Youth Cultures in Eastern Europe
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Youth Cultures in Eastern Europe
Matthias Schwartz and Heike Winkel, eds., Eastern European Youth Cultures in a Global Context. xii + 374 pp., ill. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. ISBN-13 978-1137385123. £21.24.

Children and youth, their social roles and relevance for politics, and their education and socialization in modern societies are recently undergoing a huge increase of interest in both media and research.1 The book under review takes up some of these issues and focuses on a hitherto rather neglected region by asking what is going on with East European youth. Why is there no upheaval against the establishment, against parents and the government, against growing inequality, unemployment, omnipresent nationalism, and discrimination? Why do Russian teenagers admire the authoritarian, reactionary regime headed by Vladimir Putin?2 In (Western) discourses, youth is always connected with the new, the fresh, the innovative. But it seems that East European, especially Russian and Ukrainian, youth have decided to take the other side: “We see young adults acting as agents of political mainstream and civil affairs rather than a generation of youth that [End Page 210] is willing to think and act differently than their parents’ generation” (2). This diagnosis of a “conformist youth” (14), primarily referring to the Ukrainian-Russian conflict in Crimea in 2014 and the particular role of youth in the media campaigns surrounding the military conflict, is the starting point for this edited volume, consisting of 18 contributions by an international team of researchers from (mostly) sociology, cultural theory, literature, linguistics, and political science. The main theoretical and methodological focus that most articles share is to introduce the notions of “youth” and “generation,” as coined by the sociologist Karl Mannheim, for a description of contemporary East European cultural and political phenomena related to age cohort and generational order.3 In doing so, the book implicitly follows the two questions grounding the German postwar sociological study of youth stated by Helmut Schelsky in 1957 in his Die skeptische Generation (The Skeptical Generation): “What does youth mean to society?” and “What does society mean to youth?”4

The aim of the volume, as stated in the introduction, is to grasp the mainstream of East European youth culture beyond the radical, rebellious, artsy exceptions like Pussy Riot, who may have gained attention in a global context but do not represent the majority of East European youth. To understand the widespread conformism and traditionalism among youngsters in Russia and Ukraine and in Central European countries like Poland or the Czech Republic, the book is structured in four sections, all shedding different lights on phenomena of youth culture, primarily in the form of involvement in social or political movements as well as literature, music, or sports.

The first two essays set the terminological and analytical frame in which analysis of East European youth culture should find an adequate context. Catriona Kelly carefully examines the meaning of “childhood” and “youth” in a Soviet and post-Soviet context (21–44), whereas Ken Roberts questions the characterization of East European societies as still going through transition and the mistaken expectations of an active and politicized youth in this region, standing up against the inequalities and discriminations of their governments. He argues that Western sociology does not provide adequate instruments for analyzing and describing either these societies or their youth, who experience situations very different from those in Western societies and [End Page 211] thus develop such unexpected behaviors of conformism. However, when we take into account that since the 1980s Western late capitalist societies have been undergoing rapid economic and political change toward neoliberalism, bringing social insecurity, changing labor opportunities, and shattered lives, this assumption turns out to be quite one-sided. His argument fails to consider that in both East and West the experiences of people born in the late 1970s or 1980s differ considerably from those of their parents, who grew up in the postwar atmosphere of belief in steady progress and improvement, of stable life paths and clear social belongings and roles.5 Roberts nevertheless calls for a new perspective on the East that could explain the contradiction that on the one hand, Eastern youth tend to support their current governments...


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