This Soviet World

Anna Louise Strong


“The generation which is now fifteen years old will see Communism and will itself build it.”

“Life is good and to live is good—in such a land, in such an epoch! . . . We, young owners of our country, called upon to conquer space and time. . . .”

In June of 1935 these words of Anna Mlynek, young valedictorian of the first Moscow class to complete the new ten-year school, awakened in thousands of hearts the world over a realization of what youth’s outlook might be in a socialist land. To youth in capitalist countries the outlook is gloomy. They look outward and see unemployment; they look inward and find confusion. They are developing, rational beings propelled into a world whose irrationality even their parents and teachers cannot explain to them. Those who love them best offer only a host of illusions; they are taught to look at the past and go backing into the future. So there goes on within them what the well-known psychiatrist, Dr. Frankwood Williams, calls a “mighty struggle in the dark . . . with all the emotional complexities and uncertainties that home, school, community have woven into their being.”

Soviet youth have not escaped struggle. Their birth was in the flames of civil war. Their childhood endured the famine years. Their adolescence was strained by great tasks of constructing a country. Many young lives were cut short or crippled in heart or lung or nerve in those years of battle and building. Even today they see across the future the dark threat of world war which may be launched at any time by the capitalist chaos beyond their borders, and in which they know that many of them must perish.

What then is the source of the explosive joy which becomes increasingly plain in the words, the sports, the celebrations of Soviet youth? It lies in those words “young owners.” Men in the past have been subjects of kings or even proud citizens of democracies. Never till socialism dared they call themselves owners of the land in which they live. Ownership brings freedom in planning, clearness of goal, harmony of intellect and will in expanding life. Joint ownership brings comradeship reinforcing freedom, and a new, widened will to conquer space and time.

A letter sent by thirty-one young men and girls from a collective farm to Moscow to greet the assembling of congress in early 1935 expresses it: “We go a road that is rich with life. We know our goal. What we are doing we do with clear consciousness. We know that what we do is important, necessary, great and glorious. We know the aim of our collective farm tasks. We know what will be tomorrow for we ourselves create it. Today is good, tomorrow will be better, the day after tomorrow immeasurably better. We often think of the glorious future of our farm, our township, our dear district, all our beloved land. We think of the bright future of all mankind which will be freed by the world-wide proletarian revolution.”

Not on any mystic faith do these thirty-one young people base their hope for the future, but on homely details of daily fact that seem at first sight quite inadequate to explain their joy. They relate the changing of poor soil to good soil. “Our village never knew wheat till the Bolsheviks pushed it to the north!” They tell the expansion of music, drama, sport and science built on the firm economic foundation of their increasing harvest. They see the clear connection between their farm’s success and the success of their country, and base on this their expectation of international revolution. Their life is an integrated whole from the farm to the world. They have grown up and been formed by a new social order.

What are the qualities demanded of joint owners, which the Soviet schools seek consciously to develop? Neither the combativeness nor the submission which are the contradictory demands of capitalism, but a high degree of initiative and scientific interest, a high development of individual variety combined with highly developed social instincts. The aim of the Soviet school is not to create standardized people, suited to the demands of some undefined future boss, but to help youth discover and develop its own desires and capacities. In a hundred ways the schools are constantly asking: What do you most like to do? In a hundred ways they help this developing choice relate itself to the equally developing choice of others.

An American teacher who has taught for years in Soviet schools tells me that the approach to the child is far more individual than in America. Persistent efforts are made to find the child’s particular aptitudes and interests. In the elementary grades there are two types of teachers:—group teachers remain with one group of children for several years, visiting their homes, becoming thoroughly acquainted with them and relating them to the special teachers who develop special aptitudes. By the seventh grade, which is roughly equivalent to second year of high school in America, psychological tests help the child decide what he can do best; they tell him his capacities but impose no compulsion on his choice.

Summer camps and excursions are also planned to help children discover their special interests and widen the field of their choice. The best camps, such as the famous Artek in the Crimea, maintain amateur work of a high order in geology, botany, care of animals, study of sea-life and construction of airplane and automobile models. Children spending their summer in such camps discover and develop hobbies which may, or may not, develop into their life’s work. Newspaper discussions also draw out the self-expression of children; a special newspaper, the Pioneer Pravda, is written almost entirely by children.

Last summer I met twenty young “Arctic explorers” under sixteen years of age on the Murmansk train bound for Polar regions. Their energetic study of maps, Arctic cruises, Northern peoples had been sufficient to win from their teachers a recommendation which included them in an organized cruise of the north. They would meet adult Arctic explorers who would treat them smilingly but courteously as possible future colleagues. Ten of the best pupils in botany were similarly allowed to make an expedition at government expense to the Altai mountains, where they hiked two thousand kilometers and found twenty-seven new varieties of black currants and a type of onion which resists 45° of frost. Two of these young explorers went as delegates to deliver the plants to the aged plant-creator Michurin: When he asked: “Weren’t you afraid to cross wild rivers and sleep at night in the woods?” they answered: “Sometimes we were afraid. We feared that our expedition would fail to find any new plants and we would disgrace ourselves as Michurin’s grandchildren.”

Such trips are the reward of marked aptitude, but all children take some part in the “grown—up” activities of the country. In Molvitino township the farm children told me proudly of scores of tons of bird droppings and wood ashes collected to fertilize the exhausted fields. In the 1934 “war with drought,” when a chief harvest problem in the south was the low, dry stand of easily broken grain, children’s groups of gleaners followed the reapers and competed to save great piles of grain heads. Every Soviet child knows the heroism of Mitia who caught three harvest thieves red-handed. In Artek Camp I met a child who had prevented a train wreck by reporting a loose rail and another who saved an aviator by lighting a bonfire at night to guide the errant plane: these children won wide renown among other children and were rewarded by a summer at Artek. Children of railway workers in Tiflis built and operate a half-mile railroad in the Park of Culture and Rest; it is a serious enterprise which carries passengers, takes in a thousand rubles each holiday and spends the money in proper Soviet style to “expand the road.”

These out-of-school activities of children became at one time so absorbing that they threatened health and education. Young Pioneers “saved the harvest,” reclaimed drunken parents, denounced village grafters and debated whether their first duty was to the school or to “help the country.” Today children are reminded that “learn, learn, learn” is Lenin’s statement of the three most necessary things for young humans to do. School dominates and organizes all other child activities. But it never excludes them. In all their learning many forms of activity have part.

The early discipline of children is largely through mass pressure, highly effectively organized by the children themselves. Children often come to a teacher with suggestions about the best way to handle difficult cases. They inform the teacher of home conditions which have made certain children backward in study or in comradeliness. They organize committees to go with the teacher to the homes. Children will themselves expose violations of child labor laws, or write to the papers about parents who beat other children. The highest honor given to able children is to be asked to help more backward ones with their studies in a spirit not of condescension but of good team-work, like that of a basket-ball player who helps his team excel. The strongest penalty in any school is given when children ask to have a child excluded on the round that his conduct disturbs their work.

All these activities of children directly reflect and prepare for their coming adult life. The encouragement of individual variety harmonized by regard for the rights of others expands into the more definite yet wider interests of youth. By the end of the ten-year school, which is roughly equivalent to a combination of the American elementary grades and high school, the boy or girl usually has some interest which he wants to test in serious work. Some young folks go to work even earlier, spending part of the years between fourteen and eighteen in a factory trade school with part-time work. Some go direct from the secondary school to the university. But the commonly encouraged procedure is to finish ten years of school and then go to work in the late teens for a period of self-testing before deciding on specialization.

These are not odd jobs to earn one’s way through college, such as are known in American life. They are part of a youth’s conscious self-education in the actual world of production. They are related to his already appearing interests, which they test and develop. I know a boy of nineteen who chose to work on a farm in the summer. Since he already knew that he wanted to become an entomologist, the farm was expected to give him scientific work. He sorted apples for diseases, staked cabbages to count the bugs in sample areas, and otherwise used his special interest for farm production, improving his scientific technique while he worked. If an emergency had occurred, he would have helped in other ways, but emergencies which waste the time of young people in blind alley tasks are a blot on the reputation of any Soviet industry. When four girls of my acquaintance went to work in a chemical laboratory in Siberia and found it so disorganized that there was nothing really useful to do, they protested to the Party against this waste of their time, and the organization which was employing and paying them was censured and ordered to release them for other work. The time of youth is a precious treasure of the community. The most accepted reason which any youth can give for leaving a job is that it offers nothing more for him to learn.

At no time in life is there any gap between work and schooling. Education is not a commodity purchased by money and consumed in childhood or in four charmed years of isolated university life. It is a personal and public necessity, without limits, freely available from childhood to old age. Courses of general culture are not crammed into a special period; they are taken after work in any quantity desired. They are paid for by state or trade union; any group of workers anywhere may decide to study chemistry, music or parachute-jumping and call on their trade union to pay the teachers. When young people feel that they have chosen a permanent specialty, for which they need some years of concentrated study, they apply to enter a university or a research institute. For these institutions their ability and seriousness is tested by severe entrance examinations. If they pass, study becomes their regular work, paid for as such by the state. It is fully as strenuous as the factory; they spend six or seven hours a day in class rooms and laboratories in courses chosen on a broad basis, but all consciously directed towards preparation for their profession.

I visited the dormitory attached to three institutions of higher education in mining, metallurgy and non-ferrous metals. A pretty girl was specializing in blast furnaces, a former book-binder was studying mining engineering, a factory-worker was becoming a geologist for Central Asia, a broad-faced yellow Kazak was preparing to work in copper in the newly opened mines of Kazakstan. All of them were paid for their study by the Commissariat of Heavy Industry. Their stipends ranged from one to two hundred rubles monthly, the higher pay rewarding the best students. Every summer they chose their “practice work” from a dozen localities which offered, and as soon as they found some place where they wished to sign up for a job after graduation, they got additional wages from their chosen industry. The majority decided by the third or fourth year of the five-year course. Thereafter they felt themselves bound to work, for at least a time after they finished the university, for the institution which had paid for their education. This was not felt by them as compulsion but as the intelligent specializing of their own choice on the basis of a wide range of opportunities. Any good reason, such as personal health or the demand of some national emergency, would be recognized by them and their fellows as grounds for release. But a frivolous change of occupation without reason would brand a youth as undependable, while to give up a job because conditions proved difficult would be stigmatized as cowardly. For what was he trained if not to make the conditions better? Has he not at his disposal for this all the resources of the land?

What jobs does youth choose? By no means the easy ones. When has youth, when free to choose, ever asked for the easy way? Youth wants conquest. Youth is explosive energy, so explosive that under capitalism it must be befogged with illusions, lest it wreck the world’s ancient ways. Soviet youth is encouraged to make the world over; it responds to the call. In every difficult struggle faced by the Soviet state from its beginning, a mighty host of youth has volunteered.

Youth does not wait to be asked; it takes the initiative. Through its organization, the Young Communist League, it repeatedly demands the right to battle on each new important “front.” I know young women who fought in the civil war, divorcing the husbands who would have prevented their going. The Stalingrad Tractor Plant, the first Soviet conveyor, was built and manned by young folks coming from every part of the country. “We give our youth to this struggle,” they said to me six years ago. “We do not spend it in ease or amusement. We shall not stop till we have built the socialist city of Stalingrad.” I have vivid memory of the boat that came at eleven o’clock one night for a long-expected boat-ride after a hot day and was turned down by young voices, with-out a word from their elders, as too late. “Got to go home; got to be fresh for the line tomorrow,” they said as they turned away.

Thus was launched in the far northeast of Asia the new ship-building port Comsomolsk on the shores of the Ohotsk Sea, a city proudly carved from mosquito-ridden forests by the forces of youth alone. Thus was built the Moscow subway in a titanic drive by youth to create “the most beautiful subway in the world.” Moscow’s Young Communists left office jobs, postponed university courses and requalified as underground ditch-diggers to build it. Every great construction job has its special tasks seized by youth; they take over the building of a blast furnace in competition with one raised alongside by their elders. They organize special farms which make proud records. They pour into the new industries, master the new technique, form the new staff of engineers.

Like young folks everywhere, Soviet youths have the problem of the relation between work and marriage. This is never a question of whether they can afford to get married; that is taken for granted. The problem is to find time for a satisfying family life. One troubled youth writes to the Komsomolskaya Pravda in the discussion recently held on this question: “I am a turner. I am also a Young Communist. Besides that I am working on an invention. My days are so full that I don’t have time to breathe. I see my wife only at night and then I'm so dead tired that I fall down and sleep like a corpse. Lydia weeps. I am not a beast; I am sorry about Lydia. But I try to organize my time and I can’t even find an hour for my class on planning, much less for my family.”

This is an extreme case; it is balanced by young Kuznetsova who lays down her specifications for a husband: “I wouldn’t have a man who was not a good social worker. But neither will I live with one who is interested only in his factory. I don’t want a one-sided man. I want a husband who will play volley ball with me, do skiing, appreciate the theater, music, general culture, read a book with me and argue about it afterwards. All these things have place in a well-rounded life.” These are the problems of a rich, abundant existence, which needs only to be organized. Soviet youth never feels that it must renounce any of these satisfactions.

Each year when September First brings the International Youth celebration, hundreds of telegrams pour into the offices of Komsomolskaya Pravda, organ of Communist Youth, announcing achievements of youth and the gifts which it offers the country. A group of young steel men wire that they have dismantled and reassembled an open hearth furnace in six days instead of the usual ten; a group of young miners sends an extra train of coal manned by a train crew especially chosen from scores who competed for the honor. Other groups announce the organization of “cultured field camps” where music, drama and books enliven the evening’s work on the farm. Still other groups blazon sport records on floats in the great demonstration which storms the Red Square. Young Communists of the Red Dawn Telephone Factory hiked to the Mongolian border, 5,400 miles in 180 days. Another group is back from climbing the Altai, covering 1,200 miles on foot. They celebrate the Baikal-Murmansk ski-run across half Asia and half northern Europe; they announce Alpine and parachute records made by youth. Nor is there any sharp line between records in sport and in steel-mills. All are one unified, advancing life.

Not in conflict with work but around it in the social life of the factory collective, Soviet youth develops activities of sport and recreation which make up a well-rounded life. Tsarist Russia possessed thirty thousand members of sport and athletic clubs; there are six million today. Tens of thousands of cheering spectators turn out to soccer matches between Moscow, Leningrad, Central Asia, Turkey and Spain. Soviet sportsmen begin to invade world records. But the characteristic of Soviet sport is not the straining for records in one field at the expense of all round physical fitness; its symbol is the GTO badge—“Ready for Labor and Defense”—to receive which one must pass certain standards in walking, running, swimming, rowing, skiing, jumping and every kind of summer and winter sport. Two and a half million persons have qualified for this symbol, and a second degree of GTO is now established, requiring high diving, parachute jumping and other difficult tests.

Parachute jumping has become almost a national sport in the Soviet Union, typical of its sky-storming youth. Flying, gliding, jumping, youth fills the heavens above Tushino field several times each summer with its aviation festivals. One hundred and fifty at a time they leap from great carrier airplanes and come sailing down under canopies of many-colored silk—red, white, blue, orange, lilac—covering the sky with rainbow hues. Week after week they make new records, young men and girls in individual or group jumps. Nina Kameneva, descending from icy space nearly twice the height of Mount Blanc and breaking a world’s record, made the remark which was seized by Soviet youth as a new slogan: “The sky of our country is the highest sky in the world.”

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