Children's Summer Camps Are Still Popular in Russia - As They Were in Soviet Times

Summer camps these days are not called 'pioneer' and there's no ideology attached but they are still popular with Russian kids. Carl Bromwich tells of his experience at a pioneer camp in Soviet Belarus

Every time I spotted the photographer from a local Minsk newspaper, I hurriedly positioned myself making a photo opportunity. Here I pretend to play chess'

Pioneer camps were a regular fixture for young recruits during those long Soviet summers, the communist equivalent to the scouts. Coordinated by Lenin’s Young Pioneer Organisation they stretched all the way to China and North Korea, where they remain to this day.

It’s estimated that 10 million children passed through 40,000 pioneer camps across the USSR during the 1960s and 1970s. This included foreign children, youngsters such as Carl Bromwich - a Yorkshire boy who got in touch with GuardianWitness to tell us about his summer of 1972 spent in a pioneer camp not far from Minsk.

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'Every morning one lucky pioneer would get the chance to raise the red flag to the sound of the Russian anthem played on an accordion'

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As far as Bromwich can establish, the camp was called Zubryonok. An online search for "pioneer camp near Minsk" throws up that name and when he contacted the Belarusian embassy they confirmed this was most probably the case, although they hadn't kept records as it was so long ago.

Bromwich credits the trip to his father. Brought up in poverty in Poland, Bromwich Sr rose through the ranks in the military, escaping Hitler’s invasion before making his way to the UK where he joined the Royal Air Force. He wasn’t in the Communist party, but had a completely different view of the world from his peers at the time. "He was left wing, an atheist, always anti-America," Bromwich says. "I think he wanted me to experience something a little bit different."

He made the trip, organised through the Polish Club in Bradford, with four other children from Yorkshire. He is unsure about the political background of the other children's families. "You’re totally unaware of politics of that age; you really wish now you had an older head on your shoulders."

They were greeted with the realities of the cold war soon into the trip when on the train they were awoken by east German border guards. Looking for contraband from the west, they seized Bromwich's month’s supply of chewing gum and his Beano album summer special.

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Arriving at Zubryonok, welcomed with flowers.

The rest of the journey proceeded without incident and on arrival they were presented with flowers and handed their uniforms: a white shirt and a red bandana neck tie. Bromwich describes the camp setting in the middle of the forest surrounded by pine trees, dotted with paintings of young pioneers "under Lenin's watchful eye".

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The uniform: a white shirt and a red bandana neck tie.

Mornings in the camp began with a bugle alarm and an exercise session, followed by breakfast and a quick change into uniforms for morning assembly. A pioneer was chosen each day "to raise the red flag to the sound of the Russian national anthem being played on an accordion", a daunting prospect for a shy boy from Yorkshire. Yet Bromwich was the only child picked to do the honours twice that year.

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' Every morning, we were were woken by a bugle and hurriedly changed into our gym attire for the exercise session'.

Bromwich recalls the games in the camp with fondness – "imagine doing the locomotion without the music, a train of children weaving in and out of the trees in the forest all singing". He loved the campfires, pretending to play chess and miming to songs he didn't understand (but later looked up online):

High rise our campfires into the blue night,

We are pioneers – the children of the workers,

Near is the time of our best years

And the pioneers’ motto is, ‘Always be ready!’

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The milk factory: 'Probably the most boring trip we went on ... If i remember correctly, a third of the milk was turned sour, a Russian delicacy'.

He also remembers the excursions on alternate days. They were presented to government officials, taken to swimming pools, and on a visit to the Khatyn memorial complex, honouring Belarusians who died in the second world war. They were shown around a milk factory, given a talk about quotas and visited a state-run farm. 

There was local media interest in Bromwich and the other foreign children, with regular visits from a photographer at a newspaper based in Minsk and interview session with a local radio station. He remembers being shown the newspaper with his photograph, complete with Lenin and the star in the top corner.

Bromwich has overwhelmingly warm memories of his time in Belarus: "One thing that really stood out is how friendly everybody was … you always felt really welcome". He didn’t like the food but that could be said of a lot of 11-year-old boys on trips abroad. He’d love to go back.

Pioneer camps all but crumbled with the Soviet Union, with only a few testimonies available online. Bromwich was inspired to submit his story after reading about the "Guardian New East" network, which launched with a report from Belarus. He tried to make contact with two other children he travelled with, but to no avail – yet.

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Bromwich's certificate 'for creative success and active participation in the development of artistic independence'.

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