The Soviet education system and 1990s reform efforts


The Soviet education system was controlled in every facet from the top down. On any given day, every single student in every corner of the USSR would be studying from the same pages of the same textbooks.[1] Those textbooks indoctrinated students with the government’s political ideology, complete with distortions of history, and centered a so-called “scientific world outlook” that promoted atheism and denigrated religion.[2] “Every aspect of schooling was designed to shape the child into the good Soviet citizen,” including through extracurricular activities organized by the Young Pioneers youth group and the Komsomol political youth organization. [3] Each question had only one correct answer, determined by the Soviet government and enforced at all lower levels. Academic freedom was nonexistent, and individuality was always subordinate to the collective. An inviolable hierarchy placed teachers as the ultimate authorities in their classrooms, where rote memorization and regurgitation of facts were the modus operandi.[4] The top-down control over student’s lives extended past their graduations, when they were assigned jobs by the state.

Although the Soviet-era education system expanded access to education and improved literacy rates, theoretically in service of greater equality, the reality was that “some were more equal than others,” and those who had the means were often able to circumvent the rules.[5] Corruption and bribery were endemic, and the education system was vastly underfunded; as a result, students were educated in crumbling buildings that frequently lacked not only sports facilities but also even the most basic services. As late as 1988, 30 percent of Russian children were in schools with no indoor plumbing, and 21 percent were in schools with no central heating.[6]

In the late 1980s, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, a more liberal environment of glasnost (openness, including greater freedom of speech) enabled an education reform movement to emerge. Driven by teachers, it promoted decentralization and diversification of the system and democratization and humanization of the classroom, based on the belief that educational reform could transform society at large. Once the Soviet Union fell in 1991, school districts across Russia began exerting greater autonomy, diversifying the educational experience across the country; an array of new curricula were developed in order to promote new perspectives on history and civics; and reformist teachers strove to democratize their classrooms. A lack of resources, particularly funding, stymied their efforts, as did the conservative attitudes of most educators and parents.[7] That said, however, the 1990s witnessed a variety of genuinely progressive steps towards reform of the Russian educational system.

Reforms to educational system structure and governance

In 1992, the Soviet system of top-down control over the educational system was officially swept away by the new Law on Education, which shifted control to schools that were now able to act on their own volition rather than strictly obeying ministry directives.[8] This decentralization enabled different regions to customize their educational approaches, with some offering local ethnic history and language classes, others offering vocational classes focusing on local economic needs, and still others offering even more narrowly targeted curricula, such as a St. Petersburg program covering the history of the city.[9] School districts were also now able to coordinate with each other to exchange lessons learned, including through inter-regional conferences. However, a lack of defined channels for such coordination limited progress in that area.[10]

Students wearing typical school uniforms during the Soviet era, Source: fishki

In this new environment of freedom, a dizzying array of local educational initiatives popped up, from new types of state-run schools such as gymnasiums and lyceums (college-preparatory schools generally emphasizing the humanities and the sciences, respectively) to a variety of private schools.[11] These “alternative” schools often enjoyed greater freedom to innovate their academics, often due to having more financial resources.[12] Nevertheless, the reforms at this small minority of schools rarely made their way to the more populous comprehensive schools, limiting their overall impact.[13]

Meanwhile, districts attempted to involve their local communities in school governance via school boards – but both teachers and parents, used to the strict hierarchy of the Soviet system, were unprepared to work together in this new manner, and parents were often suspicious of reform efforts.[14] Although some very active boards did influence their local school administration, in general the new councils were not able to live up to their ideals of democratic governance. [15]

Overall, after decades of each level of the education system – from teachers to head teachers to district administration to higher levels – deferring to the level above them, it was hard for those at lower levels to suddenly take greater initiative.[16] “Having received this freedom,” one regional administrator commented, “we do not always seem to know how best to take advantage of it.”[17]

Moreover, the new freedom granted to local school districts was in some ways a double-edged sword, as it was accompanied by less government funding. Against the backdrop of the Russian economic crisis of the 1990s, districts turned to a variety of means of financing their schools, including having students buy their own textbooks, renting out school facilities, selling goods produced in school workshops, running vocational classes for the community, and seeking sponsorships from local business elites.[18] As a result, inequality from school to school was deeply entrenched.[19]

Overall, decentralization was one of the most significant post-Soviet reforms to the education system, but the Russian experience demonstrates the importance of providing sufficient resources to both fund such reforms and guide teachers, administrators, and parents to take up new roles in a more democratic system, rather than leaving them adrift.

A 13-year-old student learns mathematics at a small school in the remote Russian village of Bolshie Khutora (2012), Source: Washingtonpost 

Curriculum reforms

After the fall of the Soviet Union, an array of curricular reforms broke with the past. Schools were allowed their choice of textbooks rather than being forced to use those mandated by the state. Courses on “scientific communism” and “scientific atheism” were dropped, and new courses on civics, sociology, global education, and religion came into vogue. A wider variety of electives sprang up, from foreign languages to horseback riding (though these new classes were often limited to more elite schools).[20] School districts were now able to choose what to teach and how to teach it.[21] That said, between a lack of resources for reform and general resistance and inertia, the degree to which these changes took hold varied widely from district to district.[22]

Beginning in the mid-1990s, state control over textbook production and distribution gave way to a model where schools could choose between texts that were developed by the state or by private parties.[23] By 2000, the 130 textbooks available under the Soviet system had mushroomed to 1,000 federally approved texts.[24] In part due to a lack of clarity from the government on specific goals and standards for post-Soviet courses, the new textbooks offered wildly diverging ideological perspectives on their subjects. Although many offered fresh pedagogical approaches intended to prompt more critical thinking and classroom dialogue, the most widely used texts often hewed to more conservative approaches.[25] To make matters worse, a lack of funding for new textbooks left many schools still using Soviet-era textbooks by the turn of the century.[26] But updates to civics and history education nonetheless demonstrated real progress.

Students use laptops at a lyceum in Novouralsk (2016), Source: Russia Beyond


In 1990, the government decreed that a new social studies course, “Mankind and Society,” to be taught from grades 8-11, would cover a wide range of subjects, from psychology to history, from a perspective of “universal human values” in service of democratization of the classroom and society.[27] Driven by the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, the process of developing the course content was marred by a lack of clarity on questions like just what universal human values were and exactly how education should be democratized.[28] As a result, textbooks developed for the course took a variety of approaches, including a reproduction of Marxist interpretations of history; the most widely used text took a relatively new approach by contrasting authoritarian states with states governed by the rule of law and calling for students to discuss questions of freedom and responsibility.[29]

Meanwhile, new civics courses for 9th grade were developed, but with the curricula written by the very authors who had written Soviet-era textbooks, it represented a limited step forward. Although the textbooks covered various rights and forms of government, they were written in the same dogmatic style as the texts of the fallen regime.[30] Other textbooks developed since the mid-1990s have offered different approaches: encouraging class discussion and sharing of students’ own perspectives; including primary sources for analysis and covering different interpretations of historical events for discussion; and prompting students to critique choices made by leaders throughout history. [31] Another new angle on civic education focused on replacing the widespread feeling of powerlessness among Soviet citizens with a new sense of efficacy; this issues-based approach had students identify and research an important local issue, evaluate potential solutions, and, if possible, take steps themselves towards addressing the issue.[32]


The teaching of history has also been a target of close scrutiny and reform, beginning during the era of glasnost, when government education officials declared their intention to detether the subject from the Soviet “bluntly ideological and mythologized [approach], based on the dogmatic formation of a one-dimensional worldview.”[33] In the late 1980s, reformers promoted a shift in emphasis away from the role of the all-powerful state to the relationship between individuals and society, while also calling for history classes to “present students with the problem of moral choice by honestly revealing the complexity and even ambiguity that is part and parcel of the moral evaluation of historical events,” emphasizing students’ right to their own subjective, individual perspectives.[34] The Ministry of Education also decided on a new integrated world history class that would present the history of Russia along with the histories of the diverse cultural groups that fell under the Soviet umbrella, from Estonians to Ukrainians and Belorussians, rather than ignoring them as had been done previously.[35]

A secondary school student in Petergof takes notes next to a stack of textbooks (2015), Source: shutterstock

Once the Soviet Union fell, however, these goals shifted. Now that Russia was a separate entity from the Soviet republics, Russian history could be foregrounded with barely a nod to Russia’s ethnic minorities. Textbooks presented history through the filter of their writers’ various ideologies, some depicting socialism as an ideal that Soviet leaders failed to implement correctly, others depicting it as a radical ideology with terrorist and totalitarian leanings. [36] In a new development, some texts departed from the “great man” approach, which focused on political and military leaders, to instead present “history from below,” foregrounding ordinary individuals and their lives. [37]

In rejecting the Soviet approach to pre-revolutionary history – a black-and-white focus on class struggle that used religious and class oppression to justify the Communist revolution – new textbooks offered different viewpoints that at times veered to the extreme opposite perspective, presenting a much rosier picture of the Russian Orthodox church and monarchy.[38] Post-Soviet textbooks have covered Soviet repression but have also reproduced some Soviet mythology, including glossing over the 1939-41 Soviet-Nazi non-aggression pact and presenting an idealized view of the post-World War II economy recovery.[39] This trend has only worsened under President Vladimir Putin, who has demanded that textbooks promote a “patriotic education” and oversaw the development of a history textbook that praised Stalin as a modernizer and patriot.[40]

Other curricular reforms

Literature curricula also underwent revisions. Censorship had been endemic to the Soviet Union, with the long list of banned books including classics such as Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s influential dystopian novel We. Accordingly, literature texts had erased such works from the record; now they would be added back, with new textbooks devoting entire chapters to writers whose work had previously been verboten.

Soviet-era curricula had also foregrounded socialist realism, the sole officially sanctioned style of Soviet art that depicted idealized heroes of the working class battling the enemies of socialism. In the new texts of the 1990s, socialist realism became anathema, to the point that the view of Russian literature presented by these books was a disjointed and confusing one rather than a coherent narrative.[41] As far as pedagogy went, literature textbooks still largely called on students to memorize texts without context or understanding of their significance, rather than breaking with this catechistic approach.[42]

All in all, curricular reforms left schools with an unprecedented array of choices for textbooks and exposed students to an array of perspectives that had previously been excluded from curricula. In some cases, new pedagogical approaches encouraged greater dialogue and critical thinking, but to a large extent, Soviet-era methods continued to dominate, and a nationalist view of the Soviet past lingered as well. Curriculum reform efforts were also hobbled by a lack of guidance from government education institutions. While reforms were not total, there is no doubt that by the end of the 1990s, vast strides had been made in modernizing Russian curricula.

Efforts to reinvent the classroom through pedagogical reform

Reform efforts also focused on democratization and humanization of the classroom, in order to shift away from the strict, authoritarian model that had prevailed during the Soviet era and for hundreds of years before. That model was characterized by “a strong emphasis on factual content, a reluctance to admit to controversy or uncertainty on any point, a consequent tendency to reduce…philosophical subjects to a catalogue of stereotyped statements, little consideration of the child as recipient of all this, a strongly formal atmosphere, and stress on classroom rituals which amount[ed] sometimes to turning the lesson into a ceremony…Children’s ideas [were] accepted if they conform to teacher expectation, but [were] otherwise rarely explored.” [43]

Beginning during the glasnost period of the 1980s, teachers played a leading role in mobilizing for change to that model. They envisioned a pupil-centered pedagogical approach where students would be free to express their own perspectives. Rather than pure lecture-based classes, this new vision encompassed class discussions, group work, and a general effort to nurture students’ individuality. Teachers organized for this ideal enthusiastically, including by founding the Creative Union of Teachers in 1988. They drew on a wide variety of pedagogical approaches,[44] including:

  • the Dalton Plan, where students work at their own pace, with the teacher helping them individually as needed;
  • the Jena Plan, a community-focused approach featuring mixed-age groups of students and open, individualized learning environments;
  • the Montessori approach, where teachers facilitate students’ active learning, with an emphasis on pupils’ unique needs; and
  • the Waldorf or Steiner model, which features a play-based approach focusing on holistic development of students’ intellectual, emotional, artistic, and practical abilities.

However, by the 1990s, these teachers had lost influence, and a number of factors combined to stymie progress on pedagogical approaches.[45] The Russian education system’s fundamental institutions and standards remained intact, prioritizing drill and repetition as always rather than fostering innovation. Likewise, no substantive changes were made to the teacher training and professional development system. Although teachers now had more freedom to develop their own curricula, they were left to do so on their own, with no guidance or funding to support them.[46]

As teachers struggled on painfully low salaries, frequently taking up side jobs to survive – and all while dealing with the national economic crisis – it was naturally a challenge to attempt to reinvent the classroom. [47] As one teacher said, “I…would like to be able to develop new syllabuses, new materials, new approaches. But I am so exhausted and frustrated by all of the problems around me that I simply have no energy for creative work.” [48]

Indeed, the low salaries and challenging environment drove many teachers away from the profession, leading to retired educators – who generally leaned conservative and preferred to maintain the traditional authoritarian classroom model – stepping in to fill the gap.[49] Teachers who did have reformist inclinations also confronted resistance from the larger community, including students’ parents. According to one 1995 poll, 45 percent of parents saw humanization of the school as harmful; far from seeking teachers who nurtured their children’s individuality, they considered strictness, followed by a demanding nature, as the most desirable qualities a teacher could have.[50]

As a result, little progress was made in the area of pedagogical reform. As described by one professor, the result has been students who are “crippled by their schooling in very significant ways. They have difficulty in arriving at conclusions on their own; for the majority, discussion and debate are foreign, as is challenging the authority of the teacher or the printed word. Cheating is common, because memorization of lecture notes and rehashing of the teacher’s ideas are the perceived way of learning the material. Inability to engage in independent critical thinking is one of the greatest disadvantages that these students have.”[51]


Since the mid-1980s, Russian teachers had been pressing for decentralization of government control, diversification of educational offerings across the country, and humanization and democratization of the classroom. The fall of the Soviet Union presented a groundbreaking opportunity to pursue these goals via wholesale reform of the Russian educational system. Decentralization enabled a huge growth in diversity of the educational experience from district to district. Schools were also now able to choose from hundreds of new textbooks, including ones with fresh pedagogical approaches and revised and modernized interpretations of history and civics education.

However, in large part due to lack of funding, reform was neither uniform nor complete; many districts were left behind, inequality flourished, and the strict, authoritarian pedagogy that dominated Soviet classrooms remained largely intact. Moreover, some ground has since been lost on the gains made during the reform efforts of the 1990s, with Vladimir Putin’s government re-centralizing control over the education system and further entrenching Soviet nostalgia in Russian curricula and society at large.[52]

All in all, Russia’s post-Soviet experience of education reform highlights the importance of developing and enacting clear, revised education standards across all school districts, as well as the critical role of government funding and resources for school facilities, textbooks and curricula, and teacher salaries, training, and development. While the evolution of Russia’s education system continues, the victories and failures of the 1990s offer valuable lessons to other education reform movements around the world.

[1] Froumin, Isak. “From savage equity to savage inequalities: evolution of the Russian education”. Lemann Center for Educational Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Brazil, 19 Jan. 2021.

[2] Karpov, Vyacheslav and Elena Lisovskaya. “Educational change in time of social revolution: The case of post-Communist Russia in comparative perspective. Educational Reform in Post-Soviet Russia: Legacies and Prospects, edited by Ben Eklof, Larry E. Holmes and Vera Kaplan. Frank Cass, 2005, pg. 37.

[3] Vaillant, Janet G. “Civic education in a changing Russia.” Educational Reform in Post-Soviet Russia: Legacies and Prospects, edited by Ben Eklof, Larry E. Holmes and Vera Kaplan. Frank Cass, 2005, pg. 222

[4] Eklof, Ben. “Introduction – Russian education: the past in the present.” Educational Reform in Post-Soviet Russia: Legacies and Prospects, edited by Ben Eklof, Larry E. Holmes and Vera Kaplan. Frank Cass, 2005, pg. 5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid 11.

[7] Ibid 7.

[8] Webber, Stephen L. School, Reform and Society in the New Russia. Palgrave Macmillan, 200. Pg. 57.

[9] Ibid 64.

[10] Ibid 66.

[11] Eklof 39.

[12] Webber 107.

[13] Ibid 108.

[14] Froumin, Isak D. “Democratizing the Russian school: achievements and setbacks.” Educational Reform in Post-Soviet Russia: Legacies and Prospects, edited by Ben Eklof, Larry E. Holmes and Vera Kaplan. Frank Cass, 2005, pp. 132-3.

[15] Webber 78.

[16] Ibid 59.

[17] Ibid 65.

[18] Karpov and Lisovskaya 40-1, Webber 75.

[19] Karpov and Lisovskaya 42.

[20] Ibid 39.

[21] Eklof 9.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Peterson, Nadya. “Teaching literature in the new Russian school.” Educational Reform in Post-Soviet Russia: Legacies and Prospects, edited by Ben Eklof, Larry E. Holmes and Vera Kaplan. Frank Cass, 2005, pg. 310.

[24] Ibid 311.

[25] Ibid 312.

[26] Eklof 9.

[27] Vaillant 224.

[28] Ibid 225.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid 227

[31] Ibid 230                                     

[32] Ibid 231

[33] Kaplan, Vera. “History teaching in post-Soviet Russia: coping with antithetical traditions.” Educational Reform in Post-Soviet Russia: Legacies and Prospects, edited by Ben Eklof, Larry E. Holmes and Vera Kaplan. Frank Cass, 2005, pg. 249.

[34] Ibid 249-50.

[35] Ibid 251-2.

[36] Ibid 260.

[37] Ibid 261.

[38] Shevyrev, Alexander. “Rewriting the national past: new images of Russia in history textbooks of the 1990s.” Educational Reform in Post-Soviet Russia: Legacies and Prospects, edited by Ben Eklof, Larry E. Holmes and Vera Kaplan. Frank Cass, 2005, pp. 274-8.

[39] Ionov, Igor. “New trends in historical scholarship and the teaching of history in Russia’s schools.” Educational Reform in Post-Soviet Russia: Legacies and Prospects, edited by Ben Eklof, Larry E. Holmes and Vera Kaplan. Frank Cass, 2005, pg. 303.

[40] Ibagimowa, Elina. “Why Stalin is causing a classroom storm in Russia”. Deutsche Welle, 29 July 2017.

[41] Peterson 315.

[42] Ibid 318.

[43] Muckle, James. “The conduct of lessons in the Russian school: is real change on the way?”. Educational Reform in Post-Soviet Russia: Legacies and Prospects, edited by Ben Eklof, Larry E. Holmes and Vera Kaplan. Frank Cass, 2005, pg. 326.

[44] Karpov and Lisovskaya 39.

[45] Eklof, Ben and Scott Seregny. “Teachers in Russia: State, community and profession.” Educational Reform in Post-Soviet Russia: Legacies and Prospects, edited by Ben Eklof, Larry E. Holmes and Vera Kaplan. Frank Cass, 2005, pp. 206-7.

[46] Froumin, Isak and Igor Remorenko. “From the ‘Best-in-the-World’ Soviet School to a Modern Globally Competitive School System.” Audacious Education Purposes: How Governments Transform the Goals of Education Systems, edited by Fernando M. Reimers. Springer Open, 2020, pg. 238.

[47] Eklof and Seregny 209.

[48] Webber 128.

[49] Eklof 9.

[50] Froumin 134.

[51] Peterson 318.

[52] Karpov and Lisovskaya 44.

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