I carefully kept my pioneer scarf and cap safe on the highest shelf of my wardrobe. They were given to me by my grandfather when I started school. He told me I should grow a bit taller, get a bit older and work hard at school and then I would definitely become a Young Pioneer. It was one of the best presents I had ever received and I couldn’t wait to join the Pioneers.
You could become a Pioneer at the age of 10 or 11. At the ceremony to welcome new members, each new Pioneer had to swear the oath of allegiance:
‘I (name and last name), joining the ranks of the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organisation, in the presence of my comrades solemnly promise: to passionately love and cherish my Motherland, to live, study and fight as the great Lenin bade us to, as the Communist Party teaches us to, and to observe scrupulously the laws of the Pioneers of the Soviet Union.’
I longed to swear that oath and ceremonially don my cap and scarf. I would often pose in front of my mother’s dressing table mirror, trying on the scarf and cap my grandfather had given me and imagining that momentous occasion. If I noticed any creases in the scarf or cap, I would ask my mother to iron them for me, and then I would carefully put them back in their special place in the wardrobe.
The roots of the Young Pioneer organisation lay in the scouting movement involved in charitable activities and helping the wounded and refugees during the First World War. Later, the ideals of this movement were taken and applied to a new organisation for the education of communist workers’ children. The green scarf of the scouts was replaced with a red one. The colour red was one of the fundamental symbols of the communist movement and represented the blood spilt by the people in the liberation struggle against the “bourgeois exploiters.” The Central Bureau of the Young Pioneers was established in 1922 and later, in 1957, it was renamed the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organisation.
Before the time came for them to knot their Pioneer scarf, younger children joined the Little Octobrists and received a badge: a ruby-coloured five-pointed star with a portrait of Lenin as child in the middle. I remember joining the Little Octobrists when I was seven years old and in my second year at school. The Little Octobrists aspired to become Young Pioneers and had to help the Pioneers and Komsomol members. At around 10- or 11-years old, children were admitted to the Pioneers. The special ceremony to welcome them usually took place during one of the communist holidays or on 22 April, Lenin’s birthday. When they reached the senior years of school, young people joined the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League or Komsomol as it was known for short.
The Pioneer scarf was symbolically important, emphasising collective discipline. The three points of the scarf symbolised the connection between three generations: the (adult) communists, the Komsomol and the Pioneers. The involvement of children in the Pioneer organisation was considered ‘beneficial’ for parents, schools and for Soviet society in general. Becoming Pioneers instilled children with discipline and responsibility. The sense of a collective moral code and the model of Soviet citizenship were inculcated in children through the symbolic process of joining the Pioneers. Bad behaviour threatened expulsion from the Pioneer Organisation, one of the most shameful experiences for a child which would leave a dishonourable mark on their life.
Today I understand why it was so important for me to become a Pioneer. First, like many children in Soviet Tajikistan, I grew up with books, stories and cartoons featuring Pioneers and hero revolutionaries, as well as with the Mayakovsky poem explaining, ‘What is good and what is bad’. For me, the Pioneers were always role models and the heroes of the kind of story where good triumphs over evil. They did good deeds in the name of the Pioneers.
I also wanted to become a Pioneer because the people I loved the most had been Pioneers and Communists. My grandfather was a member of the Communist Party. He believed sincerely in the communist values and ideals of equality and justice and lived his life by them. Through his example, he demonstrated what it meant to be a Communist. To me, my bobojon, my grandfather, was a hero. I wanted to follow in his footsteps and be like him – kind, trustworthy and just.
Unfortunately, I never became a Pioneer because I never had the chance. I turned 10 in June 1992, but the Soviet Union had collapsed in the latter half of 1991. I remember being deeply upset and saddened, as I waited so long for that moment. I even wished I’d been born a year earlier so I could still have had the chance to be a Pioneer. Alas, my pipe dream to become a Pioneer would forever remain as my childhood utopia.
Takhmina Shokirova, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Work, University of Regina.