Talking Buildings #1: Kindergarten memories from Soviet Chechnya

The project ‘Talking Buildings from the Soviet Chechen Republic’ follows an almost vanished path through the remnants of Chechnya’s collective industries. Uncovering the memories and experiences of seven Chechen women, now aged 50 to 67, the project’s protagonists reflect on their work in various socialist farms, factories, and cultural institutions during the USSR. Told through the prism of the buildings’ physical remains, the narrations delve into individual stories of how Chechen women actively participated in Soviet society while at the same time respecting the traditional and Islamic way of life in their families. The project is based on biographical interviews with witnesses and we are starting off with the history of Kindergarten Number 101 in Soviet Grozny.

Kindergarten No. 101

“In 1983, I already had two girls; the older one was four years old, and my younger daughter was two. At that time, I started to work as a nanny in Kindergarten Number 101, which was located in the Lenin district. I worked there for eleven years until 1993, when people began to leave the republic. They took everything they needed and left. In 1994, nothing was left of the kindergarten, it was destroyed. Just like today, nothing is left.

Children from Kindergarten 101

On my way to work I always took bus Number 101 to the micro district, followed by a 20-30 meter walk. I was responsible for the youngest children and in the beginning I thought I would not be able to work there. On my first day I was supposed to care for an eleven month old baby and this little newborn would not stop crying. And I feared that everyone would bring children like this to the kindergarten. To be honest, it was not a dream job for me, but I was in need of work, any work. I found this position because I had registered my own children in this kindergarten and so I also ended up getting a job there. 5 or 6 years later, I was still working there and I had given birth to two more boys (sons) who also went to this kindergarten. A very special place for me was the kindergarten’s assembly hall where our morning performances took place. Every week, we had different events and games.

Soviet Chechnya
New Year’s in Kindergarten 101

Before New Year’s for example, we used to wet cotton wool. We then threw these wet cotton wool balls up to the ceiling where they kept hanging together with the New Year’s decoration. The wet cotton wool mostly stuck to the whitewashed ceiling, but sometimes single pieces fell down and we had to throw them back up. After a couple of days, these quilted balls dried out and fell on the floor. And I will never forget the snow crowns the children and the teachers made out of cardboard. We took photos and kept them as beautiful memories.

Once, two children escaped from the kindergarten. I will never forget this day. A girl from the middle group took her younger brother with her and ran away. They walked out of the gate and reached the Baronovsky [2] Bridge without being noticed or stopped. Only after they had crossed the bridge some builders saw the children and took them to the police. In the meantime, we were panicking in the kindergarten. This was the most horrible day. There were four of us in the kindergarten, but still, nobody had noticed how the children escaped. It was unbelievable how this little girl was able to organize such a thing! One of my colleagues got fired afterwards because of this incident.

Shadows of war

When I left my position, I was not aware that the war would begin soon. One of my Jewish colleagues once told us:

‘If a military man comes to power, then there will be a war’

And she immediately left for Israel after her concerns became reality. First we did not believe her but her words proved to be true already six months later. The kindergarten was destroyed in the first military campaign. The head of the kindergarten was devastated; she had always cared deeply about the kindergarten and she had worked there for a very long time. She was Ingush and continued her work until the very end. The children did – of course – not come anymore and our team had also stopped working. And almost two or three months passed.

Growing up in Soviet Grozny

By profession I am a tailor. Immediately after graduating from the Vocational School Number 26 in Grozny I got an internship in Grozny’s Sewing Shop Number 4. And after I completed my internship, I got married. My sister-in-law worked in the studio ‘Pushinka’ near the cinema ‘Jubilee’ and when I arrived late from the night shift my father-in-law asked me to go to studio ‘Pushinka’. He would pick us up there and take us home by car. In the studio ‘Pushinka’ we used to knit as there were several knitting machines. I will never forget when I knitted a men’s tracksuit for the first time, as I appeared on the local television. I was very proud of this tracksuit because I had just started the job and I was immediately able to knit such a complicated thing.

Chechnya Soviet
Sewing Shop Number 4.
Colleagues at the Sewing Shop Number 4

When I went on maternity leave, I left this job and I would never work as a tailor again. At home, of course, I continued to knit and knit, for example, children’s costumes for the New Year’s Eve celebrations. The knitting machine is still at home. In my student years, we frequently visited ‘Chekhov’ library and the cinema ‘Chelyuskintsev’, which was located on Pervomaiskaya Street. We loved to go there with the girls. For these occasions, I used to have a bright green dress and a yellow jumper which I dearly loved. I also had shoes from Germany because my aunt was living there. For my graduation party, she sent me a dress and shoes. I loved to wear my high-heels down the autumn avenue or to my internship in the Sewing Shop Number 4. To school, I went by tram, but after the war, the trams did not work any longer and I really missed them.

Communist leaders

At that time, most young people talked a lot about well-known communist figures such as Che Guevara, Clara Zetkin, Kata Yama, and Angela Davis. I learned about these figures either from the political news or from the newspapers. The ideas of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin were also familiar to me. In one of the 10-minute breaks in my school, my teacher asked me to learn a poem about him by heart and I still remember parts of this poem:

People do not wipe their tears…
and we don’t expect the miracle,
the sky became dark above Moscow,
because the hero does not live anymore.
The memory of him is, however, immortal…

I forgot the poem’s ending but I remember that Lenin’s image was very dear to my heart when I was in the first grade. I attached it to my brown school uniform and I could not enter the school building without having this image on my uniform. We also had regular contests which took place in the fields near the village ‘Staraya Sunzha’. I often trained with my classmates and I was able to run very fast. I even won the races during our running competitions on a regular basis. But running was not my only talent. I was also a very good relay runner. The pioneer spirit especially comes to mind when I think of ‘the first field’ where we, as children, rested together in the forest. We collected wood and burned them in the fire. From the morning until the evening, we would tell each other poems, sing, and we competed in various sports and played different games.

In Soviet times, I liked the book ‘Zelimkhan’ [3] by the Chechen writer Muhammad Mamakayev. The book describes the story of poor Christians in pre-revolutionary times. My mother would not let me read it, but of course, I read it anyway. My childhood was generally very difficult. My mother was working as a vendor in the bazaar from the morning until late at night and one of my older sisters got married at a very early age. As I  was one of the oldest children in my family, I was supposed to look after my younger sisters and brothers.

Work and Life

Life in Soviet Grozny.

The Soviet times were good. My salary amounted to 70 rubles [4] which allowed me to go to the store to buy things for the children. I could even afford to buy fruit and other products while still saving a lot of money. Although we lived in the USSR we all continued to pray. My mother was born in 1931 and she had prayed since she was 13 years old. No one ever tried to interfere. My father, who was one year older than my mother, also prayed with her. We children were all forced to pray and we followed ‘Urazu’ which is a similar holiday to Ramadan. At that time, I liked the singer Vakhtang Kikabidze. He was of Georgian descent and my favorite song of his was ‘My Years are My Treasure’ and of course I also loved the songs from the Indian films we watched in the cinema.

Unlike my male friends, who liked watching action movies or films with military or historical topics like, for example, Chapaev [5], we girls always went to see Indian films about love.

Later on, many of my friends named their children after the heroes in these movies, like Raj, Indira, Zita and others.

We used to have vending machines with yellow lemonade in the Kirov Park. I liked to go there for a walk with my four children. Usually, saleswomen in white coats and white hats were standing next to the vending machines. When I was busy, my husband went with the children to the vending machines. The people who came from other parts of the USSR to Grozny also liked to walk in Kirov Park and they sometimes continued further down to Grozny’s Central Market. There was nothing much to do. These newcomers were considered to be ‘farmers’ among the inhabitants of Grozny.

Baltic markets

Once, my sister and I went to Vilnius in order to buy some cloth like our mother used to do before. We took the purchased rolls of ‘tricotine’ cloth back to Grozny’s Petropalovka Market were we sold it. At that time, these fabrics were not so easy to get and our customers were not limited to Chechens but they came from all the republics around us. The Kabardians were especially frequent customers. The fabric we sold did not crumple and it was very comfortable to wear. People used to make dresses with buttons using this cloth.

Naturally, we were not the only ones going to Vilnius; there were some other Chechen women like us. We, however, only flew twice to Vilnius. And after these two trips, I promised myself that I would never fly again. I still vividly remember how we packed the acquired cloth into the plane before we departed from Vilnius to Donetsk. We spent around two hours in the air and some of the other passengers started to panic. I told my sister that I will never board this plane again. The pilots informed us that we cannot land because of the fog. And then we all started to panic apart from one man. He started to laugh and a grandmother who was sitting behind him started to shout at him:

What is so funny? Why are you laughing?’

And he responded: ‘I will not cry – instead I will laugh!’

Then, the plane landed and I have never set foot on a plane again. This was also the time when our mothers liked to collect soaps for their daughters-in-law. Soaps that were worth collecting usually came not from the USSR but from other countries. People normally shared the information about where to get the soaps between each other. The result was that we all got the soaps from the same source. German stickers were also popular. My aunt sent them to me from Germany in an envelope. Their shape was always oval or round and we used to glue them on the polished surfaces of our brown furniture. As children, we also pinned the stickers on our rucksacks and since I had a lot of different stickers, I shared them with my friends.

Returning to Kindergarten Number 101

February 1995 was the last time I saw the ruins of the kindergarten. My brother and I went there to have a look and we found all three buildings, for the senior, the middle and the junior groups, completely destroyed. There was nothing left of the building. When they bombarded the kindergarten our guard, who was the laundry woman’s husband, died. He used to patrol through the kindergarten’s building almost every day in order to make sure that nobody stole anything. When I looked inside the remains of the building in February 1995, everything was a mess.

I remember when the war started we did not have the time to take things with us. Even our work cards stayed in the building. And I remember how I was worried about these cards because back then we still thought that we could just go back and pick them up. I went to see my supervisor then, but I could not find her at her home. Shortly after, we learned that she had died after a serious illness. Our other manager is, however, still with us. She is almost 80 years old now and she lives in Nazran [6]. Just yesterday, I called her. When I saw these ruins the last time, the eleven years that I worked there reappeared in front of my eyes. My colleagues, the parents and the children, our gatherings, and all the parades in which we had taken part. It felt as if all of this was blown away by  time, so cruel and unfair.

In memory of the kindergarten, I still have a wicker basket. I had accidentally taken it home once and then forgotten to return it to the kindergarten. I made these baskets by myself for the kindergarten as a special decoration with knitted patterns. In Soviet times, it was fashionable to have pots of indoor flowers in these baskets. And now it has become a memory only.”

To safeguard the anonymity of the protagonists, names of locations and individuals have been changed.

[1] Micro districts were small (territorial) districts which existed in any Soviet city.
[2] Gavriil Baranovsky (1860 – 1920) was a Russian architect, civil engineer, art historian, and publisher, who worked primarily in Saint Petersburg. He also produced the first town plan for the city Murmansk.
[3] Zelimkhan is a male Chechen name.
[4] 70 rubles amounted to around 84 USD according to official exchange rates.
[5] Vasily Ivanovich Chapaev (1887 -1919) was a Red Army commander, who became a heroic symbol of the Russian Civil War.

The project was developed and realized by Umarova Asia (Journalist, Illustrator, and Writer), Sani Manchak (Freelance Journalist and Translator), Tamara Taysumova (Photographer), and Johanna Pruessing (Editor at RETROGRAD). The project was supported by the Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Moscow and developed by Umarova Asia during the “Europe Lab 2017” organised by the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.

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