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a line of children entering a door

Kindergarten

A Personal History

Eugene Vodolazkin

Available languages: Deutsch

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We owe the name of this institution to the German pedagogue Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel, but the very first kindergarten was established long before him by Robert Owen. This was the same Owen whom older Russian generations remember from their compulsory studies of scientific communism. Even those who justly considered communism unscientific knew it was from Owen specifically that Marx borrowed a number of absurdities which laid the foundation of his theory of communism.

a line of children entering a door

Photograph courtesy of Dmitry Samofalov

Time spent in kindergarten varies from country to country. In the US, I’m told, it’s only a year. In the USSR, kindergarten lasted for four hopeless years. When I found myself there at the age of three, I must admit I didn’t know much about Froebel or Owen, but the very idea of gathering people in an enclosed space was already repulsive to me. “Young Pioneer” summer camps, other types of militarized assembly – none of those warmed my heart. Even less joy was evoked by the collectivization of labor – from making snowmen to grownup large-scale tasks.

It’s not that I have anything against large-scale tasks. It’s rather that I felt (and still do) that they ought to be solved by individual effort. One could argue that some tasks may only be solved by a group – such as the creation of a very large snowman. Here I’ll have to agree. It’s true, making a very large snowman is hard to do alone. But perhaps such a snowman is simply not necessary.

We reminded ourselves of Robinson Crusoe.

In years past there used to be more snow; in my kindergarten days we were always rolling giant balls of snow and pushing them in groups of three or four. That’s when I grasped what it means for something “to snowball.” The round mass we pushed would devour fallen snow with a crunch, leaving behind uneven tracks, black from last year’s foliage. The subsequent problem was that we couldn’t manage placing one of these giant snowballs on top of another. This was the punishment for our megalomania. We reminded ourselves of Robinson Crusoe, who, having hollowed out a tree trunk to make a canoe, was unable to drag it to the water. Our monster globs would last until the end of winter, and out of everything snowy in our garden they melted last.

If I’m being precise, I should say that I went to two different kindergartens, not one. The first one is a little fuzzy in my memory, due to my tender age. All I have left from this period, with few exceptions, is this quatrain:

That is Lenin in that portrait
In a frame with leaves of green
He was glorious but simple
Just the best the world had seen.

It could come as a surprise that out of all the twinkle-twinkles, this specific rhyme stuck in my head, but then again, what would be so surprising about that? Zombification in the USSR began in the womb. These lines clung to my memory with “In a frame with leaves of green.” The directness of childhood perception could not reconcile this puzzling frame with the one I actually saw – our kindergarten’s Lenin was housed in a simple wooden rectangle. For some years I tried to find an acceptable explanation for these curious lines, by mentally relocating the action to the jungle, say, until coming to the realization that other rhymed assertions had been even more dubious.

a small wooden painted toy

Two kindergartens conflated in my memory into one, so I don’t see anything wrong with combining them in this narrative. The second kindergarten here engulfs the first, but it has every right to do so. This kindergarten corresponded to its name fully, for children there spent their time in an honest-to-goodness garden.

In order to find it one had to duck into a courtyard from the street, and upon reaching one of the building entryways, to walk up to the second floor. A simple apartment door opened into the kindergarten. The building was situated on top of a small hill that was hard to make out in the city landscape. However, even while obscured by buildings, the hill remained, continuing its mysterious existence. It opened up only to those who, having climbed up to the second floor, exited the other side. Here the second floor became the first floor. And that’s where the entrance to the garden was found.

This garden, if memory serves, was planted with fruit, and it had acacia trees lining its perimeter. It continued picking up altitude with the hill, but because it was near the top, the climb wasn’t very noticeable. At least I don’t remember movement throughout the garden registering as movement up and down. It was here that we made snowmen in the winter. In summer we had other pastimes.

Duels, for instance. Or more precisely, the same duel, acted out over and over – the one between Onegin and Lensky. The cast was invariable: me, and some other boy whose name I no longer remember. We had seen the opera Eugene Onegin with our parents and were both shaken to our cores. The romantic collision left us indifferent, but that bodeful “Now advance!” left an indelible impression on us both. In this dueling scene I was cast, in keeping with my name, as Onegin, and my buddy (perhaps he was a Vladimir?) as Lensky.

a small wooden painted toy

This presumed Vladimir was quite rotund and after my gunshot he’d fall rather awkwardly. He exercised caution, choosing a good spot on the grass while slapping his thigh for some reason. I kept showing him how it ought to be done, kept explaining that he can’t choose where to fall, but it was all futile. Swaying on his half-bent legs, he’d touch the ground with his hand and only then would he fall on his side, twigs crackling underneath.

I discovered the romantic side of Eugene Onegin, as well as the magical music of this opera, after kindergarten. I was given a record and listened to it a lot, probably more times than I’d dueled with Lensky. Having memorized all the arias I would sing them to the best of my (modest) abilities. And even now, when I listen to something from time to time (although I no longer duel) after a couple of drinks at an intimate gathering I’m still able to belt out something or other. I’m not at all sure that my singing pleases my friends, but that’s what friends are for – to make certain sacrifices. The roots of my dubious vocal prowess go back, unquestionably, to my opera-inspired duels.

I should note that these duels belong to the later period of my kindergarten days. This was the high note – a high F, so to say, of my existence before school. Yet it began in a much more modest way: the first two years of kindergarten were the main source of my childhood sorrows. Nobody was mean to me, but my unwillingness to go there could be likened to a fear of going to the dentist. Furthermore, in rating my reluctance, the dentist would, I think, win out over the kindergarten because the former was just a normal fear of pain – there was no dental anesthesia back then – while the latter was an insurmountable despair, inexplicable to all, including me.

The first two years of kindergarten were the main source of my childhood sorrows.

It should be noted that my behavior, too, was irrational. I would obediently get up, wash up, allow myself to be dressed in a shirt and baggy pants (I still remember the winter version of these) and would rather calmly proceed all the way up to the kindergarten door. Once there, I would abruptly turn around and continue walking – in the opposite direction. When they’d bring me back I would begin to sob and beg them not to leave me in this sad, sad place.

Everyone who got to accompany me to kindergarten was astounded by the fact that I began my maneuvers specifically upon reaching the door. They didn’t ask me about it directly (the very question would have hinted at the acceptability of the action) but rather indirectly would pry as to why my tantrums unfailingly began at the very last moment, instead of while I was washing or having those baggy pants pulled up my legs. After all, I was aware of the destination from the get-go.

a small wooden painted toy

What could I answer? Yes, obviously I knew where we were going, and would begin moping upon waking, having barely opened my eyes. Generally speaking, mornings were a rather cheerless affair for me. Gloomy darkness outside my window, plastic-sounding voices coming from an old radio – none of it improved my mood. But I was at home, and in gratitude for this I was willing to look out into the snowy gloom, to listen to the radio, and God knows what else I was willing to do! Before we reach my kindergarten door, thought I, so much could still happen. So a terminally ill patient refuses to poison what’s left of his time with histrionics.

I was able to control my sorrow even as we walked down the street. Stretching what was left of my minutes into eternity, I would tell myself that we still had a long way to go: first we’ll have to walk past the pharmacy, past some sort of bronze fellow on a horse, past the thorny bushes. Walking by the bushes I thought about how we still have to duck into the courtyard and then walk up to the second floor. And on the second floor is where, obviously, it would all begin.

When they’d ask me why I cried so much approaching the classroom I’d answer that the lamps were too bright. From the view of the grownups, lighting could not be a serious cause for suffering, and so no changes were ever made. Had I invented something like an inability to get along with the kids (or teachers) in class, my complaints would probably have been met with more empathy. But I was telling the honest (although improbable) truth: nothing brought me more despair than the piercing light of the fluorescent bulbs. These noxious rays were completely unlike the soft lighting at my house. They mercilessly illuminated the shortcomings of this preschool institution (primarily, the presence of wicked and energetic children) that, presumably, under different lighting conditions, would have been left in the shadows.

A teachable moment: little humans do not like changes.

Any change to my established world order brought with it a new wave of unhappiness, and so it was a true shock to the system when the dining tables were swapped. One fine morning, instead of our comfortable – albeit somewhat worn – dining tables, the pupils of the kindergarten discovered long-legged monsters of an unnaturally yellow color. At home I recounted how sitting at these tables it was impossible to reach one’s food, and suggested not going to kindergarten anymore. This sounded even less plausible than the story of the light bulbs, so back to kindergarten I went.

But the next morning, to my great surprise, the legs of the tables had already been shortened (with the sawed-off bits carefully stacked in the corner). The tables themselves had been lowered to an appropriate height and the dishes from the school kitchen were once again within arm’s reach. The cuisine didn’t bring much joy, but the return of the tables to a familiar size had a calming effect on me.

A teachable moment: little humans do not like changes. They like it when today is exactly like yesterday, and tomorrow is like today. That’s why, for example, one shouldn’t travel too much with them. Frequent trips tire them out. I also think they don’t so much like reading as they enjoy re-reading, because that is a return to the familiar.

Keeping down these delicacies was a task failed by many.

But back to the aforementioned cuisine. This is a separate conversation, and thinking about that food still makes me hiccup. Clumpy semolina porridge, red bars of alleged beets in the borsch, pasta with a chlorine smell, rubbery pears in compote – the menu wasn’t terribly varied. Keeping down these delicacies was a task failed by many. I can still hear the despondent bickering with our teacher about how much we must eat and how much we could leave on the plate.

Remembering all this, I had many doubts about sending my own daughter to kindergarten. And having sent her, I was anticipating the same suffering and laments. I was ready to take her out at the first sign of trouble, to finally say out loud all that was left unsaid in childhood, to put a curse upon this institution for eternity. But to my great surprise, my daughter liked going to kindergarten, even growing upset when I’d pick her up early. This wasn’t the same kindergarten I went to, but they are all so similar. None of them would have suited me.

My childhood suffering subsided in time. Something happened (they say I grew out of it) and by five and a half I went to kindergarten not without joy. The food, of course, hadn’t improved and I rarely ate there (I was allowed breakfast at home) but it wasn’t food that had been the bane of my kindergarten existence. I no longer sank into a depression at the thought of having to go there, of spending time with, among others, those I didn’t like. Any kind of accidental – and perhaps involuntary – assembly presumes that you’ll have to spend time with those you’d otherwise avoid. It also implies a fixed hierarchy when instead one wants to presume every person unique, existing outside of any constructs.

In that second, happy period of my kindergarten life, all was well with my place in the hierarchy. I had the opportunity to duel to my heart’s content (and this required a rather high degree of freedom) and to do whatever is normally available to one with rights. Furthermore, I interpreted the scope of what was permissible to mean more, in a sense, than the other kindergarteners.

For instance, I felt free to do impressions of the employees of my kindergarten, up to (oh, the horror!) its director, Ada Georgievna. My portrayal of Ada Georgievna focused on the manner in which she ate, or more specifically, on the array of pneumonic effects that accompanied her consumption of liquids. The success of my theatrics was guaranteed because everyone knew what she did: for some reason the teachers and the director ate with the children.

I should note that encourage­ment of my impressions didn’t end with the other students: there were appreciative audience members among the teachers. Like all normal folk, the teachers didn’t like their higher-ups, perhaps even despising them whole­heartedly. When Ada Georgievna was out of the room, they’d ask me to show them how she ate her pickled cucumber soup, or how she drank hot milk, and I’d oblige. Judging by their uproarious laughter, my performance wasn’t half bad – especially in the soup number, which included a supposed suctioning up of not just liquid, but pickles too.

a small wooden painted toy

Kindergarten was a miniature model of real life, where days of glory and success intertwined with periods of failure and bad luck. One Defender of the Fatherland Day (a Soviet holiday celebrated on the twenty-third of February) our kindergarten society was paid a visit by soldiers from a nearby military unit. They told us of their difficult lives and asked about our, also difficult, lives. Somehow it came to be known that my buddy Alesha Semenov’s birthday happened to be the twenty-third of February. And then Alesha got a birthday surprise: he was placed on a chair, and two of the tallest soldiers lifted him – in the chair – right up to the ceiling. He sat there, right under the plaster, holding on firmly with both hands, fear mixing with pure and utter joy in his eyes. Alesha looked down at us from above and we stood around him, tiny – even tinier than usual. And then, in the hopes of also being lifted up in the chair, I yelled out that my birthday is the twenty-first of February. Of course I didn’t expect to be lifted as high as Alesha – after all, the date wasn’t quite right. But on the other hand it was a small difference, and practically speaking, the twenty-first is almost like the twenty-third, so surely they could have lifted me to at least half of where they lifted Alesha.

But they didn’t – I never even left the ground. I was told that almost doesn’t count, and this sounded like the voice of justice. It wasn’t voiced by the soldiers; they were nice guys, and lifting up another birthday boy would have been no trouble. If I’m not mistaken, the voice belonged to the oldest employee of our kindergarten institution, one who would periodically utter wise but utterly vicious things. And so my wings were stepped on, and happiness, having been so near, remained just out of reach.

This missed opportunity to soar toward the ceiling became one of the biggest disappointments of my childhood, a bigger disappointment being only my unrealized dream of sailing on the leaf of a tropical plant called the Victoria amazonica. I had read somewhere that its leaf can hold up to twenty-five kilos and so, allegedly, children in the tropics use them as boats. I dreamed about this for a long time – until I was in second or third grade, woefully aware of my unrelenting growth and subsequent weight gain. And then my horizons expanded, life became more colorful, and the dream dissipated all by itself.

Painful is the knowledge that you can’t return somewhere or that you can’t return something.

Concluding this story, I should tell you that despite an abundance of apples, my kindergarten was not a Garden of Eden. But in the manner in which its doors clanked behind me for the final time, an unexpected parallel emerged with the Pearly Gates. I was no longer allowed inside this garden. I couldn’t even see it from behind the building, the fence, and the acacias. It seems to me that having been banished from paradise, Adam and Eve suffered not just because life was good there and bad outside, but also from the realization that there was no way back.

Painful is the knowledge that you can’t return somewhere or that you can’t return something: it’s a scourge of time and space. A scourge, more immediately, in the form of bags under your eyes, a belly bulging over your belt, and, in a wider sense, in the form of experience – that is, all things that grow whether we want them to or not. I haven’t checked my weight in quite a while, but I’m pretty sure it’s more than twenty-five kilos. Clearly, the Victoria amazonica will have to set sail without me.


Translated from the Russian by Anya Migdal

Contributed By Eugene Vodolazkin Eugene Vodolazkin

Eugene Vodolazkin is a historian and novelist. His novels include Laurus, The Aviator, and Solovyov and Larionov.

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