In Russia, a kinder, gentler Komsomol

Notorious in Soviet times, youth organizations today aim to restore a lost sense of pride, discipline.

Lilya Vlasova knows what it's like to be a member of Russia's "lost generation."

Describing her escape from the ranks of young people who saw their parents' ideology replaced with disillusionment, high unemployment, and moral collapse, the young woman in bookish, wire-rimmed glasses speaks with the zeal of the converted.

"It changed my life," says Ms. Vlasova, who six months ago joined a new pro-Kremlin organization known as Idushchiye Vmeste, or Moving Together. "There are so many negative trends that make young people feel unhappy. They turn to drugs, but we must develop their taste, their curiosity in life," she says.

During Soviet rule, national political organizations like the Young Communist League, or Komsomol, were entrusted with stamping out cookie-cutter citizens devoted to the totalitarian system.

But such groups also brought discipline and focus to many young lives, and it is this aspect that some want to revive.

After a decade of official neglect, this year's federal budget includes new spending for youth programs. At the same time, a number of unofficial, small organizations have sprung up across Russia. Their focus ranges from military-style training, religion, music fan clubs, and summer camps, to business programs for budding entrepreneurs.

"Russia needs young people who care, who want to realize their potential," says Alexandra Buratayeva, a member of the lower house of parliament, the Duma, and head of the Unity Youth Organization. "A lot of time has been wasted while a new, free generation has emerged. Their brains were never washed."

Ms. Vlasova in particular approves of the politicized Moving Together, which celebrated the one-year anniversary of President Vladimir Putin's inauguration this month with a high-profile rally in Moscow's Red Square. Thousands of students wore T-shirts emblazoned with pictures of Mr. Putin, who has vowed to restore order, national power, prestige, and patriotism to Russia.

Not everyone is convinced. "When a person joins an organization, they must follow the rules, and that sweeps away their individuality," says Sergei Ryabov, a black leather-jacketed student in St. Petersburg and fan of what he calls "black metal" music.

"If people like joining a group, they are free to choose what they want," Mr. Ryabov says. "But I'm fine by myself."

For Vlasova, Moving Together - with its emphasis on rediscovering Russian culture and patriotism through mandatory readings of classical literature, music, and charity work with veterans and orphans - has turned around a destructive sense of hopelessness.

In her twenties and raising a three-year-old daughter, Liza, she joined the group at the same time she left her husband - a heroin addict diagnosed with HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS.

Vlasova says the relationship broke down because her husband was unable to stick with treatment programs. She says organizations like hers give young Russians a sense of hope, that can help them avoid problems like drug addiction. "One antidrug injection is a knowledge of your own culture," Vlasova says. "If youth know their history and traditions better, their horizons will be much wider. Their whole outlook will change."

That message seems to be spreading. Vlasova's desk in the basement of the group's Moscow headquarters is covered with application forms. Up to 150 come in each day from across Russia.

"They come to us to abandon their problems, drugs, and their senseless existences," says Vasily Yakimenko, head of Moving Together, which claims 40,000 members, one-tenth of them a core group.

The organization has its detractors. Critics in the press portray members as Putin stormtroopers, a rent-a-crowd that receives cash for attending rallies.

The number of state-of-the-art computers and pagers at the well-appointed headquarters is testimony that the youth group does have important benefactors.

But Mr. Yakimenko denies rumors that the Kremlin administration funds Moving Together, and was behind its founding more than a year ago.

He argues that, instead of being pro-Putin, they are pro-president for patriotic reasons. "Unfortunately, there are no other political figures that youth can rally around," he says.

Politics aside, many Russians say the key to reversing a decade of drift requires a dispassionate look at the past, including groups like Komsomol. "Komsomol was useful because it helped spread romanticism in our lives," says Alexei Barsukov, a former local Komsomol leader in Moscow. "I ... felt myself needed by my country."

That is, until Mr. Barsukov was asked to keep a list of people - many of them friends - who visited an avant garde art exhibition in 1971. "I trusted Komsomol, but then all of a sudden I saw the other, ugly side," he recalls.

The ugly side for youth today, is a spurt in racist attacks and extreme ideologies.

Vlasova, for her part, says she became worried when her teenage sister began hanging out with a rough crowd that roamed the streets listening to heavy metal. Persistent nagging, Vasova says, convinced her to give Moving Together a try, and she later joined the group.

"It's very easy for young people to lose their own roots," Vlasova says. "Russian youth know well American music, actors and culture, but know nothing of Russia.

"We are waking up," she says. "At least, I like to think so."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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