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Dispatch / Russia / October 8, 2008

A few weeks ago, I went to see a new Russian horror film called S.S.D. (the acronym translates to “Death to Soviet Children”) about a bunch of annoying Moscow urbanites who get slaughtered while shooting a reality TV show in an abandoned Soviet summer camp. I don’t usually get excited about new film releases in this country. I’ve been disappointed too many times and now try to avoid them as much as possible. But this time was different, this time I thought the movie couldn’t lose. It had too much potential. If you’ve ever spent time in a real Soviet pioneer camp, like I have, you’d be excited, too.

See, I left Russia at a young age, but not before I had the distinct pleasure of spending two traumatizing summers at a Soviet summer camp on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was being introduced to the gulag experience, minus the hard labor and freezing temperatures. Everything else—the food, the housing, the stern oversight, the strict parent visitation rights (a few hours every month), the lack of sanitary washing conditions, the Soviet ideology indoctrination and the recreational activities—are pretty much the same, except bite-sized. You know, for kids. It was the type of torturous existence that would make kids beg for Jason to cleave them in half to end their misery (if only they knew who he was), the same way that terminal cancer patients beg for Dr. Kevorkian’s painless death machine.

I remember those month-long trips out to the mosquito-infested bogs that surround the city very well; they’ve left behind my most vivid childhood memories. The camps themselves  were a horror to behold: dilapidated, rotting heaps of low-slung wooden buildings surrounded by a high fence, with a smokestack of some dilapidated factory—or worse—just peeking out from behind the tree line; depressed kids with dirty faces and sunken cheeks running around and playing in the dirt; and swarms of flies that clung to the filthy outhouses and grimy cafeteria. We were washed once every two weeks. On wash day, the entire camp filtered through a grimy bathhouse that. There were no showers. The camp orderlies, all hefty Russian women, would soap us using yellow bricks of industrial soap and water from a communal cauldron, then scrub us down as they were prepping raw meat for braising. The women doused us with water from bucket and sent us on our way. We lived and slept in huge shacks partitioned into two—one side for the girls, the other for the boys—about twenty campers to each side. I was in the youngest category and we were forbidden to go to the outhouse at night. Instead, we had to use the half-dozen rusty metal buckets distributed in the isles every day at bedtime. But they were only for pissing. Our handlers forbade us from “going big” in them and threatened to punish anyone that did. But it didn’t help much. Every other night some poor kid wouldn’t be able to hold his stool till morning and would sneak up quietly to the bucket—not out of respect for fellow campers, but for fear of getting caught—and squat right there in the middle of the room. Sometimes they missed and the piece of crap would lay there until morning, stinking up the room.

It was a nasty setup, but I supported it. As bad as that was, anything was better than having to go to the massive wooden outhouse. These wooden shacks were built on top of huge holes in the ground and serviced at least 100 people, each. There were no lights inside and the toilets were nothing more than six big holes (wide enough for a kid my size to fit into) cut into the floor over which you had to squat. There were no separating walls and no privacy. And flies swarmed like locusts in the foul mixture of urine and feces that sloshed in the pit below. Falling in— it was my perpetual fear and recurring nightmare theme. I would lie awake nights replaying the scene: I would hit a urine slick and fall headfirst into the pit, I’d be splashing around and yelling for help, but it would BE no use. It’d be choking on the filth, it would enter my lungs and muffle my screams. No one would come to my rescue as I would quietly drown in the muck.

Apparently, I wasn’t the first kid thinking about this. About a week into my stay, I bumped into a group of older campers while squatting over a hole. They decided to have a bit of fun. They taunted and threatened to throw me down into the shit pit the next time they caught me in the bathroom. They thought they were being clever, and laughed as a I ran out sobbing. From then on, I was too embarrassed to shit in a bucket and terrified of the outhouse. So I shat my pants for two weeks, preferring ridicule to the possibility of drowning in shit. Sometimes I let the turds cake in my underwear and threw the underwear away. Once, a dried up piece of shit fell out of my pant leg while I was playing soccer. I was total mess: ashamed, scared and filthy. But I wasn’t the only one to regress. A few other kids in my quarters started to regularly wet their beds.

But there were moments of happiness. Near the end of my stay, I broke out with a high fever and was hospitalized for a week. Clean white sheets, food brought to my bedside, sunlight streaming through the window, birds chirping—it was pure serenity, like being in heaven.

It was these thoughts that flooded back into my mind when I heard about this movie. “Damn,” I thought. “Could these filmmakers have actually picked up on the subconscious fear vibrations of the Soviet population, dug up the buried phobias of countless Soviet children and then exploited them for a unique brand of Russian slasher movie?” It was a brilliant idea for a Russian horror film. It wouldn’t be something abstract or mystical like zombies or demons, but something concrete and specific to Russian culture. I couldn’t wait to see these guys transform every child’s pioneer camp nightmare into a cinematic horror fest.

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1 Comment

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  • 1. Alex  |  April 29th, 2010 at 10:07 am

    The fall into latrine ditch scenario is how the boy in Jerzy Kosinski’s pseudo-autobiographical Painted Bird loses his speech and another book, I think Blind Date (euphemism for rape)takes place in part in such a Komsomol camp for older teens. In mid-90s, last time I was back in Russia, the hole-in-the-floor set up was still the Irkutsk airport’s “privy.” Thanks for the flashback.

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