, rather than language or nationality, was the principal identification of peoples in the empire. The law required every subject to be a member of a confessional community and to obey the clerical authorities of that community. The faiths of Muslims, Jews and Buddhists, as well as the non-Orthodox Christians — Protestants, Catholics and Armenian Apostolics — were officially recognized and integrated into the system of local governance. Over time, Muslims and others adapted to the tsarist religious regime “as a potential instrument of God’s will,” accepted (though not without contestation) the clerics sanctioned by the state and used official institutions to help regulate their own members and settle disputes among them.”

Sounds like a fascinating study and not just because it challenges our standard view of the relationship between empire and subject; it also gives us a better picture of the intersection of religion and modern practices of state efforts to regulate, subjugate, and discipline its populations. I hope to find time to read Crews’ study.

Florida Bans Historical "Revisionism"

Though the following has little do with Russia, (though one might think of it in terms of the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy forced down historians’ throats in the Soviet period), it concerns my profession and thus my livelihood. The state of Florida has passed and Jeb Bush has signed a bill banning “revisionist” history from Florida public schools. New York University professor Jonathan Zimmerman takes the bill to task in a
column in the LA Times. Essentially, the bill prevents the teaching of “revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth.” American history is not to be taught as “constructed,” but based on historical “facts.” Forget that these nimrods in the Florida Legislature haven’t a clue about what they are talking about. I don’t think passing intellectual judgments on philosophy and complicated historical methodologies should be left to legislators. But references to such charged terms like “postmodernism” and French post-structuralism are enough to incite fear in those who are trying to protect the sanctity of American history. By sanctity, I mean a history that not only tells the story of the powerful in historical terms (usually a history where white, wealthy males are the primary historical agents), but more importantly reproduces their hegemony in the present. The rich and powerful’s right to rule is thus naturalized in history. The only role for history is, as Althusser suggested, to “reproduce the means of ideological reproduction.”

History in Florida public schools is not taught so students can challenge how there are many pasts, and a multiplicity of understandings of them. They are taught that there is a singular historical narrative for America. This of course is the worst aspect of “revisionism” in that it’s state sponsored. In addition, as Zimmerman cogently points out the bill is based on a misconception about the history of the historical profession:

“Ironically, the Florida law is itself revisionist history. Once upon a time, it theorizes, history — especially about the founding of the country — was based on facts. But sometime during the 1960s, all that changed. American historians supposedly started embracing newfangled theories of moral relativism and French postmodernism, abandoning their traditional quest for facts, truth and certainty.

The result was a flurry of new interpretations, casting doubt on the entire past as we had previously understood it. Because one theory was as good as another, then nothing could be true or false. God, nation, family and school: It was all up for grabs.

There’s just one problem with this history-of-our-history: It’s wrong.

Hardly a brainchild of the flower-power ’60s, the concept of historical interpretation has been at the heart of our profession from the 1920s onward. Before that time, to be sure, some historians believed that they could render a purely factual and objective account of the past. But most of them had given up on what historian Charles Beard called the “noble dream” by the interwar period, when scholars came to realize that the very selection of facts was an act of interpretation.

That’s why Cornell’s Carl Becker chose the title “Everyman His Own Historian” for his 1931 address to the American Historical Assn., probably the most famous short piece of writing in our profession. In it, Becker explained why “Everyman” — that is, the average layperson — inevitably interpreted the facts of his or her own life, remembering certain elements and forgetting (or distorting) others.”

As one UCLA historian said to me when I told him about the law, “Isn’t revising history our job!?” Indeed. I wonder if American historians will have to one day perform the American equivalent to Soviet historians’ “Lenin sandwich” to get around the censors. For those who don’t know what the “Lenin sandwich” was, it was when Soviet historians in the 1960s and 1970s would begin and end their works with a quote from Lenin to evade censors and basically write decent histories in-between.

Such is the present strength of anti-intellectualism in American political culture. To think I thought all these tired debates about “revisionism”, “postmodernism,” “relativism,” and historical “facts” were sorted out in the 1990s. God I hope that this isn’t a sign of their return, especially since the above terms have been so watered down and popularized that they hardly retain any of their former intellectual rigor.

Gulag Tunes

I’m not a big connoisseur of Russian music. My knowledge of it barely extends past ???????. And that’s because they constantly ran that damn ???? ???? video on MTV when I was in Russia. That said, the Moscow Times features a must have album in their Context section: Gulag Tunes: Melodies and Rhymes from the Gulag. Gulag Tunes combines Russian prison songs (??????? ?????) with surf music. I’ve been a fan of surf music since I had my Man or Astroman phase about ten years ago. The cover of Gulag Tunes, featured to the right, is worth its weight in gold. It pictures Stalin with a Hawaiian necklace of skulls, hovering over a silhouette of a prison camp.

As the Times describes the creation of the record:

Drinking red wine in an outdoor cafe, Antipov told the story of the album’s creation while seated next to his wife, Yelena, who translated the song titles into English and lived alongside the recording process in the couple’s home studio.

Antipov recalled how he recorded a couple of songs in the surf-music style and played them to rock critic Artyom Troitsky, who became the album’s producer. “Troitsky said that it was a great idea, and that I should develop it; that it would be possible to make a whole album, and maybe even more than one, because the topic is very rich, and there is a lot of material,” he said.

“No one has ever done this before, although the idea is lying on the surface. It’s an obvious thing,” he commented.

The album doesn’t have vocals. “If you know the words, you can sing along,” Antipov said. He made the album with guitarist Maxim Temnov, who is an expert on musical arrangements of blatniye pesni, and has also performed with the band Leningrad.

“Many of the authors really did write the songs while they were in the camps,” Antipov said, although he added that determining precise authorship can be tricky. The songs often have eight to 10 different versions. Some were performed by officially approved Soviet artists such as singer Leonid Utyosov, but the lyrics were often changed.

Songs reflecting gulag experiences include “Vaninsky Port,” which has the lyrics “May you be damned, Kolyma,” referring to the infamous region in northeastern Siberia that was home to a network of Stalin-era prison camps. The song continues, “You will lose your mind against your will. From there, there is no way back.”

“The album brought some people to tears,” Yelena Antipova said. After an initial printing of 1,000 copies, 300 were sold during the first week alone in Soyuz stores, despite a lack of promotion from the company.

Some blatniye pesni date back to the 19th century, while others were composed in the Soviet era. Originally, they were performed to the accompaniment of a seven-stringed guitar and accordion, Antipov said. The subjects are “love and betrayal, life and death, and freedom and imprisonment.”

Apparently a second album is in the works.

You can get more information and listen to a few of the Gulag Tunes at the album’s MySpace page.

The Impact of the Komsomol, Past and Present

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.

Life In and Out of Control

Obsession about the quality of Russian youth is not new. In a 1928 study on the daily life of Russian youth titled Life Out of Control (Zhizn’ bez kontroliia) sociologist and moralist V. Ketlinskaia wrote,

We want our youth to be strong, hard-working, optimistic, and energetic. It must have unsullied heads, masterful hands, a healthy body, and cheerful mood. And for this, the youth’s lives—both social and private—must be normal and healthy. It is known that family discord, casual sex, abortion, venereal and feminine (sic) diseases, “alimony issues” and other accompaniments to a an unorganized sexual life strongly destroys the health, rattles the nerves, and kills the good spirits and energy of youth. It is necessary to organize the sexual habits (byt) of youth so that they don’t destroy the strength of youth, but assist in the knowledge of health and physical strength of the young generation. (5-6)

In the 1920s hundreds of studies on youth sexuality, everyday life, health, work, living conditions, etc were conducted in factories, schools, the Komsomol, villages, and the military. For the Bolsheviks, the concern was centered on the debilitating influence of the “bourgeois culture” of the New Economic Policy on worker and peasant youth, as well as how this would affect the politics and culture of the Komsomol and ultimately the future of socialism in Russia. Making “youth” the object of social inquiry and moral regulation continued throughout the Soviet period.

The focus on sex, health, and psychology aside, (these tended to be grouped together in late 19th century and early 20th century studies on youth), the main point is about preventing the degeneration of youth. Degeneration was a constant obsession in all Western countries at the time, and if current reporting on youth is any indication, “degeneration” remains a social and political concern even though it is crouched in different terminology.

In the end, what youth in general and Russian youth in particular are is grounded in the anxiety or hopes of adults. Their voices are often heard but rarely listened to, as their words are stuffed into a prefab narrative to justify or condemn.

Russia Profile has given three examples of how youth remains the fascination of Russia’s adult population: “Russia’s Youth: Myths and Reality”; “Why Are Young People Rehabilitating Stalin?”; and “Playing on Old Myths”. Though none of them are specifically concerned with sex, all three echo the general concern Ketlinskaia raised almost 80 years ago: What is today’s youth? And how will “what they are” effect not only the present, but the future of the nation?

What strikes me about these articles, and ironically many of the ones written in the Soviet Union, the United States and Europe at the turn of the last century, is how similar they are despite ideological and temporal difference. Youth is always the signifier for adult anxiety, whether it be their attitudes to sex, politics, history, economics, education, patriotism, and the nation. Often youth are categorized with negative terms—ignorance, flippant, na?ve, egotistic, apathetic—though adults at the same time want them to be the opposite of all these. Youth are passive political subjects that are easily manipulated. Youth rarely have agency of itself and for itself. When this agency is recognized, it is usually denounced as too radical, misguided, or idealist.

Take for example, the paragraph from Alexei Kiva “Why Are Young People Rehabilitating Stalin?”:

Watching these television series, [youth] see Stalin as a larger-than-life figure in whom evil and greatness are combined. The creators of both series have repeatedly said they were trying to emphasize Stalin’s crimes so, rather, the problem lies with the view of history among the young.

Mature, educated adults watching these series see Stalin as a monster as his whims seal the fate of the series’ main characters and the country descends into poverty and suffering. But young people are used to hearing about their country being rocked by crime, economic crises and suffering one defeat after another on the international stage. They see every day how people flaunt their ill-gotten wealth harming the country with their immoral acts and feeling no shame or fear of retribution.

Because they know little about the facts about life in the Stalin years, young people perceive even “glamorous” overtones in these programs. The average young viewer sees Stalin as a Shakespearean character of both great evil and great genius.

Putting aside Kiva’s point about Stalin, look at how youth are positioned versus adults. Youth are the ones who are manipulated by the “larger than life” images of Stalin. The problem is not with the cultural production, which is made by adults, but with “the view of history among the young.” “Mature, educated adults” however have the correct historical view because they see Stalin as a “monster.” Adults have some sort of inherent access to the light, while young people remain in darkness by virtue of their youth.

A much different picture is created when you actually listen to youth’s voices. Contrast the above with an excerpt from Dmitry Polikanov’s “Russia’s Youth: Myths and Reality”. His assessment, which is based on VTsIOM (the All-Russia Center for Public Opinion Research) opinion polls, paints a much more positive picture.

Young people are also proactive. They have a totally different view of the role of state in the economy and the social sphere in comparison with other age groups. It is clear that the new generation is drifting more toward a traditional liberal world and away from traditions of paternalism. Thirty-seven to 42 percent of respondents in this age group say that they can do without help from the state, which they believe should focus instead on providing basic equal opportunities for all.

In order to achieve success, many 18-to-24-year-old respondents are ready to jettison existing moral principles that officially upheld by the older generation (62 percent). This view is shared by only 50 percent of those from the older group (25-to-34-year olds), who belong partly to a Soviet code of morality.

Therefore, the younger generation is one made up of optimistic realists trying to find a balance between universal liberty (in income and morality) and conservatism for all (with regard to family values).

Polikanov finds that Russian youth’s idols are not Stalin, but rather predictably actors, rock stars, sports stars, and the rich. Politically they tend to be more socially liberal, while politically moderate. The far left and right are mostly marginal, and in terms of youth organizations, Nashi is viewed more positively than the National Bolsheviks mostly because the former is “perceived as offering help up the career ladder through involvement with actual groups in power and social networking.” With youths like these adults can sleep soundly.

Much of the ambivalence in what youth are is lost among the anxiety ridden articles about the rise of Russian nationalism or every protest staged by the National Bolsheviks or the Red Youth Vanguard. I’ve been partly guilty of this myself as I too am fascinated by political radicalism among youth. Youth radicalism must be placed in a context in order to evaluate its potency.

The question however, and this is something I am dealing with in my own academic work is how do we represent youth so they are representing themselves? One way is to stop thinking of them as passive political subjects that are more susceptible than adults to political or ideological manipulation. They are political agents in their own right. The history of the 20th century shows this as will certainly that of the 21st.

Showing Stalin the Love

The question “Why do Russians love Stalin?” continues to fascinate observers but often serves as a means for them to paint Russians as inherently “abnormal,” authoritarian and violent. I think that Professor Andrei P. Tsygankov of San Francisco State University has given one of the most reasonable explanations why Russians continue to look favorably toward Stalin. Here is a snippet, but I encourage readers to check out the whole thing.

It is misleading to interpret strong public support for the revolution, Stalin or the Soviet Union as evidence for the Russians’ inability to come to grips with their past. Instead, such support confirms their refusal to come to grips with the present situation of mass poverty, coupled with a largely inefficient and persistently corrupt state. In the public mind, Yeltsinism, as a system that has created such a state, lives on. Unsurprisingly, a growing sympathy for Stalin strongly correlates with feelings of being “abandoned” by the state. Rather than being an outlandish authoritarian response, it is a natural, protest-like reaction to the political system of the 1990s many features of which remain part of everyday reality. Anywhere in the world people would withdraw their support for a state that consistently denies them sense of dignity and a decent level of living standards. State ability to formulate a paternalistic popular vision continues to matter. For example, Americans seem to love Ronald Reagan because he restored their sense of dignity (even while undermining middle class and economic foundations). French people think highly of Charles De Gaulle partly because the state was then socially paternalistic and autonomous.

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