Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
‘Are you ready?’ ‘I’m always ready!’ So went the refrain of the Pioneers, members of the state organization for children in the Soviet Union. Set up in 1922, the Pioneers attracted nearly all children into their fold in the post-1945 period. ‘Always ready’ has something of the Boy Scout and Girl Guide about it, but the Pioneers had rather more total aspirations. Not only was almost everyone a member, but many of their songs and activities were expressed in a resonant Communist key. While Baden-Powell’s Scouts were given a hearty ideological push in the direction of imperialism and religion, Khrushchev’s Pioneers were instructed still more rigorously. ‘Grandfather Lenin’ was a particular hero at Pioneer meetings, constantly visible even to the naughty and the boisterous, though the camp-fire rituals were drained of some of their meaning as later decades went by.
Many children would spend their summers at Pioneer camps. These institutions varied greatly in quality. Some were collections of ramshackle huts just beyond the city limits (though such camps would often still be in pristine countryside). A few camps, however, were ensembles of the latest architecture and the best facilities, and were located in the most desirable resorts. The most famous of these was the Artek pioneer camp (located on Crimea).
Artek is often mentioned as a summer run-around for rich kids. Khrushchev himself said in or before 1956 that the place was full of ‘the children of barins’ (‘barons’ would be an opportunistic translation). And it’s certainly true that those who attended the camp included the children of the Soviet elites: the offspring of ministers, generals, composers and scientists. But archival data for the 1950s and 1960s show that even in summer, the children of such fancy people were never a majority in the camps. Just under 40 per cent of children in the high summer of 1960 came from elite and higher-influence white-collar backgrounds (where the parents ranged from admirals to factory accountants).
Some major Pioneer camps were open year-round, and children came for their six-week stint (which could feature academic lessons as well as leisure activities and health checks) either in the school holidays or during term time. The best people favoured summer. So in the winter months especially, all kinds of children seemed to go to Artek. In the second six-week session of 1960 (March to May) 58 per cent of children were either from orphanages or their parents were engaged in working-class or collective-farm occupations. In the early summer session (May to June), 10.1 per cent of Artek Pioneers were from top elite families, while 7.9 per cent were from children’s homes.
Who were the poorer kids who came? Many of them were otlichniki, children who had received outstanding grades. Others were the most enthusiastic volunteers and children-activists. Often these kids were both clever and keen. Yet their parents were in many cases cleaners or unskilled workers. Some of them no doubt enjoyed the patronage of a friendly boss or had a favour to pull back from a higher-ranking acquaintance. All of this evidence might be read in various ways, but how exactly does it add precision to our impressionistic understanding of Soviet equality and inequality? What does it tell us about the Soviet ‘welfare state’?