Arts in New York City: Baruch College, Fall 2008, Professor Roslyn Bernstein
Random header image... Refresh for more!

My Mother: A Pioneer at Heart

Who was my mother before I was born? This is a question that I have not really confronted before, probably because I am always so busy with the present, and especially busy with thinking about what the future holds for me. While our country is in a deep recession, it is important to think about certain changes that I might possibly have to make to prepare myself for a grim future. However, this does not mean that the past holds no importance. Why do we study the past? Many historians might argue that learning the past can help us prepare for the future, because history repeats itself. Although this might hold true, this trend usually occurs every half- century or century at least. My mother is only 38 years old, so her past is not so far away. Nonetheless, memories can easily be forgotten, and in order to salvage these precious memories, I decided to learn more about what life was like during my mother’s childhood in the Soviet Union. All I can remember is the struggles of my parents during immigration to the United States, but was this future already in my mother’s mind in the 1970’s and 1980’s? Probably not. As I grow older, I begin to understand what kind of a person my mother is. She is caring and loving as a mother should be, but at the same time she is a fierce competitor, leader, and perfectionist. These qualities must have been instilled in her before I was born, so I wanted to delve into her past and see her growth, as she became the person that she is today.
My mother was born on November 4th, 1970 in Gomel, Belarus into the Jewish Kitaichik family. I have always laughed at her maiden name because the translation of Kitaichik means “Chinese person”. Although this was not a common family name she was never poked fun at in school. School was my mother’s most prominent and favorite memory from her childhood in the USSR. “When we were younger, we didn’t get as much homework as you do here. We had plenty of time for fun and after school activities,” she told me. Schooling was very different in the former Soviet Union than it is in the United States. My mother remembers everyone staying after class to complete a mandatory clean up of the classroom before being dismissed. This was not considered a chore among the students, but more like a fun activity to do together. Television was not very widespread in the country at this time. Cartoons played maybe once a week, so the children were never occupied with it. Instead, spending time with your neighborhood friends in the courtyards, or working for school was considered to be the fun things to do.
“I don’t think that school and life outside of it would ever be so much fun and entertaining if we weren’t all pioneers,” my mother said regarding her childhood. My mother, along with essentially all the other children in the country, was part of the Young Pioneer Organization of the Soviet Union, or Vsesoyuznaya pionerskaya organizatsiya imeni V. I. Lenina. This was an organization created in 1922 in order to promote the Communist Party. It lasted until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Although theoretically, membership was optional, every child in the country participated. From the start, this might seem like a cult, and as my mother explained the nuts and bolts of being a pioneer to me, I began to believe that this was all a brainwashing scheme. However, life was centered on this organization, and it really helped to shape my mother into the person she is today.
Prior to becoming a pioneer upon entering the third grade, all children were classified as “Oktyabryata”, meaning October, or Children of the Revolution. As these children were very young, they did not face many responsibilities yet. Coming into the third grade, you would go up in ranking to a pioneer. Being a pioneer, you had certain duties such as helping the elderly and doing community service. On holidays, you had to wear your special pioneer uniform with the organization’s red tie and Lenin pin. Once you turned 15, you would be indicted into the Komsomol, an even higher level in the organization. One was not forced to go past this level, however if you were an active “Komsomolets” and were well known and highly recommended by members of the party, you could go on and officially join the Communist Party. Joining the party was very highly regarded and not easy to do. It would give you certain benefits such as having better access to food products and discount prices. Everyone lived by this hierarchy that dominated their lives.
At school, the Oktyabryata as well the Pioneers would be divided into a group of five children that would be represented by a five point star. There would always be a student who was very smart and talented who was appointed as leader of the group, and the others would usually be weaker. The point of this was to allow the smarter child to teach the others. Also, this promoted fierce competition because the other children always felt inferior and in theory would strive to do better. “I loved helping the other kids and beating the rest of the class felt great. But it was essentially fun and games,” said my mother. My mother was always the top of her class. However, this translated into her being a mentor for the weaker children. She always attempted to manage the rest of her group of pioneers and lead them to “victory”. Besides doing well in school, the students often had competitions of who could collect more scrap metal or paper waste and bring it to the school. This may seem bizarre in the United States, especially in the modern world, but such was life in the USSR.
Upon reaching the Komsomol stage of the Pioneer Youth Organization, my mother became an activist. She took on the role of Komsorg of her class. A Komsorg is the person who is responsible for the whole class and has various responsibilities to fulfill. For example, if the class ever got punished for something, the Komsorg was the first to get reprimanded. She loved this position and fulfilled her duties very well, despite also having a ton of schoolwork by this point in her life. After graduation, at the age of 17, my mother became the Komsomol leader of her whole school. This was a government job that was only available to 18 year olds. This policy was actually heavily implemented, but considering my mother’s strong credentials and mass of recommendations, she got the job.
At this point in her life, she just graduated from school and was very well-known in the Youth Pioneer Organization not only in Gomel but even in surrounding cities. “I was very well-known. Who knows? If I stayed I could have been a politician,” she told me. My mother had what it takes to be a part of the Communist Party. She had all the necessary credentials and all the ambition in the world. But it was teaching that was her true passion. During her time as Komsomol leader of the school, she also landed a part-time teaching job. “I was jumping up and down from excitement. It was a dream come true.” For my mother this was truly a dream. One of the teachers was pregnant and took maternity leave, so my mother, in conjunction with her Komsomol work, taught 2nd grade students for about the three remaining months of the school year. She told me, “A good education shapes little children into good human beings.” My mother has always firmly believed in this assertion. Now I understand why she always pushed me so hard and was so worried about elementary school in this country. Since the age of fifteen she was positive that she wanted to be a teacher.
As my mother grew up in the Communist Soviet Union, things began to come into perspective. “We were constantly brainwashed into thinking that Communism is the best thing for us. However, as we got older, we realized that this was not true.” The USSR used the Youth Pioneer Organization as one of its many blindfolds to the Russian people. Unions funded free cultural ventures and extra-curricular activities such as theatre schools, music school, and summer camps. This blinded children. Life was fun. Competition fueled kids to do better and be their best. Life at home for the parents was different though. “I remember waiting in a kilometer long line for butter and milk with my mother and grandfather. There was never a guarantee that there would be enough food for everyone, but somehow this did not worry me or any of the other children.” What is often referred to as “bread lines” in America, these lines were often fun for kids. My mother recalls playing with the rest of the neighborhood kids while the parents and grandparents stood online for their rations. “Children were foolish,” my mother said. Only as they grew up and had to put bread and milk on the table for their family, did they realize that Communism does not bring the best possible life.
Although on average, life was not too comfortable for most citizens economically, my mother was rather well off. First of all, she lived only with her mother, and grandparents, since her father died when she was only a few months old. Both the mother and grandfather worked and therefore brought a steady income into the household. Plus, her grandfather (my great-grandfather), received discounts on food and various other benefits because he is a World War II veteran. Most importantly, no one in the household drank alcohol, as this was a leading cause for poverty in families. My mother told me, “Unfortunately, the majority of men were alcoholics. And if you have a drunk in the family, you could not afford to live well.” The budget was tight, and it could not be spent on such things. Being lazy would get you nowhere, but being a drunk would ruin your family’s life.
Clearly, life in the 70s and 80s in the former Soviet Union was very different than life, as we know it in the United States today. We are not familiar with cult-like government sponsored organizations, students burdened with cleaning up schools, or bread lines. Although Americans used to frown upon Communism and the party’s practices, my mother claims that it was this life that formed her into the person she is today. Competition was always intensely promoted in their youth groups and in school, which is why to this day my mother always tries to be the best of the best and has become a perfectionist in her work- environment and at home. Putting herself in a position of authority and responsibility for her whole childhood and adolescence translates into her outstanding management skills today. She is a senior project manager at the New York Mercantile Exchange and has risen through the ranks for twelve years, with only an Associate Degree from the Borough of Manhattan Community College. Last but not least, growing up in a non- materialistic society where happiness was not bought by money, rather was achieved by accomplishments and by tightly knit friendships as well as by loving families, my mother has become a hard-working and loving woman who would do anything for the happiness of her family, just as in tough times, her family did for her.