- Youth in Revolutionary Russia: Enthusiasts, Bohemians, Delinquents
Youth was important to the early Bolsheviks and remains important for understanding Soviet life in 1920s. The revolutionaries’ inability to transform the younger generation coupled with the persistence of values that the revolutionaries expected would spontaneously fade under the new order signified a larger disappointment. Unable to popularize their program effectively and win over the majority of the population, they gradually shifted from a style of political communication that relied at least partly on argument to one that depended almost wholly on physical compulsion. Yet despite the fact that youth was near the top of their agenda or perhaps because of it, the Bolsheviks wavered between addressing young people in class terms and using non-class categories and designations including some from the social science literature of their era.
Anne E. Gorsuch wrestles with a similar dilemma in this promising first book. In comparing the diverse and often contradictory early Soviet discourses on youth with the lives of young people, she is often torn between discussing how the Bolsheviks perceived a phenomenon and what we should make of it in retrospect. This is not surprising, since the Bolsheviks themselves were confused in adapting what they saw to what they believed they knew as Marxists. “Youth in Revolutionary Russia,” she explains, “explores the relationships between representation and reality, between official ideology and popular culture, and the meaning of these relationships for the making of a ‘Soviet’ state and society” (2). Of course, popular culture in the sense that we use it was a category that the Bolsheviks were unlikely to understand or appreciate.
This book is nevertheless a very welcome contribution to early Soviet history. Matching the rubrics in play at the time with those reflecting our current historical interests, the author illuminates the growing frustration and exasperation among Bolshevik elites who were aghast at the values and behavior of those whom they believed benefited most from the revolution. In this respect, she adds to our appreciation of the revolutionaries’ impatience with the New Economic Policy. What could be more telling than citing the results of a 1927 survey of a thousand Moscow students aged nine to seventeen in which not a single seventeen-year-old wished to become a worker (p.39)! Yet surveys were unreliable by this time, and the author cites another in the same year in which three thousand young people aged eight to eighteen “thought Soviet power was better than any other power” (75). I recall from my own research, how often the Bolsheviks regretted that young people did not experience the iniquities of capitalism so as to have something unfavorable with which to compare their Soviet experience.
The author’s purview is largely urban. This makes sense since the Bolsheviks’ controlled the cities more closely than the countryside, and from this vantage point she employs a wide variety of printed and archival sources to describe their concerns and the youth programs they sponsored. One source the might have helped broaden her study is The Peasant Newspaper (Krest’ianskaia gazeta), which contains much information about the young people who read it. [End Page 222]
The book contains fascinating chapters on young militants, flappers and bohemian aesthetes, and on street life. The author gives a good account of the macho values of young male militants and shows how difficult it was for young female activists to carve out a place for themselves in early Soviet political life. She provides a lively discussion of the Bolsheviks’ struggle with western fashions and their tacit acceptance of the legitimacy of personal feminine adornment. She also points up the contradiction between disorderly revolutionary traditions and the new rulers’ urge for order, cleanliness, and discipline. There is an insightful section on the Bolsheviks’ fear of hooliganism and their tendency to link disorder and barbarism with popular culture. In this respect they found Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels particularly distasteful. For historians and advanced students interested in the culture of the revolutionary era this book has much...