Interdom at Eighty: Reflections in Russia, on Dreams Old and Renascent

Russia, as travelers have noted over the centuries, is immense.  Most of it is far from large bodies of water.  And yet, in a first visit after many years, I came upon some unusual islands right in the heart of the country.  But they were not islands in the geographic sense.  Some were children’s islands.

Moscow, a giant metropolis, was now far less insular than in the distant past when I had last seen it.  Indeed, it had become seemingly engulfed by the modern world of advertising — the signs and billboards sometimes nudged toward a Times Square level.  Many goods offered were of Russian make, but logos all too familiar in almost every city I know were here as well: KFC, Subway, (perhaps most intrusive) the ubiquitous McDonald’s.  I saw huge billboards advertising two films: Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3.  Many company names gleamed defiantly in our western alphabet and original English (or French or, with car brands, German).  Others, lettered in Cyrillic, were unusual approximations (like real estate ads for “Tauen-Hausi”).  T-shirts with logos from the USA were as overabundant as elsewhere in the world.  Two other features of Moscow today (absent completely from my recollections of visits in Soviet days): Furniture shops of every imaginable kind — except perhaps an inexpensive kind.  (The one less expensive exception, never in Cyrillic letters, was IKEA.)  And even more widespread than furniture shops were banks, banks, banks.

Big Moscow has its beauties.  I found the powerful, red-brick Kremlin with its towers more impressive than in all my recollections or television views of it and, next to it, the broad Red Square with its Lenin mausoleum and the Kremlin wall with interred urns, among them, meaningful to very few, the three American leftists “Big Bill” Haywood, Charles Ruthenberg, and John Reed.  Across the square was the expansive GUM department store — today one would say “mall” — with its delicately graceful architecture but now with overly-bright ads and astronomically-priced luxury goods.

New for me was the cluster of modern, curving skyscrapers, undoubtedly impressive to their owners and probably to many Muscovites as well.  To my prejudiced eyes they seemed more appropriate to my own Manhattan than to this distant old metropolis.  An expat who lived here viewed them simply as the tallest, boldest illustrations of Moscow’s rapid commercialization or “Westernization.”

Another facet, rarely noticeable in Soviet years, was now perhaps even closer to the heavens and almost equally omnipresent — namely the Church.  Yes, a few edifices were impressive then too: many-colored Saint Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square, built for Ivan the Terrible, and the massively walled-in Novodevichy (New Maiden’s) Convent, built for Peter the Great (or for his errant sister and wife), had always competed for breathtaking beauty.  But onion-shaped church towers, large and small, often in shining gold, seemed to have multiplied in all directions.  Crowning them all was the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the world’s largest Orthodox church, built for a series of XIXth-century tsars, torn down by Stalin (for its plentiful gold), replaced by Khrushchev with the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool, and then rebuilt for pious Christians after 1990.  Unlike that constantly warm swimming pool, the cathedral left one rather cold, I felt, but then I am no pious Muscovite.  When I asked my expat friend which influence was now stronger here, commercialization or religion, she answered: “Both!”

But then there were the islands mentioned above, which harked back to the past.  The Museum of the Great Patriotic War, an imposing, quite new building, necessarily based on Soviet times, offered dramatic dioramas of key events during the war: Leningrad, the decisive battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, the Dnieper crossing, the liberation of Berlin.  In the dimly lit Hall of Remembrance and Sorrow countless filaments with small glass beads hung from the ceiling, symbolizing tears for the dead.  Even more moving for me was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside the Kremlin, also dedicated to those killed during World War II.  It has a bronze laurel branch and a soldier’s helmet laid upon a banner near an eternal flame; dark red stone blocks bear the names of embattled cities: Leningrad, Kiev, Stalingrad, Odessa, Sevastopol, Minsk, Brest, Murmansk, Smolensk. . . .  Each one brought dim recollections of high school days when we waited for daily newspaper maps, in the first years with mounting fear in our hearts, and then with growing hopes.  We had learned from films and books what terrible prices had been paid for victories, and I could now not restrain some tears.  Only later I recalled my personal gratitude: had those long-past sacrifices been fewer, or victories slower, only a few more months of war in Europe would have meant a uniform for me — and possibly the cruel fate suffered by at least one member of my family.

Then off to another island, also separate from commercialism and Orthodox religiosity.  It was the broad terrain of the “Moscow City Palace for Youth Creativity,” today’s complex name for the Palace of Young Pioneers, founded here in 1936 and improved in 1962 with what was then the most modern set of buildings possible, with large glass walls, a winter garden with tropical plants, colorful glazed murals, and a maze of studios, workshops, labs, an auditorium, a concert hall, a stadium, grounds for sports, a swimming pool, a pond, and a nature trail.  Twelve hundred groups and clubs for under-18 youngsters in their free time, for everything from astronomy to visual arts, from ecology to car driving, were (with only a few exceptions) free of charge.  One room was crowded with every imaginable game of skill or intelligence — but not a single electronic game.  This “Palace” was an echo of the past; was it viable today?  Was it somehow meaningful?

With traffic jams reaching well out into the suburbs, it took our bus over seven hours to reach the city of Ivanovo, only 250 km away (about 150 mi).  A large city, the size of Miami with 400,000 inhabitants, it was once Russia’s main textile center, like Manchester in England or Lawrence and Lowell in the USA.  But as in so many textile cities outside Asia, the industry died almost completely.  To a visitor, Ivanovo seems a conglomerate of big, empty factories, tall apartment buildings from the Soviet era contrasting with streets lined with traditional little wooden homes, some with skillful wood carvings on eaves or windows and glimpses of comfortable interiors, others, hardly more than log cabins, empty and falling apart.  Here and there a statue echoed past revolutions and wars — the mostly female textile workers of Ivanovo ignited the Revolution of 1905 — in contrast with recent, modern architecture and signs of western culture like those Hollywood films we saw advertised in Moscow.

We finally arrived at our destination on the town’s outskirts, a complex of eight handsome buildings comprising the unusual school known as Interdom, short for “International House,” whose 80th anniversary ceremonies the mixed German, Spanish, and Russian group I had joined was here to share in.

Interdom’s founding was linked with Germany, especially with the small town of Elgersburg in Thuringia.  Here, in 1924, Communist Party leader Wilhelm Pieck — 25 years later the president of the German Democratic Republic — opened a “Red Aid” home for the children of people persecuted for their leftist views and actions, mostly German but also Bulgarian and Austrian.  In those extremely difficult times a large number of the children were undernourished, some were rachitic, not a few had tuberculosis.  This was a both a school and a place to recuperate, regain health — and keep the leftist views of their parents.  Although supported by famous sponsors like Einstein, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, stage director Erwin Piscator and the artists Käthe Kollwitz, Max Liebermann, and Otto Dix, pressure from the government of Thuringia increased rapidly; its Social Democratic-Communist coalition government had been driven from office by German government troops in October 1923.  And as the Nazis grew stronger and stronger the school was increasingly endangered.

The International Red Aid, abbreviated MOPR in Russia and called International Labor Defense in the USA (where it grew from the fight to save Sacco and Vanzetti and led the campaign to save the nine “Scottsboro Boys” in Alabama), now stepped in with the offer, supported by the textile workers of Ivanovo, to replace the German school with a new one in their city.  By the time the Nazis came to power this had become a dire necessity.  Money was collected in the whole Soviet Union and the new school opened in the spring of 1933.

Its original intention was to provide a home for children forced to flee, with or without their parents, from countries ruled by fascist or similar dictatorships.  Among them were some whose parents became very famous, like Mao Tse-tung and Chu Teh of China, Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, Dolores Ibárruri (“La Pasionaria”) of Spain, Palmiro Togliatti and Luigi Longo of Italy.  Many were refugees from Germany, a large number arrived from Spain when the Republic was defeated by Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini, and there were children from Iran and Arab countries, from Latin America and Africa.  The prevailing spirit was one of internationalism and was of course deeply “red” in nature.  Its main sponsor was the Russian revolutionary Elena Stasova, for whom the school is named.

Attempts in 2004 to replace Interdom with a military cadet school were defeated after a tough fight, supported by chess master Anatoly Karpov, the Russian Peace Foundation, and some pupils threatening a hunger strike.  But the mission of the school has changed.  The approximately 350 pupils, ranging from the first to the tenth grades, are almost all Russians, sometimes from other parts of the former USSR, including troubled areas like Chernobyl and Chechen-Ingush; less than a dozen seem to be of Asian or African background, but they may also be Russian citizens.  Most of the children are either orphans or come from broken homes.

Any thoughts that these often difficult backgrounds would cast a pall over the school and its dormitories were quickly forgotten!  So were any questions in my mind as to whether I would find a mass of strictly regimented, overly disciplined children.  At least in the few days I spent there I found exactly the opposite.  What a wonderful bunch of kids they turned out to be!  Polite?  Yes, most of them offered a “good day” or a “good morning” when passing in the hall, almost always with a friendly smile, and they vied to help me find my way (or led me all the way) through the maze of long halls and staircases connecting sleeping quarters, the dining room, the auditorium, and the many classrooms.

Regimentation?  I saw none of it, though occasionally classes of younger pupils did walk together, loudly chatting, to or from classes or other destinations.  For morning classes school clothing was indeed worn, but the skirts and pants, blouses and jackets, seemed to me at least to be quite stylish.  Some did not wear them, and in the afternoon and evening everyone changed to individual apparel.  The little groups of two or three of all ages looked anything but stressed.  Once I saw three little boys, about six or seven, dashing down a hall and looking over their shoulders, grinning broadly (but naughtily); I wondered if they were playing hooky.  Whatever the cause of their flight, it could hardly have been a major offense.

I admired two little girls of 8 or 9, alone in the main reception hall, busily playing “Rock, Scissors, Paper” just as I knew it, with one variation.  After each throw, if there was no tie, the winner (gently) touched the forehead of the loser.  A woman from my group smiled at the girls and challenged one of them.  She won — and when she also touched the loser’s forehead this gesture by a strange lady from some faraway land, playing their game, caused the two to break into hilarious laughter.  It was one more happy little moment — in spite of language problems.  (Many of the children were learning English, but suddenly having to speak the language outside the classroom proved to be a high hurdle.  They tried.)

But even in Russian, and without children from all the world, an international atmosphere was unmistakable, with flags of over eighty countries in the reception hall, posters, a big map recalling where students in earlier years had come from, a museum, still in preparation, recalling the school’s history, and language lessons, not only in English.  Two films about the school were in a similar vein.

The pupils here aim at a college education when possible and are evidently better prepared than most students to get the necessary good grades in entrance examinations.  But they are also given the opportunity to learn a hand-working trade, in woodworking or metal shop for the boys and designing and dressmaking for the girls.  When I questioned this division I was told that the girls could also learn a trade in the shops if they wished — but I got the impression that this was hardly common if at all the case.  This seemed an echo of the thinking of past years — or perhaps of present Russian reality.

My thoughts on this were disrupted by a visit to the computer center, where several boys and girls were concentrating on their work.  One girl complied with a request to tell us what she was working on; it proved too complex for our interpreter.  We went on to the dressmaking shop, full of modern machines, costume illustrations from many regions and centuries, and a most impressive display of as yet incomplete apparel and textile art work.  It was here that the pupils designed and sewed the costumes for dance performances.  These, for me, were the most moving events of all.

In Moscow we had seen one performance by Interdom pupils, about 13 to 16 years old, who then joined us on the long bus drive to Ivanovo.  I learned afterwards that the dance performance, a series of varied scenes, was based on the diary of a brilliant woman I had known during studies at the university of Leipzig who had gone to this school as a refugee from Germany.  I understood nothing of the spoken narrative and do not know whether the deadly Stalin purges were dealt with, when exiled parents of some of the children were “disappeared” and in most cases the children also had to leave (with at least one exception, when the principal courageously managed to keep one lad in the school).  I was later told that this tragic period is not ignored in telling the story of the school to the children, but I think it was not in the dance.  Its central section was about World War Two, the fears of the children and then their defiant reaction and wartime contributions.  My old friend had told me how the pupils, like the whole country, after finally reaching a stage of economic normalcy by 1941, had suffered almost indescribably after the Nazi invasion.  There was a bare minimum of food, no heating, and a daily standard of often heavy work after classes.  She had told me how a group of the German refugee children saved one slice of their slim bread rations each day until they had loaves enough to exchange them for a small radio and thus better follow first the retreat and then the advance against the Nazis, with rising hopes of liberating their homeland.  The dance also dramatized the fact that fifty pupils from different countries, after finishing their schooling, had become soldiers; seventeen of them, including a Cuban lad and one German girl, had lost their lives fighting the Nazis.

The other dance performance, also over an hour in length, was happier — and equally brilliant.  I am no expert but the choreography, the costumes, and the dancing seemed to me nearly professional; they obviously have some wonderful teachers.  The dances were varied and often international; one was Cuban, another was African, performed by four Black pupils.  Again, the costumes were stunning (how “correct” they were I cannot judge).  I noted that these two dances, by older pupils, combined elegance and energy with a smack of healthy eroticism.  Most dances were performed by children of all ages in enthusiastic, unaffected harmony and a spirit of pure joy — with a little pride thrown in, especially with traditional Russian-type dances, which recalled my wonder many years ago at the Moiseyev Dance Ensemble.  Yet these skilled dancers were still children; the best, most agile little dancer, strutting proudly at the head of the line, was certainly no older than eleven.

The evening of May Day featured an outdoor picnic near the gym and swimming pool.  After jolly circle dances — in one the dancers had to hold the person in front of them by the waist, the ear, the ankle, and then the nose — came the games, all but the hula hoop of an “old-fashioned” kind, with each pupil doing whatever he or she wanted and in any order.  There was sack racing, bowling (with a basketball and big soda bottles), basket throwing, “Indian wrestling” and cock fighting (hopping on one leg and trying to push the opponent off balance), walking a straight line backwards using a mirror, skipping rope and tug of war, hop scotch and walking blindfolded a slalom line between pegs.  When hungry they stood on line for grits, salad, and fruit juice, dished out by three smiling young Navy sailors.  After a final big bonfire the pupils drifted off to their rooms.  I was most affected by the untroubled, friendly atmosphere, with never a cross word between big and little pupils, white and black, Russian and Chechen, boys and girls.

Recalling the many debates and disputes about teenage sex in the USA, I asked the school director — with the aid of an interpreter — whether there were many problems with unexpected pregnancies.  Thinking possibly of repercussions from prudish fund-givers, some of them no doubt on city or state level, she said laughingly, “No, no problems — not once in fifty years!”  (Or did she say “Only once in fifty years”?)  A member of our group learned later that this was perhaps not the entire truth; at least one pupil had only recently had a baby, which was given to a couple in Ivanovo (either temporarily or permanently) while the girl continued her schooling here.  The pupils did receive sexual education, I was assured, and could turn to their teachers for motherly advice.  By chance I saw the return of one teacher to the school after her own “baby leave.”  The joyful welcoming embrace by a handful of girls indicated, certainly in this case, a truly loving relationship.

Was this happy atmosphere quite normal around the world, I wondered.  Perhaps my warm feelings were caused more by memories of my own childhood and youth than anything else.  I had attended many schools; in two especially there were warm teacher-pupil relationships, singing and drama, sports and swimming (here at Ivanovo they had swimming twice a week and other sports three times a week).  But those two schools I remembered so well were both the private “progressive” schools I had been lucky enough to enter.  I shuddered at the thought of what they cost today.

And aside from many, many good public schools which certainly exist in the USA, I could not help thinking of problems which I read of in Internet: the quarrels about sex education, its removal from curricula, the often sad results and resultant dropouts, also the fight against Coke-French-fries-and-ketchup obesity, current demands for armed cops and even armed teachers, the disparagement of basic knowledge about evolution, an overstress on dubious “jock” football heroes, the trend away from public schools where the poorest children were drilled by tests or left to stay ignorant.

I must be very cautious in generalizing, I told myself, such negatives were only part of a much broader picture.  Was I mistaken in my vivid admiration of this school?  And another thought crossed my mind.  Was this truly an isolated island, far removed from the facts of modern life?  In some ways it recalled the innocent ways of long past, perhaps never-really-existent “school days”: No television.  Mobile phones, yes, but nowhere nearly so dominant or intrusive as in outside life — only once did I see a boy playing an electronic game on his handheld phone.  No coke or any other vending machines, no smoking on the grounds, no racism or sexism (unless the choice of trades could be so labeled).  No commercialism and no demonstrative religion (I was told that pupils could practice any religion they desired, but the school itself was completely secular).  Of course no guns were to be seen anywhere.  But perhaps the greatest contrast: no rejection of the Soviet past, which had provided, after all, the foundation for this school.  Could one live properly on such an island?  And should one?  And how would these youngsters adjust later after arriving in the outside world?

One pleasant if only partial answer came on May Day, when all the pupils joined the parade, dressed as handsomely as they could, with the little girls, according to older fashion, wearing big white ribbons tied neatly into each pigtail or other hairdo.  One group of girls, a little older, in bright blue uniforms and caps, beat drums and led the way to Ivanovo’s center, with older children carrying the flags of many countries and banners announcing their Interdom background, and our little group close behind.

I thought at first that the Interdom group was all alone, but after turning a corner we found ourselves in the vanguard of the parade — and what a crowd was following us!  Well up in the six-digit range, I felt confident, from all the region, with young and old, babies, even a few dogs, college groups, sport groups, groups from various trades and utilities, more and more and more.  Small groups of Tajiks and Kazakhs came in colorful costume.  For hours the informal lines moved down the main street in town.  It was not a left-wing protest parade, at least one bloc carried banners of the United Russia party which supports Putin, but rather a good-humored, traditional march on May Day — and the Interdom children were certainly an integral part of it.

How much did they really fit in today’s world?  For me, visiting this school revived old goals and dreams — of a world with no cutthroat competition, not swamped by billboards with tempting, irrelevant beauties and grinning, deceptive advertising, of a civilization without exploitation, without racism, sexism, bullying, violence and weapons, weapons, ever deadlier weapons.  Where beauty in art, literature, and music was untainted by speculation, where sport did not profit from pushiness, where entertainment never included sickening lipstick sexiness by bumping and grinding 9-year-olds.  Where no one was hungry or homeless, a dream of empty prisons and of wetlands and rain forests filled with healthy wild life.

In those few days I could hardly decide whether Interdom was a small step in this direction.  Was it rather a vain attempt to stand pat in the face of overwhelming odds — or even an anachronistic, backward step to values that were never real — or perhaps far worse from the very start?  Would those who left this unusual island soon be lost in the swirling new life outside, glamorous for some, grinding for others, hollow for so many?  Who could tell?  And why had watching these youngsters, their happy manners, genuine achievements, above all their ways of living together stirred me so greatly?  Was it because it vividly recalled those old dreams we had interred so deeply?

Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

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