World Festival of Youth and Students

Lev Rubinstein, born 1947 in Moscow, as photographed in 2017 by Natalia Senatorova. Courtesy of Wikimedia

There should be at least some news to slightly brighten — like a mosquito-sized flashlight — the gloomy hopelessness of the current media landscape.

So, this morning a news item flashed across my screen that seemed provisionally positive and even slightly heartwarming amidst the already familiar meteor shower of news items, each one more nightmarish and ridiculous than the last.

However, this seemingly welcome news is also shipshape when it comes to absurdity.

Amid the events happening around us this bit of news struck me as quite strange. I immediately wanted to check whether it was a fake (sorry for the non-Russian word).

But it seems to be true, alright.

“In February–March 2024,” I read, “the World Festival of Youth will be held in Russia, per the decree signed by President Vladimir Putin.”

“Within three months, the government,” I read on, “should start prepping for staging the festival, as well as finding sources of funding.”

While I am amazed, to put it mildly, at the incongruity and obvious strangeness of all this, and while I imagine how the eyes of the various “preppers” and “stagers” light up when they read the word “financing,” one of my most vivid memories serves as a powerful backdrop to these spontaneous reflections of mine.

In the summer of 1957, Moscow hosted the World Festival of Youth and Students — a festival of left-wing youth organizations that had been held since 1947.

The Soviet propaganda of those years stressed the “fight for peace” as an alternative to the “aggressive policy of the imperialist West.”

In the phrase “fight for peace,” the emphasis increasingly shifted towards the word “fight.”

Be that as it may, the word “peace” [mir] in those days, in terms of the frequency with which it was used in both official and unofficial speech, knew no rivals. This is especially often and especially vividly remembered in our own time.

Be that as it may, the 1957 Moscow festival, conceived as a propaganda event, was an important and gratifying event in the life of not only the Soviet capital, but also the whole country.

“Moscow Youth Festival” (1957). Silent footage from Pathé News 

I was ten years old—not so big as to understand everything, but not so little as to understand nothing.

That summer, parents were strongly recommended to take their children out of the capital. I don’t remember why I stayed in Moscow, moreover, smack dab in the center of it.

My friend and neighbor Smirnov and I would roam the streets of Moscow during the festival.

My eyes were blinded by the vividness and polychromatism. I remember an overexcited middle-aged dame grabbing the hand of a skinny Indian man. Speaking loudly and syllabically, as often happens when people talk to foreigners, she told him: “I i-dol-ize Indian cinema! Do you understand? I i-dol-ize it! Do you understand me?”

The Indian smiled and nodded his head, which was wrapped in something terribly foreign and incredibly beautiful. Then he shoved some kind of colorful pin into her hand. It is quite possible, however, that he was not from India but from somewhere else.

Smirnov and I were also given pins and postcards by foreigners. We kept them in our collections at home for many more years. Then they disappeared.

In those days it suddenly became obvious that, before the festival, we had been living in a black and white world. A spirit of unthinkable, unimaginable freedom reigned over the capital, which had become prettier and younger and had lapsed into charming frivolity.

“We Became Friends in Moscow” (1957). In Russian

The air was so supercharged with erotic energy that a year after the Moscow festival, babies of all colors of the spectrum showed up in noticeable numbers. Those babies are now all grown up.

But this was not the only trace left behind by the festival. Nor were the toponymic relics in the form of the countless “Festival Streets” and Druzhba (“Friendship”) cinemas. It was then, by the way, that First Meshchanskaya Street (“First Bourgeois Street”) was renamed Prospect Mira (“Avenue of Peace”).

Many artists of the older generation would later admit that the exhibition of modern painting brought to Moscow by the French and shown during the festival turned their ideas about art upside down and provided the first impulse to everything that is now collectively known as contemporary art. However hard the ideological leadership tried to put the “abstractionists” in their place a few years later and in subsequent years, the genie had been let out of the bottle.

After the festival, the stilyagi — the first aesthetic and, so to speak, behavioral dissidents in the Soviet Union — emerged. After the festival, the idea of fashion and fashionableness arose. After the festival, rock and roll appeared in the Soviet Union and spread around the country. After the festival, the youth subculture in our country took on distinctive features, however timid and provincial.

The Stalinist reinforced concrete (not even iron!) curtain was not flung open during the festival. Only a narrow crack opened in it, but the flow of air pouring through this crack was so powerful that it intoxicated an entire generation for many years to come.

“Khrushchev and the Avant-Gardists: from the Manege to the Manege” (1990). Artist Eli Belyutin and his colleagues look back at “30 Years of the Moscow Union of Artists,” held at the Moscow Manege in 1962. The show attracted the notice of the Soviet and foreign press, but it also angered Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. In Russian

The festival was yet another lesson about the important fact that freedom is not an absolute concept. That freedom is tangible only in the context of non-freedom. That freedom is just the feeling of freedom and nothing more. And it was this feeling that we experienced then. We were not given freedom. We were only shown it through a crack in a thick curtain.

Smirnov and I didn’t know how to articulate anything of the sort back then. We sensed this freedom in a childlike way, directly. It had appeared to us in a bright and sparkling shape that made even a New Year’s tree seem almost as tedious as a synopsis of the painting Arrived on Vacation.

There was no freedom, but there was the feeling of it then.

This powerful feeling touched even me, a ten-year-old. And for many young people from my older brother’s generation, this event largely shaped their further social and cultural evolution.

People who were twenty years older than me often recalled another brief but bright time when it seemed to many who had returned from the front, who had been able to see another world and other people, to spend time with the soldiers and officers of the allied armies, that “now everything would be different.” They also considered it a great fortune, despite the fact that they were very quickly shown who was the boss in the house, and, most importantly, who had really won that war.

Live coverage of the opening ceremony of the 12th World Festival of Youth and Students, Moscow, 1985. In Russian

History shows that when a totalitarian or authoritarian government, under the influence of certain political (most often external) circumstances, is forced to provide its citizens with a “whiff of freedom,” this is almost always followed by bouts of reaction in different shapes and guises. “You had a little breather and that’s enough!” the government seemingly says to citizens who decided that now things would be different.

Freedom, according to the great poet, comes to us naked. But when she sees that no one welcomes her with flowers and songs, she waits in vain for a while before dejectedly going home.

I cannot even really imagine the upcoming triumph of the spirit, the style and overall thrust of its staging, the number and, most importantly, the quality of its intended participants, and how the keyword of all the previous festivals, the word that begins with a “p,” and which has now become semi-forbidden, will be spun. I lack the imagination.

Source: Lev Rubinstein, “You can’t strangle this song, you can’t kill it: why Putin wants a World Festival of Youth,” Republic, 7 April 2023. Translated by the Russian Reader. The videos inserted in the article, above, were part of the original publication, but the photo of Mr. Rubinstein was not.

One thought on “World Festival of Youth and Students

  1. Thank you for the insightful reflection on the historical significance of the World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow. It’s heartwarming to see how such events can have a lasting impact on a generation and pave the way for social and cultural evolution.
    Joshua Wilson

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