Communist Youth League of Ukraine

Image - Sergei Grigoriev: Joining the Komsomol (1949).

Communist Youth League of Ukraine (Ленінська комуністична спілка молоді України; Leninska komunistychna spilka molodi Ukrainy or Комсомол [ЛКСМУ]; Komsomol [LKSMU]). According to its statute and program, the league was ‘a mass, non-Party organization’ of young people that served as a ‘reserve’ and auxiliary to the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU) and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). All its work was conducted under the leadership of the Communist Party. The Komsomol was an integral part of the All-Union Communist Youth League (VLKSM), with the status of a provincial organization, but with its own conferences and central committee.

Following the example of Petrograd and Moscow, the Kyiv Socialist Union of Young Workers established the Third International under the leadership of S. Malchikov and M. Ratmansky on 22 October 1917. Not only Bolsheviks, but also Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, and other groups, belonged to this organization. In Kharkiv the Association of Proletarian Youth of the Bolshevik party set up the Third International in November 1917. Similar Communist youth organizations were founded in other cities. Socialist student unions, which had Communist leanings but embraced members of many parties, were organized separately. Altogether these organizations had a membership of about 1,500 at the beginning of 1918, although they were not united among themselves.

In Russia the Communist Youth League was founded at the First Congress of Young Workers’ and Peasants’ Unions in Moscow on 29 October 1918. This date is accepted as the beginning of the VLKSM, which until 1926 was known as the Russian Communist Youth League (RKSM). The Ukrainian league was not directly linked with the Russian league until 1919, although it imitated it. The problem of unifying the Communist youth organizations in Ukraine arose only in 1919, when the Bolsheviks were faced with strong competition from the Borotbists. When the Ukrainian Communist party (of Borotbists) was founded at the beginning of 1919, a fairly large Communist Youth Association was organized by young, left Socialist Revolutionaries, mainly in Left-Bank Ukraine. This association immediately became a strong competitor of the Komsomol. For this reason the Bolsheviks decided to unify their youth organizations in Ukraine quickly.

On 26 June 1919 the Communist League of Young Workers of Ukraine (KSRMU) was founded at its first congress in Kyiv. The congress represented about 8,000 members and decided that the Ukrainian league was to be a provincial branch of the Russian Communist Youth League (RKSM). Being extremely dogmatic, the congress also announced that the KSRMU would admit only young workers to its membership. The Second Congress of the KSRMU took place in Kharkiv on 11 May 1920. It represented 19,080 members, 75 percent of whom lived in the Kharkiv region and the Donets Basin. Two problems were raised at the congress: what policy to adopt towards students and what attitude to take towards the Ukrainian national movement. It was decided to open the league to students. A nationalistic Ukrainian opposition, the so-called Federalists, headed by M. Okulyk, formed at the congress. It proposed that the Communist Youth League of Ukraine leave the RKSM and enter the Communist Youth International directly as an independent organization. The congress had a Russian majority and rejected this proposal.

In the meantime the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine (CP[B]U) forced the Borotbists to dissolve their party and join the CP(B)U. In July 1920 the Communist Youth Association dissolved itself, and most of its members joined the Komsomol, where they formed an alliance with the Federalists. The other members of the association and some Borotbists did not join the Bolsheviks but, with the co-operation of the Independent Social Democratic Youth Association, which was active mostly in Right-Bank Ukraine, founded the new Ukrainian Communist Youth Association which was also known as Communist Youth. The association competed with the Komsomol until 1925, when it was forced to merge with the league. In 1920 the Communist organizations of Jewish youth—Yevkomol, Jugendbund, and the Jewish Young Workers’ Organization—also merged with the league.

After the league’s second congress, a serious split developed within it. Two opposition groups formed: first, a workers’ opposition, based on syndicalist principles and headed by V. Dunaievsky, which demanded that students, peasants, and other non-proletarians be barred from membership in the league; and second, the Ukrainian national Federalists, who were greatly strengthened by the influx of former members of the Communist Youth Association and demanded that the league be independent of the Russian league. In contrast to what happened in the CP(B)U, the two groups quickly came to an understanding and stood united under the name Ukrainian Opposition at the Third Congress of the Russian Communist Youth League in Moscow in 1920. In their platform they demanded that national Communist youth organizations be independent of the Russian Communist Youth League, that the league as a whole be independent of the Party, that the league remain a working-class organization, and that non-Party collectives of young workers at their plants and young peasants in their villages be permitted to organize themselves freely and have the right to participate in managing enterprises. Vladimir Lenin himself spoke against the Ukrainian Opposition at the congress; nevertheless, it continued its struggle for two more years. It issued bulletins and leaflets and stirred up discussion throughout the league. At the Third Congress of the Komsomol in May 1921 the Ukrainian Opposition put up a strong struggle but was defeated by the Party apparatus, which controlled the congress.

After the third congress the conflict became so bitter that the Komsomol decided to suppress the Ukrainian Opposition. During this time young peasants’ unions were springing up spontaneously in the villages; the Ukrainian Communist Youth Association, with which the Ukrainian Opposition in the league began to establish contacts, played a leading role in these peasant unions. For this reason the Komsomol was purged at the beginning of 1922, and 17 percent of its members were expelled. Steps were then taken to gain control of the young peasants. During the New Ecomomic Policy (NEP) period the league, which in 1924 adopted the name Leninist Communist Youth League of Ukraine (LKSMU), became a privileged caste similar to the CP(B)U. Membership in it conferred various advantages: without its recommendation access to higher education or good jobs was out of the question. Starting with the fourth congress in 1923, there was no longer any organized militant opposition in the Komsomol.

After the discussions of 1920–1, the activities of the league were directed into other channels by the Party. In 1920–3 its members (komsomoltsi) were active in the struggle with various Ukrainian partisans (see Partisan movement in Ukraine, 1918–22). Then the league furnished volunteers to the Red Cossacks and undertook to help the Black Sea Fleet. During 1924–7 the members of the league were encouraged to stage antireligious demonstrations and to vandalize and close down churches (see Antireligious propaganda). Then, when the Party’s policy took a turn towards the left in 1927–9, the komsomoltsi were used to confiscate grain from the kulaks. At the beginning of the collectivization drive and the campaign against the kulaks in 1930, there were close to 120,000 Komsomol members in the countryside.

The Ukrainization of the LKSMU, that is, the rise in the proportion of Ukrainian membership, occurred much faster than that of the CP(B)U or of the government bureaucracy. In 1925 Ukrainians accounted for 58.7 percent of the league’s membership, but by the beginning of 1932 they accounted for 72 percent. The young people absorbed the Ukrainian language and culture with ease and eagerness. In 1931, at the Ninth Congress of the All-Union Lenin Communist Youth League in Moscow, O. Boichenko, the secretary of the Central Committee of the LKSMU, even made the demand that members of his organization be under no compulsion to learn the Russian language. The ideas of Mykola Khvylovy were widely known and popular among the komsomoltsi.

During the Famine-Genocide of 1932–3 and the struggle against the Mykola Skrypnyk faction in the CP(B)U, membership in the LKSMU dropped suddenly, from 1,148,000 in 1932 to 449,000 in 1934. Those who remained members were purged, and many were repressed. The leading cadres were exiled or executed for their resistance to the famine and their national-Communist deviations (see National communism). Thereafter the league became an instrument of the Party machine and was used mainly to attain production goals, that is, to recruit young people for building industrial projects inside and outside of Ukraine, as well as to Russify young Ukrainians.

On the eve of the Second World War, the LKSMU numbered 1.3 million members. At least half of them stayed willingly behind when the Soviets retreated. The Soviet partisan groups in Polisia (see Soviet partisans in Ukraine, 1941–5) attracted only 25,000 komsomoltsi and after three years of fighting received only 5,000 young recruits. Having witnessed Nazi war crimes in Ukraine, many league members spontaneously organized underground groups in the principal cities of Ukraine and fought actively against the Germans. Many komsomoltsi also collaborated with or even joined one of the two factions of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists during the German occupation.

After the war the LKSMU became nothing but an economic organization, in which the ideological commitment and political awareness of its members were measured by their economic productivity. Thus, in 1954–5, the LKSMU sent 80,000 members to cultivate the virgin lands of Kazakhstan and western Siberia. In 1956–7, 120,000 members were sent to develop new mines in the Donets Basin. In 1957, 44,000 members were assigned to raise animals on collective farms. In 1958, 10,000 young Ukrainians were employed in the building of the Donets-Donbas Canal. Starting in 1974, thousands of league members worked on the Baikal-Amur Railroad (BAM).

By 1 January 1956 the LKSMU had 2,891,077 members, that is, 15.9 percent of the membership of the All-Union Communist Youth League. These members were organized into 66,758 primary organizations at factories and schools. Of the league’s members, 500,000 worked in the countryside, 700,000 worked in industry, 1.1 million studied in schools, and the rest served either in the armed forces or in the bureaucracy.

In the 1920s admission to the league was open to those between the ages of 14 and 23. In the 1930s the age requirement was raised to those between 15 and 26 years. In the 1940s it was limited to those between 14 and 26, and later members had to be between 15 and 28 years. Party members could also be members of the league, but they had to hold positions of leadership. Congresses of the LKSMU were held every four years. Between congresses the work of the league was directed by the central committee and the secretariat. The Pioneer Organization of Ukraine for schoolchildren 9–14 years of age, which had a membership of 3 million or close to 60 percent of schoolchildren, came under the supervision of the league. In 1959 the LKSMU published 16 newspapers and magazines for youth and schoolchildren, 12 of which were in Ukrainian. The principal daily newspaper of the LKSMU was Molod’ Ukraïny.

In June 1979 the league’s membership was close to 6.5 million, organized in 70,000 primary organizations. The first secretary of its central committee was A. Korniienko.

Vsevolod Holubnychy

[This part of the article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 1 (1984).]

After 1980. By 1983, the membership of the LKSMU had peaked at 6.7 million, after which it declined to 6.6 million as of 1 January 1987. As of the latter date, 56.7 per cent of the membership was female, about the same as in 1978. In the meantime, the league was losing its foothold among students and its membership was growing older, indicative presumably of problems of recruitment and retention in the era of perestroika. The percentage of students in the LKSMU in 1978 was 43.2; in 1987, 39.3; 34.3 percent of members in 1978 were under 18, and 11.4 per cent over 25, while in 1987 the percentages were 29.8 and 15.6, respectively. In 1985, 19,348 Komsomol members were dispatched from Ukraine to serve as part of the shock-worker movement on major republic and all-union construction projects, down from 23,969 in 1982. Enthusiasm for being a shock worker, let alone a Komsomol member, was apparently beginning to wane in the new atmosphere opened up by glasnost and perestroika.

Behind these statistics were hidden serious organizational problems; their solution only accelerated the disintegration of the LKSMU. Under the direction of the Communist Party the primary function of the Komsomol was the political recruitment, mobilization, and indoctrination of Soviet youth. It was to serve as a feeder of new members into the Party as well as to instill loyalty in the younger generation. By the mid-1980s, however, because of its progressive bureaucratization and careerism, joining the organization became routine rather than exceptional, its activities boring and less attractive, its ideology more vacuous and less inspiring, and its members ever more passive. Overall membership began to decline. To revive the Komsomol’s relevance and dynamism, it was decided, following Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika, to decentralize control granting lower administrative levels more autonomy to design and conduct activities appealing to local youth according to their interests, as well as to create new ways of generating income to support such activities to make up for dwindling membership fees. At least since the 1970s, Soviet Ukrainian youth were enamoured of Western popular culture and a thriving illegal trade in books and recorded music existed, often with Komsomol leaders serving as entrepreneurs. Now taking advantage of the new powers given them, oblast and other local committees of the Komsomol embarked openly on political and social activities beyond the control of the center, as well as on economic ventures only recently allowed by the newly-opening market. In addition, the Komsomol had hitherto presided over a host of travel agencies as well as recreational, vacation, sports, and cultural facilities. Now these facilities were turned over to local committees and their leaders to be transformed from state-provided services into profitable private businesses. In fact, they became shareholding companies headed by enterprising Komsomol leaders. With the center unable to assert control and uniformity, and with its activities less amenable to direction by the Communist Party, more business-oriented and diverse, the LKSMU as a body meant to discipline and indoctrinate youth began to disintegrate.

In 1990, a year which saw overall membership falling precipitously to four million, the LKSMU at it 26th Congress in Kyiv adopted changes to rules and program meant to make the organization more attractive to youth by sanctioning the above-mentioned decentralization measures. In consequence, the Komsomol oblast committies attained sufficient autonomy that several of them—those in Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Vinnytsia—refashioned themselves as associations of ‘democratic youth’ so as to retain their relevance. At the LKSMU’s Third Conference in 1991, efforts by the central authorities to reassert control over the organization and especially its physical and monetary assets in view of the tide of dissolution were in vain. The Lviv and Chornobyl youth organizations broke away completely from the LKSMU as a result. Subsequently, the young Komsomol leaders who had adapted to the changes and challenges thrust upon their organization emerged as leaders in business and politics in the post-Soviet era.

In the wider political arena at the twilight of the Ukrainian SSR, in response to Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika initiatives, the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU) exhibited its habitual conservatism, but members of its junior affiliate within it (CPU members eligible by age to still be members of the LKSMU) reacted differently. Embracing the ideas of liberalization, renewal, and democratization, Komsomol leaders began in 1988, especially in Kyiv and Lviv, to participate in talks on the formation of pro-democracy popular fronts on the model of the Baltic states, but this was quashed by the central CPU leadership. Meanwhile, beyond the closed world of the Communist party-state, non-partisan ‘informal’ groups were proliferating. Among them were the Popular Movement of Ukraine (Rukh) and the Ukrainian Helsinki Association (UHS). Both were led by Viacheslav Chornovil, a dissident and former political prisoner, who in 1963–5 had served as a Komsomol organizer at the construction site of the Kyiv Hydroelectric Station. In March 1990, following the example set in Moscow and other republic capitals, a Democratic Platform within the CPU was established, launched by Komsomol members therein. Just as cooperation with Rukh and its ilk were forbidden, so, too, was the Democratic Platform ignored by the CPU leadership. In April 1990, the Lviv branch of the LKSMU defected wholesale to the (anti-communist, pro-democratic) opposition under the banner of Democratic Union of Lviv Youth. In December 1990, the disaffected Democratic Platform members of the CPU created a wholly new, independent Party of Democratic Rebirth of Ukraine (PDVU), a left-of-center political party, neither pro- nor anti-communist. Volodymyr Filenko, a secretary of a LKSMU raion committee in 1979–89, co-chaired the organizing committee and became one of seven co-chairs of its coordinating council. On 21 September 1991, the LKSMU transformed itself into the Union of Youth Organizations of Ukraine. In 1997, it was re-established as the youth wing of the CPU; its activities are concentrated chiefly on celebrating various anniversaries—those of Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, the LKSMU itself, and Fidel Castro. First Secretary of the CC LKSMU in 2020 was Mikhail Kononovych.

Apart from Viacheslav Chornovil and Volodymyr Filenko, other former LKSMU leaders who came to play prominent roles in Ukrainian politics in the post-Soviet period include Anatolii Matviienko, Oleksandr Turchynov, and Serhii Tihipko. Having had their leadership potential tested under Communist rule, such individuals have often used their experience to good advantage in the post-Communist political order.

Bohdan Harasymiw

[This second part of this article was written in 2020.]

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