Anti-Stalinist youth groups challenge the notion of Soviet citizens as either atomised individuals or willing parties to state policies.
In Stalin's Soviet Union, youth was the symbol of progress, the guarantee for a socialist future, the showcase for communist success and the manpower behind the Five-Year Plans. Not surprisingly, the higher echelons of the Communist Party were deeply disturbed when, in the war and postwar years, they received increasing amounts of local intelligence about anti-Stalinist youth organisations in several Soviet cities and towns.
Working through mountains of archival material while researching for my doctorate, I was startled to find these references standing out from the repetitive phrases of the usual reports. With the help of the human rights organisation Memorial, I traced surviving members of such anti-Stalinist youth groups. Their memories helped balance the lopsided picture emerging from the archives.
Although unaware of each other, these organisations and their members shared many similarities. The young dissidents - often children of Bolshevik revolutionaries or party activists and with first names such as Kommunella or Vladlen (Vladimir Lenin) - gave their groups emotive names such as Army of the Revolution, Communist Party of Youth, Free Thought or Death to Beria.
Their programmes sprang from a longing for a freer and less cruel society and from a youthful enthusiasm for the radical experiments of the early revolutionary era. They found inspiration in the works of Lenin, Trotsky and John Reed or in the literature of pre-revolutionary or recently disgraced Soviet writers such as Alexandr Blok, Anna Akhmatova or Margarite Aliger. Their activities were restricted to clandestine meetings and political discussion circles, with the occasional challenge to moral aspects of Soviet youth education through debauched parties or iconoclastic hooliganism.
Raised through the young pioneers and the Komsomol (the Young Communist League) and imbued with loyalty to the socialist system and patriotism for the motherland, they were children of their era - children who used the education they had been given to make a stand against the system that begat them. As such, the implications for the system were more damning than incidents of bourgeois corruption.
In many ways, the young dissidents highlighted the onset of a deep crisis in a Komsomol that found it ever harder to embrace all Soviet youth while still imposing unity of behaviour and belief.
Over the years, the sentences given to the dissidents increased in length and severity. In 1952, three youngsters were sentenced to death. Stamped as "anti-Soviet", "counter-revolutionary" or "terrorist", the members of anti-Stalinist youth organisations simply joined the ranks of the thousands of individuals convicted of similar charges. The only exception occurred in the Stavropol region, where a judge, after the trial against the organisation Union for Freedom, committed suicide. He left a note reading:
"When children speak the truth and we punish them, I do not have the right to live."
Only recently have historical debates shifted to the problem of defining "resistance" and "dissent" in the Soviet context. Public recognition of the anti-Stalinist youth organisations has been minimal. But it should figure prominently in such discussions. Despite their small number, they are a strong reminder that it is time to shed the notion of Stalin's citizens as either an atomised society or as willing executioners of Stalinist policies.
Juliane Fürst is a PhD student at the London School of Economics.