Turbulent Youth

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

In a society long subject to declining authority within families, where the pillars of authority were under question, and where expectations for success were declining rapidly, young people aroused great unease in their elders. The anxiety was not misplaced. Traditional Soviet policies toward youth were focused on the school and the Komsomol, which controlled most avenues of advancement and after-school recreation. Both of these institutions were becoming discredited, the Komsomol because of its subordination to the Communist Party, schools because they taught an outdated curriculum developed in the 1970s, and based on principles in disrepute. Befuddled authorities had no answers to the questions agitating young people, and in fact ignored issues such as sexuality and the legitimacy of authority. Young people responded in a variety of ways, ranging from apathy to rock music to ever more frequent incidents of civil disorder.

In 1986, the Latvian director Juris Podnieks chronicled a outburst of looting following a rock concert in film, Is it Easy to be Young? Rejecting the official explanation focused on bad apples and hooligans, Podnieks interviewed the young people and found a profound disenchantment with Soviet mores. Why should we follow the rules of a corrupt society, they asked; and for Latvian youth, whose elders would soon question the very foundations of the Soviet Union, doubts were compounded by a sense of alien rule. Soon even the order-conscious documentaries of the military were noting that Baltic youth saw no reason to serve in the military, the traditional introduction to Soviet society for youths of all the ethnic republics.

Russian youth seemed no less liable to question authority. Whether it was Aquarium, the first stars of the burgeoning Russian rock scene, or the fictional students of Dear Elena Sergeevna (1987), who hold their teacher hostage for the offense of low test grades, they all seemed to be asking the same question: What next? When even Surgut, a new city built for the Siberian oil fields in the 1970s, host to an anxious Komsomol conference in 1988, was subject to all the pathologies of Soviet society, what could young people expect for the future.

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