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 the 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. This week’s story is based on a biographical interview with a time witness who used to work in Grozny’s pedagogical school.
The Grozny Pedagogical School
“I have worked in this building since my graduation from the Grozny pedagogical school in 1978. Back then I was 18 years old. I had been a teacher in the primary school for only one year when they offered me the chance to become a senior Pioneer leader. I accepted the role and held this position for about 5 years. During my time at the school, I supervised 8 classes and I ended up working there for about 39 years. I basically spent all my adult life in this institution. But even before I joined the school in a professional capacity I worked with young people.
During my first internship, the pedagogical school sent me for training purposes to my native rural school where I worked under the supervision of the teachers. I remember this class well because my younger brother was one of the students and he persistently refused to obey me. I even remember the lessons I taught. The school was managed by an international team. The director of our school took part in the Great Patriotic War and we she told us many of stories about the military and her experience in the war. 80 percent of the students in the school were Russians. At that time Russians were in the majority almost everywhere. There was also a married Armenian couple and some Ukrainians, who were incredibly friendly.
A teacher at the pedagogical school
We organized many events and we actively participated not only in school activities but also in the life of the village. During the harvest or other agricultural holidays, concerts were given in the village club, a place that is abandoned now. The pedagogical team went with the pupils to the fields and we performed in the gardens where the crops were harvested. And sometimes we joined the village council. We also produced newspapers, which we displayed on the wall.
The school was generally the cultural center of the village.
On the first floor, next to the entrance on the right side, was a room with a special, expensive interior. It was the office of the senior Pioneer leader. It felt like a mini-headquarters and I rehearsed a band of young drummers there. We stored the drums, the school banner, the Pioneer squad banner, and other well-known banners in this room. And in each class there was a small corner with a flag similar to the ones in the Pioneer office. The most interesting meetings of the Pioneer team’s council took place in this room. This was the place where we took decisions and approved the work plans. Well, in general, we discussed everything in this room.
Grozny Eight-Year School Number 59
On the 3rd of November 2007, upon our return from the autumn holidays, we were relocated to a new school building, which is located nearby. Unfortunately, we had to leave the old building because its condition had become critical. It had already been impossible to teach classes there. But the building still exists and the school’s staff who started working at the same time as me used to look back with sadness and longing, because we had passed all our youth and our adulthood there. Our entire lives had been centered around this building.
The building was initially intended to be a hostel for workers coming for short-term assignments to the state farm nearby. This state farm was very rich back in those days and workers came from everywhere to take on cleaning jobs. After all, there were huge gardens as well as dairy and cattle farms. Generally, many workers came for the harvest and the building was built to become their accommodation. Yet, due to the fact that we had no school building in our district, forcing teachers and schoolchildren to huddle in a small two-room cottage, the collective of the state farm decided to give this hostel building to the school. When I was a little girl, I entered the first grade in this building; right after my family had been deported from Kazakhstan. When the local authorities eventually gave the hostel to the school I was already in the second grade. But we only began to be called a school in 1967. The official name was Grozny Eight-Year School Number 59. It was called this because our village belonged to the city and because the school was part of the state farm “Red Hammer”.
Pioneers and parades
This was also the time when ideology was introduced into schools. The lessons began with a ‘political minute’. In reality, the minute was five minutes long and the pupils heard about interesting things that had happened in the world during the previous week. The five-minute sessions took place once a week. Sometimes they were complemented by political events organized in the school. A frequent topic at that time was Angela Davis and her fight for justice. Her photograph was all over the newspapers and a real solidarity movement existed. At the peak of this solidarity movement, we made posters with slogans and banners saying: ‘Freedom to Angela Davis!’ And we walked through the streets and shouted her name. The life of the school and its students was closely tied up with politics. Themes like internationalism, solidarity, and friendship of the different people were tolerated in any case.
A very interesting event was held on Constitution Day. The school was divided into 15 groups with each group representing one of the union republics such as Ukraine, for example. This group would then learn and present the Ukrainian anthem as well as different Ukrainian songs, poems, dances, national costumes, and dishes. The celebrations were huge and almost the entire village gathered at the school for this occasion. And the socialist youth organizations – Pioneers for junior classes and Komsomols for senior students – educated the youth in the spirit of solidarity and devotion to the ideas of communism.
Being an employee of the school, I firmly believed in all of these communist ideals and I have always committed to these activities with all my heart.
Life in the school was very interesting and the children were well informed about politics in the Soviet Union and abroad. We also had a campus for students coming for the harvest of fruits and vegetables to our village. And they came not only from Chechnya or Ingushetia but also from other parts of the Soviet Union; from Volgograd, for example.
The campus was called “pioneer camp” and the students living there worked in the fields of the farm, where they gathered corn and vegetables for half a day. The rest of the afternoon, they spent resting in our camp. The camp comprised ten buildings and a canteen. And life in the village was very interesting because of that. Every evening, the youth gathered in the camp to dance, to watch movies or to listen to different concerts. And these experiences helped to raise young people in the spirit of diligence and responsibility for the fate of their homeland. Now, at a more mature age, I am more reflective. My parents were only semi-literate and from a simple working family. My father could only write his name and my mother completed only five classes. She was able to read and write, not only in Chechen but also in Russian and Arabic. My parents were not only believers, they were very religious. They prayed at home and taught us to pray as well. I cannot say that they forced us to do so, but we ourselves knew that this was also necessary. But of course, at work, we never prayed as it was considered to be strange, just like it would be considered strange now. However, my parents never stopped us from learning. There were nine children in our family. I had five sisters and three brothers and all of us received higher education. This is why most of us also became leaders in our school and student life. Yet, I cannot say that our parents encouraged us, they just never stopped us. They respected our studies and professions and the only thing they were worried about was our dignity. They wanted to ensure that we would not disgrace the honor of our family. As for my political life, I was a secretary of the Komsomol committee as a pupil and the secretary of the Komsomol committee when I worked at the school. I led various student groups and I did a lot to encourage the groups under my supervision.
From Pioneers to Komsomols
At our school, children from the first to the third grade were so-called ‘October kids’, (the junior version of the pioneers) and all of them had badges with portraits of Vladimir Ilich Lenin. From the third grade onwards, we accepted them as Pioneer, but not all of them, only the best. I still remember one case when I was a Pioneer leader. A 4th-grade pupil was not accepted because of his bad behavior. Later he died in the first military conflict of Chechnya. After he died, I went to see his parents to express my condolences. And his mother told me with tears in her eyes, that he was so worried about not being accepted as a pioneer by me, that he cried for a week and that he did not want to go to school.
Being a Pioneer was very important to children at that time because not being accepted into the Pioneers was considered to be a great disgrace.
So most of the children aspired to the Pioneers and the ties were worn with pride and pleasure. We Pioneer leaders regularly checked whether the kids were clean and whether their shirts were ironed. From the 7th grade onwards, which was around the age of 14, we joined the Komsomol and we received special Komsomol icons signifying our membership.
When we came from Kazakhstan, my parents immediately found a job on the state farm. My father went to take care of the horses and my mother got a job in a greenhouse and so they worked until retirement. I remember this time with nostalgia because I believe that things were more stable. For example, my parents were able to save 2 to 3 thousand rubles for ‘a rainy day’ and this money would not lose its value for 10 to 20 years. Life was much easier and the state showed more concern for the common people. Of course, if someone did not work they were punished because everyone had to have a job. If a young guy returned from the army, he had to get a job within 2 to 3 weeks and in most cases, he did. If a person went to university, he or she could be a 100 percent sure to find a job right after graduation. Even the diplomas were not handed out until you had worked at least 2 to 3 years in the positions that you were sent to. There was a state commission responsible for assigning young people to various workplaces. Education was free of charge; each student received a scholarship and accommodation for free. Parents never had to worry or think about how to help their children.
The friendship train
As a student, I also lived on a campus for four years. It was very convenient as it was located in the village of Kalinino. We had a place to study just ten meters from our accommodation and a very cheap canteen in the courtyard. The state took care of us students. In 1977, when I was studying in the third year of the pedagogical school, the KOMSOMOL of Chechen-Ingushetia awarded me with a trip to Czechoslovakia. I was the leader of the pedagogical college’s student preparatory staff of the construction team and during my two-year term we managed to significantly increase the ranking of our pedagogical school from the 17th to the 3rd place among many other schools.
Thanks to this, we took the so-called ‘Friendship Trains’  which went all over the Soviet Union. These were special trains for students who were Komsomol party members and activists. On the ‘Friendship Train’ we sang songs and got to know each other before we were divided into different groups upon our arrival in Czechoslovakia. Our group was put together with delegations from Georgia and the Chelyabinsk region. We visited various cities and went to museums and concerts. And there were even evenings of friendship organized with the youth of Czechoslovakia where we performed one song in Chechen language and a dance in our national costumes. The trip ended with a grandiose evening of friendship in the ‘House of Radio’ in Warsaw.
Books under the table
I read a lot, like all my brothers and sisters. My mother did not really like that we read all the time and if she caught us at the table with a book during a meal, she became very angry. Imagine the picture: a round and fairly low table with 5-6 people sitting with their faces in their books. When our mother entered the room, we immediately threw our books under the table hoping that she did not notice. But our younger brother told her the truth by lifting the tablecloth and she saw where all the books went: under our feet. We read everything. And when we had homework in the pedagogical school, we went to the ‘Chekhovka’ (State Universal Scientific Library named after A. P. Chekhov), where we were allowed to use the reading room for about 2-3 hours. Although it was huge, there were always large queues to enter the reading room and not a single seat was empty. Not all the books could be taken home, so people needed to stay there if they wanted to read them. And so, everybody was sitting somewhere with a book. And people also read a lot on buses and trams.
Sometimes, Grozny’s authorities used to put wooden dance floors in public gardens. But I did not go there because I was ashamed to dance in front of other people.
At that time many people were following Lenin’s ideology. Of course, we idealized him, because he was presented to us in a ’bright light’ only. And we considered him to be the best and the kindest person. We really believed that he preached caring for the poor and children. We firmly believed in all of this. As for co-thinkers of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, only Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg were familiar to me.
Living buildings grew old
When I see the campus and the old school building now, I have a feeling of bitterness; as if they were living buildings that have grown old, like perishing organisms that nobody can help.Here they are, sick, growing old, collapsing, and I cannot help them. And when I feel nostalgic about the years that have passed, I think about all the things these walls must know, how much they must have heard, and how many stories they hold. I wonder about the stories the people who lived on this campus would have to tell. But where are they now, what happened to them, do these people still remember our camps? If a fairy appeared and I could make a wish, I would like to go back and return to the time when these buildings were young, like me, firmly believing in our idols.”
To safeguard the anonymity of the protagonists, names of locations and individuals have been changed.
 Friendship Trains were normal trains provided by the government that allowed for the cultural exchange of students and Komsomol party while they were traveling through the USSR.
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.