Soviet Youth Culture during the Cold War


A review of Pleasure, Power, and the Pursuit of Communism: Soviet Youth and State-Sponsored Popular Culture during the Early Cold War, 1945-1968, by Gleb Tsipursky.

“A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having,” the anarchist Emma Goldman reportedly declared. She never said exactly that, but the declaration still captures the supposed contradiction between the seriousness and frivolity of revolution. Goldman’s quip is pertinent to Gleb Tsipursky’s study of the Soviet state’s attempts to reproduce its hegemony by providing young people with a space to have fun, and to find meaning and cause with socialism from 1945 to 1968. The dilemma for Party leaders, however, was not whether the state should allocate resources for fun. Even the most hardliners recognized that Soviet youth could not live on stale political bread alone. The question was what kind of fun would serve the revolutionary project. Namely, how could the state incorporate fun into the Cause? This was not a new question for postwar Russia. The debate over the place of fun and entertainment in building hegemony among Russian youth raged throughout the 1920s. Indeed, Tsipursky shows that, though the New Economic Policy echo reverberates throughout, the question of state-sponsored fun and entertainment in youth culture took on increasing significance in the postwar Soviet Union. Youth entertainment became yet another means for the Soviet state to demonstrate its socialist alternative to capitalist modernity.

This socialist modernity, like the capitalist, also saw Soviet culture as consumerist, and the state as having a duty to fulfill its desires. But unlike in the West, the Soviet consumer would not passively digest state-rationed cultural commodities. Rather, citizens would actively create and manage cultural production and consumption. The result was a vast network of clubs that offered millions of young people opportunities to dance, perform, and create art and music. These institutions were no mere ideological chimeras. Soviet youth genuinely enjoyed them. They had fun, despite state regulation.  Nor did this fun contradict their commitment to communism. Like Goldman hoped, dancing was part of the revolution.

In seven chapters, Tsipursky charts the back-and-forth policy shifts of state-sponsored popular culture between hard and soft lines from 1945 to 1968. The study opens with an overview of interwar cultural policy, which lays the framework of hard and soft lines. The next two chapters chart the efforts of the anti-cosmopolitan campaign between 1947 and 1953 to shear the content of state-sponsored culture of Western influence for a more Russian national and Soviet blend. Chapter 4 treats the turn to a softer line on youth culture between Stalin’s death in 1953 and Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956. These years witnessed tolerance toward Western aesthetics.  Chapter 5 follows with an examination of youth grassroots initiative in clubs during the Thaw, particularly the ways young people circumvented official strictures and added their own content to Soviet cultural production. The final two chapters explore conservatives’ attempts to restrict the “excesses” of youth cultural initiative while still allowing for Western styles. Khrushchev’s initial attempts in the late 1950s culminated in a full blown assault under Brezhnev. Youth initiative from below was hobbled, and state-sponsored popular culture rendered more formalist and disciplined. The shift to a harder line, however, did not mean the Party could completely put the Thaw genie back in the bottle. The end result, Tsipursky argues, is that Soviet youth had more access to cultural commodities than ever before, but that many viewed these official products as stale mimicries of their more spontaneous progenitors. Soviet youngsters could still dance to jazz and even rock n’ roll, but with the Party-State as the choreographer.

Tsipursky makes larger historiographical points about the importance of Stalin and his passing, the Thaw, and efforts at retrenchment under Brezhnev. One of his main contributions is in bringing politics back into cultural history. Historians of postwar Soviet cultural history tend to privilege larger social-cultural processes (e.g., Juliane Furst and Julie Hessler) or downplay internal policy contestations (e.g., Miriam Dobson and Stephen Bittner). Still, politics is not immune to internationalist trends. Party functionaries were forced to reckon with the force of a globalized youth culture, and the titillations it offered their young charges. Nevertheless, in Tsipursky’s narrative the Party and its functionaries loom large, with all substantive cultural shifts radiating outward. An analytical schematic of this study would be more vertical than horizontal, radial than webbed.

Tsipursky makes another important revision to the historiography. Studies of youth and youth culture often privilege the abnormal and historians of Russia are no different. We know more about hooligans, subcultures, sexual deviance, and other so-called un-Soviet behaviors than we do the so-called average kids. To his credit, Tsipursky is less interested in non-conformist youth culture, but in what should be called the Soviet cultural mainstream. But even though mainstream youth predominate, their voices are somewhat subdued. Tsipursky has given us a general sense of what urban youth thought and felt about their engagement with state-sponsored popular culture. And we learn how they shaped it via their tastes, consumption, and subterfuge. Yet, much of this activity is reactive rather than proactive except in cases like youth cafes in the early 1960s, where young people were given initiative and a measure of autonomy.  On the whole, however, youth’s narrative presence is only visible through the state’s regulatory optic.

Therefore, the state was the real proactive force, maintaining and reproducing its hegemony by incorporating fun into its ideological repertoire and managing, as best it could, the boundaries of the culturally permissible. To take a broad view, Tsipursky’s real object is the Soviet State, not so much youth or culture—the latter merely serve as a lens to evaluate the former. And the state that emerges is hardly the “(neo-)totalitarian” of Cold War scholarship or its recent Foucaultian inspired refashioning.  Nor is it the “revisionist” variant, where state and society form a dialectical loop. Tsipursky’s Soviet state is more of a cultural manager which on the one hand recognizes its citizens’ desires for fun, while on the other is careful not to cede its position as chief cultural arbiter.  The logic of the post-Stalin Soviet state was to provide the rules of the cultural game and in so doing allow its consumers to regulate themselves. Seen in Gramscian terms, the post-Stalinist state sought to create real hegemony—rule through consent, rather than force, and build a “civil society” to buttress its legitimacy. This is an important contribution for our understanding of Soviet identity and the subjects it produced. Tsipursky shows that Soviet citizens were not creatures of a binaried world of public/private, Soviet/un-Soviet, and individual/collective.  Rule by consent was inherently a world of grays. The Party-state provided the context and youth attached meanings to them, many of which had no bearing on their socialist faith. And to many youths, dancing was just dancing. The task of the state was to maintain the air of autonomy in its youth’s pelvic gyrations to reproduce of its cultural legitimacy. A task, like in many others, the Soviet state eventually fell short.

Sean Guillory
UCIS/REES Postdoctoral Fellow
Center for Russian & East European Studies
University Center for International Studies
University of Pittsburgh

Primary Sources

Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv sotsial’no-politicheskoi istorii (RGASPI, Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History)
Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv noveishei istorii Saratovskoi oblasts (GANISO, State Archive of Contemporary History of Saratov Oblast)
Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Saratovskoi oblasts (GASO, State Archive of Saratov Oblast)
Tsentral’nyi arkhiv obshchestvenno-politicheskoi istorii Moskvy (TsAOPIM, Central Archive of Social-Political History of Moscow)
Selected Interviews

Dissertation Information

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2011. 483 pp. Primary Advisor: Donald J. Raleigh.

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