Of the various aspects of the Soviet era, Soviet education is undoubtedly the most positive one. It is no wonder that, comparing today’s ruins of education with the education of the Soviet period, of course, they talk about the latter with great enthusiasm, mythologizing it. To find out if there is any truth to this, we need to look at the history of Azerbaijan and the Soviet Union.
A century ago, the Russian Empire turned into the Soviet Union, i.e., a totalitarian state, in 1922, first as a result of World War I in 1914, the bourgeois revolution that followed, the Bolshevik coup, and finally the civil war. Almost 30 years have passed since the collapse of the Soviet empire, and the turbulence of 1989, December 1991 and the faraway Soviet era have become a myth for today’s youth.
However, if we look closely, the longed-for Soviet era did not have a single format, a single aesthetic framework, because in the 70-year history of its existence, this ideological-totalitarian superpower-empire lived through very different models:
- From 1922 to 1934: a revolutionary commune-type society;
- From 1934 to 1956: a totalitarian-modernist empire built with exceptional brutality;
- From 1956 to 1966: a period of relative softening of totalitarianism, attempts at reforms and searching;
- From 1966 to 1985: a superpower plagued by bureaucracy, completely weakened both ideologically and economically, exhausted by permanent disarmament;
- From 1985 to the end: a fatally wounded fire-breathing dragon convulsing in agony.
As can be seen, these are quite different social models, which, of course, manifested itself in education. The education of the 1920s and 1930s, its programs and objectives were radically different from those of the 1980s.
First of all, I must say that despite the many horrible events that took place after the February bourgeois revolution and the October coup, it was these events that paved the way for the education of the masses. The Soviet-era mass education and illiteracy eradication programs implemented between 1922 and 1934 were progressive in nature and, however you look at it, a great achievement in the process of building a modernist society.
The privilege of reading and writing, previously available only to the nobility, was now given to the masses, and this was the most important first step to change society. Interestingly, this progressive step would also play a fundamental role in the propaganda of the future totalitarian empire. Eventually, thanks to mass education, state-owned newspapers and radio, the only media outlets in the USSR, where any alternative views were silenced, gained the necessary access to the masses to disseminate this propaganda. At the same time, the main purpose of mass education was to create a foundation for ideological propaganda.
Besides, during these years, interesting things were happening in the field of academic science, which would ultimately affect education. Science was gradually gaining a more ideological significance—not only the humanities, but the exact sciences as well. By the way, there was a parallel concept of German science (Deutsches Wissenschaft) in National Socialist Germany that was slowly taking shape in Europe with the coming to power of Hitler in 1933.
If the ideologues of the Third Reich (Rosenberg, Goebbels, etc.) demanded that scientists and scholars create a “science of the master race free from Jewish elements” born of racist ideology, Soviet scientific research was to be consistent with the “Marxist-Leninist” postulates of scientific Communism in all fields. Thus, according to the ideologues of both totalitarian states, such ideological sciences, liberated one from class, the other from racial elements, would lead to a great scientific and technological leap, and help to create the social or racial paradise-utopia they desired. In short, it was still a matter of building a “new man” and an ideal society.
The Soviet agronomist Trofim Lysenko’s research in biology (which caused a great uproar in the 1930s, leading to the repression of many Soviet scientists who dared to criticize “Michurinism”), Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning in physiology, Boshyan’s theory in microbiology, and the general rejection of genetics (this science aroused ideological suspicion in the Soviet Union as a kind of racial theory, a branch of eugenics, for which a Soviet analogue of genetics had to be created) as a science in the USSR after the 1940s are clear examples of this.
The situation was even worse in the humanities. In accordance with the revolutionary program in the revolutionary commune period, traditional art had to be defeated and a new proletarian art had to be created, which required practically a total denial. The most obvious example is Pushkin, whom the Russians call “our everything” in the cultural sense, being almost banned in that period as a landowner poet until 1937.
During this revolutionary period (until the early 1930s), many modernist projects took place in the USSR, and many contemporary art events in Europe were projected onto the Soviets, and in this regard, European intellectuals were fascinated by the Soviets. The counter-avant-garde process began with the main revolutionaries—Leon Trotsky, the catalyst of the revolution, being exiled in 1927 (and later leaving the country), and Anatoly Lunacharsky, the chief ideologue of the Soviet Union until then, an exceptional intellectual, dying in 1933 (his place was eventually taken by the inveterate conservative, simple-minded Andrei Zhdanov), and essentially with the establishment of the conservative-patriarchal Stalinist government.
The first serious step began with the publication of “Muddle Instead of Music”, the 1936 editorial in Pravda bashing Dmitry Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District (Katerina Izmailova) written under the influence of Alban Berg, a representative of the Second Viennese School, and ended with the countrywide commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Pushkin’s death in 1937. The process culminated in the official restoration of the Russian Orthodox Church in the USSR with full rights in 1943.
Thus, after 1936, the Soviets actually began to build a conservative Russian empire, and this was manifested in education. Gradually, the teaching of history also changed, and the history of the Russian Empire, which was previously accompanied by abasement and ridicule, showed a radically opposite attitude, especially towards the Russian tsars. It was during this period that the famous Soviet figures Eisenstein and Prokofiev created their Alexander Nevskys: a film (1938) and an oratorio (1939), respectively. Later, Eisenstein began filming Ivan the Terrible (1941-45).
By the way, in the first years of the Great Patriotic War, Moscow remained on the ideological level, but later, from 1942, the attitude to this issue changed. The leadership, having witnessed the zeal of the “brotherly German proletariat” for National Socialism and for Hitler personally, and feeling the practical ineffectiveness of the commissars’ international propaganda, turned the propaganda in a nationalist-patriarchal direction. All of this was widely covered in combat leaflets, agitation booklets, newspaper articles, marches and posters of that time, as well as in the speeches of the leaders of the state. It even came to the national anthem of the USSR changing in 1944, the revised lyrics emphasizing the dominance of the Russian people at Stalin’s special insistence.
Along with the nationalist-patriarchal turn in ideology, all the progressive and avant-garde trends that had been previously possible in science, art and education were rejected and banned. The modern concepts of the proponents of avant-garde development in all fields (for example, Marshal Tukhachevsky, who insisted on the modernization of tanks and rocket weapons in military science, Meyerhold, irreplaceable in theatrical art, Alexander Mosolov, a composer with a new vision of sound and music, author of the futurist Iron Foundry, part of the never staged and eventually lost Steel ballet suite, and many others) were subjected to repressions. Afterwards, socialist realism, but in fact Neoclassicism and Empire styles, became mandatorily dominant in Soviet art. The period of avant-garde (proletarian) constructivism in Soviet architecture in the 1920s was replaced with the monumental Empire of the 1930s, when major construction began in the country. Thus, the main idea of the new face of the Soviet cities was the monumental style.
Interestingly, around that time, ideologues of the Third Reich accused the work of avant-garde artists of being a product of sick Jewish-Bolshevik thinking poisoning the master race, and Goebbels himself organized an anti-exhibition of avant-garde artists, Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), in 1938. Earlier, at the 1937 Paris International Exposition, the pavilions of the two totalitarian empires were placed across each other—the rectangular Teutonic ascetic building capped with a frightful eagle with a large beak stood opposite Vera Mukhina’s sculpture of a man and a woman (Worker and Kolkhoz Woman) holding monumental sickle and hammer on top of the base in the same style. The conservative trend originating in ancient culture was dominant in both totalitarian empires.
The nationalist-patriarchal trend of the late 1930s in the Soviet Union manifested itself in another area—in the writing system. From 1938, a “single alphabet space” was created in the country on a Cyrillic basis—with a few exceptions, the writing systems of all other peoples of the USSR have been converted to the Cyrillic script. Thus, the “single alphabet space” of the Empire was secured, and Stalin’s USSR, having already renounced the “world revolution”, became a completely closed orthodox empire.
Thus, as a result of such a dramatic swing in public policy, ideological education underwent major changes and took a completely conservative, or more precisely, closed, form. From that time on, Soviet education was based solely on ideologically approved, conservative information, or clichés. From the 1930s to the late 1980s, the USSR’s safely locked borders led to the isolation and parochialization of the entire Soviet population, including scientists, artists and intellectuals. The negative consequences of this would inevitably manifest themselves, and they did. In fact, this isolation affected not only science, art and education, but all areas of life. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1957 essay “22 million square kilometers and not a single Coca-Cola ad” contains some in-depth observations on this.
The tightly drawn iron curtain, mass education, ideologized science and art, as well as the major repressions of the 1930s and 1940s and multiple emigration waves eventually led to the USSR being isolated from the global processes and marginalized in many areas. One of the most painful consequences was an enormous army of irrelevant scientists, artists and teachers created by mass education and promotion of ideologized science and art, and this continued until the very end of the USSR. This is the reason behind total illiteracy of today’s fifty-something generation. The Academy of Sciences and useless professors at various institutes (average age 60-65) are clear evidence of this.
The tightly drawn iron curtain, mass education, ideologized science and art, as well as the major repressions of the 1930s and 1940s and multiple emigration waves eventually led to the USSR being isolated from the global processes and marginalized in many areas.
If the Soviet secondary school still maintained its level for many years, the same could not be said of higher educational institutions—procuring employment for outdated mass-produced specialists in the socialist homeland was a source of constant headache and deficiency for the Soviets. Almost no music of the already expiring 20th century was taught at the conservatory in the late 1980s, when I was a student. The criteria of beauty were taken from the works of the 19th century classics and Soviet composers. The classics of the 20th century modern music—representatives of the Second Viennese School (A. Schönberg, A. Webern and A. Berg) and the post-WWII avant-garde (K. Stockhausen, P. Boulez, Y. Xenakis, etc.)—were not taught at all, because there were no specialists.
This problem was not unique to our country. The situation was similar in the leading conservatories of Moscow, Leningrad, Kyiv and Tbilisi. Ideological education had long banned “decaying bourgeois art,” which resulted in those who wanted to seriously study history of music resorting to self-study under the pressure of faculty. Of course, those who did not know the history and technology of “bourgeois art” cited aesthetic considerations. But doesn’t one have to know and study a style or a trend first in order to reject it for aesthetic reasons?
It was the same in other humanities disciplines. If we look at philosophy and sociology without mentioning the history (including the history of art), it becomes clear that not only the important figures of the second half of the 20th century, such as J. Levi-Strauss, R. Barthes, J. Baudrillard, J. Derrida, but also the classics of the 19th and 20th centuries—F. Nietzsche, S. Freud, M. Heidegger, A. Wittgenstein, T. Adorno and others—were not taught either. The history of art according to the Soviet Union ended nearly in the 19th century, and even the avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s, which came riding the revolution wave, were omitted from the curricula and syllabi.
People who complain about the useless scientists and artists, the problematic education system, incompetent teachers and professors of our country today must understand that all this is a logical outcome of the consistent policy pursued during the Soviet era. It will take a long time to overcome these aftereffects, and the new generation growing up in Azerbaijan gives us some hope that it is possible.