How Jean Paul Sartr was stunned in Moscow: The history of the Palace of Pioneers on Vorobyovy Gory

How Jean Paul Sartr was stunned in Moscow: The history of the Palace of Pioneers on Vorobyovy Gory
Moscow House of Pioneers game room. By S. Preobrazhensky and L. Porter. 15 May 1955.
Actor and filmmaker Sergei Nikonenko and musician and composer Sergei Zhilin used to study in Palace of Pioneers’ studios and hobby groups. Now they recall how it changed their destinies.

One of the most beautiful buildings among samples of Soviet modernism is the Palace of Child and Youth Creativity on Vorobyovy Gory (former Lenin Hills). Built in the late 1950s it was a symbol of simple, clean architecture that came to replace the heavy Stalinist empire style.

Houses of Pioneers started to appear in the USSR in the mid 1930’s and they were an important element of the education system – new people in a new country were brought up there. The Moscow Palace of Pioneers was attended by Rolan Bykov, Natalya Gundareva, Olga Kabo, Tamara Sinyavskaya and Vladimir Vasilyev. Today, studies continue at the Palace of Child and Youth Creativity on Vorobyovy Gory. Future actors and filmmakers, athletes and inventors know how the history of their favourite palace started.

Everything began with the House of Pioneers

The building on Vorobyovy Gory (formerly Lenin Hills) was the Moscow Pioneer organisation’s second building of the House of Pioneers. The organisation  established in 1936 had its first building as the House of Pioneers located at the mansion in Stopani Pereulok (now called Ogorodnaya Sloboda Pereulok) where children used to come and study after school. The children could find hobby groups based on their interests: science, technology, sports, environmental studies or art. The results of its work were impressive -- about 3,500 children attended the 173 hobby groups in 1937.

The literary circle stood out. Children were often visited by prominent children’s writers and poets including Arkady Gaidar, Lev Kassil, Samuil Marshak, Agnia Barto and Kornei Chukovsky. The place also had a theatre studio, dance school, sculptural, architectural and painting workshops. A chess club opened shortly before the Great Patriotic War, and it quickly became one of the best in Moscow.

Studies in the House of Pioneers did not stop during the war. On the contrary, children from many hobby groups helped the soldiers. The House of Pioneers took patronage of a hospital. Children made neck-pieces and tobacco pouches and performed concerts for the wounded.

The number of children who wanted to spend time in the House of Pioneers continuously grew. One of the former attendees, actor and filmmaker Sergei Nikonenko can’t imagine what his life would have been like if he hadn’t been attracted by the theatre studio at the House of Pioneers.

Sergei Nikonenko, actor, filmmaker and script writer, Merited Artist of the RSFSR. By I. Gnevashev. 1975.

“I’m infinitely grateful for my good luck, that I studied at the Moscow House of Pioneers when a small child. These were amateur talent activities but we had wonderful teachers. We loved them, and they loved us, too. This studio had many famous graduates: People’s Artist of the USSR Rolan Bykov, People’s Artist of Russia, conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre Valery Anisimov, People’s Artist of the RSFSR Gennady Pechnikov, People’s Artist of Russia  Leonid Nechayev who made the films “Adventures of Buratino” and “About the Red Riding Hood,” People’s Artist of Russia Viktor Tatarsky, People’s Artist of Russia and winner of the State Prize of the Russian Federation Avangard Leontyev, and Professor of the Shchukin Theatre School Vladimir Ivanov, to name a few. It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to my life if it hadn’t been for this opportunity because many of my classmates followed a criminal path. Their destinies were very sad. I’m grateful for my luck and was happy to have such a place where I always wanted to go and where I learned about the ideals of culture and dramatic art. Thank you for all this!”

About 35,000 children took part in concerts and performances at the House of Pioneers every month. Studies in groups continue as usual. It became obvious that there was not enough room in the small mansion and it was time for the pioneers to move to the palace.

How the centre was built

In 1958 the authorities decided to build a new Palace of Pioneers and Schoolchildren. The location, on Lenin Hills (now Vorobyovy Gory) , was picturesque. Funding was found instantly: the Sixth World Festival of Youth and Students was held the year before and there was money left over. The cornerstone was laid in October 1958. It can now be found to the left of the alley that leads to the main entrance.

The palace was designed and built by a team under the supervision of architect Igor Pokrovsky. This architect also worked on the Krasnopresnenskaya metro station several years earlier. He was assisted by students of the legendary architect, Ivan Zholtovsky, and by architects Felix Novikov, Viktor Yegerev, Vladimir Kubasov, Boris Palui and Mikhail Khazhakyan. The young architects (none were older than 35) were supposed to create something new, modern and spacious. The palace was built in the spirit of the times; the country was starting to counter architectural excesses.

The Central Committee of the Young Communist League spared nothing for building the new palace. The architects just had to ask for building and finishing materials, and they were provided with the best quality. In the meantime, many of these items were in short supply. Specialists and volunteers, including children, were also involved. They put things in order during unpaid weekends.

Moscow House of Pioneers and Schoolchildren on Vorobyovskoye  Motorway. By Yu, Artamonov, 1970.

Symbol of a new life

The Palace of Pioneers is visually light and simple with glass walls. It was very different from the pompous Stalinist buildings. The facades were decorated with mosaic panels. Apart from the mandatory Lenin profile and scenes from pioneers’ lives, there were metaphorical mosaics “Water,” “Land,” and “Air” that symbolised the victory of humanity over the elements.  The “pioneer bonfire” piece over the main entrance was made with stained glass, and the elements were made of silica bricks. The palace had concert and theatre halls, a winter garden and exhibit spaces.

The architects borrowed ideas from their foreign colleagues. The cupolas that crown the long gallery came from pieces by the great American dreamer Richard Buckminster Fuller. The undulant ceiling of the audience hall was inspired by the style of Finnish designer and architect Alvar Aalto. The Finnish “father of modernism” visited the Palace of Pioneers shortly before its completion. He came with a colleague from Brazil Lucio Costa and French writers Jean Paul Sartr and Simone de Beauvoir. The guests were stunned that such a huge building was made exclusively for children.

The palace opened in 1962, on 1June, International Children's Day. The opening ceremony was attended by First Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee Nikita Khrushchev. Five years later Igor Pokrovsky’s team became the first winner of the newly established RSFSR State Prize in architecture.

Piano player and conductor, Merited Artist of Russia Sergei Zhilin was among the children who came to study in the new building.

“My childhood and youth are linked with two institutions: the Moscow Palace of Pioneers and the Moskvorechiye House of Culture. I went to the palace when I was 10. Being a student of the Central Music School at the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire, I begged my mother to send me there because I was crazy about aviation. It so happened that apart from attending the model aircraft section, I happily rushed to the Young Muscovite Theatre and enthusiastically played in a band. In this respect the Palace of Pioneers was unique – it was possible to be creative, choose technical occupations or engage in other activities. We had an agitprop team from activists and we regularly staged scenes and plays and prepared concert programmes for commemorative dates and holidays. And of course, all of us wanted to take part in the contests and competitions. I even became Moscow champion in the air battle class among junior students”

The palace was rebuilt several times but its historical appearance has largely been preserved. A monument to the Boy Nipper Pipper from Gaidar’s book was installed in 1972. Since 2002 the palace has been on the cultural heritage list of protected buildings.

In 1992 the palace was changed to the Moscow Palace of Child and Youth Creativity. Over 27,500 children study there today in the centres of artistic, environmental, and military patriotic education or in the theatre laboratory, to name a few.


The photos are the courtesy of the Moscow Main Archives