Russian Language Blog

Celebrating the First of September Posted by on Aug 30, 2010 in Culture, Russian life, Soviet Union, Traditions

I live 5 houses down from «начальная школа» [an elementary school]. It’s a pretty useless piece of trivia, except that every year since we moved into our house, I have had an acute case of «ностальгия» [nostalgia] at about this time of year. «Моя ностальгия – по Первому сентября» [I am nostalgic for the First of September].

In Russia «Первое сентября» [the First of September] is a holiday known as «День Знаний» [the Knowledge Day]. This is a special day for most Russian «школьники и студенты» [school children and college students], but especially so for «первоклассники и первокурсники» [first-graders and college freshmen].

Back in the Soviet days schoolchildren were required to wear «школьная форма»«для мальчиков – тёмно-синий пиджак и брюки» [for boys – dark-blue jacket and trousers], «для девочек – коричневое платье и чёрный фартук» [for girls – brown dress and black apron]. Special occasions, such as the first and the last days of school, called for «белые фартуки» [white aprons] and «белые кружевные манжеты и воротнички» [white lace cuffs and collars] for the girls. Boys’ uniforms looked the same, except were clean, well-ironed and not missing any buttons.

The night before «Первое сентября» we packed our «рюкзаки» [knapsacks] with all the supplies bought at «школьный базар» [temporary back-to-school market] – «пенал с ручками и карандашами» [pencil-case with pens and pencils], «деревянная линейка» [wooden ruler], «тетрадки в линейку и в клеточку» [lined and grid notebooks] with helpful reminders printed on the back cover. These reminders included rules of «хорошего поведения и прилежания» [good behavior and diligence] (i.e. “Don’t play in the street”), multiplication tables or «торжественное обещание пионера Советского Союза» [Solemn Promise of the Soviet Pioneer].

There was also a «дневник», pristinely clean yet already threatening. The word «дневник» usually means a diary. «Школьный дневник» is a combination of a daily planner and a school diary. In it we recorded our class schedules for each day of the week and kept track of homework assignments. Such records were compulsory and regularly reviewed by teachers. At the same time, it was (and probably still is) a convenient place for teachers to record our grades along with any notes concerning our «успеваемость» [academic progress] and «поведение» [behavior in class and during recess].

These notes, in red ink, were usually less than pleasant and all but guaranteed parental wrath. «На уроке музыки хрюкал и кукарекал» [Grunted like a pig and crowed like a rooster during the music lesson] was one such entry in my brother’s «дневник». So if a student was found lacking respect or work ethics – «огрызается» [talks back], «срывает урок» [disrupts lesson], «играет на нервах» [ticks teacher off], «списывает» [copies other’s work] – it was all recorded along with a dreaded «вызов в школу» [summons for parents].

But that wouldn’t come until a few days into the school year. I’ve never known a kid who got his first red note in «дневник» on the first day of school. After all, no real learning ever happened on this day.


Instead it was more of a meet the teacher day. Early in the morning parents would take their kids to the school yard for a «торжественная линейка» [celebratory assembly, lit: lineup]. Although, to be honest, with so people hustling and bustling around the yard (since all grades, from 1st to 11th share the same school building), it was less of a lineup and more of a flower-speckled huddle.  Every single student brought flowers to their teachers – «гладиолусы» [gladioli], «гвоздики» [carnations], «астры» [asters], «георгины» [dahlias].

Loudspeakers would blare upbeat school-themed songs, including the one about all the things one must learn at school – «крепко-накрепко дружить и воспитанными быть» [to form strong friendships and to be well-mannered] and another one about «дважды два – четыре, это всем известно в целом мире» [two times two is four and it’s known all over the world].

«Директор» [Principal] would usually give a short speech welcoming everyone back from vacation and wishing everyone a happy and successful school year.

And then all the attention would turn to «первоклассники» [first-graders], frequently referred to in diminutive «первоклашки». They got special recognition – «Первый Звонок» [the First Bell ceremony].

For this ceremony the tallest boy from the 11th grade (last grade in Russian high-school) and the smallest girl from the 1st grade would parade in front of the assembly. The girl, seated on the boy’s shoulder, «звонила в колокольчик» [rang a bell], a symbol of all upcoming school bells. This First Bell officially marked the end of the ceremony and the beginning of the new school year.

Back in the classrooms the new sets of textbooks were neatly stacked up on «парты» [student desks]. «Классные руководители» or simply «классные» [homeroom teachers] assigned seats and explained classroom chores rotations. We were always reminded that the desks were freshly painted or at least clean from pen and pencil marks and that they better stayed that way.

Then «расписание уроков на первую четверть» [class schedule for the first quarter] was announced and written down in «дневники». Some years we had a short «патриотический урок» [lesson in patriotism] with a «ветеран Великой Отечественной войны» [veteran of the Great Patriotic War] as an invited speaker or «урок мира» [lesson about peace].  After another «памятка о безопасности» [safety brief] the first school day was over.

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  1. josefina:

    This post made me nostalgic as well, Yelena! There’s nothing as magical as Первое сентября в России… начало нового, свежего учебного года – единственный настоящий праздник года! But that’s just my opinion. I’ve been in “school” for… well, 18 years now 😉 so I might very well be biased!

  2. Lois Thorpe:

    It *is* such a holiday – not just for students and teachers – but all who get the chance to see everyone getting ready for it: buying school supplies in the market and carrying flowers to their teachers that day! One interesting note – today the тетрадки now have advertisements in place of guidelines, at least in Kyiv. How our modern world changes!

  3. Prof. Thomas Richardson:

    Hello !

  4. Charles Laster:

    Liked the touch of soviet era nostalgia.

    • yelena:

      @Charles Laster Yeah, I know the times were not as rosy as I write about them, but Sept 1 was always great (even when I was in high school and started hating school in general)

  5. Lois Thorpe:

    Hmm, maybe I overlooked the ‘nostalgia’ part. This is a fairly good description of what school in Ukraine still looks like in 2010.

  6. yelena:

    Lois, you know, before writing this post I watched a lot of YouTube videos about 1-е сентября and it was very heart-warming to see that most of what I remember so fondly still exists. It’s just more colorful, from fancy backpacks and bright balloons to much better-looking clothes children (and adults) wear.