William Henry Chamberlin | Soviet Russia: A Living Record and a History

Young Russia

Not the least important fact about the Russian Bolshevik Revolution is that a whole generation has now grown up under its influence. This interposes between the middle-aged and the young a gulf considerably wider than that which ordinarily exists between parents and their children. Even when there is no sharp difference of political and intellectual viewpoint there are almost certain to be striking differences of character and taste and temperament between the father, educated in the pre-revolutionary school, where everything tended to repress the individuality of the pupil and to discourage the formation of societies, and his son, who has passed through the two large Communist youth organizations, the Young Pioneers and the Union of Communist Youth, and who has been brought up in the Soviet school, where formal discipline is almost nonexistent.

What sort of younger generation has been forged in the revolutionary crucible ? Here, as everywhere, generalizations are dangerous. In Russia, as in other countries, the strongest and most gifted personalities often swim against the current of their times; and it is not inconceivable that the Soviet epoch in Russian history will be remembered for some individuals who stood out against the mass tendencies.

But, if one deals in terms of general averages, it may safely be said that of all the qualities which were formerly regarded as characteristically Russian the Soviet youth retains only loquacity. Fondness for extended speech making is a common bond that unites Russians young and old. Apart from this the typical young Russian of to-day affords a good illustration of the fact that human and national character can be changed, and decisively changed, as a result of drastically altered educational and environmental conditions.

Initiative and forwardness are among the most marked qualities of the Soviet school pupils. That these qualities are. not always balanced by a corresponding amount of exact knowledge is made abundantly clear in N. Ognev's The Diary of Kostya Ryabtzev, (Translated into English under the title, The Diary of a Communist Schoolboy, and published by Payson and Clarke, New York.) which, although a work of fiction, is based on first-hand observation of the new Russian school. Kostya, the hero, is brimming over with life and new ideas; the first episode in the book shows that these ideas are not always well rooted in facts. Kostya (the Russian diminutive for Constantine) is dissatisfied with his name because he is under the impression that "Constantine was some sort of Turkish Sultan"; -he wished to change it to Vladlen, one of the new revolutionary names compounded out of the first syllables of Vladimir and Lenin.

Another symptom of the change in the character of Russian children is their present habit of parading and demonstrating on all sorts of occasions. Many children's demonstrations are directed against drinking by their fathers. The lead in such affairs is taken by the Anti-alcoholic Society, the local branch of the Union of Communist Youth, or some other public organization. A host of children in a working-class district surround a factory at closing time, carrying banners and placards with anti-drinking slogans; they "besiege" the factory and refuse to let their parents go without signing a pledge to stop drinking. How far this children's agitation is really effective in checking the instinctive Russian love of vodka is perhaps doubtful but the very fact that children really venture to make such demonstrations marks a significant break with the past.

Young Russia is athletically and mechanically minded, two characteristics which certainly did not hold good for the traditional Russian student of the past. Association football is widely played, and visiting teams from British ships are some-times surprised to find themselves beaten at their native game by the Russians. The winter sports which are promoted by the Russian climate, such as skating and skiing, are as popular as ever and attract a large number of participants. Summer vacation trips of organized groups, involving a good deal of dusty hiking and some mountain-climbing, acquire a wider scope every year, and more and more interest is shown in trips into the wilder parts of the country, such as Daghestan, the Altai Mountains of Siberia, and the Pamir plateau.

The increased interest of the present-day youth in mechanical things finds expression in a number of ways. There is proportionately greater registration for scientific and engineering courses than for those dealing with other subjects. Radio has a growing number of enthusiastic devotees, despite the fact that the cost of appliances is prohibitively high. Along with this concentration on the practical and mechanical aspects of life goes a certain contempt for the philosophical and meta-physical discussions in which pre-revolutionary Russian students loved to indulge.

"We don't need Dostoevsky; he 's out of harmony with the spirit of our times," one very dogmatic and self-assured young Communist once said to me. During the last few years, how-ever, a certain change has manifested itself in the attitude toward Russian classical literature. In the years immediately after the civil war it was the fashion among the Soviet younger generation to decry any literary production that antedated the Revolution; to-day Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin, even the condemned Dostoevsky, who is especially suspect in Communist circles because of his mystical tendencies, again command a wide and respectful audience.

Partly because of the greater emphasis upon sports and organized educational and recreational activities, partly be-cause they come largely from classes to which education itself is a new and thrilling adventure, the contemporary Soviet students are less introspective, less inclined to brood and fall into the state of melancholia which sometimes leads to suicide, than were their predecessors of a generation ago. One. cannot be too sweeping in statements of this kind; the peasant-poet,

Sergei Essenine, who alternated between writing verses of considerable lyric beauty and indulging in terrific drinking bouts and ended by hanging himself, leaving behind a farewell poem written in his own blood, attracted many admirers and some imitators, in his excesses, if not in his poetic talent. But by and large, energy and optimism are probably as characteristic for the majority of the present-day Russian students as passivity and pessimism were for their predecessors.

A good deal has been written, both in Russia and abroad, about the unbridled looseness of sex relations among the Soviet youth. Russia has never been a puritanical country, and the new freedom which was associated with the revolutionary upheaval,- the removal of all social inhibitions on irregular sex connections, and the complete absence of any parental control over the modern students were all factors contributing to greater freedom in the relations between men and women. Several novels which were published in 1926 and 1927, such as Pantaleimon Romanov's Without Sentimentalityand Lev Gumilovsky's Dogs' Street, give a vivid picture of frequent and rapid changes of partners by students of both sexes.

Something of a reaction against this has set in, however, partly because the psychological element of satiety has begun to assert itself, partly because Communist moralists are beginning to employ against sex excess the same argument that has long been used against overindulgence in alcohol - that it is wrong not from any moral or ethical considerations, but be-cause it unfits a Communist for the strenuous work which he must perform. This viewpoint found expression in a speech delivered by President Kalinin on the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Union of Communist Youth, on October 28, 1928. He said on this occasion: -

"Very many of us, especially among the youth, like to talk about new life, painting it in completely distorted form, especially in relation to women. Is it really permissible in the new society that a man should marry six or seven times in the course of ten years ? Don't we see that a girl who has been disillusioned in a young lover is a broken human being, at least for a year or two ? Mustn't there be responsibility in relations between man and woman ? In this respect, in establishing really human relations between the sexes, the Young Communist organization can and must do much."

Despite these occasional monitions from Communists of the older generation, "free love" is still probably the rule rather than the exception among the city youth. However, in the daily life of Moscow and other Russian cities there is far less pornographic incitation than one would find in the shops and theatres of most large American and European cities. Sex in Russia is a very matter-of-fact affair, equally removed from the traditional sanctities and inhibitions of monogamic marriage and from the artificial voluptuousness that has been strengthened all over the world since the War.

Many Communists see in the children who have been brought up under the influence of the Revolution the chief hope and guaranty for the ultimate success of their cause. Two large mass organizations exist for the purpose of guiding as large a number of the youth as may be possible into the pathway of collectivist life. These are the Young Pioneers and the Union of Communist Youth.

One often sees detachments of Young Pioneers, children between the ages of ten and sixteen, with red scarves around their necks, marching through the streets to the beat of the drum, which is their favorite instrument, or going out to the summer camps, of which there are a considerable number in the vicinity of Moscow. In many ways the activities of the Pioneers are similar to those of Boy Scouts in other countries, with the difference, of course, that they are crammed with Communist doctrine from an early age and trained to carry out various functions (distribution of leaflets during Soviet elections, participation in various "drives," against absence from work, against celebration of religious holidays, etc.) which tend to' shape their thinking. The organizers of the Pioneers also assert that, while the Boy Scouts rely largely on the individual leader of each group, the Pioneers aim to foster a collectivist group spirit.

There are about two million Pioneers in the Soviet Union. They are under the general direction of the Union of Communist Youth, which appoints monitors for each Pioneer group. Sixty Pioneers constitute a detachment, and each detachment is divided into six so-called "links," of ten members. The link elects its chief, and representatives of the links constitute the Soviet, or council, of the detachment. Among the rules of the Pioneers the following may be noted: -

The Pioneers are faithful to the workers' cause and the commandments of Ilyitch [Lenin].
The Pioneer is the friend of the children of workers all over the world.
The Pioneer aims at knowledge.
The Pioneer watches out for his health and cleanliness and neither smokes nor drinks nor swears.

While workers' children are preferred as members of the Pioneer organization, class lines are not drawn so strictly as with older people; even children of the pariah disfranchised classes may join, although these would stand little chance of admission into the next-higher organization, the Union of Communist Youth.

The Young Pioneers have their clubs, post up their wall newspapers, and in various other ways follow in the footsteps of their elders. The precocity and initiative which are generally noteworthy in Russian children to-day, especially in the cities, are doubtless fostered by the influence of the Pioneer organization, which, besides giving its members some training in physical exercise, woodcraft, gardening, and simple trades, encourages them to write articles, deliver political reports, make speeches, etc. This precocity unquestionably has its disadvantageous sides. Medical investigations usually reveal a higher percentage of nervous diseases among the Pioneers than among the other school children, and all the outside activities of the Pioneers probably exert a detrimental effect upon the health and studies of children who are not especially gifted or energetic. The position of an active Pioneer in a religious or conservative family must be difficult for parents and child alike, but probably not a very large proportion of the Pioneers are recruited from such families.

Below the Pioneers, for the benefit of children who by their own volition, or that of their parents,(1) wish to get an even earlier start in public life, exist the "Octobrists," made up of children from eight to ten. Above the Pioneers stands the Union of Communist Youth, with something over two million members between the ages of fourteen and twenty-three.(2) Conditions of admission to this body are less strict than those required by the Communist Party, but more severe than in the case of the Pioneers. Young workers and poor peasants may join without any question. Sponsors and a period of probation are demanded for employees and more prosperous peasants. The Union of Communist Youth is a sort of junior division of the Party, quite identified with the latter in programme and principles, but with a broader basis of membership, designed to ensure Communist influence on the growing youth of the country.

While many Young Communists subsequently enter the Party, promotion of this kind is by no means automatic. About a million members of the Union are peasants, and very few of these are admitted to the Party, which, as was pointed out in an earlier chapter, designedly keeps its contingent peas-ant members rather small. About half the young workers and a large and increasing number of students belong to the Union of Communist Youth, which publishes sixty newspapers and twenty magazines.

The organization of the Union is very similar to that of the Party, ascending from the basic unit, the yacheika, or cell in factory, office, or village, to the Central Committee. It takes its instructions on all important political questions from the Party.

There is a military flavor about the Communist Youth, emphasized by the belted khaki uniform which is more and more worn by members in the cities, although its use is by no means universal. Military training is practised by all units, and even in more peaceful tasks, such as a campaign for literacy, the terminology is always of a martial character, with "mobilizations," "fronts," and "drives." Campaigns or "drives" for the achievement of special ends have become almost as common in Russia as in America, where so many days and weeks are set aside for special objectives, and Young Communists are supposed to take an active part in all these movements.

In the winter of 1928-1929, for instance, there was a strenuous effort to round up illiterates in the towns and cities and enroll them in classes. Every city was divided into districts, and a house-to-house canvass was carried out, every Young Communist undertaking an obligation to teach at least one illiterate. Then there was a "scrap-iron week," when, due to the shortage of metal in the country, every patriotic citizen was expected to collect any unused iron which might be lying about and turn it in to the central authorities.

Apart from these special campaigns, Young Communists, especially among the students, are required to perform a certain amount of so-called "social work," which may take the form of reading lectures in factories, helping to organize circles in workers' clubs, carrying on agitation for better farming methods in their native villages, etc. Complaints are not uncommon that this social work, combined with the hard and crowded living conditions and the difficulty which many proletarian students experience in concentrating on abstract thinking, lowers the scholastic standing of the Young Communists, as compared with the non-Party students. So far it has apparently been impossible to work out a balanced system under which the student's activities would be supplemented but not unduly hampered by his "social work."

The Komsomolskaya Pravda("Young Communist Truth"), central organ of the Union, is one of the most interesting of the Soviet newspapers because of the light which it casts upon the struggle between old and new habits and modes of thought. On one occasion a Jewish girl wrote to the paper to ask whether it would be proper for a komsomolka (girl member of the Union) to assist in baking unleavened bread for the Feast of the Pass-over. The answer, of course, was an uncompromising negative, coupled with a series of injunctions regarding the duty incumbent on all Young Communists not to participate in religious practices or ceremonies, whether Jewish or Christian.

A Jewish boy laid another problem before the paper. His sister was in love with a Ukrainian boy, both being Young Communists. But the old mother of the girl threatened to commit suicide if her daughter married a goi, or Gentile, and called on the writer of the letter, as the oldest son, to decide whether the marriage should take place or not. He was unable to make the decision himself and asked for advice. The newspaper insisted that the marriage should take place, that there should be no concessions to racial prejudice, and a number of contributors published letters relating their own experiences and declaring that mixed marriages, although they might evoke protests from the older people at first, usually ended quite satisfactorily.

Another subject of ethical discussion was the propriety of the conduct of a certain Comrade Zezior, who, after joining the Union, gave up drinking and all bad habits, began to earn high wages and to accumulate property, simultaneously losing all interest in social activity. He was roundly condemned, not for his moral reformation (habitual drunkenness, although not drinking, is a frequent cause for expulsion from the Union, as from the Communist Party), but for the "petty-bourgeois attitude" which he had developed toward life. Comrade Zezior, incidentally, is no isolated case. Again and again one may read, or notice in life, that the young worker who acquires a skilled trade, enabling him to earn high wages, visibly loses interest in world revolution and the triumph of communism, simultaneously adopting a rather contemptuous attitude toward his less skilled fellows. This is one of the strongest reasons why skeptics may doubt the imminence of the establishment of a fully communist social order in Russia.

Another lively discussion raged around the propriety of the practice, apparently not uncommon among male Young Communists, of demanding that their brides bring them substantial dowries, if not in money, at least in such material things as samovars, cushions, and household furnishings. This highly bourgeois attitude toward marriage flourishes side by side with the casual attitude toward sex relations which was described earlier in the chapter, and represents still another of the con-temporary Russian contradictions.

How many of the holders of a membership card in the Union of Communist Youth are sincere champions of a new social order and how many, have joined merely for the sake of the loaves and fishes, or, more concretely, because the Young Communist enjoys some favor in securing admission to the university and obtaining a job ? Naturally there are no reliable statistics on this delicate question. That both types, the enthusiast and the careerist, can be found in the ranks of the organization is indisputable, and there are also many inter-mediate types.

One of the most lively and popular modern Russian comedies, The Squaring of the Circle, presents four young people, all students and members of the Union, but of distinctly different tastes and characters. Of the two boys one is an energetic and resourceful fellow, who might have been a class president in an American university; the other is a meek and sober youth who follows more or less passively in his comrade's wake. One of the girls is an earnest devotee of Marx and Lenin; the other is an unmistakable Soviet flapper.

I know of one young man who takes his Communism with most deadly seriousness and broke off completely with his parents on the ground that they were "petty bourgeois."

When his mother was sick and wanted to see him, he replied with some well-known lines of the young Communist poet, Bezimensky, which read, in rough translation, as follows: -

The factory is my father; the Party branch is my home, My family books, labor, and comrades.
We live in Communist Youthland,
A great and rich country.

The father of this young man deplores what he regards as his son's wrongheaded fanaticism, but recognizes the absolute sincerity of his beliefs. At the same time I have met more than one peasant Young Communist who declared with engaging frankness that he joined the Union to have a better chance of being admitted to high school or university. Under a different social system such people would join nationalist or Fascist societies just as readily and for just the same reasons.

However, while certainly not every Young Communist is animated by purely idealistic considerations, there is no reason, I think, to doubt the fundamental loyalty of the organization to the Soviet order. There is a visible esprit de corpsamong these groups of Soviet youth, real children of the Revolution, as they march through the streets singing the refrain of their most popular song: -

"Mi molodaya grardiya rabochikh i krestyan"
("We 're the young guard of the workers and peasants.")

The fact that most of them come from working-class and peasant families (about half the young workers belong to the organization) and that many of them are being trained for posts of consequence and authority gives them a distinct stake in the Soviet state. Recently the Young Communists of one of the Moscow districts were subjected to a test. They were mobilized and told that they must take up arms and immediately march out to fight an invading army. Some of the careerists hastily resigned their tickets of membership, and doubtless cursed themselves heartily later on, when the mobilization was shown to have been merely a trial. But the majority responded eagerly, dropped their tools for rifles, and moved out of the city in fighting array. Most probably this is the way in which the organization would respond in the event of a genuine emergency.

The present-day Soviet youth is, I think, more standardized in character and world outlook than its predecessors of twenty or thirty years ago. And this is quite natural, if one considers that the Tsarist Government was almost exclusively repressive in its influence on the younger generation, whereas the Soviet regime is both repressive and formative. The policy of the pre-revolutionary Russian authorities was to nip in the bud any publicly expressed thoughts or actions which might endanger the security of the autocracy. There was very little successful effort to create either in the masses or in the intelligentsia any sentiment of active loyalty toward or participation in the existing state order. Soviet policy, on the other hand, has been directed not only toward the merciless repression of "dangerous thinking," whether along Menshevik, anarchist, monarchist, capitalist, or Trotzkyist lines, but also toward the awakening of active enthusiasm for the new society. So, while in former times the individual student was apt to go his own way, read his own books, develop his own Weltanschauung, the Young Communists of to-day in all parts of the Soviet Union read the same articles, even though they may be printed in different national languages, hear reports on the same subjects, couched in practically identical language, read the same books on politgramota (or Soviet civic training), and in general develop mass rather than individual consciousness.

Young Russia is definitely materialistic in outlook, not necessarily in the unfavorable sense of this term, but rather in the sense of being primarily interested in scientific and technical progress. No generation in Russian history has been more divorced from what some foreign observers have regarded as the essentially Russian trait of mysticism. There is much talk of the need for a cultural revolution in Russia. But the essential elements in this cultural revolution, when its advocates come down to specifications, are not so much literary and aesthetic as practical and hygienic; wider use of the toothbrush, for instance, more canals, better roads, more motor transport, more electrification.

This urge toward material progress, unmistakably characteristic of the present era, even if it is often thwarted and mocked by Russia's technical backwardness, by its isolation from the world economic system, by the hardships and deprivations involved in the policy of directing domestic output and foreign imports with a view solely to the interests of promoting industrialization, with little consideration for the needs of the consumer, is by no means solely a result of Communist propaganda. The same tendency is visible in the nationalist and Westernizing revolutions which have affected in greater or less degree every Asiatic country from Turkey to China. The modern East - and in many aspects of its material backwardness Russia belongs to the East rather than to the West - is perhaps more keenly sensitive to the advantages which may be wrought by steam and electricity than the modern West, which is beginning to be sated with the fruits of intensive industrialization.

Young Russia has not forgotten how to dream. But its dreams are mostly of material things: canals linking up the country's rivers and irrigating tracts of desert land; a larger network of radio stations knitting the country closer together; whole industrial regions operating on power generated from central electrical stations. That these dreams are sometimes in almost ironical contrast to actuality is nothing new in Russian history; it is only a sign that psychological continuity between the present and the past has not been entirely broken.

Another proof of this same thing is the almost mystical faith of this materialistic and unmystical younger generation in the big, unfamiliar-sounding foreign words which are so often heard in Russia to-day: "technique," "electrification," "rationalization," "efficiency" (there is, significantly enough, no precise equivalent for this last word in the Russian language). The Young Communists of to-day, at least those of them who take a serious interest in public questions, believe in these things as passionately and unreservedly as their grandfathers and sometimes their fathers believed in wonder-working ikons and miraculously preserved bones of saints. It seldom enters the mind of a typical contemporary young Russian that something might still be lacking for human happiness if Russia, plus the Soviet system, could enjoy American standards of productive efficiency.(Stalin once declared that the Communist should combine Russian revolutionary scope of outlook with American practical efficiency.)

In short, Russia is still a young country; in fact, youth is one of the impressions which even a casual observer of the Revolution could scarcely fail to carry away. It has the faith of youth; if it destroys old gods, it creates new ones which it worships with equally uncritical intensity. Utterly alien to its spirit is the most striking characteristic of old civilizations, the mellow skepticism which weighs conservative and revolutionary values in the balance and finds them equally lacking. Of course, such skepticism does not generate violent revolutions.

One may venture to predict that the Russian youth which has grown up under the direct influence of the Revolution will be more distinguished in action than in thought. Exploits like the rescue expedition of the icebreaker "Krassin" and the daring exploration of the peaks and glaciers of a remote section of the Pamir region, in Central Asia, are quite in harmony with its spirit. When the initial difficulties of introducing formerly uneducated classes to higher education are overcome it will be surprising if many competent practical engineers and organizers of industrial construction do not appear, because it is along these lines that the interests of Young Russia run. One should not perhaps expect such significant achievements in the literary and cultural fields, because here the qualities of subtlety, many-sidedness, and reflection, in which I should judge the Russia of the Communist Youth to be most deficient, are required more than the elements of energy and decision which are present in superabundance.

In the psychology and spirit of contemporary Russia, with its campaigns and "weeks" and restless energy and absence of tradition, there is a strong flavor of Americanism, notwithstanding the extreme differences in the political and social systems of the two countries. If one were to sum up briefly the contrast between Young Russia of 1929 and Young Russia of 1909, or 1889, it would perhaps be accurate to say that the tragi-comedy of the latter had its roots in the predominance of the faculty for reflection over the faculty for action, whereas the satirist or dramatist of to-day or to-morrow is likely to find much of his material in the precisely inverted balance of these faculties.

(1) Some parents in the Soviet Union wish to influence the future fate and career of their children from the cradle by giving them novel revolutionary names. Foreign re-lief workers found in a country hospital a baby with the piquant name of "Anti-Christ." So far as I know this was a unique instance, but it is not uncommon for parents to name boys Vladlen (for Vladimir Lenin) or Ninel, Lenin's name spelled backward, while girls have been started in life with such appellations as Barrikada ("Barricade") and Elektrifikatsia ("Electrification"). The most ingenious name of this kind was perhaps Diamata, which, as the proud parent of the girl baby to whom it was attached explained, stood for Dialectic Materialism.

(2) As may be noted, the age limits of the Pioneers and the Union of Communist Youth overlap, and the eligibility of a boy or girl for the latter society depends on the candidate's precocity and on whether he is working in a factory, which is permissible in Russia from the age of fourteen.