Elementary School In The Soviet Union, p.2

For the first three years of school, all the classes were held in the same room, except for PE and singing. Even in the first grade, the desks in the classroom were arranged the same way as in high school, three columns with six desks in each, with two students sitting at one desk. I know it is hard to believe now, but at seven, I was relatively tall for my age, so my place was in the fifth (out of six) row in the right column. My neighbor was a girl named Sonia Skorpileva. She was taller than me, clumsy, with messy hair and a leaking fountain pen. We all were as cruel as seven-year-olds could be and made fun of her. Unfortunately, the teachers often supported such behavior, publicly shaming the students for even minor mishaps. For example, on the days when we wore white aprons, we were also supposed to have white ribbons in our braids (and black or brown ribbons on regular days). One girl (and I even remember her name, Natasha Ponasenkova) had purple ribbons. Although it was our first First Day of School, our teacher called her out, put her in front of the class, and allowed everybody to laugh at her for these purple ribbons. And then she told her to tell her mom that the ribbons had to be white. She was a very pretty girl, but we never acknowledged that since she was from a “troubled family.”

Since the very first day of school, it was expected that we sit still for all forty-five minutes of each period. We were almost never allowed outside during the break, even though the school had a courtyard.

After a month or two, the teacher started grading both our classwork and homework. The grading scale was from 1 to 5, but 1 (“very bad”) was almost never used, 2 was already “bad” or “unsatisfactory.” Starting from the second quarter, we had “quarterly report cards,” which mostly presented the mean of all the grades one would receive in class through the quarter. At the end of the first quarter, all of us became Young Octobrists, the communist organization for kids aged from seven to nine. All Young Octobrists wore a pin on the left side of the chest: a small plastic or metallic start with the portrait of Lenin at the age of five in the middle. The name “Octobrists” (Oktiabriata in Russian) referred to the “October Revolution.” Since in 1917, the official calendar used in the Russian Empie was the Julian Calendar, all the dates were two weeks behind the rest of the world, thereby the Revolution happened on October 25, not on November 7. Although Russia switched to the Gregorian calendar in February 1918, by that time, the Revolution was already called “the October Revolution,” or “The Great October Socialist Revolution,” or simply “The Great October.” It was too late to change the trademark, so it continued this way. So, we all were “Young Octobrists” and wore these “Octobrists’ pins” on the left.

I know that all I am describing sounds pretty dull, but I didn’t think my life was boring or uninteresting at the time. My old post with the home movies covers the second half of the first grade, and there are lots of fun activities!

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.

Elementary School In The Soviet Union, 1

With this post, I am starting a series of “what were the schools like” in the Soviet Union, mostly for my grandchildren’s benefit.


Schools in the Soviet Union used to be way more uniform than in the United States. That’s why, although I describe the schools I attended, most things were the same no matter where in the Soviet Union the school was. The situation started to change rapidly during Perestroika, but until then, things remained remarkably unchanged.

Though the title of this post says “Elementary,” the concept of “elementary” was rather abstract. Except for rural areas and some specialized schools, a school would host all grades from first to tenth, and unless somebody moved (which didn’t often happen in the Soviet Union), you would be together with the same thirty classmates for five to six hours a day six days a week for ten years!

The majority of schools were what is called “zoned” schools in the US, meaning that you have to live within certain boundaries from the school to be able to attend it, and most times, there was no choice.
My situation was slightly different because the school nearest to me was a “specialized school with in-depth learning of English.”

This fact created an interesting disposition because the school had to take all the kids who lived nearby, but also, somehow, the kids who lived further away could get in through an interview. After Perestroika, the entrance exams to elementary school became common, but in the Soviet Union, these were uncommon and, if I get it right, sort of “unofficial.”

Unfortunately, my mom is not a source of reliable information anymore, and she can’t tell how exactly it worked. I remember she took me to an interview several months before school started, and I know she was anxious that they might not take me because I could not pronounce the “r” sound.

I do not remember the questions the interviewing commission asked me, but it was an easy conversation. Once again, I can’t tell why I had to go through the interview. There were several kids from “troubled families” in my class and some from “working-class families” whose parents were unlikely to care about what school their kids were attending.

In the first grade, our curriculum was identical to that of all the first grades n the Soviet Union. We attended school six days a week, and we had four periods each day. Three periods were always the same, reading, writing, and math. And for the fourth period, we had PE twice a week, “labor” (that weird subject included anything done “by hands” mostly crafts; do not ask me why “labor”), art (drawing) once a week, and music (singing) once a week. The order of periods differed each day: all three core subjects were taught by our room teacher, and different teachers taught the other three, so we had to fit into their schedules.

The classes started at 9 AM. Each period was 45 minutes, and the breaks were either ten or twenty minutes (“long breaks”). One of the long breaks was a lunch break. For the first graders, it was from 10-40 to 11 AM. While in elementary school, we didn’t have the option to choose what to have for lunch, and as far as I remember, we didn’t have an option NOT to have lunch. At the same time, lunches were not free. Each of us had to bring one ruble on Monday that covered that week’s lunches. Our teacher would call each of us to her desk in the morning, and each of us had to come up and give her that one ruble, and she would make a note in her list. I remember that once, a student gave her a ruble torn into two pieces, and I remember her yelling at him.

It was always a hot lunch, but the quality of it was relatively poor, as with almost all of the “public catering” in the Soviet Union. Surprisingly to Americans, milk was not a part of that lunch. Middle-schoolers had an option of buying their snack, which included milk and pastry, and we all could not wait for this option to become available. We barely ate this lunch; we would all go home at 1 PM and eat lunch there, so it’s not like it was so necessary.

The school was less than ten minute’s walk from my house, but I had to cross the street (not at the intersection), so my mom was very anxious about it. I even remember how she taught me to ask “an adult” to help me to cross. The short way to get to my school was through the passage yard, and the entrance was almost in front of our building; that’s why I was crossing not at the intersection. To be honest, there was no significant difference since the rules of the road were loosely obeyed by all parties.

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.

Elementary School In the Soviet Union: My Notebooks

I plan to write a series of blog posts about school, similar to the series I wrote about the university. I do not have as many pictures from my school years as I would need to illustrate everything I am going to write about, but I have a lot of my school notebooks saved by my mom.

I have two of my very first notebooks in storage, and I will scan them at some point in the future, but I didn’t want to wait until this future came, so here are several others.

All of them are from my first grade. There was no Kindergarten class at school, and I already described our Kindergarten education when I blogged about my detsky sad. What I started in September 1970 was a first grade; whatever was before was not considered school.

The name of this notebook is the Russian language. That’s what “writing” was called. In the first grade, our parents signed our notebooks.

Our notebooks were not at all like nowadays notebooks. The cover was made of thin paper, ad there were only twelve pages in each, We had six notebooks circulating at any given time: two for the Russian language, two for math, and two for penmanship. At the beginning of the lesson, you would turn in your notebook with your homework and pick up your other notebook with your yesterday’s homework graded by your teacher. You would do your classwork in that notebook, then do the homework in the same notebook, and the process would be repeated the next moring.

That’s classwork for May 12. I got “five” for it, which is the equivalent of an A
That’s the homework for May 19. I got “four,” which is equivalent to B. The mark is down because I made one correction.
Continue reading “Elementary School In the Soviet Union: My Notebooks”

The First Day Of School!

In the Soviet Union, kids started school when they were seven. Although we had a “prep” group in the detskiy sad, it still wasn’t considered “school.” Going to school meant that you were “a big kid,” and everybody counted the days left until their first “September First” (the official start of the school year countrywide). Very soon, the novelty would vanish, and at least half of the kids would start to hate school, but it was not the case on the first day of your first school year.

During summer in Estonia, Grandma Fania gave me lessons. I could read decently by that time, but she also taught me cursive, and we did a lot of writing exercises. I have no idea why she did this – it was by no means required. Possibly, she kept the memories of the Gymnasium in the Czarist Russia she attended – to be admitted, you had to demonstrate the ability to read, write and do basic arithmetic. Or maybe, she just wanted me to be in the top of my class from day one.

In any case, I was ready and excited. I had my new school uniform on with the “holiday” white apron, and I had flowers in my hand – that was also a must for September 1 – the flowers were given to the teachers, and everybody had to have a bouquet.

The school was less than ten minutes walk away, but I was afraid to be late!

Continue reading “The First Day Of School!”

Narva-Joesuu, part 2

Turned out, I have a lot of pictures from my last pre-school summer, although it looks like they cover just two or three days – as usual, when somebody with the camera was around.

Blueberries picking: looks like my mom is taking pictures from the nearby hill. I and Baba Fania
Looking fro the next blueberry spot. I had this basket for so many years after! I won’t be surprised if it is still sitting somewhere in Saint-Petersburg
Surprisingly, I remember the name of this lady, who was Baba Fania’s close friend. Her name was Anna Maximovns Bomach, I think, and she was a retired pediatrician. I do not remember what her relation to Eugeny Mravinsky was, but there was one. And it’s because of her that I got a ticket to the only Eugeny Mravinsly concert I ever attended (several years later)
A view of the mouth of Narova RIver from the nearby hill
On the Narova shore
Mom, which means that my father was visiting
On the way home from the grocery store
With Aunt Kima
On the beach. I am sitting on yet another ruin of yet another villa…
End of summer, and we are leaving on that day. I am dressed nicely (the same white lace dress as a year ago, probably redone, and I stand by Uncle Misha’s car. He would drive us back to Leningrad.

Summer 1970: Narva-Joesuu

That was my last summer before school, and that summer, I was not sent to a dacha with detsky sad, and I didn’t go to the sanatorium. Instead, it was the first of many summers I spent in Estonia, in Narva-Joesuu. When I published my old home movies, I talked about that time here. I know that my father’s side of the family spent summers there for many years before that. My great-grandfather (the father of my father’s mother, David Solomonovich Levitin died there and was buried at the local cemetery. As I mentioned earlier, I know that I spent at least some part of my very first simmer there, and I have no idea what happened later and why I never went there for seven years.

These questions didn’t bother me back then, though. For most of the summer, I was there with my great aunt Fania, whom I called granma (baba) in the absence of an actual grandma. As I mentioned earlier, my great uncle Mish and his wife Nadia rented another room in the same house. In contrast to baba Fania, uncle Misha, eight years younger than her, didn’t like being perceived as a “grandpa,” so I called him uncle. His wife Nadia was even more concerned with looking younger than she was, and I called her aunt. I know that the rest of the family just barely tolerated aunt Nadia. I do not know the actual reason, but I remember that she was criticized for exactly that: behaving as a grand dame, taking good care of herself, etc. In the pictures below, she helps me to get into the “bridge” position (remember my PE/figure skating?). Since uncle Misha was 58 at that time, she should have been fifty-something and looked outrageously good for her age (by that time’s standards).

More of me doing exercises:

Continue reading “Summer 1970: Narva-Joesuu”


It was my last year before school. When we returned from Loo, I started to attend the “preparatory group” in my detskiy sad, which would be the equivalent of Kindergarten in the US, only it was more rigorous.

All the children who turned six and would start the first grade in the fall had two “lessons” a day. We sat at desks that looked a lot like school desks (two kids at one desk), and we did a lot of counting and other math exercises, speech development, and so on. We had to “tell the story looking at the picture” (which I hated with a burning passion). But overall, we were enormously proud to be “almost schoolchildren,” and I liked to wear a navy blue corduroy dress with a white lace collar resembling the school uniform (it was way before I started to hate school uniforms!).

Also, I started to take figure skating classes. They were free and were run by a local enthusiast, so nobody thought a big deal about them. Unlike the famous Soviet “sports schools,” there was no selection of future champions, and we just had fun and tried our best.

We didn’t have an option of skating indoors, so in the fall, we had PE in the local school gym for two evenings a week, and it was also enormous fun.

In some of the photos below, I show the exercises we learned during these classes.

IN the kitchen, sometime in fall 1969 with my favorite stuffy named Boska
Continue reading “1969-1970”

More Home Movies

I just received the digitized versions of two more home movies. I will need to write in more detail about their contents, but I short: they were filmed by my mom in summer 1975 when we went on a railway cruise through Ukraine.

I will need to spend some time identifying all the places. The trip started in Kyiv, continued in Lviv, then there is should be some footage from different places in the Carpathian mountains, Chernovcy, and Odessa.

The quality of the footage is really bad, there was something stuck to the camera lense, but it is what it is.

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.

School Uniforms In The Soviet Union

The other day, mom forwarded to me a video she received from one of her Russian friends. The video was nostalgic in a horrible way. 

The background song declared that the best time in Russian/Soviet history was the 1970s, and the singer wanted to travel in time to get to that moment in history. 

The video featured the girls in the school uniforms with huge bows in their hair, young pioneers in red ties, old-fashioned ice cream, and lots of old propaganda pieces. All together looked pretty horrific, so when mo asked me how I liked it, I had to tell her the truth. Then she would go: well, these girls in uniforms with huge bows weren’t they cute?

I asked her: mom, do you remember the deal with these uniforms?? Most girls hated it because they were out of style or just plain ugly. But there was something else. Can you imagine that we had to wear the same dress for months without washing?!

Yes, you would always get only one dress for the school year. It was made of brown wool so that the dirt won’t be visible. But then, you were not supposed to wash a woolen dress because you would ruin it; you were supposed to take it to the dry cleaners, which would take at least a week. Now that I am thinking about t, t is possible that sometimes we would wash the dress at home, but then t would also be very infrequently.

What I remember clearly is how I was refreshing the dress every Sunday.

First, there was a white collar and white cuffs, which I saw on Sunday evening, and then rip off at the end of the week to hand-wash and iron and sometimes even starch.

We always had pieces of old cotton linen in the house to use for steaming the clothes. I would take one of these pieces, wet it, place it over each underarm part of my dress, and press with a hot iron. This procedure would help to eliminate the smell of sweat. I would also steam the back of the dress, which was always wrinkled from sitting.

Later, the cuffs were dismissed, and the collars were most often made with synthetic lace, so caring for them became easier. When I was in high school, they finally let the aprons go (before that, there was a black apron for every day and a white apron for occasions). 

I forgot all about that underarm business until I saw that video!

My beautiful picture

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.

Soviet Propaganda (Almost Forgotten)

Suddenly, I remembered this episode; I didn’t think about it for years until yesterday, when it suddenly popped up in my mind.

Back when I was a child, not only did we not know anything about Christmas, we didn’t even know how Santa looks like. Grandfather Frost, who was in charge of presents, looked very different from Santa, except for the beard. And even his beard looked different from Santa’s ๐Ÿ™‚

So, we didn’t know how Santa looks like, and that’s what once happened.

I must have been in grade school, probably the 5th or the sixth grade. It was a winter break, and I was at the Yubileyniy Palace of Sports watching the New Year show on ice.

In all these shows, the scenario is more or less the same: Grandfather Frost is in danger, or got lost, or lost his granddaughter Snowgirl. And some good guys help him (most often, animals) and bad guys trying to prevent him from finding Snowgirl or take him hostage, or something else.

This time around, a villain was Santa Claus! He didn’t look like Sant at all, but we didn’t know. He was short and thin and wriggling, hunching most of the time. He wore a purple robe, which was too big for him, and a dark purple hat that looked very much like a night hat. He wore sunglasses (because spies wear sunglasses!). He had packs of chewing gum in his pockets, which he was using to bribe the good guys. There was no chewing gum in the Soviet Union, and it was labeled as bourgeois plague, and yet kids loved it, as one can love forbidden fruit.

This Santa Claus was trying to turn people away from Grandfather Frost and accept him as a main figure for the New Year celebration. In the end, he was defeated and sent away.
It was a long (two acts) and a beautiful ice skating show, and it ran twice a day through the whole winter break. The Yubileyniy arena was huge, so I won’t be surprised if most of the city’s grade school students saw this show. I didn’t feel anything wrong about it. I thought it was funny. And it was so along the lines of what we were told back then that I forgot about it entirely.
Now I think: it’s no surprise that so many people in Russia think about the US as their enemy. That concept was imprinted in people’s minds so early that they can’t even remember that.

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.