20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles by well-known historian Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism in the USSR. In this essay, he analyzes the ideological rationale of right-wing dissidents in the late 1960s, the mouthpiece of which was Young Guard magazine.


Writer and book critic Mikhail Lobanov gained his popularity thanks to publishing articles in Young Guard magazine.


The legal faction of the right-wing dissident movement in the USSR evolved differently than that of VSKhSON (the All-Russian Social-Christian Union for the Liberation of the People), which I discussed in my previous essay. Actually, the right could hardly be called “dissidents” in the Soviet Union’s conventional sense of the word. They did not face arrests, prison, or exile. The biggest risks they faced were a loss of reputation or getting fired. They worked under the protection of like-minded officials occupying high offices at the Komsomol Central Committee, the Writers’ Union, and government departments at Staraya Square. But these dissidents would nonetheless come up with bold, radical projects to restore the country, projects that often contravened the general line of the party—something their patrons who operated within the system would never dare to do.

Young Guard magazine (Molodaya Gvardiya) was the media outlet of the Central Committee of Komsomol (the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League), which was dominated by the so-called “Pavlov Group,” the successors of Alexander Shelepin, an ex-Politburo member and an outspoken supporter of the restoration of Stalinism. In 1967, Shelepin conspired to unseat Leonid Brezhnev as general secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, but lost in the infighting and was demoted. After that, it became obvious that the days of Sergei Pavlov as first secretary of Komsomol’s Central Committee were numbered. The emergence of the dissident wing was associated with the jewel of his reign, Young Guard magazine (the magazine could have been his way of slamming the door on his way out) The first significant Young Guard articles coincided with the beginning of the trial of the VSKhON members, and, more importantly, with the “socialism with a human face” movement in Prague. Those included “Enlightened Philistinism” by Mikhail Lobanov (April 1968) and “Inevitability” by Victor Chalmaev (September 1968). Let’s dwell on the former for now.


“Enlightened Philistinism”

It would be a gross understatement to say that the publication of an article by Lobanov in this influential and popular magazine was a remarkable occurrence. It was a staggering event. Even in their kitchens, people spoke of the article in whispers. The anger, venom, and wrath that the Soviet press usually poured on the bourgeois world and international news stories were now directed inwards, within the country. Lobanov had detected a corrosive cancer in the very heart of the world’s first socialist society, and it was a bigger threat than all the machinations of the imperialists. It was “the outpouring of so-called education,” the “highly educated crowd infected with philistinism,” which, “shrilling in its active denial,” was a “corrosive threat” to the very foundations of the nation’s culture.

Something had happened in the country, something that had not been foreseen by the classics of Marxism, nor been noticed by the regime’s ideologues: namely, a thick layer of “enlightened philistinism” fundamentally hostile to its socialist future had gradually formed. This was the first sociological discovery by Lobanov. We have to hand it to him: he was right on the money, although he had no idea what he was talking about. I call that layer, which he so severely stigmatized, the “Russian Europeans.” Since the reforms of Peter the Great in the eighteenth century, when education became a raison d’état for Russia, the country could not do without those “Russian Europeans,” or the “enlightened philistines,” as Lobanov contemptuously referred to them. Enlightenment has always been fraught with “Europeanism.” Enlightened people do not like autocracy.

And ever since the reign of Nicholas I, autocratic rulers of Russia had never trusted education, anticipating that it would bring them problems. Outside of a brief period of reforms, they kept cracking down on education, limiting it in every way. The same was happening in post-Stalin Russia, once the reforms initiated under Nikita Khrushchev’s regime had been scrapped. According to a study by American sociologist Murray Yanovich, Schooling and Inequalities (Social Worker, 1981) [1], in the USSR in the 1970s, more than half of high school graduates were denied access to higher education. While in the early 1960s, 57 percent of them had an opportunity to enroll in higher education, just a decade later, the number had fallen to 22 percent. In other words, the Soviet authorities believed that education was dangerous for autocracy, especially during periods of economic stagnation. But it was strictly forbidden to speak publicly about this. Lobanov lifted that taboo with his article. Unfortunately, that was all the good he did.

The defense of socialism in Lobanov’s article looked extremely strange. He appealed not to “proletarian internationalism” or some generally accepted official rhetoric, but referred exclusively to the dangers that education posed to the “national spirit.” And this is why his defense of socialism did not look like a cliché’d rebuff by a Marxist doctrinarian, but rather like an anguished cry from a simple Russian man frightened to death by what was happening to his people in his country.

His defense looked like a critique of the regime that had not only failed to prevent the emergence in Russia of the phenomenon of “enlightened philistinism,” but also let things get to the dangerous point, where, as Lobanov exclaimed in despair, “philistinism triumphs!” What was so scary about this phenomenon for the Young Guard writer? It turns out that he was scared by the “bourgeois spirit” that was supposedly so alien to Russia and yet capable, as history showed, of winning it over, turning the country into some kind of bastard quasi-Europe, as had already happened once in the eighteenth century. It had taken Russia two centuries to rid itself of that “spirit” via the Great October Socialist Revolution.

According to Lobanov, this “spirit” had returned in the form of an “outpouring of so-called education.” In a quite Slavophillic manner, he equated Brezhnev to a modern Peter the Great, a traitor emperor, who back in the eighteenth century had opened wide the gates of the Russian fortress to let in an alien European “bourgeois spirit.” In Lobanov’s Aesopian language, his half-insane invectives against the “enlightened philistinism” actually implied that the bosses (the Soviet leaders) had gone blind.


“Americanization of the spirit”

Lobanov flagellated the enemy of the nation with all the passion permissible for a censored journalist. He tried to prove that in Russia, unlike in the West, the root of authentic culture lay not in education, but in the “national origins,” the “popular soil”—that “in Russia, the enduring cultural values have always been generated by the oppressed, illiterate people” and not the educated bourgeois who had “mini-language, mini-thoughts, mini-feelings, mini everything.” “And most importantly,” he added with awe, “the Motherland for them is also mini.” Of course, in the tradition of the last pre-revolutionary generation of Slavophiles, Lobanov wasn’t above pointing fingers at “corrupters of the national spirit” who had Jewish last names (Vsevolod Meyerhold, Anatoly Efros). 

What do the Young Guard and VSKHSON have in common? At first glance, nothing. There is an abyss between them. But it turns out that both pursued the same goal: to liberate Russia from the “bourgeois spirit” so that the national “spirit” could triumph.

While analyzing Lobanov’s anthropological findings, we should not overlook the fact that his article appeared in the midst of the Prague Spring, which was interpreted by the Soviet government as a conspiracy by Jewish intellectuals who seized key positions in the Czechoslovak media. At that time, the echo of the “signatory” campaign in the Soviet Union had not yet subsided (during that campaign hundreds of Moscow intellectuals put their signatures to protests against the trials of Andrei Sinyavsky, Yuli Daniel, and Alexander Ginzburg). Lobanov’s sociological insight coincided with serious concerns the regime had about “socialism with a human face.” But the Young Guard journalist aimed far beyond the regime’s immediate concerns.

What was the strength and appeal of the “educated bourgeois” for the Soviet youth? Why were they attracted by this concept like a moth to a flame? Lobanov’s answer sounded like a condemnation of the regime: “There is no more ferocious enemy of the people than the ‘temptation of bourgeois prosperity.’” So, that’s what was winning over Russia. Lobanov also came up with the definition, calling it the “Americanization of the spirit,” meaning “material incentives for workers.” It turned out that the country was vulnerable not only to the alluring educated bourgeois with their “mini everything” and sophisticated manners and non-Russian names, but also to the authorities’ commitment to “material well-being,” their promise of communism as a “spiritual and physical abundance.” Lobanov quite obviously viewed this promise as a disastrous attempt to beat the bourgeois world at its own game.

The regime was flirting with America. It thought that intercontinental missiles would protect it from the deadly threat that emanated from that country. But no, according to Lobanov, they would not. For the real threat was not American missiles, but the “Americanization of the spirit.” “Spiritual satiety—that’s the psychological basis of the bourgeois,” and its social basis was “existing within the limits of gastric joys,” wrote Lobanov. This was his second revelation. It was against these “gastric joys” that he delivered his most passionate diatribes, devoting to them an entire page in the magazine.

But if the real threat to the socialism that our fathers and grandfathers fought for—sparing no effort and not caring about their stomachs—was not enemy missiles, but “satiety,” then the third, most important revelation by Lobanov looks logical: “Americanization of the spirit” can only be countered by “Russification of the spirit.”


Young Guard and VSKhSON

What do the Young Guard and VSKHSON have in common? At first glance, nothing. There is an abyss between them. One of these organizations was concerned, even if contrary to the general party line, with the revival of socialism, which would protect Russia from being infiltrated by the “bourgeois spirit.” The other was preparing а “national liberation revolution” to crush that very socialism.

Lobanov believed that the revival of socialism would be a reliable defense against the penetration of that “bourgeois spirit.” VSKhSON ideologues proceeded from the assumption that “the communist world is decomposing... brings poverty and oppression, lies and moral degradation.” In other words, the means of saving the “Russian path” offered by the two factions of the right-wing dissident movement were as opposite as “genius and evil.” For Lobanov and his kind, it was enough to revive socialism, thereby freeing Russia from the triumphant bourgeois and the “ideal of satiety”; whereas for VSKhSON, socialism had to be surgically replaced with a corporate state and theocracy—in other words, with something like orthodox fascism. But in fact, it turns out that both the Young Guard and VSKhSON pursued the same goal: to liberate Russia from the “bourgeois spirit” so that the national “spirit” could triumph (or what Lobanov called “Russification of spirit”).

Just like the VSKhSON ideologues, Lobanov proceeded from the assumption that the “root cause of the dangerous tensions in the world lies much deeper than economic and political spheres.” Its cause lies not in a conflict between, say, the State Planning Commission and free enterprise, nor between single-party dictatorship and multi-party democracy, as liberal dissidents think. The real reason is metaphysical: it lies in a clashing of “spirits.” This is something that the Young Guard and VSKhSON were equally convinced of.



1. Shapiro L., Godson J., Soviet Worker, The Illusions and Realities. MacMillian, 1981.