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Book review

by Lyndall Morgan

The teachers of Stalinism: policy, practice, and power in Soviet schools of the 1930s
E. Thomas Ewing

Published by P. Lang, 2002
ISBN 9780820452333

Since the demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent throwing open of hitherto inaccessible archives to scholars, both Russian and Western, a more nuanced reading of aspects of sensitive areas of Soviet history and culture has become possible. This has been evinced by the excellent analyses by scholars such as Sheila Fitzpatrick (Everyday Stalinism, Stalin’s Peasants, Stalinism: New Directions), who have availed themselves of the greater range of available sources to delve even more deeply into the Stalin era and its historiographical particularities. This has been a welcome ‘rewriting’ of the historical record, so necessary for a more profound understanding of the formative crucible of much that became standard Soviet practice.

E. Thomas Ewing’s book on Soviet schools of the 1930s is a worthy addition to this recent scholarly literature. Ewing analyses the development of the teaching profession in its many ramifications as a ‘triangular relationship between educators, students and the state’ (p. xi). The book is divided into seven chapters, each of which is devoted to an aspect of the educative process. The main areas under investigation include teacher training, classroom practices, disciplinary strategies, a political demography of the profession and finally the issue of teachers and the purges. Ewing weaves his stories about teachers and their lives, both personal and professional into the larger canvas of this turbulent era and quotes widely from ‘teachers’ voices’. This invests the text with a liveliness which a simple recounting of the facts and figures might have failed to achieve. The author shows most effectively the increasingly multi-faceted nature of the work of school-teachers, the degree to which they, like the rest of the population became atomized during the thirties, and most interestingly, the degree to which they fell in with the demands of those in positions of authority. He also locates the changes within the modernizing imperative of Soviet ideology aimed at eliminating backwardness. The situation of teachers at this time was an unenviable one, especially that of the overwhelmingly majority who lived in rural areas. Lack of material support, exploitation by Party bodies, poor remuneration were but some of the problems which faced them.

The study backgrounds the material in the educational and political debates of the 1930s and describes the manner in which the new approach to educational methodology (return to the prescriptive and proscriptive norms of the pre-revolutionary era, as opposed to the experimental practices of the 1920s) was implemented. The most dramatic material is to be found in the chapter on the years of the purges. Here Ewing paints a poignant and chaotic picture of bravery and cowardice, generosity and pusillanimity among the responses of teachers to the series of arrests which convulsed the country in 1936–8. He points out that teachers were not among the leading targets of the security organs and that ‘a post-war survey of émigrés found that teaching was rated as the tenth most dangerous occupation out of a total of thirteen’ (p. 243). Concomitantly he describes the extremely deleterious effects of the constant monitoring of the public utterances of teachers, quoting the sad case of a teacher who was so afraid of saying something untoward that he slowed his speech to a single work each half-hour (p. 247). He also charts a greater conformity between the political leadership and the teachers than earlier observers: While taking seriously teacher’s own perceptions of their roles, this study nevertheless argues that the theoretical insights cited above provide further illumination of how disciplinary strategies implicated teachers in the construction and reproduction of the dominant Stalinist order of the 1930s. (p. 194)

This study is competently written and well structured. The bibliography is impressive and the index adequate. My only criticism of the book is in the occasional incorrect rendering of proper names. Ewing refers in his Preface to the mother-in-law of the writer Evgeniia Ginzburg as Avdotya Aksyonovna instead of Aksyonova. Later in the Introduction a teacher is referred to as Poliakova Semenovna as though this is her first name and family name, when in fact it is her family name followed by her patronymic. Throughout the rest of the chapter she is referred to as Semenovna instead of Poliakova. A similar instance of inversion is found on p. 95 when a teacher is referred to as Kuliev Mamed.

Apart from these instances of faulty transcription and the very occasional stilted translation, this book is to be recommended as a valuable contribution to the fleshing out of the Stalin era and should be of interest to students and academic staff alike.