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Monday, September 01, 2014
This year, September 1 happens to be Labor Day, but in Russia, just like every other year, it is also the Day of Knowledge – the first day of school – and the Day of Peace.
In Russian culture, school and education occupy an especially privileged position. It’s no surprise that Russian children – like Soviet children before them – listen to songs about what they’re taught in school, how awful life would be without school, and how exciting it is to be in first grade.
Even a cartoon about a little girl and a bear (Masha and the Bear) manages to have an episode about school, despite the fact that they live in the woods.
While in Russia it sometimes seems like September 1 has always been the first day of school, its official designation as such is actually within living memory, at least for a few people. On September 3, 1935, the Sovnarkom and Central Committee decreed that school was to start on September 1 in schools throughout the Soviet Union. It wasn’t until 1980 that the first day of school became a Union-wide holiday, the Day of Knowledge.
Much like American students stereotypically present their teachers with red apples at the start of the school year, Soviet and Russian students traditionally bring flowers, while political leaders make public pronouncements of gratitude to the country’s teaching staff. Bigwigs like Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev tour schools, with news programs broadcasting footage of these high-profile visits. Billboards on the street greet passersby with “Happy 1st of September!” – in case you forgot after a month of back-to-school sale commercials.
Visitors to Russia around this time may hear references to a cryptic “ruler” that allegedly “occurs” on this day. Nothing mysterious here! In grade schools, students line up by grade; in universities, just the first-years line up. This is also a good time for the “first bell” tradition: a first-grade girl rides around the shoulders of an eleventh-grade boy (Russian schools go up to eleven grades), ringing a literal handbell.
Once the bell has been rung, it’s time for the first lesson. But what to teach? On average, eight out of eleven times, the first day of school will involve the infamous “what I did over the summer” essay. Soviet teachers, however, had a more peculiar lesson plan: because the Day of Knowledge coincides with the Day of Peace, which marks the start of World War II (specifically, the German invasion of Poland), the first lesson was sometimes referred to as the “Peace Lesson,” and involved teaching students about “imperialist” aggressors and the struggle for peace throughout the world.
So while you enjoy your day off for Labor Day (if you’re in the US), Russian students are dressing up for their first day of school, bringing their teachers flowers, lining up and waiting for the first bell. Happy September 1, everybody!