The burial of the Soviet Communist Party was in some ways reminiscent of an ancient pagan funeral, where wives and servants were sacrificed along with their deceased master. In this case, the wives and servants comprised all official bodies and organizations charged with ensuring the ruling ideology really be a cradle-to-grave affair.
For 70 years, successive generations of Soviet children found themselves caught on a sort of ideological conveyor belt that made of them first Octobryata, then Pioneers, before carrying them on into the Komsomol and finally, if their application was approved, into the party itself.
But the collapse of the Soviet Union brought the well-oiled apparatus grinding to a halt. In fact, the rust had been setting in for years. Children's and youth organizations had become like much else in Soviet society - hollow decor, empty rituals, a forced sense of duty and ever-more weary show of idealistic enthusiasm.
Now all that remains are memories and the odd attempt to revive the old traditions either as they were, or under a new guise. Today's schoolchildren are more likely to get together according to the kind of music they like and clothes they wear. They are free to search, drift and keep themselves occupied in ways they see fit. Yesterday's schoolchildren, whatever their feelings toward the more regimented past, find a certain retrospective pleasure in the fact that there is still something they all share, a collective experience that binds them in at least one small way. Not all were in the Komsomol, which covered the 14 to 28 age bracket and was the antechamber to the party, the first stepping stone to a prestigious career. But all were Octobryata and Pioneers.
Schoolchildren joined the Octobryata during their first year of school. At the age of 10 or 11, they then became Pioneers. Becoming a Pioneer was supposed to be something one earned, but in practice, it was virtually impossible not to become one.
The best pupils entered the ranks of the Pioneers early, usually in December, while the more mediocre masses followed on May 19, the anniversary of the 1922 decision to establish Pioneer divisions throughout the country and "birthday" of the Pioneer organization. May 19 was the big date in the Pioneer calendar, a day of parades, concerts and visits to monuments. All the children lined up in rows, wearing white shirts and red neckties. There was much blowing of horns and beating on drums. "Be ready to fight for the cause of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union!" the call rang out. "Always ready!" the answer came.
The main aim of the Pioneer organization, as stated in a 1924 party decree, was to give children a communist education. This was one link in the chain that attempted to bind people to the regime throughout their lives.
It was perhaps one of the most important links, too. Children are impressionable, highly subject to peer pressure, easy to mould, easy to lead. Those principles have been put to use by ad-men, religions, and even Adolf Hitler, among others. The 10 to 14 age group covered by the Pioneers was a crucial one. Younger children could be more or less carried along by inertia as they had not yet begun to really think for themselves. Older children were potentially more alert to the odd whiff of rebellion coming from the adult world, more likely to question, challenge, and look for more individual ways of asserting their identity. But the Pioneers were in the middle, and the seeds sown over those few years could determine much in a child's future attitude.
The communists recognized the importance of controlling the environment in which children were raised. It was part of the ambitious experiment that was the creation of "homo sovieticus" - the new Soviet man, builder of communism and devoted servant of the regime.
The communist education dispensed by the Pioneer organization combined ritual and Marxist mythology with a do-good spirit, active way of life, fun, games and hobbies. Towns throughout the country had their Pioneers' Palace, where children could participate in various interest groups, practice a sport, learn a craft, put on plays and so forth. In summer, a network of Pioneer camps kept children busy. The most famous camp was Artek in the Crimea, supposedly for the best pupils, though in practice, it was more often the children of various communist dignitaries who got to go.
Children were expected to learn and abide by the Laws of the Young Pioneers, a sort of communist 10 commandments that began with devotion to the party and motherland, and went on to respect for one's elders and being a diligent pupil.
They were expected to make their contribution to society by performing useful tasks. At various moments over the years, Pioneers gathered scrap metal to make tractors, raised dogs and horses for the army, helped on collective farms, planted trees, cleaned up parks, and visited the elderly.
The early years of Soviet power gave the Pioneer organization the material it needed for future legends and inspiring tales. In Arkadii Gaidar's stories, youthful heroes fought bourgeois and counter-revolutionary elements in the civil war, or put a stop to the antics of village hooligans. One of his stories, "Timur and His team," became the inspiration for a nationwide movement promoting the ideals of service and sacrifice.
The upheavals of collectivization and then the war gave the Pioneer organization its pantheon of heroes. The most famous was Pavlik Morozov, killed by his grandfather for having denounced his father for helping the kulaks, or wealthier peasants. The story was genuinely tragic and deliberately falsified in order to make Pavlik an ideologically motivated martyr. Pioneer detachments received his name, statues to him appeared around the country, production began of books and portraits dedicated to him.
The Second World War produced its share of young heroes. Lyonya Golikov, Marat Kazey, Zina Portnova and others outwitted the Germans, fought alongside the partisans, and displayed remarkable courage. Later generations of Soviet schoolchildren were brought up on these deeds of bravery and were expected to read about them and be inspired to emulate them.
Emulation and competition, seen as prime instruments in promoting communist values, were strongly encouraged. The Pioneer organization had a hierarchical structure just like the party itself. A Pioneer brigade would encompass one whole school, and each class was a separate detachment. Competition to be the best in all respects would go on at detachment, brigade, and citywide levels. Competition was also used to reinforce civil defense and military skills, as witnessed by the game "zarnitsa," in which a school divided into two camps and played out a whole war with the aim of capturing the banner.
Lenin was another important component of life as a Pioneer. Children studied Lenin's life and thinking, set up "Lenin corners" in their schools, and went on pilgrimages to various places where Lenin had lived and worked.
Some children proved more zealous than others, of course. Some were sincere, and some already had a nose for what was to come in a society where the road to power and privileges necessarily led through the ranks of the Komsomol and the party.
The sooner one learned how to be active, noticed and praised, the more chance one had later. At the tender age of 12 or 13, it was already clear in many cases who was likely to do the leading, and who was likely to be led.
But for many, it was just another of the obligatory rites of passage that abounded in Soviet life. It was more or less unavoidable; young people could be expelled from the Komsomol, but children would have had a hard time getting themselves expelled from the Pioneers. One simply did not become a dissident or a hooligan at such a young age, and adults went to great lengths to persuade wayward children to mend their ways and find their place in the collective.
The only thing to do for those who had no real ideological earnestness was to get out of the organization what they could in the way of outings, camps and facilities, equipment and so on. As for the studying Lenin, helping old people and cleaning up the town bit, that was all a duty to get over with and forget about.
Children today have no more obligation, no more ideology thrust down their throats - no single ideology, anyway. Proponents of various "isms" now tout their wares, aware that children are a malleable prospective market. Entertainment has become more and more synonymous with money - hobbies, outings and camps are now an individual affair - and it is just tough luck if parents cannot afford to develop their children's talents or curiosity. Competition remains omnipresent - competition for the trendiest clothes, latest fads and gadgets. Ultimately, there is no black and white, where all were little angels before and all are superficial and materialistic sharks today.
But when the old master, communist ideology, was solemnly removed from school classrooms and buried, a few of the wives and servants might have been spared and allowed to continue at least a part of their work.