These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.
In my opinion, totalitarian regimes are very good at recognizing one crucial fact of life – it is important to reach children as soon as possible and indoctrinate them into your ideology, because later on it might not work. Throughout history of totalitarian regimes therefore are many examples of youth’s organizations whose main purpose was political.
The communist regime in former Soviet bloc was no different and the youth organization in our country was named “Pionýr” a derivative of the word pioneer, attempting to imply boldness and strength to freely explore hitherto unexplored. Where “freely” means “in the direction the party allows and if the conclusions confirm with party line”.
It started at an early age, about seven years, with a membership in “Jiskra” (spark), an organisation that was essentially preparing children for future membership in pionýr. After that, at the eight-nine years of age, the child could enter the Pionýr organization and become a full member.
Membership was confirmed by a public pledge first as Jiskra, then as Pionýr. I do not remember my Pionýr pledge, but I do remember some feelings about being overwhelmed by the Jiskra one, to the point that I still remember the first sentence of the pledge – but I had to look up the rest. I had my heart in my throat as I was standing in an auditorium in front of most of the town and piping up the pledge loud enough to be heard. I also remember that I actually believed and meant what I was saying.
Here are the translations (not trying to convey the cadence and rhyming of the originals):
Jiskra – “Slibuji dnes přede všemi, jako jiskra jasná, chci žít pro svou krásnou zemi, aby byla šťastná” – Like a bright spark I promise in front of all, that I want to live for my beautiful country so it can be happy.
Pionýr: “Slibuji před svými druhy, že budu pracovat, učit se a žít podle pionýrských zákonů, abych byl dobrým občanem své milované vlasti, Československé socialistické republiky, a svým jednáním chránit čest pionýrské organizace Socialistického svazu mládeže.” – I promise in front of my comrades, that I will work, learn and live by pionýr law, in order to become good citizen of my beloved country, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and with my behaviour I promise to guard the honor of the Pionýr organization of Socialist Youth Association.
Membership in Pionýr was not compulsory. But it was not compulsory in the sense “it is voluntary, but you must”. In my class, there were a few children who were not members, and our teacher – a fanatical communist to this day – did give them some grief for that. Remember what I said about education? Not being a member of Pionýr was a huge hindrance to getting meaningful highschool education, and made it nigh impossible to get into university later on. So most children entered the organization even when privately they and their parents disagreed with the regime.
I do not remember much about what we were doing in the name of the organization as such, apart from a few summer camps to which I went, and a few marches on memorable occasions (like 1.st of May). Maybe I will remember something more later.
I still have my red scarf in the cupboard, despite not agreeing with communist philosophy. I do not know why.