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.