THE PIONEERS, a Soviet hybrid of Boy Scout and Bolshevik traditions, once focused their work with millions of youngsters on turning out enthusiastic young Communists. The strong Leninist ideological bent remains, but the pragmatic approach of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms has reached even the little kingdoms of the Pioneer Palaces.
Now, Pioneer officials say, the children's groups are encouraging far more initiative among their members, trying to cultivate the kind of citizens who can make Gorbachev's perestroika work.
The children are gaining more freedom to run their own activities and even beginning to set up small businesses to earn their own movie and ice cream money.
A few years ago, the kind of school-based enterprises now springing up around the country would have been unthinkable, says Elena Zaitseva, deputy director of the Pioneer Palace in Moscow's Pervomaisky district.
``For a long time, we said, `How can children earn money?''' she says, noting that the attitude stemmed from a general perception of moneymaking as somehow dirty and underhanded.
Now one of the district's schools has launched a children's clothing factory and others are planning to emulate it, she says.
Earning pocket money is increasingly encouraged as good preparation for adult life, Ms. Zaitseva says, and also helps deter the rising crime rate that is accompanying Gorbachev's reforms.
``A child wants to play computer games but he has no money, so he shakes down a smaller kid who has 15 kopecks [about 25 cents],'' she says.
Employment bureaus for youngsters are being set up, and the Pioneer newspaper, Pionerskaya Pravda, spearheaded a successful battle to get the minimum working age reduced from 16 to 14, says editor-in-chief Olga Grekova. The paper, with its 10 million readers, has joined the wave of reform in several ways, she says.
Two years ago, after a crucial conference that many say marked the Pioneers' entry into perestroika, the newspaper added an editorial board made up of children - now 21 of them - to keep adult editors in touch with readers.
At the paper and in the Pioneers in general, ``We try to do everything to make the child feel he's the master of his own Pioneers' organization,'' Ms. Grekova says. ``The main thing is to make the child feel like he's a person, that no one's thinking for him, that he's thinking for himself.''
The Pervomaisky Pioneer Palace, which is considered one of Moscow's top three centers and serves more than 14,000 children, tries to give them a wide range of leisure activities, Zaitseva says.
Children generally join the Pioneers at 10, but the Pervomaisky palace hosts children from age 4 to 17. Activities range from model shipbuilding to drama clubs, swimming in a giant pool, wrestling, mushroom-raising, and hacking on the club's six computers.
``For a long time it was over-formalized,'' Zaitseva says, with little flexibility about who did what.
But since the centralized directives imposed from Pioneer headquarters in Moscow were removed two years ago, the individual groups ``really have been directing themselves,'' she says.
The Pioneers were founded in 1922, and admittedly borrowed quite a bit from the American scouting movement, including their slogan, ``Be prepared!''
They wear three-cornered, red neckerchiefs. The corners supposedly symbolize ``the unity of the three revolutionary generations: Communists, Komsomol members [older members of a party adjunct], and Pioneers.'' The neckerchiefs bear a striking resemblance to Boy Scout ties.
Many of the Pioneers' general activities are also similar to those of American Scouts, focusing on charity work and nature study.
But, predictably, the Pioneers put an even stronger emphasis on ``collectivism and comradeship.'' As their initiation oath attests:
``I, [last name, first name] joining the ranks of the national Pioneers' organization named for V.I. Lenin, before all my comrades solemnly promise: to hotly love my motherland, to live, study, and struggle as great Lenin bequeathed and as the Communist Party teaches, and always to fulfill the laws of the Pioneers of the Soviet Union.''
According to a pocket guide to the movement, Soviet founder Vladimir I. Lenin taught that ``an organization of children is the best way to raise Communists.''
Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin's wife, was involved in founding the Pioneers and still holds a place of honor in their traditions.