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!”

My Birthday Celebration

It feels like the whole birthday week with Boris being here since the 14th, with so many birthday wishes and things I’ve done during the week. On Saturday, Vlad and Anna organized a big party for me, and many of my friends came.

There were some dramatic moments with an original venue going out of business and too many people being unable to come due to COVID (either being sick or quarantining or deciding not to risk). Still, it was a great event, and I am very thankful to Vlad and Anna for organizing it!

I think there are more pictures around, and if I finally collect them from everyone taking pictures, I will post more :).

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”

Loo, September 1969

That was my second and last trip “to the South.” We rented a room from the same landlord and passed the time the same way as a year before. That meant that we spent mornings at the beach, then went inside to hide from the intense sun. We had milk and bread at home, and then went back to the beach. We had dinner in a small diner close to the beach and would go back to our room. Sometimes, we would wait to see a sunset over the sea.

Mom made friends with another mom who was vacationing with her son, named Sergey. He was approximate my age, and we played on the beach together. A couple of times, we went hiking in the mountains – the mountains started right there, behind the houses. Sergey and I loved making our way through the ferns. Also, that was the first time I saw blackberries and tried them. In Russian, blackberries a called hedgehog berries, and I asked mom whether it is true that only hedgehogs could it blackberries:)

Continue reading “Loo, September 1969”

Sanatorium, part 3

Although most of the pictures from the sanatorium show me hanging out with boys, I mostly remember interactions with girls.

Since the purpose of our stay in the sanatorium was “to get more fresh air, we were outside a lot; almost all the time when it was not raining. When outside, we mostly played role games. We liked to pretend that the group of us was a family with many siblings. Since all the fairy tales were about girls or boys from poor families who would later become princesses or princes, we always played ” a poor family,” where everybody had to work.

As I mentioned earlier, there were two big girls in our group, Lilya was seven and Lyalya was six. Lilya just finished the first grade (she should have been close to eight then). They both, but especially Lilya, tortured us by “playing school.”

Lilya made small notebooks and actually taught a small group of younger kids to write in cursive. We hated it because our letters were coming out clumsy, and Lilya would yell at us (like teachers would do) and mark our work with bad grades. Somehow, I remember being more miserable when she yelled at us than when this would come from our teacher.

My stay at the sanatorium seemed endless, but finally, it was over, and mom and I went “to the South” again.

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.

Sanatorium, part 2

It has been several months since my last historical post. I published the last one on March 13, and it was in the making for a while. After that, the war took over, and somehow I could not return to the stories of my childhood, although I made several attempts during these months.
Here is another attempt.


I stayed in the sanatorium for at least two months, and I do not recall missing mom too much. Actually, I do not recall missing her when I was at dacha either. Later she told me how she was looking for excuses to visit me more often (the “parents’ days” were once a month). I think she subconsciously tried to develop in me an unhealthy attachment to her. When I was much older and stayed at the “pioneer camps,” I missed her and dreamed about the day the camp would be over.

However, in the summer of 1969, it was not the case yet. I was happy to see her when she visited, but I was not crying when she left.

On parents’ day, we had a concert for which we rehearsed for weeks.

I believe we danse and sang “Vo pole berioza stoyala…”. I am the one on the left.
Reciting a poem
Continue reading “Sanatorium, part 2”