Book on a School in Kirov, Russia: Governance, Power, and Privilege in the Provinces of Stalin’s Soviet Union, 1933-1945

Larry E. Holmes

Located in Kirov, 850 km. northeast of Russia, School No. 9 was that city’s model and most famous school during the period under study. An immense amount of information was produced by and for it, much of it preserved in Kirov’s two main archives. Using this rich documentary record, Professor Holmes analyzes the creation and mechanisms of educational elitism and privilege in Kirov and, by extension, in Soviet Russia. He also examines critically the complex web of relationships that developed between administrators at the school, on the one hand, and party officials, teachers, parents, and pupils, on the other. In a highly centralized system, each of these actors enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy and played a surprisingly vital role.
Unlike Professor Holmes’ earlier study, Stalin’s School, this more recent work focuses intently on governance within the school and over it by the local and regional bureaucracy. In so doing, Kirov’s School No. 9 demonstrates over and again that reports by the school’s director, state and party inspectors, and special investigative commissions reflected more the agenda of their authors than the reality of life in the school.


Table of Contents

1.  The Privileged Classroom in a Classless Society
        The Model School Network
From Rags to Riches in Kirov
Plucking the Best
Discarding the Poorest
Manipulating Excellence
Fame and Fortune
Conclusion: A Necessary Showcase

2. The Elegant Surrealism of Perfection
Order and Precision
Governance by Script
The Blame Game
Conclusion: Fair is Fair

3. Labored Tolerance: The Communist Party at School No. 9
On the Offensive
Missing in Action
Conclusion: An Academic Mission

4. Busted for the Best, 1937-1939
Model Schools Imperiled
School No. 9: No Exception
Still the Best in Kirov
Red Banner School
Conclusion: Still Special

5. Gloom and Doom: A Cult of Criticism, 1939-1941
A Convenient Target
The Master Playwright
Conclusion: The Able Victim

6. Past as Present: The Teaching of History, 1933-1941
Reclaiming a Past that Never Was
Personnel in Multiple Layers
Making the Best of It
Trouble on the Job
Sozontova: Designated for Promotion
Sozontova: Designated Victim
Conclusion: Scapegoating

7. Displaced: The War Years

From the Introduction
Why School No. 9? Why so much attention to one school and an elitist one at that? I asked the same questions of another uncommon institution in my book, Stalin’s School: Moscow’s Model School No. 25, 1931-1937.  Located in the nation’s capital, Moscow, School No. 25 officially epitomized everything that the Soviet school should be. The Soviet dictator, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, chose it in 1933 for his youngest son, Vasilii, and daughter, Svetlana, because of its reputation for order and discipline.  There they studied alongside the children of such other major Soviet figures as Viacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, chair of the USSR Council of Peoples Commissars, Andrei Sergeevich Bubnov, Commissar of Education, Andrei Nikolaevich Tupolev, the aviation engineer, and Otto Iulevich Shmidt, official in the Commissariat of Enlightenment (Narkompros) in the 1920s and fabled Arctic explorer of the 1930s. 

My response here is similar to what I wrote justifying a book on School No. 25. Precisely because of School No. 9’s importance and fame, it produced an unusual amount of information by and about it, much of it preserved in Kirov’s two main archives.  This information permits an extended discussion of the politics of educational elitism and privilege in Kirov and, by extension, in Soviet Russia. It also allows for an examination of the day-to-day operation of this school and again, by extension, schools like it located in the Russian Republic’s periphery.

School No. 9’s history tells us a great deal about the responsibilities and powers of school administrators and about their relationships with each other, teachers, parents, and pupils. It also allows for an exploration of the interaction of a school’s personnel with party authorities and the complex mixture of obeisance and resistance with which a school’s administration and faculty responded to directives and materials issued by Moscow’s Commissariat of Enlightenment.

This study of School No. 9 is not a comprehensive examination of Soviet schooling generally or of School No. 9 specifically. Rather it purposefully focuses on governance at the school and on educational administration in Kirov. On the several occasions when I have spoken formally about the topic in Kirov, this focus has disappointed many in my audience. For them as for so many others, Soviet education, when viewed as a comprehensive whole, has been a topic of great official pride because it seemed to put the USSR in the best possible light by Soviet and western standards. They are quick to point out that during the 1930s the number of schools, pupils, and teachers in the USSR dramatically increased. In a short period of time schools helped create a highly literate nation and provided millions of youth with considerable cognitive skills. Thus when I have finished my presentation, my critics have responded: “But you didn’t say anything about schools.” They are right. My approach precludes a celebratory recounting of the remarkable statistical successes and classroom achievements of Soviet education in the 1930s. I do have much to say, however, about what I call on a broader scale the “grand theater” of school governance in Kirov in the 1930s. That theater had an important affiliate, School No. 9.

This book’s organization is both thematic and chronological. Its initial two chapters focus primarily on the period from 1933 to 1937. Chapter one details the origin of the Russian Republic’s model school network and the appearance in Kirov of Model School No. 9. Of particular importance are the methods its director used to form a privileged faculty and student body. The second chapter turns attention to how School No. 9, through its deeds and image-building, demonstrated to Kirov and Moscow alike that it indeed merited model status. The third chapter analyzes the surprisingly limited institutionalized presence of the Communist Party at the school throughout the period under study.

In 1937 the Soviet government abolished the model school network and School No. 9 accordingly lost its special status. And yet, as chapter four makes clear, the state still needed showcases of excellence. School No. 9, therefore, continued to enjoy and represent privilege and power. However, from 1939 to 1941, as discussed in chapter five, School No. 9 served party and state as a font of harsh criticism of other schools and of its own instruction, a new role it played with consummate skill.

Chapter six examines instruction in history, one of the most politically delicate of subjects. Not unexpectedly, the school’s administration experienced problems finding capable teachers. In the spirit of exaggerated criticism from 1939 to 1941, it made its chief history instructor the personification of everything that could go wrong in the classroom.

The final chapter demonstrates how School No. 9 suffered a displacement during the war years in the same manner by which its own administration had earlier displaced teachers and pupils when creating a superior faculty and student body. While now victimized by none other than Narkompros, evacuated from Moscow to Kirov and occupying the school’s facility, School No. 9 acted as always as an extension of the state and responded in exemplary fashion with little complaint.

From the Conclusion
School No. 9 was an integral part of a uniform and highly centralized system of elementary and secondary schools serving the interests of both party and state. For the most part, western and, since 1991, many Russian historians have been severely critical of that system. They have argued that the Stalinist regime desired and created schools in the image of its authoritarian politische Realkultur, one designed to produce dedicated workers and loyal disciples.  Two Russian scholars, Feliks Fradkin and M. G. Plokhova, believed that through the school the Stalinist state required a mechanical submission of society to its will. Any concern for the inner world of the child’s personality or for the creativity of teachers gave way to a preoccupation with technique and regimen as a means for achieving unquestioning obedience. Suppression, fear, and numbing routine characterized state and school.

Such severe critics of the Soviet educational system might well argue that Kirov’s School No. 9 reinforced their argument. To be sure, its history represented a system that manipulated, crudely at times, institutions, teachers, and pupils; made arbitrariness into standard operating procedure; displayed an obsession with order and discipline; required reporting by rote whatever the facts of the matter under review; and made elitism and privilege a cardinal (and cynical) feature of efforts to build a classless and egalitarian society.

The Stalinist educational system including its School No. 9 may, however, be viewed less pejoratively when placed in larger historical perspective. That system generally and School No. 9 specifically were hardly alone in creating a centralized network that made virtues of order, discipline, and authority. The Soviet Union followed examples well established in Russia prior to 1917 and in the west in embracing a cookbook curriculum with recipes specifying in great detail the subject-matter and methods of instruction and the presumed result of their use; the eggcrate classroom with desks bolted down in perfect rows; rigid rules of order; and a strict hierarchy of rank set by age-group classes and marks. Well before Stalin’s administration, western governments had long assumed the plasticity of human beings and the power of state institutions, public schools in particular, to shape them. Not Stalin’s government but Western Europe and the United States led the way with schools designed to provide useful cognitive skills; an appreciation for obedience, self restraint, punctuality, and perseverance; a respect for social hierarchy; and a sense of community and nation.  In such a school, the teacher became an enthusiastic "health care educator, librarian, social worker, family guide, and civic model.”  Any attempt to shirk such duties was immoral and unpatriotic, a betrayal of self, child, society, and nation.

At School No. 9 administrators and teachers enjoyed the authority and bounty that Kirov’s municipal and regional government bestowed upon them. Not even the party’s cell, when it briefly functioned, could successfully counter the school’s mission as its non-party leaders defined it. Its director, Sergei Nikolaevich Kornev, and his veteran staff felt free to proceed, within limits of course, as they saw fit in implementing the official curriculum. They understood well, and Kornev in particular relished, their assigned role in critically assessing Narkompros’s curricula, syllabi, and textbooks. When asked to find fault with other educational institutions and after 1939 even of their own school they ably did so as obedient and dedicated servants of the state.

School No. 9 had an assigned role to play and it performed it with alacrity. Throughout its history, whether as designated champion or victim, it underscored the unlimited possibilities for education and life in the land of socialism, the attainability of the new society and person. School No. 9 illuminated Kirov, if not the nation, as a beacon of hope that anything and everything was possible in this new society in the making. And by its continued existence in the face of profound hardships during the war years, School No. 9 continued to perform the same ceremonial yet essential role. From the fall of 1933 to 1945, Kirov’s School No. 9 represented both the image and the reality of power, privilege, and excellence in the provinces.

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