Knowledge Day - from Soviet times to now (PHOTOS)

Konstantin Mikhalchevsky/Sputnik; Alexander Kruzhkov/Pavel Sukharev archive
September 1 is a special day in Russia, as it’s the beginning of the new school year after three months of summer break and it’s usually celebrated with lots of flowers and fancy dresses.

End of summer automatically means the end of holidays and carefree life for all Russian kids. 

Historically, it was not obligatory for school to start on September 1, but after the Revolution, it was the most common date across the country. And, since 1984, September 1 was officially known as ‘Knowledge Day’, with kids all over the country (and most of the former Soviet Union) starting their school (and high school) on this day.

Children would often come back from their grandparents’ dacha or pioneer camps, where they spent three months of summer break. Some of them were happy to see friends again, while others didn’t want to exchange their summer freedom for the studying routine.

Preparing for school was a process. One had to pack a bag for school, buy exercise books and pens, collect text books in the school library and have the school uniform ironed. There was a different form for special occasions like September 1. It required a white apron and bows for girls and white shirts for boys. 

Early in the morning of September 1, kids would go to school, usually accompanied by parents or relatives, especially if it was their first year. The most important thing besides taking a backpack and dressing up was to grab flowers for a class teacher. 

About half an hour before the lessons started, all the students would line up in front of the school and a class leader would carry a plaque with the number and the letter of a class. Usually, there were about three sections in each class year titled ‘А’, ‘Б’, ‘В’ in Cyrillic ( the equivalent of ‘A, B, C’ in the Latin alphabet).

Since the late Soviet times, everyone would take a special photo on September 1, captured either with parents, or with a class teacher, or with the entire class. Same students sometimes studied in a certain class together all the way from the 1st to the 10th grade. 

The new school year meant a whole new life for a kid, so it was a very special moment.

When the rush of meeting with friends was over, the kids would form a line and listen to the director of the school, who usually would hold a ceremonial speech, admonishing them to study carefully and to think about their future. 

Then, it was time for everyone to enter the school and head to their classrooms. Usually, a school teacher prepared special plaques on the table in advance, so that students sat on these particular places. After this, the children would present flowers to their teacher. 

The first school day was usually aimed at freshening up the knowledge forgotten after summer break and getting acquainted with each other (if it was the first grade), or making friends with new students, if any had joined in higher classes.

The collapse of the USSR didn’t change traditions much. Despite the fact that many schools gave up enforcing uniforms and allowed students to wear casual clothes.

However, the tradition of wearing bows became a symbol of schoolhood and a symbol of both September 1, as well as the ‘Last bell’ ceremony (on May 25) for the graduating class.

Another touching tradition which has remained until today is students of the graduating class carrying first class students into the school, as a symbolic gesture of the passing of a knowledge baton to the next generation.

Military schools are no exception to all the traditions.

In modern Russia, the September 1 holiday is almost like a cult phenomenon. About two weeks before fall begins, big malls and supermarkets change their summer front store shelves, packed with anti mosquito sprays and sunscreens, to everything devoted to school: backpacks, pens, notebooks and many other things that would make former Soviet students envious!

During the Covid-19 outbreak, high school students studied mostly online, while primary school students were allowed to go to school. They also had a ceremonial line, but parents were no longer allowed to take part. 

Unfortunately, the September 1 date will also always be associated with a tragic event that happened in modern Russian history. On this day, in 2004, a group of terrorists captured a school in Beslan, Republic of North Ossetia, right during the ceremonial line. As a result, 314 people were killed, most of them kids. September 3, when the remaining hostages were finally released, is now known as a ‘Memorial Day’, and each year, a vigil commemorating the victims is held by the ruins of the school.  

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