Aleksei Georgievich Borzenkov, Molodezh' i politika: Vozmozhnosti i predely studencheskoi samodeiatel'nosti na vostoke Rossii (1961-1991 gg.).
From the essays of a young scholar in Kamchatka whose historical interests led him to a reassessment of Trotsky, to a student-sponsored exhibit of paintings by a local surrealist artist in Irkutsk, to verbal clashes between students at Novosibirsk State University and visiting Americans during 1970 May Day protests against the war in Vietnam, Aleksei Borzenkov surveys youth political and cultural activity in the Urals, Siberia, and the Russian Far East from de-Stalinization through perestroika. Readers interested in Soviet youth culture, student life, and grassroots political expression will find a wealth of detail about individuals, organizations, and student publications; a bibliographic review in the introduction and thorough footnotes provide an extensive guide for further research. This multivolume work thus makes an important contribution on a topic about which there is little available information. The book falls short, however, in providing an explanation or analysis for the activities it chronicles, while its structure makes it difficult for the reader to connect on-the-ground activities to larger social and political trends.
Borzenkov draws on materials from 40 local and regional archives, as well as personal collections, interviews with participants, and journalistic reminiscences that appeared after perestroika. He also cites extensively from regional and youth publications. The books include chapters devoted to a wide range of youth activities, including May Day festivals (maevki), institute- and factory-based singing and theater groups, student publications, youth-initiated discussions, and underground organizations. The first volume is devoted to officially sponsored youth programs, while the second deals with informal, unauthorized, and nonconformist activity. A third, supplementary volume contains photographs and reproductions of the people, events, and works discussed.
An introductory chapter makes the book's strongest attempt at analyzing the upswing of student activism in the 1960s, citing primarily demographic and economic factors. Not only did youth make up a relatively high percentage of the overall population during this period, but increasing investments in higher education allowed rapid growth in the number of students at universities and technical institutes, which became the seedbeds of youth activity. Students, buoyed by relative prosperity in the 1960s and early 1970s, enjoyed improved university facilities and looked optimistically toward the prospect of upward mobility. The increasing flow of information from abroad, access to travel, and interaction with visiting foreign students and activists also expanded young peoples' political horizons, and plugged them into an international context of student activism and Third World revolutionary struggle. The presence of deportees and released political prisoners magnified the political effect of the 20th Party Congress in these eastern regions.
Borzenkov argues that the area from the Urals to the Russian Far East constituted a coherent sphere of youth culture during the period of his study. Ten cities served as centers of youth culture, with Sverdlovsk and Novosibirsk in leading roles. Throughout the chapters that follow, Borzenkov outlines the ways in which youth communicated with their peers across the region, in festivals of political songs and regional writers' conferences, in youth publications with a national or regional readership, and through relocation of individual student leaders (including involuntary transfers following expulsion from institutes for their political work). Borzenkov also mentions notable exceptions to the general concentration of youth activity within higher educational institutions, including May Day festivals in the industrial town of Mirnyi in Yakutia and a poetry group at the Novosibirsk Siblitmash factory.
Through the wide range of activities he covers, Borzenkov reminds us that much, if not most, youth activism in this period celebrated Soviet achievements and officially sponsored causes, especially fundraising and political solidarity demonstrations with Third World revolutionary movements. Borzenkov persuasively suggests that affinity for these movements among Soviet youth went beyond official encouragement and grew out of a revolutionary romanticism that the young shared with their counterparts in the United States and Western Europe.
Borzenkov's treatment of officially sponsored, informal, and oppositional activity as part of a unified phenomenon of youth activism has the advantage of showing the possibility for independent voices to transform officially created and sanctioned spaces. One clear example of this were the youth-oriented May Day celebrations, which were often sponsored by history or philology departments at Siberian universities and paired political demonstrations with cultural programs of poetry, songs, dancing, and bonfires in the woods. The political content of maevki changed markedly from their beginnings in 1960 to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
If early celebrations included commemorations of the Great Patriotic War, maevki in the 1960s increasingly became expressions of solidarity with revolutionary movements in Vietnam, Latin America, and Africa. These protests against U.S. imperialism shifted to critiques of socialism and a focus on domestic problems in the mid-1980s. Students at Sverdlovsk Architectural Institute took aim at conservative members of the Politburo in May 1989 (1:62), while maevki in 1990-91 in Tomsk and other Siberian cities included statements by oppositional political parties and solidarity with the Lithuanian independence movement (1:76).
A similar tension existed in official sponsorship of political singing groups. Beginning in the 1960s, these were largely inspired by the political folk music of Latin America, from Cuban revolutionary songs to the ballads of the Chilean Victor Jara. Dozens of student groups across Siberia adopted these, as well as American protest songs from the civil rights and student movements. But these groups were also often closely connected to the more controversial movement of poet-songwriters ("bards"). A March 1968 Komsomol-sponsored festival of bards under the aegis of the Siberian Branch of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, in Akademgorodok, drew political fire because of the participation of the controversial Moscow-based writer and actor Aleksandr Galich. A lesser-known festival of authors' songs in May 1968 in Sverdlovsk caused the KGB to harass its organizers and to prohibit a planned performance by the well-known bard Iurii Kim (1:89-94).
While dissenting voices appear primarily in the margins of the first volume, they take center stage in the second. Unlike the officially sponsored political activities, many of which focused on international events, oppositional activism mainly took aim at its immediate surroundings. In the early 1960s, students were increasingly open in their dissatisfaction with official information and educational methods, including questioning the validity of Marxist-Leninist social science or the stifling effects of party oversight of science, art, and literature.
Some of the most controversial student initiatives involved proposals to reform and democratize Komsomol and institute structures. In a 1962 debate on "knowledge and morals" at Novosibirsk State University, a chemistry student, Iurii Nikoro, criticized the Communist Party's proposed program on science development, arguing that scientific freedom was impossible under one-party rule (2:8-10). He also condemned the expulsion of young scientists from the Institute of Inorganic Chemistry three years earlier for their protest of a Lysenko-style attempt to impose political orthodoxy on their studies. Two years later, Novosibirsk students moved from general criticism to directly targeting an administrator when they attempted to remove the acting rector of their university from the election ballot for deputy of the district soviet (2:18).
Open debates were held in 1964-65 in Novosibirsk and Vladivostok on the structure of the Komsomol, while two youth in Irkutsk presented reform proposals to the 15th Komsomol Congress in 1965, including making the Komsomol independent of the Communist Party and reserving one-third of votes for party positions for Komsomol-aged youth (2:23). As late as the summer of 1982, an underground organization in Vladivostok was calling for the founding of a new Komsomol. In an April 1990 gathering in Irkutsk, Soviet students sought to draw on the experience of their visiting counterparts from Eastern Europe in democratizing institutions of higher education (2:53).
Party members and officials were often literally left speechless in these debates, either unable or unwilling to argue down impetuous student activists. In what must have been particularly troubling for the authorities, criticism sometimes originated with Komsomol leaders themselves: for example, a vice-secretary of the Komsomol at Novosibirsk State University who argued that the organization had outlived its purpose and proposed establishing a new structure independent of party control (2:17). Those who criticized their institutes or the Party in public forums or in print met widely varying responses from their professors, university administrations, and party officials. This was in part due to fluctuations in official toleration of dissent. Expression that was acceptable and even encouraged in the early to mid-1960s became off-limits after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Another wave of crackdowns in the early 1980s put an end to a number of independent wall newspapers, newsletters, and journals. But an additional reason for the varied reactions came from disagreement among administrators and officials on the appropriate response to young troublemakers, with some strongly advocating improved educational and outreach efforts, while others argued for harsher counter-measures and punishment.
As the variety of examples cited above shows, the book's long time frame is better at highlighting continuities in youth culture than in explaining how the changing political landscape affected these cultural expressions. As the author makes clear in the preface, his is not just a scholarly book but a labor of love. Borzenkov's sympathy and nostalgia for the late Soviet years at times leads him to accept the judgment of official sources at face value. He tends to overlook official directives behind many supposedly independent youth initiatives and is only occasionally explicit about how limits placed on permissible discourse in the Soviet Union affected youth culture. Too often, youth activity is oddly divorced from surrounding political conditions.
Not only does Borzenkov fail to tie together his wealth of fascinating stories and examples to develop an analysis about larger social and political trends, but the structure of his book impedes the reader's ability to do so. Thematically organized chapters move back and forth chronologically with the introduction of each new organization or city. Many of the activities under discussion overlap, and figures who appear in one chapter organizing art exhibits also appear in another leading political discussions at their universities or writing for student publications. For example, the activities of the cafe-club Pod Integralom, which operated from 1963 to 1968 in Akademgorodok, appear in four different chapters. The club's discussions and debates, its sponsorship of the March 1968 bards' festival, the use of club space for art exhibits, and its Friday evening literary events are each discussed separately.
Nevertheless, readers with the patience to piece together fragments of information from multiple chapters will be rewarded for the effort with stories of youth who experimented with new cultural forms, sparked debates, and tested the limits of dissent. Through his careful archival excavation and extensive interviews, Borzenkov has rescued dozens of these fascinating figures from obscurity. In so doing, he provides important evidence for understanding social and political change in the late Soviet period, even more valuable for its grounding in the provinces. His work will be of interest not just to historians of the Soviet Union but also to scholars of global student movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Dept. of History
P. O. Box 208324
New Haven, CT 06520-8324 USA
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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