- The Teachers of Stalinism: Policy, Practice and Power in Soviet Schools of the 1930s
The 1930s was a crucial decade for the formation of the Soviet system. In 1928, the Soviet authorities launched their first Five-Year Plan to industrialize the country, in 1929 Josif Stalin made the decision to collectivize peasant land holdings, and in 1930 the government introduced a mass campaign for universal compulsory education. Taken together these campaigns rapidly transformed the country. Peasant opposition to collectivization often spilled over into suspicion and distrust of the mass education campaign, which seemed to be an intrusion from above. Collectivization and mass education were indeed linked, as Stalin considered them essential for the consolidation of Soviet power and the preparation of loyal, literate, and disciplined recruits for the rapidly growing industrial workforce. Educational institutions were expected to teach the intellectual skills needed by the developing economy as well as the values and behaviors [End Page 188] suitable for the new Soviet citizen. Thomas Ewing focuses on one part of this story, the experience of teachers, particularly rural school teachers, who often found themselves in an unenviable position, caught between their roles as agents of central policies and a recalcitrant population.
From 1928 to 1938, the number of teachers increased from less than 400,000 to more than one million, more than two-thirds of whom worked in rural schools. Ewing provides abundant statistical data about these teachers, the older generation and the burgeoning corps of newcomers, their level of education, preparation for their work, and their social origins. The statistical information is supplemented by documents, letters, and interviews scoured from archives and memoirs. First-person accounts vividly portray the dreadful living conditions of rural teachers and the crude and sometimes violent political and personal harassment of the predominantly female teachers. Unlike other representatives of the Soviet establishment, however, teachers offered something that many people wanted: education and the opportunity for advancement.
Ewing argues that teachers served as agents of Stalinism but also retained some room for negotiation and choice, particularly in the early 1930s when directives from the central and local officials were often contradictory or impossible to carry out. Teachers embraced the retreat from the revolutionary and remarkably progressive educational policies of the 1920s to the more traditional methods and school organization of the early 1930s. The book devotes individual chapters to the campaign for universal education, teacher training, the political demography of the profession, classroom practices, disciplinary strategies, and the impact of the Great Terror. References to the experiences of education reform in other countries and the impact of gender—the fact that teachers were predominantly female—provide a refreshing attempt to find a balance between presenting the Soviet Union as unique and as a country facing problems comparable to those elsewhere.
The Terror profoundly affected Soviet schooling and how teachers approached their work. Ewing finds that teachers suffered less than did other segments of the population, partly because they were women, partly because they were in such short supply that a teacher dismissed in one place could simply move to another, and partly because teachers were far from the centers of power. He estimates that 2–3 percent of teachers lost their positions for political reasons during the 1930s. Teachers were fortunate because the purging apparatus turned its attention to education relatively late, in October 1937, only four months before Stalin reined in what he called excessive zeal and unnecessary arrests. In the Smolensk region, for example, about one-quarter of teachers were dismissed in late 1937 but recovered their positions in 1938. The need to black out the names of individuals in history books after they were identified as enemies of the people, a practice that would be comical if it were not linked with such human tragedy, is indicative of the atmosphere in which teachers worked for the latter part of the decade. Ewing records examples of courageous teachers protecting their pupils, as well as other teachers who did everything to ingratiate themselves with local...