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Reviewed by:
  • Builders and Deserters: Students, State and Community in Leningrad, 1917–1941.
  • Samuel Kassow
Builders and Deserters: Students, State and Community in Leningrad, 1917–1941. By Peter Konecny (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 1999. 384 pp.).

While we have many studies of the Russian student movement before the revolution, our understanding of student life in the formative period of the Soviet Union is much less complete. The pre-revolutionary studenchestvo was characterized by a strong sense of corporate identity, bolstered by such traditions as mutual responsibility, political opposition and a collective memory that set down the moral guidelines of student behavior. Students were torn between their present and their future, between their ideal of a moral community and the realization that their education would afford them a life of relative privilege. They were well aware that their counterparts in Germany had made the transition, during the nineteenth century, from rebels to conservatism, nationalism and even anti-Semitism.

The Russian student movement stayed on the left, but it occupied the murky and shifting space that separated the revolutionary movement from Russian [End Page 558] liberalism. Few were willing to make more than a rhetorical commitment to revolutionary activism. But the student movement also had a stormy and tense relationship with the senior faculty and with the political party that was most identified with the professoriate, the liberal Kadet party. In the eyes of many students, liberalism was associated with compromise . It also foreshadowed their own futures as pliant doctors, teachers, lawyers and civil servants whose personal and social autonomy could be curtailed at any time by the whims of an arbitrary state.

The years of revolution and civil war plunged the Russian universities into turmoil. As the new Bolshevik regime tried to formulate its own policy toward higher education, it found itself confronted by many students who regarded the new regime with as much distaste as they had the Tsarist government. Veteran students joined senior faculty in resisting Bolshevik assaults on academic autonomy. They made a sharp distinction between themselves, who represented the traditions of the traditional studenchestvo, and the new students who were pouring into the universities and who failed to appreciate the special legacy that they were inheriting. In turn the Bolsheviks regarded the older students with suspicion and quickly moved to recruit a more reliable student body. This new student body, as Peter Konecny argues, was not exactly what they expected.

The conditions that Soviet students faced in the 1920’s and 1930’s were sharply different from those of their pre-Revolutionary counterparts. For all its assaults on university autonomy and on the professional prerogatives of the professoriate, the Tsarist government still accepted—albeit grudgingly—the central role of the Humboldtian university in the nation’s higher educational system. And despite its periodic repression of student unrest, the Autocracy never mounted a serious assault on the “social space” that allowed the student movement to continue.

Under Soviet rule, matters were quite different. From the very beginning Soviet higher educational policy was marked by sharp changes in policy and by bitter institutional and personal rivalries. Soviet leaders agreed that the state needed the engineers, doctors and scientists that only higher educational institutions could train, but they differed sharply on how those institutions should function and who should study in them. How could communists reconcile the inherent elitism of higher education with a professed commitment to the social mobility of the common people? Should the traditional university give way to new institutions that were more “relevant” and more “practical”?

What role should Soviet students play in this emerging society? In theory, Soviet students had little in common with the pre-revolutionary studenchestvo. Supposedly they identified wholeheartedly with a Soviet state that gave them the chance to study and to take their place as the builders of a new socialist society. In class they would study hard; in the dorms they would be models of rectitude and self-discipline.

In his solid and important study, Peter Konecny considers these questions. Using significant archival materials as well as the student press, Konecny employs the example of the Leningrad students to join other scholars who have argued that “totalitarian...