Jojo Russki

This past January, the Academy-Award winner for best adapted screenplay was Jojo Rabbit, directed by Taika Waititi, based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens. Along with best adapted screenplay, the film was nominated for best picture, best supporting actress (on behalf of Scarlett Johansson), and best film editing. The Oscar win was also a victory in diversity in that the director, Taika Waititi, was the first indigenous director to be nominated in this category and the first indigenous person to win an Oscar. Jojo Rabbit garnered both critical acclaim and controversy because of its more ‘sensitive’ topics and the comedic nature of these same themes. The film takes place during World War II and is centered around a ten year old Hitler Youth named Johannes, he dreams of being a Nazi soldier and his imaginary friend is even Hitler himself. Young Jojo becomes confused when his mother, who is secretly anti-Nazi, hides a Jewish girl named Elsa in the walls of his own home. Jojo must literally choose whether he is friends with Hitler or Elsa in the midst of the Berlin bombings. As Yorkie says, Jojo’s second best friend, “Its definitely not a good time to be a Nazi.”

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Jojo Rabbit (2019) – Directed by Taika Waititi

How do we begin to understand the lives of children who were a part of youth movements of ‘evil’ regimes? For example, the Hitler Youth or the Red Guard of Mao Zedong? Do we view them as children who didn’t know any better under a national revolution? Or, do we view them as conscious persons who willingly took part in movements they knew were evil? Maybe a little bit of both?

Here we have another one of these youth program in a controversial regime called the Komsomol (or the All-Union Leninist Communist League of Youth) under the Soviet Party. Much like Jojo, the Komsomol also had something like summer camps, the video below was filmed at Artek Pioneer Camp, on the coast of the Black Sea:

The video was filmed in 1938 and opens up with Pioneer boys sunbathing (or tanning) right next to the coast. I guess young Russian boys enjoyed a nice, good tan, as evidenced by one of the camp faculty members telling the boys to flip over while laying on beach chairs and after their tan, the boys swim in the water. In the second part of the video the boys honor the camp by playing a variety of instruments like trumpets, by setting off a ‘celebratory’ fire, by marching along with a huge poster of Stalin in a parade-like style, and by standing in applause of the camp hosts. Important figures like Comrade Molitov, the president of the Council of People’s Commissars, visit the camp and familiarize himself with the children. Closing the video out, the children watch model airplanes fly and they play with flags. Camp Artek seemed like a more formal camp (which would definitely make sense as it was funded by the Soviet government) since both boys and girls were uniformed and had different outfits for different activities, it also seems as if boys and girls had to abide by some hair standards or they all coincidentally had the same haircut. With the clear shot at 53 seconds, one can see that the camp was host to a diverse group of boys and girls, reflecting the larger diversity of the Russian people.

Artek opened in 1925, the Crimean Peninsula was seen as the perfect place to build the camp between the mountains and the lagoon along the Black Sea, also in contrast to American camps, Artek was open year-round. Initially, the camp was used for health purposes for children who lived during the Russian Civil War; momentarily during World War II, the camp was relocated to Siberia, where pioneers contributed to production in the war industry and helped local hospitals. Afterwards, the camp was rebuilt and expanded its ‘clientele’ to include children from places like Italy, China, and Sweden, even important international figures like prime ministers would visit the camp. Some children even got scholarships to attend the camp, but scholarships were usually granted to children who were exceptional in the arts, academics, or athletics — once the Artek became more established and formal, it became hard for children to apply to go to the camp. At this point, Artek seemed to have shifted to a more academy-like system that one had to apply and be accepted to go to, rather than your average sleep-away camp (funded by the Soviet government, of course). When the USSR fell in 1991, the Ukraine took over the camp, and its quality declined.

Putting the camp and the pioneers into a Soviet perspective, what was actually the point of a program such as this?

The Pioneers (also known as the All-Union Lenin Pioneer Organization) was actually very closely related to the Komsomol. The Komsomol was meant to bring together different Russian youth movements that had been involved in the Russian Civil war, membership in the Komsomol later meant privileges in employment, academics, and especially within the hierarchy in the Soviet Party. Specifically, the Pioneers were “prep organizations” who would politically indoctrinate children and host recreational activities, these same Pioneers were supposed to later join the Komsomol. According to the Program of the Komsomol, written in 1936, members of the Komsomol were to: be politically educated (by studying the history of the Soviet Union and by studying political theories by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin), educate other young people, help in schools and other children-related areas, provide physical training (“to attain the best sporting records for the USSR” and promote physical culture), to participate in socialist reconstruction (by taking part in the Bolshevik government), and to defend the socialist fatherland.

Again zooming out, the Komsomol was a part of the “Socialist Construction” of the 1930s to promote both the education of children (and in some part the revival of the family) and physical fitness. Stalinist culture in this era was defined by the ‘sovietization’ of traditional Russian lifestyle (within the family and popular culture) and individual exceptionalism in a multiplicity of areas such as industry and physical fitness (Freeze, Chapter 11). Outright soviet revolution and the importance of class consciousness definitely took the passenger seat, not necessarily the back seat, but not the driver seat of this era in Soviet history.

Now circling back to our question of the place of children in ‘evil’ regimes, I believe that we might have to give kids the benefit of the doubt in these cases. If some adults can’t tell that they are being manipulated by their government, I don’t think it’s fair to impose that same judgement on children. I would probably question a ten year old boy if he told me that his summer camp was the work of authoritarian propaganda. On the other hand, I would probably also question a boy if Joseph Stalin was his imaginary best friend.

11 thoughts on “Jojo Russki

  1. I thought your article was a good read and very interesting. However, I feel as though at the beginning you fall into the same trap that many in Europe like to do often, which is to compare Soviet communism and German fascism. Not only were they ideologically opposed to one another but they both had very different methods of achieving their goals(and very different goals in general). Additionally, the young pioneer organization in the Soviet Union was legitimately popular and in Russia today the organization still exists and many parents voluntarily enroll their children.

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    1. Hi! Thank you so much! Also, I do agree with you, I feel like I can (just as a lot of Western people can) fall in the trap of comparing Soviet communism and German fascism. I think my aim in the article was more so to look at how both regimes had something similar in idea to ‘indoctrinating’ their young. More specifically, the short video I chose for my blogpost was very similar to the movie, Jojo Rabbit, I mentioned in the post. But, again, I do agree with you, it is very easy to fall in that trap. Also, I did want to note that the camp mentioned (Artek) is open today and was revamped in the 2010s. I feel like the transformation of the Pioneers, how it is structured and its aims and motives, would be something interesting to write about on its own.

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  2. Joy, I found your post to be extremely interesting! Using a camp as a way to target and indoctrinate young Russians seems ingenious because while the youth are having fun “tanning and swimming” )like one would normally do at a summer/sleep-away camp), they are nonchalantly being educated to abide by and to support the structures set in place by the Soviet government.

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    1. Thank you so much, Natalie! Yeah, before actually starting research I thought that the camp and the Komsomol/Pioneers themselves were going to give off more of a bootcamp structure. But after looking at the video and pictures from the camp, it was definitely more lax and more child-friendly than I thought it was going to be. I think it was the “Stalin is evil” part of my brain talking.

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  3. I really appreciate your exploration of the complexities of soviet childhood in an era when some of the key premises of the revolution are undergoing substantial revision:
    “Outright soviet revolution and the importance of class consciousness definitely took the passenger seat, not necessarily the back seat, but not the driver seat of this era in Soviet history.” Absolutely!
    And I agree that generational dynamics are key to Socialist construction — Their parents were old enough to be politically suspect, but the children of the 30s were the future – and worth every effort the regime could make to provide them with a “happy childhood” and a vision of themselves as being central to the success of socialist construction. The war would derail all of that, of course…
    Also, when I see videos like the French newsreel about the pioneer camp on the Black Sea, I also think about the former Kulaks in the film “The Past is But a Dream.” Their childhood (as the offspring of class enemies) was light years removed from suntanning on the beach and neatly pressed uniforms. It was full of hardship and unspeakable sacrifices…yet on that cruise for their 50th reunion, many of them recall their childhood in the 30s with real fondness and nostalgia. Experience is subjective, for sure!

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    1. Thanks, Professor! I think watching the movie definitely made me think differently about how we should view children that must live out eras and regimes like this, I don’t think we should expect children to be above state manipulation. I do take some joy in knowing that this children at least had some fun while the world was seeing them as spawns of an evil regime. I agree wholeheartedly, experience IS subjective.

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  4. Hi Joy! Great blog post! I also wrote about children during the thirties in my post and mentioned how the Soviet government was manipulating the children with great education and other recreational activities. You made a great point, if adults did not know they were being manipulated, there was no chance the children knew. The government knew children were the future of this country and to keep this regime in power, they needed them on their side!

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    1. Hey, Siria! I also really liked your post as well! I think it is extremely difficult to assess situations like this. As we know, children are easily molded (whether that be a good or bad thing) and are probably think less of the indoctrination of Bolshevism compared to how much fun they had at camp the past summer. I don’t think it is our position to denounce the fun, happy childhoods of children just because they were under Stalin’s thumb. A very difficult situation indeed, it is very hard to separate the black from the white here (or is it?).

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  5. This was an interesting blog. Based on the description and video of the camp, it seemed to be more of a boot camp than a summer camp. Training the youth to be loyal to the Soviet Union was important because the Soviet Union wanted the next generation to be loyal to the government and be physically fit in order to defend it. The youth were also important for war times seeing as how they were too young to enlist so they had them work in production in order to help the war effort. I also need to watch the Jojo movie, I have not seen it yet.

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    1. Please watch Jojo Rabbit! Its actually amazing! Also, I agree about the part about the boot camp, though, I feel like it was more of a mix between a boot camp and a summer camp. Not too strict, where the children might feel like they’re actually in training for war, but not too fun, where the children are in the camps for ‘no’ reason. But, thank you, Matt!

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