Time to pay the piper! Valery Panyushkin on patriotic education for children

9 December 2023

by Valery Panyushkin

Source: Spektr.press

Medieval legends and fairy tales can seem absurd as they don’t follow the tenets of classical drama – until, that is, they start happening to us.

For me, the creepiest medieval legend is the one about the Pied Piper of Hamelin. It isn’t really clear whether this is a legend as such or harks back to real-life events that took place in the Free City of Hamelin on 26 June 1284. Either way, along with descriptions of real events, Hamelin’s chronicles contain the record “our children have disappeared”.

This is the story, in a nutshell. In 1284, Hamelin, which had become fantastically rich from the wheat trade, was attacked by rats. A piper, a musician dressed in colourful clothes, vowed to the city magistrate that he would get rid of all the rats and demanded a reward in return: as much gold as he could take away with him. Playing the flute, the piper lured all the rats into the river, where they drowned. But the city authorities refused to pay the piper, and he couldn’t take any gold from Hamelin. So, in revenge, the flautist came to the city again, only this time in hunting gear. He played his flute once more, and this time, all the children followed the piper out of the city… and were lost. Perhaps they hid in a cave that led somewhere or other, to Transylvania or straight to hell. Maybe they joined one of the children’s crusades on Jerusalem underway at that time. Long story short, they were gone. They left the city and never came back. No one did, except for a lame little boy who fell behind, a blind infant who got lost along the way, and a deaf child who didn’t hear the flute.

Many commentators have tended to think of the piper as the devil himself, who cleverly used basic human greed to rob people of their most precious possession: their children.

Now, when I read news stories about the patriotic education of children in Russia, when I see reports about the progress of the ‘Movement of the First’ (akin to the Soviet Pioneers), and when Minister of Education Sergei Kravtsov tells President Putin that he has recruited 2.5 million primary school pupils into the ‘Eaglets’ movement and plans to extend that children’s organisation to nursery schools, I think, “Well, I never! It’s the piper!”

I’m assuming that the rats are us – the parasites and traitors who were forced to leave our homeland, unable to bear the music being blasted all over the media from the flute of the collective piper. We didn’t drown in the river at the border, in that scenario, we managed to swim across. We left our homeland, anyway. Then the collective piper should be annoyed that he didn’t make off with the gold that he was owed for getting rid of us. So then, the piper decides to deal with the children. In many European languages, the saying “it’s time to pay the piper” means that you must answer for your previous actions or, conversely, for actions that you should have taken but in which you fell short.

In the later literary tradition, the piper tends to be almost idealized; he is made out to be quite the romantic hero, while the children who follow him are setting off for a bright future, away from unfeeling parents for whom nothing is sacred except greed. But the medieval legend states plainly that the piper is the devil. He exploits human baseness and leads children straight into hell or, at best, on a pointless crusade in which nothing awaits children except death.

My middle daughter, a schoolgirl, was reading through her chat with former classmates who stayed in Russia, and she said, “Dad, it’s a good thing we left, otherwise I’d be marching around now wearing a soldier’s cap and shouting patriotic slogans”. My daughter’s former classmates, meanwhile, no longer see anything unusual about marching around in a cap, shouting slogans.

What’s more, they are finding it increasingly difficult to get on with each other in the shared chat, both the children of rats chased out by the rat catcher, and the children of law-abiding citizens led by the piper straight into hell.

Translated by Lindsay Munford

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