The sun is shining. There are large clouds in the sky and all seems right in the world. It is October 25th of 1918 and a group of youthful teenagers around age fourteen are standing proudly (much like those in the picture above) a new red kerchief blowing slightly in the crisp October air. These teenagers represent the foundation of the Komsomol. The Komsomol would later be inserted as the final phase of indoctrination for the youth of the Soviet Union, the first two being the Oktyabryonoks (Little Octoberists) and the Pioneers. These groups aimed to shepherd the children of the USSR into maturity ultimately preparing them for productive lives as contributing members of the Communist Party. For the people of the Soviet Union these young boys and girls were a source of pride and promise. They represented the future not just for their families, but for the communist experiment that Lenin began for his people.
“…We need that generation of young people who began to reach political maturity in the midst of a disciplined and desperate struggle against the bourgeoisie. In this struggle that generation is training genuine Communists; it must subordinate to this struggle, and link up with it, each step in its studies, education, and training.”
The Above quote is taken from Vladimir Lenin’s Tasks of the Youth Leagues. With this quote, a vivid picture is painted of what the youth of the USSR meant to him. They were no more
than a tool, an extension of Lenin’s and subsequently, his government’s arm meant to push their concept of what political utopia was. The issue with the above is not in the
pushing for political maturity or enhanced discipline, but in the absence of any idea of personal thought. Also, as detailed in Katelyn Margraf’s blog post Young, Wild, and Communist, males in the Komsomol outnumbered females eight to one. Furthermore, children of poor academic standing and religious background were excluded from these groups. Both these factors lead the groups to be decidedly discriminatory and chauvinistic.
The teenage years are difficult no matter where they are raised and under which ideology their country practices. It is a time in everyone’s life that is full of decisions that are all more earth-shattering than the last (should I or should I not ask so and so out and the like). Furthermore, according to Harvard Magazine, “These (teenagers) are people with very sharp brains, but they’re not quite sure what to do with them.” This lack of complete understanding and a brain that is yet to fully mature results in one constant, the need to ask why.
PBS’s documentary, My Perestroika offers a greater sense of the youth questioning the established system. The documentary follows several middle-aged men and women who grew up in the USSR and witnessed its fracture and collapse. At one point in the film, they reminisce how they always heard about the success of the crop and the success of the factory, yet the hungered for more information. They read every scrap of writing they could get their hands on just to learn more. Herein lies the power of the teenage mind. Here is a group that was brought up in the system of indoctrination, but for the first time the climate of the USSR was such that afforded them the ability to ask ‘why’. The men and women in the film blatantly state that, though they were members of the pioneers, and the military, they say behind the eyes of all the party officials that the system was sick and breaking apart.
So where did they go wrong? In a system that sought to indoctrinate its children from a young age through adulthood on the established norms and ideals of the communist system, they ignored one fundamental facet of being human, our curious nature. As Tom Stafford states in his article in BBC, “Evolution made us the ultimate learning machines, and the ultimate learning machines need a healthy dash of curiosity to help us take full advantage of this learning capacity.” This staple of human nature along with the youth’s unrefined mind and propensity to challenge authority with the question ‘why’ and the loosening of the communist system beginning with Khrushchev’s reforms led to the creation of a generation that was not entirely caged by communism.
All of these things considered, one caveat remains that demands being addressed, what power does the youth of a nation hold over its populace? If recent historical events have showed the world anything, it is that the youth of a nation has the power to upset the established order and usher in change. In Vladimir Kara-Murza’s article in World Affaris, he quotes Nadia M. Diuk regarding the importance of youth in modern history by asserting:
“Diuk notes the important (perhaps indispensable) role that youth organizations have played in the demise of authoritarian governments: Otpor in Serbia (2000), Kmara in Georgia (2003), and Pora in Ukraine (2004). A similar pattern has been observed more recently in the “Arab Spring” uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, where young people, in Diuk’s words, “have taken center stage . . . as the catalyst for change, the moving force that mobilizes the people, and as the leaders of popular protest movements.”
This quote shows that the youth of a nation hold the power to shape the events of their country’s future. The article sums this up in a crisp declaration stating, “Youth’s energy
and enthusiasm are value neutral, and can be a blank slate for any ideology; they can either be co-opted to support the old regime or mobilized to lead a protest movement to challenge the old order.” All of the above material serves to paint a comprehensive picture of the USSR’s youth going into the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1987, O. Sklyrenko writes that his generation was not “callous or cynical”, simply “distrustful”. He states that his generation is more calculating and not willing to sell themselves out. Despite being raised within a system of indoctrination, belief in the system was fracturing. By the time “the Rockers” took over the USSR’s youth culture in 1987 with their loud music and louder motorcycles, a clear line of progression from Komsomol to progressive youth begins to become apparent.
The inception of the Soviet Union saw a leader wholly devoted to his ideology and a people willing to follow this man and undertake this great experiment. These people, along with their leader, Lenin, understood that in order for their communist vision to endure, they needed to raise their children in a way that would instill in them the ideals held most dear to the communist party. This shepherding of the young took form of the Young Octoberists, the pioneers, and the Komsomol. These youth groups worked only so long as the party remained strong and those who came before clung wholly to their established ideals. As discussed, there was a breakdown of communist rigidity beginning with Khrushchev’s de-Stalinazation. This, paired with the natural inquisitive nature of the human mind and the tendency for youth to ask ‘why’ would shatter the established communist norms going into the 1990s.
This concept of youthful protest and opinion is not one unique to the generation that lived through the collapse of the USSR. As detailed in Alex Horn’s blog post about the Russian Revolution of 1905, college students played a key roll in both organizing and executing many protests. Furthermore, by the 1960s, a more comfortable standard of living paired with the perks of de-Stalinization allowed Soviet youth to make questionable style choices and voice their reluctance to work as described by Katelyn Margraf in Rags to Riches. Finally, as Melissa Jacob discusses in her post Generation Gap in 1968, “The elders in previous generations looked down on the young people because they felt that the extreme discipline and work ethic that they relied on to succeed was gone. They saw the younger generations as spoiled and lazy, only caring about frivolous things.” All these examples help form a common conclusion, that the youth will always challenge the process and go against established norms.
As demonstrated by the more modern examples of youth acting as the pivot point for societal change, as well as the history of Soviet Youth to create ripples, the youth played an integral role in the loss of the communist ideology within the USSR. The youth of the USSR, facilitated by the Rockers demanded a more progressive state and a more Western style of life. Their curiosity for things that were unknown was what spurred their nonconformity. This nonconformity in youth manifested in adulthood and is what would usher out the remaining fragments of the communist system established by Lenin almost eighty years earlier. It was a collapse sparked by curiosity and ignited by the need to break from communist conformity.
Check out the source material below!