Essay: Soviet educational System

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An examination of the Soviet educational System in the 1920s and 1930s will contextualise and explore how ‘the thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression’ . In attempting to explain how this occurred, the paper would first specify the historical background, aiming to summarise the state of affairs up to the revolutions in 1917. The paper will follow developments in a chronological way to further educate those interested in the ways revolution may bring about drastic changes in society and to inform the reader about the particular principles and practices employed. The distinct phases concern the “liberal years of the NEP”, “the great leap forward” of the first ‘pyatileka’ and finally the subsequent period of reappraisal and consolidation.

When the term ‘education’ is used in this paper, it is used to denote not just an institutionalized form of learning. Education covers a multitude of areas, including formal modes of literature and discussion, yet education can also include non-formal cultural, social and intellectual experiences. William Brickman summarizes this by proposing that ‘when minds act, interact and counteract, the impact is educational’ .

Prior to the revolutions of 1917, the state and status of education in Russia can be described as deeply ‘educationally backward’ . This can be seen through statistics, of which show that in 1915 the literacy rate of the entire Soviet Union was just shy of 32% and the majority of the population received only an elementary school education. Two years later in 1917, still prior to the revolution, Tsar Nicholas’s II could only boast that one of four children between the ages of seven and fourteen were literate . In February 1917, the absolutist rule of tsarism came to an end, allowing for an installation of a ‘provisional government consisting of men with a wide spectrum of political ideologies’ . Upon the shameful educational statistics, the deputies within the State Duma, or the legislature, had noticed that these must be improved if Russia was to advance at the same rate as Russia’s Western counterparts, ultimately producing a productive and enlightened nation.

Following the developments of February, Vladimir Lenin and other Soviet leaders recognised that to complement the political with a cultural revolution, illiteracy must be eradicated. Lenin was known to suggest that ‘a communist society cannot be built in a illiterate country’ . Therefore, the Bolsheviks from 1922, had to develop new ideas to create a educational system that would establish universal literacy, whilst promptly developing science and culture, presenting a new educated class, who will be educated in accordance to communist ideals and principles. In other terms, this meant that the Bolsheviks had to re-educate the educated classes at the same time, because they were still related to, or considered as “bourgeois”.

Upon developing ideas regarding educational procedures, Soviet leaders adopted ideas about ‘polytechnic’ education from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. ‘The Communist Manifesto’ written in 1848, greatly influenced education in Western Europe, and the Soviet Union incorporated parts of the Western European education model into their own. The Manifesto asserted that the forthcoming victory of the proletariat would put an end to a class based society. Therefore, the idea of small experiments in a community living ‘social utopias,’ was prohibited. The manifesto had already set forth ten immediate measures as first steps towards communism, ranging from a progressive income tax to free education for all children .

The concept of polytechnic education was deemed as greatly significant in its attempts to eliminate the distinction between physical and mental labour. A key issue in accordance with expansion and improvement of education can be linked to the ‘conviction that education was the crucial factor conditioning social and economic progress’ . Both the development of the national economy and the growth of education are intertwined, as educational policies since 1917 have ‘been changed and reshaped in accordance with the requirements of the national economy’ . Ultimately, this specific example highlights the close relationship between educational planning and economic planning, where plans constructed by the various ministries would part form the economic plan, as the educational programme was not only for the improvements of the under-privileged, but it “also held within its compass the industrial ambitions of the soviet policy makers” .

Karl Marx himself declared: Education means to us these things: (1) intellectual development; (2) physical development; (3) polytechnic education; which will give knowledge relative to the general scientific principles of all production processes, and will at the same time give children and youths practice in the use of elementary tools of all branches of production .

Acting upon these ideals and principles, Lenin returned to Petrograd in April of 1917, to mobilize Bolshevik forces assisted by anarchists and Left Socialist Revolutionaries to bring about the October Revolution. When Lenin and his Bolsheviks’ assumed power in 1917, he established the ‘Narkompros’, or otherwise known as the People’s Commissariat of Education, and appointed A. V. Lunacharskii as the chairman. Lenin introduced the Narkompros to act as overseers of educational culture in the Soviet Union, comprising the further development of influential sectors that co-exist within extracurricular education such as theatres, museums, and publishing companies.

Sheila Fitzpatrick has compiled a highly useful and successful book. Drawing from Fitzpatrick’s ‘Education and Social Mobility in the Soviet Union 1921-1934’, this paper will be able to outline key developments during the period, exploring and evaluating policies implemented at each juncture.

Fitzpatrick dedicates much of her work to the previously mentioned ‘Narkompros’ and its leading figures. The Narkompros adopted a liberal-progressive outlook; through setting aside other priorities they focused upon the creation of a new socialist school and the rapid eradication of illiteracy. To examine whether the Narkompros were able to overcome problems with literacy, can be seen through a variety of statistics. In 1919, when Narkompros had established themselves as a core base for communist education, they employed approximately 3,000 people spread over 28 different departments. Narkompros’ initial foundations followed Marxists principles, introducing free education, which was available to all children. Remarkably, in 1911, there had been 47,855 primary schools in the Soviet Union, and by 1919, during the Civil War, following the implementation of the Narkompros that number rose to 63,317 .

It is worth noting that in Tsarist Russia, primary education was not primarily organised by the state. Here, inequality in the quality and accessibility of education during Tsarist Russia is explored as the center of James C. McClelland’s work ‘Autocrats and Academics: Education, Society, and Culture in Tsarist Russia’. In the broadest sense, education during Imperial Russia certainly functioned as a means to limit social mobility. Using McClelland’s work, it is clear that the elite nature of secondary schools and universities during Tsarist Russia produced an intelligentsia that would be disconnected from the majority of Russian society in terms of level of education. In Tsarist Russia, as the Church and the state corresponded together the ‘creation of a system of higher education capable of producing a comprehensive roster of trained personnel lay in the distant future’ . Upon this sentiment, before the separation of church and state, ‘the government sent young men abroad, particularly to England, to learn shipbuilding and seamanship’ . Following these ventures and with the help of Englishmen, the first schools of secular science were opened in Moscow, although ‘the establishment in Russia of different types of schools stretched out over many years’ .

Within three months of their humble beginnings, on January 23, 1918, the Narkompros issued the “Decree of the Soviet of People’s Commissars on the Separation of the Church from the State, and of the School from the Church”. This decree stated that ‘the school is hereby separated from the church, the teaching of religious doctrines is not permitted in any state, public, or private educational institution where general educational subjects are taught’. Following the implementation of this decree, all state-sponsored public schools were secularized. In addition to this, new schools were to be established in both urban and rural areas throughout the entire country had to engage with and benefit from the government-launched campaign to eliminate adult illiteracy. Furthermore, secularization of public education enabled the Soviet government to create schools and curricula without adherence to traditional church doctrine.

Soviet Secularisation held prominence within education as “they made a tactical move of proclaiming religion as a cause and not merely the symptom of social problems . . . religious practices became the scapegoat of the Soviet ideological machine, they became the only readily admissible reason for the failure of the complete re-education of the masses” . According to this argument, Communist society did not secularize because religious believers averted communism from attaining social justice, which, in turn, would effortlessly secularize society. To end this cycle of religion, Yaroslavsky declared, “Several hundred reactionary zealots of religion needed to be exterminated” .

Prior to Secularisation, the Russian religious landscape consisted of two major forms, one that represented the Russian Orthodox Church and the other, which promoted an atheist alternative labelled “scientific atheism.” Scientific atheism failed to stimulate the Russian population and figures grew increasingly wary as Soviet officials created a monopoly “church” of scientific atheism in hopes of replacing persistent religious beliefs and practices. Upon Secularisation and education, Sheila Fitzpatrick notes that ‘secret ‘hard-line’ instructions were issued to local party organisations but not published’ . Upon this sentiment, ‘the communist party attempted to have its cake and eat it too by officially establishing religious freedom while covertly waging a massive war on all religion’ .

Within education, Secularisation affected both the content and methods of teaching. Soviets enthusiastically sought to prevent religious education and replaced it with atheistic propaganda. One example of this can be seen with homework, where school children were even asked to go home and try to covert one member of their family to atheism. For instance, one Russian grammar text required the recitation of the below, in correspondence to a series of questions concerning Islamic practices.

Q: What does the mullah do?

A: Mullah reads the Koran and when someone dies he reads prayers.

Q: What does he read about in the Koran?

A: We do not know.

As this example demonstrates, anti-religious propaganda infiltrated the most basic lessons regardless of their intended topic. The Soviet educational system held “the bringing up of children in the atheist spirit” as one of its primary missions. Secularisation further bridged a gap between religious education, and during this time any form of religious education would only occur at home. However, upon examination, any private religious instruction is very hard to back up with statistics or viewpoints.

Even though the Narkompros exerted some levels of success, under Lenin, the agency proved to be a political lightweight, failing to fulfil the potential Lenin originally saw. Criticism of the Narkompros stemmed from economic administrators, trade unions and the Komsomol, who all advocated for a more vocational style of education and greater positive discrimination in favour of the working class and peasantry. Individuals would state that the commissariat had existed as an unorganised agency, which failed to address problems efficiently and being far too sympathetic to old “trusted” methods of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia.

Further criticism appeared with the latter years of the NEP, when specifically Lunacharskii was targeted and blamed for being over zealous in the defence of Narkompros ‘vedomstvennyi’ (bureaucracy). This developed into an issue, as Narkompros seemed to subvert vocational and specialized education. You could suggest that this should be disarmed, as the agency became nationalistic in practise, bringing about conflict with the Ukrainian Narkompros and the Komsomol. Acting separately, the Narkompros attempted to minimalize social discrimination in education, notably objecting to the purging of schools. Tensions therefore rose; provoking public attacks by Komsomol leaders and leading to a constant rival-like relationship between the Narkompros and the Central Committee secretariat of the Komsomol.

In the 1920’s, Soviet policies of Likbez and Indigenization were developed with the aim of educating millions of illiterate adult people all over the country, including residents of small towns and villages, through enrollment in special literacy schools. Notable scholars and academics of Soviet education highlight the success and originality of this process named ‘Likbez’. The Likbez campaign was started on December 26, 1919, when Vladimir Lenin signed the Decree of the Soviet government “on eradication of illiteracy among the population of RSFSR”. V.A Kumanev develops key aspects surrounding the early campaign for literacy and education and the policy of “indigenization” (korenizatsiya). This policy promoted the development and use of non-Russian languages within government, the media, and education.

The policy of Korenizatsiya ultimately aimed at uniting all the nations of the USSR into a singular community, of which would reveal itself as national in form (unified) and socialist in content. Korenizatsiya welcomed the introduction of local languages into all spheres of public life and especially promoted the usage of these through education, publishing, culture, and, most importantly, government and the Communist Party. To implement these policies, Narkompros were commissioned to deal with the non-Russian nationalities, too. Narkomnats acted as the head between (1917-1923), serving as a member of the Council of People’s Commissars. Korenizatsiya entailed an attempt to standardize each local language, spreading it as the common language of communication within the new population. Understanding the role of different languages will incorporate a variety of localisms and these different languages were to be altered as to ‘meet the needs of a modern industrial society, increasing literacy and creating new uniform alphabets’ .

By 1928-29, the situation of the Narkompros changed radically, when Lunacharskii was dismissed and replaced by Bubanov, who followed closer to the state-policy line, expressing the official attitude, when he declared that ‘science is only needed when it gives practise to something useful’ . In hindsight, this presented a ‘Cultural Revolution’ concerning the development of Soviet education, where everything from elementary to secondary schools were reorganised and the upper classes were turned into tekhnikums. Tekhnikums were the customary name in the USSR for a type of specialized secondary educational institution, which trained personnel with specialized secondary education for various branches of industry, agriculture, construction, transportation, and communications. Through the implementation of Tekhnikums, the Soviets envisaged creating a more mobile, productive and creative society, with many individuals boasting useful skills to be put to practice in a variety of differing fields. Here, we can find that the Cultural Revolution proved to be an essential part of the plan of the transition to socialist society, including modes of democratization of culture, equality within cultural opportunities and formation of new technical intelligentsia.

The Bolshevik’s often stated that for a Cultural Revolution to blossom, opportunity for the children of all working people to attend any type or level of school must become a reality. Hereby, the complete reorganization of the Soviet educational system focused upon “the basis of the principle of unity and complete continuity among various levels” . In response to these principles, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee imposed a new “Resolution on the Unified Labour School of the Russian Soviet Federal Republic (RSFSR),” which established the unified labour school. What the RSFSR as the biggest union representative introduced, was universal acceptance of children into education regardless of their nationality, socioeconomic status, or religious affiliation. The unified labour school attempted to do what the term suggests, aiming to unify the school in all aspects. Through unifying the schools, a statute outlined that:

1, The Unified Labour School was to be secular, i.e., free from any kind of religious teachings;

2, Soviet education was to be public in the widest sense of the term, i.e. it was to be made accessible to all people, and exclusively serve the interest of the people;

3, The Soviet education was to be co-educational;

4, The teaching was to be conducted in the Native language;

5, Emphasis was to be laid on the relation between education and socially useful labour;

6, Lastly, it was to prepare well rounded members of the communist society.

To summarize, the unified labour school can provide for the training of workers who will be able to perform the most diverse functions of communist society.

Aside from re-organisation on an institutionalised basis, teaching programmes were also altered, with a lessening of formal teaching to enable the possibility of bringing in ‘real life’ scenarios into the classroom to aid the potential of students into production based workplaces. The Narkompros further lost control of secondary education, where in its place industry established a foothold in all cultural fields, subjecting each area to intense criticism and purges. Here, Fitzpatrick again draws comparisons to the Cultural Revolution including the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, as they similarly purged remnants of a previous society, to make way for the new processes. Both aimed to produce substantial numbers of personnel emerging from the working class and peasantry to replace the old regime and the ‘bourgeois specialists’ that allegedly had supported it. This in turn led to a new generation of specialists, who would later be propelled into the upper echelons of society, dominating Soviet politics up to the end of the regime. However, the Soviet Revolution was much shorter lived than the Chinese, and although both did evoke strong reactions to the new educational and economic effects, eventually in 1931-32 the Central Committee ended these processes. Formal teaching retuned to the forefront, with many of the previously purged scholars returning to their previous positions. Ultimately, the changes that occurred in the late 1920s to the early 1930s, moved away from the relative pluralism of the NEP period, being replaced by a state-enforced compulsory orthodoxy dictated by the party.

Following the Cultural Revolution of the late 1920s, a restoration of order occurred at the beginning of the 1930s, commencing with a restructuring of the education system. Between 1928 and 1930, there was a distinctive shift where an ‘unprecedented number of peasants migrated into the cities and entered the industrial work force’ . Here, these peasants were deemed as lacklustre in both terms of knowledge and skill, proving as inadequate labourers. This caught the attention of the State, in 1930, which in the XVI Party Congress took a hard-line approach to establish education in more rural areas, such as the countryside, to ensure those peasants would obtain basic literacy skills and gain the levels of knowledge necessary for productivity. Upon these deliberations, the Soviets set up a programme of which solely aimed to achieve 100% eradication of adult literacy, whilst establishing universal primary education, focused mainly upon those in the rural areas. The state felt as if education would not only benefit future industrial workers, but also improve the levels of literacy in the rural areas, notably dominated by the peasantry, all in turn benefitting the state. The state employed a policy of ‘Collectivisation’, which required peasants to learn advanced skills, and the government believed it imperative that peasants receive a primary education and, at the very least, become literate.

The educational reforms of the 1930s envisioned bridging the gap between those in the rural countryside, namely the peasants, to assume levels of education similar to those in the more developed industrial cities/towns. This socialist transformation that took place in the countryside took place under conditions comparable to acrimonious class warfare. Amongst the transformations, the Komsomol experienced very difficult conditions to work under in the late 1920’s to the early 1930’s. Unlike the influence they exerted before, creating a solid relationship between state and party educational reforms, the Kulaks (independent farmers) would take advantage of this relationship to harm the group. Using the material difficulties placed upon the Komsomol, the Kulaks would pin the low cultural level, age-old traditions of piety and superstition, and gossip and public insults as directly against Komsomol members. The Kulaks through a savage hatred of Soviet power would often attack Komsomol members, often beating and killing them. Women would also be directly targeted by the Kulaks, being treated even worse than their male counterparts, ultimately leading to hundreds of young Komsomol men and women to perish, all in the struggle of developing a new life in the countryside. Members of the Komsomol also took an active part in making the Cultural Revolution. The Eighth Congress of the VLKSM declared an all-Union cultural campaign to eradicate illiteracy. Hereby, shock brigades against illiteracy were formed, and thousands of Komsomol members included themselves within the cultural army to give coaching to illiterates, setting up schools and founding libraries. In 1930, the Komsomol assumed the responsibility to promote and assist universal compulsory education, where they devised a system of two-year evening schools for barely literate people. During the first five-year plan, about 45 million persons were taught to read and write.

The Komsomol distanced themselves from the earlier days of Lunacharskii, and would urge young people to study the sciences. In 1928-29, there were 15,000 young people on assignment from the Komsomol studying in the workers’ schools, 20,000 in the preparatory courses for higher education, and 30,000 in the higher educational institutions and tekhnikums. In 1934, students stemming from a working class background increased to 47.9 percent.

The Narkompros once again experienced a re-shuffle and with Lunacharskii dismissed, a re-organisation of the Narkompros was proposed to weather purges. In 1930 even more than in 1929, Narkompros were experiencing both an internal and external crisis, facing purges, reorganisation and internal disorder between opposing individuals. Vyshinskii superseded Marxist historian Mikhail Pokrovskii as Narkompros leading authority upon educational affairs. Figures such as Bubanov, who contributed towards the creation of a new people’s commissar of enlightenment were eager not to be accused of protecting his own agency’s turf interests (vedemstvennost) as seen with Lunacharskii, leading to his position being taken away in 1929. The newly developed emphasis upon industrialisation confused matters, as ‘the push to expand and reorganize higher education crescendoed’ with these new movements. What this meant, is that the Narkompros were left at a political and financial inconvenience, as within the epoch, interagency wars were far too common and the intentions of the Narkompros were constantly differing, confusing its role and place within educational reform. Industrialization certainty took precedence over culture and education and Narkompros was financially constrained relative to other agencies. A cartoon from the period summarises these developments, showing a bent-over and emaciated old woman asking for alms: the beggar bears the label of the Narkompros .

The first five-year plan ‘vydvizhenie’ was most effectively and importantly a movement to educate young adults. However, with the promotion of the first plan, Sheila Fitzpatrick denounces within groups of these young adults, individuals did not all belong to the category of ‘real’ workers. For instance, those classified, as ‘real workers’ would be those who stem from working-class families, or individuals with production experience, however, such individuals were largely depleted in numbers because of the promotions of the first five-year period. What this meant, is that an influx of inexperienced workers made their way into workplaces from the peasantry. Workers such as these could not function effectively in roles of production, let alone be prepared for a continued promotion of the peasantry into the intelligentsia. On the other hand, any reversal back to traditional schooling methods, contradicted the possibility of upwards mobility. Hereby, formal teaching retuned to the forefront, with many of the previously purged scholars returning to their previous positions.

During the second Five-Year plan Stalin began to elevate his own cult. In doing so, the educational system also altered, reverting back to previous methods. In theory and practise, the 1930s made way for an aggressive approach and formal teaching retuned to the forefront, with many of the previously purged scholars returning to their previous positions. Upon this position, Stalin saw that teaching in school was going badly and the training of the children was poorly organised. Here, Stalin discovered that there was little discipline throughout Schools, coupled with little formal teaching by subject, even offering little in forms of regular textbooks. Upon these findings, Stalin became aware of Shulgin’s theory of the ‘withering away of the school’, a statement that almost corresponded with the theory of the approaching ‘withering of the state’, of which Stalin clearly condemned a year earlier. Throughout the early 1930s, Stalin was constantly disturbed by the ‘dis-organisation of school life and the fact that pupils were not receiving a systematic general education… where the tekhnikums also complained of the inadequate preparation of entering students’ .

Under Stalin, a return the previously dismissed arrangement of formal teaching returned, where ‘school management, teaching methods, and curricula were hauled back under central authority and educational experiments were officially squelched’ daily life in Soviet Union. The return to a traditional European style of education brought back formal exams, regimented classrooms, authoritarian teachers, state prescribed courses, school uniforms and homework for all. Stalin also developed ideas surrounding child education, similarly as Lenin did in his 1920 speech to the Komsomol, where he outlined that any cult relied on a juxtaposition between “true” Communist children and everyone else. Upon these ideas, the Communist Party secluded groups of children who did not join state approved groups, and the party and state were able to create a radical other, or class enemy, before individuals even had the capacity to join the workforce. These ideas and the institutionalization of the child, was seen most strongly in the developmental years of the Soviet Union, and was perfected under Stalin.

Under Stalin, there was also an increased focus on the militarization of schools, which was due to the looming war-like period, represented through the widespread purges and terror that occurred between 1936-1939. The militarization of education was achieved through activities such as socialist competition between classrooms, the addition of military classes, and rallies that children were encouraged to go to. Stalin also determined a new outlook upon childhood education, highlighting the notion of the child hero. The child here would entail stories of exemplary children doing the “right, soviet” thing, of which presented the Soviet Union as an exemplify field for children, intended for ordinary children to learn from the actions of these heroes, even though the stories were often exaggerated, altered, or made up. Notable heroes that existed were Pavlik Morozov, Malchish Kilbalchish, and Timur of Timur and His Squad (Pavlik Morozov was the only real one, both Malchish and Timur are fictional).

Finally a constitution guaranteed everyone the right to education, and on October 1, 1930 education became universal and compulsory for the first time in the history of Russia. Initially, the constitution only allowed for children between the ages of seven and ten, but this was amended in 1933 extending the reach by four years. Statistics show the immense success of the constitution, revealing over 24,000 newly established schools, 1,500,000 newly admitted students and by 1931, over 12,000,000 children were assumed into public schools across Russia. Figures rose exponentially year after year, suggesting that the introduction of compulsory education was indeed a great Soviet feat, which represented the most enduring aspects of the reformed soviet educational system. Regarding this sentiment, by 1975, over 49,000,000 children attended Soviet schools . One distinct issue with the constitution that is regularly ignored is the fact that although this was a great success, the Soviet Union struggled to provide similar levels of quality from school to school, as instead it was not equal in quality and content, particularly between rural and urban schools, where the urban schools clearly triumphed the rural counterparts.

To conclude, it is clear that between the early years of 1917, up until the death of Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union represented large-scale years of development in the educational sector, of which was not always deemed successful, as seen with several reversals, reappraisals and consolidations. Throughout the early 1900’s education was almost non-existent and certainly very unequal, dependant upon where you lived and whom you came from. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the government had clear intentions to create a more uniform, general education system throughout the far-reaching Soviet Union. As the 1930s came to a close, you can see that the Soviet Union established a truly public education system, of which provided ‘socially organised preschool education and general-education, vocational-technical, secondary, and higher specialised schools’ to all. Russia further intended to distance herself from all forms of education that did not contribute towards developing Soviet productivity, as seen in the newly derived focus of industrialisation. However, this transition was not easy as seen above, and this transformation clearly relied on the universal eradication of illiteracy, of which took a considerable time to develop. When the Soviet Union established a system intent on guaranteeing universal literacy, it is worth noting that this coupled with a rapid development of science and culture did not actually represent the actual goals of educational reform. The intended goal was not to just eradicate literacy, to improve literacy levels, however, the main goal of these reforms was to both educate the masses, to form a more productive, literate population, but to also ‘instil strong communist loyalty from a very early age and to expedite the process of industrialisation by educating future workers in socially useful labour’ . Hereby, as statistics and policies improved the former, I feel as if the latter also was achieved through areas such as the Komsomol and Tekhnikums, where reliance upon formal teaching and a variety of educational processes created a well balanced soviet individual.

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