Russian Summer camp: A mix of recreation and army-like discipline

Anyone who has ever been to a summer camp always remembers it as one of the best experiences of their childhood. Source: Kseniya Plotnikova

Anyone who has ever been to a summer camp always remembers it as one of the best experiences of their childhood. Source: Kseniya Plotnikova

Summer camps sprang into existence in Russia during the days of the Soviet Union. They continue to operate to this day, combining recreational activities, army-like discipline and practical jokes for school-aged children – a tradition that goes back several decades.

In the Soviet Union, a voucher for a summer camp on the shores of some southern sea was everything a child could hope for. These trips were rather expensive and difficult to organize, so most kids settled for camps somewhere closer to home – on the banks of the sea in a nearby forest, for example.  

In a few words, a typical summer camp – called “Young Pioneer Camps” in the Soviet Union, after the Pioneer movement that was similar to the Scout program in the U.K. and the U.S. – resembled a health resort for children, combining recreational and therapeutic activities.         

The daily regimen in these summer camps was something akin to an army routine. Everything was scheduled: the wake-up time, breakfast, lunch, entertainment, dinner and bedtime.

Each summer was divided into three, tri-weekly sessions, with most children staying at camps for one session only and a small number of kids getting to spend the whole summer there. In the 1980s, around 10 million children spent their holidays in more than 40,000 summer camps that were active in the Soviet Union at the time.

“I would go to a summer camp near Kislovodsk almost every year,” says Natalya, who is now retired.


Source: Kseniya Plotnikova

“Whenever I didn’t go, it felt like the summer was ruined. At the camp, I was a member of a mountaineering club and we climbed mountains almost every day. Well, our expeditions were nothing to boast about, but we did ascend some small heights.”

“The camp had a very strict regimen, but my friends and I managed to escape to the city occasionally – even though it meant being punished by our supervisors later. When this happened, we were grounded when everyone else was dancing at a disco,” Natalya says.    

The Pioneer movement has ceased to exist, but the camps have survived practically without change – at least, the informal traditions have remained the same. The first thing anyone who has spent any time in a Russian summer camp remembers is the prank that involved the boys sneaking into the girls’ rooms and covering their faces with toothpaste.

In order to pull the trick off, pranksters needed some prior knowledge. If the toothpaste was too cold, they ran the risk of waking their “victim” up; what they had to do was warm it up a little first.

They gave the prank a name that was short and sweet: smearing. “Let’s smear the girls tonight,” the boys would conspire. “Girls, we got smeared,” the victims would complain.  

“I had been going to a summer camp for five years,” says Victoria, a student.

“We had different events every day; there were discos and themed festivals, such as a line-crossing ceremony, or the Change Day, when boys pretended they were girls and vice versa. We often played cards and other games, and the losers had to do some silly thing – like asking someone to show them where the toilet is 15 times, or put on a funny name tag and walk around with it on for half a day. The camp counselors even encouraged these jokes and pranks. If you didn’t make your bed, or if you disobeyed them, they would ‘smear’ you, steal your slippers, or do something else during the night.”

All summer camps in Russia have a common tradition called the “Royal Night.” The Royal Night is the last night of each camp session. Everyone has to make their final wishes and say goodbye to the camp and the sea (if there is a sea).



Source: Kseniya Plotnikova

The younger children are tricked into going to bed: The older children take them down the “path of wishes” in the evening and tell them to keep silent until the morning if they want their wish to come true.

Not surprisingly, the younger campers fall asleep very quickly when there is complete silence around them. The older children, however, stay up all night.

They toss toilet paper around, make fun of each other and pester those who were so unfortunate as to fall asleep. The supervisors try to hold this chaos in check, so that no one gets hurt or angry.

“We were only trying to engage the kids as much as possible,” says Ivan, who worked as a camp counselor when he was studying education at the university.

“I knew that you can’t just tell them not to do something; you have to negotiate. I was lucky to have 12- and 13-year-olds in my group. At this age, children are not as unruly as they are when they are younger, or when they go through the teenage rebellion period. I asked them not to let me down in front of my bosses, and, in return, I promised them I’d give them the maximum leeway possible and stand up for them if the camp authorities had any complaints.”

In Russia, summer camps are nonprofit social enterprises owned by major companies, as well as by government ministries and agencies.

Many organizations end up discontinuing their investments, as it is more efficient to provide the children of their employees with vouchers for other summer camps than to offer year-round support to a large area with a staff of its own.

In any case, anyone who has ever been to a summer camp always remembers it as one of the best experiences of their childhood.    

Top five summer camp pranks: 

1. Toothpaste

The best method is to squeeze the toothpaste on a sleeping person’s palm and tickle his or her nose or cheek with a feather. The “victim” will do the rest. 

2. Falling ceiling

Pranksters stretch out a bed sheet above a sleeping person and then wake him or her with sudden shrieks: “Get up quickly! The ceiling is falling!”  

3. Garland of clothes

During the night, all clothes are gathered together and tied into a garland that is then used to decorate the room. The victims can only get dressed in the morning after they have untied the garland.

4. Itching

Loose tea is placed under the bed sheet, causing the victim to toss and turn and itch all night long. 

5. Evacuation 

When a victim is sound asleep, he or she is taken outside the room with their bed and left in the hallway or in a bathroom. If it is a warm night, the camper may even end up sleeping outdoors.

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