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.