The February Revolution and Russian Youth
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, by 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.
don’t disagree with Babich that the Komsomol became completely moribund by the
1970s, I am rather astounded by the following:
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
“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
To the present
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 that 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,
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
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.
By Sean Guillory
Sean is the owner of Sean’s Russia Blog, available here. This article originally appeared
on that site.
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Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R78376 / CC-BY-SA