Archive for the ‘memories’ Tag

Memories of my time in a post-Soviet Children’s Camp

Probably the most famous of the Soviet Union’s ‘Young Pioneers’ Children’s Camps was Artek, on the Crimean Peninsula. Positioned along the sparkling blue waters of the Black Sea, it was the first Young Pioneers camp, opened in 1925, and grew to become a vast complex, and an extremely prestigious place to go. In the European summer of 1996 I made my way to Artek to spend a few weeks as a guest vozhaty – group leader. I spoke a little bit of Russian and was up for an adventure. This weekend, Artek is celebrating its 90th birthday. Sveta, one of the vozhaty that I befriended there 19 years ago invited me to write an article with memories from my visit. This is what I wrote.

View of Artek from Ayu-Dag mountain

View of Artek from Ayu-Dag mountain

I arrived at Artek somewhat unceremoniously. It was late July, 1996. I’d flown to Odessa, and had planned to travel by train to Crimea. But then I met a group of other travellers in the visa queue who were also travelling to Crimea but by private bus. I asked if I could hitch a ride with them to the city centre because I had heard there was no public transport from the airport. Instead, they persuaded me to travel to Crimea in their bus with them. I agreed, but it was a big mistake on my part. It was an awful journey that took three times longer than they’d said it would. It was a Friday, and I had arranged to call the Artek office from Odessa before they finished work for the day to say what time I would arrive by train in Sevastopol. But the private bus never stopped so that I could phone. No-one had mobile phones in those days. I also had no chance to change money, so I couldn’t buy myself any food and had no water. It was a very bad decision and to this day I regret hitching a ride with that group of Germans, friendly though they were, and missing the chance to see Odessa and travel by train to Crimea.

They dropped me in Sevastopol the next morning, a Saturday, and as I’d been warned, I couldn’t contact the Artek people to say that I’d arrived, because the administrative office was closed. So I boarded a bus that was travelling to Hurzuf, which I knew was the nearest village. As an Australian, I was used to travelling independently, but it meant that I arrived at Artek (with the help of some friendly Hurzuf locals) with no prior warning, which I think was a bit of a shock and inconvenience for everyone.

Hurzuf/Гурзуф

Hurzuf/Гурзуф

Kiparisniy (Cypress) Camp is the camp that is closest to Hurzuf, and that is why I ended up at Kiparisniy Camp – because I could walk there. My visit to Artek had been organised by a youth exchange organisation in Riga, and I think I was supposed to go to Lazurny, or one of the more modern, flagship camps designed by famous Soviet architects. Kiparisniy was already full, with no spare beds. It was also old with lots of problems with the plumbing. But Kiparisniy Camp was beautiful with its tall cypress trees and views of the ocean, and the people I met welcomed me so warmly that I was happy nobody tried to make me move to another camp, once that first weekend had finished.

Meeting the vozhatie

It’s funny that most of my photos are of life in the dormitory shared by the camp’s group leaders (vozhatie) . It would appear that I never went anywhere else! But it is also appropriate, because my memories of Artek are mostly of the people.

Right from the beginning the wonderful, indefatigable, funny, kind Sveta took me under her wing, and we’ve remained friends ever since. She had less English than I had Russian, but she had patience and energy and ingenuity, and a very inclusive spirit. I remember her approaching me that first evening saying, “A bunch of us are going out to eat arbuz – Do you want to come?” I had no idea what arbuz was but I went anyway, and learned that arbuz meant watermelon. A group of us sat and ate slices of juicy watermelon and I played my clarinet for everyone, sitting outside, around the edge of a fountain. That was my first evening at Artek.

Tourist Games

One of the first excursions I went on during my Artek experience was to play what were described to me as “tourist games”. In English I think we would call it orienteering. I had never done anything like this before, and I’ve never done anything like it since. With another young woman who was also a short-term visitor I was taken by car to the middle of a forest, and, using some clues that made very little sense to me, had to find our way to an end point, out of the forest. Fortunately, vozhatie and older campers popped out from behind trees every now and then to help us along the way.

One of the tests we had to pass required us to use sticks and stones to ford a wide stream. We were hopeless – our feet got very wet. Another test required knowledge of different kinds of wood. A serious, slightly world-weary girl scout asked us to choose which from among three bits of wood was the one we should use to start a fire, and which to use to keep the fire burning. To me they all looked like random sticks, so I just guessed. The girl scout sighed heavily, and matter-of-factly told me that I had failed. In fact, this one (she pointed to it) was Wood Type X, and would be the quickest to catch alight, and that one (she pointed to another) was Wood Type Y, and was a slow-burning wood. So there. She let us go past anyway. Thank goodness. In the end my team failed the Tourist Games. I think we got collected by a bus at some point, because we were so slow and so far behind the other teams. I laugh at the memory now, because I know that I really had no idea what was going on, nor how to succeed!

Another excursion I remember was going on a walk to see the marble caves. I think this might have been on my second day at Artek – it was very early in my visit and I didn’t really know anyone. A girl named Luda befriended me that day, and Luda was a great companion for the rest of my stay.

Artek days were very, very long. The vozhatie got up very early, because they had to get their group of children up and out of bed – which meant rising before them. Then, in the evenings, after the children were sleeping, their free time began, so they would socialise and then go to bed very late. There was nap-time in the afternoons. But how did everyone keep their energy going?

The earliest start was the day that my group went to climb Ayu-Dag, the high “bear” mountain that overlooks the whole Artek complex. We left long before sunrise – maybe at 4am? We went first to the kitchen, where the staff had prepared packed lunches and bottles of boiled water for us (all the drinking water in Crimea had to be boiled at that time). We travelled awhile by bus – or did we walk from the camp? – and then we started climbing upwards. When we reached the mountain summit Sveta painted coloured stripes on our faces. These were to say that we’d climbed Ayu-Dag. On the walk down we had wonderful views across all of Artek.

Some of the Ayu-Dag group

Some of the Ayu-Dag group

Swimming in the Black Sea

I remember being fascinated by the daily swimming program. The sea water had been divided into lanes, with all the children’s groups assigned a lane each. When a whistle blew, they were allowed to run into the water. No-one was allowed to put their head under water (I wasn’t sure if this was so that they didn’t drown, or because of ear and eye infections). Time in the water was strictly monitored and when the whistle blew, the children had to get out again. During these rest times, I remember hunting for shells with some of the children. We tried to find shells that had dirochka – little holes – in them (you see, I still remember these words), that could be threaded onto leather strips and made into necklaces. Beaches are prominent in my Australian childhood memories, and the shell-gathering was a familiar activity for me. However, the restrictions around being in the water were very strange for me, and I admit I found the whole regimented process quite bizarre. Australia has a strong beach culture. We see access to beaches as something akin to a human right!

Arts and culture

There was so much skill and talent among the vozhatie and the children! I remember there was a ballroom dancing competition while I was there. A whole crowd of vozhatie took part. In Australia, there is no way a random group of trainee teachers and youth leaders would know how to ballroom-dance. And no way they would take part in a competition – unless it was supposed to be humorous. I have photos of the costume preparation – whole teams of vozhatie sewing black trousers and short red skirts for the dancers.

I remember some extraordinary young singers – they had won a local competition, and both first- and second-place getters had come to Artek as part of their prize. They were clearly on track to be the pop stars of the future. Also while I was there, a dancing troupe from Belarus was in residence, and gave several performances.

I remember playing duets with a young saxophonist named Vika. We played the Theme from Love Story [Legende Lyubimiy] together, with me improvising a harmony to her soaring melody. I led workshops for a small music group, and together we wrote songs and improvised. I also joined with two other vozhatie to sing lullabies every night in the dormitory for the 8-9 year olds. I loved doing this, and learned several Russian songs in 3-part harmony in the nightly singing sessions.

The singers, thumbing their way through my Russian dictionary

The singers, thumbing their way through my Russian dictionary

Life in the dormitory

Sveta celebrated her birthday during my time at Artek. She organised an elaborate party, with all sorts of tasty food and lots of Georgian wine. We re-arranged the girls’ dormitory to make it look festive and used every table in the building to make a long table in the centre of the room. Later, we hauled our mattresses up to the roof and slept outside, under the stars.

The vozhatie’s dormitory had some definite plumbing problems. I hope nobody minds that I remember this! For me, it was part of the adventure – but I was only there 2 weeks. Probably it was more annoying for everyone else. I remember the water only came out of the taps once in the mornings and once in the evenings. People would make sure to fill up all the buckets each day and we would use this stored water to make tea, wash hands, and flush the toilet. I loved the colourful labels that were on the bottles of Georgian wine we were drinking, and I remember soaking the labels off the bottles in the buckets of water, then drying them between the pages of my journal. People thought wine labels a fairly odd thing to collect, but I remember Sveta sending me some more labels, years later. Thinking back now, I’m not sure how hygienic it was to soak empty wine bottles in our water storage.

Hot water was more unpredictable. I learned that when someone yelled out “Goryachaya voda” (hot water) in the dormitory building, it was a cue for everyone to take advantage of the opportunity to have a hot shower. People would run into the corridors carrying towels, and head down to the basement showers. No-one could ever be sure how long the hot water would last. Goryachaya voda is Russian vocabulary that I learned in Artek, and that I have never forgotten!

Also ‘smyena’. It took me a long time to work out that there were two sitting sessions for each meal. I was supposed to know which smyena – first or second session – my group had been assigned each day. I didn’t understand this, and kept turning up whenever I was hungry. This meant that I was taking up a seat, and that someone who was supposed to be there didn’t get to sit down for their meal.

(Which reminds me – I also learned the word ‘poldnik’ (afternoon snack) at Artek. I loved poldnik – both the cuteness of the word, and what it meant. I can’t remember now what we used to eat, but I remember how nice it was to have a snack at that time of day).

Similarly, it was only at the end of my stay that I realised I was sleeping in someone else’s bed. That person had given up her bed to me, when I turned up at the camp all of a sudden, and was now sleeping somewhere else. That’s how welcoming and kind people were to me. I continually didn’t understand how the systems was supposed to work, and kept disrupting things. It must have been annoying for people, but no-one ever, ever let me know.

В Добрый Час, Друзья

By the end of my stay I felt like I had been drawn into an extended Artek family. When I continued my travels (to Kiev, and then to Lvov), the Kiparisny Camp Director arranged for me to stay with a former Kipirisny vozhaty, Katya. She and her family were so kind to me, welcoming me into their home and showing me their city. They then arranged for me to stay with their relatives in Lvov.

Director of Kiparisny Camp making a speech at the Farewell Concert

Director of Kiparisny Camp making a speech at the Farewell Concert

Because of Artek, I finally learned the irregular case endings for dyeti, children. S dyetymi, dlya dyetyei. And also for drug, friends. Druzya, s druzyami, dlya moyikh druzyei. These words were often needed, because I met lots of children, and I made lots of friends. At the final concert for that two-week holiday (the children arrived and left in 2-week batches) the vozhaty performed a song together – V Dobriy chas, Druzya (Good luck, friends). I think it was a popular song at the time, but not everyone knew the words. I remember one girl muttering the next set of lyrics at the end of each phrase for those of us that didn’t know the song, so that we could attempt to sing along. Nineteen years later, I can still remember the chorus.

Two decades later

Travelling to Artek and spending 2 weeks as a guest vozhatiye remains one of the most extraordinary things I’ve done in my life (and I’ve done a lot since then, working as a musician in post-war countries and using music as a tool for peace and recovery). When I meet Russians or people from the former Soviet Union, I delight in telling them, “I spent some time at Artek. Do you know Artek?” The older ones know the name, and are always impressed. The younger ones – well, maybe my pronunciation is bad, but when I asked my new Russian teacher (born in 1990) this question, he thought I was saying I’d been to the Arctic!

Thinking back to that time, nearly 20 years ago, we see how much has changed. In 1996, there was no internet. How did I even find out about Artek? Why was I so determined to go there myself? I was looking for adventure and unique experiences. I knew of its prestige and its history, and wanted to be part of something that had held such pride of place in the former Soviet system.

Artek seemed to me like this glorious social experiment of bringing diverse people together to relax, play, and learn. Because of its size, some people joked that it was another of the former Soviet Union’s autonomous republics. It had its own schools! And public transport system! But it also had, in my experience, a genuine openness to connecting diverse peoples, and exploring and celebrating all their common ground. Call it a multicultural policy, perhaps.

I still hope to go back. I loved Sveta’s descriptions of Artek at Christmas time, when it would still be 20 degrees each day, and the water would still be warm. I’m sure that I will go back one day (maybe for the 100th Birthday?), and when I do, I hope that the times will be more peaceful than they are now in that part of the world. It is devastating to read of the turmoil and suffering that has taken place in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea in recent times. But when I do return, I hope that Sveta and her friends will again take me to eat arbuz. We’ll dangle our feet in the fountain, share stories, and open ourselves to the different life experiences we all bring from opposite sides of the world, and be intrigued, inspired, and changed by each other once again.

Advertisements