Raising Socialist Youth

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

How to raise a new generation of Soviet children? Children born after the revolution would be innocent of the vices of their parents, the products of a capitalist society that had exploited children mercilessly in its quest for cheap labor. Freed from the demands of labor, children under socialism would develop their personalities in an environment of nurturing and love. The state would devote its resources to their well-being, stepping in as a surrogate of the biological parents, and helping to socialize and educate all children. The Soviet leadership, to its credit, recognized that the success of their ambitious agenda rested on the shoulders of the younger generation, and invested heavily in their education, producing enviable results. Schools and after-school organizations such as the Pioneers (for young children) and the Komsomol (Young Communist League, for older children and young adults) provided them with opportunities for exemplary care and relaxation. Children were protected by a safety net of institutions that ensured that most, even the poor and orphans, were assured of a base level of education, health care, housing and nutrition.

The remarkable efforts of the Soviet state to educate children could not overcome the turmoil that surrounded many of their lives. Civil War, mass dislocation, urban degradation and finally famine had removed many from Soviet institutions, orphaning some, sending others into homeless wandering. Utopian ideals were distant from children who were forced by homelessness to beg, steal, or to sell their bodies. For authorities, the most worrisome was the turmoil taking place in youth morals. Young people accepted the Revolution, but they understood it very differently from their elders. Lenin thought that the revolutionary rejection of morals would lead to a higher form of morality, characterized by the discipline of people who control their own lives. Many young people, judging by reports, saw revolution as the overthrow of all morality whatsoever. Sensational accounts of life in youth dormitories and communes spoke of widespread drunkenness and sexual license. Party leaders saw this not the result of revolution, but a distraction from it, and turned their attention to providing models of communist conduct, and environments where it could take place.

Early Soviet educators, influenced by American thinkers such as Hall and Dewey, believed that individual development or defects were the product of social and economic conditions. Their mission was to create proper learning environments, and they achieved tremendous success. Yet the persistence of profound problems, some traceable to environmental, some to personality, made a mockery of Marxist beliefs in the perfectibility of human nature. If youth debauchery caused the deepest dismay, it was because it attested to a very hard truth, that some of human nature is irredeemable. The educational reforms that would come within a decade were founded in that grim reality, and they demanded from children work, discipline and obedience.

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