Conformity and Dissent: Youth in the United States and the Soviet Union, 1960s-1970s

Conformity and Dissent: Youth in the United States and the Soviet Union, 1960s-1970s
by Jade Smith



The 1960s and 1970s saw a global trend of young people increasing their demands for agency. Governments and mainstream communities sought to negotiate challenges to the status quo either by suppressing dissident attitudes and encouraging conformity, or by integrating elements of the challenging youth culture into the mainstream. This essay will examine the responses of the Soviet Union and the United States, respectively, to the challenges posed by the baby boomer demographic.



The Soviet Union viewed young people as vital in the functioning and continuation of the socialist state. Central to policy regarding youth was the attempt to ensure the next generation transitioned into adults as “good communists” and “loyal Soviet citizens” (Hornsby, 2017). The main institution through which this was performed was the Komsomol. A syllabic abbreviation of the Russian Kommunisticheskiy soyuz molodyozhi (Communist Youth League), in 1962 the Komsomol boasted a membership of approximately 19 million people between the ages of 14 and 26. By 1968, CIA estimates had this at 27 million, a figure which encompassed “most urban youths”, “all those enrolled in school” who were part of the Komsomol age-bracket, and “80% of army conscripts.” The role of the Komsomol was to foster a generation of ideologically-robust, culturally-refined, patriotic and well-behaved Soviet citizens.

The scope and form of Komsomol youth-oriented activities expanded greatly during the ‘thaw’ of the 1950s and 1960s. The early 1960s saw a divergence from the older forms of highly structured and heavily political Komsomol ‘club’ events, lectures, and seminars. Under the Khrushchev government, there was a relaxing of censorship surrounding culture as well as reforms to industry. This led to two related consequences for how the Komsomol leadership dealt with youth. Firstly, the shorter workday (seven-hours as of 1960) and shorter work-week (five days instead of six as of 1964) led to concern from the Party about how youth were occupying their free time, causing greater funding to “orthodox and didactic cultural forms” such as universities of culture and traditional Komsomol activities. As a speech at the 1960 Komsomol conference noted: just because “the workday is growing shorter and there is more leisure time … the time span of ‘communist influence’ should not decrease” (Tsipursky, 2011). Focus was placed on creating leisure time that encompassed ideological education. This was done mainly through the use of volunteer Komsomol youth for labour and cultivation of aesthetic tastes within traditional club spaces.

The second main consequence of the Khrushchev reforms was that jazz music and Western dances were no longer the subject of stringent opposition from the Party. Importantly, this meant that orthodox institutions were no longer appropriate as the only leisure output for an increasingly Westernised, and politically disengaged demographic. The Party’s need to keep the youth engaged in Komsomol life, lest they fall privy to the ideological and moral trappings of the “bourgeois” West can, in large part, explain the top-level support of the jazz club and youth café, respectively, as institutions of leisure during the early 1960s.

The Komsomolskaya Pravda (Komsomol Truth) was a newspaper aimed at the young members of the Komsomol. Serving a propaganda function, this periodical included, among other things, stories of “ideal” young Soviets. Surveys in the mid-1960s showed that articles about the “private life of Soviet citizens” interested youth far more than overtly propagandistic articles and transcripts of Party speeches, and thus these stories represent an attempt by the authorities to engage young people with Soviet values in creative ways (Tsipursky, 2013). These stories closely reflect the values espoused in the Moralniy kodeks stroitelya kommunizma (Moral Code of the Builder of Communism), adopted in 1961 at the 22nd Party Congress. For example, an emblematic narrative is that of Tanya, a Soviet girl who leaves high school to support her family with factory work. She flourishes in her role as a quality controller: increasing the productivity of the plant by disciplining poor workers, mentoring other girls at the factory, and eventually gaining admission to college. Several of the commandments contained in the Moralniy kodeks are reflected here, including “labour for the benefit of society”, “collectivism”, “consciousness of public obligation” and “respect” for the family. Through the portrayal of model young people like Tanya, the Party was attempting to instil its Program in less overt ways to shape a generation of “ideal communists.”

Beginning in 1965 and continuing until the late 1980s, the Komsomol introduced an initiative of “All-Union Tours around sites of military glory”, with the Komsomol Central Committee reporting the involvement of over three million young people in the first year alone. The comparative inactivity and corruption of the Brezhnev government during the mid-1960s brought with it youth disillusionment. As with the wider ‘war cult’ of the Brezhnev era, the All-Union Tours can be seen as a mechanism with which to sustain the ‘myth’ of the Soviet regime in the face of pervasive frustration with the communist system, while simultaneously strengthening Russian nationalism and pan-Soviet identities. The young people of the 1960s and 1970s had not lived through a war, and had witnessed the rewriting of the official Soviet narrative in the wake of the incrimination of Stalin by Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 ‘Secret Speech.’ Forming a cult around the militaristic achievements of the Soviet Union by encouraging pilgrimage to war-sites was a replacement of the “cult of the individual” surrounding Stalin, allowing the development of ideological confidence and love for the official history of the motherland. Komsomol data suggests that by 1971, in some areas, participation in the All-Union Tours was as high as 90% of people aged 14 to 28.

Statistics such as this suggest that Komsomol were largely successful in fostering ideological orthodoxy and trust for the Party. Similarly, a 1961 voluntary and anonymous survey of Komsomolskaya Pravda readership found that 83.4% of respondents “approved of the achievements of the current generation”, with 58.5% of these saying that their approval stemmed from their generation’s success in labour (see Tsipursky, 2013). However, these statistics fail to capture the dissident youths, who did not read Komsomolskaya Pravda, did not attend Komsomol events and did not subscribe to Party ideology. For example, in 1970s L’viv, Ukraine, organisations of ‘hippies’ flourished. These young people mirrored the hippie movement in the West, adopting their fashions and sharing their rejection of modern industrialisation. Furthermore, influxes of young tourists from capitalist countries (with approximately 10,000 American students in the USSR in 1967) and the related ease of access to Western media saw a rise in interest in banned content. The contact between tourists and the general population was minimised by the employment of KGB-trained and ideologically robust tour guides, who would allow visitors interaction with only some parts of Soviet life, representing the Party’s deep desire to ‘protect’ Soviet youth from capitalist ‘propaganda.’

Suppression of counterculture, such as with the arrest of prominent hippie Viacheslav Iresko in November 1970, and through the strict filtering of Western media content, represent an attempt by authorities to control youth challenges to the status quo. The Soviet Union, largely on the behest of its authoritarian politics and focus on ideologically-approved collectivism, met challenges to authority with official censures. However, the absorption of grassroots cultural movements started by orthodox Komsomol members into official Party policy also represents a flexibility inherent in 1960s and 1970s cultural politics. The acceptance of jazz music as part of Soviet youth culture, made official by jazz clubs and tours by international music acts, represents elements which began as “countercultural” being absorbed into mainstream culture when suppressive measures failed.



Similar to the USSR, the 1960s and 1970s were a time of great generational upheaval in the United States. These decades saw a rise in social activism and campus protests, with the Civil Rights Movement, second-wave feminism, sexual liberation and the Vietnam War being among the central issues. Furthermore, great cultural shifts occurred with the rise of the hippies and concurrent new media, such as rock music.

A gradual shift occurred in the “New Left” movement from liberalism to radicalism across the span of the 1960s and 1970s. This is evidenced best, perhaps, by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In their “Port Huron Statement” of 1962, the SDS considered themselves pro-American liberals, with core beliefs in the necessity of racial equality and participatory democracy in America. By the mid-1960s, the SDS had undergone a shift toward radicalism, and while their initial beliefs still held merit, they now appeared alongside “increasingly militant” anti-imperialist sentiment, protest against the Vietnam War, and generalised criticism of university administrations and American domestic and foreign policy. In 1968, the SDS were one of the primary groups involved in protests at Columbia University, which eventually resulted in violent intervention by the NYPD. By 1969, the group had fractured into a number of warring factions with differing ideologies. Among these were the Weathermen, a highly militant group who, in Chicago in October, instigated the Days of Rage, resulting in violent clashes between police and young radicals.

As the violence of groups like the Weathermen increased, under the belief that ‘defiance’ was the only appropriate response to an imperialistic, conservative and oppressive government, so increased the efforts of law enforcement to suppress the movements. Even greater levels of militancy in police responses were seen regarding non-white youth movements, such as the Black Panthers, as evidenced by an FBI raid in December 1969 which resulted in the death Fred Hampton, a 21-year-old Panther leader.

A connection can be drawn between the increased militancy of government suppression, and concern regarding the spread of radical, anti-establishmentarian attitudes. An article in LIFE magazine from May 1969 expressed concern that “student dissent and radical tension have now enveloped … the public-school system”, with a poll showing that 58% of high students wanted more participation in policy making, and 52% wanted black students’ rights to be discussed in class. On these same issues, only 20% and 27% of parents, respectively, expressed approval. This demonstrable divide between the beliefs and desires of generations resulted in apprehension from parents and governments alike. In his inaugural speech in January 1969, President Nixon expressed concern regarding the “inflated” and “angry” rhetoric which had a grip on America.

Simultaneous to the rise in student activism was the emergence of the hippie movement. While by no means apolitical, those young people who sought the life of a commune over that of a campus did not seek reform in the same way as their student counterparts, instead opting to “leave society” completely. While there was no “monolithic hippie movement”, the “mini societies” formed around youthful rejection of industrialised American society left what a 1967 TIME magazine article called an “irresistible” and “alarming” impression on their elders.

The countercultural movements of the hippies and student activists were connected in important ways to popular culture. There is perhaps no better example of this than the 1969 Woodstock music festival, which drew a crowd of approximately 400,000 young people. However, many hallmarks of the counterculture were quickly absorbed into the cultural mainstream. Barry McGuire’s recording of “Eve of Destruction”, a stringently anti-Vietnam War song, reached No.1 on the Billboard Top 100 in September 1965. A poll by Gallup in October of the same year showed that only 36% of the American population disapproved of the military involvement in Vietnam. An issue of LIFE magazine from 25 April 1969 whose feature article was a critical-in-tone piece about “unruly”, “emotive” and “violent” student turmoil at Harvard University contained an advertisement on page sixteen which encouraged one to “express themselves” and their “politics” with a Scripto “Graffiti Pen”, and one on page twenty-six for Pall Mall cigarettes drew heavily on the imagery of a forest-dwelling hippie culture. The fashions of the hippie youth, such as natural tones and loose, wrapped dresses increasingly appeared in various forms in Vogue during the 1970s. This shows that, on top of the public fascination with youth counterculture that was made evident by the regular reporting of such magazines as LIFE and TIME, things which were once symbols of anti-establishmentarianism were gradually incorporated into the very fabric of the establishment, appearing regularly on the radio, in advertisements and in the clothes one wore.



Engagement with the notion of ‘youth’ during the 1960s and 1970s took on the form of either attempted suppression in the face of dissent, or absorption of elements of the counterculture into the mainstream. In the Soviet Union, where government structure allowed for wide-spread annihilation of resistance and instillation of Party-approved checks against counterculture, suppression through ideological indoctrination and legal censures were the primary form of response to youth dissent. Per contra, in the United States, where the political and social conscience did not allow for such direct or widespread suppression, elements of counterculture were rapidly and en masse absorbed into the cultural mainstream.

However, while it initially appears that the USSR was defined singularly by a system of suppression, whilst in the United States elements of youth culture which challenged the established mainstream were incorporated into that same mainstream, this does not hold up to further scrutiny. Both polities enacted a mixture of suppression and absorption as a response to the rise of youthful demands for agency, as evidenced in the USSR’s official jazz clubs, and the United States’ militant law enforcement responses to radical leftist movements. These examples, rather than being exceptions to otherwise universal rules of response to youth culture, in fact demonstrate that a dual approach of suppression and absorption was employed by authorities in both the USSR and the United States.




Featured image: George Harrison with wife Pattie Boyd in San Francisco, August 1967

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