Some might have considered these images, made by LIFE photographer Bill Eppridge, an unrepresentative sample of life behind the Iron Curtain. But he was onto something: by 1967, nearly half of the 235 million people living in the Soviet Union were under the age of 27, most of them born in the years immediately following World War II. Along with a decline in birth rates, the human toll of nearly four decades of violence—civil war, famines and the Second World War—created a demographic crisis that only a return to normalcy could resolve. By the time Eppridge arrived, the pendulum had swung decisively into the younger generation’s court.
This so-called “Sputnik generation” that frolicked in front of his lens grew up during the optimistic 1950s and entered adulthood in the early 1960s, at the beginning of the USSR’s “stagnation decade.” Unlike their parents, who might have cited late night knocks on the door and the Great Patriotic War as the defining events of their own young lives, the country they knew was the one that sent Yuri Gagarin and Sputnik into space and stocked shelves with Western-style consumer goods. When they pledged allegiance to the Soviet state in school, they faced a portrait of Vladimir Lenin or Nikita Khrushchev, not Joseph Stalin.
As members of the Sputnik generation enjoyed more autonomy at home, they sought out meaningful relationships with their peers outside of it. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, classrooms and public parks became the venues where Soviet girls and boys had their first tastes of unrefined vodka and suffered through first kisses. By the time they enrolled in college—which nearly 25% of Soviet high school students did thanks to increased state investment—they had their own personal networks to turn to when they wanted to get their hands on the latest banned Beatles album or share a ride to a summer festival.
(via LIFE photo archive)