- Stalin's Last Generation: Soviet Post-war Youth and the Emergence of Mature Socialism
Just as voices of frustration reverberate through Russian society about its young members' self-serving and hedonistic inclinations that are claimed to lead the country to a potential disaster, Juliane Fürst's book makes an implicit point that anxiety about the young generation's moral fiber is nothing new. As several studies showed in the past, ever since its inception, the Soviet regime had been familiar with the dilemma of youth's individualism clashing with the regime's collectivist values. In this respect, Stalin's Last Generation is a welcome and timely complement to a still rather short list of literature on youth culture and policy in the Soviet Union. Both in the 1920s and in the 1930s the Soviet regime's attempts to educate and inspire youth frequently resulted in the latter's disillusionment, if not overt resistance.1 In her richly documented and original study, Fürst shows that a smouldering fire of rebellion spread after the Second World War, only strengthening the leadership's deep-seated insecurity that youth was indeed a volatile force capable of defiance as well as support. Forcefully challenging the myth of a homogenous youth culture, Fürst exposes the coexistence of multiple layers of intellectual, cultural, social and political attitudes among Soviet youngsters in the immediate post-war decade. Epitomized in the images of Gorbachev, who "believed in the reformability of Soviet socialism" and Yeltsin, who "did not" (4), these were the people who came to dominate Soviet politics when the Soviet Union was approaching its end.
Fürst's characters are idealists, enthusiasts, conformists, rebels, troublemakers and hooligans, who are constantly engaged in displays of loyalty, experimentation and defiance, while seeing no conflict in such erratic behavior. They are both fervent advocates of state propaganda and its most fierce opponents. Yet, as [End Page 259] Fürst repeatedly asserts throughout the book, for the most part, such behavior should not be construed as conscious resistance, but "part and parcel of interacting with and living in the Soviet state" (344). Instead, Fürst justly blames the regime for "the growing alienation of ideologically committed youths from the official structures and their withdrawal into other forms of engagement" (3). As the leadership attempted to streamline youth's identities, it failed to provide a coherent programme of integration of the marginalized post-war generation in the veteran-dominated state, at the same time providing the youngsters with "tools of opposition." The regime's clumsy, increasingly formalist and contradicting campaigns resulted in further disillusionment and the gradual loss of control. At the same time, the Komsomol that was supposed to set an example of discipline, dedication and ideological purity, found itself plagued by financial difficulties, internal generational split, predictability and dissent even among its own cream of the crop. The officially promoted entertainment culture did not quite manage to win the hearts of the youth. In fact, the more the Komsomol and other organizations responsible for cultural enlightenment labored to discipline young people, the harder the latter tried to break free from the constricting bonds of forced egalitarianism. They refused to love or make friends according to the rules, to listen to the officially approved music, to read exclusively the recommended literature and to be like everyone else when it came to expressing oneself through style. While there were real enthusiasts as well as dissidents among the youngsters, whose voices became louder especially after Stalin's demise, it was consumption, not politics, that predominated the young people's lives. They shared this affinity for "materialism" with their Western contemporaries, and Fürst makes a strong point in comparing the two youth cultures. What really unsettled officialdom, besides the apolitical nature of the Soviet youth's pastime, was their insistence on "nonconformist Westernisation" (231), just as the Soviet Union faced "the West" on the battlefields of the Cold War.
And here, unfortunately, lies a certain weakness of...