Autumn 1999 (7.3)
No More Red Pioneer Ties!
Untying the Soviet Noose Around Our Necks
by Aynur Hajiyeva
Anyone paying close attention to the nuance of symbols could have predicted the demise of the Soviet system several years before it actually happened. One such indicator was the disappearance of those bright red Pioneer ties. In a sense, the Pioneer program was the Soviet equivalent of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, except that it was sponsored by the government and thoroughly integrated into the school system. Pioneers also served as a preliminary indoctrination for Communist Party membership, which would follow years later for the privileged few.
Photo: The long-awaited moment of receiving the red Pioneer tie, shown here at the Lenin Museum (1962). National Archives.
In January 1990, almost two years before the official announcement of the collapse of the Soviet Union (December 1991), Azerbaijan suffered the dark days of what has become known as "Black January" when Soviet tanks entered Baku and opened fire, killing hundreds of innocent civilians. This was Gorbachev's brutal attempt to crush the independence movement in Azerbaijan. But the plan backfired and, in fact, served to accelerate the independence movement. Many of the most devout Communist Party members became disillusioned and did the unthinkable-set fire to their Party ID cards. It was a shocking reaction-like severing ties to all of your lifetime achievements.
It wasn't long before the children also began untying those red ties from around their necks, disassociating themselves from the Soviet system as well. Here university student and former Pioneer Aynur Hajiyeva (1980- ) explains the meaning that was bound up in those pieces of red cloth that now are so obsolete.
Pioneer ties were the ultimate status symbol for kids like me. The ties were simple triangles of red cloth made out of some sort of nylon material that was forever wrinkling. But they soon took on deeper levels of association for us. They were our initiation into the power of symbols.
Being a Pioneer was the second step up the ladder to becoming a member of the Communist Party. Children in Grades 1-4 were called "Octobrists" (October refers to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia). By Grade 5 when most students were about 10 years old, the brightest and best were invited to become "Pioneers".
National Archives Photos - Left: Pioneers parade in Lenin Square in Baku on the occasion of Lenin's 94th birthday (1964).
Eventually everyone in the class would sport the red ties, but this was our first taste of hierarchy in a society that touted egalitarianism.
Between Grades 8-10, everybody became Komsomols. Eventually, at the final stage, some were invited to enter the privileged world of the Communist Party.
National Archives Photos - Left: Pioneers meeting at Baku's school No. 64 (1951).
Most kids didn't become Pioneers until they were 10 or 11 years old. I was seven because I had started school early and had also skipped a grade. Nevertheless, I was the first student in my class chosen to be a Pioneer. I considered it my first major achievement in life. As I look back, I'm sure my teachers used me as an example to prod the other kids, "Look how young and studious she is. She's a Pioneer. Study hard and you can be one, too!"
Becoming a Pioneer was really a big deal. Our inaugural ceremony was held in the schoolyard. How tall and straight we tried to stand-just like soldiers. We had practiced our military salutes with swift precise movements, positioning our hands at just the right angle. I remember taking the solemn oath to become a Pioneer:
"Here in the presence of my classmates,
In the presence of my Pioneer leader,
And my Motherland,
I make this oath.
I am becoming a Pioneer.
I promise not to do anything
that would blemish the name of the Pioneers.
I'll be brave.
I'll help my friends when they're in trouble.
I'll study well.
I'll try to do my best for my Motherland.
I'll always protect my Motherland."
And then, the long-awaited moment came when my Pioneer leader put the red tie around my neck-I was so proud. I remember how I never wanted to take it off. I would go strutting around and showing it off to everyone, especially when I first got it.
Whenever I went for a walk with my father, he would ask, "Isn't it too hot for you to wear that?" I would reply, "No, not at all," Never mind the scorching heat, I didn't want to take it off-ever!
There were so many rules to follow. The right tip had to extend down further than the left tip. I can't remember exactly what that was supposed to mean, but we had to strictly observe it.
My tie was always slipping around my neck. My Pioneer leader would fuss at me: "Do you think you're a cowboy? Look like a real Pioneer! Adjust your tie!" I would do my best to fix it, but never managed to succeed for long.
I remember how the material used to wrinkle so easily. If a single drop of water accidentally got on the tie, it would bleed and leave a stain, making it look like you hadn't washed it for ages. Most Pioneers washed and ironed their ties every night.
We wore our ties to school every day without exception. I'll never forget: once I was late and just as I was running into the school building, I realized: "Whoops! No tie." I was just about to race out the door and home again when the Pioneer leader caught me.
"Where's your Pioneer tie?" she scolded. She would accept no excuse. "No matter what happens, you must never forget your tie! Go and write a composition about Lenin's life. Make it at least two pages long." I was seven years old at the time.
So I ran home, tears streaming down my face. It had been an innocent mistake but I felt ashamed. I had simply been in a hurry and forgotten my tie. Luckily, I found a composition I had already written about Lenin for one of my classes. I grabbed it, put on my tie and ran back to school again.
Our fascination with ties didn't last long. We were growing up in the 1980s and our country was beginning to take its first steps toward independence. Beginning in 1988, there were massive demonstrations held in Lenin Square (now "Freedom" or "Azadlig Square").
For the first time, our parents and teachers began to complain about the difficulties of the Soviet period. They dared to tell us that the Russians were not really our friends, and that our country needed to get out from under the oppressive rule of what was, in truth, the Russian Empire in the guise of the "Soviet Union".
We had never heard such things before. We had grown up with slogans like "Lenin is great. He is our grandfather." I still remember some of the poems dedicated to Lenin's memory.
"With red flags in our hands,
We are fighting on the path that Lenin made.
We are fighting,
We are working on the path that Lenin made for us."
Needless to say, we didn't fully understand the content of the poems. Another poem was more symbolic.
"Let there be sun forever.
Let there be sky forever.
Let there be my mother forever,
And I will be forever."
The sun, of course, meant the Soviets and mother meant Motherland. The poem seemed simple, but its meaning was deeper. We gradually began to understand its symbolism.
We had classes where they taught us "Soviet History"-that's what they called it, but really it was Russian history. The other 14 republics were barely ever mentioned. What happened in the other 14 republics before the Soviets took over? What about Azerbaijan? We were denied the right to know our own history. For example, we were never taught that Yerevan (now Armenia) used to be populated mostly by Azerbaijanis. As far as the history of Azerbaijan was concerned, they only told us about the prehistoric period.
After the Black January tragedy of 1990, everyone understood Russia's true position toward us. The relationship and trust had been destroyed. Our country went into mourning for 40 days. Classes were canceled. Black flags and strips of black cloth hung everywhere-from cars, windows, trees-to remind us of our people who had been so viciously murdered by the Soviet troops. Officially, 156 had died in the attack. A more accurate figure might be 500.
When classes finally resumed, I wasn't sure if I should still wear my red tie or not. I started wondering: "Why should I wear this red tie? What does the Soviet system have to do with me? How could they kill their own people?"
I decided to ask our Pioneer leader: "Do we have to wear these ties anymore, now that the Soviets are treating us so badly?"
Her answer was very revealing. She paused and then confessed, "You know, I'm not sure."
In the past, if I had posed such a bold question, she would have yelled at me, "What are you talking about? What's your problem with wearing it? Oh, I can't believe you! Of course you have to wear it!"
But this time, her uncertainty could not be hidden. "We'll talk about it later," she told me.
Here was our Pioneer leader-a woman who had held such a strong belief in our country-and now her own confidence and trust in the system had been shaken. Her hesitation signaled that something was dreadfully wrong. Even a child could figure that out.
No More Ties
No one told us to stop wearing the ties when we returned to school. It just happened gradually. One day, two students showed up not wearing them; the next day, three more. That's the way it went until before long, the majority of students had stopped wearing them.
I continued wearing mine for awhile but then I stopped. No one ever asked: "Why aren't you wearing your red tie today?"
Even though we were very young, we understood that the ties around our necks were more than red pieces of cloth. They had become nooses that strangled our own identity and our own security and safety.
Some Pioneers burned their red ties; others threw them away. I just took
mine off and set it aside. I think it's in a pile of old clothes somewhere. I'm not exactly sure anymore. It seems so long ago and far away.
Aynur Hajiyeva is in her final year of studies in linguistics at the Azerbaijan State Institute of Languages. She is a member of the Editorial Staff of Azerbaijan International magazine.
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