Blog Post

An Exploration of Teacher’s Work Lives in Stalin’s Soviet Union: Comparisons and Contrasts

This essay is only made possible by the existence of the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System Online (HPSSS Online) which is a database of 707 interview transcripts conducted with Soviet refugees during the early years of the Cold War. This is a resource for the study of the Soviet Union from 1916 through the late 1940s and contains data on Soviet political, economic, social, cultural, and military history. Of course, no resource is without fault including the Harvard Project, but the value of such an unprecedented study guarantees its use by scholars for centuries to come. However, I would advise any scholar who wishes to use this source to research its background in order to understand its limitations, how to consider these in one’s work, and how to use HPSSS Online effectively. Therefore I have included helpful resources to review before using the database below.

David Brandenberger, “A Guide to Working with the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System Online,” 2020.

This source details not only how the database works, but also its background and the limitations it has.

Sam Prendergast, “Revisiting the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System.” The Oral History Review 44.1 (2017): 19–38.

This article offers important questions about how we make use of the interviews in this project.

Sam Prendergast, “Listening for Women’s Narratives in the Harvard Project Archive.” History Workshop Journal 86 (2018): 205–223.

This article offers some considerations to keep in mind regarding the subset of interviews given by women.

The Essay:

In the Soviet Union, teachers were the government and Party’s direct line to the youth. The teachers were the voices who would educate and inform children’s beliefs of philosophy, life, their country. The generations they taught would go on to be adults who would change the world around them, so it was necessary to make sure that they would be educated in a fashion that would lead to them being accomplished Soviet citizens. This is why I wanted to know what a humanities teacher’s job was like in the Soviet Union and how external factors such as the state and the Party affected their work.

Responsibilities Outside the Classroom

One finding that surprised me was how much of a teacher’s work led them outside of the classroom. Historian Thomas Ewing highlights this in his book, The Teachers of Stalinism. Teachers were directly implicated in the Soviet government’s campaign to “transform ‘backward’ peasants into ‘socialist’ collective farmers” (Ewing, 2) In Ewing’s opinion village teachers especially were more valued for their public and political activism rather than their teaching abilities. (Ewing, 24) Teachers were to go out into their locality and become “the Party’s propagandist and agitator (agitprop) in the village” (Ewing, 19) This holds true when I reflect on my findings from the one out of three interviews found in the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System.

Case number 111, a male teacher age 30 and Russian describes having to go out into the agricultural regions. He stated that every week or two they had to go have a meeting at a Kolkhoz and teach the peasants the history of the Communist Party. They would go to the village and “tell them how good the Soviet Union is.” He mentions that they had to “go out and agitate” and tell everyone to vote. (111, 2) Every holiday they had to do this as well and propagandized on the October Revolution and Constitution Day. This man was also a part of the Komsomol organization. He had to carry out propaganda in the villages and at meetings or else be called in by the Komsomol who would inform the Party of what he had done. (111, 18) Thomas Ewing makes specific mention that teachers were always required to serve the political and ideological objectives of the regime and denied that educational work could be separate from politics. (Ewing, 8) Ewing also describes rural teachers as “Agents of Soviet Power” which made them valuable to the regime that sought to control them (Ewing, 21) The male teacher echoes this view and said that teachers got along well economically because they were important to the regime and had to propagandize to the village and to hold meetings and influence the peasants. (111, 6a) This shows that rural teachers were aware of the importance they had to the Soviet regime and the part they had to play in their political aims. After all, village activists were rewarded for their efforts according to Ewing. (Ewing, 17)

The other two interviews I read did not describe doing any social work outside of the school which is most likely due to the first, a man working in a fairly urban area with 1,500 students and 57 staff members in addition to being director of the school. The second was a woman who was working after collectivization. However, this interviewee said that they had a meeting with parents once a month where the teachers usually had to visit their home which suggests a mix between the professional and personal lives of teachers. (493, 63) The man said, “We had very little outside social work to do for the school” (476, 14) Even with these two teachers not being directly implicated in government political movements it is clear that at least some teachers were. Especially rural teachers. How did these two teachers encounter outside interference in other ways? Did the rural teacher experience the same type of interference?

Outside Interference in Lesson Plans/Curriculum

The female interview, number 493 stated that a general plan of work came from the oblast office. She would then write in her log what she accomplished daily and the log would be checked against the plan. According to her, every teacher wrote many things that they had not accomplished in their logs and that the inspector looking at the logs wasn’t usually difficult. She does mention one run in she had with the inspector. While teaching the biography of Stalin she taught from an older book and not from the Constitution which changed the facts that were to be taught. The change she made to the curriculum by teaching from the older book wasn’t allowed and the inspector considered it a serious political mistake. (493, 17) She doesn’t mention lesson plans any further.

However, a male interviewee from the rural school, number 111 goes into great detail about how he put together lesson plans. The general plan for lessons came from the Narkom in Moscow. They were sent to all of the Soviet Union from Moscow. This plan told teachers what they had to discuss each day. The interviewee would take each day’s instructions and write out a detailed plan of what he would say and how he would conduct the lecture and then present it to the director who would confirm it. (111, 3-4) He mentions that sometimes the director would come sit in his class to see what he was teaching the students. (111, 1b) He had a deep dissatisfaction at not being able to teach what he wanted (111, 1b) and that he was restricted on only teaching political aspects of geography such as government plans in the region. He said “They were not interested in what I myself wanted to teach. We had to teach only Soviet Propaganda, about the Soviet power, which gives people the right to work and the right to rest and freedom and everything.”

Things become marginally more confusing when looking at interviewee number 476. He said in his interview “I was able to give the students many things that were not in the program.” (476, 13) This suggests a bit of freedom in what teachers were able to do in their lesson plans and that he was able to put a “good deal of my own spirit into this work.” (476, 14) He states that the Party “did not mix directly into our work.” (476, 14) Although he admits that the program and textbooks were dictated by the Party, it only paid attention to “the execution of mass propaganda”. (476, 14) This is odd when understanding what he would remark after this statement. He told the interviewer that he would not want his child to become a teacher because he feels teaching is unrewarding, poorly paying and that it is hard for teachers who have to teach values they don’t believe in. (476, 20) Does this mean that he doesn’t believe there was much Party interference because he believes in the same values as he was supposed to teach? Although the interviewer describes him as “one of the most fervent anti-Bolsheviks I have ever met.” (476, 34) This explanation is rendered unlikely. Perhaps it is because this specific interviewee taught language and literature rather than history which is more malleable and would lead to fewer contradictions on established facts if the government or Party decided something was unacceptable. Perhaps he felt this way because he was the director of the school as well.

Party Interference and Informers

I suppose it is important to discuss how many teachers were in the Party, but it seems like in each school there was only a handful. Interviewee 476 actually states that he believed that at least 94% of the staff was anti-Soviet and that the students felt the same way. (476, 10) It is unclear where this statistic came from. However, the female interviewee, 493 discusses the abuses teachers suffered at the hands of students and informers. She states that these abuses largely stopped in the late 30s. (493, 29)

This interviewee admitted that she had a bad relationship because some of her colleagues worked for the GPU and others were informers. Regarding student informers, they could denounce their teacher which according to her would have been dangerous in the early days for a teacher. (493, 13) She says many teachers were informers and details an account of an informer who was known to lie and had done so at least three times before and was no longer believed. (493, 42) The interviewee mentions that this saved her from getting into trouble as this same teacher had accused her of anti-Soviet activities due to her husband being arrested and executed by the GPU in 1932. This informer being found out to be a liar is especially important because according to Historian Thomas Ewing, teachers could be fired or even arrested because of their “social origins”. (Ewing, 8) Her husband’s arrest and subsequent execution had caused her many problems throughout her career since no one wanted to hire her or give her a good recommendation so she could attain another job due to fear that being associated with her would lead to them getting in trouble. This tracks with the nature of the Soviet Union at the time and so does the fake informer. Informing on people would help advance your own status and career and being associated with someone like this interviewee would bring more danger to yourself of being informed on or arrested.

Interviewee 476 doesn’t mention any informers, but he does express a fear of being a director and his administrative work because he knew it would place him under the direct supervision of the NKVD. He stated that one should only have a job for one or two years. This belief is reflected in his work history as he moved from job to job often. I can understand why he would do this as the longer someone stays in the same place the higher the possibility that someone would come to dislike you and then denounce you for something or that you would offend or attract the attention of the NKVD itself. I am more interested in the fact that he doesn’t mention any informers as I would expect at least one as he mentions that one staff member was a member of the Party and two were candidates to join the Party.

Interviewee 111 does mention informers and people spying on people, but no one ever knew who they were. The director of his school was in the Party and would inform on them to the NKVD and then said the person he had informed on would be brought in for questioning. The issue with all of these interviews talking about informers is that there is no direct evidence of informers actually existing. Of course, while we know that the NKVD did use informers, the interviews rely on first person accounts which can be influenced by a heightened atmosphere of vulnerability in teachers as Ewing points out (Ewing, 9) and rumors. Who knows if there were dedicated informers or if the NKVD demanded that someone denounce another person? It is important to note, however, that two interview subjects mention informers and number 476 mentions a fear of being watched too closely by the NKVD, so certainly the fear and vulnerability all these people were feeling was all too real under Stalin’s regime.

The Necessity of Visible Growth

There was a necessity to show growth in the profession as well. Interviewee 493 details this extensively. In a story she tells about when she first started teaching, she explains that she didn’t understand the unspoken rules about grading students. According to the Lenin formula, every student should pass with 100%, but according to the interviewee, 90% was fine. She didn’t know the system when she first started teaching, so in the first months when they were reviewing old materials, she gave her students grades, but when they moved on to new assignments, she lowered the grades because they were doing worse. This was not supposed to be done. At the beginning of the school year a teacher had to grade her students low, so towards the end of the year improvements could be shown. She didn’t know this until eventually one of her colleagues told her. (493, 18) She went on to explain that teachers had multiple for increasing student’s grades on exams. She corrected with two pens so she could change student’s answers, but others gave out tests in advance or ignored cheating. (493, 21)

This practice tracks with Soviet society as a whole in my mind. It was always necessary to show growth or face consequences. Soviet society was obsessed with improvements. For example, this teacher also explains that teachers tried to get rid of ignorant or lazy students because they didn’t want to be held responsible for them. (493, 18) This interviewee tried to get a syphilitic child out of her class because she knew he wouldn’t pass. (493, 28-29) According to Thomas Ewing, teachers were directly called on to take responsibility for their student’s achievement, so a lack of achievement could have dire consequences.

Interviewee 111 mentions meetings where teachers would be criticized and have to give self-criticism as production meetings to discuss their work. According to him every 3 months there would be a conference of teachers in the center of the city in which all had to attend. There would be criticism of the teachers where directors could request a teacher be let go. The supervisor of the director would come to investigate and sometimes remove the teacher. (111, 8-9) In production meetings that occurred every month, they would discuss the teacher’s work and there would be criticism and self-criticism. I remember from lectures the Party had meetings with its members and would assess the performance of their members and criticize them. (111, 16) They would also expect self-criticism from its members and expect them to reflect on how they could improve.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately teachers in the Soviet Union were in an incredibly unique position. While treasured by the regime as “Agents of Soviet Power” they were also subject to repression and harsh punishment as well. Due to their importance teachers were watched extremely closely regardless of whether there were designated informers. Denouncements and arrests were a constant fear and the need to keep up appearances of achievement was necessary to keep yourself safe regardless of ethical concerns. Whether that was changed the grades or kicking out a student that couldn’t keep up in order, teachers did what they had to do to survive. These teachers did survive.


Ewing, E. T. (2002). The teachers of Stalinism : policy, practice, and power in Soviet schools of the 1930s . P. Lang.

  • Persistent Link
  • Description Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System. Schedule A, Vol. 24, Case 476 (interviewer S.H., type A4). Male, 36, Byelorussian, Teacher. Widener Library, Harvard University.
  • Repository Slavic Division. Widener Library. HCL
  • Institution Harvard University
  • Accessed 12 April 2021
  • Persistent Link
  • Description Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System. Schedule A, Vol. 25, Case 493 (interviewer R.S., type A4). Female, 55, Great Russian, Teacher. Widener Library, Harvard University.
  • Repository Slavic Division. Widener Library. HCL
  • Institution Harvard University
  • Accessed 12 April 2021
  • Persistent Link
  • Description Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System. Schedule A, Vol. 9, Case 111 (interviewer J.B., type A4). Male, 30, Great Russian, School teacher. Widener Library, Harvard University.
  • Repository Slavic Division. Widener Library. HCL
  • Institution Harvard University
  • Accessed 12 April 2021