Education in the Soviet Union Through the Eyes of an American Principal

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An American principal traveled to the USSR in 1926 and 1927 to study Soviet schools. Here are the results of her study.

Mijaíl Oziorski/Sputnik

“We may not agree with many or any of her social objectives, but we must acknowledge that her educational program is unusually significant.”

With this remark, Lucy L.W. Wilson began New Schools of New Russia (1928), her report about Soviet education based on her observations in Russian schools. Born in 1864, Wilson was among the first women to receive a PhD in biology, which she earned from the University of Pennsylvania in 1897. She studied education systems in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe, and she had been serving as principal of South Philadelphia High School since 1916. Because of her educational expertise, she was later selected to go to Russia to investigate schools for a series of books entitled “Vanguard Studies of Soviet Russia”, published by Yale University.Jerome Davis, the editor of the series, argued that this kind of book was necessary because Americans were “uninformed about a great nation covering one sixth of the land surface of the world.” Davis attributed this ignorance to stereotypes and prejudices about Russia, and he hoped that books such as Wilson’s would help dispel these attitudes. He wrote, “No matter what our conviction, we have to admit that the Bolsheviki are hammering out a startling new mechanism in the file of political control. Their experiment deserves scientific study, not hostile armies, intelligent criticism, not damning epithets” (viii).

In this spirit, Wilson examined the organization of schools, the history of education in the USSR, the leaders of the new education movement, and the aims of Soviet education. After developing this more general framework, Wilson explained specific aspects of education in the USSR: rural, elementary, higher education, special education, homeless children, adult education, education in the Red Army and teacher training.

Wilson primarily recorded her observations between 1926 and 1927, after Stalin had come to control the Communist Party of Russia but before he became the repressive Bonaparte of the thirties. Her book was released in the US for the ten-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which took place in 1917 when the All Russian Soviet Congress voted to overthrow the provisional government and take power under the banners “peace, land and bread” and “all power to the Soviets.” Following the Revolution, the USSR was plunged into a Civil War from 1918 to 1921, during which the Red Army beat back a counter-revolutionary force supported by the primary imperialist powers of the world. Coming on the back of World War I, the Civil War decimated Russia, causing mass starvation and generalized poverty. Lenin, like most of the Communist Party, bet that the Soviet Revolution would spur revolutions in other countries, particularly in industrialized Germany. These further revolutions did not happen, however, leaving the Soviet Union isolated and starving. Lenin died in 1924 and Stalin took over, articulating the idea of socialism in just one country and increasingly bureaucratizing the USSR.  He ejected Trotsky, the leader of the Red Army, from the Communist Party in 1927 and banished him from the country in 1928. However, many of the victories of the working-class revolution lasted throughout the 1920s, including an inquiry-centered vision of education. The USSR, and Stalin himself, had not yet adopted the bureaucratized and repressive governing philosophy that characterized Soviet Russia in the thirties.

Prior to the Revolution, schools had been primarily reserved for Russia’s elites, and they were often dominated by the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church. After the revolution, school was for everyone: men and women, boys and girls, peasants and industrial workers. The Soviet principle of self-determination of nations was expressed in education. In fact, for women, schools had a double function: of education young leaders of both sexes, as well as allowing adult women to take up more societal tasks. Wilson says that the push toward universal preschool was viewed as a way to free women from, “the enslavement of household cares and as a means of including them in the social life of the country” (Wilson 95).

Early Russian schools also attempted to include the dozens of national minorities that also made up the USSR. Schools conducted classes in the native language of their regions, and there was no attempt to impose Russian on ethnic and linguistic minorities. In fact, some languages first acquired written form in these first years after the revolution in an attempt to write textbooks for schools in residents’ native languages. As Wilson observed in 1926, “a whole nation is at school” (41).  She referred to the USSR in the early twenties as a “riot of educational activities” (31).

The number of schools in Russia doubled in the two years following the Russian Revolution. The new Workers Government instituted massive literacy and general education programs all over the country, seeking to elevate the political awareness of all sectors of Russian society. These programs included the widespread establishment of public education beginning in pre-school, massive literacy campaigns within the Red Army, an expansion of universities, playgrounds, and factory schools, as well as the expansion of museums, traveling libraries, and more. The result was a massive increase in literacy. According to Wilson, subscribers to the Peasant Gazette, for example, increased from 24,820 in 1924 to 161,000 in 1926. The number of universities in the USSR increased by 427.5% from 1913 to 1925, while student enrollment went up by 310%.

Wilson’s assessment of Soviet education was overwhelmingly positive; her overall impression was that “Soviet Russia is actually giving to the masses in its state supported public schools the kind of education that progressive private schools in this country and in Europe have been striving earnestly to give to the relatively few who come to them” (2). At the same time, Wilson noted that the Soviet education system was still very much under construction, and that it was  deeply affected by the poverty that afflicted all of Russia.

Schools had access to very few resources, from teaching materials to the ability to train teachers in new forms of pedagogy. Enthusiasm for education stood in stark contrast to the poverty of the USSR in the first years after the Revolution. Yet, as a university professor told Wilson, “Never before – or since – have I had such classes. Both teachers and students shivered in sheepskins. Our hands were so stiff with cold that we could scarcely write. But inside we were aglow with the fire that comes with creative thinking” (31).

Russians knew that their new society would be built by the children in Soviet schools. As Wilson put it, the aim of Soviet education was to, “educate the children, so that, collectively, they may create a new world in which each may live effectively, cooperatively, creatively—leaders and followers, in accordance with their abilities and the exigencies of the situations” (34). Participating in the government was central to this perspective. With the objective of laying a better foundation for a democratic state,” schools taught students the basics of democratic participation. In addition to reading and writing, they were taught how to participate in assemblies, to listen to and exchange ideas, and to lead meetings and take minutes. Student government existed in all schools, and several “auto organization[s],” such as clubs and children’s cooperatives, emerged. In each classroom, students were taught to democratically work together in small groups, make their own rules, elect leaders, subdivide work among themselves, and synthesize the results ( 72): tasks that were central to the proposed soviet-style participatory government.

Wilson explains that schools were scientifically planned, testing out pedagogical techniques and carefully observing the results in order to draw general conclusions. There were experimental schools, established specifically for the purpose of testing out new pedagogical techniques. For example, Stanislav Shatsky, an important leader of Soviet education, created “pedagogical museums” that exhibited student work and created a library of pedagogical resources for the village, where “every theme, every drawing is carefully examined.”

The education that the USSR attempted to implement was heavily inquiry-based, taking up many of John Dewey’s ideas about progressive education. Wilson describes fourth-graders measuring how much water and other substances entered a potato after it had been in the ground. Inquiry projects in schools were directly connected to the problems of the local community, with teachers working with community members to incorporate their knowledge in the classroom. These inquiry-based approaches helped students work across disciplines rather than to categorize their learning into discrete subjects. The outcome of this approach, according to Wilson, was that, “Certainly Russian teachers and children can plan things better than most, not because they are only theoreticians, but because they can visualize things as wholes” (52). This is a central part of a the Soviet project: people who were capable of running all of society.

However, there were many difficulties in implementing these new and lofty ideas of education. Teacher training was an important task throughout the country and there were few resources to carry it out.  Some teachers had opposed the Bolshevik revolution, and even more held antiquated ideas about education. They rejected the new progressive teaching methods introduced by the Revolution. Wilson says that teachers tended to teach “as they had been taught” (33),while post-Revolution teacher training required teachers to understand and report on their communities, seeking to connect their pedagogy to solving local problems.

Wilson left the USSR thoroughly impressed with its education system. She wasn’t the only one. John Dewey himself also visited the USSR at around the same time, and he also left deeply enchanted with the education system. However, both educators also described the extreme poverty in Russia and particularly among the homeless children known as the Bezprizorni. Hundreds of thousands of children had been left orphaned by the Civil War, wandering the streets of the USSR’s cities, often stealing in order to eat. Wilson highlighted the official approach to these children, which was not punitive, but rather an attempt to create “family-like” structures in the outskirts of cities to rehabilitate and educate these children. It were these impoverished conditions are what created the downfall of the lofty Bolshevik project.

Marx envisioned a socialist revolution in highly industrialized nations, where the developed means of production would provide people with the means to live well, as well as further developing technology in the interests of society, not profits. Trotsky, in his theory of the permanent revolution, argued that a socialist revolution could occur in a primarily peasant country with severely underdeveloped industry like Russia due to the spread of capitalism in the imperialist epoch. But, he also warned that the success of this revolution would rely on revolutions in more industrialized countries. Indeed, after the Russian Revolution there were nearly successful revolutions in Germany, as well as in Spain. However,  these were defeated and the USSR stood alone.

Completely isolated and impoverished, a repressive bureaucracy emerged to manage – and to feed off of – Russian scarcity. As the Stalinist bureaucracy strengthened itself and began to push for rapid industrialization, the post-Revolutionary focus on holistic and democratic education deteriorated. An education based on the love of learning, on democracy, on developing people holistically was incompatible with the need to compete with the capitalist world.

Although the bureaucratized USSR is known for its high test results, the focus was no longer on progressive education as it had been in previous years. Instead, Stalinist education focused on results: creating proficient workers to help the USSR compete with other industrialized nations and survive on its own, putting forth the paradoxical goal of “socialism in only one country.”  

However, Soviet education in those first years continues to serve as an important example of the possibility of implementing progressive education and liberatory pedagogy. It demonstrated the profoundly democratic and collective goals of the early Soviet Union: a society of educated and engaged participants, a far cry from the obedient cogs produced in the schools of capitalist America.

About author

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.