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.”
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.