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.

On The Same Topic, Again

On Sunday, I talked with my second cousin, who lives in Russia. We lived in the same apartment for the first twenty-two years of my life, so we had our share of hate and love, and I respect him both personally and professionally.

Unlike most of my family, he is not a technical person. He is a historian, and not like an amateur historian, and not like “the history of the USSR” historian. He specialized in the history of Russia in the 19th century, so one can only imagine how far from easy it was to stick with this topic for over forty years of research. In short, he knows it. Seriously.

So, I was talking to him, and we were about to say our goodbyes. Then he said he hoped the time would come when we saw each other again. He immediately corrected himself. He said that he did not see any of the future for Russia at all, and “if we exclude the complete collapse of the state,” the only non-catastrophic outcome he saw was the strengthening of dictatorship. He reiterated that the complete collapse would be the worst and that “he hoped we would never come to that.”

I told him that I saw our only hope in this complete collapse, and I did not see any possibility of rebuilding the nation without destroying everything that exists now. I added that I was thinking about Germany in 1947. He replied: yes, but there is one slight difference: in Gernamy in 1947, they had an external government. I said: yes, that’s what I mean, and then I realized that with all these positive things about him I mentioned at the beginning of the post, he still thinks that 1) nothing can be done, 2) anything is better than a potential collapse of the state.

And it’s extremely unfortunate.

First Kings Of Europe

This Field Museums exhibit tells the story of the first kingdoms on the Balkan peninsular.

The international group of museum curators and historians started to work on putting it together back in 2015. Everybody knows what happened next, but this exhibit faced more challenges than any other, including expiring grants. Now, the exhibit is finally here, at the Field Museum, showing the historical objects from ten different museums in different countries, 700 objects which were never displayed together,

The whole exhibit is set up like a giant book, so that you walk through and turn the pages.

Continue reading “First Kings Of Europe”

Ireland Day 4: Hill of Tara

My last day in Ireland was all about ancient history. First, we visited the Hill of Tara:

I know that pictures tell nothing about this place. It’s a feeling. It’s not that often that you visit a Christian site dated the 5th century A.D., but knowing that the place had a special meaning even during the Stone Age, gives it all a new perspective.

This place was visited by St.Patrick
Here, St. Patrick had a theological dispute with the Druid priest which resulted in the burning alive of the latter one
Continue reading “Ireland Day 4: Hill of Tara”

Henrietta Street 14 Museum

Sure, it was funny, cool, and special to visit a museum on the street with my name:

But regardless of the name, the house’s history is remarkable, and the museum is extremely interesting. That’s what I have been repeating to myself for the last couple of weeks since I returned from Ireland: yes, these days, you can find all information on the internet, but I would never think about looking up this information if I won’t visit Ireland, and if my incredible friends won’t take me everywhere!

So, back to Henrietta’s street. In the 1700s, it was a place where noble Irish families lived, and this particular house was occupied by the family of Lord Viscount Molesworth. But after 1801, when the power moved to London, and all noble families followed, this house went through major transformations. After being used for different offices, in 1876, the building was bought to be converted into a rental property. Shame on me, but I didn’t know that “communal apartments” were not invented in the Soviet Union. Apparently, in Dublin, a tenement was an 18th or 19th-century townhouse adapted to house multiple families. Thus, Henrietta Street 14, instead of being a home for one family, became a home for over 100 people.

The museum shows all stages of the house’s history: several 18th-century restored rooms would give an idea of how the Lords lived, and several restored flats represent different living conditions for families on different socio-economical levels.

I took very few pictures because I was very busy listening to the tour. It is astonishing how much life in the tenements was similar to life in the “communal apartments” in the Soviet Union.

During my first full day in Ireland, I walked more than 30,000 steps!

Glendalough National Park

On Saturday, my friends took me to two places outside Dublin. The first place we visited was Glendalough National Park. First of all, it’s an exceptionally beautiful park, the nature is amazing, there are hills, lakes, waterfalls, and old trees. Most important, however, is that it is the oldest monastic site, founded in the 6th century!

The trees covered with moss
Continue reading “Glendalough National Park”

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.

The Great Dictator

A note from the Siskel Center said:

After a remarkable twenty-year tenure, Gene Siskel Film Center Executive Director Jean de St. Aubin will resign in February. Join us in celebrating Jean’s impact and leadership, as we toast to her next chapter and celebrate her love of the movies with one of her favorite films, THE GREAT DICTATOR (this title, by the way, is in no way a reflection on Jean’s own leadership style!). Film followed by a post-screening reception with champagne, pretzels (her fave), and more. All ticket proceeds benefit the Film Center.

To be completely honest, I was more interested in the movie than in the reception :). I never saw the whole movie, not to mention on a big screen! Amazing! I knew about this movie, the plot, and when it was filmed, but even the excerpts I saw do not give enough impression of how awesome it is! It is hard to believe that it was filmed in 1940 when the US was’t even at was with Germany.

A Book I Am Excited About

I am finishing the Berlin Dairy by Willian Shirer. What an amazing book! I can’t believe I knew nothing about it until I saw a recommendation from a friend. William Shirer was a CBS broadcaster who worked in Nazi Germany from 1934 to 1941. He wrote several books about the history of WWII and the history of Nazism, and now I want to read them all! 

I think that it is a combination of two factors that make this book so amazing: first, he was an outstanding journalist with an extraordinary analytical mind who knew both how to get access to information and how to interpret it. And second – that it is an actual diary, so the readers follow events in “real-time.” When he wrote something in his journal, he did not know what would happen next or the implications of the events he had just recorded. It’s something like: I can’t believe Molotov and Ribbentrop are meeting! How can they negotiate when Russia is the most fierce critic of Nazism. How is it possible that they could reach any agreement?! They did?! 

It turned out there were lots of historical facts I didn’t know. Take the Winter War – I thought I knew everything as much as I could, visiting Finland several times a year. Still, I had no idea that it started with the air raid shelling Helsinki – I thought that all the war events happened at the frontline. 

This book has way too many parallels with the current war in Ukraine, like when the author explains how Germans have “no morals.” A German is lamenting about “bad Finns who fight against Russians, and why they are doing such a horrible thing as resisting? When Shirer says that Finns are fighting for their independence and asks won’t the Germans do the same if they were invaded, the response it: but that’s different! Russians are our friends!

Or when he cites a conversation with a German waitress about the British air raids: why are they bombarding us? – Well, because you are bombarding London! – But we only shell military objects, and they through bombs on our civilian objects? – Why do you think that Germans only bombard military objects? – That’s what our newspapers say!

Sounds familiar, right?! Way too familiar!

I almost finished this book, and I have three other books in queue, but I am urged to drop them all and read all the rest of the books by Willian Shirer(which will definitely take a while!)

All I Want For Christmas…

I am getting more and more disappointed in Russian society. I can’t believe I am saying this. I always used to say that the country has potential and healthy forces. Whenever others told me that nothing good would ever come out of Russia, I would always argue and remind others how much society has changed in 1991/92. I still have a lot of newspaper clippings from that time. I remember how we were hungry but hopeful and open to new ideas. I remember how in 1996, none of us, recent arrivals to the US, planned to stay here forever. We talked about going back and bringing back with us all the knowledge, all the new ways of doing things that we learned. I thought … well, does it matter what I thought back then?! 

I am shocked to find an imperial mindset in many people I thought were completely normal, intelligent, and understanding. The most frustrating thing is that these people do not understand that they have this problem. The level of entitlement is skyrocketing. I am horrified that I never paid enough attention to that and never noticed the level of this ignorance in the people surrounding me. 

Last weekend, Anna and I talked a lot about that. (This recording of Chervona Kalina I posted a couple of days ago was made during our conversation – there was a lot of singing). For many years, I told Anna that most of the Russian political opposition is not that much better than Putin and that being against Putin is not enough to be a decent person. Now she said she realized that. The opposition is continuous frustration and disappointment. Why do they feel OK behaving like a Big Brother when they come to other countries? Why do they believe that opposing Putin entitles them to some special treatment? Anna told me that at the beginning of the war, she thought that although Ukrainians are wholly entitled to say as harsh words about Russians as they want, they are indeed too harsh. But now, she says, she has concluded that the Ukrainians were right from the beginning. And that’s how I feel, as well. 

I can’t believe that even now, many people who once again seemed to be completely normal complain about the inability to travel to Europe as if it’s the worst thing in the world. There are a few of my very long-time friends who are not like this, but so few!

As for us, we feel the weight of collective guilt, and it’s more than just a word for me. There were many facts that I chose to ignore, not pay attention to, and not analyze. I have already said multiple times that I am not sure where I would be if I didn’t immigrate. I was thinking about myself thirty years ago, and I can’t be certain I would be on the right side of history. That’s why the blame is on me, and I can’t imagine people going around with their holiday activities without Ukraine in the background. 

I know that all I want for Christmas is a victory for Ukraine. Not peace, but victory.