Education and young people

Education during a period of transition:

Goals of education:

  • Communists tended to believe that education was important.
  • Lenin believed that a high level of education, with basic literacy, was an essential part of building socialism.
  • Socialism required industrialisation which required a well-educated workforce who could understand the complex process of industry.
  • Education served the long-term goals of the revolution by laying the foundations for industrialisation.
  • Other Communists like Lunacharsky, believed that the primary goal of education was to allow the individual students to flourish.
    • He believed that therefore, the revolution should liberate the student, rather than education serving the goals of the revolution.

Problems of education:

  • Questions raised about education:
    • Should Communists continue with traditional forms of education or create a new kind of revolutionary education?
    • Should Communists work with educated people even though they were part of the original elite?
    • How should Communists educated the millions of workers with little to no formal education?
  • Questions were complicated by the practical problems of organising education, such as:
    • Low levels of literacy, only around 32% of the population could read and write by 1914.
    • Educational inequalities, Russians tended to be better educated than non-Russian.
      • Urban education > Rural education.
  • Practical problems and ideological debates made things even more complication by the notion that after 1918, Russia was in a state of transition rather than an actual socialist state.
  • Therefore, some Communists argued that in the short term, compromises were vital between socialist principles and the need to rebuild society after the Civil War.


Growth of Education:

  • Lenin introduced a new polytechnic style of education and to deal with illiteracy.

Unified labour schools:

  • In October 1918, the Soviet Government issued a decree with reforms which:
    • Established unified labour schools to provide free polytechnic education to all children aged 8-17
    • Banned religious instruction in schools.
    • Introduced co-educational schools, ending gender segregation of schooling.
    • Abolished corporal; punishment, homework and exams.
    • “Promised” free breakfast for schoolchildren and free medical exams.
    • Education became compulsory.
  • Secondary schooling designed to be vocational.
  • Government proposed the creation of factory schools or professional schools where people learnt about skills required to work in factories.
  • Lunacharsky favoured progressive teach methods based on the theories of John Dewey.
    • Learning through play rather than textbooks.
  • In reality, schooling fell short of Lunacharsky’s vision in the early years of the revolution.
  • Under the conditions of the Civil War, there was insufficient resources to invest into the education system.
  • Free compulsory education not actually achieved.
  • Schools did not have resources to provide free meals or medical check-ups.


Education under the NEP:

  • NEP was a period of compromise.
  • Affected education as well as the economy.
  • Educational provision declined in the first years.
  • Financial issues meant cuts in educational provision:
    • Forced some schools to close to save money.
    • Introduced fees to pay for primary and secondary education for all except the poorest children.
    • Scrapped plans to open up children’s homes for the 7 million children orphaned due to the Civil War.
  • In the first 18 months of the NEP, the number of children in education halved, as did the number of schools.

Expansion in the mid-1920′s:

Primary education:

  • As the economy stabilised, the education system expanded.
  • From 1927, the fees for primary schools were abolished.
    • From then on, the majority of children received a four year primary education.
  • By 1928, about 60% of Soviet children of primary school age were in school.
    • 10% more than before the revolution.
  • Still inequalities in the education system.
    • Such as in towns and cities, children in education tended to get the full four years of primary education, whereas in the countryside, children were unlikely to complete even three years of education.

Secondary education:

  • Took a new direction during the 1920’s.
  • Under the NEP, education was funded locally rather than by the Commissariat for Education.
  • Central government had difficulty controlling the curriculum.
  • Rather than follow the educational programme of polytechnic schools that had been outlined in 1918, local soviets took over existing schools by the Tsarist regime.
  • Schools tended to be dominated by children of the wealthy:
    • 97% of students paid fees.
  • Around 90% of middle-class students started secondary school and only 3% actually finished.
  • Vast majority of teachers in the former Tsarist schools were trained before the revolution, therefore they continued to teach in the traditional way.
  • Their approach to subjects like history remained traditional.
  • Government wanted teachers to teach the history of class struggle and of the working class.
  • Teachers ignored this and continued to teach the achievements of the Tsar.

The reduction of illiteracy:

  • Lenin believed that ending illiteracy was crucial to building socialism.
  • Tackling it was a central educational aim.
  • Decree on Illiteracy produced in 1919 which required to all illiterate people between the ages of 8-50 to learn to read and write.

The Red Army:

  • Trotsky also shared Lenin’s view about the importance of literacy.
  • As a leader of the Red Army, he introduced education for all soldiers.
  • As a result, literacy rates increased from 50% in 1918 to 86% in 1921.
  • Campaigns continued after the War was won.
  • By 1925, 100% of soldiers in the Red Army could read and write.

Literacy and the Civil War:

  • Outside the Red Army, the Civil War saw a decline in literacy.
  • Communist Government published 6.5 million textbooks containing simple rhymes that taught people the advert.
  • Rise in the number of people who could identify letters.
  • This campaign did not lead to an increase in genuine literacy.
  • Lunacharsky also set up a network of reading rooms in towns and villages.
    • Six week courses in reading and writing.
    • Designed to “liquidate” illiteracy.
  • Literacy campaigns set back by these factors:
    • Majority of teachers in 1917 did not support the regime.
      • Advocated Western-Style democracy.
      • Teachers went on protest at the new government.
    • Government prioritised military victory over education.
    • Many schools requisitioned by the army and turned into stores or barracks.
      • Education ceased.
    • War economy did not produce or distribute educational products.
      • Schools had one pencil for every 60 students by 1920.
    • War disrupted education across the country.

Literacy and the NEP:

  • Economic conditions initially led to the scaling back of the already small literacy campaign.
  • To save money, the government closed down 90% of the reading room network which was established during the Civil War
  • In the mid 1920’s, there was a new campaign to liquidate illiteracy.
  • In May 1925, the Government announced an initiative to ensure that all adults were literate by October 1927, the tenth anniversary of the revolution.
  • Workers set up libraries and reading groups in factories to educate workers.
    • Minor success, such as  metal Workers Union reporting an increase in literacy from 86% in 1925 to 96% in 1926.
  • Educating peasants was harder.
    • Goal of the campaign pushed back till 1933.
    • Literacy rates overall improved from 38% in 1914 to 55% in 1928/
  • Achievement was very uneven and the rates of illiteracy began to increase after the illiteracy liquidation campaign had ended in 1927.

Stalin’s war against illiteracy:

  • Under Stalin, the campaign against illiteracy was relaunched.
  • The Sixteenth Party Congress of 1930 adopted new targets to eliminate illiteracy and ensure that primary school was compulsory during the Five Year Plans.
  • Government recruited 3 million volunteers from the Komsomol to educate the workers and peasants.
  • Campaign was organised in a military fashion and the volunteers were called:
    • “Cultural soldiers”
    • Tasked with fighting a “cultural war” against illiteracy.
    • Took place in the middle of Stalin’s campaign to collectivise agriculture.
    • As a result, teachers were attacked and associated as government workers.
    • 40% of teachers attacked
      • Some teachers locked in schools and were then set on fire.
  •  Teachers were also poorly equipped and poorly supported.
  • Often had no textbooks or writing materials.
  • Little to offer the peasants who turned up to schools.
  • Unable to provide school meals for free.
  • In spite of the unpromising start, the campaign was successful.
    • During the Five-Year-Plan, 90% of Soviet adults had attended a literacy course.
    • Courses were not wholly successful.
    • But 68% of people were literate by the end of the FYP.
      •  A good improvement from 1928.
    • By 1939, over 94% of Soviet citizens were literate.
  • Literacy rates reflected the inequalities in society.
  • Whilst around 97% of men were literate and only 90% of women could read and write.
  • Although literacy rates shot up, no focus on the full educational attempt to encourage students to read or write for pleasure.
  • Mass literacy was still a major success of Stalin’s first decade in power.

State control of the curriculum, 1932-53: 


  • Under Stalin the government established stronger control over the curriculum.
  • From 1932-35, the government ordered extensive changes to what was allowed to be taught in schools.
  • Changes were a response to criticisms of the People’s Commissariat for Education and educational standards in schools in the 1920’s.
  • Used to strengthen the future workforce to become disciplined farmers, or factory workers.

Educating workers:

  • Education under Stalin was expected to create young workers into good workers.
  • In 1931, a decree ordered curriculum, to abolish the polytechnic focus created in 1918.
  • Focused on key subjects such as reading, writing, science and maths.
    • Would form the basis of a socialist education system.
  • Aim was to ensure all people had a foundational level of education required for factories or farms.
  • The progressive methods created in the 1920’s abolished.
  • Stalin’s educational system stressed regimented discipline.
  • A 1932 decree introduced new standards of discipline.
  • Teachers required to ensure that students actually attended and were punctual.
    • Required to do their homework.
  • Students also expelled from school for misconduct.
  • Discipline was supposed to prepare students for the harsh labour discipline in the Soviet factories.
  • In 1933, textbooks were launched to support the new curriculum.
  • In 1935, a system of national examinations were introduced.
    • Grade students for management posts.

Educating citizens:

  • The Decree on the Teaching of Civic History, in May 1934, focused on history lessons and new Soviet history textbooks focused on the achievements of the great men like Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great.
  • Emerged at the same time as the emergence of the Cult of Stalin which focused on the Great Russian leaders.
    • Became a feature of Soviet culture to respect Stalin and love their countries.

Stalinist teaching methods:

  • Teachers were encouraged to set an example for their students by emulating Sakharov.
  • For example in 1936, Olga Fedorovna pledged that all her students would gain excellent grades and when she fulfilled this, she was able to  get a media campaign made for her as an example for all Soviet teachers.
  • Teaching reflected the aims of the Soviet Union in Stalin’s economy.

Educational expansion:

  • The expansion of primary education continued under Stalin.
  • Government set a target that 100% of children aged from 8-12 would be enrolled for primary schools by 1932.
  • The government achieved it for 95% of children.
    • Even if they missed their target, they still increased from 60% in 1928.
  • Fees were still a part of the education system outside primary school.
  • Stalin’s key objective in the 1930’s was industrialisation.
  • Government unwilling to increase expenditure on education beyond what was required for a workforce that could work the government factories.
  • For most workers, primary education was sufficient.
  • Fees were maintained in the higher levels of education to keep costs down.
  • Also had limited access.
  • Communist Party and trade unions offered scholarships and grants to help students access higher education.
  • System favoured the sons and daughters of Party officials.
  • Scheme part of Stalin’s broader policy of rewarding loyal Party members.
  • Despite educational fees, higher education grew significantly.
  • Number of universities increased by 800%
    • From 105 in 1914 to 817 in 1939.
    • By 1939, approximately 1.5 million Soviet citizens, 7% of the child population actually completed secondary education.
  • Stalin’s final attempt to ensure discipline at schools arrived in July 1943 when a decree introduced gender segregation into secondary schools.
  • Local soviets encouraged to ensure that male and female students did not share the same buildings.

Expansion figures continued after WW2:

  • Almost 100% of children aged 8-12 gained the full four years of primary education.
  • Around 65% of children aged 12-17 gained some secondary education.
  • Around 20% of children aged 15-17 completed secondary education.

Labour Reserve Schools:

  • The Soviet Union established Labour Reserve Schools (LRS)
  • Established by the Minister of Labour in 1940 in order to train young men between the ages of 14-17 to become specialised in industry.
  • The LRS were a form of industrial conscription.
  • Quotas for compulsory recruitment were issued.
  • Recruits were then enrolled in training courses from 6 months to 2 years.
    • Followed by a four year work placement.
  • For the period of their education, the young men were provided with the accommodation and food but were not paid.
  • The LRS became vital during the Second World War as it played an important role in Soviet Industry.
  • Young men could avoid being thrown into the Army by joining the LRS and becoming specialised in factories for War production.
  • Conditions in the LRS were harsh and students could face sentences for deserting the LRS.
  • During the Fourth and Fifth Five Year Plans, the LRS played an important part providing skilled labour for economic reconstruction.
    • The LRS recruited 4.2 million young people and trained them to work in metallurgy, electricity production, industrial and military construction.

University education under Stalin:

  • Stalin’s Great Turn required expansion of Soviet Universities.
  • During the NEP, the Soviet Industry had been run by the Bourgeois.
    • People born into privileged classes prior to the revolution.
  • Stalin wanted to replace these people who were seen as enemies of socialism.
  • Therefore the Soviet higher education had to be expanded.
  • Stalin launched the new policy in 1928, and the number of university enrolments quickly increased.
    • In 1927, enrollments totaled 170,000.
    • By 1932 this grew to 500,000 and in 1940, the number of enrolments stood at 812,000.
  • Between 1936 and 1938 a new exam system was introduced along with new standards of discipline.
  • By the late 1930’s, the University staff who had been employed before 1928 were purged and replaced with Red Specialists.
  • Despite the purges, the number of academics increased from:
    • 29,000 in 1927 to 50,000 in 1940.
  • University courses reflected the needs of the economy, such as the significant expansion in courses that dealt with construction, transport and factory production.
  • Second World War decimated the university sector. and by 1944, only 2270,000 students remained in university.
  • However by 1953, the university sector had been reconstructed and with approximately 1.5 million students at Soviet Universities.

Educational reform and expansion, 1953-85:

  • While education grew under Stalin, the essential structure and curriculum stayed the same till 1953’s.
  • Khrushchev believed that education along with much else in the USSR, was in need of reform.
  • Unpopular reforms.
  • Brezhnev restored much of the Stalinist curriculum after Khrushchev’s fall.

Khrushchev’s reorganisation and expansion:

  • Between 1923-1953, schools in towns and cities improved considerably.
  • Schools were often small and lacked resources.
  • Teachers often were unwilling to give up the relative comfort of Soviet towns to work in the country.
  • Khrushchev ordered the merger of smaller country schools and the establishment of new schools that would offer the full ten years of compulsory education.
  • This scheme only affected certain areas and the majority of country schools remained small and poorly resourced.
  • Khrushchev doubled the number of schools in towns and cities.
  • Also invested in teachers rose from 1.5 million in 1953 to 2.2 million in 1964.
  • The level of teachers’ education also improved under Khrushchev.
    • In 1953, only 19% of teachers had university education, which increased to 40% in 1964.
  • Most important reform of improving access to education was the abolition of fees for students attending secondary education and university in 1956.
  • 1959 led to the establishment of special funds to help maintain poor students who attended secondary schools.
  • Fund paid for clothes, footwear, textbooks and school dinners.
    • As a result of these reforms, proportion of 17 year olds who completed secondary school rose from 20% in 1953, to about 75% in 1959.

Educational reform, 1956:

  • By 1956, Khrushchev believed that the Soviet curriculum was in need of reform.
  • Soviet curriculum stayed pretty much the same from 1931-1955.
    • Of the 61 textbooks in use in 1958, 46 had been initially written in 1953.
  • Khrushchev’s 1956 reforms introduced polytechnic education.
    • Reflected the needs of Khrushchev’s industrial policy.
      • Whereas Stalin needed disciplined and literate workers, Khrushchev’s new light industries needed workers with more sophisticated skills.
  • Reforms also reflected the impact of the War.
  • High mortality rates in young men led to a shortage of skilled labour in the 1950’s.
  • Education became more practical as result of the reforms.
  • Evident from the amount of time in class devoted to different subjects.
  • Percentage of curriculum time
    Subject area 1947 1959 Change
    Humanities (History, music and art) 50 40 -10
    Science (Maths too) 42 31 -10
    Practical training 8 28 +20
  • In addition to the changes in the amount of time given to different subject areas, education was made much more practical by increasing the practical focus of science and maths teaching.
  • Schools were expected to organise trips to factories as well as farms.
    • Even work experience placement.

The 1958 reforms:

  • Khrushchev’s reforms were set out in the December 1959 Education Law.
  • The Law:
    • Made education compulsory from 7-15.
    • Required schools to offer 11-year programmes rather than 10 year programmes so students could stay on to the age of 19.
    • Restructured education for students from 16-19.
      • Education would be completed through vocational and school education
      • Work experience in farms or factories.
    • Ensured the most academically gifted students would be given places at special schools that focused on academic education.
    • Introduced a new course, “the fundamentals of political knowledge” for all 15 year olds to understand the benefits of the Soviet system.

Final reforms:

  • Khrushchev continued to try to reform education.
  • His final reforms were part of his wider policy of De-Stalinisation:
    • Stalinist discipline was relaxed in November 1960.
      • Abolished rules about correct sitting and standing postures.
    • In 1961, Khrushchev ordered a new emphasis on learning MFL.
      • Reflected a rejection of Stalin’s emphasis on cultural isolation.
    • Requirement to set homework was also dropped.
    • Continuous assessment replaced final exams.
    • In July 1962, teachers lost the right to expel student who underachieved.

Impact of Khrushchev’s reforms:

  • Unpopular and a failure.
  • Most parents wanted an academic education rather than vocational courses.
  • View was common amongst Communist Party members.
  • Reforms never fully implemented.
  • By 1962, when all schools were supposed to offer courses to students up to the age of 19, only 65% of schools had done it.
    • Slackening of discipline was ignored by teachers
    • Continued setting of homework.
    • Continued Stalinist discipline.
    • Curriculum reforms were not implemented in 47%
  • Most successful aspects of his reforms were that they improved education for the academic elite.
  • Reforms were welcomed by Party officials.
  • Type of school 1959 1966
    Academic 5 21
    Art and sculpture 5 50
    Ballet 16 18
  • Khrushchev’s reforms didn’t address the fundamental flaw in the education system, such as the poorly maintained school buildings and the shortages of teachers.


Soviet Education, 1964-85:

  • Very unpopular reforms made by Khrushchev were reversed by Brezhnev.

Repealing Khrushchev’s reforms:

  • Educational priority of the post-Khrushchev leadership was to repeal Khrushchev’s reforms.
  • Between 1964- and 1966 the Council of Ministers:
    • Ended 11 year schooling policy in favour of a gradual shift from 8-year schooling to 10 year schooling.
    • Drew up a temporary curriculum to restore the focus on academic education.
    • Ended vocational training.
    • Abandoned compulsory secondary education, replacing it with a target that 100% of children would complete secondary education by 1970.

Slowing expansion:

  • Expansion of secondary schools slowed down from 1966, by 1976 only 60% of students finished secondary education.
  • Number of teachers remained stable.
    • However, was continued increase in their level of qualification
    • By 1978, almost 70% of teachers had a university education.

Small-scale reforms:

  • Brezhnev introduced some small-scale reforms in the 1970’s.
  • The School Statue of September 1970 required textbooks to be updated to reflect the latest information of the sciences.
  • The Fundamental Law on Soviet Education of 1973, consolidated the existing approach to education in a single document.
  • During the 1970’s there were increased attempts were made to increase peasant participation in schooling to provide hot school meals.
  • Free meals were available to poor students.
  • Textbooks were made free of charge.
  • Curriculum remained largely unchanged under Brezhnev.

University education, 1953-85:

  • Universities were the real success of the Communist Education system.
  • Between 1953 and 1980, student members in higher education grew from about 1.5 million to over 5 million.
    • Around 19% of the population.
  • Growth in student members took place in 1958.
  • Curriculum expanded to reflect the diverse needs of the Soviet light industry.
    • New course such as electronics and radio, construction, agricultural chemistry and machine building.
  • Attempts to serve the diverse communities that comprised the USSR.
  • For example in 1954, Khrushchev began the building of five new Universities to serve students from non-Russian ethnic backgrounds.
  • Continued by Brezhnev by founding 18 Universities in Kazakhstan.
  • Soviet authorities were concerned about the impact of high levels of education, fearing that advanced study would lead to political non-conformity.