101 new uses for Lenin's pioneers

1st March 1996 at 00:00
There is hardly a family photo album in Hungary without a picture of a child in a white shirt wearing a red necktie, standing proudly to attention while receiving a medal.

The Young Pioneers, one of Lenin's ideas, were an essential component of socialist education everywhere in Eastern Europe. Many presumed that with the change of system in 1989, the pioneers, their summer camps and school committees would disappear, along with the Young Communist League and May Day parades.

But today the pioneers are enjoying a revival. With 80,000 members they are the largest youth organisation in Hungary. The group is also still popular in other former communist states.

Peter Racz, head of the Hungarian Pioneers Association, says freedom created a new demand for his group: "Under the old system when children finished school at 2 o'clock there were a host of different educational and recreational afternoon activities they could choose from while their parents were at work. The same applied to weekends and the long summer holiday. These things were just taken for granted.

"But since the changes children have been left to themselves. Those activities that do exist are expensive. Parents want them to use their time constructively and so we have found a new demand."

But while demand may be there, the Pioneers suffered from an image problem. Many Hungarians have positive memories of the Pioneers, their summer camps, theatre and sports groups, others recall the militaristic organisation, ridiculous bureaucracy and endless school committees.

Memories from the 1950s can be even more painful. Jozsef Sipos was one of a team of pioneers who built the Pioneer Railway, a mini track which still runs down the picturesque Buda Hills overlooking the capital. But Sipos's hard work as a 14-year-old constructor counted for nothing when his father's background was discovered by the adult pioneer leadership.

"My father owned a small private tailoring shop and one of the leaders found out and denounced him as a bourgeois oppressor. It was suggested I leave the pioneers."

Peter Racz acknowledges the Pioneers still suffer from association with the old party state, but says today's organisation is different, more like the Woodcraft Folk than a Soviet-style brigade.

Miklos Varhelyi, who has two children in the Pioneers, finds the activities valuable. "I feel happy that the Pioneers are still here. It is different from the past in that it is a voluntary organisation, with autonomous groups who set their own agendas. No one has to wear a uniform and politics is not forced on anyone."

Varhelyi says that with Hungarian parents working increasingly long hours the need for such an organisation is even greater. "If people have to work at weekends, as I have to do, it is good to know that there is somewhere my kids choose to be which is a safe place where they can take part in constructive activities such as sport, drama or art."

But politics still affects the Pioneers. When the conservative Democratic Forum government was elected in 1990, it withdrew the group's funding and sold off all but one of its 40 summer camps.

Yet despite government support the Scout movement, popular before the Second World War, failed to take off. Sociologists say that in an increasingly secular society fewer parents are prepared to put their children in the hands of the church.

The privatisation of the Pioneer camps provoked accusations of profiteering and corruption. According to Hungarian press reports, some camps were handed over to "foundations" who then sold the land to developers. Others remained as camps but are run on private lines, causing problems for schools during the two-month summer holiday. The return of the former communist socialist party to power in 1994 did not help, as it has been cutting public spending across the board.

"Until recently there were educational camps all over Hungary, all summer, " said one teacher, "but now they are so expensive that many schools can't afford it."

This summer the group will celebrate its 50th anniversary by relaunching what was once a showcase event - the Pioneer Olympics. Even Jozsef Sipos is glad to hear the news. "We need groups like them. Children need to have constructive activities to fill up their time."

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