Guest: Andy Willimott on Living the Revolution: Urban Communes & Soviet Socialism, 1917-1931 published Oxford University Press.
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.
I’ve been going through Komsomolskaya pravda for 1928 collecting articles on whatever I find interesting. And there’s a lot–1928 was a tumultuous year. Articles about the spread of fascism in Europe, particularly in Germany and Poland, and an increasing numbers of communist victims in Mussolini’s Italy were plastered across its pages. The war scare of 1927 spawned a rush of military preparedness among youth in the summer months of 1928. I can’t count how many articles about komsomols marching around Moscow with guns in hand conducting war games. War was in the air.
The firing ranges and marching columns of ersatz soldiers were just the beginning of the war games. The entire Komsomol organization was transformed into a virtual army as it shifted into high gear with the adoption of campiagnism. The targets for their operations, however, were not the fascists abroad, but society itself. There were Komsomol campaigns against illiteracy, campaigns for grain, campaigns for culture, campaigns against alcohol, campaigns against bureaucracy, and campaigns for this and campaigns for that. Komsomolskaya pravda‘s militaristic tone gave all these “fronts,” “battles,” “armies” and “cavalries” against the ills that plagued the Soviet social body a dire sense of desperation. In retrospect, all of this faux civil war rhetoric would prove to be a prelude to the real civil war against the countryside the next year.
Anxiety over the enemy without had its parallel for the enemy within. The Shakhty Trial and its “lessons” ignited the hunt for more wreckers and masked enemies. The Komsomol intensified its hunt to weed out the sons and daughters of Nepmen, priests, and kulaks and the generally corrupt and debauched from its ranks. The slogan fueling this hunt was samokritika, or self-criticism. Namely, this was the “rank and file” exercising “democracy” through the denunciation and expulsion of its leaders for their “immoral” behavior.
While the wave of denunciations shed light on the increasingly authoritarianism within the Komsomol, such acts, as the following short article from Kom pravda shows, were not without comedic elements
Two from the District Committee
“Mama won’t stand for it”
The extraordinary plenum of the Kupian district committee LKSM was alerted.
“To what affair? What happened?”
The question was soon answered. The secretary of the district committee, cde. Efanov reported that on these days the deputies of the organizational department and agitation and propaganda were fired and removed from the buro.
“For what reasons?”
Cde. Popov, the deputy of the org dept., an old komsomol and member of the Party, bragged to komsomols about his relations with prostitutes. Another member of the buro, Kashevatskii, on the contrary, preferred Komsomol girls. A fleeting relation and then abortion characterizes this district “Lion.” Doctors refused komsomolka B. an abortion. [Kashevatskii] had to marry her. But he found the words to explain his refusal:
“Well, how can I marry you? Think of it: I’m a Jew and you’re Russian. My mama won’t stand for this.”
His mother’s interests won out. B. decided to get an abortion. Sometime after, she became deranged and finally committed suicide. But Kashevatskii’s mother profoundly believes in the dovelike purity of her son.
The district plenum drove the rotten from the committee, and Kashevatskii from the League.
Komsomolskaya pravda August 28, 1928.
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.
Ninety years ago this week, 194 delegates from youth groups from all over revolutionary Russia met to consolidate themselves into an all-Russian youth organization. Of the 194 delegates, 176 had voting rights, (the rest had the right to speak but not vote). The voting delegates claimed to represent 120 different youth groups with a total membership of 21,000. The core groups were two pro-Bolshevik groups, the Socialist League of Worker youth based in Petrograd and the Third International from Moscow. Of the delegates, half (88) were Bolshevik Party members, 38 were communist sympathizers, and 45 were non-party youth. Also present were three Social Democratic Internationalists, one Left Socialists Revolutionary, and one Anarchist. The week long conference, which ran from 29 October to 4 November finalized the creation of the Russian Communist Youth League, or Komsomol.
To commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Komsomol, SRB will follow the history, reminiscence, and celebrations occurring throughout Russia over the next week.
Да здравствует Комсомол!
Robert Amsterdam’s blog has a translation of a fascinating Kommersant Vlast’ article (the Russian version is here along with some great photos.) on one of the more peculiar forms of early Soviet propaganda: the agitation trial. The article argues that agitsudy were one of the ways “the Bolsheviks managed to change the attitude of tens of millions of people towards the repressions being conducted by them.” I’m quite familiar with agitsudy and their role in fostering a Soviet-style morality among the illiterate masses. I have a few copies of these court room dramas. They come in such stiff names as Trial of Sexual Promiscuity and Trial of Hooligans. I use one titled Trial of a Komsomol or Komsomolka for Breaking League Discipline in my discussion of Komsomol expulsion.
Here is a description of what a typical agitsud looked like:
The most serious attention was devoted to imparting to the staged trial full similitude with a real one. In one of the instructions was said:
“The space where the staged trial is put on must itself recall the general appearance of a courtroom. On a dais – the stage in the auditorium or on a specially cobbled-together platform is placed a table, covered with red cloth. At the table are three chairs: for the chairman and the two members of the court. At the left side – a rostrum for the defender, at the right – the same kind of rostrum for the prosecutor. Somewhat deeper – a table for the secretary and the stenographer. At the sides two doors – one, leading to the “Deliberations room”, the other – to the “Witness [room]”. Somewhat below the level of the stage – a special dais for the defendant.
From this same dais appear the witnesses as well. The stage is decorated with portraits of Lenin, people’s commissar of justice Kursky, the procurator of the republic Krylenko and so forth. On the walls halls posters with slogans: “The proletarian court defends the conquests of the October revolution”, “The proletarian court defends the interests of working people”, pictures of an old and a new courts, photos from our correctional houses, diagrams giving a general impression about the work of our proletarian courts, excerpts from our constitution concerning the proletarian court, codes of laws and so forth printed in large letters.”
It was stipulated very strictly that the trial must not last longer than 4-4.5 hours, otherwise the viewers may tire and lose interest in what is going on. In an appendix to certain plays was appended a time sheet for every stage and every appearance. Moreover, it was especially underscored that the reading of the accusatory conclusion [bill of indictment] for the avoidance of that same loss of interest and attention must not extend for more than 20 minutes. They began to make special demands also of the quality of the accusatory conclusion. It was recommended that it be written by some kind of worker of the procuracy. And about the course of the subsequent “judicial examination” were given the most detailed and concrete indications:
“In order that some kind of bickering begin between the chairman and the defendant (this enlivens the general testimony of the defendant, interrupting his monologue with dialogue), they arrange in advance with the defendant about how he will intentionally drag out his word. The chairman interrupts him with the retort:
“‘I ask you, citizen N, to speak more briefly and closer to the matter at hand!’
“The defendant seeks support from the people’s assessors and complains that they are not letting him speak, that he can not calmly tell everything in order, that they are terrorizing him.
“It is good if at this time someone from the instigators would shout from his seat: ‘You, comrade chairman, don’t muzzle the defendant, we’ve got us a proletarian court here, and everyone can say all he knows’, while another instigator would interrupt him: ‘But if he’s spewing all sorts of garbage and completely, it can be said, not on the matter at hand, then what, the proletarian court is obligated to listen to him and waste time plain and simple.’
“Such sparring between the two instigators will evoke a certain noise in the hall, squirming on the chairs of the defender and prosecutor, the ring [Russian equivalent of “gavel”] of the chairman, while all this will enliven the session.”
Literally everything was regimented – from the character of the testimonies of witnesses and experts to the speeches of the prosecutor, defender and defendant. In essence, in political cases the defense lawyer was supposed to not defend the defendant, but together with the procurator recognize his guilt and ask for leniency due to mitigating circumstances. Thus did they slowly and quietly habituate the population to [the idea] that they do not put the guiltless on trial in the USSR.
A good description, but a few over statements. First, while agitsudy scripts provided guidelines to how to stage and conduct them, there was no guarantee that directives from “above” were followed “below.” Quite the opposite usually. Plus even after 1925, trial scripts encouraged local troupes to adapt their performances to local conditions. Many of their scripts were actually written locally. Second, there is a question to how widespread these trials were. Hundreds were written and published, but their distribution was quite small. Far smaller than newspapers, which the article rightly says hardly reached even information hungry (and literate) citizens. Therefore, I doubt “millions” of people were exposed to them.
Most of these trials were more like moral plays rather than about political enemies. Most dealt with religion, sex, martial relations, hygiene, and other ethical norms. There were some overtly political ones, especially those during the Civil War, where Red Army agitators staged mock trials of White generals–Denekin, Wrangel, and others–or to promote Bolshevik propaganda, like the Trial of Lenin.
Also, many mock trials from the 1920s were scripted to have an open ended judgment. The audience was encouraged to discuss possible verdicts according to a kind of multiple choice list. It was only in the 1930s that they became more didactic and predictable. A few historians have tried to make a direct connection between these agitation trials and the great show trials of the 1930s. Elizabeth Wood’s Performing Justice: Agitation Trials In Early Soviet Russia and Julie Cassiday’s The Enemy on Trial: Early Soviet Courts on Stage and Screen are two such examples. I remain unconvinced of their overall impact on both citizens’ moral and political outlook. At most, agitsudy belong to a whole range of mechanisms that promoted (often unsuccessfully) a particular Soviet ideological worldview.
In fact, agitation trials weren’t even a Bolshevik invention (when it came to forms of agitation, the Bolsheviks invented rather little). Nor were their Tsarist predecessors only about students putting literary characters on trials as the article suggests. Tsarist moralists organized agitation trials pretty much around the same topics as the Bolsheviks–hygiene, sex, morality, sobriety, and other topics– as a means to “enlighten” a mostly illiterate population.
The Tsarist mock trials weren’t widespread either and had minimal impact on peasant morality. When it comes to promoting a “legal consciousness” on a mass level, you would have to turn to the volost court and its Soviet predecessor, the people’s courts. To my knowledge, there has yet to be a study of the Soviet people’s courts, mostly because I think people incorrectly assume they were vapid ideological shells. There has been a study of the volost court. These, as Stephen Frank shows in his Crime, Cultural Conflict, and Justice in Rural Russia, 1856-1914, were quite popular and their outcomes, often to the chagrin of Russia intelligentsia, reflected community norms rather than the “law.” And if the justice metered out by the court didn’t jive with the community, the latter took matters into their own hands via charivari, or samosud, a practice which incidentally continues to this day.
So everyone is declaring Nashi’s death. According to Kommersant and other Russian media, Nashi plans on shutting down 45 of its 50 branches. All that will remain are chapters in Tula, Ivanovo, Vladimir, Voronezh, and Yaroslavl. The consensus reasoning is that Nashi has outlived its purpose. Russia is no longer threatened by “colored revolution,” which Nashi was created to battle, and some feel the pro-Kremlin group has gotten of control. Perhaps even downright embarrassing to its Kremlin sponsors. Nashi’s persistent protests against Estonia over the Bronze Soldier have gone beyond containment. The last straw appears to have been when the EU began denying Schengen visas to Nashisty. In an act of defiance, organization protests in front of the European Commission in Moscow and some of its member decided to illegally enter the EU anyway. Both acts resulted in arrests.
Moreover, present political conditions make Nashi a further liability. As one unnamed Kremlin source told Kommersant, “The Nashi movement’s services certainly won’t be required in this election. In the new political configuration, with the current results being what they are, there’s no need for a cheering throng.” And its an expensive “cheering throng” at that. Nevertheless, if Nashi is indeed eventually folding, it still has enough money for another Lake Seliger camp. In late 2007, it received a $10 million grant from the government to fund its fourth annual powwow.
According to Gazeta, one theory on Nashi’s ultimate fate suggests that it will be dissolved and then reconstituted into smaller branches that focus on military recruitment. This is based on documents obtained by Kommersant that recommend modernizing the Russian Defense Sports-Technical Organization (ROSTO) by establishing networks between the armed forces and a youth group called DOSAAF-Defense.
Whatever Nashi’s future, it appears to be one where it is demobilized. Just read what Vasili Yakemenko told Kommersant, “People have grown accustomed to large public events. But most youth movements, including Nashi, should now pay more attention to effective projects – for example, they could work with problem teenagers or gifted young people, and promote patriotic education.” Nashi reiterated as much on its website. It called Kommersant‘s article nothing but “rumors and lies” and “sensationalism,” noting that Nashi’s activities are more than just mass protests. Their day to day activities focus on giving its members a higher education and sending the cream of its crop to study. It also has three of its members in the Duma. Moreover, while Nashi may be consolidating organizationally, it plans on recruiting 50,000 more members. In a press conference today, Nikita Borovikov, Nashi’s new federal commissar, told reporters that the group’s immediate future will concentrate on its “10=5” campaign, which seeks to make Russia the 5th largest economy in the world in 10 years.
I think that people are sounding Nashi’s death knell to quickly. Declaring Nashi’s death is based on a complete misunderstanding of state sponsored youth organizations. Yakemenko’s right. People are too accustomed to Nashi’s flash and mass. No youth organization or movement can maintain that level of activism for long. It takes too much energy and too many resources with little long term return. Plus as we’ve seen, having Nashi run the streets is an open invitation for “excesses,” as they used to say in Soviet times. Such is the dialectic of youth mobilization. You can turn the switch on, but at some point the reins of control begin to slip from your grasp. Plus, a lot of youths have joined Nashi because of the opportunities it provides. Folding up the operation now and reneging on those promises will only piss off a lot of youth.
A better understanding of what might be going on with Nashi might be culled from the history of the Komsomol. In its early days, the Komsomol was also expanded and contracted as politics demanded. During the Civil War, the organization ballooned from 22,100 members in October 1919 to 400,000 in October 1920. That is some rapid growth. Then in February and March 1921, as Bolshevik victory in the Civil War was all but assured, the Komsomol’s ranks were purged in an all-Russian “reregistration.” In June 1921, Komsomol membership fell to 250,000. Weak cells and those that simply existed on paper were folded up. A lot of fat was trimmed. Moreover, the Komsomol changed ideological course. No longer did it mobilize its members. Instead following Lenin’s speech at the 3rd Komsomol Congress in 1920, it urged its members to “learn, learn, learn.” Civil War militancy was out and the members that held on to it were denounced as immature, and even psychologically unstable idiots.
When the Party pushed forward with industrialization, collectivization, and cultural revolution in 1928, the Komsomol was mobilized again. Its membership went from 1,960,000 in May 1928 to 2,897,000 in June 1930. Komsomol youth were mobilized to storm the “economic front” and the “cultural front.” They formed brigades of “cultural soldiers” to battle against “illiteracy, dirt, and drunkenness” throughout the country. Komsomol youth were the spearhead in collectivization and flooded the ranks of the 25,000ers. “Excesses” of course ensued, and the Komsomol leadership looked reign its rank and file in. When the smoke cleared from Stalin’s tripartite revolution in 1933, the Komsomol was purged again. Between 1933 and 1935, it is estimated that the League kicked out 500,000 members. This was part of the resolution “On the reconstruction of the VLKSM” passed at the 17th Party Congress in 1934. This move tried to reinstitute “iron discipline,” which really meant a return to centralization and an end to mobilization, back into its fervent ranks.
There is no reason to think that Nashi isn’t doing something similar. The Duma elections were the culmination of a long period of activism. Now that the political situation looks different, its time to fold up the tents, put away the flags and signs, and ditch the gimmicks. Plus I would guess that many of the organizations Nashi is folding up merely exist on paper or don’t have enough members to sustain them anyway. Some of Nashi’s flash will surely remain. It has to have something to give its rank and file injections of enthusiasm. Overall, in political and institutional terms, Nashi’s reorganization and consolidation makes political sense.