Eternal youth: Pages of history from the Pioneer Palace

Eternal youth: Pages of history from the Pioneer Palace
Photo: The Main Archive Department of Moscow
On December 7, 2016, the Moscow Palace of Young Pioneers at Vorobyovy Gory celebrated its 80th anniversary. Over half a million young Muscovites found friends here. For many, it was a place that determined their future career. Mos.ru and the Main Archive Directorate of Moscow look back on the history of this extraordinary organisation.

Before the palace there was a house

The Moscow House of Young Pioneers and Octobrists opened in 1936 at 6 Stopani Pereulok (now Ogorodnaya Sloboda Street at the Chistye Prudy metro station). Everybody knew this extracurricular activity centre, which was known as Gordom or Stopani House for short. Vozhaty magazine for teachers and managers of the Communist youth organisation called it “one of the first laboratories in the Soviet state for cultivating a new human being and an educated citizen of the Socialist homeland.”

Moscow House of Young Pioneers and Octobrists on Stopani Pereulok. Photo taken in the late 1930s. Photographer: Tsukner. Main Archive Directorate of Moscow

The House of Young Pioneers was based at a beautiful estate that belonged to the Vysotsky family before the Revolution. The family owned one of the largest tea trading companies in Russia. Boris Pasternak often visited the house as a student. He fell in love with the owner’s daughter and soon became not just a tutor but a friend of the family. Later, the building was taken over by trade unions, the Central Club of Communications Workers and the Senior Bolshevik Society.

For children, the building was redecorated in order to replace “merchants’ bad taste and luxury,” with an interior more in the spirit of the time. Historian Vladimir Kabo described it as “a beautiful white Renaissance estate surrounded by an old garden. In a huge hall, I was greeted by a panel painting with smiling Stalin holding a dark-haired girl. There was a fountain in the middle of the hall and on New Year’s Eve there was always a tall illuminated Christmas tree. Doors from the hall opened onto a concert hall and a cafeteria decorated as a grotto. First I climbed the stairs to the lecture hall on the first floor, where we had lectures on various topics and met with prominent writers. There was also a room with frescos depicting scenes from folk tales. The second floor was where our literary studio meetings were usually held.”

Only a year after the opening of the Pioneer House, there were 173 hobby groups with 3,500 students. The building was too small for all of them and the organisation took over the building next door (number 5) for technical workshops, including a young inventors’ club, aeromodelling and woodworking classes, and six labs (railway and water transport, telecommunications, photography, chemistry and energy). Technical and engineering industries were a priority in the Soviet Union during the industrial development era.

The classes for children were hands-on and advanced enough to train children for a future career. For example, the railway lab included a functional model of a metro station with electric trains, escalators and a dispatcher station. There was also a locomotive for a railway model to be installed in the garden – but the war interfered.

Not just engineering

Creative hobby groups were also quite popular. The House of Young Pioneers had its own orchestra, choir, music school, dance studio, drama studio, puppet theatre, sculpting and architecture design workshops and writing and painting classes. The song and dance company alone had 500 members in 1937. The production of The Tale of the Dead Princess and the Seven Knights for the Alexander Pushkin Festival involved 750 children.

Dance class at the Moscow House of Young Pioneers. December 1955. Photo by M. Filimonov. Main Archive Directorate of Moscow

Frequent guests at the writing studio included Samuil Marshak, Agniya Barto, Lev Kassil, Arkady Gaidar, Ruvim Frayerman, Kornei Chukovsky and others. It's no wonder, then, that the studio produced some famous writers, including Yury Trifonov, Sergei Baruzdin and Anatoly Aleksin. The drama studio was also proud of its students, among whom were directors Stanislav Rostotsky and Alexander Mitta, and actors Natalya Gundareva, Lyudmila Kasatkina, Igor Kvasha and Rolan Bykov. Actor Sergei Nikonenko recalled: “The House had an atmosphere of kindness and dedication. We all selflessly loved our teachers. We had a common cause. We never felt forced to study like at school. We wanted the same thing as our teachers, to do the best we could. They did not believe that childhood is a transition time to a real adult life. They knew that childhood is real life. They respected the personality in each of us.”

The House of Young Pioneers put a major emphasis on teaching Russian and Soviet history and geography, especially Moscow studies. It was not all just classroom work. History students visited the Hermitage reserves to learn about ancient culture. In summer, they would go on archaeological diggings in Crimea. Geography students toured the Moscow Region and the Caucasus.

Physical fitness was also part of the learning process but mainly for applied courses. Inspired by the era, military-themed sports competitions and patriotic game movements were becoming popular. In December 1936, a pioneer regiment was created to train future snipers, tank crews, paratroopers, horse soldiers, paramedics and dog and pigeon handlers. In 1938, a defence unit was created, which later was renamed a “military” unit, with shooting classes, a naval lab, chemical weapon protection and air defence instructor classes and machine gun and grenade launcher training.

Before the war, the organisation also started a chess club that later grew into one of the strongest chess schools in Moscow. Young chess players published their own handwritten newspaper, and participated in tournaments and simultaneous displays with famous grandmasters.

Girls during a simultaneous display with Soviet chess champion Yelizaveta Bykova at the Moscow House of Young Pioneers. December 13, 1940. Photo by N. Agafonov. Main Archive Directorate of Moscow

A creative space

Everything that could attract and amaze children was gathered in the small territory of the House of Young Pioneers. Want to roller skate? Here’s a paved road by the gate. Kids also rode there in pedal cars, for which a parking lot was built later on.

 Want to read or do your lessons outdoors? Here are comfortable benches on shady alleys. Want to play? Head to the sports grounds. You don’t even need to go to the zoo:  there is a garden with fruit trees that had a pool with waterfowl, and a pet’s corner close by with cages for young animals and a small stable with a foal. The space of the Pioneer House was a true masterpiece of landscape design.

Most important, the entire House of Young Pioneers was a unified whole, a vast artistic lab where captivated people inspired and recharged each other. Historian Nikolai Merpert recalled: “This House … was a very precious and serious institution in the best sense of the word. Most different hobby groups communicated with each other. They had a wonderful theatre hall where we usually met, and a host of halls, passages and cozy nooks – this old brick mansion on Stopani Pereulok was rebuilt famously well. So we socialised very closely with the youth theatre that was established at that time and was led by great directors, and with geography and Moscow history clubs.”

Adult aid during the war

Despite all difficulties, the hobby groups of the House of Young Pioneers were open during the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945). For the most part they were hobby groups which could help the front – of seamstresses, carpenters, locksmiths and electricians. But creative circles were also active, especially the dance and drama studios, and choir. Budding artists performed concerts for Red Army soldiers.

In January 1942 the House assumed patronage over an army hospital. Carpenters made cigarette holders for wounded soldiers, seamstresses made tobacco pouches, collars and handkerchiefs. For holidays, Young Pioneers collected books and gramophone records for soldiers and presented them with a record player and a slide film projector. Children brought soldiers stationery – envelopes, postcards, paper and pencils – and took dictation from them to write letters to their families. They also read newspapers to the wounded. Young artists decorated with their drawings not only the hospital’s premises but also the carriages of an ambulance train.

Pioneer Tuesdays and Fridays became a good tradition. Members of hobby groups held parties in the hospital, where they sang songs, danced, put on theatre acts and read excerpts from stories. They also served as postmen, bringing fresh newspapers and letters.

Pioneers did all this so easily and joyfully that hospital patients were always looking forward to meeting them again. Even the hospitals’ commissars, who were at first skeptical about this help, admitted in a few months that the House of Young Pioneers was a real patron.

In addition, during the war, the House continued to render methodological and practical aid to extracurricular education facilities and children’s institutions in all districts of Moscow. It drafted academic programmes and trained Pioneer leaders and instructors.

After the war: Patriotism and the expansion of borders

After the war, the country experienced an unprecedented patriotic upsurge. Interest in national history was mounting again. The House of Young Pioneers focused on history circles. They were particularly active during the preparations for the capital’s 800th anniversary in 1947. The Society of Young Historians, established in November 1945, united the efforts of the House of Young Pioneers and history circles in schools.

Society members read lectures and took part in excursions and trips, archaeological excavations and various contests. In 1946, school students sent in 25,000 artistic works devoted to Moscow’s history, and in 1947 their number went up to 80,000. These were stories, verses, drawings, models, embroidery patterns and photos.

The Ministry of Education conferred many awards on the society for its large-scale activities, including a library of historical literature and trips around the country. History circles continued to be active later as well. A contest, “Moscow’s Wonderful People,” was held in 1948 and a citywide school conference on Moscow history took place in April 1956.

Other studios and labs were also developing. According to statistics, over 3,000 school students attended the House in the first postwar year. The number of concert performers and participants in contests, sports festivals and other large-scale events went up to 35,000 a month.

 

Participants in a meeting of young tourists from across the country walking in the garden of the Moscow City House of Young Pioneers. August 1946. Photo by E. Yevzerikhin. Main Archive Directorate of Moscow

In the late 1950s, it became clear that the House of Young Pioneers did not have enough room for all children who wanted to attend it. In his 1956 report, Director of the Young Pioneer House V. Strunin wrote: “As it is, not more than 3,800–4,000 children can attend study and hobby groups at our House of Young Pioneers at any one time… Should we have the appropriate conditions, we could bring the number of singers in the choir alone up to 2,000–3,000…  Given schoolchildren’s desire to be involved in creative amateur activities and the significant role that hobby and study groups play in the education of pupils, we need to ensure that an extensive network of study and hobby groups is created at each school and to move faster to resolve the issue of building a new Young Pioneer House in Moscow.”

Thinking big

In 1958, the Central Council of the USSR National Young Pioneer Organisation took a decision to build not just a new Young Pioneer House – it had to be a Palace of Young Pioneers and Schoolchildren at Leninskie Gory. The commemorative stone for the new project was laid later that same year, on 29 October, when the country was marking the 40th anniversary of the creation of the VLKSM [the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League]. Today, the stone can be seen to the left of the alley running towards the main entrance to the palace.

A beautiful location on the high bank of the Moskva River not far from the Vorobyovskoye Motorway (currently called Kosygina Street) was chosen for the project. However, it proved more difficult to choose the project from several dozen compelling bids. Finally, the winning bid was announced. It had been submitted by a team of young architects led by Igor Pokrovsky and with Mikhail Khazhakyan among its members. Mikhail Khazhakyan at one time took part in the reconstruction of the building of the Moscow City House of Young Pioneers and Octobrists on Stopani Pereulok.

The project was so unusual and innovative that its architects held out little hope that they could ever implement it, thinking it might have been their daring that had attracted the jury. First, the architects wanted the new building to contrast with the palaces of the past, which, despite their pomp and grandeur, were hardly suitable for children’s studies. Second, they wanted the building to smoothly blend in with the existing green landscape, and to achieve this they had dismissed the idea of symmetric design. Later, already at the construction stage, the original plan was revised several times. Third, guided by safety and aesthetic considerations, the architects planned to build the palace further from the motorway, on a lawn hidden deep in the grove. To evoke the feeling of being close to nature, “there should be less massive stone masonry and more stained glass and transparent glass walls.”  

When built, the palace was scattered fancifully over the park and had a free-style composition. The walls were decorated with monumental multicoloured pictures featuring pioneer emblems: a campfire, a bugle and stars. The flank fronts bore pictures symbolising the exploration of nature by the man: Water, Earth and Sky. Even the front square outside the palace was not paved over with concrete or asphalt, but remained an area of freshly planted grass divided by paths of white stone. A 60-metre flagpole at the centre of the composition made the area around it look like a magnificent ship.   

The building of the Moscow City Palace of Young Pioneers and Schoolchildren at the Vorobyovskoye Motorway. 1970. Photo by Y. Artamonov. Main Archive Directorate of Moscow

The winter garden has become one of the palace’s main attractions: “It’s associated with space, air, light and height. And, of course, palms, araucarias, lianas and papyrus. However, these exotic plants need normal tropical conditions to grow. The tropics were created using a special automated system for heating up the soil, water and air. We also had to think about the play of sunlight on the greenery and glass cupolas, through which visitors could see the sky, and also about installing a basin with aquatic plants, a fountain and a metal screening panel separating a pass-through gallery from the winter garden. We made a fine ornamental screening panel with fish, birds and insects on it, to make it blend in with the rest of the interior.”  

 

Construction started on a large scale in 1958, with 18 design organisations and over 300 suppliers of building materials, trimming, engineering structures, equipment and furniture commissioned for the project. In addition to hundreds of skilled workers across 40 occupations, over 50,000 young men and women from all across the country volunteered to do unpaid work on Saturdays and Sundays over the four years that construction lasted. According to official statistics, schoolchildren and students worked over three million man-hours at the site. When construction was completed, over 2,000 trees and about 100,000 flowers were planted outside the palace.

The Palace of Young Pioneers and Schoolchildren was unveiled on International Children’s Day on 1 June 1962. The opening ceremony was attended by First Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Nikita Khrushchev. According to eyewitnesses, he said: “I don’t know what other people will say, but I like this palace.”

In 1967, the architects and designers of the Palace of Young Pioneers were awarded the RSFSR [the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic] State Prize. However, probably the best prize for them was the words of prominent French architect Bernard Zehrfuss. He said: “I consider architecture to be truly good if, being modern [for its time], it doesn’t lose the signs of modernity even many years later. I’m sure that the building at Leninskie Gory will stand the test of time.”

The tests of time

Following the opening of the complex at Leninskie Gory, the Moscow City House of Young Pioneers on Stopani Pereulok was renamed the Krupskaya District Palace of Young Pioneers and Schoolchildren (now called the Palace of Children and Youth’s Creativity in the Central Administrative Area). 

The Palace of Young Pioneers (today the area where it is located is called Vorobyovy Gory) has more than doubled in size in 50 years: while in 1962 it had 400 rooms, now it already has about 900 rooms measuring a total of almost 40,000 square metres. About 27,500 children between the ages of three and 18 attend laboratories, studios, art and engineering workshops and sport schools and classes at the palace, including its branches. In all, there are over 1,300 study groups in 10 disciplines: science and culture, engineering, art, social creativity, information technology, environmental studies, ethnography, physical fitness and sport. Classes at 93 percent of all workshops are free.

The palace changed its status and name several times: in 1992, it was renamed the Moscow City Palace of Children and Youth’s Creativity; in 2001, the Moscow City Palace of Children’s (Youth’s) Creativity; and in 2014 and 2015, it was reorganised into a government-funded professional educational institution Vorobyovy Gory, which, in addition to the palace, has 16 educational institutions, including childcare centres, schools, a professional technology college and extracurricular education centres.

Pilot-Cosmonaut of the USSR, two-time Hero of the Soviet Union Alexei Leonov visiting an art workshop at the Moscow City Palace of Pioneers and Schoolchildren. October 1981. Photo by I. Goldberg. Main Archive Directorate of Moscow.

Today, the palace remains essentially the same: there are people working there who are deeply interested in what they are doing. They help children and young men develop their skills and talents and find their bearings and paths in life.

Also, the palace, which can receive up to 20,000 people at any one time, is ideally suited for holding festive events. Children and their parents go there to celebrate Christmas and the New Year, Family Day, Children’s Day and City Day or attend Children’s Book Week, and Game and Toy Week events. Of course, to mark the palace’s 80th anniversary, a spectacular festival was held on 7 December.