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Russian Federation - History & Background

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comGlobal Education ReferenceRussian Federation - History Background, Constitutional Legal Foundations, Educational System—overview, Preprimary Primary Education, Secondary Education


The Russian Federation is a multinational state in Eastern Europe and Northern Asia, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean, and from the Arctic Ocean to the Chinese border. Established as an independent country in 1991 upon the breakup of the Soviet Union, it is the biggest country in the world with a territory of 6,592,844 square miles (17,075,400 square kilometers). It is divided into 21 autonomous republics, 49 oblasts, and 6 krays. The population is composed of almost 120 nationalities and ethnic groups: 81.5 percent Russians, 3.8 percent Tartars, 3 percent Ukrainians, 1.2 percent Chuvashes, 0.9 percent Bashkirs, 0.8 percent Belarusians, 0.7 percent Moldavians, and 8.1 percent others. Moscow is the capital and the largest city.

The territory of Russia was originally settled by Slavic tribes, which began migrating from the West in the fifth century A.D. The first Russian state, centering in Novgorod and Kiev, was established in the ninth century. The Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian peoples developed on the basis of the ancient Russian ethnicity. The origin of Russian education is usually associated with the emergence of the Cyrillic alphabet. The penetration of Greek priesthood into Russia and the need to translate the Greek Scriptures into Slavic languages encouraged the Byzantine scholar and philosopher Cyril (827-869) and his brother Methodius (826-885) to create a new system of characters. It was called the Glagolitic alphabet, or glagolitsa (which meant speaking), and its later version was called the Cyrillic alphabet, or kirillitsa.

The first known Slavic literary monuments date back to the tenth century. The creation of schools (uchilishcha) started after the Christening of Russia (988).

The history of Russian education opens up with the handwritten chronicles from the early eleventh century about the Grand Princes Vladimir and Yaroslav, who started building churches and schools of "book learning" in Kiev and Novgorod and started obliging Byzantine priests to teach children. The schools, which offered courses of seven liberal arts, became important centers of ancient Russian culture, disseminating religious knowledge and translations of foreign authors. "Book knowledge" was preceded by learning to read and write, as well as acquaintance with foreign languages.

Beginning with the twelfth century it became common for well-to-do families to hire tutors. The education was largely centered on life experiences, family, and community relationships.

A new genre called poucheniya (precepts) emerged between the eleventh and twelfth centuries in the form of manuals for family education. The most famous precepts were written by Vladimir Monomakh (1053-1125), the Grand Prince of Kiev and a highly educated man, who was closely related to European royalties through the marriages of his children. His first wife was the daughter of the English king. Monomakh addressed the poucheniya to his own children to teach them how to love God, be honest, fair, behave in battle, and how to treat other people. He encouraged them to study and follow the example of their grandfather who had known five languages. Monomakh's writings became very popular with other families.

In 1037 the Metropolitan school founded in Kiev at the Cathedral of St. Sofia started to prepare priests. Between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a number of monastery schools patronized by the Grand Russian Princes opened in Smolensk, Vladimir, Rostov the Great, and Nizhny Novgorod. These schools were attended by children of noble parents from other countries, including Western Europe.

Graffiti on church walls, old business documents, and ancient Russian chronicles proved that literacy was significantly spread among different social groups, and proved other aspects of Russian education history. Due to inconvenient script, reading in the ancient period was a very difficult art. Students wrote on waxed planks or on birch bark with special styluses. Letters were also employed for counting. One of the major subjects was singing. The teachers were poorly trained, and corporal punishment was a usual practice.

During the period of the Mongol invasion, which lasted almost 250 years (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries), numerous lands and cities were ravaged and many schools ceased to exist. In the 1300s southwestern Russia was seized by the Lithuanian state, which in 1386 was united with Poland. As a result, part of the Russian population found itself on the territories where Catholicism was the official religion. The Orthodox monasteries, however, continued to play an important role in preserving and sustaining the traditions of Orthodoxy, as well as Russian culture and identity.

Russia also faced the challenges of the European educational system. Western Orthodox brotherhoods started organizing new schools, which would serve the interests of the Orthodox church. The subjects included religious rules, rituals, church singing, the Bible, as well as languages, grammar, poetics, rhetoric, philosophy, and arithmetic. The schools were largely egalitarian and admitted children from all ranks of society. The discipline was strict, but allowed for elements of self-government.

The fourteenth to fifteenth centuries witnessed the formation of the Russian centralized state. The Moscow Great Principality stood as the state's core structure. The political and social changes, as well as the intensification of religious life, launched new educational initiatives. Numerous schools affiliated with churches and monasteries emerged in the Russian cities. Moscow was gradually becoming the center of chronicle writing. Literature, architecture, and art progressed to a new stage. Brotherhoods of artisans and merchants, formed around town parishes, recruited literate citizens to teach youth reading, writing, and counting. The schools of the Moscow state made wide use of the Byzantine scholarly tradition. However, drastic military measures aimed to subordinate the Novgorod and Pskov republics to Moscow were harmful for the old centers of "book knowledge" and crafts.

The rule of Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584), the first Czar of Russia, brought about contradictory results. A highly educated person, he carried out a number of important reforms, developed the bureaucratic and military machine, and significantly extended the borders of Russia, which ultimately became a powerful kingdom. At the same time he was an unrestrained tyrant and governed using severe repression and terror. The system of Orthodox education established in 1551 for training the clergy was roughly divided into several stages: elementary (learning to write and read religious books); professional (which allowed one to conduct most of the religious services); and higher (mastering the Christian scholarship, which involved the study of ancient languages). The greatest chronicle of legal regulations summing up the ideas of the unity of Russia under the Czar was created in the 1570s. The emergence of printing (Ivan Fyodorov) advanced the dissemination of Orthodox educational literature.

The second half of the sixteenth century saw the introduction of new subjects into the school curricula. In Moscow there were many scholars with knowledge of ancient languages (namely Latin and Greek). The favorite popular genre was apocryphal literature about Adam and Eve, and Christ's childhood and his parents. The mid-1600s were marked by the creation of educational institutions similar to Western European grammar schools, as well as serious changes in principles and methods of teaching. Textbooks started to include more versatile materials. Children learned to read using ABC-books (azbuki) and entertainment books with pictures.

The Russian Empire achieved the height of its power and territorial influence under Peter the Great and Catherine the Great in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Peter the Great (1672-1725), the first Russian Emperor, attempted to westernize Russia. He expected science and school to serve the practical needs of the army, navy, industry, trade, and state administration. His social, economic, and cultural reforms resulted in the secularization of learning, emergence of new types of educational institutions, and advancement of teacher training. The navigation, artillery, engineering, medical, and other schools created on his initiative became the prototype of the future professional training system. He also approved the establishment of the Academy of Sciences in 1724. The introduction of the civil script in 1701 made it easier to study reading and writing. In 1703 Arabic numerals replaced the formerly used letters. Compulsory education for the children of the clergy, merchants, artisans, and soldiers was declared in 1714. The statute of 1721 established a system of Orthodox schools, seminaries, and academies.

The most outstanding figure in the Russian education of the eighteenth century was Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765), the first Russian scientist and scholar of worldwide significance. He was also a poet, philologist, artist, and historian. He initiated numerous scientific, technical, and cultural innovations and devoted great efforts to the development of the Russian Academy of Sciences. His textbooks on grammar, science, rhetoric, and poetics were the first to be used at Moscow University, founded on his initiative in 1755. Lomonosov worked out regulations for the University and gymnasiums (secondary schools). His book Russian Grammar (1757) was published eleven times, translated into many languages, and widely used in Russian schools. His theoretical writings also dealt with the importance of teaching Russian language and history. The Ellyn-Greek school, which opened in Moscow in 1687, was later reorganized into the Slavic-Greek-Latin Academy and gave both theological and broad secular education. The period between 1730 and 1765 produced a number of closed institutions for aristocracy, among them the First Cadet School for future officers and the Smolny Institute for Noble Young Ladies.

The school reform carried out under Catherine the Great (1729-1796) was the first attempt to create a public educational system. She sent the leading scholars to study the systems of learning in various countries of Western Europe. They finally selected the Austrian model, adapted it to Russian conditions, and tested it for several years in St. Petersburg. In 1786 The Charter of Public Schools established two types of educational institutions: five-year major and two-year minor schools for townspeople. However, Catherine the Great acted along the lines of enlightened absolutism. She wrote in a letter to her associates: "Plebeians should not be educated, otherwise they will know as much as you and I and will not obey us to the same extent as now." Due to this attitude and also because of the absence of funds and trained teachers, schools for peasants were virtually nonexistent.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century the Russian Empire had more than 300 schools with 20,000 students and 720 teachers. The development of education in the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries was a permanent struggle of reforms and counter-reforms reflecting the contradictory character of Russian social life. A fundamental educational reform, prepared by the closest associates of Czar Alexander I (1777-1825), created a hierarchical school system headed by the Ministry of Public Education and regulated by The Charter of the Universities of the Russian Empire (1803). It included six educational regions with four types of institutions beyond elementary schools: parish schools, uyezd (district) schools, gymnasiums, and universities. The negative reaction of the czarist government to the ideas of the French Revolution and Enlightenment in Europe brought about the revision of school and university curricula. A number of university professors were dismissed as "unreliable, harmful books" were withdrawn from the libraries. Educators were expected to convince students of the divine origin of monarchic power.

Russian education evolved with both minor and major changes. In 1828 the course of study at gymnasiums was extended to seven years, with priority given to classical education. Schools with instruction in Armenian, Georgian, and Azerbaijan languages were opened in the Caucasus. In the 1830s the Minister of Education declared the intention to adapt world education to the peculiarities of Russian life and spirit, and this idea launched the famous formula: "Orthodoxy, autocracy, national roots." Meanwhile, it became evident that elementary schools, especially in rural areas, were the weakest part of the educational system. Churches intensified their missionary and enlightening activities: by the mid-nineteenth century there were 9,000 parish schools. In the 1835-1850 period Jewish, Muslim, and Caucasian schools were included in the state network.

The turning point in the development of the Russian educational system was the reform of the 1860s carried out as part of cardinal transformations under Czar Alexander II (1818-1881). The Statute on Elementary Public Schools of 1864 declared elementary education open to all social ranks. The reform strongly encouraged private and local initiative in establishing new schools. Special systems were set up for Poland and Finland, with education conducted in Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, and other native tongues.

Beginning with 1870, the Russian educational system started to involve adherents of Islam and Buddhism using oral languages and alphabets based on the Cyrillic characters. The statute of 1871 unified the curricula and limited the choice of textbooks. Emerging pedagogical and enlightenment societies supported the creative efforts of teachers and scholars.

Although there is evidence of the a school existing for females as early as 1086 in Kiev by Princess Anna Vsevolodovna, there has been a severe deficiency in women's education in Russian history. In the 1860s women's struggle for the right to education attracted keen public interest. As a consequence, the government gave permission to open female educational programs, but refused to finance them. Though the courses launched in Moscow and St. Petersburg did not give women higher education, they met the need for training elementary school teachers. The Bestuzhev higher courses for women who aspired for higher learning opened in St. Petersburg in 1878 and enrolled 800 female students. The best Petersburg professors taught there, often without any compensation.

Konstantin Ushinsky (1842-1870) is considered to be the founder of Russian pedagogy. A proponent of the ideas of social education, he was engaged both in theoretical research and school reform. The cornerstone of Ushinsky's pedagogical theory was the acknowledgment of the creative force of the people in the historical process and their right for adequate schooling. The system he developed was based on the demand for the democratization of public education, and the scholarly approach to the selection of teaching materials, which would reflect the peculiarities of the child's intellectual development. His anthropological position was expressed in his major work The Human Being as an Object of Education.

The aim of the counter-reforms of the 1870s-1880s was not so much to restructure the educational system, as to control society through education in order to preserve the inner security of the empire. The main emphasis was on centralization of power, restoration of social filters in access to studies, strict regulation of inner school life, and educational process.

Preparatory classes, which trained the underprivileged students, were closed. The number of Jews admitted to gymnasiums was strictly limited: 10 percent within Jewish communities, 5 percent outside, and 3 percent in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The teaching of religion in general education schools was intensified. Student meetings were banned. The fees were doubled and the state financing reduced. The statute on universities of 1884 actually eliminated their autonomy. In 1886 all the courses for women except the Bestuzhev courses were closed.

The government efforts were counterbalanced by the activities of progressive social groups and individuals who strove to develop innovative ideas, open schools and libraries for common people, and publish new textbooks and educational journals. The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) established a peasant school inside his estate, personally taught there, and encouraged other people to do the same. In order to advance his pedagogical ideas, Tolstoy organized a publishing house Posrednik (Intermediary).

According to the census of 1897, the level of literacy in Russia was 29.6 percent (44.4 percent among men and 15.4 percent women; 24.6 percent in rural areas). The number of elementary schools gradually grew. By 1914-1915 there were more than 77,000 general education institutions with about 5,700,000 students and 167,000 teachers.

After the October Revolution of 1917 educational institutions of all types were nationalized. Narkompros (People's Commissariat for Education) headed by A. V. Lunacharsky (1875-1933) assumed the responsibility for the development and control of education through the network of local administrative organs. Lenin's wife Nadezhda Krupskaya (1869-1939) outlined the main organizational principles of unified labor school in her book Public Education and Democracy. In August 1918 the All-Russian Educational Convention approved the blueprint for the statute On Unified Labor School (1918) prepared by Lunacharsky and Krupskaya. It decreed the creation of the free, unified, labor compulsory school divided into two stages: five years of study, ages 8 to 13; and four years of study, ages 13 to 17, with the emphasis on polytechnic education and productive labor. The new legislation also abolished religious education, home assignments, grading, examinations, and uniforms as obvious characteristics of the czarist school. Teachers' and parental authority were rejected. The family was expected to wither away as a survival of capitalism and be replaced by "the collective" as the main agent of socialization. School was seen as an effective tool for indoctrinating communist ideology and bringing up "the new Soviet person" able to build socialism.

The workers' faculties (rabfaki) were organized in 1919 to prepare people from formerly underprivileged social groups for higher educational institutions. The statutes of the 1920s legalized the practice of giving preference to workers' children in admittance to school. During the 1921-1925 period the mass preparation of workers through the network of FZU (factory schools) and technicums (training schools for middle-level technicians and foremen) reflected the priorities assigned by the state.

After the end of the Civil War (1922) the voluntary society Away with Illiteracy began financing thousands of special schools for the elimination of adult illiteracy (likbezy). In 1925 they involved 1,400,000 people; as a result, by 1926 literacy in Russia advanced to 55 percent. Narkompros stimulated the development of education for different ethnic groups in their native tongues. The immediate concerns of the state also dealt with the need to take care of the homeless, vagabond children, alongside with efforts to overcome juvenile delinquency.

The atmosphere of enthusiasm and pursuit for radically new forms of instruction gave birth to numerous experiments: the "complex system," "project method," "Dalton Plan," and group or brigade method. It was concluded, though, that traditional forms were much more effective, and the experimentation time was condemned as a period of impotence. The works by Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) and other scholars contributed to the systematization of pedagogy. But in the 1930s the attempt to discuss the connection between personality and society was denounced as anti-Leninist. The resolution of 1936 On Pedological Distortions in the System of Narkomprosses (People's Commissariats of Education) brought many psychological investigations to a halt.

The state influence on school became even more pronounced in the mid-1920s with the announcement of the course towards industrialization, collectivization of agriculture, and cultural revolution. In the 1930s new transformations were initiated and personally monitored by Joseph Stalin. They envisaged centralized control at all levels, unification and regulation of the contents and methods of teaching, utilitarian attitude towards knowledge, obedience, and discipline. The legal decisions were materialized in standard obligatory curricula, syllabi, and textbooks worked out under the close scrutiny of the Communist Party.

The famous educator A. S. Makarenko (1888-1939) celebrated the idea of a highly disciplined learning collective as a model for the Soviet school committed to "bringing up a generation capable of building communism." His contradictory ideas and the publication of his book Pedagogical Poem aroused great public interest and initiated much argument. He worked out a theory of the collective as a form of educational process (including its structure and organization, stages of its development, methods of labor and aesthetic education, and formation of conscious discipline). He also made special emphasis on the creation of positive emotional atmosphere among homeless children who had suffered the horrors of war, devastation, and famine. His other ideas dealt with pedagogical logic, issues of family education, and other subjects. Makarenko was criticized from every angle, both by his contemporaries and scholars of later generations.

The speedy development of industry and collectivized agriculture, as well as the significant gains of education during the Stalin era were overshadowed by political terror, "purge" trials, mass executions, and exiles to work camps. Stalin's search for "enemies of the people" resulted in a significant reduction of the number of intellectuals (intelligentsia) who in turn, became the primary target of the repression.

During World War II, the Nazis ruined 17,000 school buildings. To preserve the compulsory education system, new boarding schools opened in the eastern parts of the country for the children, evacuated from the regions under Nazi occupation. "Prolonged day" groups were organized. Upon the liberation of Soviet territories, schools were reconstructed or newly built. By the end of the 1940s the educational network was restored. The Academy of Pedagogical Sciences and dozens of research institutes and experimental schools contributed to the introduction of mass secondary education.

After Stalin's death (1953) Nikita Khrushchev was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party. The twentieth CPSU Congress in 1956 denounced Stalin, started the "de-Stalinization" of the country, and sparked radical changes in all spheres of economic, political, and social life.

The 1958-1964 educational reform extended compulsory education from seven to eight years, combined general learning with productive labor (up to twenty hours a week at industrial enterprises), initiated structural and curricular innovations, and established special foreign-language schools. In 1959 it was claimed that 39 percent of workers and 21 percent of collective farmers had secondary or higher education. The reshaping of the school system initiated the experimental study of the problems of instruction and development, as well as innovative methods and technologies. After Khrushchev had been deposed in 1964, the Soviet government eliminated the major features of his educational reform.

The aim of the educational policies under Leonid Brezhnev was to meet the requirements of the "scientific technical revolution." The statutes and regulations of the 1960s-1970s period introduced a revised secondary school curriculum with electives added at seventh grade and intensified vocational guidance and counseling. The efforts of the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences were directed towards the elaboration of the content of general secondary education, diversified and individual approaches to teaching science, practically oriented aspects of developmental education, and problems of adult education. The main trends of the 1970s-1980s period dealt with the optimization of the teaching process, use of technical aids, pedagogical psychology, computer education, and pedagogy of cooperation.

The propagation of Communist ideology through the Octobrist (ages 7 to 10), Young Pioneer (ages 10 to 14) and Komsomol (ages 14 to 28) organizations remained an important aspect of school and university life. By the mid-1970s the transfer to universal secondary education was achieved.

However, the qualitative growth could not make up for the disparity between the country's needs and capacities of the schooling system. Real education was substituted by the production of unrealistic data advertising the achievements of socialism. This crisis in education, which became evident in the 1980s, reflected general tendencies in Soviet society. The long-standing Russian educational tradition and accumulated intellectual property had come into conflict with the ideological pressure of the Soviet bureaucratic administrative machine. School, monopolized by the state, lacked initiative, diversity, and enthusiasm. It ultimately limited the intellectual potential of society. The educational reform attempted in 1984 did not only eliminate, but aggravated the crisis. School, seen primarily as an indoctrination tool, was insensitive to the students' individuality, national, and regional needs. Humanitarian subjects were permeated with ideology. Science syllabi oriented towards "average" capacities were equally ineffective for weak and strong students. The gap between the quality of schooling in urban and rural areas continued to grow. As a result, rural young people's social mobility and access to universities were limited.

Perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), the key notions of the revolutionary reforms initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, had a profound influence on the educational system. The main principles of its further advancement, approved by the All-Union Educational Convention in 1988, included democratization, pluralism, diversity, humanization, and continuity. The new program unfolded in 1990 and continued in Russia, which reemerged as an independent republic after the disintegration of the USSR in 1991.

The Russian educational reforms of the post-Soviet period had a number of peculiarities. The school had finally acquired freedom and could move towards democratic forms of teaching. The late 1980s to early 1990s saw the rapid development of innovative approaches and their spontaneous introduction into practice. Though educators realized the necessity to devote more attention to each individual student, they came to the conclusion that it was far too complicated in classes of twenty-five to thirty people. It also became clear that the idea of humanization could be implemented only in conjunction with profound social changes. The main goals were formulated in the federal Law on Education (1992).

On the one hand, perestroika encouraged innovation and creativity; on the other, the deepening economic crisis brought about insufficient financing, reduction or complete termination of numerous educational programs, and concentration on the survival rather than the development of the educational system. School administrations had to deal with poorly maintained buildings, overcrowded classrooms, lack of equipment, shortages of textbooks, electricity, and heat in certain areas of the country, as well as other economic problems. The transitional period made the school life more chaotic. Young people's organizations, whose activities had been heavily loaded with ideology, ceased to exist, but their place remained vacant. Students became more inert, apathetic, less interested in social life and self-government. Discipline became more lax. The number of juvenile delinquents, orphans, and children with mental problems started to grow. The partial shift from budget to non-budget financing, including the use of private funds, and the introduction of fees at certain institutions resulted in social differentiation and non-equal educational opportunities. The patience of teachers, who had previously been renowned for their enthusiasm and selflessness, was wearing thin because of low salaries and chronic delays in their payment.

This socioeconomic context made the reforms a long and painful process. The necessity to make economic adjustments partially overshadowed the educational tasks. The freedom given to educational institutions was not always used well and at times brought about undesirable consequences. Many teachers, who did not have sufficient professional training, psychological, and practical experience, started developing low-quality courses, textbooks, and methodological materials. These negative tendencies stimulated the establishment of the state standards. By 1999-2000 the situation had become more stable and was marked by systemic legal and conceptual changes in the educational system.

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