Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pioneers Ready For a Revival

They no longer wear Lenin badges or red stars on their shirts. But some things about the Pioneer youth group, a cornerstone of Soviet life like the Party and the Komsomol, haven't changed.

Communist leanings among its leaders, for one.

There was "a level and style of life during my parents' time that there isn't now," said Dmitry Shmidt, 21, who founded a Pioneer unit in 2002.

"Our parents weren't scared about tomorrow."

The Pioneers are celebrating their 85th anniversary, and during the weekend more than 2,500 schoolchildren were inducted on Red Square. Leaders say there are 2 million Pioneers across Russia -- down from a Soviet peak of 25 million in the 1980s -- and that the organization has been scrubbed of Marxist-Leninist dogma.

Michael Eckles / MT
Pioneers may now wear scarves of different colors, and the red hat is optional.
Still, children are encouraged to criticize injustices in President Vladimir Putin's Russia. And the Communist Party is a sponsor, though State Duma Deputy Sergei Sobko insists they aren't trying to politicize children.

"It was very annoying to me that during the time of perestroika they destroyed a lot of those institutions that didn't bother anyone," he said.

The first Pioneer group was founded in Moscow in February 1922. They camped, helped others -- and performed suicidal acts of heroism. During World War II, Pioneers are said to have detonated grenades they were holding in order to kill Nazi soldiers. One group was photographed brandishing rifles on the steps of Berlin's ruined Reichstag.

They were also treated as free labor: They helped with cotton harvests, and in the 1960s and 1970s collected scrap metal from which thousands of tractors and a stretch of the Druzhba oil pipeline were built.

The once-ubiquitous Pioneer camps, where Soviet children could spend three weeks or more during the summer, have now mostly fallen into disrepair or been converted for other uses, such as pricey hotels.

And not even the traditional red scarf is untouched: Some Pioneers have blue-and-green scarves, others choose pink ones. Only a handful wears the red army-style hat.

Modern Pioneers say their new ideology is selflessness.

"We have the mentality of Slavic people -- helping others is traditional," said Nikolai Gavrilov, 16, from Moscow. "I, of course, understand that in the modern era there's more of a tendency to selfishness, to individualism," he added.

And what unites them? "We're all Eastern Orthodox," said Yelena Morozova, 16, from Kursk, though her friends interjected that the Pioneers are non-religious.

At a recent gathering, they linked arms, swayed, and sang saccharin songs about friendship. They shouted their new motto, which proclaims their readiness to serve the motherland instead of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Leaders present the group as a savior from modern society's ills.

"One girl's mother said: 'It's not modern.' And the answer: 'What's modern, to be pregnant at 9 years old?'" said Yelena Sofronova, 50. She also said Stalin couldn't have killed so many people, otherwise the Soviets wouldn't have won World War II.

"People stood in lines firstly because they had good wages, and because food was cheaper."

Michael Eckles / MT
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov at the Pioneers' induction ceremony.
Eighty-five percent of Russians believe that a children's organization is necessary at the present time, according to a recent survey by state-owned polling agency VTsIOM. Forty percent of respondents were in favor of reviving the Pioneers, while 45 percent supported the creation of some other organization. In the 18 to 24 age group, 45 percent of respondents had difficulty answering a question about Pioneers, because they had a poor understanding of who they were.

The growth of the Pioneers doesn't indicate that the Soviet Union lives on in Russia, said Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.

"The very fact that people try to keep these structures artificially alive proves exactly the opposite, like keeping the relics of an old society," he said. "Today Russia is very, very bourgeois. You cannot deny its origins, but it's very deeply and dramatically transformed."

Some former Pioneers present at the recent gathering were not convinced of that, however.

"According to the [Marxist-Leninist] dialectic, what's happening now isn't eternal," said Alexandra Gurova, a Pioneer during World War II, with a faint smile. "We'll return to a renewed socialism. We'll correct all the mistakes."