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

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

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

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


One of the most significant changes produced by the Bolshevik Revolution was the formation of an elite that identified with the new socialist order. Students in the rapidly expanding higher education system were part of this new elite. In Builders and Deserters Peter Konecny makes use of an unprecedented range of previously unavailable sources to examine the academic, cultural, and political dimensions of student life in the Soviet Union's second largest city, Leningrad.

Being a student meant much more than simply attending classes. The new Soviet student was expected to engage in activities ranging from work in local Communist Party organizations to participation in collectivization brigades in the countryside. Builders and Deserters explores how student attempts to accommodate personal ambition and established cultural traditions with the numerous obligations that came from their privileged status led to a difficult relationship with the state.

Konecny discusses changes in the higher education system and everyday life from the pre-revolutionary period to the beginning of World War II. He also considers the world of politics and political activism, training in and out of the classroom, and the ways in which students both conformed to and deviated from explicit standards of social conduct and "Communist morality" under Stalinism.

This is the first comprehensive analysis of the important role played by students in the Soviet socialist revolution during the inter-war period.


On 25 December 1991 I sat with a group of Russian graduate students in front of the television in our dormitory, watching Mikhail Gorbachev deliver his final speech as president of the USSR. One would expect that this momentous occasion — the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union — would have produced reflective thoughts, passionate debate, and even a few tears. Instead, we noted the event by retiring to an adjacent room and engaging in a card game that went late into the night. Looking back, I could see that it had been a perfect moment that had captured not only the ambiguities of the deceased Soviet Union, but also the ironies of student life. Life in the dormitory, especially in times of social and political change, was full of unpredictable events.

During the course of the 1991-92 academic year in St Petersburg, I lived in the Shevchenko graduate student dormitory — a place familiar to many Western scholars. I had come to St Petersburg to conduct research for my doctoral dissertation, which examined the political and academic development of Leningrad State University during the inter‐ war period. Although the environment had changed substantially since the early years of the Soviet Union, many features remained the same. Like our predecessors, we battled with the dormitory administrator (the "commandant") for better sheets and furniture and we endured many cold nights without hot water. My student companions were probably not unlike the students I had chosen to study. That visit and several others over the ensuing years gave me a sense of the complex social and political environment within which student life in this city had evolved.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in many new opportunities for research. Documents made recently available have added to our understanding of Stalinist high politics, relations between Moscow and the regions, and the character of everyday life in the . . .

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