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CULTURAL AWARENESS: Life of Children in USSR

Updated: Feb 22, 2019

It has been over two years since I wrote this article - and yet it still seems to be read rather frequently and receieves a lot of positive response, according to the stats on my old blog. Since I am now running a course "Russian Language and Cultural awareness" I decided to transfer the article to this new website.

This narrative is not only a historical excursion but also sharing the personal experience of the author, whose childhood fell in the last years of the Soviet Union. The photographs are genuine. The author can be spotted in some of them. 


'WE VOTE FOR PEACE'

Very few realise that this sentence appeared on Soviet school blackboards regularly during the Cold War. We were clearly explained by our teachers (and also some parents) that, in a case of a nuclear war, nobody will survive and it would be the end of the world as we know it. This is how my generation had been brought up - and this is the generation, who are currently running the countries of former USSR. Therefore, it is hard to express the extent of my shock, when I heard and read about 'the Russian aggression' on my arrival in the UK. 


SOVIET FILM INDUSTRY FOR CHILDREN


The Soviet film is being watched outside Russian speaking countries very little. However, the Soviet film industry was huge: it was the world on its own. Incidentally, films for children were an important tool of education. Patriotism and equality, friendship and kindness, fairness and bravery - these are the values that the Soviet films and animations promoted to their kids. Humour and the soft irony of those films and animations created a culture of the 1970s-1980s generation. 

Ronald Reagan's speech during his visit to Moscow in 1988 was made totally of Russian proverbs. Even as a teenager I had an impression of that speech. I felt artificial its purpose was obvious: US President aimed to make Russians relate to what he was saying. 

If someone tried to relate to contemporary Russians aged 30-60, they probably would have to quote from Soviet cartoons. My first job in London was at an international recruitment agency, where I had to do cold calling to top IT managers of RF. Unobtrusively, I dropped some very popular cartoon phrases in conversations with those top managers, not because it was my special trick but simply because those phrases are part of my mentality. The response was always the same: those serious people's voices warmed. Although I was a sales person from London, they recognised their countrywoman... Similarly to if I said to an English person that 'I am from Barcelona'... So, is your job to sell to Russians? Then, learn Russian and watch Soviet cartoons.

Almost half of the Societ films targeted the children's and teeagers' audience. Some samples of Soviet and Russian films with English subtitles can be found here. 


THE CONCEPT OF WORK IN EDUCATION


The key idea of education in USSR was that everybody must work and benefit the society. Simply because, otherwise, it would mean that one lives at the expense of other people, which is defined as exploitation. Technically, only children, elderly and disabled were legally free from work. I purposely do not use the word labour as Soviet citizens were meant to receive satisfaction from the work they did for themselves, understand its importance and respect other’s work. This is what most people genuinely believed and craved. Parents and schools were supposed to prepare kids to this concept of future.


The most significant theorist and extremely successful practitioner of education based on work was A.S.Makarenko (1888 - 1939). 'In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, n he established self-supporting orphanages for street children — including juvenile delinquents — left orphaned by the Russian Civil War. Among these establishments were the Gorky Colony and later the Dzerzhinsky labour commune in Kharkiv, where the FED camera was produced. Makarenko wrote several books, of which The Pedagogical Poem (Педагогическая поэма), a fictionalised story of the Gorky Colony, was especially popular in the USSR. In 1955 a movie with English title Road to Life (Путевка в жизнь) was produced'. This time, Wikipedia captured the matter quite well... Another, later film, 'Republic ShKID' about life and upbringing in a similar colony was produced in 1966, also after partly autobiographical children's novel by L. Panteleyev and Grigori Belykh written in 1926. In either colony, the up-bringing of children was based on democratic principles of self-governing and self-provision. Here is a question, how this kind of establishments could have been run in a 'totalitarian' Soviet Russia? 

In many schools, in early years of USSR as well as in the 1980s, children were taught to respect manual work by participating in some of it. For example, each class was responsible for cleaning the floor, the blackboard, watering plants etc. in their assigned classroom at the end of every school day. Cleaning the floor under the blackboard was a bit of a challenge as it always had plenty of осколки мела on it. When a floor wipe was too wet, chalk shards could leave white lines on the floor, in which case the responsible pupils had to return on duty next day. This is how we were taught to do a quality job. Naturally, very few of us used to leave litter on the floor or desks as we knew what it takes to clean it off...


Also, everybody had to take part in Subbotnik’s (the word refers to Saturday (Суббота) as it used to happen on Saturdays. Subbotnik is occasional collective work sessions, usually meant to tidy up the area around the school or helping to do that in local areas. The jobs included clearing off litter and leaves in autumn and planting the trees in spring. This was supposed to be voluntary – and it was initially. In early Soviet years, both, adults and children, took part in Subbotniks with enthusiasm because the idea of working for their own community was very fresh and meaningful in the society, where class-consciousness was eliminated and people enjoyed equality and ‘working for themselves’.

However, Subbotnik became an obligation during the later years as the prestige of higher education and gaining non-manual job grew rapidly after WW2. Nevertheless, Subbotnik is still a common practice in contemporary Russian schools. Strictly speaking, neither now nor in the Soviet years it was compulsory. However, someone who skipped Subbotnik received a great deal of social disapproval, that just feels awkward. And this is the only 'punishment' they get.

My own memory of some Subbotniks is rather fun as it was just another way of spending times with one’s friends… and to flirt too.


A CHILD NEEDS TO BE BUSY IN ORDER TO BE HAPPY

I always was short of time due to my study at a music school. By 1970s, music schools had a very well established (national) curriculum and included not only an instrumental lesson but also solfeggio, music theory, history of music and choir. Overall, I attended the music school 5 hours each week so it was literary 2 schools at the same time. Add to this the time spent practicing on piano. Therefore, I was a very busy child. And I was not the only one.

Afterschool activities for children flourished from the very beginning of the Soviet Union. They became particularly well developed in the 1970s and 1980s and this heritage has been carried on in many post-Soviet countries still, although, they stopped being free of charge after Perestroika, probably as a feature of 'better', the democratic order of life...

Music schools were one of the very few exceptions when parents had to pay for extra-curriculum activities. Still, the monthly charge always depended on the family income, therefore, my parents paid almost twice the money (still, less than 5% of their household income) compare to a single mother of my classmate. At the end of the day, both of us had equal opportunities for extra curriculum education just the same way as at the mainstream curriculum.

A vast variety of afterschool activities for children were sponsored by local government. In the small town, where I grew up, there was a ball dancing club for primary and secondary ages. This club was extremely popular and constantly was the subject of discussions among my friends. Interestingly, although their parents always complained about costume making, they have never refused to do the job, although sometimes the senior school girls ended up stitching tinsel on their own dance dresses. However, they never complained. The prestige of ball dancing was tremendous in our school…


In larger cities, the choice of activities was endless: arts and crafts schools, various sports clubs, fashion design, subject clubs… The subject clubs at schools were designed to enrich the kids’ knowledge rather than catch up with the gaps in it. The centres of extra-curricular activities were Houses of Pioneers and Houses of Culture that existed in every town as well as big cities. 

The extra-curricular teachers were often more popular figures than the mainstream teachers, possibly, because they helped the kids develop their individual strengths, which, in turn, often led to a certain career. 

Normally, there was always something apart from study going on at every Soviet school. Each school had an Extracurricular Activities Officer (they still have this job in Russia), who usually was one of the busiest teachers. In addition, pupils’ initiative was widely supported. For example, when I was in Year 8 (aged 15), I proposed to run an Arts Hour every Saturday before the school disco. I also was the person, who created most of the scenarios for the events.

The teachers trusted us with organisation. They almost never knew, what the next event was going to be about as I usually managed to organise my own friends to help me out or take part in the Arts Hour and we rehearsed independently. Of course, not all children were that proactive and a child’s character usually depends on the support and encouragement from parents… but those children with talents and leadership abilities were always given the opportunity when they wanted to take initiative.


Although afterschool activities did not follow any set curriculum, it was the most interesting part of Soviet children’s life. Here are just a few examples of events that took place at most Soviet schools, as least in the 1970s and 1980s.


Celebrating FESTIVALS

For a New Year celebration, we always had a Yule Masquerade that was supposed to take children into the atmosphere of a fairy tale. Kids used to come dressed up as bunnies, bears, snowflakes etc. The celebration was normally led by the Extracurricular Activities Officer and other teachers, also dressed as Father Frost, Snow Maiden, Baba Yaga (Witch) and other magical characters. 


...Although the Snow Maiden could be one of the school girls, who would be proud of being part of the ‘main casting’ forever, even when she became a grown up woman because the Snow Maiden is supposed to be very pretty.

The celebrations of the May Day (The Day of International Solidarity of Workers) and the October Revolution Day were the times of communist propaganda so we sang songs and read poems about our Motherland and the way we live, the best in the world. Actually, having lost that way of living, many Russians of my generation now realise that what we considered to be full of pathos was quite true… especially regarding the very happy childhood we had.

8th of March (International Women’s Day also plaid the role of St Valentine and Mother’s Day) and 23rd February (the Soviet Army Day, also thought of as the Dads’ Day) was celebrated with a show-challenge for girls and boys respectively (‘Come on, girls/boys!’). Some funny competitions of the challenge, for example, speed cooking or the best make up wearing, or fastest nail hammering made the audience laugh and the winner would be famous and popular girl or boy in the school for quite a long period. In primary school, the challenged was often replaced with a mini-concert for mums/dads with poems, songs or small staged plays dedicated to the theme of man /woman and saying thanks for all the care that the parents provide to the kids.


The non-mandatory but quite common event was, for instance, intellectual challenge ‘What? Where? When?’ (“Что? Где? Когда?”) following the popular Soviet / Russian TV program. Around 10 of top-achieving students of the school were gathered in one team and they had to play against ‘the audience’ (the rest of the school, including teachers), who presented puzzled up encyclopedia type questions to the team. The prestige of intelligence and knowledge raised automatically within a school that practised ‘What? Where? When?’ at least once a year.


Another intellectual challenge I went through as a middle school pupil was a ‘Question – Answer’ hour for children from the local nursery. Five Year 6 pupils, aged 12 (including myself) had to sit in front of about 20 five-year-olds and answer any questions that those kids would pose – all without any preparation. Why it’s dark at night? Why it’s cold in winter? Why it’s snowing? Most of those questions came down to foundation science but the challenge was not only to know it but also to explain in a simple and clear manner. It was quite tough for our age, I should say, but we actually managed to answer every single question! This encouraged thirst for knowledge and a positive attitude to school in the little children. And to us, it was a mini-model of being a parent. Actually, helped me a lot in the future to satisfy the curiosity of my own little one…


NURSERIES

Talking about the nursery. It was a mini-school with its own curriculum, although not so strictly set as the school syllabus. The main principle of nursery teaching was 'from simple to complex'. 

Art and Craft, Music, Maths and Speech Development were a must at each nursery. In addition, children were taught to take care of themselves and follow a well-structured daily routine. 

Besides, nurseries have always been busy in preparation for the same festivals as schools so music and dance were not only taught to the little ones but also performed in front of smiling parents and older siblings. By the way, the cost of the nursery was very affordable from as early as 2-months-old, from 1959, and this is how the Soviet government supported returning women to work. 


HOLIDAYS

What did the Soviet kids do during their lovely three-month summer holidays? Those, who had a grandma in a village, happily retreated there and enjoyed plenty of fresh air, fishing, swimming in a local pond and occasional mischief. 

The other half went to summer camps, where the same things were happening under a lot more control by the camp staff but still, a lot of mischiefs took place. 



Probably, the favourite and the most common joke was going to the next door bedroom in the night and painting their friends’ faces with toothpaste. Those neighbours normally took revenge next night, when the jokers really could not help falling asleep…






Summer camps offered various activities to children, however, some were better than others. The game ‘Zarnitsa’ was a big thing. Sports in it was mixed with foundation military skills. The whole game presented an imitation of a military operation, usually run in a local forest, with the purpose to find and capture the competitor army’s flag, after which the game was over. The participant teams had to use savvy, planning, strategic a teamwork skills in order to win the game. Also, a lot of running around the forest and hiding was involved. Often, the nearest military was invited to support the game.I was lucky to play it only once and it was great fun.

On shorter holidays, many schools organised trips to other cities (the most popular destination at my school was St Petersburg) and, in the last decade, even abroad to the countries of Eastern Europe. Those were very similar to school trips to any other country, including the UK and developing the students’ purview just as much.



COMMUNIST YOUTH ORGANISATIONS

Generally, a military element and discipline always were present in the school life. Pioneers are usually shown dressed smart and marching or lined up, which was actually the truth. They also used to carry their flag in the head of the line. However, it never caused too much grief to us apart from the problem, who we got paired with. And even less grief it caused to our teachers because organised kids learn better.

The youth organisations such as the Communist Youth Union (Komsomol) and Pioneer Organisation, in addition to the propaganda of the communist doctrine, developed a sense of responsibility, organisational, teamwork and leadership skills. Public speaking and performance skills. Experience of self-governing. 


In the middle school, everybody was a Pioneer so each class formed a squad. Each squad was divided into ‘links’ of 5 members (the primary kids were Octyabryata, after the October Revolution 1917 and were divided into ‘stars’ of 5 kids). Those ‘stars’ and ‘links’ were the smallest elements of the school community and, naturally, were in competition with other ‘links’ for the best achievement at the study, sports and social participation (for example, recycling collections). The competitive spirit is no news in the world of motivation and Soviet children were not an exception. 


This was just a very successful way of teaching children discipline, social skills and consideration and, despite a lot of criticism during Perestroika, it never seriously disturbed kid’s childhood. The proof of it can be found in most pedagogical books, including English ones: children are happy when they are occupied… and they were extremely well occupied! As a participant, I would say that, as a child/teenager, I had a busy, interesting and meaningful social life, which, for example, average UK school was and is simply unable to provide to their students...


THE TIMUR’S MOVEMENT

In the first decades of USSR, there was a writer Arkady Gaidar. He fought in the Civil War being aged only 16. 

Gaidar wrote a book ‘Timur and his team’, where a group of village teenagers entertained themselves by secretly helping out elderly people of their village. So, say, a grandma wakes up in the morning and finds her loan done and her garden watered and the helpers would not show up. 

This book became so popular that turned in Timur’s movement so teenagers would organise themselves into teams and take care of elderly around the whole country. It worked well for a while, then, once the doctrine changed from caring for the community to ‘catching up with America’, the movement died slowly. However, Timur’s teams still appear here and there. It would be superfluous to mention, how much respect it develops in young people. 


STUDY

Interesting that, despite so many team activities, each pupil was responsible for their own study and their own knowledge. As we could see, there were plenty of opportunities to develop team-building skills at a Soviet school but there was no team-work in lessons whatsoever. So it was hard to hide behind one's friends back. 

Mini-assessments ran almost every lesson in maths and science and a verbal response was assessed in languages and humanities. No teacher cared if you were shy. If you know the topic, you must speak or, otherwise, be graded down. We learned great poems by heart that I still can quote. In addition, we used to write dictations to check grammar and punctuation and essays to develop creative writing skills in Russian language lessons systematically.


Yes, our study was tough but, many years from then, I still can explain every part of the British GCSE Maths curriculum even though I studied Maths only for 8 years… At the end of the day, childhood lasts just a small part of one’s life, especially if we think about those 11 years spent at school. On another hand, that is the only time for building up the most crucial foundation for one’s future. Some things fired to chance by parents and teachers might be lost forever or understood too late in life to be used for good... And, to be honest, the secret of a child’s happiness lies in love of the parents rather than in messing around and being allowed everything…

Read more about Education in the Soviet Union


LEASURE

...And we still had some unorganised fun. The number of outdoor games, sporting and verbal, created by and for Soviet children, is countless. Someone should probably collect them on a special website. In winter, kids were skiing, skating, sledging, playing hockey, snowballs and making snowmen. In summer, it was swimming, fishing, playing beach volleyball, football and hopscotch. And simply messing about. Soviet kids definitely did not line up all their life...


CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

Feodor Reshetnikov 'Two marks, again'

And, finally, a few words about punishment. Beating children or any other kind of physical punishment was eliminated in the Soviet education from 1917, once and forever. So, practically, Russia was the first country in the world to protect women’s and children’s rights. Many become very surprised to discover this fact. Most likely, the world’s ignorance regarding this matter comes from the lack of knowledge of the Russian language to be able to read information in it as well as concealing the majority of positive information about ‘those Communists’ by media in other languages.

So, how did the USSR manage to create the best in the world educational system without beating up their kids???

Well, the first way of dealing with poor behaviour and underachievement was contacting parents, who, in turn, were not legally bound from taking the belt off and use it for the sake of education. Far not all parents did so of course. All schools and most parents used… the conscience of their children and pupils.

In a case of poor behaviour, the mischievous child would be called to the school committee (usually consisted of the Headmaster, the Deputy, some teachers and the Form tutor), where he/she had to explain the reasons for the behaviour to the panel. Obviously, this procedure felt extremely embarrassing. The committee would decide on the actual punishment, which could be detention, call parents or, in the extreme cases, exclusion from school. Interesting, work was rarely used as punishment...

Another way of social influence was a discussion of poor attitudes within a class/squad. As a naughty child was a member of a ‘star’, a ‘link’ or Komsomol group, who were in competition with each other, the pupils were interested in improving their classmate, who let them down and judged their mates quite harsh at times. 


A children's summer camp of the 1980s

Therefore, social (dis)approval always was the most powerful levers of influence in the Soviet education. Sometimes, the Communist doctrine had very little to do with it. The system based on developing the sense of social awareness, conscience and kindness in children goes deeper into Christianity and the culture of the Russian peasant community, which took care of every its member but also was closely and naturally involved in each other’s life. This kind of 'totalitarianism' is also a typical feature of many other cultures around the world. 


In contrary, Western culture is deeply individualist, mainly because it is focused on caring, first of all, for one's own pocket, which is a very questionable value... However, anti-Communist and anti--Russian propaganda has always been based on that difference in the Western and Eastern vision of the role of community - and not necessarily the government. It is based simply on the lack of understanding of another culture's background by a narrow person in the West. Nevertheless, most children of USSR, especially its later years, had far happier, fun and far more developing childhood than the majority of children in democratic countries, at least according the feedback from those of my generation, who I encountered in the UK... So why did it have to go away?

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