History & Background
The Republic of Belarus (the former Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic) became an independent state in 1991, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Situated on the crossroads between Russia, the Baltic states, Poland, and Ukraine, Belarus has an important geopolitical location and covers a territory of 80,134 square miles (207,546 square kilometers) with a population exceeding 10 million. The capital and the biggest city is Minsk (1.7 million people). Of 118 ethnic groups living on its territory, the major ones are Belarusians (77.9 percent), Russians (13.2 percent), Poles (4.1 percent), and Ukrainians (2.9 percent).
Belarusians are Eastern Slavic people with a language similar to Russian. They use the Cyrillic alphabet invented by the Byzantine monk, scholar, and philosopher Cyril (827-869 A.D.) and his brother Methodius (826-885 A.D.). In the tenth to twelfth centuries, the territory of modern Belarus was part of Ancient Russia. The main method of instruction was teaching children how to read religious books copied in Turov, Vitebsk, Slutsk, Pinsk, and other major cities. One of the first Belarusian educators was the bishop Cyril Turovsky (c. 1130-1182), who wrote numerous precepts on moral values. In the thirteenth century, Belarus became part of Lithuania. In spite of the national and religious contradictions, which were tearing the Lithuanian Principality apart, literacy gradually spread among townspeople, artisans, and merchants.
After the establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian state, called Rzecz Pospolita (1569), the development of Belarusian culture was strongly affected by the Reformation. The followers of the Orthodox Church were, consequently, in an underprivileged position. The curricula of confessional Protestant schools included religious dogmata, church singing, languages (Belarusian, Latin, Greek, and sometimes Ancient Russian), rhetoric, poetry, dialectics, history, and mathematics. The emergence of printing shops resulted in the publication of textbooks, some of them in the Belarusian language.
Brotherhood schools established in 1590 in Mogilev, Brest, and other large cities had a tremendous impact on the development of Slavic culture. These schools were affiliated with Orthodox monasteries and admitted children from different social groups. The educational process was divided into two stages. In the first stage, reading, writing and church singing were taught. In the second stage, Old Slavic, Greek, grammar, rhetoric, poetics, foundations of mathematics, and philosophy were covered. Orthodoxy played an important part in the curriculum. All the organizational problems, including the length of study, were negotiated by the parents and the teacher in the presence of neighbors. The children who excelled in studies were granted honorable seats in the classroom. Corporal punishment was limited, and the schools even had elements of student self-government.
The period from the late 1700s to early 1800s saw the growth of Catholic and Uniate schools, which were often attached to monasteries. Such schools prevailed until the abolition of Unia in 1839. Most of the teaching in Catholic and Uniate schools was done in Polish. Between 1773 and 1794, general secular education developed under the influence of the Education Commission, which opened twenty schools with curricula centering on natural sciences. The first establishment of higher learning in Belarus was the Grodno Medical Academy (1775-1781).
In the 1790s, after the breakup of Rzecz Pospolita, Belarus was reunited with Russia. This resulted in the formation of 20 new Russian schools. The first teacher training seminary opened in Vitebsk in 1834. The opening of the Gory-Goretsk Agricultural School in 1840 marked the beginning of secondary professional education. The democratic trends and reforms of the 1860s fostered the development of cultural life in Belarus. By 1865 there were 567 educational institutions, including 12 secondary, 45 incomplete secondary, 21 theological, and over 400 elementary schools. The progressive public movement for the education of female students initiated the establishment of almost 30 schools for women. In response to the 1863-1864 Polish resurrection, the Russian government issued Temporary Rules, which intensified the policy of Russification in Belarusian schools. In 1867, the czarist government prohibited publishing in the Belarusian language, its use in the school curricula, and as a language of instruction. Because of insufficient financing parents had to collect their own money in order to build primary schools. For the most part, secondary schools were unaffordable for common people. In 1894 Belarus and Lithuania, which constituted one educational district, had only 16 secondary schools. The literacy rate in the age group from 9- to 49-years-old was only 32 percent.
The Russian Revolution of 1905-1907 sparked the struggle of the Belarusians for their cultural identity and creation of national schools. About 25 preschools emerged in Minsk, Vitebsk, Mogilev, Grodno, and Bobruisk. In 1906 the first illegal teachers' convention in Belarus called for the establishment of general compulsory schooling and the use of the mother tongue as a language of instruction. The same year the czarist government lifted the prohibition against publishing in Belarusian. Another convention, which assembled in Vilna in 1907, instituted the Belarusian Teachers' Union. Its activities, including the publication of a newspaper for teachers, promoted the reconstruction of public education on democratic principles, introduction of self-government,and the use of the Belarusian language in schools. By 1917, Belarus had 7,682 general education institutions, including 7,492 primary, 119 incomplete secondary, and 71 secondary schools with a total number of 489,000 students, mostly from well-to-do families. On the professional level, there were 15 secondary professional schools with nearly 1,500,000 students, 10 agricultural and 3 obstetrical schools, 8 teacher's seminaries, and three teacher training institutes. Higher education was virtually nonexistent. Although progress was evident when the Mogilev and Vitebsk pedagogical institutes were opened in 1918.
In 1919 Belarus became part of the Soviet Union. The Statute on Unified Labor School of the Russian Federation was applied to the Belarusian educational network. Its primary aim was to reshape the educational system on the basis of free compulsory schooling. Labor education was deemed the basis for "the Communist rebirth of society" and the medium for promoting proletarian values. Major efforts were directed against illiteracy. Most of the big schools used Belarusian as the language of instruction. The main type of school was the labor general or polytechnical school with seven years of instruction for students aged 8 to 15. In 1920, Narkompros (Peoples Commissariat of Education) organized a preschool department, which supervised 25 nursery schools and kindergartens, as well as 10 preschool children's homes. The search for innovation initiated the development of experimental communal schools and other nontraditional forms, which were strongly encouraged by Lenin and his wife Krupskaya. Programs of Communist ideology were introduced on all educational levels, from preschools to universities, as well as through the network of workers' clubs, libraries, and publications. Active propagation of the "foundations of Leninism" began in 1924. The policy of promoting workers to higher education (at the expense of other social groups), in order to train intellectuals loyal to the Soviet government, was materialized in the form of rabfaki (workers' faculties). The first one was opened in 1921 at the Belarusian University in Minsk. By 1935 there were 28 workers' faculties with 11,000 students. The revised university curricula included historical materialism, history of the proletarian revolution, economic policy of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and other indoctrination subjects. In 1932, it was claimed that Belarus had attained universal primary education. That same year the Soviet of People's Commissars of the Belarusian Republic made a decision about universal education for illiterate adults aged 15 to 45. By 1939 the literacy rate was 78.9 percent. In 1940 the system of professional education included 40 FZUs (primary factory schools), 6 railway schools, 58 technicums (secondary technical schools), and 15 institutions of higher learning.
During the period of Stalinist political terror, almost 4 million Belarusians were executed, imprisoned, deported, or otherwise forcibly relocated, among them were numerous representatives of the intellectual community. In Western Belarus, which was annexed by Poland in 1919, the situation with schooling was drastic. By the late 1930s, about 400 Belarusian schools had been closed and almost 70 percent of the population was illiterate. After the reunification of Belarus in 1939, a unified school system started functioning in Belarus. By 1941 there were about 12,000 primary and secondary schools with 1,700,000 students; 128 professional secondary schools; and 25 higher educational institutions with 56,500 students.
The Nazi troops, which occupied Belarus in 1941, destroyed 9,000 school buildings (60 percent) with all the equipment and 20 million textbooks. The forest schools located within the zones controlled by 1,108 guerrilla groups (Brest, Minsk, Vitebsk, and others) continued to work throughout the war. Professional technical schools were evacuated to the Urals and Western Siberia. After the liberation of Belarus in 1944, the school network was restored and developed further. By 1945-1946, some 24 higher educational institutions with 12,600 students had resumed their work. From 1946 to 1956 the number of students increased by 511,000 in secondary schools, 22,700 in specialized professional schools, and 35,900 in higher education.
The Twentieth Communist Party Congress condemned Stalinism and began radical reforms in all spheres of life, including the educational system. The new curricula aimed at forging close links between general education and productive labor. The period after 1959 was marked by the emergence of complex facilities, such as nursery school kindergarten. By 1976 the Republic had attained universal secondary education. In 1981 there were 3,716 preschools, 12,294 general education primary and secondary schools, 220 vocational technical schools, 135 secondary professional schools, and 32 higher educational institutions. The educational crisis of the 1980s made it evident that the system did not adequately meet national and regional requirements or create favorable conditions for the use of the Belarusian language. The innovations of the perestroika (reconstruction) period of the late 1980s and early 1990s resulted in the establishment of new types of schools, as well as bilingualism based on close relations between the Belarusian and Russian languages. The Law on Languages of the Belarus Republic (1990) and other changes followed the declaration of independence of Belarus in 1991 and contributed to the democratization and diversification of the educational system.
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