Education, literacy, and the Russian Revolution

All Russia was learning to read, and reading – politics, economics, history – because the people wanted to know. . . . In every city, in most towns, along the Front, each political faction had its newspaper – sometimes several. Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed by thousands of organisations, and poured into the armies, the villages, the factories, the streets. The thirst for education, so long thwarted, burst with the Revolution into a frenzy of expression. From Smolny Institute alone, the first six months, went out every day tons, car-loads, train-loads of literature, saturating the land. Russia absorbed reading matter like hot sand drinks water, insatiable. And it was not fables, falsified history, diluted religion, and the cheap fiction that corrupts – but social and economic theories, philosophy, the works of Tolstoy, Gogol, and Gorky – John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World

The early years of the Russian Revolution offer stunning examples of what education looked like in a society in which working-class people democratically made decisions and organised society in their own interest. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, education was massively overhauled with a tenfold increase in the expenditure on popular education. Free and universal access to education was mandated for all children from the ages of three to sixteen years old, and the number of schools at least doubled within the first two years of the revolution. Coeducation was immediately implemented as a means of combating sex discrimination, and for the first time schools were created for students with learning and other disabilities.

Developing mass literacy was seen as crucial to the success of the revolution. Lenin argued: “As long as there is such a thing in the country as illiteracy it is hard to talk about political education.” As a result, and despite the grim conditions of civil war, literacy campaigns were launched nationally among toddlers, soldiers, adolescents, workers, and peasants. The same was true of universal education. The Bolsheviks understood that the guarantee of free, public education was essential both to the education of a new generation of workers who would be prepared to run society in their own interests and as a means of freeing women from the drudgery of housework. Thus, there were attempts to provide universal crèches and preschools.

None of these initiatives was easy to accomplish given the economic conditions surrounding the young revolution. Victor Serge, a journalist and anarchist who later joined the Russian Communist Party, describes the staggering odds facing educators and miserable conditions that existed in the wake of the civil war: “Hungry children in rags would gather in winter-time around a small stove planted in the middle of the classroom, whose furniture often went for fuel to give some tiny relief from the freezing cold; they had one pencil between four of them and their schoolmistress was hungry.” One historian describes the level of scarcity: “In 1920 Narkompros (the People’s Commissariat for Education) received the following six-month allotment: one pencil per sixty pupils; one pen per twenty-two pupils; one notebook for every two pupils…. One village found a supply of wrappers for caramel candies and expropriated them for writing paper for the local school.” The situation was so dire that “in 1921, the literacy Cheka prepared a brochure for short-term literacy courses including a chapter entitled ‘How to get by without paper, pencils, or pens.’” Nonetheless, as Serge explains, “in spite of this grotesque misery, a prodigious impulse was given to public education. Such a thirst for knowledge sprang up all over the country that new schools, adult courses, universities and Workers’ Faculties were formed everywhere.”

Historian Lisa Kirschenbaum describes the incredible gap between the conditions imposed by famine and what kindergartens were able to accomplish. On the one hand, these schools had to provide food each day for students and teachers in the midst of a famine simply to prevent starvation. And yet, as Kirschenbaum writes, “even with these constraints, local administrations managed to set up some institutions. In 1918, Moscow guberniia (province)led the way with twenty-three kindergartens, eight day cares (ochagi) and thirteen summer playgrounds. A year later it boasted a total of 279 institutions…. Petrograd had no preschool department in 1918, but a year later it reported 106 institutions in the city and 180 in the guberniia outside the city. Other areas reported slower, but still remarkable, increases.”

Within these preschools, teachers experimented with radical pedagogy, particularly the notion of “free upbringing,” as “teachers insisted that freedom in the classroom was part and parcel of the Revolution’s transformation of social life.” Kirschenbaum elaborates: “By allowing, as one teacher expressed it, the ‘free development of (children’s) inherent capabilities and developing independence, creative initiative, and social feeling,’ svobodnoe vospitanie (free upbringing) played a ‘very important role in the construction of a new life.’”

A central aspect of expanding literacy in revolutionary Russia was deciding in which language, or languages, literacy should be developed. Before the revolution, tsarist colonialism had forged a multinational empire in which ethnic Russians comprised only 43 percent of the population. A central political question for the Bolsheviks the majority of whom were Russianwas how to combat the legacy of Russian chauvinism while also winning non-Russian nationalities to the project of the revolution.

Already in October 1918, the general policy was established to provide for native language education in any school where twenty-five or more pupils in each age group spoke the same language. Implementing the policy depended on a number of factors. For example, within Russia proper, where some national minorities such as Ukrainians and Byelorussians were already assimilated, few native-language programs were set up. Within Ukraine itself, however, the extent of native-language education was reflected in the rapid demand for Ukrainian language teachers and Ukrainian-language textbooks in the years following the revolution.

At the same time universities were opened up to workers as preliminary exams were abolished to allow them to attend lectures. The lectures themselves were free, art was made public, and the number of libraries was dramatically increased. There was an incredible hunger for learning in a society in which people were making democratic decisions about their lives and their society.

A whole new educational system was created in which traditional education was thrown out and new, innovative techniques were implemented that emphasized self-activity, collectivism, and choice, and that drew on students’ prior experience, knowledge, and interaction with the real world.

By the late 30s universal seven-year compulsory education was introduced on the whole in the cities and much had been done towards achieving this goal in rural areas of the Soviet Union. Besides, through the joint efforts of the state and mass voluntary organisations, illiteracy among the adult population was liquidated to all intents and purposes, with 50 million illiterates and 40 million semi-illiterates having learned to read and write. 

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