Soviet Union’s school for capitalists

September 27, 2011

In its heyday, the members of the Young Communist League of the Soviet Union liked to think of themselves as shock troops on the front lines of agriculture and construction. They were building a better USSR, and making themselves better communists in the process.

But by the fall of 1991 the Communist Party had been kicked from power and it was clear there wasn’t going to be a better USSR. On Sept. 27, the leaders of the 73-year-old organization, known as the Komsomol, met in a hotel here in Moscow and agreed it was time to put it to rest. There were no tears — there was too much property at stake.

The Komsomol, whose members ranged in age from 14 to 28, had been straying from the straight-and-narrow path of Marxist fervor for quite a while by that time. It was an organization for strivers, and for people who didn’t want to look like they didn’t belong. It was a career ladder for apparatchiks, who had used it during the years of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika to create a surprisingly lucrative empire.

The Komsomol ran a chain of hotels, and a network of video salons that specialized in soft porn and action films. (Few Russians had VCRs back in those days; if you wanted to watch a movie of your choice, you went to a storefront room where video equipment was hooked up to TVs.) The organization backed trading firms — which were nonprofit because they technically belonged to the youth league — and its most successful venture was a bank, called Menatep.

Menatep was the creation of an especially ambitious Komsomol member named Mikhail Khodorkovsky. After the Soviet collapse, Khodorkovsky used Menatep — founded with Komsomol money — to create the Yukos oil company. He became Russia’s richest man, until Vladimir Putin took him down in 2003 and had him locked away in a prison camp for tax evasion.

Other Komsomol members in those final days — there were 20 million of them in 1991 — have had less dramatic career arcs. Its last leader, Vladimir Zyukin, went into public relations. Vladislav Sedelenek, who was on the organization’s central committee and took over a career agency founded with its money, went on to become chairman of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce. Mikhail Prokhorov bought the New Jersey Nets, and had a brief career in opposition party politics. Dmitry Medvedev is, at the moment, president of the Russian Federation.

The Young Communists were young men and women on the make. Cynical but clear-eyed, they were ideally positioned to ride the wave of capitalism that was about to wash over Russia.

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