Kremlin and the Schoolhouse

            In 1917, the new Soviet organization, Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros), implemented sweeping reforms of the existing education system.  In the book, The Kremlin and the Schoolhouse: Reforming Education in Soviet Russia, 1917-1918, author Larry E. Holmes, chronicles the progression of the school system during the first fourteen years of Soviet power.  Holmes has written several other books, including Stalin’s School: Model School No. 25, 1931-1937, and Kirov’s School No. 9: Power, Privilege, and Excellence in the Provinces 1933-1945.  Within the field of Soviet era Russian history, Holmes is considered an expert.  Holmes earned his PhD from the University of Kansas, and is currently a professor of history at the University of South Alabama.  In order to prove his argument, Holmes used his expertise in Soviet History to compile sources from, just to name a few,  books, periodicals, political documents, statistical data, and journals.

            Holmes argues that the resistance of the parents and teachers to the new educational system led to the Soviets’ educational goals for socialist reforms to be abandoned.  Holmes’ argument is clear and concise due to the book being written in chronological order. Although the book was meant to be read as a progressive account, Holmes divided up the book into four distinct sections: “The Idea and the Reality, 1917-1921,” “Change and Permanence in the 1920s, “Compromise, 1925-1928,” and “Cultural Revolution, 1928-1931”.

            The book begins with an overview of the Tsarist educational system.  By presenting a brief history, Holmes highlights how dramatically different the Soviets’ reforms were.  During the reign of the Tsar, education focused on memorization and repetition.  The main motivation behind school was for the students to learn how to be good subjects of the Tsar.  Holmes argues that the leading members of Narkompros wanted to move away from the 3R’s, (reading, writing, and arithmetic), and focus on life and the environment.   From the start, Holmes argues, the policies implemented by Narkompros led parents and teachers to become uncooperative.  Throughout its tenure, Narkompros would continue to fight a losing battle against uncooperative members of the school system.  The parents continued to insist the schools focus on reading and simple mathematics, and the teachers would continue to teach in the traditional style.

            By 1920, the seed of dissension had already been sowed, and the implementation of the NEP[1] only made the situation worse.  Holmes argues that unfulfilled promises and a lack of understanding promoted an uncooperative environment.  From the beginning, Narkompros made unrealistic promises that many educators argued could not be met.   With the focus of education on the environment, the schools were to be supplied with land and equipment.  This was to assist in providing the students with hands on experience.  When the state was unable to fulfill their promise to supply the schools with the necessary equipment, the schools were forced to make do with what they had at hand. 

            In addition to the shortage of supplies, Holmes presents evidence that the teachers lacked the understanding to implement the Narkompros education plan.   Sources are provided throughout the book that proves the teachers’ training in this new form of education was almost non-existent.  According to Ben Eklof, professor of history at the University of Indiana and expert in Soviet history, “…in the prerevolutionary period, when little more was expected than instruction in the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic, a high degree of training could be a hindrance.” (53)  The distinct lack of training in progressive thought, led many of the established teachers to disobey the orders of the state, and continue teaching in the old style.

            The problems in which Narkompros faced are the primary focus of the first two sections of the book, “The Idea and the Reality, 1917-1921,” and “Change and Permanence in the 1920s.” In the final two sections, “Compromise, 1925-1928,” and “Cultural Revolution, 1928-1931,” Holmes describes the path in which the new education system took towards failure.  The complaints from the lower part of the education system began to have an effect on Narkompros’ implementation of their educational plan.  Beginning in 1921, it became clear that changes had to be made because students were failing to succeed in their studies. According to Holmes, “from 1923 – 1926 less than 40 percent of pupils enrolling in the first grade remained in school.” (94)   Clearly the changes made in the early 1920’s were inefficient, and from that point on there would be more radical changes made.  From the mid 1920’s until 1931, ideals were changed, and the 3R’s were reinstated as fundamental to the foundation of the education system. 

            Through elaborate details on both the tsarist education system, and the reforms made by the Soviets, Holmes’ argument was amply supported.  The reader gets a clear picture of the problems faced by Narkompros, caused by the resistance to change from the teachers and parents.  Upon critiquing this book, Peter Kenez, a professor of history at the University of California, believes that although the book provides ample information for his argument, “perhaps Holmes likes the archives a bit too much.”[2]  He argues that although the information in the book is pertinent to prove the argument, the reader was bombarded with too much information.

Holmes’ decision to write the book in a chronological order succeeds in explaining the downward path of the Soviet’s idealistic educational reforms.  Nicholas V. Riasanovsky, author of numerous books on Russian History, states “The four chronological parts of the volume, “The Idea and the Reality, 1917-1921,” “Change and Permanence in the 1920s,” Compromise, 1925-1928,” and “Cultural Revolution, 1928-1931,” skillfully combine a linear presentation with a remarkable number of conflicts, crises, and the resulting ups and downs in the evolution of Soviet schooling at that time.”[3]  

            After completing the reading of Holmes’ book, I would definitely recommend it to any historian or student that is interested in the Soviet Union in general or their education systems.  The argument made in this book illustrates not only the problem in education, but also problems that were faced in many aspects of early Soviet policies.  Holmes’ clear thesis and ample evidence makes the book easy to follow.  It would be hard for anyone who has any knowledge of the Soviet government not to understand the information presented by Holmes.


[1]                      NEP (New Economic Policy) introduced and called state capitalism by Vladimir Lenin, was created to replace war communism, and helped to stabilize the failing Soviet economy.  Although the state remained in control of the banks, foreign trade, and large industry, they allowed small business ownership and revoked grain requisition.   NEP was the Soviets economic plan until Joseph Stalin’s first five year plan. 

[2]                      Peter Kenez, “The Kremlin and the Schoolhouse: Reforming Education in Soviet Russia, 1917-1931, Larry E. Holmes”, The American Historical Review, February 1993, vol. 98. Last retrieved on 2 April, 2013 from &sid=7d393dc1-41f8-4c21-8dc8-

[3]                      Nicholas V. Riasanovsky. “Kremlin & the Schoolhouse: Reforming Education in Soviet Russia 1917 – 1931, The Book”, Historian, Summer92, Vol. 54 , issue 4.  Retrieved on 2 April, 2013. x1aWQmc2l0ZT1laG9zdC1saXZl#db=ulh&AN=9601243329


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