Winter 2002 (10.4)
No More Red Ties!
the Soviet Noose Around Our Necks
by Aynur Hajiyeva
Anyone paying close attention to the
nuance of symbols could have predicted the demise of the Soviet
system several years before it actually happened. One such indicator
was the disappearance of those bright red Pioneer ties. In a
sense, the Pioneer program was the Soviet equivalent of Boy Scouts
and Girl Scouts, except that it was sponsored by the government
and thoroughly integrated into the school system. Pioneers also
served as a preliminary indoctrination for Communist Party membership,
which would follow years later for the privileged few. In January
1990, almost two years before the official announcement of the
collapse of the Soviet Union (December 1991), Azerbaijan suffered
the dark days of what has become known as "Black January",
when Soviet tanks entered Baku and opened fire, killing hundreds
of innocent civilians. This was Gorbachev's brutal attempt to
crush the independence movement in Azerbaijan. But the plan backfired
and, in fact, served to accelerate the independence movement.
Many of the most devout Communist Party members became disillusioned
and did the unthinkable - set fire to their Party ID cards. It
was a shocking reaction - like severing ties to all of your lifetime
It wasn't long before the children
also began untying those red ties from around their necks, disassociating
themselves from the Soviet system as well. Here university student
and former Pioneer Aynur Hajiyeva (1980- ) explains the meaning
that was bound up in those pieces of red cloth that are now so
Left: At last-the long-awaited
moment of receiving the coveted red Pioneer tie. Ceremony at
the Lenin Museum, 1962.
Right: Pioneer Initiation
Ceremony at the Lenin Museum (now the Carpet Museum) in 1965.
(Naturally, the Lenin statue is no longer on exhibit.)
(Photos: National Photo Archives)
Pioneer ties were the ultimate
status symbol for kids like me. The ties were simple triangles
of red cloth made out of some sort of nylon material that was
forever wrinkling. But they soon took on deeper levels of association
for us. They were our initiation into the power of symbols.
Left: Pioneers on parade in Lenin Square
(now called Freedom (Azadlig) Square) in Baku, on the occasion
of Lenin's 94th birthday, 1964 (Photo: National Photo Archives).
Being a Pioneer was
the second step up the ladder to becoming a member of the Communist
Party. Children in Grades 1-4 were called "Octobrists"
(October refers to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia).
By Grade 5, when most students were about 10 years old, the brightest
and best were invited to become "Pioneers".
Eventually everyone in the class would sport the red ties, but
this was our first taste of hierarchy in a society that touted
Between Grades 8-10, everybody became Komsomols. Eventually,
at the final stage, some were invited to enter the privileged
world of the Communist Party.
Most kids didn't become Pioneers until they were 10 or 11 years
old. I was seven because I had started school early and had also
skipped a grade. Nevertheless, I was the first student in my
class chosen to be a Pioneer. I considered it my first major
achievement in life. As I look back, I'm sure my teachers used
me as an example to prod the other kids, "Look how young
and studious she is. She's a Pioneer. Study hard and you can
be one, too!"
Becoming a Pioneer was really a big deal. Our inaugural ceremony
was held in the schoolyard. How tall and straight we tried to
stand - just like soldiers. We had practiced our military salutes
with swift precise movements, positioning our hands at just the
right angle. I remember taking the solemn oath to become a Pioneer:
"Here in the presence of
In the presence of my Pioneer leader,
And my Motherland,
I make this oath.
I am becoming a Pioneer.
I promise not to do anything
that would blemish the name of the Pioneers.
I'll be brave.
I'll help my friends when they're in trouble.
I'll study well.
I'll try to do my best for my Motherland.
I'll always protect my Motherland."
And then, the long-awaited moment
came when my Pioneer leader put the red tie around my neck -
I was so proud. I remember how I never wanted to take it off.
I would go strutting around and showing it off to everyone, especially
when I first got it.
Whenever I went for a walk with my father, he would ask, "Isn't
it too hot for you to wear that?" I would reply, "No,
not at all," Never mind the scorching heat, I didn't want
to take it off - ever!
There were so many rules to follow. The right tip had to extend
down further than the left tip. I can't remember exactly what
that was supposed to mean, but we had to strictly observe it.
My tie was always slipping around my neck. My Pioneer leader
would fuss at me: "Do you think you're a cowboy? Look like
a real Pioneer! Adjust your tie!" I would do my best to
fix it, but never managed to succeed for long.
I remember how the material used to wrinkle so easily. If a single
drop of water accidentally got on the tie, it would bleed and
leave a stain, making it look like you hadn't washed it for ages.
Most Pioneers washed and ironed their ties every night.
We wore our ties to school every day without exception. I'll
never forget: once I was late and just as I was running into
the school building, I realized: "Whoops! No tie."
I was just about to race out the door and home again when the
Pioneer leader caught me.
"Where's your Pioneer tie?" she scolded. She would
accept no excuse. "No matter what happens, you must never
forget your tie! Go and write a composition about Lenin's life.
Make it at least two pages long." I was seven years old
at the time.
So I ran home, tears streaming down my face. It had been an innocent
mistake but I felt ashamed. I had simply been in a hurry and
forgotten my tie. Luckily, I found a composition I had already
written about Lenin for one of my classes. I grabbed it, put
on my tie and ran back to school again.
Our fascination with ties didn't last long. We were growing up
in the 1980s, and our country was beginning to take its first
steps toward independence. Beginning in 1988, there were massive
demonstrations held in Lenin Square (now "Freedom"
or "Azadlig Square").
For the first time, our parents and teachers began to complain
about the difficulties of the Soviet period. They dared to tell
us that the Russians were not really our friends, and that our
country needed to get out from under the oppressive rule of what
was, in truth, the Russian Empire in the guise of the "Soviet
We had never heard such things before. We had grown up with slogans
like "Lenin is great. He is our grandfather." I still
remember some of the poems dedicated to Lenin's memory.
"With red flags in our
We are fighting on the path that Lenin made.
We are fighting,
We are working on the path that Lenin made for us."
Needless to say, we didn't fully
understand the content of the poems. Another poem was more symbolic:
"Let there be sun forever.
Let there be sky forever.
Let there be my mother forever,
And I will be forever."
The sun, of course, meant the
Soviets, and mother meant Motherland. The poem seemed simple,
but its meaning was deeper. We gradually began to understand
We had classes where they taught us "Soviet History"
- that's what they called it, but really it was Russian history.
The other 14 republics were barely ever mentioned. What happened
in the other 14 republics before the Soviets took over? What
about Azerbaijan? We were denied the right to know our own history.
For example, we were never taught that Yerevan (now Armenia)
used to be populated mostly by Azerbaijanis. As far as the history
of Azerbaijan was concerned, they only told us about the early
After the Black January tragedy of 1990, everyone understood
Russia's true position toward us. The relationship and trust
had been destroyed. Our country went into mourning for 40 days.
Classes were canceled. Black flags and strips of black cloth
hung everywhere - from cars, windows, trees-to remind us of our
people who had been so viciously murdered by the Soviet troops.
Officially, 156 had died in the attack. A more accurate figure
might be 500.
When classes finally resumed, I wasn't sure if I should still
wear my red tie or not. I started wondering: "Why should
I wear this red tie? What does the Soviet system have to do with
me? How could they kill their own people?"
I decided to ask our Pioneer leader: "Do we have to wear
these ties anymore, now that the Soviets are treating us so badly?"
Her answer was very revealing. She paused and then confessed,
"You know, I'm not sure."
In the past, if I had posed such a bold question, she would have
yelled at me, "What are you talking about? What's your problem
with wearing it? Oh, I can't believe you! Of course you have
to wear it!" But this time, her uncertainty could not be
hidden. "We'll talk about it later," she told me.
Here was our Pioneer leader - a woman who had held such a strong
belief in our country - and now her own confidence and trust
in the system had been shaken. Her hesitation signaled that something
was dreadfully wrong. Even a child could figure that out.
No More Ties
No one told us to stop wearing the ties when we returned to school.
It just happened gradually. One day, two students showed up not
wearing them; the next day, three more. That's the way it went
until before long, the majority of students had stopped wearing
I continued wearing mine for a while but then I stopped. No one
ever asked: "Why aren't you wearing your red tie today?"
Even though we were very young, we understood that the ties around
our necks were more than red pieces of cloth. They had become
nooses that strangled our own identity and our own security and
Some Pioneers burned their red ties; others threw them away.
I just took mine off and set it aside. I think it's in a pile
of old clothes somewhere. I'm not exactly sure anymore. It seems
so long ago and far away.
In 1998, when this article was
written, Aynur Hajiyeva was in her final year of studies in linguistics
at the Azerbaijan State Institute of Languages. She was a member
of the Editorial Staff of Azerbaijan International magazine.
She has since married and moved to Turkey. Contact her at email@example.com
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