What was it like growing up and attending school in the Soviet Union and other socialist societies? Did the lived experiences of children match the official rhetoric of the state or the Western bloc? What agency did children have? My guests today are Iveta Silova and Nelli Piattoeva. Together with Zsuzsa Millei, they have a new co-edited book that explores the memories of everyday life in socialist societies, showing the multiplicity and political nature of childhood experiences.
Their memories challenge the master-narratives that have come to dominate the way we think about the Soviet Union and other Socialist societies. Ultimately, their work pushes the field of comparative education in new directions.
Iveta Silova is a professor at Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University and Nelli Piattoeva is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Education and Culture, University of Tampere, Finland.
Their new co-edited book is entitled Childhood and Schooling in (Post)Socialist Societies: Memories of Everyday Life.
Nelli Piattoevia’s photo credit: Jonne Renvall/Tampere University
Citation: Silova, Iveta & Piattoeva, Nelli, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 162, podcast audio, www.freshedpodcast.com/Silova-Piattoevia.
Transcript, Translation, and Resources:
Will Brehm 1:43
Iveta Silova and Nelli Piattoeva, welcome to FreshEd.
Iveta Silova 1:45
Thanks, Will. Thanks for having us on FreshEd.
Nelli Piattoeva 1:48
Thank you Will. It’s really nice to be here. Thanks for the invitation.
Will Brehm 1:51
So, you were both born in countries in the Soviet Union. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like to go to school and be educated while growing up? So, Iveta, what was it like growing up in Latvia?
Iveta Silova 2:06
Well, this is a pretty difficult question, actually. And it’s easier for me to answer that question in terms of what Soviet schooling experience was not. And it’s partially because there are so many accounts of socialist schooling and childhood that are very stereotypical. And that’s not necessarily what we, as children experienced in our daily lives. So, for example, many of the documentaries or photographs of Soviet schooling are these stark, black and white pictures or motion pictures that depict a pretty authoritative schooling. And I guess what I wanted to say was my own experience was nothing like that whatsoever. It was definitely not black and white, it was full of color. And it actually was full of all kinds of paradoxes, full of optimism and dullness. Definitely some ideological commitments but also ideological absurdities at the same time. So, there was nothing really predictable or very linear about that childhood.
Will Brehm 3:23
And what about you, Nelli? I mean, where did you grow up, in what country?
Nelli Piattoeva 3:27
I grew up in the Republic that was called the Russian Federation, and particularly in the very western part of that Republic. So very close to the Finnish border, the place was called Karelia. And I grew up in the capital city of this part of the Russian Republic.
Will Brehm 3:49
And what was it like for you growing up in school? I mean, did you have a similar experience to what Iveta was saying about this sort of these paradoxes and the sort of stereotypical narratives of you know, it’s authoritarian, and these black and white photos and videos, and but yet it was actually full of color and dullness and excitement? I mean, what was it like for you growing up in the Soviet Union and going to school there?
Nelli Piattoeva 4:13
I would definitely agree with Iveta that it’s really hard to depict the experience in a few sentences because there was so much about going to school that was both exciting because there were friends, there were different new things that we were learning. We had tasks in the school, like organizing some events, some festivities but also, we had homework, we had exams, and some field trips. So, it’s really, really hard to kind of pick up an umbrella that would describe all of these very different experiences just with one term because it was just both kind of disciplinary, but at the same time, a lot of kind of hidden resistance, and a lot of fun also that we had with my schoolmates.
Will Brehm 5:08
Is there a particular memory, Nelli, that sticks out to you growing up and going to school?
Nelli Piattoeva 5:12
Well, there are many memories that come to my mind. Maybe one that I could share is about the kind of confusion that the Perestroika time inflicted in both kind of students, parents and teachers. So, around the mid 1980’s, as the society became much more open and we got interesting newspapers and books that used to be forbidden in the earlier times, we started also reading kind of really interesting history of the big people like Lenin and Stalin and all the events that we didn’t know about because they were not part of the official history of the time. So, I remember picking up a newspaper that had a little article on Lenin and it actually says that Lenin was also ordering people’s killings. And that was quite shocking because in the kind of the official narrative of the school, we were taught that Lenin was the good granddad that we could all respect and follow also his perfect kind of character. So, I came to school the other day and then as our teacher of literature was discussing Lenin, I raised my hand, and I said, “But look, we can’t talk about letting in this term anymore, because he was killing people”. And there was this silence in the classroom because surely the teacher was aware of all the different new newspapers and the content that they were distributing but still, she decided that this was not the right narrative to practice in the class. And so, my grandmother was called into school, my parents were called, and it was a strange moment of kind of everyone realizing that we can talk now in this terms, and the media was full of this different revelations and still in the school, the teachers were not sure how to react on the knowledge that the children were bringing to school in that context.
Will Brehm 7:34
Yeah, that’s quite interesting. I mean, the sort of the state narrative sort of gets undermined, the official discourse gets undermined by all these sort of other places that knowledge circulates. Iveta, do you have a memory that sticks out to you growing up in Latvia?
Iveta Silova 7:50
Absolutely. So, one of my probably most memorable moments was in the last year of high school, which was in 1989. So, this is when everything was falling apart completely, right. So, everybody knew at that time in Latvia that we probably will not be in the Soviet Union for much longer, but things were still brewing. And in our last year of high school, when we were supposed to take examinations in all of the subjects, including in history, our school administration actually decided to cancel history exam. Because at that point, everybody knew that what we have learned was not right, that it was actually the history that was manipulated by the Soviet apparatus. But the new history was literally not yet written. And so, for me, that was a really memorable moment because it was a realization how history is being written basically by real people in real time, and how it’s also being rewritten in the same manner. So, but as a high school student in the last year of schooling experience, I was absolutely thrilled, together with all of my fellow friends, to not having to take history exam. So, it was fun for us. But also, just as much fun as it was, it also was a real history lesson at the same time. A really serious history lesson.
Will Brehm 9:25
In your new co-edited book, you sort of make this idea that children are indeed, and in fact, political actors in this process of schooling and education. So Nelli, based on your experiences, can you tell us a little bit about how you see children as being political actors?
Nelli Piattoeva 9:40
Well, in our book, and also in the research that we are now undertaking, continuing the book we think that children are indeed political actors because what we see in those numerous stories that our authors have shared in the book is that children reinterpret the environment in which they act and in which they live on their own terms and then they act upon this environment, introducing their own interests, their own motivations, their questions, and critiques into that context. So, in a sense, they’re not necessarily engaging with this environment in very open kind of resisting terms, even though also in the book, we have many beautiful examples of open resistance to the system across the countries -across the context in which the children were living. But also, it’s about kind of children introducing these little cracks into this system, when they just act upon their own interests and motivations in different situations.
Will Brehm 10:46
And I would imagine this isn’t necessarily unique to the Soviet Union. I would imagine that children are political actors in schools just generally. So, what makes it so interesting to study children in the Soviet Union and seeing them as political actors?
Nelli Piattoeva 11:01
Well, one way to answer this question is to go back to what Iveta was saying in the beginning: how children or how the countries and education systems were depicted in Western literature. That basically, everyone was following the ideology of the state, where people were passive victims of a cruel regime. Also, the regimes themselves, I think, saw children as just kind of following the ideology of adults and policymakers. So, this is a way to kind of counteract these narratives, and to say that children had also quite interesting, mundane, also lives in those regimes. And that by looking at these grand narratives, that the macro narratives, we really don’t get a sense of how life was in those years across the countries.
Will Brehm 12:00
Iveta, did you want to jump in and add anything there?
Iveta Silova 12:03
You’re absolutely right. Similar dynamics also happening in other contexts, right. And in fact, we also see socialism as an extension of the “modernity project”, right. And, by extension, a project that also was linked very closely to colonization. And childhood played a very important role in that process of colonization as well because the child basically served almost as an index of what a society should become, and also became almost as this container or space onto which these new kind of visions of society would be inscribed. There are multiple layers of these colonialities that are written onto the childhood. So, one is through modernity, another one is through the Soviet project. And so, it’s really interesting to unpack all of these and also see the connections of the Soviet childhood to childhoods in other contexts.
Will Brehm 13:09
So, I mean, this makes me wonder was the sort of master narrative of the Western view of childhood in the Soviet Union, similar to the narrative that was being perpetuated by the Soviet state itself? Like, were these narratives very, very different? Or did they share any commonalities?
Iveta Silova 13:28
Well, I think, to me, an interesting example would be, so the Western literature would definitely describe the Soviet childhood as highly ideological, and the Western childhood as not ideological at all, right. And I think that in itself is really revealing, right. Because there is as much ideology in the Western modernity project as there was in the Soviet one. And, I think childhood memories in particular are really wonderful tools to try to reveal some of this ideology and dig deeper into what’s beneath it as well.
Will Brehm 14:09
And Nelli, where do you see some of these master narratives of the Soviet Union coming into contact with the master narratives of the West?
Nelli Piattoeva 14:20
Well, what I find really interesting in terms of how children, for instance, were understood as actors in societies in both Eastern and Western, if I may use this language, literature. Children were perceived as kind of socialized by adults and as passive followers of adult’s kind of ideas or policies or interests. So, it’s only actually very recently that childhood studies have changed the perspectives on children and have started to see them as agentic actors understanding the world on their own terms. So, in this sense, let’s say academic narratives of childhood on both West and East were very similar. It is important also to disrupt this kind of binary understanding that academic research on both sides of the of the Iron Curtain was different in their treatment of children.
Will Brehm 15:28
So, when you were growing up, Nelli, do you have memories of thinking about the future when you were growing up?
Nelli Piattoeva 15:35
Well, that was actually a really difficult question. Because I guess for a child growing in that system, the future was pretty -on the one hand, it was determined because we were kind of getting the message of building the egalitarian society, bringing the utopia into reality through our right deeds. So, that was the kind of big discourse that we were growing inside of. But at the same time, of course, I had lots of plans and ideas for my future that were not about following the ideology but were more about having an interesting and good life. So, I was planning, perhaps, the place where I would study. I really wanted to leave my hometown and go to St. Petersburg or Moscow, and one of the universities where I could study different languages and understand different countries, different cultures. So, this kind of very mundane plans that I was making inside that system, not considering the big task that I was supposed to look forward to.
Will Brehm 16:47
And Iveta, what about you? Were there any visions of the future that were different from what was being taught inside schools that you were sort of imagining.
Iveta Silova 17:00
Hmm. So, there were definitely lots of many visions. And some were definitely following what was taught by the ideology and by schools. And I actually very vividly remember being still very young, maybe seven or eight years old, and standing in a very long line for bread, and for maybe some sausages, or sugars that was rationed at that time, right. And so, we all had coupons, and we had to stand in long lines. And I remember very, very vividly standing in the long line with my mother, and my grandmother thinking, “Hmm, but very soon, there will not be lines and we won’t even have to pay for any food”. Of course, that never happened but that definitely was a very clear vision in my mind of what will happen very, very soon. And of course, that vision never came to life.
Will Brehm 18:01
I mean, what’s fascinating to me is that there is this sort of, you know, when a child is growing up, there is this sort of development of a critical consciousness that happens but it’s happening within the systems that are quite ideological, either in the Soviet Union, in the West, or wherever it is, there’s some sort of ideology at play. And it’s sort of that, that navigating that space, which must be -you know, it must be really hard for every child that goes through that, let alone remembering about it, and thinking about how it actually impacted your future. So, I mean, I wonder, you know, those moments that you both mentioned, do you think that they sort of shaped your own ways of thinking about the Soviet Union in general? Like, as you are now both professors of education, reflecting back on memory and in socialist countries, how do your own experiences shape the way you now think about the Soviet Union?
Iveta Silova 18:58
Actually, I wanted to jump really quickly in here to maybe tell a little bit more about how also within the Soviet Union, there was just not one ideology that was being imposed on people, right. There were actually so many other visions of what the society is, and so many different ways in which people lead their lives. And growing up as a child in Latvia. Actually, I very personally experienced these contradictions in my life because I grew up in a family that was ethnically mixed. So, we spoke Russian and Latvian at home. And as much as we experienced Russification, there was also a really, really strong sense of Latvian national identity, right. And as a child, we had to learn to navigate these different spaces and live in between the actually act accordingly, when we were expected to act as a Soviet Russian child, or when we were expected to act as a Latvian child, right? And even at a very, very young age. Actually, in the book, we have a chapter devoted all to the politics of the hair bows in girl’s hair. And so, this is a chapter that Nelli and Zsuzsa and I wrote together, also with Elena Aydarova. And so, in that chapter, I actually write a story about my own memory of the hair bow when the official school pictures were taken at preschool. So, all the girls were supposed to come with a big hair bow, because that symbolized Russianness in a way, or the Soviet citizenship, right. And my parents very purposefully sent me to school without the bow that day. And in fact, I think they probably also very purposefully kept my hair short when I was a child because they did not want me to be associated with being Russian Soviet girl, but they wanted me to be a Latvian girl that would not wear big white hair bows especially for special occasions. So, they sent me to school without the hair bow and there was a lot of commotion and one of the caretakers in the preschool actually made a hair bow for me. But the interesting part was that that day, in the preschool, they actually took two pictures of me, one with a hair bow and one without it. So even at the level of the kind of official schooling experience, in a preschool, they also live this double reality in a way or this multiple reality, right? So, they took one picture that was expected by the authorities and one picture as my parents actually wanted it. And but for me, that was one of the first lessons in Soviet Latvia nationhood at very, very early age.
Will Brehm 22:02
Nelli, did you have to wear a hair bow in school as well?
Nelli Piattoeva 22:05
Yes, definitely. I knew that when we had special occasions in the school like celebrations, or when I was becoming a pioneer, for instance, I knew that it’s obligatory to have a big, white bow in the hair. But as Iveta was saying, and I think you mentioned as well, as children, we knew exactly how to navigate these expectations. So, I would wear, and my mom would make this big bow in my hair when it was expected. But on many other days, on regular days, we knew that this is not something that we have to do. And actually, also wearing or not wearing the bow was a kind of signal to us how we were expected to behave. So, on the regular days when we were not wearing these big bows in the hair when you that we can be much more fallible, much more flexible, also in our behavior. And on those special days though, when the school photographs, for instance we’re taken, we knew that this is when we have to act as ideal pioneers. So, “good girls”. We knew what roles we needed to play in these different situations.
Will Brehm 23:21
So, do you think that this sort of experience you sort of still live today? Like, are you capable of being that flexible living through multiple simultaneous realities almost? You know, being able to navigate these very different political spaces. I mean, is that something that you still do, do you think?
Nelli Piattoeva 23:43
Oh, that’s a tricky question. I think we write about that in the article that we authored with Zsuzsa and Iveta for Comparative Education Review, how as on the one hand, as kind of being born and educated in the socialist and post-socialist societies, we still kind of experience a bit of exclusion in Western academia. But I guess, because we were born in this political context that we had to learn to interpret and navigate, we also now as adults, academics, we’re not just accepting the roles that were given by the outsiders, but we know also how to manage in those different spaces. And we know also how to, I guess, take advantage also of this ambiguous positions that we occupy in the field. So, I think it has made us more sensitive to this different outsider expectations but also given us strategies how to navigate them, and how to play with them and not to submit to them.
Will Brehm 24:56
What about you Iveta?
Iveta Silova 24:58
Actually, one of our colleagues, Madina Tlostanova, she talks about this ability in terms of being a trickster. So, you, at one point, become so skillful at navigating different spaces that you may actually at one point, also feel empowered to play tricks on others to maybe expose these different spaces, right, and actually keep people on their toes for the roles that they allocate for you, which may be stereotypical or hierarchical, on many different basis. So, I think as we also move up in the academic ladder, and maybe have a little bit more power, I think it’s also easier to play these tricks to challenge the system, and to expose different rules that may apply to different groups of people within the system.
Nelli Piattoeva 25:58
Well, maybe one thing that we kind of, also discuss in that article is that because we were brought up with these multiple identities. Iveta growing up in a multicultural family, I grew up also in family with different languages, with different identities. And then we were also educated in the West. So, we are, let’s say, multilingual also in terms of navigating these different cultural contexts and linguistic contexts. So, we can also adjust when we travel, for instance, in our countries of birth, we know how to behave in those contexts. We know how to talk to, for instance, the people, the colleagues that we would like to work with but also, we adjust back in the Western context and know what kind of language to use, or what kind of the expected ways to behave are also familiar to us. So, we are cultural insiders on both sides but also outsiders at the same time. Sometimes it’s hard to say what our positions actually are.
Will Brehm 27:12
I guess the final question I have is, how do you think this is going to shape the field of comparative education in which we find ourselves in? I mean, the study of childhood memories in the Soviet Union and in socialist countries, the realization that your childhood political actorhood has sort of shaped your adult political actorhood. How then is this going to impact the very field of comparative education in your mind?
Iveta Silova 27:43
That’s a great question too, Will. And for me, there are a couple of different ways in which such work can influence comparative education or maybe can deepen some of the comparative education research. And one of them has to deal with memory itself and bringing memory as part of the real quote unquote, research. And, and that, to me is really fascinating because each time we look at metanarratives, the memory pops up all the time, constantly interrupting the metanarratives. But we have been historically trained to ignore memory, because it does not fit into the metanarrative. So, kind of refocusing our gaze on memory and actually giving it weight and giving it importance, I think really helps us to disrupt these metanarratives and bring in other ways of life, ways of being that have been silenced by these dominant narratives in the field. But another way, actually, is also just authorizing ourselves to talk on our own behalf and not have somebody else script our lives and script our futures. So much work in comparative education is about “the other”. We always go somewhere to research somebody else to become experts on a particular group, or a particular phenomenon, distancing ourselves from that particular group, or that particular phenomenon, to make knowledge more objective, right. And it’s actually really problematic because we are, by default, then scripting others, we are not really relating to “the other” in ways that would be meaningful. And so, for me, working with memory and childhood memory in this way, actually is kind of repositioning yourself as knowing subject in the field, right, and authorizing ourselves to talk on our behalf rather than having others talk for us. And so that’s really empowering.
Will Brehm 29:57
And what about you Nelli, how do you see some of this work you’re doing on memory and childhood narratives in the Soviet Union, impacting the field of comparative education?
Nelli Piattoeva 30:06
Well, I see it also, in many ways, as Iveta has already described. I think it’s a really important question in terms of also turning the critical eye on the field and asking why is it that we haven’t worked with the memory before? Why is it that people who the research actually concerns were not allowed to speak on their own behalf? So, I think it’s also a way to continue this kind of critical discussion about where the field comes from? What are the legitimate sources of data that it uses? What are the legitimate questions? Why is it that we have used so much time to study policy, national policy or international policy and translations of international policies, but not that kind of translations of these policies into very mundane lives of people whom these policies affect or shape their lives but also might not shape at all because still, there are different logics that also act on the kind of everyday level. Another question is also about, why is it that the field has concentrated very much on formal schooling or higher education? Why is it that there is still very little research on children below the school age because the many memories that our book also describes are actually memories of rather small kindergarten age children. So, there is definitely space for research also on early childhood education, on small children, that comparative education could also make space for, let’s say.
Will Brehm 31:47
Well, Iveta Silova and Nelli Piattoeva, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It was a pleasure to talk today.
Nelli Piattoeva 31:53
Thank you so much.
Iveta Silova 31:54
Thank you so much, Will, for having us. It’s always a great pleasure and fun.
Childhood and Schooling in Socialist Societies