Culture and Education in the U.S.S.R.

Soviet poster emphasizing the importance of education

Soviet poster emphasizing the importance of education

From: Public Education in the U.S.S.R.  (1950)

by Y.N. Medinsky

(translated from Russian, 1954)



Pre-revolutionary Russia was among the most backward countries as regards the general level of literacy of the population and the number of schools and pupils. In 1913 Vladimir Ilyich Lenin wrote that four-fifths of the children of school age had no opportunity to get an education. The census for 1897 shows that only 24 per cent of the population over nine years of age could read and write. Literacy among the non-Russian peoples in the outlying regions of the country was at a staggeringly low level. Thus, according to the same census, only 1-3 per cent of the peoples of Central Asia – Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kazakhs, Kirghiz, Turkmenians – were literate, and in a number of districts the figure was even below 1 per cent. Forty nationalities had no written language. Such was the situation in pre-revolutionary Russia, where, as Lenin said, the tsarist government was the most malevolent and irreconcilable enemy of public education.

This bitter heritage of tsarism was abolished under Soviet power. In an appeal to the population several days after the seizure of power by the working class in November 1917, the Soviet Government outlined the basic principles for organizing public education: universal and compulsory education for children of both sexes, free tuition, material provision for schools, teachers, and so on.

Despite the economic hardship brought about by the Civil War and military intervention, the young Soviet Republic already in the first years of its existence did much to promote public education. A large number of new schools were opened and courses started for training teachers.

On December 26, 1919, the Council of People’s Commissars issued a decree on the abolition of illiteracy. The decree made it compulsory for all the people of the Soviet Republic between the ages of 8 and 50 to learn to read and write in their native language, or in Russian if they so desired. Tens of thousands of people – teachers, students, secondary-school pupils, and other representatives of the Soviet intelligentsia – took part in the work to abolish illiteracy. The outstanding role in this work by the Young Communist League merits special mention. Members of the Y.C.L. carried on propaganda for the liquidation of illiteracy in all parts of the country, helped to open schools, and taught the illiterate and semi-literate.

The country became covered by a dense network of schools for the abolition of illiteracy. As a rule, in all enterprises and in all villages studies were conducted in the evenings – in school buildings, workers’ clubs, etc. These classes were attended by large groups (20-30 persons) and by groups of three-five persons; there were numerous cases of individual coaching. It was really a nation-wide crusade against illiteracy.

Literacy among the population (up to 50 years of age) increased form 56.6 per cent in 1926 to 89.1 per cent by the beginning of 1939. Nearly 50 million adults learned to read and write between 1920 and 1940.

Today the Soviet Union is a country of universal literacy.

Parallel with this nation-wide movement to abolish illiteracy, measures were taken to extend the network of general educational schools.

The development of school education proceeded at a particularly rapid rate during the years of the first five-year plan (1928-32).

On August 14, 1930, the Central Executive Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars of the U.S.S.R. passed a decision introducing universal and compulsory education of not less than four grades for all children of eight years and up, and making seven-grade education compulsory in industrial towns and areas and workers’ settlements.

The constructions of schools was launched on a big scale, the number of teachers’ training courses and colleges increased sharply, as did the publication of text-books.

Between 1930 and 1932 school enrolment rose annually by 3-4 million, as the following figures show:

1928/29 1929/30 1930/31 1931/32
Number of elementary, middle and secondary schools (in thousands). 124.8   133.2   152.8   168.1
Enrolment (in millions)…. 12.0 13.5 17.6 20.9

To properly appreciate how quickly the law on universal education was implemented, it is sufficient to point out that in four years alone (1929-33) school enrolment in the U.S.S.R. increased by 9.3 million; this figure is far in excess of that ever reached by tsarist Russia, which in 1914-15 had only 7.9 million school children.

The number of schools and pupils steadily increased in subsequent years. More than 20,000 schools were built during the five-year period of 1933-38 alone. School enrolment in 1938-39 was more than 31.5 million as against the 20.9 million in 1931-32. This was four times the number before the Revolution.

The mighty upsurge of industry, agriculture and culture in the U.S.S.R. pre-conditioned the rapid advance of higher education in the country. While in 1914 tsarist Russia had 91 institutions of higher learning with an enrolment of 112,000 students, in 1939 there were in the U.S.S.R. 750 institutions of higher learning with a student body of 620,000. A new, Soviet intelligentsia was created from among the workers and peasants.

Thus, the years of the pre-war five-year plans witnessed a veritable cultural revolution, as a result of which education and science were placed within the reach of the broadest strata of the population.

The war and the German-fascist occupation inflicted extremely heavy damage on the Soviet school. In the temporarily-occupied Soviet regions the Hitlerite vandals ruthlessly destroyed schools, children’s homes, museums, libraries, and universities. The German fascists burned, destroyed and pillaged 82,000 schools (which had been attended by 15 million pupils), 334 institutions of higher learning, hundreds of museums, thousands of recreation clubs and libraries. Although the network of schools shrank considerably during the war, the Soviet school did not stop its activity for a single day. The Soviet Government continued to pay considerable attention to public education. During the war it passed a number of important decisions aimed at promoting universal and compulsory education and strengthening the school. At the beginning of the 1944-45 school year the school age was lowered from eight to seven in the R.S.F.S.R. and other republics. This increased the number of pupils in the first grade by several million. Special school-leaving certificates were introduced for secondary-school graduates, also gold and silver medals for honour pupils. In some cities and towns separate schools were opened for boys and girls.

The country quickly recovered form the ravages wrought by the war. Not only was the pre-war network of schools restored, but by the end of 1952 there were 23,500 new schools. Already by the end of the fourth (first post-war) five-year plan (1950) enrolment in general educational schools and technical schools was higher than pre-war and comprised 37 million pupils. In 1950 the institutions of higher learning (including correspondence courses) had 1,247,000 students; in 1940 the figure was 812,000. The student body increased steadily during the fifth five-year plan, its number reaching 1,562,000 in 1953.

Already before World War II the Soviet Union had more students and institutions of higher learning than all the bourgeois countries in Europe taken together, to say nothing of any single capitalist state. Today, Moscow alone has considerably more students than, for example, the whole of Britain and France.

At present more than 57 million pupils and students are attending different schools and institutes in the U.S.S.R.

These remarkable successes are due to the great attention the Communist Party and the Soviet Government give to public education in the U.S.S.R.

Education continues to develop in the U.S.S.R. Very much has been done, but Soviet people do not stop at what has been attained. The fifth five-year plan for the development of the U.S.S.R. in 1951-55 provides for a substantial increase in the number of schools and pupils; a big rise in the number of institutions of higher learning and in the number of specialists they train; introduction in the large cities of universal secondary (ten-year) education and preparing the conditions for the introduction of secondary education on a nation-wide scale in the next five-year plan period; starting the implementation of polytechnical education; a considerable growth in the number of libraries, and so on.

That plan opens up a grand perspective for the growth and development of the entire system of public education – from the lowest pre-school link to institutions of higher learning and scientific-research establishments.


[Entire work can be found here: ]


"Honor and Glory to a Soviet Teacher!"

“Honor and Glory to a Soviet Teacher!”

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