Reflections of an (older) Pioneer

Remembering what didn’t exist – on the anniversary of the Soviet young pioneers’ organisation. Русский

Maria Basina
19 May 2017
 знамени Артека 1967.jpg

1967. Pioneer with an Artek banner. Image courtesy of the author. I never imagined that this invitation would leave me so emotional! Once I was a happy pioneer, then a very involved pioneer leader, then a journalist at a wondrous and unique children’s newspaper that was published in St. Petersburg with a print circulation of 100,000. So, by rights I should be overjoyed to attend a festival commemorating the 95th anniversary of the Soviet pioneer organisation. I’ve seen countless pioneer-related holidays, parades, meetings, and summits. I always went, and I was happy do it. But no longer. Are the pioneers to blame, or is the new Russian reality, where celebrations themselves have become much more important than actual reasons to celebrate?

I’d drop everything and go hang out with my old friends – to reminisce, sing, chat about life. But the invitation before me says: “On 19 May, the cannon at the Peter and Paul Fortress will be shot at midday” – no more, no less. There’ll be a parade of the generations, an exhibition at the biggest exhibition hall, a flashmob, and so forth. All of this in St Petersburg. 

What will go down in Moscow is anybody’s guess, but either way, television will show cute pictures featuring girls with traditional white bows in their hair and boys in equally traditional Red Army broadcloth helmets. All of this because the pioneer organisation turns 95. I daren’t imagine what will happen when it turns 100.

Who’s being saluted? A long-gone pioneers’ organisation?

I keep reading and re-reading the pamphlet I was sent: “A festival of public children’s unions commemorating the 95th anniversary of the ‘Salute, pioneers!’ organisation.” And, above that: “With support from St. Petersburg city hall.”

I read the letter again, and can’t understand how a single phrase can contain so many contradictions. The Vladmir Lenin all-Soviet pioneers’ organisation, which even the parents of today’s Russian kids barely remember, is actually the organisation that turns 95. This organisation, beloved by the Communist party of Stalin’s, Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s day, has not been around for a while. Of course, there are pioneers around too, and every year, Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov gathers a couple of dozen kids and ties red scarves around their necks – but this organisation is certainly not 95 years old.


Morning at the “Young Cosmonaut” pioneer camp in the Moscow region, 1972. Photo CC-by-SA-3.0: V. Soloviev / RIA Novosti archive. Some rights reserved.A festival of public children’s unions? Great. There are many different unions out there. Perhaps fewer than the authorities would like, but they’re around, and they stick to their interests – be they environmentalists, young correspondents, ethnographers, and so on. But there aren’t many red pioneers among them.

Who’s being saluted? A long-gone pioneers’ organisation? A smaller organisation that exists today mostly in small cities and villages? What’s up with the title of the festival? The beautiful phrase seems to imply – well, you came to our festival, so you’re the pioneer. Moving goalposts is fashionable today. Not everyone notes the discrepancy here, but many are still surprised, thank God.

I also felt weird when I was at the supermarket the day before Victory Day. I bought three carrots, and I was given a carnation with the words “Thank you!” Why am I being thanked? I was born long after the war. Do these people not understand that the youngest veterans, even if they served while basically being kids, are no less than 90 years old? That these people are, most likely, unable to shop for themselves? The carnation upset me, the “Salute, pioneers!” business upset me, and the overwhelming celebration of an organisation that rarely saw its own faults upset me too.

Some may say that we shouldn’t care. Four or five thousand kids will gather – they’ll play at being pioneers – what’s so scary about that? Today in Russia we’re dealing with banned protests and mass demolitions of communal housing. A guy can get a suspended sentence for playing Pokemon GO! in a church, and here I am, whining about pioneers.

Perhaps we’re dealing with all this – crackdowns on protesters or ludicrous prison sentences – because thousands of people were, as children, not allowed to learn to think for themselves?

Yet perhaps we’re dealing with all of this – whether it’s crackdowns on protesters or ludicrous prison sentences – because thousands of people were, as children, not allowed to learn to think for themselves, to make their own decisions, to express their views? In Russia, people across all sides of various social barricades all missed out on these experiences when they were growing up. What do we have as the result? One group is busy making thoughtless decisions, and a second group, who never learnt true teamwork, can’t get their act together and oppose them. Actually, forget opposition for a moment, even being in favour of something doesn’t always work out for these guys.


Becoming latter-day Red Pioneers at Moscow’s Aleksandrovsky Gardens, 2008. Gennady Zyuganov, leader of Russia’s Communist Party, presents a new recruit with a red scarf. Photo CC-BY-SA 3.0: Sergey Pyatakov / RIA Novosti archive. Some rights reserved.The organisers of the pioneer celebration will, at this point, triumphantly point out that “The pioneer organisation taught these skills being discussed!” I’m almost tempted to agree, but with a caveat – pioneers who came away with these skills got lucky. I got lucky – my pioneer-oriented childhood involved wonderful people, who knew how to take care of others, to advocate for justice, to think, to empathize, to sympathize, to act. By some miracle, they were also able to protect us from absorbing too much ideology. Because of these adults, I had childhood moments that involved such enormous happiness, that I wanted to place a piece of it in everyone’s pocket, moments that involved me choking on sincere grief, moments that involved me to fly high like like brilliant fireworks over the famous Artek children’s camp due to pride that overwhelmed my soul.

Yes, my childhood involved Artek, on the shores of Crimea – which was, back then, an unreachable dream for many – I visited a “pioneers’ palace,” with the best friends, there were field trips, and formations, and songs. Then there was also the work – with the pioneers themselves, and I kept wanting to call them the “lucky ones.” We played games, and had crazy celebrations, and disputes, and gatherings of all sorts. I remember them all.

Thankfully, I am still able to separate the present from the past. It’s dangerous to project nostalgia for one’s own childhood onto a completely different generation

Why am I not rushing out to join this year’s celebration? Because I thankfully am still able to separate the present from the past. It’s dangerous to project nostalgia for one’s own childhood onto a completely different generation – so different that some scientists theorise that today’s children understand us adults better than the other way round. I’m also not rushing out because having spent so many years in children’s journalism, when we had a go at reporting and newsreading, I know that we lucky few were greatly outnumbered those who were bored to death by mandatory pioneer summits, boring ideology sessions, boring volunteer duty heaving recycling materials from place to place, cutting out senseless pictures for senseless, half-hearted installations for International Women’s Day and Defenders of the Fatherland Day. As these pioneers are barely remembered by anyone, people even get surprised when I remind them that in the magical land of the pioneers not everyone led a magical life.

Here’s just one story out of many I know. A young girl wrote to our pioneers’ newspaper to complain that she was selected to be on a volunteer council (yes, really). She goes to meetings, she says, but doesn’t understand what they’re for, and feels she’s wasting her time and missing out on music lessons. We printed the letter. Just two days later I stood before an enraged secretary of the regional Komsomol [ed - Communist youth] committee. “How DARE you!” he roared. I had thankfully realised that the letter writer would have had problems as the result of her missive, so I had changed her last name and the so-called “guilty party” was never identified.

These leaders from the Komsomol – those who were supposed to be “big brothers” to the young pioneers – were not interested in real life, of the sort that children wrote about: boring summits, being kicked out for an un-ironed red scarf, bullying that went unnoticed, and so on. Anthropologists and other social scientists weren’t interested in it either. That’s not to say that research into pioneers’ lives was not conducted. It was. It was just that research results tended to strongly complement the pioneers.

Of course, there are plenty of researchers and teachers very familiar with the pioneers. I know some myself. But the results of their analyses were hardly ever used to make serious changes. Perhaps because they weren’t taken seriously in the first place – most researchers were former pioneer leaders and were thought of us “one of us.” They weren’t listened to just as we journalists weren’t listened to, even as we pioneers worked as a kind of “emergency service,” rushing out to schools to resolve fights and help children get over various calamities.

I’ll see people who are dear to me, with whom we tried to make children’s lives more interesting – not because of endless pioneer-related “treks” and “events,” but in spite of them

This is why it’s so hard for me to decide whether I should attend this celebration. It won’t be an occasion for reminiscing, it will be an occasion to reel off praise and tell tall tales to today’s children about pioneer life. Of course, I’ll see many people who are dear to me, those people with whom we tried to make children’s lives more interesting – not because of endless pioneer-related “treks” and “events,” but in spite of them.

The thing is, I can meet my dear friends in a better setting. To see them as drums beat all around us, “with support of St. Petersburg city hall,” is somehow unappealing… I don’t want a parade either. I’ll admit, I will get together with someone from my past on this day, and sing a beautiful song from our shared pioneer past. And then I will once again make myself swear that I will never force my past experiences on anyone. Especially not children. Memories can only be shared. And if others really want to, they can choose to accept them.


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