The Soviets' other class struggle

Soviet Schooling in the Second World War

August 22, 1997

Slowly but surely studies of the Great Patriotic War waged by the Soviet Union are shifting from the battlefront to the home front. Under a somewhat unprepossessing title which conceals the rich vein of information and analysis, John Dunstan for the first time familiarises western readers with the intimate details of a particular, critical aspect of Soviet wartime social policy: the struggle to maintain school education amid vast confusion, destruction and evacuation. The author makes the point that wartime problems cannot be held solely accountable for educational shortcomings, for the system itself had earlier been afflicted by absenteeism, failure, drop-outs and badly located and maintained schools.

Soviet wartime schooling aimed to sustain compulsory education, to raise the quality of "teaching and upbringing", to develop mass-scale work in defence, to inculcate political enlightenment in children and adults, to assist harvesting and to promote the welfare of soldiers' and workers' children. After one year at war order, labour discipline and "conditions necessary for health" were affirmed as priorities, though raising "standards of achievement" was not ignored.

Wartime conditions virtually halved the numbers of Soviet general school teachers, a problem exacerbated by rapid staff turnover but less disruptive than actual school closures. Massive evacuation obviously displaced the master plan to place all school-age children into schools, simultaneously thrusting a huge welfare role on available schools, even as they faced crippling shortages. The curriculum, the sheet anchor of the system, emerged from several changes into a stabilised form by the autumn of 1943, its "most salient feature" the increase in time allotted for military and physical training, but Russian and mathematics kept their place aggressively, to judge by one teacher's comment: "The main thing for us is Russian and maths. Military studies are piffle." Militarisation of the syllabus was inevitable, antireligious material was deleted, historical themes and the struggle against foreign invaders turned to national heroism, but Stalin and the party assumed increasing prominence as the tide of war turned.

The book includes cameos of school life and illuminates how schools assisted the war effort and paid for it with pupil exertion and hardship, a useful contrast with the "demoralisation and delinquency" which followed the westward shift of the Soviet-German front. After 1943 the author discusses reconstruction, the introduction of single-sex schooling, fraught with problems, the establishment of the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, the enormous problems of overcoming wartime destruction, shortage of books, coping with re-evacuation, recovering the former occupied territory. Growing youthful "indiscipline and sloth" led to "Rules for Pupils", a 20-point code of pupil conduct. Mandatory carrying of school identity cards was designed to check truancy and hooliganism.

Though eschewing Soviet triumphalism, the author sees in the country's wartime schooling a saga in its own right but "a more prosaic greatness", new problems compounded by old and persistent failings.

Dunstan discusses schooling (or more properly the lack of it) in the occupied territories, but makes the sensible disclaimer that it is a subject that requires separate treatment. Nevertheless the outline presented here reinforces the picture of loss and recovery on an epic scale.

Of Soviet schooling in peace and in war there can be no more expert exposition than this judicious and comprehensive book.

John Erickson is professor of defence studies, University of Edinburgh.

Soviet Schooling in the Second World War

Author - John Dunstan
ISBN - 0 333 57037 5
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £42.00
Pages - 264

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