To live and learn like Lenin ‘Meduza’ visits a Russian school where Soviet youth lives on
Mass youth organizations were a childhood staple in the Soviet Union. The Little Octobrists (ages 7 – 9), the Young Pioneers (ages 9 – 14), and the Komsomol (ages 14 – 28) served an analogous purpose to the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts in the United States, but in 1991, they collapsed along with the state that sponsored them. Anna Gerlinger, the principal of School 35 in the southern industrial city of Novokuznetsk, decided that her school’s Young Pioneer organization would not follow suit: she feared that the school would “lose its identity.” 28 years later, School 35 is now a lyceum, and Octobrists and Pioneers still roam its halls. They have formal salutes, wear the Pioneers’ signature red kerchiefs, and sing the organization’s classic songs, but communist ideology no longer plays a major role in their activities. Meduza’s special correspondent Irina Kravtsova traveled to Novokuznetsk to meet the present-day Pioneers and their teachers.
On January 22, the sixth graders in class C at Novokuznetsk’s Lyceum 35 had music for third period. Girls in white aprons and boys in suits sat at their desks—and all of them wore red kerchiefs around their necks. Their teacher, Tatiana Smirnova, sat at the piano in a navy blue polka-dotted blouse and a professional black skirt, telling the students about how Salieri had poisoned Mozart. She closed the story by playing an excerpt from Mozart’s Requiem on a laptop before moving on to Schubert.
“Schubert was a Romantic. So what was his favorite instrument?” the teacher asked.
The children shouted out their best guesses: “The guitar!” “The violin!” “The horn!”
“No, children. The Romantic instrument is, of course, the piano,” Smirnova responded.
Having played one of Schubert’s lieder, she then announced unexpectedly, “And now, children, let’s sing our favorite song: ‘Rise Up Like Bonfires!’ Sighs were heard throughout the class. Everyone got up from behind their desks.
“Tatiana Vasilievna, maybe we shouldn’t?” emerged softly from a girl with her blond hair braided to the side.
“Enough chatter! Let’s go, kids! Clearly! Precisely! I want to see movement! Come on, straighten up, everybody out of their desks!”
Smirnova turned on a recording and began to conduct as her students sang out the first notes of the Soviet Pioneer anthem. When they reached the phrase, “a Pioneer’s motto is, ‘Always be prepared!’” the students gave a Pioneer salute. When they finished, the music lesson was over.
The Youth of Zapsib
“The Soviet Empire may no longer be / But even today, our Young Pioneers / Remain an example for their younger peers.”
A poem dedicated to Pioneer Day, which is celebrated on May 19, hangs under glass on the second floor of the grey building that houses Lyceum 35. The building itself stands on Komsomol 40th Anniversary Street in the Zavodsky neighborhood of Novokuznetsk. The displays adjacent to the poem include a collection of Young Pioneer pins from 1964 and earlier, instructions on how to tie a red kerchief, and the anthem of the Young Pioneers of the USSR.
713 children study at the school, and the Soviet upbringing and behavioral rules they must follow have not changed since the dissolution of the government that used to encourage them. All of the girls are required to wear a black dress with cuffs, a collar, and an apron to school (white aprons for holidays and black ones for everyday wear). Their hair must be braided or worn in a bun. Wearing makeup or getting a manicure is strictly forbidden, and small loopholes in the rules exist only for older girls, who can wear clear nail polish or a layer of mascara. Tennis shoes are not allowed; students must wear dress shoes. Physical education classes require a separate uniform: white T-shirts and black athletic pants.
At the end of each quarter, a meeting is held in the school gymnasium (Lyceum 35 does not have an auditorium). During the meeting, the Little Octobrists and Young Pioneers present the volunteer work they have completed since the last gathering: they collect waste paper and batteries for recycling, buy pet food for animal shelters, and help take care of elderly neighbors. Usually, the gym is packed: parents and grandparents join in to watch. The meeting begins when the standard-bearer, who is selected from among the students for their excellence in service, carries a red flag with the words “The Youth of Zapsib Pioneer Troop: for the Motherland, kindness, and justice” into the room. The unofficial title of the Zavodsky neighborhood, Zapsib, is derived from the name of the local factory, the Zapadno-Sibirsky metallurgichesky kombinat, or West Siberian Mettalurgic Combine. After the flag reaches the center of the room, the children sing their anthem in unison: “Rise up like bonfires, indigo nights, we’re Pioneers, the children of workers!” The anthem is followed by poetry recitations and short speeches. The Pioneers have musical instruments in their arsenal as well — a horn and a drum — but nobody knows how to play them. Instead, the children march to a recording.
Twice a year, the Lyceum organizes a ceremony near the local Monument to the Unknown Soldier. In October, children are initiated as Little Octobrists, and in May, their older peers become Pioneers. The children repeat the Pioneers’ Oath after the lyceum principal: there have been three of them since 1991, but they all continued to follow school tradition. The oath reads as follows: “As I enter the ranks of the Youth of Zapsib Pioneer Troop for lyceum students, I solemnly swear before my comrades to love my Motherland dearly, to cherish the honor of the red kerchief, and always to obey the Pioneer laws.” As the song “Pioneer Friendship” plays in the background, the older “comrades” tie kerchiefs around the necks of the younger ones and salute them. Like the standard-bearer, the ceremony’s leader is chosen from among the best students. They announce, “Young Pioneers! Be prepared to fight for the Motherland, for kindness, and for justice!”
“Being a Pioneer is an excellent way for children to develop their inner qualities. It’s not an imposition; it’s a form of collaboration,” explained Natalya Brovkina, a history and social studies teacher at Lyceum 35. “Ultimately, putting a kerchief on them and getting that red star into their heads is not the point. The point is for them to understand the value of their actions so that they become more responsible.” Brovkina is 28 years old, and she was born when the USSR was already falling apart, but that hasn’t stopped her from being one of the Pioneer movement’s central activists and planning new volunteer projects for the lyceum’s children.
Brovkina argued that the children of the 1990s were taught that “they have many rights—and they totally forgot about their responsibilities before the collective.” She added, “At the same time, young people today are all striving toward individualism—every man for himself. Being a Pioneer helps us teach the kids that they should be part of a collective and work for a common cause.” The teacher proudly told Meduza that the Little Octobrists managed to gather five tons of scrap paper over the course of a few months in 2018. More recently, the school has organized a food drive for homeless animals. “Again, it may seem like I can just do a good deed myself and be happy about it,” Brovkina explained. “But there’s actually a big difference: on my own, I can bring a bag of food to a cat — or I can ask seven hundred kids to do the same thing too.”
The bald man with the kind face
That same day, January 22, fourth period was spent with sixth-grade Pioneers teaching a 15-minute lesson on the Siege of Leningrad to second-grade Octobrists to whom they had been assigned as mentors. Historically themed events like these take place every three or four weeks in the school. The students told their “younger comrades” about how hard it was for children during the blockade. “They got totally quiet because they were so hungry and weak,” sixth-grader Daniil Mayorov said, pointing to a photo presentation on a school laptop. “But even then they still made sure to keep the school clean and orderly, and they all got As and Bs.” Octobrists in snow white shirts and aprons listened attentively with their backs stick-straight and their hands folded neatly on their desks.
Mayorov is very proud that he was accepted to become a Pioneer. When asked why, he is genuinely surprised: “Because it’s great to be an example for the Octobrists!” For the past few years, Mayorov has “had the honor” of carrying the flag into Pioneer meetings: “When I walk out with [the flag], this pride just fills me up [because] I am part of the collective of our lyceum.” All the Young Pioneer knows about Vladimir Lenin is that he existed and that he was, “I think, bald with a kind face.” Another Pioneer, Darya Khromova, who presented on the Siege of Leningrad alongside Mayorov, said she hasn’t learned much of anything about Lenin so far.
“No one forces you to become a Pioneer. But if you’re a Pioneer, then be an example,” Mayorov declared with confidence. “You have to be a good example for your younger comrades, live by the Pioneer laws, and always be prepared to work and to defend.”
“And how do you understand the phrase ‘be prepared to work and to defend’?” I ask. (The phrase was also the name of a state-run network of fitness organizations in the Soviet Union that Vladimir Putin signed back into force in 2014.)
“It means you should always be ready to help someone else materially or emotionally,” the sixth grader responds.
Mayorov learned about the lyceum’s Pioneer movement when he was in the second grade. He remembers being very happy on that day: “It’s a lot nicer when everyone around you looks equal [wears the same uniform] and not differently colored,” Mayorov explained. “I don’t understand why everyone forgot about the Pioneer movement so fast.” The young boy said he irons his kerchief every morning and is always afraid to drop it even though he doesn’t fully understand the symbolism of its bright red coloring.
As Brovkina explains, the students don’t know anything about Lenin precisely because the lyceum’s Pioneer movement has no political aims: the only ideas it has retained from its Soviet counterparts are “faith, friendship, kindness, and justice.” “We don’t idealize the Soviet era. The Pioneer movement in our lyceum is free of all politics and Leninist symbolism. The Pioneers wear the kerchiefs but not the pin with Lenin’s portrait; there are no communist slogans on their banners,” the teacher said. “We only kept the paraphernalia.” In her words, teachers tell their students “for what the Pioneers did everything they did, and not for whom.” The school places less value on the person who invented the Pioneer movement than on the person who preserved it for their lyceum in Novokuznetsk: their former principal, Anna Gerlinger.
A born Pioneer
Anna Ivanovna Gerlinger, after whom Lyceum 35 is now named, led the school for more than 30 years. According to its current principal, Igor Shibaev, she decided to retain the school’s pioneer movement in 1991 because “she didn’t want the school to lose its individuality.” The students’ parents reacted positively to her decision, Shibaev told Meduza: they said that a Pioneer childhood was the best thing they ever had.
Gerlinger passed away in 2011, but her successors decided to continue supporting the traditions she had preserved: “Bringing in new ideas doesn’t always win support from the parents and the kids,” the current principal said. “At this point, there would be no sense in changing anything, and why think up something new when you already have a movement that has had great results for many years? The kids and the parents like it, and it’s much simpler to keep the Pioneer movement the way it is so that we don’t provoke conflict.” At the same time, the school does not allow students to graduate from the Pioneers to the Komsomol. Shibaev explained that “Ms. Gerlinger didn’t support” preserving the Komsomol movement.
Shibaev said every Pioneer at the school receives a real Pioneer kerchief made in the late 1980s. “We got lucky,” he recalled, “in the early 1990s, a textile factory in St. Petersburg reached out to us to say they had a store of kerchiefs they had sewn that weren’t needed anymore because of the [Soviet] Union’s collapse. They gave them to us, we gladly took them, and now every year we hold a ceremony for the kids to receive them.” According to the principal, the school now owns only about 300 more Soviet kerchiefs, and when those run out, he will have to place an order to get more.
Shibaev said the municipal government of Novokuznetsk “values” the lyceum, and local officials confirmed that claim. Yulia Solovyova, who chairs the local education committee, said she was “a born Pioneer” herself and knew Anna Gerlinger well. Solovyova “saw the fruits the Pioneer system bore in a time when we were losing our values.” Solovyova is certain that the school’s academic success is a result of its decision to keep the Pioneer movement alive. “Volunteering to help those who are younger or older or to help animals breeds patriotism and a proper relationship to others,” she said. “And [Russian] law on education puts personal development first.”
The lyceum’s vice principal for educational work, Nadezhda Saburova, assured Meduza that no one forces students to join the Pioneer organization. At the same time, only a handful of students have chosen not to do so over the course of 28 years. For example, a first grader’s parents did not allow their son to become an Octobrist several years ago because of their religious beliefs, though Saburova said no one prohibits the lyceum’s Pioneers and Octobrists from believing in God or attending church services.
Yelena Zasukhina has a daughter in the ninth grade at Lyceum 35, which she herself attended as a child. Zasukhina said she is glad that her daughter could become a Pioneer. She explained that even when the family had an opportunity to transfer her daughter to a more prestigious lyceum, they decided not to take it in part because her current school has a Pioneer movement. “It’s such a proper [organization],” Zasukhina argues. “After all, the most important thing about educating our youth is instilling ideas in them. You have to love your Motherland and live and learn like Lenin did. If our lyceum were to cancel the Pioneer movement all of a sudden, I would be very upset.”
“In my neighborhood, everyone thought I was straight out of a history book”
Tigran Khachaturian is currently an eleventh grader at Lyceum 35, and he said his feelings about the Pioneer movement are “double-sided.” “None of my classmates took it really seriously,” the young man recalled. “I wasn’t too enthusiastic about the Pioneer movement—it felt like they were pushing something onto me.” Khachaturian believes present-day pioneers are “passive activists”: they volunteer because their teacher organizes their projects. The eleventh grader said he thinks Soviet Pioneers “did good deeds exclusively on their own initiative.”
Khachaturian has a positive opinion of Vladimir Lenin because he was “very smart, and it’s impossible to deny his positive influence on the entire world. […] Thanks to Lenin, the Soviet Union changed the world!” the young man exclaimed. “He turned the whole world onto a path of building socialist governments. Everything came from him.” In the classroom where I spoke to Khachaturian, a portrait of Vladimir Putin hung above the chalkboard.
Ninth grader Yekaterina Basyrova is a winner of Novokuznetsk’s Student of the Year award. When I met her, Basyrova’s hair was pulled back into a bun, and she wore a freshly ironed black dress with a white collar. “Because we know we’re the only ones who kept this tradition, we feel a sense of responsibility—we can never betray the honor of the Pioneer movement,” Basyrova said. “I must! I will! I promise! I swear! These aren’t just words to me.” The ninth grader added that being a Pioneer allows students to “stand in the shoes of their parents and grandparents and understand them better.”
“The school uniform gives us discipline. If you look at kids from other schools, you can tell right away what they do over there,” Basyrova continued. “When I see schoolgirls with eye makeup, it’s a shock for me. Makeup is obviously a sign of adulthood, but you’re still in school! You’re in school! How can you?” She believes the habit of wearing a uniform will help the students of Lyceum 35 in the future as well: “In any case, when we go to work, we’ll have a dress code. And you can dye your hair on the weekends and wash it out afterward if you really want to.”
Basyrova’s friend, fellow ninth grader Anna Lobodyuk, is the chair of a youth group called the Youth of Zapsib Union of Lyceum Students. Lobodyuk said that when she was inducted as a Pioneer, she almost cried with pride: “I was so excited for it. Every kid wants to grow from an Octobrist into a Pioneer. I dreamed about being assigned classes to mentor and about how I was going to help the little ones.”
Lobodyuk said she has heard that today’s children “don’t like Putin or our laws,” but she herself doesn’t “get into” politics — she believes it’s “not for children.” “We don’t have the same mental development as adults, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” she said. “[My friend] and I wouldn’t go to protests because it’s a waste of time. It’s better to spend that time educating yourself.”
Gleb Yakushev graduated from Lyceum 35 five years ago and was one of the few who decided not to become a Young Pioneer when he transferred to the school in the fifth grade. The idea “seemed crazy” to him. Yakushev said he received a very good education at the school but that its “retrophilia” put him on the defensive. “The teachers were entirely convinced that no one should stand out from the crowd,” Yakushev recalled. “A couple of times, I wasn’t allowed into my lessons because my hair was longer than the standard. And when I pierced my ear, they called a meeting of the teacher’s council and asked my parents to come.”
Another of the school’s alumni, Alyona Arzhanukhina, graduated last spring and is currently a journalism student at Moscow International University. She also transferred to Lyceum 35 in the fifth grade, and at first, she was “shocked” by the local traditions. “For four years before then, I had gone to school in red shirts and skirts, and then bam—even I’m in a plain black dress,” the young woman recalled. Nonetheless, when Arzhanukhina became a Pioneer, she quickly became proud of the title: “There was a sense that you were special because this only happened in our lyceum,” she explained. “And the parents said it was a good thing and remembered how it was when they were in school. I felt like I was part of something big, and I liked it.” On the other hand, the Lyceum 35 experience included occasional awkwardness: “When you went to olympiads, just like every time you attended any school-related event, you had to be in uniform,” the young woman said. In Russia, local and national academic olympiads play a major role in the college admissions process. “Kids from other schools would squint at us, whisper about us—it was kind of uncomfortable. And I lived far away from the lyceum. In my neighborhood, everyone thought I was straight out of a history book.”
Even now, Arzhanukhina can feel the influence of her “Pioneer childhood.” “At minimum, I learned how to use an iron. I mean, we had to iron our kerchiefs every morning! And on a more serious note, it disciplined me,” she said. “I had this feeling that I was part of an elite club, and I had to meet its standards. There are so many Soviet films about Pioneers, and all the kids there are responsible, smart, proper. So in my head, I had this image of superhero Pioneers, and I wanted to be like them.”
The lyceum’s vice principal, Nadezhda Saburova, is also convinced that her school’s administration managed to stop “the flywheel of time.” “It disciplines them,” she said. “They feel that they’re not like everybody else, and that’s something adolescents always want.” Saburova believes the Pioneer movement has a positive influence on kids and parents alike: she said that when her students perform at citywide events to give speeches and sing “Rise Up Like Bonfires,” the entire room cheers them on, and elderly women come onstage to sing along.
Nonetheless, the school does occasionally reach the point of excess. Saburova remembers one such case when a ninth grader dyed her hair green four days before the end of the school year and her mother was asked to transfer her to a different school. According to Saburova, the girl tried to dye her hair back to its original color several times but only managed to “burn” it. In the end, she went to her lessons in a wig.
Another “crisis,” the teacher said, has to do with the current fashion for sneakers. A parent recently came to the lyceum who “tried to teach the teachers about aesthetics, as in ‘come on, you don’t understand, sneakers are in fashion.’ I love wearing sneakers in my free time too, but [prohibiting students from wearing them] is a matter of principle,” Saburova said. “Because if we let them wear sneakers today, then tomorrow they’ll be in checkered dresses, and the next day the dresses will be bright red. And that’s it, we will have lost ourselves.”
Translation by Hilah Kohen