Soviet youth: where are they going?

April 24, 1991

DMITRY SOLONNIKOV is an editor of the Leningrad youth journal Noyaya Gazeta (New Newspaper) and a member of the Coordinating Council of the Federation of Socialist Youth of the USSR. He was interviewed for Green Left by RENFREY CLARKE.

What are the ideas of Soviet youth and their relationship to the political process today?

The most obvious thing is the apolitical attitude. Youth emerge as one of the least politically minded groups, while the most politically active layer consists of those between the ages of 30 and 45.

Young people have very strong memories of the times when youth were drafted en masse into political activities through the Communist Youth League, the Komsomol. Everyone from the age of 14 was supposed to be building communism and actively propagandising the ideas of Marx and Lenin. Today, young people are dropping out of the Komsomol in droves.

If you tried to define a common ideology amongst Soviet youth today, it would probably be anticommunism. It's only in the long term sense that we can take a positive view of what's happening. Young people will have to gradually form new views on a new basis. Perhaps in five years, such people will emerge.

The example of Bulgaria is instructive here. I talked to students from the University of Sofia — the only political activists to be found on campus are the anarchists. That's typical — the further you are from communism the more likely you are to get a hearing amongst youth.

But there may be a chance for us in the near future to establish a dialogue between youth and the left, to lay the groundwork for some kind of left youth politics.

This is because the changes occurring strike particularly hard at youth. In Leningrad the tertiary colleges and technical universities were oriented heavily toward supplying scientists and technicians for defence plants and for the military industrial complex. These plants now have virtually no need for young people. There's going to be mass youth unemployment — in the next two years 60% of the graduates could wind up at the labour exchange.

How can youth be organised and around which issues?

A year ago the answer would have been simple: the same issues which affect society as a whole — freedom of speech and the press and so on. Then, many tertiary institutions were acting as centres for mass discussion and for meetings called by various political forces. But now there's none of that.

In the Ukraine and various other republics political activity by young people has centred on the national question, and it's hard to isolate a specifically social component from this activism.

If I were to guess at what might get youth activated in the near future I'd say this would be the question of defending social guarantees. I know that in many tertiary institutions protests are es in fares for public transport, since the compensation the government is providing to students is not enough to cover these new expenses. Prices are also rising in the student cafeterias. The living allowance students receive is totally inadequate.

I think there is a possibility that in the next period these questions will unite youth and set up new dialogues in which socialists can participate.

What incomes do students receive and how can they live on them?

It's hard to say how they live on them. The basic stipend used to be from 40 to 60 roubles a month, and about 60 roubles has been added to this as compensation for the price reform. This is still far below the official poverty line, which before the reform was 90 roubles a month. In official terms there is no way students can live on their incomes.

Most receive help from parents, but now things are difficult for parents as well. To survive students are forced to deal on the black market, reselling goods from overseas or produced here illicitly.

How did your organisation arise?

Like many organisations which now stand far to our right, we came together within the Komsomol. Inside the Komsomol you found people of all political stripes, from Stalinist conservatives right through to Christian Democrats.

Among the opponents of the Komsomol leadership was a movement called Workers Alternative. This was a powerful current. It arose three years ago and put forward a range of demands including the democratisation of social life and the defence of the socialist elements in the program of the Komsomol.

Worker's Alternative defended these positions at plenums of the Central Committee. The last time it went into action was at the 21st Congress of the Komsomol, when it tried to have its line adopted.

After losing the fight the movement officially declared that it was leaving the Komsomol. Since then it has acted independently. Three months after the 21st Congress, at a meeting in Novosibirsk, a socialist platform was adopted and an organising committee formed to establish the Federation of Socialist Youth. The FSY held a conference in 1990 and has been an independent organisation since.

The FSY has aimed to train youth so they can continue their political activity in a professional way. In September and February, schools were held in Moscow, with leading political scientists and economists invited.

How large is the Federation of Socialist Youth and what are its areas of activity?

We have about 200 members. The federation has groups in Moscow, Leningrad, Irkutsk, Volgograd, Odessa, Mezhdurechensk and Chelyabinsk. The group in Chelyabinsk is particularly strong. Our main strategic line is to try to get mass actions going. We're trying to organise alternative May Day celebrations, since leftists are trying to reach agreement on presenting a third force counterposed to the totalitarian-minded Communist Party and to the liberal-capitalist currents.

The left currents are trying to organise their own action, in the traditional form of demonstration by socialists in the prerevolutionary period. When socialists were persecuted and their meeting broken up by tsarist forces, they used to leave the towns for their May Day celebrations. We intend to hold such an action in Leningrad park.

What links does the federation have with other left groups and with labour collectives and the workers' movement?

We collaborate closely with other left organisation and attend one another's gatherings and work together on joint initiatives. An important area of collaboration is in exchanging articles for publications. The Leningrad paper Novaya Gazeta is described officially as a left-oriented journal, and prints stories by members of the Socialist Party, by anarcho-syndicalists, greens and Popular Socialists. In Leningrad there is a bloc of left forces that unites people.

We also have good relations with the workers' collectives. In a mining town in Siberia, the miners have a very strong union which is organising strikes. One of their key leaders is an activist in the FSY.

The near future will see major social explosions, and not only in the youth milieu. On the basis of these, I think the socialists stand to make big gains. I'm confident our numbers will increase and our ideas will spread.

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