Soviet flags fly as Kyrgyz Pioneers unite

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BISHKEK, Sep 27 (Reuters) The Young Pioneers, a Soviet youth organisation, is experiencing an unlikely revival in Kyrgyzstan, a corner of the old Soviet Union.

On a square where the statue of Vladimir Lenin once towered over the capital Bishkek, dozens of young people gathered last week to join the ranks of the long-defunct group.

The Pioneer movement was considered the rite of passage for every Soviet child and fell apart when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, handing independence to Kyrgyzstan.

But 16 years on, some in this Central Asian state are beginning to warm to their old Soviet ways. And some want to be a Pioneer again.

''After the Soviet fall, young people were left to their own devices,'' said Vlad Kholod, one of the movement's leaders. ''True values of collectivism and mutual help have vanished.'' Set up in 1922 to indoctrinate children with Marxist dogma, the Pioneer movement taught survival skills and sought to replace traditional family values with ideas of patriotism.

But in present-day Kyrgyzstan, the movement unites young people in their twenties -- about 150 of them now -- who missed out on the chance to become a pioneer and want to fill an identity void left by years of post-Soviet chaos.

Like other Soviet states, mainly Muslim Kyrgyzstan shook off communism in 1991, 80 years after advancing Bolshevik troops forced its nomadic tribes into a Soviet republic.

Although officials are keen to revive nomadic traditions and Islamic culture, Soviet ways dominate many aspects of life in the impoverished country west of China.

''We want to attract people's attention to the fact that Soviet history is still around,'' said Yelena Krivosheina, one of the leaders of the movement which is run by university students and not linked to the government.

RITUAL ''Young Pioneer, be prepared to fight for the cause of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union!,'' pledged recruits at an induction ceremony designed to mirror the Soviet ritual as much as possible.

Red flags embroidered with the hammer-and-sickle flapped in the wind as they saluted in tandem and recited the oath.

Finally, the long-awaited moment: receiving the trademark Pioneer red scarf, the symbol of a happy Soviet childhood. A visit to the monolithic former Lenin Museum capped the ceremony.

But the mood was not solemnly Soviet. Many participants, some sporting spiky red hair, defined themselves as ''rockers'' and ''radicals'' and looked relaxed.

They said their goal was to help poor people and was not political: ''I only just learned about this movement and decided to catch up with the past,'' said Vadim, one of the recruits.

''It's a symbolic union. It has no political goals.'' NOSTALGIA Some find the trend ironic, given that the nation of this mountainous state fought some of the fiercest battles against Bolsheviks alongside the White Russian army until its final defeat in 1919.

Yet many in Kyrgyzstan, wary of a series of mass street protests and government reshuffles that have rocked the country in recent years, say life was better in the old days.

Poverty, unemployment and drug abuse are widespread and the economy, brought to a standstill by the Soviet collapse, is still burdened by huge foreign debt.

''They are showing more than just nostalgia for communism. It's nostalgia for the whole empire when Kyrgyzstan was part of a big country,'' said Edil Baisalov, a Western-minded politician.

''The Soviet Union was, objectively, better for my country.

Today we are losing its standards of education and healthcare.'' Officials were puzzled by the Pioneers' comeback.

''This is something new and unexpected,'' said Aizhamal Motuyeva of a state agency that oversees 'youth issues'. ''But I am not against things like that. There is a psychological factor here. They (Pioneers) have now sealed the spiritual gap.'' REUTERS YA PM0840

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