For children across Russia, September 1st marks the beginning of a new school year – the end of carefree summer days and a transition back into the rhythms of school uniforms and homework. Falling on a Sunday this year, the day’s festivities have been moved to Monday, September 2, as was the case in 2013. The day comes with a special anticipation for the six- and seven-year-olds who will enter the school’s doors for the first time. Excitement and trepidation flow as they meet their first teachers, new classmates, and settle into their homerooms.
Not only is September 1st the official start date for schools across Russia, but it is also a public holiday—the Day of Knowledge. And, indeed, there is a holiday atmosphere in the air as mothers braiding their daughters’ hair with white bows, as shoes are scrubbed to a shine, as flowers are purchase, backpacks are zipped, and everyone heads off to the ceremonial assembly to ring in the new school year.
How did the holiday get started?
In tsarist Russia, there was no single start date for the academic year for academic institutions. In gymnasiums, studies began on August 1st or 15th. In other schools, students would return in mid-September or even October. In rural towns, the school year might last only from December to May.
On August 14, 1930, the Soviet government issued a resolution “on universal compulsory primary education,” which ordered that all children from eight to ten years were to be “admitted to a school in the fall.” At this same time, September 1st was introduced as the start date of the academic year in higher educational institutions. Five years later, on September 3, 1935, the September 1st start-date was extended to elementary, junior high, and high schools through the country. The Day of Knowledge became an official public holiday on October 1, 1980.
Celebrating Knowledge through Art
Although the holiday bears an almost philosophical name, the Day of Knowledge often passes like a quick flash of greetings and flower-giving, welcomes and schedule distribution. Perhaps there is a brief address from a principle or local official on the importance of knowledge and the doors that can be opened through education. But as the saying goes, sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. In 1897, artists Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky captured the true spirit of the holiday in his painting, At the Door of the School.
At the Door of the Schoolbelongs to a series of Bogdanov-Belsky’s works dedicated to the school of S. A. Rachinsky, in which the artist himself was fortunate enough to study as a young boy. As Bogdanov-Belsky recreates the memories of his arrival to the school, he offers a beautiful glimpse of the gravity of knowledge.
On his canvas, Bogdanov-Belsky depicts a boy in rags. Resting his hands and hat on a walking stick, he gazes into the classroom. He does not dare to enter the class where his peers are sitting. In the quiet leaning forward of the body, relaxed and relieved at having arrived at the destination, there is a sense of curiosity and expectation. This image reflected the reverence of a common man to knowledge. Knowledge that was often inaccessible to him. Knowledge that he had to work to receive.
The development of the mind and soul is a natural human desire. The touching plot of At the Door of the Schoolreminds us of the value of knowledge by showing it to us through the eyes of someone who didn’t have easy access to education. So as we celebrate September 1st, the Day of Knowledge, let us not forget how fortunate many of us have been to mark the end of summer with a transition to the rhythms of school.