EDUCATION IN THE SOVIET ERA

EDUCATION IN THE SOVIET ERA

The Soviet regime instituted a system of primary and secondary schooling and operated virtually all the schools in Russia. In 1959, only 36 percent of the population age 10 and over had a secondary education; by 1986 that figure had grown to 70 percent, and there were a half million people with doctorates or post-doctorates.

Education was highly centralized, and indoctrination in Marxist-Leninist theory was a major element of every school's curriculum. Schools were often showcase buildings. They often had large classrooms, a library and cafeteria. Some had museums. The Soviet system also maintained some traditions from tsarist times, such as the five-point grading scale, formal and regimented classroom environments, and standard school uniforms--dark dresses with white collars for girls, white shirts and black pants for boys. *

An effort was made to nurture students with special aptitudes and skills. Children with musical talent were directed into music schools with complete symphony orchestras. Those with sports skills and scientific aptitude were sent to Pioneer Palace sports and hobby complexes with Cosmonaut Rooms with devices that simulated space travel and hair driers in the girls locker room.

Teachers were fairly well paid and held in high esteem. They received good health care and were able to take long vacations on the Black Sea. Teachers were regarded as advocates of the Communist Party first and teachers of the subjects second. Students at teacher's college were required to take courses on Marxism-Leninism and Building Socialism.

Progress in developing the education system was mixed during the Brezhnev years. In the 1960s and 1970s, the percentage of working-age people with at least a secondary education steadily increased. Yet at the same time, access to higher education grew more limited. By 1980 the percentage of secondary-school graduates admitted to universities had dropped to only two-thirds of the 1960 figure. Students accepted into universities increasingly came from professional families rather than worker or peasant households. This trend toward the perpetuation of the educated elite was not only a function of the superior cultural background of elite families but also, in many cases, a result of their power to influence admissions procedures . [Source: Library of Congress, 1996*]

Goals and Failures of Soviet-Era Schools

The goal of education policy was to teach the masses how or read and write, and channel talented young people into science and technology. It was oriented more towards meeting the needs of society and the state rather than fostering individual development. Schools were free, compulsory, universal and classless and were used disseminate Communist doctrine as well as educate children. The set of ethics stressed the primacy of the collective over the interests of the individual. Therefore, for both teachers and students, creativity and individualism were discouraged.[Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

As in other areas of Soviet life, the need for reform in education was felt in the 1980s. Reform programs in that period called for new curricula, textbooks, and teaching methods. The chief aim of those programs was to create a "new school" that would better equip Soviet citizens to deal with the modern, technologically advanced nation that Soviet leaders foresaw in the future. *

But schools and universities in the Soviet Union failed to supply adequately skilled labor to almost every sector of the economy, and overgrown bureaucracy further compromised education's contribution to society. At the same time, young Russians became increasingly cynical about the Marxist-Leninist philosophy they were forced to absorb, as well as the stifling of self-expression and individual responsibility. In the last years of the Soviet Union, funding was inadequate for the large-scale establishment of "new schools," and requirements of ideological purity continued to smother the new pedagogical creativity that was heralded in official pronouncements. *

Soviet-Era Schools

Compulsory education began at age seven and includes four years of elementary school and four years of middle school. After completing the eight grade students had the option of 1) dropping out and working; 2) attending a technical training school called a technicum; or 3) attending a two years of senior secondary school that prepared students for university.

Secondary school and university each lasted 3 or 4 years. Many schools ran six days a week and operated with morning shifts and afternoon shifts. Vocational schools were often attached to factories. Schools on collectives typically hade grades one through eight or one through ten.

Nursery schools and kindergartens served both as schools for the very young and day care centers. Many were operated factories or collective farms. People generally didn't have trouble finding kindergarten places for their kids. Nevertheless, by the 1980s the education infrastructure as a whole was in sorry shape. Facilities generally were inadequate, overcrowding was common, and equipment and materials were in short supply. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Because the Soviet Union had not built enough schools to accommodate increasing enrollment, Russia inherited a system of very large, overcrowded schools with a decaying infrastructure. By the late 1980s, 21 percent of students were attending schools with no central heating, and 30 percent were learning in buildings with no running water. *

Soviet-Era Schooling

According to the 1989 census, three-fifths of Russia's people aged fifteen and older had completed secondary school, and 8 percent had completed higher education. Wide variations in educational attainment exist between urban and rural areas. The 1989 census indicated that two-thirds of the country's urban population aged fifteen and older had finished secondary school, as compared with just under one-half of the rural population. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The underlying philosophy of Soviet schools was that the teacher's job was to transmit standardized materials to the students, and the student's job was to memorize those materials, all of which were put in the context of socialist ethics. One history teacher told the Washington Post that discipline was strict and Stalinism was a forbidden subject. “In my classes then, I never pronounced the words. ‘What do you think?’ You were supposed to learn and then answer exactly the way I told you.”

In the Soviet era teachers were fairly well paid and had high esteem. They received good health care and were able to take long vacations on the Black Sea. Students were often recruited for the month-long potato harvest in the fall. Many students tried to weasel out of it by inventing medical excuses.♪

Soviet-Era School Curriculum

In places were Russian was not the local language, instruction was in the local language and Russian was taught as a second language. In grade school, students were trained to pledge allegiance to the Communist Party.

Soviet Schools traditional emphasized rote learning over what the government wanted them to learn rather then helping them develop creative thinking skills. Discussions about morality and individual responsibility were strictly forbidden. The school curriculum was dictated by Moscow and filled with "mind numbing propaganda and cold Marxist logic." presented from a Leninist viewpoint. High school courses included "Economic Policies of Capitalism and Socialism” and "Dialectical Materialism."

The required reading list for high school students included books by Maxim Gorky, Alexander Fadayev’s The Rout, a tribute to Red soldiers who fought in the Russian civil war, and Imikhaul Sholokovs Quiet Don, a four-volume series about the Don Cossacks’ struggle for independence.

Propaganda and Education

In the Soviet Union, history textbooks asserted that people loved the state and left out details like pact made by Hitler and Stalin, East German students learned the Communists, not Jews, were the primary victims of the Holocaust; that the West German government was fascist succor to the Nazis, and that the United States was "the last and most decadent stage of capitalism" and a crime-ridden society full of drugs and racism.

"In those days, we were forced to believe everything we were told; you could never express any doubts," one student told the Washington Post. “It was real indoctrination. It created a lot of anger and suspicion in us when we learned that history was really different. Our parents seem astonished that we tend to question authority. But it only normal because we resented the lies we heard about in the past."

History was often defined as a triumph of Communism over the worst excesses of imperialism. One episode of American history that nearly every Russian student is familiar with is the "Great Barbecue,” when working class Americans rose up against industrial bourgeoisie and the remnants of feudal America.♪

Soviet-Era Universities

University education was free and students were given a stipend, which was sometimes increased with good grades. Training was highly specialized from the start. Students often spent five or six years studying their subjects and took only courses in their fields. Future doctors took only medical classes and future lawyers took only law classes. There was no such thing as a liberal arts curriculum.

The Soviet system dictated what classes university students would take and decided what jobs they would take after they graduated. The system encouraged students to go into pure and applied sciences, engineering, medicine and agriculture. About 50 percent of all students majored in engineering with hopes of getting a prestigious, well-rewarded join in a large state institution. The best and the brightest were often picked for scientific jobs with military applications.

The number of slots open in universities was determined by five-year plans which took into consideration the needs of certain region and the number of doctors, engineers and scientists the government decided country needed. The children of tradesmen and landowners from generations back were sometimes punished for their pedigree and had a harder time getting into good universities that those from peasant stock.

The Soviet university system produced good engineers and technicians. The humanities were highly ideologized. Soviet universities offered specialist programs. These were more specialized and different than the liberal arts and sciences curriculum offered at Western universities.

As part of a Soviet-era system called raspedyelyeniye ("assignment") students were told by the state where and what they should study and then they were assigned to a job. The system encouraged students to go into pure and applied sciences, engineering, medicine and agriculture. The best and the brightest were often picked for scientific jobs with military applications. About 50 percent of all students majored in engineering with hopes of getting a prestigious, well-rewarded join in a large state institution.

Young Pioneers

Young Pioneers is the youth branch of the Communist Party. All or nearly all children between the ages of 10 and 15 are required to join. They wear a red kerchief with their school uniform everyday, except when the weather is exceptionally hot and they wear a red pin instead. [Source: Eric Eckholm, New York Times, September 26, 1999]

The first Young Pioneers groups appeared in 1922 but the organization was not officially created until 1924. Eric Eckholm wrote in the New York Times, "Combining elements of the Scouts, the Safety Patrol and the Hall Monitor, larded with thick, simple doses of patriotism and Communism, the Young Pioneers remains a shared experience of children raised in Communist countries.

Young Pioneers are taught the proper way to dress, to raise the flag and salute their superiors. They read great Communist heroes and the good deeds performed by model Pioneers and learn to march in formation. Describing a Young Pioneer parade one Russian told the Washington Post, the ranks of children were “such a beautiful line of identical while blouses, a line of identical red pioneer ties and ribbons!”

The Young Pioneer organization sponsors after school hobby clubs and summer camps. In the Soviet Union there were several thousand Pioneer Palaces, that served as recreation centers, and several hundred Pioneer Camps, most of them associated with factories and official organizations. There were also Pioneer travel agencies and children-size model railroads. .

The clubs sponsored sports and arts activities and provided technical training. The were also classes in things like languages, chess, writing, dance, airplane building and art. Pioneer Camp were a summer ritual for Soviet youths. The activities were not all that different from those of American summer camps exception the instruction included Marxist economic and political philosophy.

Young Pioneer Initiation

Little Sparks are the Communist equivalent of cub scouts and brownies. At age nine they say a special pledge and go through a solemn rite of initiation, receiving their red scarves to become full fledged Young Pioneers.

Describing the ritual, Eric Eckholm wrote in the New York Times, "Lined up before an audience of classmates, teachers, and perhaps some beaming parents, the school band playing at the side, they stand at attention as sixth-graders march up and place red kerchiefs around heir necks. An older students leads them in the pledge."

The pledge goes: "I am a Young Pioneer. I pledge under the Young Pioneer flag that I am determined to follow the guidance of the Communist Party, to study hard, work hard and be ready to devote all my strength to he Communist cause."

Young Pioneer Organization

The pioneers are organized in school squads and troops under the supervision of their teachers, with the most studious, conscientious and kiss ass students acting as leaders. Most of the young pioneer leaders are members of the Communist Youth League. One young girl told the New York Times, "As a leader, I have to be a good student, get good grades and be willing to serve the other students. I feel that we have to study hard to build our country stronger."

The pioneers are evaluated on their performance in their activities, There are three tanks: Junior, Full and Senior Pioneers and punishments for those who don’t do what is expected of them.

When asked what happens when a Young Pioneer did something wrong, one former member told the New York Times, “They pull you out of this rank, put you in front of the other Pioneers and start scolding you . All the other kids stare at the one Pioneer in the middle, their eyes saying, ‘Shame on you.’ Imagine what this one person must feel, being alone face to fac with thus huge masse. A kid starts crying, ready to promise anything only to have a chance to get back to his place in the rank, to blend in and be the same as everybody else. For that he ready to give anything away.”

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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