Revolution and Rebellion: Students in Soviet Institutes of Higher Education, 1921-1928

By Konecny, Peter | Canadian Journal of History, December 1992 | Go to article overview

Revolution and Rebellion: Students in Soviet Institutes of Higher Education, 1921-1928


Konecny, Peter, Canadian Journal of History


One of the important tasks facing the Bolshevik regime in Soviet Russia after its consolidation of power in 1921 was to transform higher education into a class-oriented system producing specialists for a burgeoning Soviet state and society. Students in higher educational institutions were to become the vanguard of a new elite by taking top positions in the Party, the scientific community and the national economy. This revolution within the student body was to be accomplished through revolutionary changes in the structure of higher education, the eradication of political and academic opposition, and the inculcation of socialist values among the youth.

Expansion and social upheaval in institutes of higher education (vuzy) in many ways reflected the complex struggles of the Soviet state embarking on the road toward socialism. While political battles over educational policies during N.E.P., the period of the New Economic Policy (N.E.P.), 1921-1928, have been traced elsewhere,(1) student responses to these changes and the conflicts between policy and practice have received less attention. The evolution of higher education revealed contrasts in revolutionary social and political policies initiated by state organs against confusion and disorganization on the local level, as well as variegated forms of student resistance to institutional and Party authority. While state and Party organs were successful in imposing a complex array of academic, social, and political demands upon students, they were less successful in realizing a uniformly "ideal" student body: students who were academically competent, socially active and politically loyal to the Soviet regime. This paper examines the responses of Soviet students to state and Party initiatives, as well as the interplay of generational and political conflict within institutes of higher education during N.E.P. Much of the material used in this paper is taken from newspapers, journals, and archives in Leningrad, with special reference to Leningrad State University. The author has been fortunate enough to gain access to documents from the Leningrad Party Archives which were previously forbidden to Western and Soviet readers. This material has provided invaluable insights into the development of higher education in Leningrad and the state structure as a whole during the first decade of Soviet power.

I

The debate over higher educational policies following the November Revolution in 1917 was sharpened by the new regime's attack on what it called the "bourgeois" and class discriminatory system which existed in Tsarist times. Leading the attack on the "privileged" educational system was Anatolii Lunacharskii, head of the Commissariat of Education (Narkompros). Lunacharskii and Nadezhda Krupskaia, one of the most influential Soviet pedagogical theorists, envisioned a system based on free access to education at all levels (especially for under-privileged working-class and peasant children), an unbroken ladder of schools with decentralized administrative control providing a progressive system of education from the elementary school to the university, and a new curricular programme applying theories of Marxist pedagogy in the social and physical sciences. A more radical view of the new educational system was espoused by influential Party members such as Nikolai Preobrazhenskii and Leon Trotskii; this "left wing" of the Party advocated a more polytechnical school, with emphasis on specialist disciplines in the industrial sector, as well as admissions policies favouring workers and peasants.(2) But the majority of professors and school administrators (very few of whom were Bolshevik supporters) saw the November Revolution as an attempt to neutralize gains made in the area of academic freedom and institutional democratization following the February Revolution in 1917.(3) These conflicting currents in higher educational policy provided the basis for the extended struggle of Narkompros to work out an educational strategy feasible in the contemporary political environment. …

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