Revolutionary Manliness

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Subject essay: Sean Guillory

Though the Komsomol was open to both sexes, male members outnumbered females eight to one throughout the 1920s. This was in part the result of the traditional exclusion of women from Russian politics, and parental or spousal forbiddance. In the eyes of many Soviet citizens, the Komsomol represented atheism, hooliganism, and sexual depravity, and men did not want their daughters and wives to have any part of it. For the most part, however, the Komsomol itself was to blame. Many cells, which were dominated by boys, disregarded girls despite leaders’ insistence that they devote special attention to them. Girls were faced with boys’ constant discouragement, discrimination, and harassment. As one girl put it: “To hell with the Komsomol! I’m not allowed to go to the cell. Every guy swarms around me and plays nasty tricks.”

The Komsomol gender problem, however, cannot be simply reduced to sexism, indifference and harassment. The difficulty was also that the ethos of a young communist was coded masculine. Even if a girl negotiated boys’ torments, her very femininity precluded her from becoming a true communist. In order to craft a “new everyday life” in the 1920s, young male communists denied all signs of the feminine in mannerism, dress, and emotions. The most visible symbols were the leather jacket; knee high leather boots, a Sam Brown belt, and a pistol. Indeed, one commentator noted that the “chador” of the so-called “pure blooded proletarian” included a whole assembly of fashion and attitude. Komsomols went around in dilapidated boots with permanently stuck on black dirt, a long, worn out leather jacket, living on dry crusts, and denying themselves rest, entertainment, and often food.” Emotions like sentimentality were rejected for a cold, hard demeanor. The ideal communist, according to a certain Nikolai Kartsev, was “serious, businesslike, showed disdain for all dancing and any gallantry, only sang revolutionary songs, dispersed in secluded pairs [having sex], didn’t attend village parties, and only hung out with “non-party” guys for political discussions and not for fun.”

Despite his supposed stoic conduct, the young communist was also bombastic, pigheaded, and lived by his own rules. Swearing was a mark of proletarian stock and manliness. Often Komsomol speech was an “odorous assortment” borrowed from both the factory and criminal lexicons. The ability to spit out a string of curses was a feat of admiration and respect, a test of manhood, and a means of male bonding. By swearing, young men created a toxic environment for girls. Young communist speech was so offensive that sometimes girls avoided meetings to avoid the embarrassment of overheated conversations.

The Komsomol club was a breeding ground for masculine behavior. Clubs were filthy, girls were treated rudely, and drinking, card playing, pranks, and fighting were common forms of entertainment and bonding. Drink made some guys hotheaded, uncontrollable. The Komsomol style as an expression of masculinity was best seen in how girls who adopted it were treated. Girls struggling to fit in cast off their dresses, makeup, and other forms of feminine beauty for a more masculine style as statements of their revolutionary authenticity. However, to komsomol males, this gender bending was anathema. Even Nikolai Semashko, the People’s Commissar of Health, decried these masculine-women with “disheveled, frequently dirty hair, a cigarette between her lips (like a man), deliberately gruff manners (like a man) deliberately rude voice (like a man), etc.” as violations of nature itself. Girls were at pains to find a middle ground. On the one hand outward displays of femininity were considered ideologically taboo and threatened to distract sexually charged boys from Komsomol business. On the other, girls’ efforts to erase their femininity were met with scorn.

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