Russia Table of Contents

In the Soviet period, education was highly centralized, and indoctrination in Marxist-Leninist theory was a major element of every school's curriculum. The schools' additional ideological function left a legacy in the post-Soviet system that has proved difficult for educators to overcome. In the 1990s, reform programs are aimed at overhauling the Soviet-era pedagogical philosophy and substantially revising curricula. Inadequate funding has frustrated attainment of these goals, however, and the teaching profession has lost talented individuals because of low pay.

The Soviet Heritage

The Soviet government operated virtually all the schools in Russia. The underlying philosophy of Soviet schools was that the teacher's job was to transmit standardized materials to the students, and the student's job was to memorize those materials, all of which were put in the context of socialist ethics. That set of ethics stressed the primacy of the collective over the interests of the individual. Therefore, for both teachers and students, creativity and individualism were discouraged. The Soviet system also maintained some traditions from tsarist times, such as the five-point grading scale, formal and regimented classroom environments, and standard school uniforms--dark dresses with white collars for girls, white shirts and black pants for boys.

As in other areas of Soviet life, the need for reform in education was felt in the 1980s. Reform programs in that period called for new curricula, textbooks, and teaching methods. The chief aim of those programs was to create a "new school" that would better equip Soviet citizens to deal with the modern, technologically advanced nation that Soviet leaders foresaw in the future. Nevertheless, in the 1980s facilities generally were inadequate, overcrowding was common, and equipment and materials were in short supply. The schools and universities failed to supply adequately skilled labor to almost every sector of the economy, and overgrown bureaucracy further compromised education's contribution to society. At the same time, young Russians became increasingly cynical about the Marxist-Leninist philosophy they were forced to absorb, as well as the stifling of self-expression and individual responsibility. In the last years of the Soviet Union, funding was inadequate for the large-scale establishment of "new schools," and requirements of ideological purity continued to smother the new pedagogical creativity that was heralded in official pronouncements.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the transition toward democracy had a profound effect on national education policy. In 1992 a reform philosophy was set forth in the Law on Education. The fundamental principle of that law was the removal of state control from education policy. In regions with non-Russian populations, that meant that educational institutions could base their curricula and teaching methods on national and historical traditions. In all regions, enactment of the law meant significant autonomy for local authorities to choose education strategies most appropriate to the time and place. Post-Soviet education reform also stressed teaching objectively, thus discarding all forms of the narrow, institutional views that had dominated the previous era and preparing young people to deal with all aspects of the society they would encounter by presenting a broader interpretation of the world.

Post-Soviet educational philosophy also has sought to integrate education with the production and economic processes into which graduates will pass in adult life. Envisioning a program of continuous education lasting throughout the lifetime of an individual, this concept has as its goal converting the education process from an economic burden on the state to an engine of economic progress. Especially important in this program is the reorientation of vocational training to complement the economic reforms of the 1990s. New systems of education for farmers and various types of on-the-job training for adults have been introduced, and new curricula in economics stress understanding of market economies.

The Post-Soviet Education Structure

Article 43 of the 1993 constitution affirms each citizen's right to education. It stipulates that "basic general education is compulsory" and that parents or guardians are responsible for ensuring that children obtain schooling. "General access to free preschool, basic general, and secondary vocational education in state or municipal educational establishments and in enterprises is guaranteed," according to the constitution. Although such access continued to exist in principle in the mid-1990s, various components of the system were increasingly inadequate. In 1993 some 35.2 million students were enrolled in Russian schools at all levels, including 20.5 million in general primary and secondary schools, 1.8 million in professional and technical schools, 2.1 million in special secondary schools, and 2.6 million in institutions of higher learning (see table 12, Appendix). A total of 70,200 general primary and secondary schools and 82,100 preschools were in operation at that time. Of the former category, 48,800 were in rural areas and 21,000 in urban areas.

In 1995 the projected budgetary expenditure for education was about 3.6 percent of the total state budget, a level Russian experts agreed could not maintain the system as it was, to say nothing of implementing the changes called for by post-Soviet legislation. The financing system made educational institutions fully dependent on state funds; outside sources of funding did not exist because no tax advantages accrued from investing in education.


Because the Soviet Union had not built enough schools to accommodate increasing enrollment, Russia inherited a system of very large, overcrowded schools with a decaying infrastructure. By the late 1980s, 21 percent of students were attending schools with no central heating, and 30 percent were learning in buildings with no running water. In 1992 Russia had nearly 67,000 primary and secondary schools, which provided an average per-pupil space of 2.6 square meters, one-third the official standard. About one-quarter of schools housed 900 or more students. In 1993 Russia was forced to close about 20,000 of its schools because of physical inadequacy, and an estimated one-third of the national school capacity was in need of large-scale repair. In 1994 one of every two students attended a school operating on two or three shifts. Rural schools, which make up about 75 percent of the national total, were in especially bad condition.


The Soviet Union suffered a shortage of teachers for decades before the 1990s. Although society held the profession in high regard, teacher salaries were among the lowest of all professions, at least partly because women dominated the field at the primary and secondary levels. The emerging market economy of the 1990s improved the pay and career opportunities outside teaching for many who would have remained in education under the more rigid Soviet system; thus, the shortage was exacerbated. In the 1992-93 school year, Russian schools had about 29,000 teacher vacancies, and in the following year 25 percent of all foreign-language teaching positions were unfilled. Although low pay has damaged morale among Russian teachers, they are more disillusioned by the end of the idealistic first post-Soviet years of innovation and freedom of speech and the continued decline of their material environment. In the mid-1990s, rural schools experienced particular difficulty retaining teachers, as qualified young adults sought opportunities in larger communities.


The end of the communist system has led to extensive curriculum revision. A new paradigm has been developed to guide education, and more attention has gone to the arts, humanities, and social sciences. The 1992 Law on Education stressed the humanistic nature of education, common values, freedom of human development, and citizenship. Curriculum changes were laid out in another document, the Basic Curriculum of the General Secondary School; the overall curriculum reform program is to be put in place over a five-year period ending in 1998. In the mid-1990s, many public schools have designed special curricula, some returning to the classical studies prevalent in the early 1900s. Local development of curricula and materials became legal in 1992, although financial constraints have limited experimentation and the Soviet era left educators with a strong bias toward standardized instruction and rote memorization. In contrast to the Soviet era, the quality and content of curricula vary greatly among public schools. A major factor encouraging local initiative is the disarray of federal education agencies, which often leave oblast, regional, and municipal authorities to their own devices. Nevertheless, only about one-third of primary and secondary schools have taken advantage of the opportunity to develop their own curricula; many administrations have been unwilling to make such large-scale decisions independently.

Grade Structure

Russian parents have the option of sending their children to preschool until age seven, when enrollment in elementary school becomes mandatory. Because the overwhelming majority of mothers still have full-time employment, many preschool facilities are colocated with enterprises. As businesses become increasingly profit oriented, however, many have ceased or reduced their support of such facilities. The number of child-care facilities for working parents declined significantly after 1991, mainly because many such facilities lacked the funding to continue operation without state support. Of about 82,100 preschools in operation in 1993, more than one-third were housed in inadequate facilities.

Although the 1992 Law on Education lowered the upper age of the compulsory education range from seventeen to fifteen, in the mid-1990s more than 60 percent of students remained in school for the previously required ten years. Among Russia's educational reforms is a regulation authorizing school officials to expel students fourteen years of age or older who are failing their courses. By the end of 1992, about 200,000 students had been expelled, and two to three times that number had dropped out. In the mid-1990s, Russia had five types of secondary school: regular schools featuring a core curriculum; schools offering elective subjects; schools offering intensive study in elective subjects; schools designed to prepare students for entrance examinations to an institution of higher education (vyssheye uchebnoye zavedeniye --VUZ; pl., VUZy); and alternative schools with experimental programs.

Private Schools

State education is free, but by 1992 several state higher-education institutions had begun charging tuition. At that point, almost half of the students above the secondary level were paying fees of some sort. The 1992 Law on Education provides explicitly for private educational institutions; in the ensuing years, several organizations for private education have appeared, and a variety of private schools and colleges have opened. By 1992 about 300 nonstate schools were being attended by more than 20,000 students.

As public schools debated what to do with their new academic freedom, private schools and preschools became centers of innovation, with programs rediscovering prerevolutionary pedagogy and freely borrowing teaching methods from Western Europe and the United States. Serving largely Western-oriented families intent on making progress up the newly reconstructed social ladder, private schools emphasize learning English and other critical skills. Student-to-teacher ratios are very low, and teacher salaries average about US$170 per month (about three times the average for a public school teacher). Tuition may be as much as US$3,000 per year, but some private schools charge parents according to their means, surviving instead on donations of money and time from wealthy parents. Unlike public schools, all private schools must pay for rent, utilities, and textbooks, and many have struggled to retain adequate building space.

Educational Achievement

The literacy rate in Russia is nearly 100 percent except in some areas dominated by ethnic minorities, where the rate may be considerably lower. According to the 1989 census, three-fifths of Russia's people aged fifteen and older had completed secondary school, and 8 percent had completed higher education. Wide variations in educational attainment exist between urban and rural areas. The 1989 census indicated that two-thirds of the country's urban population aged fifteen and older had finished secondary school, as compared with just under one-half of the rural population. Schools can award diplomas only in three languages--Russian, Tatar, and Bashkir--a requirement that puts many of the country's more than 100 ethnic groups at a disadvantage.

Higher Education

The VUZ category includes all of Russia's postsecondary educational institutions; in 1995 these totaled about 500, including forty-two universities. The other two types of VUZ are the institute and the polytechnic institute. Institutes, the largest of the three groups, train students in a specific field such as law, economics, art, agriculture, medicine, or technology. The polytechnic institutes teach the same range of subjects but without specialization in a single area. Most universities teach the arts and pure sciences.

The institute program consists of two phases. After completing two years of general studies, a student receives a certificate; he or she then may take an entrance examination to continue for two more years or terminate the program and seek a job. Completion of the next two years results in conferral of a baccalaureate degree. The next level of higher education is specialized study based on a research program in the area of future professional activity. This phase lasts at least two years, at the end of which the individual is designated a specialist in the chosen field. The top level of higher education is graduate work, which entails a three-year program of study and research leading to a degree of candidate (kandidat ), then finally to a degree of doctor of sciences (doktor nauk ).

In the post-Soviet era, the system of higher education has undergone a more drastic transformation than the primary and secondary systems. Authority has moved from the center to agencies in local and subnational jurisdictions. About 14 percent of institutions of higher learning are located in the twenty-one republics of the federation (see table 13, Appendix). Under the new system, each VUZ can determine its own admissions policy and the content of its academic programs. These institutions also have their own financial resources and statutes of operation.

Most of Russia's universities are located in large cities. Moscow State University, which was founded in 1755 and has about 28,000 students and 8,000 teachers, enjoys the highest reputation. The Russian People's Friendship University in Moscow has about 6,500 students and 1,500 teachers, and St. Petersburg State University has about 21,000 students and 2,100 teachers.

The Soviet Union concentrated its vocational training resources in areas such as space and military technology. It lagged behind the West in technical and vocational training in other sectors because of the practice of ending students' preparation in these areas at the secondary level. In Russia vocational schools traditionally have had a poor image; only in the early 1990s was comprehensive vocational education introduced for postsecondary students. In 1993 some 400 VUZ offered specialized training in specific vocational areas ranging from engineering and electricity to agricultural specialties. Some vocational schools have combined general and vocational curricula, with the goal of giving specialists a broader educational background. Another trend is the integration of higher technical education with on-the-job training by linking educational institutions with enterprises and factories.

In the post-Soviet era, business education has expanded dramatically because the demand for competent managers far outstrips the supply. Experts believe that Russia's business education programs will play an important role in transforming social attitudes toward the market economy and capitalism and establishing a new economic infrastructure. The primary goal of the new programs is to create familiarity with the principles of the market economy while casting aside Marxist economic ideology. In the first two years after the Soviet Union dissolved, more than 1,000 business schools and training centers were established.

Three types of institution offer business management education: state and private business schools and private consulting firms. Many in the last category simply offer high-priced lectures, but some business schools have developed sophisticated programs. Examples are the International Business School of Moscow State University, the Graduate School of International Business of the Academy of the National Economy in Moscow, and the International Management Institute in St. Petersburg. Several schools offer full master of business administration (MBA) degree programs based on Western models. Business schools are funded by the state and by private enterprise. Competent faculty are at a premium in this field; many have been trained by Western firms such as IBM.

Education and Society

Education plays a crucial role in determining social status in Russia. People who leave school after eight years generally can find only unskilled jobs. Even those who complete secondary education may rise no higher than skilled labor or low-level white-collar work. A college or university education is necessary for most professional and bureaucratic positions and appears to be highly desirable for a position of political power. For example, a very high percentage of the members of Russia's parliament are university graduates.

Access to higher education is roughly proportionate to the social and financial situation of an individual's family. Children whose parents have money and status usually have an advantage in gaining admission to an institution of higher education. The reasons lie not only with the parents' possible influence and connections but increasingly with the better quality of primary and secondary education that has become available to such children, enhancing their ability to pass difficult university entrance examinations. Moreover, such families can afford to hire tutors for their children in preparation for the examinations and can more readily afford to pay university tuition in case the children do not receive stipends.

By the mid-1990s, the new phenomenon of individual commercial success began influencing the attitude of Russian society toward education and its goals. At the same time, the last generation of Soviet-educated Russians was finding itself ill prepared to deal with a new set of conditions for social and economic survival. In the new order, acquisition of money is much more important for both self-respect and practical survival, and career prestige by itself is of relatively less worth than it was in the Soviet system, where every career label ensured a known level of comfort. Significantly, in post-Soviet years, the phrase delat' den'gi (to make money) has passed into common usage in colloquial Russian. Together with the employment insecurity felt in the 1990s by well-educated Russians, the new values have dampened the educational ambitions of many, particularly with regard to higher education. Although most older Russians resent those who achieve commercial success in the new "system," the generation now in school shows increasing interest in advancement in the private sector of the economy. At the same time, polls show that education ranks ninth among the most pressing concerns of Russians.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress