Volume:2, Issue: 1

Apr. 1, 2010

The Timeless Light of “Red Dawns”
Boguslavsky, Mikhail V. [about]

DESCRIPTORS: school labor commune; attractive educational models; Ignaty Vyacheslavovich Ionin; pedagogical Robinsonade; school self-government; project method; John Dewey; a beautiful utopia doomed to failure.

SYNOPSIS: this article introduces the readers to a very famous and a very successful school commune of the 1920s and 1930s, almost forgotten later in the history of education, which was founded and headed by Ignaty Ionin. The author portrays the history of the school’s development and its gradual growth into a true effective educational establishment with such core values as labor, intellectual and creative activities, self-management, and project learning. The article does not only disclose new facts from the school’s life but it also clarifies the reasons for its founder’s success and his life tragedy.

The Timeless Light of “Red Dawns” (Krasniye Zori)

It was the 1920s. With every sunrise, a horse rider would appear in the fields around Strelna, a settlement near Saint Petersburg. Spurring his horse on, the lank figure of the rider quickly inspected the outskirts of the community with an obsession in every movement that would make Don Quixote proud. Indeed, he was very much like a real Hidalgo in search of a beautiful dream, which had always lived in his imagination. He wanted every human being to have his cup of life full to the brim, to live in constant harmony with other people and with nature, and to be in unison with the world around him. That rider was Ignaty Vyacheslavovich Ionin, principal of the renowned school commune “Krasniye Zori” (Red Dawns).

Everyone is entitled to everything

Pedagogical practice requires attractive models that will stand the test of time. Among Russian innovative schools, the holistic system of the “Krasniye Zori” school stands out as such a model and a gold standard of national pedagogical culture. “Everyone is entitled to everything” was Ignaty Ionin’s maximalist credo; and this everything implied the broadest range of life’s aspects. One of them was labor – rewarding labor which, above all, gives joy to the laborer himself and makes the laborer happy. Everything also means a full-fledged educational process with all kinds of labor and creative activities.

However, the rider was more than an enthusiastic idealist, he was known as an efficient manager, a skilled organizer, and a brilliant pedagogue who was the first to implement ideas and achievements unfairly credited later to Anton Makarenko2. Ignaty Ionin’s activity inspired admiration in our country and overseas. Unfortunately, like hundreds of thousands of our fellow countrymen, in 1930s he was undeservedly dismissed from the work he loved with all his heart and forgotten for many years.

Ignaty Vyacheslavovich Ionin was born into a family of doctors on December 31, 1892 in the settlement of Ropsha not far from Saint Petersburg. There were many children in the family. Ionin’s life path resembled those of the many other glorious representatives of his time who devoted themselves to selfless service to Russia and the people.

A graduate of the Peterhof men’s classical school, Ignaty Ionin entered the Saint Petersburg University, majoring in natural sciences at the Department of Physics and Mathematics. Such distinguished professors as Nikolay Vvedensky, Alexander Dogel, and Alexey Ukhtomsky taught him. Ignaty had only just received his degree in 1915 when he was drafted into the Russian army as the First World War had already begun. He went to a naval flight school for officers in Baku (the capital of Azerbaijan). Having completed his training, Ignaty Ionin began his military service as a lookout pilot in the 2nd Air Squadron. After receiving a severe wound, he was demobilized and returned home to Strelna just at the time of the October Revolution (October Armed Revolt) of 1917. Throughout 1918 and 1919, Ignaty Ionin served as pilot in the Red Army after which he was finally demobilized due to bad health.

Ignaty Ionin’s life search for his pedagogical credo started with his teaching career at the Leo Tolstoy’s School in Petrograd. Soon after, he was an agronomy instructor at the Mikhaylovskoye summer school-colony. The creation of such schools was the result of the Wartime Communism. The government sent groups of children to spend summer at vacant seaside mansions and parks. There, children were also taught natural science, literature, and music.

Ignaty Ionin enjoyed this work. He wrote to his sister that it felt more like vacation rather than work. While teaching he once suggested that students should plough a patch of land and plant seeds so that in the fall they might enrich their scarce ration. This idea later resulted in the creation of a children’s agricultural labor commune in Mikhaylovskoye.

The main work of his life started on a shivery day of November 21, 1919 when Ignaty Ionin and two other teachers gathered twenty-seven young people aged 18-19 from large impoverished families and established his pedagogical Robinsonade. He founded a school settlement (a “commune”) in Strelna near Peterhof on the site of the former Grand Duke Constantine’s summer palace located on the upper terrace of the Finnish Gulf south coast. The last owner of the later renamed Mikhaylovskoye manor was Grand Duke Sergey Mikhaylovich, son of Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolayevich3.

This summer palace, earlier belonging to the Romanov Royal Family, now hosted children (mostly from poor families who had recently become orphaned) and their teachers – selfless, well educated, devoted to their ideas and having no other possession but their knowledge and hands. Thus a strong branch of pedagogical expression was grafted into the powerful tree of Russian aristocratic culture. Probably it is not a coincidence, considering the traditional contributions of the ruling class to public education in Russia.

First, they settled into the gardener’s house. There were no provisions for normal life and study – no food, no burning oil, no wood or soap, not to even mention desks, books or notebooks. For many months, the only sources of light were candles and … a torch of splinters. “It was a hard struggle for the right to live,” – Ignaty Ionin wrote. – “We had no water or light, hardly ever heat. Surrounded by the forest, we had no tools to make use of it. Eating rotten and frost-bitten potatoes, we were expected to blow the spark of creative activity into a great flame.4

The first winter was very hard. The scant food supplies that could be found required a lot of effort to obtain. In spring, in order to survive, Ignaty Ionin decided to plough a part of park territory to make vegetable patches. On May 1, 1920, students and adults managed to plant six vegetable patches approximately 33 feet long each. The only tools they could find to do it were table forks.

In early 1922, a new group of children arrived along with new teachers. Several teachers appeared to be excellent musicians. It is important to mention that almost all teachers of that time knew music and were skilled performers. There were several grand pianos in the summer palace. One of them was moved to the kitchen house currently serving as a school with dormitory, classrooms, workshops, and the canteen. Piano performances were frequent, and students came to admire the gorgeous music of Glinka, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and other great musicians.

Over time, the school population reached 200 students. The increase caused many problems; it was hard time. However, Ignaty Ionin initiated a grand construction process that helped to smooth over difficulties and gradually strengthened the school community. No doubt, there was something powerful in the character of this young pedagogue: his love of life and children his optimism, his ability to overcome the hardships of life, to stand firmly on the ground, to be the master of his life, and his ability for constructive endeavors. Ignaty Ionin was known to be in constant tension, he was both strict and kind, and enjoyed games with children – once during a game of hide-and-seek he even climbed into a drawer. However, he had very little time left for games. He used to smile watching others play around him and he often looked as if he would join in. He had a wonderful gift to stay young in spirit in spite of his illness and the unbearable hardship of the postwar period.

When life gradually returned to normal, Ignaty Ionin announced a competition for the best name of their school commune. The students found a sounding name – “Krasniye Zori” (Red Dawns) taken from the name of the next train stop on the way from Petrodvoretz to Petrograd known as the northern capital of Russia.

The word “krasniy” (red) may have different meanings according to the Living Language Russian Dictionary compiled by Vladimir Dahl: beautiful, neat, smart, tender, kind. It is the context which makes the meaning clear. Of course, those times influenced the new school’s name adding some pathos to the revolutionary world transformations of that period. Nevertheless, all these meanings brought a unison, a wholesome image, to the “Krasniye Zori” school commune. For the students, this school became a symbol of “the Beauty.”

“Krasniye Zori” young builders

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the “Krasniye Zori” school was run by means of self-government. This was an important factor of the schools’ ethos, and it also contributed to each student’s feeling of self-dependence. Self-management bodies were elected by the general meeting of the commune. The students were proud to call themselves “Krasniye Zori builders” implying their alma mater and society as a whole. Teachers took part not only in the cooperation cells (the main structural element of the school) but also in all labor activities and events including agriculture, construction, etc.

When interviewing a new teacher, Ignaty Ionin always asked the applicant, “What else are you able to do apart from teaching your school subject?” That was a meaningful question which helped to arrange a teacher’s workload in such a way that the teacher would not restrict his fellowship with students only to class time. The principal found it important that each of his teachers should be versatile and able to get the students interested in some extra-curricular activity. Each “Krasniye Zori” teacher was always together with his group of students – in class, labor and interesting leisure activities.

The “Krasniye Zori” school did not have specific staff responsible for child rearing in its traditional understanding. Here all teachers were in charge of various developmental aspects, they organized labor or creative groups and associations of students. There was no conventional division of school and orphanage tasks – all of them were solved by the school commune. Thus, there was no borderline between teaching and character formation. One of the important and crucial innovations was to create teams of students from different age groups.

The daily routine was designed so that everybody should be involved. Work in the fields and workshops lasted from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The cells would distribute work orders and control their execution. At daily general meetings, according to Ignaty Ionin, “we would plan our next day, report on the previous day, and – what mattered most – dreamed about our future.5

Having meals together, spending time together in the dormitory, working together – all these would contribute to blending of teachers and students into a single community. The teachers maintained the spirit of the old Russian Orthodox “love for one’s neighbor” as well as the new commune ethos. Besides, the moral standards of educated people at that time were still very high. The moral growth of orphaned children at the time relied strongly on the awareness that the adult next to you would sacrifice all his time and effort just for your sake and just like your own Mom and Dad would do. It should be emphasized that those orphaned children were not only “nourished” and warmed by affection, but they could also experience the real culture and joy of family relations. It was that very ability to immerse children into the atmosphere of wholesome joy, to let them experience happiness, which would constitute the phenomenon of the “Krasniye Zori” school commune. And it was the core of the school’s success.

The right to develop

Ignaty Ionin kept emphasizing this thought, “Apart from the right to live, every institution must have the right to develop.6” Indeed, that school commune developed like a living organism – it kept growing and maturing while implementing the bold pedagogical and economic ideas of its founder. Every year that students and teachers lived and worked together proved to become another year of pedagogical success notwithstanding the constant and numerous hardships that they all faced.

First, their dreams were modest: to have their own school and be economically self-sufficient. Productive labor to tend to one’s everyday needs, along with a versatile education, was the basic pedagogical principle of the personality development system introduced by Ignaty Ionin. It was important to change the attitude of local people (who were initially hostile to “waifs and strays”) to the commune and then gradually increase the peasants’ general and work culture. To achieve this goal, the school would offer free seeds and seedlings thus, building friendly ties with the villagers.

Agricultural labor as the basis of teaching and personality development was the essence of Ionin’s commune. “Some branches of agriculture may serve as a fertile experimental ground,7” Ignaty Ionin wrote. He referred to “Krasniye Zori” as an agriculturally oriented suburban school. For instance, the fishing industry could be the subject of a Literature class; field trips to industrial plants would give first hand knowledge of how manufacturing worked. In 1923, the school received an award from the National Agricultural Exhibition. The award certificate emphasized the school’s “agricultural achievements as well as important results from the teaching process based on agricultural material.”

Life at the commune was jumping with various activities. The school structure and life were aimed at cherishing the wonderful feelings in children’s hearts, molding their noble character, and offering life experiences overseen by indisputably recognized authorities of strict-but-loving teachers and instructors, friendly-but-sincere peer opinions as well as self-analysis (many students of that school used to keep diaries).

Children’s hearts were gradually opened to love. It was vital not to lose time. The teachers were resolved to take up this matter by planting flowerbeds around the manor house. Thus, every day, not by pictures but with their own eyes the children could enjoy majestic sunrises and sunsets, Alexander Pushkin’s “lavish withering of nature” in the fall, delightful winter tales, first awakening spring grass, meditative splendor of summer field flowers in blossom, etc.

In 1925 the school received another new group of children – 300 mostly ungovernable orphans – sent from several closed orphanages including the juvenile correctional facility in Troitsko-Sergievskaya Pustin (near Strelna, Leningrad). In order to cope with the disorderly conduct of the new students, and their lack of discipline and labor routine, Ignaty Ionin began another large construction – students began to repair a green house on the island. There was enough work for everybody irrespective of age. All the teachers worked alongside the students.

Soon, their major assignment for a common cause united the entire school although things did not always go smoothly. Ionin’s pedagogical gift and his will, and courage, helped him to win over difficult personalities. Such was the case when one of the former juvenile delinquents tried to literally stab Ionin in the back. With an abrupt turn, Ignaty Ionin faced the student saying, “Why stab me in the back? Do it into my chest!” The boy dropped his hand, gave the knife away, and submitted to the inevitable discipline.

Free cooperators

The school’s success in providing for itself was very impressive. Science-based agriculture turned out to be that universal environment for versatile personality growth and healthy physical development. It helped to strengthen students’ will, ensure a large amount of positive charge, and awaken and cultivate pure feelings. Self-government and economic self-sufficiency did wonders. There was no question of depersonalization or wage-leveling.

By 1932, the single school had been turned into an entire campus which included an orphanage housing 400 students, secondary day and night schools (ten years of education), an agricultural vocational school, and a vacation house. Also at the disposal of the “Krasniye Zori” school were 346 acres of farmland, agricultural machinery, green houses, specialized farming facilities, a stable, an apiary, a carpenter’s shop, a locksmith, a shoe repair shop, mechanical labs, a power plant, a water-pump station, a bakery, and a laundry. The school also had its own auto vehicles, motor cycles, bicycles, boats, and even a beautiful snow-white yacht.

The school made a substantial profit from livestock farming, fishery, and a flower garden. The four regularly cleaned ponds and canals yielded trout and mirror carp. There was enough fish for food and trading. The island greenhouses produced early vegetables and flowers. The Astoria Hotel in Leningrad placed regular order for Gillyflowers that were plentiful in “Krasniye Zori”. Flowers were shipped to Leningrad and even abroad. And the children owned everything in “Krasniye Zori”!

Jules Vernes descendants

The Mikhaylovskoye summer palace, located in an old park abundant with ponds, creeks and land plots, and its proximity to the Gulf of Finnland – all gave the impression of some unusual world in the students’ minds. The beauty of nature with its rich northern forests and parks and the Baltic seaside filled the children’s hearts with pure charm and romance. Those “life impressions” fed a powerful process of a child’s inner growth.

The young people imagined themselves to live on Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island where they had managed, with their own hands, to create a happy life. The school was springing with life! It flourished with mutual friendship, mutual love, and respect to all. “We had our life full to the brim!” remembered the “Krasniye Zori” colonists.

The communards did not limit themselves to studying and practicing agriculture – their main business was studying in school and attending various extracurricular activities and clubs. Beginning with drama plays under kerosene lamps, the students eventually constructed a library of 10,000 volumes, published magazines, and even started broadcasting their own radio gazette. 

Everyone had the right to choose anything in keeping with his abilities or interests. The students could learn to be librarians, reporters, pigeon breeders, beekeepers, firemen, riflemen, radio operators, yachtsmen, symphony orchestra and folk instrument musicians, choirmasters, and photographers. They were taught horseback riding, tractor and truck driving. There was also a glider club.

“Krasniye Zori” had its own portable film projector and the locals from the town nearby would come to watch movies. In 1934 (now 15th anniversary of the “Krasniye Zori” school), a drama theater was established. The former Coach House was renovated (the roof was elevated and became 8.3 feet high; a balcony was built which seated 150 people) and turned into a drama house. A grand jubilee was held on the anniversary visited by Alexander Bryantsev, the head stage director of Leningrad TYuZ (Youth Theatre).

The students arranged tours and went on hikes so that they could learn their native region better. The money obtained from school produce was used to send students for a vacation in the Crimea. All that was a natural way to consolidate positive impressions and to strengthen the sprouts of love to the Motherland in the fertile soil of each child’s personality.

Since 1936, the formal name of “school colony” (juvenile correction center) no longer reflected its present status. Having demonstrated sound academic achievements and good conduct after seven grades of mainstream education, students graduated from “Krasniye Zori” and so it became a prestigious educational institution.

For quite a while, the mission of “Krasniye Zori” was to prepare its students for college (Note: this was uncommon for youth in the 1930s). Intellectual development was a strong point and a logical consequence of the school’s holistic system.

Those achievements also reflected the competence of the teachers who succeeded in integrating conventional teaching techniques and the new project method. And, of course, the achievements flowed from the students’ vigorous activity – diverse, labor-oriented and creative. Here are the statistics from the early 1930s: among 356 “Krasniye Zori” graduates there are 3 high-ranking Red Army officers, 14 agronomists, 10 teachers, 7 engineers, 5 veterinarians, 2 medical doctors, 1 astronomer, 3 research scientists, 4 artists, 26 others attended college and 18 attended vocational schools.

With time there was more evidence that the first principal of “Krasniye Zori” was right.  Its graduates became scientists, senior managers, journalists, poets, engineers, legislators, military men, music composers, builders, cinema and circus actors, sportsmen, and sculptors.

“Krasniye Zori” graduates kept in touch with the school by being members of the “Krasniye Zori Alumni Society.” They met together and held regular “Krasniye Zori” reunions. And former graduates always had open invitations to come and spend some time in the “Krasniye Zori” vacation house.

Glory did not wait to come

“Krasniye Zori” earned a reputation as an excellent school, and it became very popular. An increasing number of delegations from various parts of Russia and overseas visited the school-colony. Just within 1931 alone there were 4,500 Soviet and 240 foreign visitors. Delegations came from England, France, USA, Germany, Japan, and Turkey. The students were wonderful tour guides receiving their guests with ease and dignity.

In 1928, “Krasniye Zori” was visited by Professor John Dewey of Columbia University. Having returned to the USA, John Dewey described his impressions of Soviet Russia in 6 publications in The New-Republic. Here is what he wrote about the “Krasniye Zori” school,

“There is nothing surprising, not to say unique, in the existence of orphan asylums…. I have never seen anywhere in the world such a large proportion of intelligent, happy, and intelligently occupied children. They were not lined up for inspection. We walked about the grounds and found them engaged in their various summer occupations, gardening, bee-keeping, repairing buildings, growing flowers in a conservatory (built and now managed by a group of particularly tough boys who began by destroying everything in sight), making simple tools and agricultural implements, etc.  Not what they were doing, but their manner and attitude is, however, what stays with me — I cannot convey it; I lack the necessary literary skill.  But the net impression will always remain. If the children had come from the most advantageously situated families, the scene would have been a remarkable one, unprecedented in my experience. When their almost unimaginable earlier history and background were taken into account, the effect was to leave me with the profoundest admiration for the capacities of the people from which they sprang, and an unshakable belief in what they can accomplish….8

All this means that teachers and students of the “Krasniye Zori” school proved to be a unique historical, pedagogical and cultural phenomenon with international value and recognition.

Schedule for the day after tomorrow

Schools of labor, beauty, and life are among the most efficient tools to shape a human individuality in all its integrity and diversity and including its moral and physical aspects, emotions and intellect, civic beliefs, and family affection. Ionin’s labor commune was a revolutionary blossom: romantic and noble but altogether an unattainable attempt to combine humanism and socialism. Ignaty Ionin’s noble ideas, implemented by the pre-revolutionary “action school,” were adequately and successfully realized in the life of the “Krasniye Zori” students until the Communist Party decided to interfere.

Their happy time together did not last long. Prevailing socialist concepts of the time were in irreconcilable contradiction with those of the “civilized cooperators’ society” established within the “Krasniye Zori” school. The core principles of self-financing and complete self-sufficiency became seditious because economic independence could then be associated with moral freedom.

The authorities watched favorably those labor colonies which were controlled by the NKVD (People’s Commissariat of Interior Affairs). Ionin’s “Krasniye Zori” raised more and more disapproval. In spite of his outstanding business successes, in his heart he remained a DonQuixote-like figure, and his school-commune of that time was more like a fairy tale, a beautiful utopia doomed to failure.

The clouds of great tragedy were piling up over Mikhaylovskoye. On September 30, 1937, Ignaty Ionin was charged with high treason. He and a number of colleagues were arrested. He did not sign any papers during his interrogation. At the open show trial held on November 15-17, 1937, at the Palace of Educators (the former Yusupov Palace in St. Petersburg), Ignaty Ionin did not admit any guilt. Instead, he quoted an ancient Chinese wisdom, “Sitting is better than standing; lying is better than sitting; dying is better than lying.” Ignaty Ionin was convicted to death by firing squad. He spent 60 days on death row awaiting his execution.

However, the “Krasniye Zori” students and teachers filed a petition (addressed to Mikhail Kalinin, the nominal head of state of the Soviet Union) to exculpate their principal’s honor. The death penalty was changed to ten years of labor camp. After having sent a few letters back to the school and family, Ignaty Ionin died in the labor camp infirmary on February 19, 1939. His official exoneration took a long time and much effort from the former “Krasniye Zori” graduates; and only in 1990 was it finally granted based on “the absence of crime in the act.”

Former “Krasniye Zori” students and teachers erected a symbolic monument to their dearly loved Ignasha (diminutive of Ignaty) in a small cemetery, a little more than a mile away from Mikhaylovskoye, on the lower terrace of the Gulf of Finnland’s south coast. His wife Nina Petrovna and both his sons, Slava and Kostya, are buried next to him. And all around are other graves of teachers and graduates of “Krasniye Zori”.

Oksana Guryeva was one of the “Krasniye Zori” students. Her son, Yury Ezoyan, published a book about his mother’s unforgettable childhood and youth. He wrote,

“That was a whole universe of human souls in front of me. They were wonderful people with their amazing relations. Did that happen by chance? It passes all understanding that God somehow chose that very place on earth to show such a worthy way for a human being to realize himself. Ideological tinsel was unable to overshadow eternal human values that filled the unique atmosphere of the “Krasniye Zori” school. One may never fully comprehend the personality of Ignaty Ionin – a great teacher and innovator. Within his twenty-six years of professional life, Ignaty Ionin inflamed thousands of people with his unselfish love of humanity. The blinders of ideology tried to hide that stable economic basis essential for genuine success. The most efficient principles – neither communist nor capitalist – underlined any productive labor. One doesn’t have to be a genius to see them. However, to realize them, one needs to possess outstanding abilities.”

1 Boguslavsky, Mikhail Victorovich [In Russian: Михаил Викторович Богуславский], Ph. D., an associate member of the Russian Academy of Education, Professor, chief research fellow, Institute of Theory and History of Pedagogics, RAE.

2 Makarenko, Anton Semyonovich [In Russian: Антон Семёнович Макаренко, 1888–1939] was a Ukrainian and Soviet educator and writer, one of the founders of the Soviet pedagogy, who elaborated the theory and methodology of upbringing in self-governing child collectives and of introducing productive labor into the educational system.

4 See: Ionin, I.V. “Krasniye Zori” School-Settlement. – Leningrad. – 1933. – P.15. (In Russian).

5 See: Ibid. P. 26.

6 Ibid. P. 49.

7 Ibid. P. 52.

8 See: Impressions of Soviet Russia and the Revolutionary World: Mexico-China-Turkey. – New York: New Republic, 1929. - Pp. 27-29 // http://ariwatch.com/VS/JD/ImpressionsOfSovietRussia.htm#chapter5

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