Becoming the vanguard : children, the Young Pioneers, and the Soviet state in the Great Patriotic War




deGraffenried, Julie K.

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This dissertation combines institutional history and social analysis to provide a more nuanced depiction of the Soviet experience in the Great Patriotic War, a portrait which considers the experience of children, the state’s expectations of children, and an exploration of the institution responsible for connecting child and state, the V.I. Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization. It argues that the state’s expectations for children during the Great Patriotic War were issued primarily in order to save the floundering Young Pioneer organization. Though the Pioneers were supposed to lead children in all sorts of tasks and behaviors – a role they had fulfilled since their inception in 1922 – the organization nearly collapsed under the strain of wartime conditions in the early years of the war.
In order to resurrect its image and secure its rightful place in the vanguard of children, the Pioneers launched a concerted effort to reassert its leadership. Language, values, and models of heroism were revamped to more accurately reflect the war. The internalization of these standards by children supported the Pioneers’ claim to leadership. Campaigns of action were launched to allow the Pioneers to claim ownership of children’s accomplishments. To guarantee success, the organization drew its ideas from preexisting activities – activities children were already doing in 1941-42, largely on local initiative. What had been conceived of and run as a prescriptive organization for two decades became a descriptive organization, subsuming all appropriate acts into the task of reestablishing the Pioneers at the forefront of Soviet childhood. This suggests that children had far more agency than previously assumed, and their many roles complicate the typical “child-victim” normally associated with the Great Patriotic War and its propaganda. The post-Stalingrad turnaround allowed the Pioneers the opportunity to reassert themselves. Becoming the vanguard, the organization established the foundations for a Pioneer-led heroism storied in Soviet history. Though internal problems continued to dog the Pioneers for years, the foundational story was established in the latter years of the war. Beginning in 1943, the organization began writing itself into the post-war victory narrative, alleging successful leadership among children and ignoring the near-catastrophe they had averted.