Even if you didn’t grow up in the Soviet Union, you have probably come across the sugar-sweet image of a Young Pioneer, depicted marching with a drum or giving a proud salute, and always sporting a bold red neckerchief. Unlike the scout movement in the UK, the The Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organisation (abbreviated as the Young Pioneers) were a national body, formed in 1922 to raise its first generation of little Soviet citizens. Pioneers were the poster children of the Soviet Union, setting an example for others. Good behaviour was encouraged by activities that benefited the community: looking after animals, building libraries, scrap collection, gathering food and clothes for soldiers, helping peers with their homework, taking over adult responsibilities at summer camp and many more.
Every school child in the Soviet Union remembers having to wear this neckerchief from age 10 until 15, along with the jitters before the acceptance ceremony or hoping to be picked to raise the flag at morning assembly. By the end of their stint, diligent Pioneers would be awarded a Komsomol badge and were one step closer to becoming a proper Communist Party member. These were just the formalities, of course. The real memories were made at campsites, during hikes, at sporting competitions and bonfires; this was an opportunity to make friends with kids from cities all across the Soviet Union and attend your first dance.
Up until the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991 that red neckerchief continued to be a source of pride. To this day, you will hear older generations say “like a Pioneer” to compliment someone’s moral fibre (and a step up from molodets, the phrase of endearment used most generously in the Russian language). Its legacy lives on in the memories of the older generations, in nostalgic comedies (this film about one mischievous Pioneer will tell you everything you need to know about life at a summer camp) and books. While there has been some talk of forming another state-sponsored youth movement in Putin’s Russia, nothing like it has quite taken off.
Photographer Andrey Semenov remembers his initiation as a momentous occasion. “Becoming a Pioneer was a great honour. I lived in a small Russian town and was really proud to be one of the first kids in our class to wear a red neckerchief.” Even during the three months of freedom at camp, every child had to iron their red emblem each morning. “Twice a day we would meet for a ceremony where one Pioneer would be picked to raise and lower the flag. I really enjoyed it, more so because you didn’t have to do any homework. You could just escape to the forest, make a bow and arrow and play Robin Hood. Still, I could never put my finger on why my own experience as a Pioneer was so different to that which was depicted in the romanticised films from the same period.”
For the past two years the photographer has been documenting a new generation of young aspiring Pioneers who have revived the movement in Moscow. He found the Young Pioneer Camp by accident, while browsing summer retreats for his youngest daughter.
“Our friends recommended the Young Pioneer Camp, which their kids also attended. At the time, I didn’t realise this was a real Pioneer Camp — during my childhood all summer camps were called ‘Pioneer Camps’, and a lot of people my age continue to call them that to this day, despite the fact that Pioneers are a thing of the past. When I saw the photos of kids adorning red neckerchiefs on their website, I couldn’t believe my eyes.” Since his own school days, he’d only seen kids dressed in red neckerchiefs on TV. “I wasn’t so keen for my daughter to be part of a political youth organisation. However we did pay a visit. That’s when I decided to dedicate a story to these Pioneers.”
This Young Pioneer Camp is a self-organised movement. Still, the basic principles that today’s Pioneers must abide by are inspired by those of the past: a Young Pioneer must be polite and well disciplined; invest time in studying, caring for nature, and doing exercise; be brave and unafraid of difficulties; guide the young and help the old. This moral code determines whether you will be picked to join the ranks. “After a trial period, the existing Pioneers will discuss whether you are worthy candidate and will then vote on the matter,” Semenov says of the process of initiation at the Moscow camp, which is then followed by a ceremony, where the new member will be asked to swear an oath. Back in the Soviet days, this would involve promising to cherish your Motherland. “This is always a happy occasion. New Pioneers will wait for the decision in trepidation. New recruits are then showered in hugs, good wishes, congratulations and handshakes.”
The age limit for recruits is much more relaxed today. The kids in Semenov’s photos are between 14 and 16 on average, though the oldest recruit is 18. This is one of the main differences with their Soviet counterparts. Besides this, the new Pioneers have rewritten the motto, Semenov reveals: “When I was a member, the full Pioneer call was ‘Be ready to fight for the cause of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union!’ to which we were all meant to reply, ‘Always ready!’ The current motto is ‘Onwards, through the impossible’.” The photographer says he was sceptical when he begun shooting the project in 2016: “Pioneer organisation had always been political in my day. To my surprise the new Pioneers are actually apolitical, something that’s not so common in Russia today. Of course, they have their opinions on various matters, and on several occasions I heard an argument or two — but these were based more on personal opinions than those of an organisation.”
The main draw is the prospect of making friends and being part of a community that is not online. “A lot of them are really engaged with volunteer work. There are those that are interested in theatre. Each year they organise at least one if not two performances. Several groups take excursions to go hiking or take part in water sports. Some of the kids even published their own newspaper, which is now available online. There are also all sorts of classes to choose from, from dancing to photography to time-management — the topics are always so varied.” There are also special classes on the history of Pioneer organisations and their traditions. Yet one of the most popular events is still song night. “It’s when everyone gathers around a guitar, sing songs, plays board games and just talks until dawn.”
But the fundamental difference is that these children are Pioneers by choice. “For me and these kids’s parents, this was a compulsory part of life — we didn’t have a choice in the matter. Some got kicked out but this was rare. You had to do something really bad for this to happen.” For these kids the sense of pride that comes with being Pioneer is in making something of their own free will.
Want more stories delivered to your inbox? Sign up to our newsletter here: