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ROBERT M. HURT, Observations on the Soviet “ Lost Generation ” - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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Observations on the Soviet “Lost Generation”
THE AMERICAN PUBLIC tends to think of the youth of Communist nations in terms of certain newsreel images—hundreds of youths marching in step to martial music, with identical uniforms and presumably with identical thoughts. Visitors to Russia have been amazed to find that the young people they meet are out of step not only with this stereotype but, what is much more important, with the announced goals of communist society itself. I would like to pass on some observations I made on this subject while in the Soviet Union this past summer.
During my first stop off in a major Russian city I learned that, contrary to my misgivings about the language barrier and the willingness of Russians to talk to Americans, it is often easier to get to know Russian students than even the students of Western Europe. To give an example, I found myself the main attraction at an informal discussion in the center of a small park during my first evening in the town. One student asked if most American families have cars. Another informed us that all American workers lived in constant dread of unemployment and consequent starvation. A boy of high school age stated that Benny Goodman’s appearance was a great event in his life and asked when Louis Armstrong was coming to Russia. An older girl asked quietly about Pasternak’s prestige in the West and later warned me privately about the omnipresent security police. One student hoped that we would not invade Cuba; another whispered to me as I left, “Yankee si, Cuba no!”
This diversity of opinion illustrates a phenomenon noted frequently by commentators on the Russian scene. In spite of what is undoubtedly history’s most determined and scientific attempt at total indoctrination for any prolonged period, the Kremlin has failed to produce a generation of “socialist men” who would swallow in toto the Gospel according to Nikita. Some writers have gone so far as to assert that Russia’s youth constitutes one of the greatest long range threats to the regime. Edward Crankshaw, in a book which generally praises Khrushchev, sees the present generation as Khrushchev’s greatest problem. He noted in 1959 that “the communist idea has long ceased to be an active faith,” and that rejection of this idea was most pronounced in the generation under thirty.1
The communist leadership displays its uneasiness by its defensiveness in regard to the youth problem. World Student News, mouthpiece of the International Union of Students, the Prague-based puppet international communist student organization, felt called upon to refute the image painted in a Time feature article of a “lost generation” in Russia. Their portrait of Russian youth marching arm-in-arm to a Brave New World represents the wishful thinking of the leadership and would have been a bad joke to most of the Russians with whom I talked:
The whole of Soviet youth is preparing to engage in building the nation’s economy, in getting ready to change the mentality of more and more human beings, so as to raise them to the level which the new society they desire demands of each and everyone of them . . . the struggle to strengthen their country, to build, has become a revolutionary factor which stirs their minds and hearts. Just as revolutionary ideals mobilized former Soviet generations, so the revolutionary ideal of today is work, work, and work.2
Communist propagandists themselves give the lie to this ecstatic vision with their omnipresent posters in every town square exhorting the population against “teddy boys” and “hooligans” and their articles castigating those young people who seek to emulate “decadent capitalist ways.”
THE STUDENTS WITH whom I talked can be roughly divided into three groups. The first would be those who seemingly are unquestioningly accepting everything they have been taught and will defend every article of the communist dogma with a religious fervor. While most of the Russians I had met at the Helsinki Youth Festival and at the International Union of Students Congress in Prague, as well as Russian exchange students I have talked to, would fall in this category, only two students I met in Russia itself were of this type. (One was our Intourist guide, who was dubbed Little Izvestia by our group.) I suspect that these young militants, while predominant at events where official selection is necessary, are only a small proportion of Russian youth.
In the second category I would place those Russian youth who are in open and contemptuous rebellion against communist ideals and Soviet society. These are grouped together as “teddy boys” by the Soviet press. American tourists inevitably run into the most daring of these young men almost as soon as they step off the train or plane in Moscow. Operating near the most popular tourist establishments, especially Gorki Park and the GUM Department Store, they offer to buy American suits, ties, synthetic shirts, and especially shoes. (I received eight tempting offers for my suit during my first two days in Moscow.) Sometimes they offer to pay in American dollars, even though it is a serious crime for Russians even to possess American dollars. (Some of the most important black market operations in dollars are conducted by students who purchase dollars from Russian sailors.) They are equally willing to sell phony seventeenth century icons to gullible American tourists.
These rebellious young men are found throughout the social spectrum. The “hooligans” are the children of workers, the stilyagi are of the middle class, and the “jet-set” are the parasitic and completely shiftless children of the very rich.
At best they do absolutely nothing; at worst they are juvenile delinquents of the most violent sort.
Those with whom I talked seem to have consciously and emphatically rejected their indoctrination. They are most eager, often without fear of being overheard, to tell just how horrible they think life in Russia is. (The black marketeers might think that this would increase the chance of commercial transactions with Americans.) Their ideal seems to be the United States, but unfortunately a parody of the United States which would horrify us. They worship at the altar of American rock ’n’ roll. (I was asked several times to my chagrin to demonstrate the “twist.”) Elvis Presley is a hero. Moscow streets are popularly named after American counterparts; for instance, Gorki Street is dubbed Broadway. They dress in what they presume to be American styles, though they are closer to the zoot suits of the early forties. I was shocked to learn that an anti-American film had to be closed out because a showing of automobile “chicken races” had backfired in its propaganda effect. One Muscovite asked me with awe, “Do you really do that in America?”
Needless to say, when listing their grievances against communism, they failed to indicate any appreciation of the values which we prize in the West. Their main grievance seems to be that they do not now receive the material benefits and opportunities for sensual thrills that they think they would receive in the United States. Though the stilyagi and “hooligans” have received considerable attention in the Western press, they clearly do not comprise a majority of Russian youth, and their importance should not be overemphasized.
INTO MY THIRD CATEGORY I would put most of the students I met during my brief Russian stay. These are the young people who on the one hand are honest and somewhat intellectually bent, and desire to lead useful, productive lives, and on the other hand are disillusioned and skeptical in varying degrees about the goals and actualities of Soviet society. I was frankly surprised that so many Russians were of this opinion, and I might well have had different results if I had been able to talk to more people. The fact that I could only converse with persons who spoke English might have given me an inaccurate cross-section. But the discovery that many born and reared under communism develop such attitudes is a cause for amazement. And both the Americans and Russians I talked to in Moscow agreed that a significant proportion of the present generation is skeptical and disillusioned without resorting to the extremes of the “teddy boy” set.
For obvious reasons I cannot be too specific in describing these young people. In contrast to some of the bolder stilyagi, they usually fear reprisals for over-familiarity with Americans. Almost as soon as we crossed the Russian-Polish frontier we noticed the manifest uneasiness of our acquaintances when a stranger walked by or seemed to be staring. Whenever we would approach within a few blocks of a major hotel, an area with a notoriously high concentration of plainclothesmen, the Russians usually would politely excuse themselves or bluntly announce that they were afraid to go further. (This attitude is not universal. Two loquacious and critical college students showed no fear whatsoever.) Fantastic rumors abound concerning new electronic listening devices and an apparatus which reads letters without opening them. While commenting on the common belief that there are hidden microphones in most public buildings, one student remarked that Russians give a quite literal meaning to the epigram, “The walls have ears.” Twice to my knowledge students were warned by plainclothesmen not to talk to me; once one of these ever-present gentlemen even interrupted our conversation and warned the Russian with whom I was talking to discontinue our acquaintance.
The fears of these students are offset, however, by a passionate desire to talk to Americans and learn of the United States and the West. There is the inevitable interest in the material benefits of American life: Does your family have a car? A house? What will a worker’s or doctor’s wage buy? How much are shoes? Have you been to Disneyland? And even the serious students are obsessed with jazz and Louis Armstrong, although not with rock ’n’ roll.
But the most gratifying revelation to me was their strong concern with questions of individual freedom. No conversation passes without questions about Pasternak, who is a heroic symbol to a large segment of the young Russian intelligentsia. I found a hunger for information about Western writers and artists, especially American and French. I spent two hours one evening describing contemporary controversies in philosophy to two brilliant university students who were particularly bothered by the narrow limits of philosophic inquiry in the Soviet Union. The ideas of Ayer and Wittgenstein, of Maritain and Sartre, represented a forbidden frontier to them. They noted with special irony that the philosophic works of such heroes of Soviet propaganda as Russell and Sartre (as well as the paintings of Picasso) are forbidden, with the exception of carefully selected extracts. One student remarked disgustedly, “While you explore the whole world of philosophy, we stop at Lenin’s Materialism and Empiro-Criticism.”
Almost everyone felt that conditions had improved in some ways since the pre-1956 period. However, Khrushchev’s brutal crackdown on “liberal” writers after the literary thaw period of 1956-57 came in for especially bitter criticism. Several students commented angrily on Khrushchev’s speech at a party for writers in 1957 at his own villa. Though it was omitted from the published report, they claim he asserted that the Hungarian trouble could have been avoided if the Hungarian government had shot a few writers. He warned that if similar trouble arose in Russia, “My hand would not tremble.” This remark seemed especially brutal since it was coupled with an attack on the “incorrect” opinions expressed by Margaret Aliger, one of the most daring of the “thaw” writers.3 Khrushchev has curtly summed up his attitude toward cultural freedom: “For anyone who faithfully serves his people in a socialist society, the question of whether or not he is free in his creative work simply does not exist. . . .”4 Fortunately, for many in the new generation of creative minds in Russia it is a question that does exist.
These young Russians were even more bitter in their criticism of restrictions on travel to the West in particular and of their isolation from the West in general. Everyone was amazed that I could travel to Russia without special State Department permission. One Russian who had been unable to obtain permission to travel to communist Poland switched from an attitude of mild cynicism to anger at his lot in the world when he heard of the ease with which I travelled through almost every country in Europe. He pointed out that it was considered a great improvement when Russians were allowed to travel more than twenty kilometers from their residence without special permission. University students were especially interested in the ease and cheapness of travel between Western nations. When I suggested that this might gradually lead to valuable cultural cross-fertilization and eventually to a cultural synthesis as well as a political federation of Western nations, one student summed up a typical attitude: “And we will be left out!”
This official stifling of the creative spirit, and officially imposed isolation from the rest of the world, when coupled with a realization that a monstrous and cumbersome bureaucracy attempts to manipulate every aspect of personal life, has produced a feeling that, figuratively speaking, the individual lives in an atmosphere so stifling that one can scarcely breathe. This not only was a metaphor that cropped up several times in personal conversation, but it is a recurring theme among the best young Soviet writers.5 Incessant loud speakers in the centers of large cities, with their stream of martial music and purring feminine voices, symbolized to two of these students the stifling atmosphere of their society. Even as a brief visitor to the Soviet Union I found these an annoying intrusion into my privacy. The effect of a dictatorial bureaucracy in stifling life was well summer up in an article by one of the Party’s most renowned writers, Ilya Ehrenburg, who, surprisingly, was allowed to subtly voice this opinion even after Krushchev’s threats:
A tyrant can be intelligent or stupid, good or evil, but all the same he is all-powerful and powerless; he is frightened by conspiracies, he is flattered and deceived; the jails fill up; cowardly hypocrites whisper, and a silence settles in that is enough to stop the heart. . . .
. . . the guilt rests with a society that demands hypocrisy, condemns the truth, and tramples large feelings for the sake of its many conventions.6
In reaction to this feeling of suffocation large segments of Russian society have in one way or another tried to attain a little privacy. The official press has bitterly assailed the “antisocial” tendency among the members of the new wealthy class to isolate themselves in small dachas hidden in the woods. Writters react by turning from the “social” themes required by socialist realism and either remaining silent or turning to an introspective, even egocentric theme. The very silence of writers after the end of the thaw was recognized by the officialdom as a danger. Soviet writers were told by a high party official in 1957:
It is known that in music a pause sometimes expresses more feeling and thought than the melody. Your silence is dangerous. It causes disorientation among the readers. What does it mean? What does it conceal? An arrogant contempt for the opinon of others? A contemptuous belief in one’s own infallibility? An insulting “How could you possibly understand us?” The pathos of readiness for sacrifice? What does this silence signify? We do not understand it. Neither do the people.7
The brilliant young poet Evgeni Evtushenko, who now sticks close to permissible themes, was assailed as a representative of the new tendency to turn from social themes and engage in introspection:
When Evtushenko was roaming the countryside around Zima, it never occurred to him to take hold of the controls of a combine-harvester or the wheel of a lorry, or a rake or a scythe or a fork . . . Evtushenko has not portrayed the heroism of labor. . .8 .
Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago was correctly recognized by the literary officialdom as an extreme representative of this new attitude. The famous Novy Mir letter rejecting Dr. Zhivago for publication, the only official comment with any vestige of integrity, ignores the most obvious political remarks, which were really no worse than many which had already been published in some recent works, and concentrates on the underlying attitude toward life. Pasternak is attacked for making a hero of Doctor Zhivago, a man who is egocentric and concerned mainly with his own personal salvation, as well as indecisive and unheroic in the physical sense, the literary antithesis of the new socialist man just as the book is the antithesis of socialist realism.
Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes, which are continuing in lurid detail, have contributed more than anything else to destroying the faith of these young intellectuals in their government and system. An announcement that Beria, once one of the triumvirate that ruled Russia, had personally murdered prisoners in his office was a crowning blow. In Orwell’s 1984, no one noticed when Big Brother rewrote history. In Russia this rewriting has created the gravest doubts. If what we believed then was a lie, why should we believe what we are told today? How could one of history’s worst tyrants take power under a system which we are told is the world’s best? How do we know it will not happen again? Is it still happening? Some Russians believe almost nothing emanating from government sources. One did not believe there was segregation in the United States until he heard it admitted on the Voice of America.
Others are confused and skeptical. I recall one instance which illustrates the depth of this doubt. A student was arguing with two others that Khrushchev was completely different from Stalin and actually desired a transition to more freedom. I threw out a query which I thought would have only slight rhetorical value: “What will you say after the de-Khrushchevization period? Will you contend that the next leader is different from Stalin and Khrushchev?” While the other students nodded in agreement, she gave a look of terror, and tears actually came to her eyes. She later admitted that her attitude had been one of desperate hope rather than conviction.
All this does not in any sense mean any significant number of the young generation have embraced capitalism as their ideal or are looking to American military liberation of Russia. Their political goals are usually nebulous and uncertain. Sometimes I encountered a belief in a highly decentralized “syndicalism” in which workers owned their factories and people were free in their personal lives. The ideas of Gorky seemed to have had more of an impact among them than those of Lenin. There is pride in Russia’s rapid technological development, although not as much as I had anticipated. Many Russians are clearly not impressed with their space achievements, and several felt it was a tragic waste of money with so much misery to be alleviated.
Their attitudes toward the United States and the Cold War vary considerably, but I never found them either completely uncritical or particularly hostile. No one doubts that the average worker is much better off materially in the United States, although there is much misunderstanding and exaggeration as to the unemployment problem. They usually express criticism of the condition of the Negro, though not with the vehemence of the average Englishman. They sometimes express concern over the John Birch Society, often demonstrating such misinformation that they might have been readers of the New York Post. Their views on the Cold War, though usually blaming the United States for creating “war tensions,” were often surprisingly sophisticated, considering difficulties in obtaining information, and rarely completely echoed official propaganda. Most tend to attribute guilt for present tensions to both sides; the Russian military and American arms producers are singled out as the culprits. American bases around Russia, the U-2 flight, and our policy towards Cuba are singled out for criticism, although I found them open-minded and willing to re-examine their opinions when I explained the reasons for American policy. Their willingness to reject a previously held opinion probably was another indication of the extreme skepticism with which they often receive official information. All but two were well informed about the Hungarian repression and were horrified at their government’s action; several had guessed at the real reason for the Berlin Wall. And many fear and are repelled by the Communist regime in China.
BECAUSE OF OUR language barrier, I could enter into only a few detailed conversations on deeper issues, the attitudes of these people toward the purpose of their existence and the hopes they had for the future of Russian and mankind. I cannot say how typical the attitudes expressed in these conversations were, but I pass them on as some of the most interesting observations of my trip. I found a surface optimism concealing a pessimisim which ran deeper than mere cynicism. Goals, though vague and uncrystallized, are phrased in terms of absolutes. This vividly contrasts with the more pragmatic and cynical attitude of the Czechs, for instance, to look to a little more than survival and a general improvement in their present condtion. Philosophies such as pragmatism and neo-positivism in my opinion would be utterly unacceptable to this Russian mentality, because the attitude of mind which has engendered them in the West, the skeptical mind which is willing to suspend judgment and to be content with partial answers, is alien to this Russian intellectual temperament. Likewise, in the political field these young Russians seem to be looking for absolute commitment to a system which provides answers to all questions rather than for a set of provisional solutions to vexing problems. Just as the Russian has always been either theist or atheist, never agnostic, there is a strong tendency for the Russian, unlike the American, Englishman, or Czech to be a political extremist and uncompromising idealist. Dostoevski meticulously probed this desire for total commitment, and Berdyaev has shown how the intellectual success of Marxism is bound up with his mentality.
All the disillusionments of recent years, the Stalin revelations, Hungary, the fanatic turn taken by China (and I am sure their government’s vociferous denial, then admission of missile bases in Cuba can now be added to the list), and Khrushchev’s crude crackdown on the 1957 literary thaw, have had a traumatic psychological effect on these young Russians, who emotionally are intensely patriotic to “Mother Russia” and desire so strongly to “believe” in her. Several times I detected what might have been a feeling of personal guilt, a slight tinge of masochism. Descriptions of the worst aspects of life in Russia are all too often accompanied by remarks such as “This is our shame,” and “We are so embarrassed to admit this to an American.” Also, when they undertook to defend their government on some point, I felt they were all too willing to give in to my arguments. They found them much more convincing than I did on several occasions, and stated that they were “humiliated” to admit I must be right.
If I am warranted in drawing any conclusions from these observations of the Russian attitude, I would say that this helps to explain why Marxism as a closed theory and ideal had such an attraction to the Russian intellect and why the theoretical justification for a capitalist and pluralist system, admittedly offered as merely the best of imperfect systems, might have little intrinsic appeal. However, when a system falls so blatantly short of any set of ideals justifying commitment, such a mentality is likely to engender more hostility than a more moderate and pragmatic one.
NOW I COME TO the task of drawing practical conclusions from my disjointed mass of observations. First I would note that Russia is in a perverted way a more open society than we might expect. Rigid government control of the nation’s economic life is circumvented to a fantastic degree by various illegal operations: black market, bribery, and theft of state property. Recent administration of the death penalty for various economic crimes (murder and rape are not punishable by death) seems to be a feeble attempt to deal with a way of life that in many areas is the rule rather than the exception. Likewise, the official monopoly of informational media is circumvented by an all pervasive grapevine. In Moscow we received slightly confused reports of the riots and subsequent repression near Rostov, when the government was stopping tours bound for Rostov because of an “epidemic.” A slight Soviet relaxation of controls has also contributed to alleviating the situation in regard to information. English language Voice of America broadcasts can be easily picked up, although Russian language broadcasts are usually jammed. The United States government publication America, which is sold in very limited amounts under our cultural exchange program, had been read by almost everyone to whom I talked. And, of course, the mass inflow of Western tourists offers an important respite from isolation to these people, at least in the large tourist centers.
Second, almost every American visitor is surprised by the special friendship and respect accorded Americans. Not only do Americans find themselves well-received; we found almost no hostility toward the United States and its government. As I have already pointed out, among a significant portion of the young, American culture, or at least what we regard as the worst aspects of it, is set up as an ideal. And among the more serious I found a respect for America and its institutions greater in many cases than is usually found in Western Europe. To the young generation, events such as Benny Goodman’s tour are magnified in importance. Not only is this music they want to hear, it is contact with America. On several occasions I was touched by the special attention I received when a Russian learned I was an American. Once a boy of about twenty, after telling me how to get to my destination on the other side of Moscow, asked me if I was an Englishman. When I informed him I was an American, he spent the next hour accompanying me to my destination. When no one was looking he proudly displayed the contents of his gym bag—a copy of America.
But of what significance is all this? Does the attitude of the Russian young generation make one iota of difference as to Russian policy when all decisions rest in the hands of the top men? Senator Goldwater, in his Conscience of a Conservative, has no trouble finding an answer. In one sentence he asserts that contacts with the Russian people are useless because they have no say with the government. Although I do not plan to go into the reasons here, I would contend, but with some reservation, that broadening contacts and attempting to explain our position may in the future be of considerable importance.
But one sentiment that is difficult to rid oneself of after associating with these people is a fervent hope that some day they will see an end to the oppression under which they live, coupled with a hope that in some way we may help them to do so. I was especially moved by an event which occurred when I was being questioned on Pasternak by a very small group of adult Russians late at night in a public square. The eldest, a worker who was interpreting for the group, asked if I remembered any of Pasternak’s poems. I stumbled through the first two stanzas of “Beast in an Enclosure” while it was translated to the entranced group:
I could remember no more, but one of the Russians picked up the remaining two stanzas, as tears formed in the eyes of every Russian in the group:
Seconds after these stanzas were completed, several passersby seemed to be moving too close for the comfort of the Russians. We shook hands and departed.
[* ] Robert M. Hurt is an Associate Editor of New Individualist Review.
[1 ]Khrushchev’s Russia (Baltimore: Penguin, 1959) p. 139.
[2 ] “Soviet Youth: A Lost Generation?” World Student News, vol. 16, no. 6, 1962, p. 10.
[3 ] While Miss Aliger reportedly fainted upon hearing Khrushchev’s thinly veiled threat, her later “recantation” may have been written satirically: “I think that I will be able fully to explain the profound conclusions which I have drawn for my future only by working wholeheartedly, by remembering always that the main task of a Soviet writer is political work, and that it can only be performed honorably by following unwaveringly the Party line and Party discipline.”
[4 ] Quoted in The Current Digest of the Soviet Press (New York), October 9, 1957.
[5 ] This tendency is illustrated by the works of Russian and satellite authors collected in Bitter Harvest, ed. Edmund Stillman, (New York: Praeger, 1959). Francis Bondy’s introduction points out that some of these authors have more in common with Kafka than with the authors of socialist realism. On one occasion a young Russian writer informed me he felt more kinship with Kafka than with any Russian writer.
[6 ] “The Lessons of Stendhal,” Bitter Harvest, pp. 230-31.
[7 ] Leonid Sobolev in a 1957 speech to the Soviet Writers’ Union, as quoted in Soviet Survey, (London), September, 1957.
[8 ] V. Solukhin, Literaturnaya Gazeta (Moscow), as quoted in Soviet Survey (London), July-September, 1958.