soviet education

El Lissitzky (November 23, 1890 – December 30, 1941), Sketch for a poster, 1920.


Comment on the recently released book by Marisa Bittar and Amarílio Ferreira Jr.

It is common, even for students of Soviet history, to lose sight of the titanic dimension of what was the Russian socialist experiment. Only forty years separated the nascent Soviet state of 1917, built on the rubble of the Russia of the tsars, from the atomic superpower of Yuri Gagarin and Sergei Korolev, which launched, in 1957, the Sputnik, the first artificial satellite placed in Earth orbit. In this hiatus, explorers and exploited all over the world watched – with large doses of fear and hope respectively – the constitution of a state woven into what Gramsci already identified in December 1917 as “the social, collective will (of men)” that “ understand economic facts, and judge and adapt them to their will” (Gramsci, 2011[1917]:56).

Contrary to the characteristic stageism of the social democracy of its time, the Bolshevik regime – in the midst of hunger and the devastation of the civil war – imposed its will on absolutely unfavorable material conditions, making Russia an enormous utopian laboratory where, simultaneously with the systematic construction of a new State, unprecedented efforts were made to create a new “mode of life”, a new being, which would overcome the old bourgeois humanity in all its expressions.

About these efforts much has been said about the intense transformations that Soviet society went through in various fields: the forced collectivization of land; the cultural revolution at the end of the 20s of the last century; the accelerated constitution of an immense proletariat; the founding of a gigantic industrial park, among others. However, it is strange that, in the face of this immense project that was the Soviet experience, we know little about the educational policies that made it possible to train, in a very short space of time, the super-specialized workforce needed to carry out such transformations. There are almost no works in Portuguese that focus on the Soviet education system and its characteristics.

This gap has just been filled through the publication, by Edufscar, of the work soviet education, by Marisa Bittar and Amarílio Ferreira Jr. From the association between the documentary analysis of primary sources, developed at the Institute of Education in London, and their personal experiences while students at the Institute of Social Sciences in Moscow in the early 1980s, the authors present the reader with a very complete overview of that which was considered the most advanced education system of its time. Through two hundred pages divided into six chapters, we follow a careful description of the various debates that guided the gigantic enterprise that was the construction of the Soviet education system, as well as the reforms and transformations it underwent, from its foundation in 1917 until its disintegration. of the Soviet State in December 1991.

The work also has, in its annexes, an unpublished translation of the document entitled “Fundamental guidelines for the reform of general and professional education”, approved by the Full Committee of the CPSU in April 1984; with the article “Essay on the Bolshevik conception of the socialist revolution”, published by the authors in the magazine “Politica Democrática”, in 2007; and with a photo album, containing dozens of photographs that portray the daily life of Soviet schools between 1919 and 1981.

The first chapter, “The Heritage of the Tsarist Empire”, presents a history of Russian educational policies prior to the October 1917 revolution, from the Pedrine Reforms of the XNUMXth century to the final moments of tsarist autocracy. The authors show how the Russia of the Czars, pressed between Slavophilia and Westernism, between the Orthodox tradition and Enlightenment ideals, ended up expressing this tension in its own educational policies: at the same time that it was a pioneer in the construction of a unified curriculum , was unable to universalize access to education.

An acute picture of social and regional inequality limited access to school apparatus and was configured as an unavoidable obstacle for the Russian autocracy. As the authors point out, “(...) the social heritage stemming from feudal production relations and the prevailing mentality itself regarding the need or not for schools for peasants were obstacles that prevented transforming school education into a cultural instrument of social ascension” (p. 38). Even specific reforms that followed the abolition of serfdom in 1861 and the administrative reform of 1864 did not fundamentally change the serious picture of illiteracy and school exclusion that characterized the educational system of pre-revolutionary Russia.

The second chapter, “Literacy and Electrification”, turns to the years that followed the 1917 Revolution until the end of the 1920s. years following the Soviet educational system. Bittar and Ferreira Jr. understand – correctly – that Lenin considered two of his greatest projects to be inseparable: electrification and the eradication of illiteracy. It was urgent to raise the productive capacity of the young Soviet state and this could only be done through massive investment in infrastructure and basic industry, as well as training Russian workers.

Lenin was fully aware of the organic relationship between the material bases and the educational structure, between electrification and education: “electrification served the purpose of demonstrating the need to link study to practical work” (p. 59). Based on this binomial, Lenin, in 1920, poses the fundamental question of the Soviet education system and which generations of pedagogues and intellectuals will focus on: what to study and how to study it. From the data presented by the authors, we can conclude that, although less known, the Plan for the Eradication of Illiteracy (Likebez) in no way owed – in volume or breadth – to GOELRO: between 1923 and 1939, 50 million illiterates and 40 million semi-illiterates were literate, in addition to having elaborated the spelling of more than 50 languages ​​until then unwritten (p. 65) .

In the third chapter, “Work and Pedagogical Activism”, the authors focus on the influence that liberal pedagogues had on Soviet pedagogical thought, notably the work of John Dewey, theoretical founder of pedagogical activism. We are introduced to the figure of Anatol Lunacharsky, Soviet Russia's first commissioner of enlightenment, and to Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lunacharski's deputy commissioner and founder of Komsomol, the Union of Communist Youth. At the head of the Commissariat for Education, Lunacharski and Krupskaya sought to establish a pedagogical program capable of organically correlating a “humanistic education and socially useful work” (p. 73). The question posed by Lenin – what to learn and how to learn it – permeates the entire chapter, as it guides Lunacharski and Krupskaya's efforts not only to absorb the liberal theories of the bourgeois world, but, above all, to overcome them. Marxist pedagogy would produce from the school of work “not the solitary-activist, but the collective-activist” (p. 87).

More than a school for work, the vision that the Commissioners of Enlightenment proposed was a school for life, which would tear down the walls that separate the school apparatus from the social world that surrounds it. Even though they dedicate most of the chapter to the heroic years of the Revolution and its main characters, Bittar and Ferreira Jr. do not forget important names of Soviet pedagogy and their contributions, such as Shatski and Pistrak.

In the fourth chapter, “Periods and Characteristics of the Soviet School”, the authors are dedicated to two topics: the periodization of the Soviet education system; and a detailed description of how it works. The clipping used by Bittar and Ferreira Jr. sought to highlight the various transformations that Soviet education went through in its 74 years of existence: the laying of the foundations of Soviet pedagogy (1917-1920); the establishment of the socialist school (1921-1930); the universal realization of primary and secondary school (1931-1940); the postwar restoration (1941-1956); the reconstruction of the general education polytechnic school and the new education system (1956 and after); and the universalization of secondary school (from the 1960s to the 1984 reform).

This periodization presented by the authors is essential to provide the reader with a historical overview of the development of its most striking characteristics. From there we are introduced to a massive social institution, marked by a high degree of uniformity in curricula, didactic materials and teaching methods (p. 117). From an early age, Soviet students were educated in a functional, integral, and strongly collectivist system that had little tolerance for individualistic and self-centered behavior.

In accordance with the pedagogical principle of a school for life, the Soviet system also had a vast network of educational devices – palaces of the pioneers, museums, national parks, multi-sports centers, libraries, vocational schools, professional centers. This network operated closely with regular secondary schools, further enhancing the training of the workforce in accordance with the economic needs of the State. The higher education system was multifaceted: it included working-class colleges, evening, technical-vocational and correspondence courses, which came to house more than half of the students in the entire USSR in the year 1967-1968.

the formation of intelligentsia technical-scientific, in turn, was the responsibility of Soviet universities, which “maintained a rigorous and selective admissions system” (p. 122). This model, while rapidly producing a new intelligentsia science, ended up aggravating the differences between this social group and the vast masses of workers. The authors end the chapter with a last section dedicated to student organizations linked to the CPSU and which served as steps for joining its ranks: the Octobrists (primary school children between 7 and 10 years old), the Pioneers (children between 10 and 16 years old and the Komsomol (young people between 16 and 27 years old who attended secondary school and universities). (129) The synergy between school and student organizations was a characteristic feature of Soviet pedagogy.

The penultimate chapter, “The 1984 Reform”, deals with the last major reform of the Soviet education system, launched on the eve of the Perestroika e Glasnost in 1984. The chapter begins with a preamble in which the authors historically contextualize the scenario of systemic crisis that the USSR was going through in the late 1980s and that would give rise, under the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev, to attempts at political, administrative and social reforms. economical – Glasnost e perestroika. The inclusion of this preamble is not by chance: on the one hand, it allows us to understand the 1984 Reform as a constituent element of the response that the CPSU Plenum sought to give to the causes of the crisis the USSR was going through: bureaucratism, uninterrupted drop in growth rates and of social indicators; stagnation of the economy in the face of military spending; and the increase in the distance that separated the Soviet economy from the capitalist economies, caused, above all, by the Technical-Scientific Revolution.

On the other hand, it reaffirms the thesis of the authors, who defend, in several moments of the work, the central role of education in the political-economic model of the Soviet State, its inseparability from the nation’s directions: “a school system in total harmony with the strategic objectives of the State” (p. 199). Seeking to readjust the school system according to the principle of “developed socialism” and also to meet the needs of new production paradigms, the 1984 reform proposed profound changes in that system. Among them we can mention the increase of one year to the primary cycle; the revision of the volume of contents of the disciplines; updating of didactic materials; appreciation of the teaching activity; reinforcement of students' ideological and political training; focus on the use of laboratory and practical classes; introduction of computer education and use of modern computers.

The last chapter, “The Revolution of Hopes and the outcome of the Soviet School”, deals with the outcome of the 1984 reform and its significant role in the dissolution of the USSR. At the risk of reducing the analytical wealth of the authors, it is worth highlighting here two fundamental factors to understand the outcome of the 1984 reform: The Technical-Scientific Revolution, which called into question the role of the Soviet education system as a trainer of the hand-to-hand army work under the Fordist paradigm of production, aimed mainly at working professions; and the transformations engendered by Perestroika of Gorbachev, whose attempts at democratization and less bureaucracy ended up reducing the centralizing power of the CPSU and its organizations at local levels. Bittar and Ferreira Jr. argue that the reduction of central control, the curriculum reformulation that emphasized a more humanistic and creative formation, and the increase in teacher autonomy ended up exposing the contradictions of an authoritarian education system, whose uniformity was guaranteed based on the capacity of the party-state to impose, from above, curricula, models and forms of student representation that took little account of regional particularities and individual interests.

According to Perry Anderson, perestroika, by reducing the central power of the CPSU to a point of no return, ended up removing from the equation the only factor capable of keeping submerged the disintegrating forces that would lead, in 1991, to the disintegration of the USSR and at the end of the great Bolshevik experiment of 1917 (Anderson, 2018:42). The same happened with the Soviet education system: absent the central power of the party and its organizations, various dissatisfactions of school agents – parents, teachers and students – eventually surfaced and disrupted a school system that showed, perhaps for the first time, , more doubts than certainties about its future. According to the authors, the 1984 Reform “unintentionally paved the way for the rejection of the cherished collectivist principles that had guided Soviet educational practice for 74 years” (p. 191).

It's safe to say that soviet education it becomes a reference work at the time of its publication. This is not only due to the originality of its object or the gap it covers in the various fields in which it transits. This is a work that presents several qualities. When proposing an introductory work whose analysis of the object extends over a period of three quarters of a century, there is a great risk of producing a superficial analysis, or even a hasty description that does not account for the movements and transformations through which passes the object that presents itself. Bittar and Ferreira Jr. avoid this risk through careful methodology, succeeding in presenting the reader, in a clear and elegant writing style, the development of the Soviet education system as a medium-term historical process, without neglecting the various ruptures and contradictions that make up this movement. Such an achievement is impressive given the physical limits of the work, which can be explained by the undeniable mastery that the authors demonstrate over the theme, polished by years of reflection.

It should be noted, on the other hand, that some issues that seem, under the authors' penalty, to be taken as a passive point, are still being debated by historians of the heroic period of the Russian Revolution. Lenin's esteem for Lunacharski is well known. However, this support did not always extend to the policies of the Commissar at the head of NARKOMPROS. At first, Lenin sided with him, in 1920, when pressure was imposed by members of the economics commissariat for an essentially polytechnic educational policy (Fitzpatrick, 1977:14). Two years later, the revolutionary leader allocated vast funds to Alexi Gastev, the main proponent of Fordism on Soviet soil and a frequent critic of the humanistic education policy proposed by NARKOMPROS (Bailes, 1977:381).

This ambiguity in the relationship between Lenin and Lunacharski does not exist in the authors' exposition. A second caveat is perhaps due to an editorial choice: the reading of the work ends up dragging on, at times, in the face of the large number of terms and concepts that are presented throughout the text without much explanation. This forces the reader to return to earlier passages in order to resolve doubts and confusion. It was with some surprise that we found a Glossary of Soviet Education at the end of the penultimate chapter of the work. The repositioning of this glossary as an introductory note would greatly contribute to a more dynamic and fluid reading, a suggestion that is made for later editions.

However, these are minor issues that in no way overshadow the relevance of the work. Even the most descriptive moments of the work are quite pleasurable. Without abandoning scientific rigor and from an object that could be “arid”, the authors present us with a history of the Soviet education system that, in its achievements and disappointments, invites us to abandon pretensions of impartiality. It is difficult not to get involved with the future dreamed of by the ideologists and pedagogues responsible for one of the greatest educational experiences ever seen, a future that sought to fulfill a promise that reverberates in the heart of all socialists: the construction of an emancipated humanity.

We leave here a last personal impression as an addendum to this review: the reading of soviet education it's also punctuated with some sadness, a nostalgia for what could have been. As we read, we recalled at various times the reading of the work Demand the Impossible, by Tom Moylan. There, Moylan, under the influence of the work of Ernst Bloch, proposes a new concept for thinking about utopia: “critical utopia”, which rejects the usual definition of impossibility and defines it as a “dream”. This turn makes it possible to think of utopia no longer from the positivist-pragmatic logic of realization, but rather in the dialectical movement of its construction. Given the epistemological limits that separate the works – Tom Moylan is a scholar of contemporary utopian literature –, the concept of “critical utopia” serves as an interpretive key to understanding the history of the Soviet education system as a vast utopian experiment that, in its realization in the concrete world of men, he encounters obstacles, failures and successes, transforming Soviet society at the same time that he is transmuted by it and accumulating, therefore, several contradictions that constitute the engine of his movement towards the dream: restricted student activism; authoritarian collectivism; socially recognized and poorly paid teaching; centralized democratism; competitive cooperativism; meritocratic higher education.

Bittar and Ferreira Jr., through their rich analysis, guide us through the history of a utopian project of unprecedented proportions that did not find, in its development, time to solve its own contradictions, disappearing along with the socialist experience that created it. . “Soviet Education” not only triumphs for its originality, but also opens up rich possibilities for dialogue between the fields of Sovietology, education and, moreover, utopian studies.

* Pedro Ramos de Toledo is a doctoral candidate in history at USP.



Marisa Bittar and Amarilio Ferreira Jr. soviet education. San Carlos, Edufscar, 2021.



ANDERSON, Perry. Two Revolutions: Russia and China. Ed. Boitempo, Sao Paulo, 2018.

GRAMSCI, Antonio. “The Revolution against Capital”. In: COUTINHO, Carlo Nelson. (org.) Gramsci's Reader: Selected Texts: 1916-1935. Ed. Brazilian Civilization, Rio de Janeiro, 2011.

MOYLAN, Tom.”Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination”. Peter LangEd. New York, 2014.

FITZPATRICK, Sheila. “Lunacharski and the Soviet Organization of Education and the Arts (1917-1921)”. Siglo Veintiuno de españa editors, Madrid, 1977.

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