Builders and Deserters: Students, State, and Community in Leningrad, 1917-1941

By Peter Konecny | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
The Studenchestvo and
Tsarism

"Students are always occupied with something: restaurants, women, or politics."I This trite analysis of Russian students, offered by Adam Lel', an alumnus of St Petersburg University, was not far off the mark. A blend of troublesome social questions, mundane pursuits, and passions of the heart shaped student life in Russia. After the Crimean War, student youth began to call for reforms to higher education and a more open dialogue with the autocracy. As their sense of social duty grew, students found themselves encumbered in a crisis of self-doubt and moral introspection. Collegial traditions and the emergence of organized political movements gave students a sense of autonomy and separateness, but the splintering of the political movement after 1905 reinforced lingering doubts and insecurities about their place in society. Along with these higher moral and social issues, students occupied themselves with less lofty pursuits such as occasional drinking, rude behaviour, avoidance of work, difficult personal relationships, and bouts of depression and social alienation.


STUDENTS AGAINST THE STATE

The Russian Empire was a multinational realm governed by a cumbersome bureaucracy, and in the first half of the nineteenth century its virtually unchallenged military reputation masked economic backwardness, illiteracy, and a bloated governing apparatus under Nicholas I ( 1825‐ 55). Defeat in the Crimean War forced the new tsar, Alexander II ( 1855‐ 81), to institute major changes. Alexander was determined to reform Russia before forces of discontent toppled the autocracy. The tsar brought greater openness (glasnost') to public discussion, easing censorship and promising substantial changes to the ailing serf economy and inefficient bureaucracy. This new era of public discussion culminated in

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