English Pioneers in Ukraine

Mon Feb 21 2005

From Archived Site

Article by Tatiana Pereverzeva

Did I ever think I would be knocking at the door of Tony Blair’s office in No.10 Downing Street? Yet, at 2pm on the 3rd of February 2005 I handed the British Prime Minister a petition from the young representatives of the Artek International Children’s Festival Let’s Change the World for the Better. The petition, an appeal for solidarity and world peace, had been signed by children from 21 different countries.

What exactly is Artek? Where is it?

The International Children’s Centre Artek is located on the Black Sea coast, six kilometres along from the western foot of the Aju-Dag Mountain. The sun shines above Artek for 250 days of the year and it is protected from cold winds by the Crimean mountains. The area boasts unique natural beauty, fine golden beaches, ancient towns and mysterious caves. Artek was founded in 1925, yet to this day it is filled with children’s laughter all year round. Here millions of children are given the opportunity to learn about the world and to develop their talents. Here children can acquire a multitude of skills such as airplane and ship modelling, photography, IT, or take up a variety of sporting activities, among which are basketball, football, tennis, swimming. Artek is also the venue for grand festivals, including art, music and dance, film, or sport festivals as well as Olympiads.

The above is a summary of what can be found on its website: www.artek.org.

What I saw in Artek made me think that it is perhaps the only place on earth for children, where in the course of many decades, from morning till night, the laughter of children has never ceased, their little faces are wreathed in smiles, and singing fills the air - a place where happy relationships know no frontiers, in both the literal and figurative sense. Here they learn good things, friendship and mutual understanding, and build bridges of childhood diplomacy, educating and entertaining. Throughout the troubled times which have rocked our country politically or economically, Artek has remained a little island of happiness, a school of life for many prominent future representatives of the arts, culture, business and politics. This year it celebrates its 80th anniversary and has on offer ten camps, a uniquely equipped school, swimming pools and workshops. Some 24,000 children a year relax in Artek. Artek was, and has stayed, in the words of the children themselves, a veritable paradise where they can learn, make friends, and be restored to health.

Which of us former Soviet Union Pioneers hasn’t dreamed at one time or other of coming to Artek? For me, in my childhood, Artek remained a dream. But dreams often come true, even, in my case, as a grandma. The journey that has led me to Artek has been a long one. As a result of many endeavours and meetings I found myself travelling to Ukraine with Baroness Caroline Cox, the Speaker of the House of Lords. We learned a lot about orphans and Chernobyl victims. No-one could fail to be moved by what we saw in the various orphanages and hospitals. It was at that time that I also learned of the children’s festivals in Artek. These are colourful and varied, and one of the most outstanding ones is the International Children’s Folk Festival under the motto Let’s Change the World for the Better. That is when I first conceived the idea of bringing the first group of English children to Artek. After successful negotiations with the Hope and Goodness Foundation, the initiator and organiser of the Festival under the patronage of the President, I was granted places at Artek. At that time I had already been an executive trustee of the Chernobyl Relief Foundation in UK, founded by the Ukrainian Embassy. I proposed a youth exchange Artek project. There were some doubts, of course - would English children understand the concept of organised rest, whistles blown when sea bathing, mealtimes in groups; would they be interested in the traditional folk aspect of the festival, Ukrainian food, eight to ten people living together in one room…

Problems began to pile up. The invitation only arrived at Easter time. The Ministry for Education told me there was little chance of succeeding. These sorts of trips are usually organised a year in advance. To be quite frank, no-one in any of the official bodies connected with children here in the UK believed that I would succeed in assembling a group within such short notice. I needed 20 children between the ages of 13 and 15, showing unique talent in song and dance, able to participate in conferences, good at sport and music, ideally with some knowledge of Russian or Ukrainian, and also competent to act as junior world ambassadors at UNESCO level… They had to be able to communicate with high-ranking officials, presidents of countries, and most importantly - represent their own country’s folk tradition in all its variety.

Three weeks before the deadline, I had done nothing but knock on doors of regional educational institutions hoping to find this group of musically gifted young ambassadors of good will… and in the end, had practically given up hope - all the music, song and dance groups had either already gone off on planned tours, or reacted rather sceptically to the idea of travelling to Ukraine (where’s that? It was before the Orange Revolution). Anyone who is acquainted with the English school system and its rather complicated ‘student-teacher’ scheme knows that the school bears a huge responsibility for its children, if they are going anywhere, with countless regulations and guidelines. Many of them I didn’t know about, because I don’t work in a school, but also, I simply hadn’t a clue. It turned out far from easy to find children who were prepared to take on board the concept of an international environment in an unfamiliar milieu, and who hadn’t already booked their summer holidays a year in advance, as is the custom here in England. We also had to find parents able to pay for the trip, and who weren’t afraid to let their children go away for three weeks to far-off, little-known, or indeed, unknown Ukraine.

Yet, at the end of the day a group of 11 adventurous children had gathered at the airport. The flight was complicated - Birmingham - Prague - Kiev - Simferopol. Setting out at five o’clock in the morning, it would take us until 9pm to reach Simferopol. Then the adventures began in true Ukrainian style. The plane was late, and it turned out that, for safety reasons, we were not allowed to take the children over the mountain pass by night without police escort. This was the first unforeseen event, and we were offered overnight accommodation in a maintenance shed, but at least we had some sort of roof over our heads… In the morning, to the screeching sound of overworked brakes on buses that had most likely been on hand to welcome Yuri Gagarin to Artek 50 years ago, we set out on our Crimean epic. I soon cheered up, as the beauty of the Crimean landscape caused the bad impressions of that first night to fade. However, scenic beauty notwithstanding, everyone else fell asleep on the bus. I looked at them sleeping there, and memories of my own childhood surged into my mind - the Pioneer camps, the excitement of being team leader, the parades, the mass assemblies, the competitions, the thrill of winning prizes.

Finally, we arrived at the reception point, where I got the impression that nothing had changed much since my Pioneer days an inspection by doctors for scabies, a shower, and then uniforms. Then there was the cloakroom - it is just a pity I didn’t have my camera handy to record the expressions on the faces of my young ladies. What on earth were they going to do in the cloakroom with the hundreds of dresses they had so lovingly packed? When they reached the dormitory, there was a new shock - what exactly were they going to sleep on? The new beds were still in transit, since delivery had ground to a halt owing to gale force winds the night before our arrival, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage in the Artek region, and compelling changes to the local infrastructure which didn’t exactly help. Credit where it’s due, though, I didn’t see a single apathetic person, and the staff did everything they could to alleviate the intervention of rampaging nature. Just as in the old days on the Trans-Siberian railway, it was all hands to the pump, screwing and fixing, and by the end of the day, our brand new bunk-beds had been assembled. By now the children had got their second wind, and everything was of interest - the luxuriant scenery, the refectory, which rather resembled an opera house with its columns, chandeliers and marble, and multilingual conversations. Forgetting their sleepless night and the exhausting journey, they rushed along with their group leaders to join the welcoming party.

Three weeks of uninterrupted joy followed: the pursuit of creativity, happy relationships, daily concerts, discos, and much more. Lying here in front of me is the programme for each day, timetabled minute by minute. I brought it back especially, so as to read through it and marvel - did we really do all that, was it really possible? At any one time we were appearing on television, taking part in a drawing competition, in a rehearsal, at a press conference, a football match…There were excursions to beauty spots and palaces, dolphinariums, places of historical interest. We participated in photo sessions, live broadcasts, presentations… We coped with it all and played our part. At rehearsals we were able to bring together scattered fragments into a unified programme made up of sketches, with Irish dancing, a Scottish show, a mind-bogglingly entertaining display of juggling, violin chamber music, Spice Girls and Shakespeare pantomimes. We deserved to stand side by side with the other performers, distinguished award-winners in every competition you can think of. In their gorgeous national costumes, there were children from Ukraine, Russia, Germany, Turkey, Hungary, China, Morocco, Mongolia, and so on. It was impossible to watch all that talent without being moved to tears - so much for Eurovision! Films were shot for TV, masses of photographs were taken.

The festival was a great success. I don’t know if my children remember their meetings with the President and The First Lady of Ukraine, the Deputy General Secretary of UNESCO, the Minister for Family and Youth Affairs, and diplomats from the participating countries, who came to Artek specifically to meet them, but I do know that they will never forget the atmosphere of love and joy, which the festival organisers had created - they will never forget their new friends, and the absolutely unimaginable scale of the Gala concert with its 4,000 participants and the stunning firework display at the end.

I am still receiving letters from my children. Their letters are in front of me just now

…my experience at Artek was fantastic. Artek has shown me so many things that have changed the way I look and think. It made me a better person… Hanna

…I enjoyed Artek completely. It will stay with me forever. My heart belongs to Artek. It is such a fantastic opportunity to meet, see and do new things, and build friendship with the children from all over the world…Janan

…being in Artek has given me such a different outlook on life. It has made me realise what is really important in life. We are organising fundraising events for the children who are less fortunate. I will follow the motto of the festival “let’s make the world better” and want to come to Ukraine to help in orphanages… Jade

I am moved to tears by their fundraising efforts, their discussions about Artek, staging concerts in school, washing teachers’ cars, etc., doing whatever they can to bring in money to help pay for orphans to stay at Artek. Some of them are planning to go to Ukraine to take up work placements in children’s homes. The children speak enthusiastically of how useful they find studying Russian.

And now we are meeting to hand in a petition from the children of Artek to Tony Blair: Let’s all live in peace and friendship. I’ve also acquainted them with the aims of the Foundation - the most immediate of which is to bring over talented Ukrainian children, a folk ensemble from regions seriously polluted by radiation, to improve their health. It is possible that they will stage miniconcerts for charity in aid of the children of Chernobyl, and take whatever money they collect to Ukraine themselves. I have already set in motion several schemes for raising money to welcome a group of Ukrainian children to England. Our Foundation has many good friends, people who understand and have faith in us. They include Russians and English people, professionals and old age pensioners, who understand that as a consequence of the Chernobyl disaster, hundreds of thousands of children in Ukraine are in need of help. They have been born with physical deformities so terrible that their lives are scarcely fit to be called lives. The tragedy of Chernobyl first came to light almost 19 years ago, but it will take hundreds of years for the problem to disappear. That’s why, on the eve of the anniversary of Chernobyl, the United Nations has issued an appeal to all right-thinking people not to ‘turn their back’ on the problem. And we won’t be turning our backs. Information about our work can be found on the Ukrainian Embassy website. We have a great many plans, but we need friends to help us support this never-ending charity marathon, in which everyone is a winner - both those who give, and those who receive.

If you are interested in our plans, or if you wish to help, please write to: Tatiana Pereverzeva Executive Trustee The Chernobyl Relief Foundation in the UK Crossbush House Crossbush Arundel BN18 9PQ

Donations payable to The Chernobyl Relief Foundation in UK

Tatiana Pereverzeva