Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 6.2 (2005) 439-446
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The Bolshevik Revolution was as much an attempt to build an entirely new cultural world as it was an effort to build a new political and economic one.1 Education played an important role in this project: training youth in new ways of thinking, acting, and behaving was crucial to the consolidation of the Revolution. Scholars, however, have largely ignored the role of primary and secondary-school education in this cultural transformation.2
Evgenii Balashov's detailed book explores this neglected area of early Soviet history. Placing the school at the center of a set of influences that shaped the development of the first group of postrevolutionary schoolchildren, he aims to discover the contours of a new socio-cultural type of child that emerged amid the flames of revolution. Comparing the influences on childhood development before and after the Revolution, he hopes to understand the process of forming an entirely new childhood mentality (dukhovnoe stanovlenie) and the ramifications of this course on the creation of a "new person." [End Page 439]
The author begins his work by focusing on the role of the school in the early 20th-century socialization of children. Adopting a top-down analytical view, he compares government educational policy before and after the Revolution. Before the Revolution, he argues, the dry and formal tsarist educational approach limited the school to an insignificant role in shaping childhood mentality. For the most part, tsarist educational authorities were happy to allow other institutions such as the family and the Church to influence school-age children.3 After the Revolution, however, Balashov contends that the new Soviet approach to schooling transformed the school into an institution that played an important role in shaping children.4
Before developing this argument, Balashov must admit that many of the envisioned changes to the new Soviet school remained in the realm of utopia. First, he explains how teachers, envisioned as "agents of the new world," played a largely insignificant role in shaping the development of children.5 Initially hostile to the Bolshevik regime, teachers were later limited as cultural agents [End Page 440] by both material and methodological problems. Their rapidly deteriorating economic position—in rural areas in 1923 teachers received less than a quarter of the earnings that they had ten years earlier—led to an increase in the number of young, inexperienced teachers. These new teachers were often forced to struggle for survival in the village; in one case, a teacher was forced to sew during class to supplement her meager salary. Teachers also frequently performed low-status work in the village, such as cleaning manure from common areas, in order to survive. As a result, the local population regularly regarded teachers with little respect, often mocking their position in the village. For instance, in some areas, peasants joked that the official label for teachers, shkrab, instead of a compound word meaning "school-worker" (combining the words for school and worker, shkola and rabotnik), more appropriately meant "school-slave" (replacing rabotnik with the Russian word for slave, rab). Unsurprisingly, under these conditions, teachers had significant difficulties in implementing the demanding methodological curriculum of the new Soviet school.
Next, Balashov reveals how many new classroom methods, meant to fundamentally reshape human nature and build a new communist world, instead unleashed disorder and controversy in the classroom. For instance, the abolition of old tsarist methods of discipline and pedagogy contributed to serious discipline problems within the classroom. These difficulties damaged the overall classroom environment, weakening students' literacy and numeracy skills. To make matters worse, parental and teacher misunderstanding and resistance to the complex and abstract new curriculum further undermined the implementation of the new program. Much of this work echoes Larry Holmes's earlier work on the problems of implementation in the new...