Babinsky. School (1952 – 1963). 1: Choosing a School

Babinsky. School (1952 – 1963). 1: Choosing a School

Bena Babinskaya. Kiev. Year 1952.

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Choosing a School

The misfortune of ending up in Kurenevka marked a happy ending and a happier beginning. Stalin’s steamroller left us on the side of the road, bruised but not crushed. Miraculously, after nine months of homelessness and separation, not only were we together, we were together in a private apartment, Abram had a job, and the adults had propiska. For those miserable nine months, their passports showed a stamp terminating their propiska on the day of eviction in January 1951 and no stamp with a current address. Had their identities been checked this fact would have amounted to admission of vagrancy, a phenomenon that could not exist in the Soviet Union, by definition. The consequences were best not to think of, particularly for Abram, a proven cosmopolitan, and for me – a child without an address qualified for orphanage.

As soon as we settled in our new life, school enrollment became top priority. My parents had set their hearts on School No. 14. According to the grapevine, it was not only the best in Kurenevka but one of the best in the city. It was located a mile away, opposite the farmer’s market where Rakhil hired peasant women to do our big laundry. Pre-Revolution, its small building had housed a boarding school for girls of noble birth. The school had instructions in Russian and topnotch teachers. For a ruble a day, a neighbor would walk me there.

However, our home address, aka propiska, tied us to a school nearby with instructions in Ukrainian, shunned in the mostly Russian-speaking Kiev. The geographical requirements of School No. 14 covered the still village-like edge of the city where the owners of private houses were exempt from propiska. They just had to enter their names and family relationships in a house  register. In theory, if a trustworthy local untainted by Nazi collaboration during the war would agree to add my name to his register…  But would he consider contaminating himself with a Jewish blood connection? Would he blackmail us or tip off the authorities? To parade us, unrepentant cosmopolitans, in a newspaper would be a gift to Stalin’s campaigns that showed no signs of abating.

Just as the vision of School No. 14 was sliding behind the horizon, Avram discovered that his subordinate, Abram Isayevich Nemirovsky, one of the few Jews indigenous to pre-war Kurenevka, owned a house mere steps away from the coveted school. Typically, it consisted of one large room. It fit a bed, a wardrobe with a mirror, a table with an attached bench, a gigantic wood-burning stove, a rusted sink, and a tub on frog legs used to store firewood. Refusing a bribe, he wrote in my name into his register as his great-niece and received approval for the change in his household. My job was to memorize his address as my home address.

With a disclaimer “she is Ukrainian but not an anti-Semite,” Abram Isayevich introduced us to his outhouse-sharing neighbor, Maria Fyodorovna Kuznetsova, a first-to-fourth-grade teacher at my future school. (He had entrusted his house to her during the war when he and his late wife, a nurse, went to the front.) A newspaper and a magazine weighted down the capacious pocket of her apron.

Rakhil confessed, shamefacedly, that I knew how to read but, luckily, did not know how to write. She absolutely agreed with the concept that children should not know how to read or write when they began school – the same starting point would ensure equal progress in the Soviet society. But she hoped that my obstinacy would not count against me.  It was not every day that Rakhil sounded meek or contrite. Maria Fyodorovna pulled out the magazine and asked me to read from a random page. “She’ll be bored in first grade. I have the third grade this year, I’ll take her,” she concluded.

(Fourteen years later, the novel Babi Yar, pawed a bit by censors, made her son, Anatoly Kuznetsov, famous. A teenager at the time of the Nazi occupation, he based his story on personal observations. Following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, he defected to England.)

Babi Yar, 29./30. 9. 1941 — Murder of 33771 Jewish people.
Author Johannes Hähle (1906–1944), German military photographer
Source: Soviet POWs covering a mass grave after the Babi Yar massacre, October 1, 1941.
Source: (SERGEI LOZNITSA). “The Natural History of Destruction.”

Maria Fyodorovna assured us that the principal, Nikifor Fedotovich Naumenko, would not object to my jumping over two grades. He wanted advanced pupils and, she hinted, might have disregarded the out-of-district address. Makarenko’s student, he had unparalleled influence in the city’s school administration (Anton Makarenko, a revered Soviet educator, established self-supporting labor communes where he rehabilitated street urchins after the Russian Civil War.)

Nikifor Fedotovich, a juvenile delinquent whose life Makarenko had turned around, graduated from the Course of Agitators and Instructors of the Communist Party that transformed into a Communist University that transformed into the Supreme Party School. His vocabulary and grammar remained rudimentary.

A stocky unsmiling man with a potato nose and a lion roar, he knew every pupil by name and was universally feared and loved by them. When he stopped some hapless first-grader on the first floor for running, the tenth-graders on the third floor stopped running.

Nikifor Fedotovich guaranteed the authorities a model school to trot out to various delegations. For that he demanded, and received, full discretion in staffing and in pupil selection. He accepted children of intelligentsia that resided outside the school’s district and turned away most children from uneducated families that resided in the school’s district. Worse, he hired professors discarded by institutions of higher learning—Maria Fyodorovna did not utter cosmopolitan or Jewish but she didn’t have to. By all accounts, Nikifor Fedotovich earned the title of mensch.

Through blat—she worked at a garment factory, after all—Rakhil acquired brown wool for my school uniform, black wool for the everyday pinafore, white cambric for the holiday pinafore. Polina sewed the dress and both pinafores and crocheted lace embellishments for the white pinafore. For the first school day, she sewed the white over-collar and over-cuffs to the uniform, afterward it was my daily chore, not a favorite one.

Daily Sewing on Over-collar and Over-cuffs to School Uniform. Picture by Evgenia Dvoskin. From:

Everyday School Outfit: Uniform, Black Pinafore, Briefcase, Dark Bows. Source; https://www.imperiasumok.rublogfokus-v-proshloe-kak-sunduk-prevratilsya-v-portfel.html

The pinafores had folds on the bottom and on the handkerchief pocket and secreted fabric inside the belts to let out as I grew. The dress had a hem sufficient for three school years; after that, Polina went with a two-piece solution. She had to replace the top more frequently than the skirt because I inherited Avram’s tendency to sweat; Rakhil, like many Gnoyenskys, did not sweat at all.

(Antiperspirants entered the Soviet reality in the late 1970s, after our emigration. Limited to the black market in the beginning, the product quickly rose in status to the most desirable present for a girlfriend.)

First Days of School.

The calendar marked the First of September, the first school day, in red. Dressed-up parents escorted girls in white pinafores and boys in blue suits to school.

Soviet School outfit. Boys: Uniform, Briefcase. Girls (for special occasions): Uniform, White Pinafore, White Bows, Briefcase. Source:

Our principal roared a speech in the school backyard. Teachers marched their pupils around the building and through the main lobby graced by a wall-size painting of a little girl presenting a bouquet of wild flowers to Stalin.

Kiev. Area of Kurenevka. Building of former School No. 14. Year 1997.
Kiev. Area of Kurenevka. Building of former School No. 14. Year 1997.

Sun lit up everything in the picture: the blue sky, the green meadow, the grandfatherly Stalin in white military attire, the girl’s rosy worshipping face, her white pinafore. The ceiling prevented Stalin from straightening up to his full height, so he looked squashed vis-à-vis the girl. I did not know then that in real life he was five-four but I doubt that the painter had intended to zero in on that fact.

Scrawny and short for my age I appeared even tinier next to third-graders, especially when wearing the obligatory oversleeves.

Oversleeves (narukavniki) worn by bookkeepers and school children. Photo from:

I read better than some of my classmates and recited Samuil Marshak’s poems easily and, it turned out, we were almost equal in arithmetic. But they knew so much more. They knew all the rules, like to speak only when called on after raising your hand and to stand up before speaking. They raised their hands correctly and stood up when Maria Fyodorovna came in and was leaving the classroom.

Soviet School Classroom. Photo from:

Soviet School Classroom. Source:

They had two years of calligraphy under their belts. In first grade they learned to write in pencil, in the second they progressed to dip pens.

Dip Pens used in Soviet School. 1950s. Source:

They knew how to change a pen nib when it broke. They used the inkwells and blotting paper masterfully;

Non-Spill Inkwell used in Soviet Schools in the 1940s-1960s. Photo from:

Ink-Blotting Paper for school. Source:

my inkblots were so fat that Maria Fyodorovna’s big semi-round blotter had to come to the rescue.

Ink-Blotter for school. Source:

And they had calluses and ink stains on their middle fingers while I had ink stains on my hands and cheeks. My classmates disliked me because Maria Fyodorovna spent a lot of time helping me.

I contended with sneak shoves and braid pulls. I didn’t even cry or tattletale when boys sat on my briefcase after pushing the non-spill inkwell into it after class. The ink did spill inside. When I placed the inkwell into the desk recess the next morning there was not enough ink in it to fill my pen. I practiced writing at home but the letters came out crooked and shaky. In a few days, Maria Fyodorovna handed me over to Maria Illarionovna Poplavskaya who taught the first grade that year.

“Be patient while we learn the alphabet, we’ll catch up in no time,” Maria Illarionovna whispered in my ear. “Do you know that the school has a library?”

Slight and soft-spoken, she became the second mother to us for four years. Rakhil insisted that I invite Maria Illarionovna to the graduation ceremony eleven years later and thank her in my speech as the most precious teacher in our lives.

Previous: Early Years. 5: Normalcy. Friendships

Next: School. 2: Father of all Nations died; Joining the Pioneers

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