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Putin’s Pioneers: Push For Russian Youth League Stirs Debate, Doubt

A Soviet propaganda poster: "Young Pioneers Never Lie"
A Soviet propaganda poster: "Young Pioneers Never Lie"

As a youth growing up in Leningrad in the 1960s, Vladimir Putin was one of the few children in his school class who was not a member of the Soviet Young Pioneers. Now he seems determined not to let future generations of Russian children face such a fate.

On October 29, the 97th anniversary of the founding of the Soviet Komsomol youth organization, Putin signed an executive order on the creation of a national "public-state children's-youth organization" under the name the Russian Movement of Schoolchildren.

The vague decree seems to fit into a pattern of restoring Soviet-era social regimentation that Putin’s government has pursued in recent years. However, it remains unclear to what extent the new organization can resurrect Soviet models.

"You can be nostalgic about such things, but it’s impossible to restore the past," says Aleksandr Adamsky, head of the Evrika education-policy institute in Moscow. "Our life has completely changed and children are completely different. You can force children to study in school and you can force them to participate in after-school groups -- although I can hardly imagine how this could be done! -- but you have to have something to attract them."

Under the Soviet system, the ruling Communist Party created a ladder of organizations for children, beginning with the Little Octobrists, informal groups in which children aged 7 to 9 prepared to become Young Pioneers. The Pioneers -- officially called the All-Union Pioneer Organization Named For Vladimir Lenin -- was created in 1922 for children aged 10 to 15. Taking the official Pioneer oath, the children promised "to passionately love my fatherland and to cherish it as well as I can, to live, study, and fight as the Great Lenin instructed, as the Communist Party teaches me, and always to carry out the laws of the Pioneers of the Soviet Union."

At its peak, the Pioneers counted 25 million members in 118,000 chapter groups. The organization ran 40,000 summer camps that hosted 10 million children annually.

Next came the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, or Komsomol, which, although formally independent, was considered "the helper and the reserve" of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union -- the only legal party and the one that ruled the country. It was for people aged 15 to 28. It was considered a pathway to Communist Party membership and -- since only a minority of Soviet citizens were in the party -- had a much smaller membership than the Pioneers, which was nearly universal.

Education specialist Adamsky is skeptical that Putin's decree will result in anything as massive and universal as what was seen in communist times. He says those who pushed for the decree don't agree among themselves as to the "values" the new organization should promote and an ambiguous organization will be unable to attract a mass membership.

"And that's not even considering resources," he adds. "To create such an organization covering the entire country would demand enormous sums [of money]. Remember the enormous resources that were poured into the Pioneer organizations, beginning with the Pioneer Palaces and ending with the Pioneer camps. And I'm not just talking about [prominent national camps like] Artek or Orlyonok. There were such camps in every oblast."

INFOGRAPHIC: Where Are They Now? (​Click To Expand)


Mikhail Barannikov, on the other hand, is heartened by the decree. Barannikov is the editor of the children's newspaper Pionerskaya Pravda, the heir to the official Soviet-era organ of the Pioneer movement.

Barannikov recalls how his newspaper hosted a meeting in 2005 with Lyudmila Shvetsova, who headed the Soviet Pioneer movement in the 1980s.

"The children asked her what she thinks about the creation of a single public organization for children in the country," Barannikov recalls. "Shvetsova said, 'It isn't time yet.'"

"But now the conditions are right for uniting the public movement for children into one big organization," Barannikov adds. "Naturally, it won't be the same organization that existed in Soviet times."

Barannikov remembers his own days as a Pioneer and a Komsomol member as "a very good, nice, and positive experience."

He says he hopes Putin's new organization will be based on "children's desire to do good things for the organization and their country" and on "the struggle for good and for justice."

"Of course, today's youth organizations -- unlike the Komsomol -- didn't build the Baikal-Amur Mainline railway or the Magnitigorsk steelworks, but in Russia even now there are young people who are ready to come together for the sake of good, necessary, and useful projects," Barannikov adds.

He sees the new youth organization as only the beginning.

"The all-Russia children's organization will be something useful and necessary for society," he says. "But in creating such a children's organization, you must understand that children grow up. In the Soviet Union, there was a definite vertical: A child first became a Young Octobrist, then a Pioneer, then he joined the Komsomol, and then they entered the adult world. Now we need to define what will happen to a child when he grows out of his membership in the new organization."

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this story