The USSR’s Founding Mother

What Nadezhda Krupskaya can teach us about Labor and Education

Since researching the stages of national development in the Soviet Union, I came across a very interesting trend that places the female subject front-and-center in Soviet political history. Not only do women play a critical role in the Russian Revolution that brought forth the first socialist experiment in world history, but women are able to enhance their labor and educational agency post-Russian Civil War in ways that propel them into high places. For one, women are key players in the agricultural sector, and become the teachers for future generations of Soviet citizens, using their vocation as a political revitalization agenda. Policies such as eight-week paid family leave and universal access to education are instituted. Yet, they became ingrained among a generation of women who identify as political radicals committed to building a state of collective equality.

Notwithstanding, these developments did not happen in a vacuum. Women took constitutional priority in 1917 and were able to vote in the Constituent Assembly. Beyond that, the Soviet government launched a campaign in the 1920s called Zhenotdel, which aimed at improving the lives of women through education.[3] While Zhenotdel was established by Inessa Armand and Alexandra Kollontai, the framework of this movement comes from a long strain of theory written by Nadezhda Krupskaya, Vladimir Lenin’s wife. Her insights into education and labor and ‘how women can help,’ is a crucial contribution to history glossed over by too many.

Male driven focuses in Soviet history tend to oppress and distort extant historical records of female contribution and thought, as well as their interaction with state-formation and national development in Soviet studies. Likewise, Krupskaya is often portrayed as ‘the wife caught in the middle’ of the affair drama between Lenin and his mistress, Inessa Armand. Krupskaya has also suffered in Soviet historiography because of rather splashy attention placed on women like Alexandra Kollontai who — while serving as the Commissar of Social Welfare — wrote a lot about sex, which has naturally attracted more intrigue from scholars and readers.

Krupskaya was a radical revolutionary whose ideas on education and labor were monumental in state formation. While serving as one of the head editors of Iskra (translation, “Spark”), she was appointed secretary of the publishing organization and worked tirelessly with her husband to ensure the publication was thorough and prompt in terms of distribution and engaging clarity. This position fit her well, as Iskra dealt primarily with mobilizing and educating activists and workers on the socialist movement happening in Russia. The publication would be one of the most marked variables in consolidating and directing the revolution. Krupskaya was able to utilize her specialization in education to propel her activism and later contributions to Soviet policymaking. Her political work was a proven success, as she was appointed to the position of Deputy Minister of Education in 1929 and served until her death in 1939.

Generally speaking, my hope is that this conversation brings additional inquiry into the subject of Soviet women, more broadly, while also revitalizing Krupskaya as a founding mother and leading voice in determining the political culture of civic life.

What seems most prescient is Krupskaya’s view on social relations, power, women, and labor. In her philosophy, Krupskaya recognizes how a lack of class consciousness can lead to an apolitical labor force with an apathy toward civic engagement. In fact, Krupskaya places education at the center of all these important matters; her theories on creating a civically engaged culture revolves around a public and private merging — a polytechnic process that engages dialectical materialism and vocation. This is historically relevant since the Soviet Union had been in a unique stage of state-formation where the threat of Western capitalist subversion was pervasive, and liberal compromise seemed imminent from provisional government sympathizers.

This should prompt thinking on how Krupskaya’s underestimated history can help us in today’s political battles. In the post-Janus age, workers are mobilizing in massive numbers to ensure they maintain viability and rights within the professional structures they operate in. Teachers, in fact, are leading the charge by becoming more political inside and outside the workplace to counter forces of privatization. This includes demonstrating for fair pay and the right to strike, but also advocating better quality of education for their students. The recent movements in West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, etc., perfectly demonstrates this.

But the political and historical significance should be worth elaborating; teachers have historically been a leading voice for political change and continue to be in that effort — and this is a good thing for building connections within communities and with institutions.

Krupskaya’s writings can teach us a lot in terms of enhancing modern civic engagement along with encouraging curiosity for workplace politics. Public and private merging had mainly been a theory applied to women and youth. What makes this such a powerful notion is that it moves beyond the typical liberal “glass ceiling” rhetoric that tends to isolate women (and other marginalized groups) in a capitalist framework.

Mothers can still be mothers. She goes on to say:

We should try to link our personal lives with the cause for which we struggle. . . One has to know how to merge [emphasis added] one’s life with the life of society. I once heard a woman addressing her work-mates say: ‘Comrades working women, you should remember that once you join the Party you have to give up husband and children.’ Of course, this is not the approach to the question. It is not a matter of neglecting husband and children, but of training the children to become fighters for [socialism]. . . The fact of this merging, the fact that the common cause of all working people becomes a personal matter, makes personal life richer.[6]

This perspective reflects the notion of “praxis” as elaborated by Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed: ‘Through the tangible experience of struggle, the individual develops keen awareness of their condition and overcomes colonization within the mind.’ This “liberation” brings forth a reexamined (and enlightened) sense of self, but one that is tied to the betterment of society. Furthermore, Krupskaya addresses her audience by emphasizing the training of children. She compels the future to see youth as the most valued recipients of her future solutions in education, to inspire them, and to bring awareness to the “gap” that exists between their personal lives and “that of society.” [7]

Contemporary liberals argue that women who are single mothers must often consider individualist pursuits that fall within the “American Dream” myth, ‘Get rich! No matter the cost!’. Though, as Nicole Aschoff points out in The New Prophets of Capital , all too often, this neoliberal narrative tends to further marginalize working-class single mothers from breaking out of capitalism and achieving the kind of social mobility that benefits them, their families, and their community. She states, “Today’s new, elite storytellers present practical solutions to society’s problems that can be found in. . . profit driven structures of production and consumption.” In other words, women must accept the parameters placed around their agency by market-based forces and seek to modify their personal lives merely within those structures, without seeking to change capitalism itself. However, being conscious of the social class dilemma allows those dominated by the forces of capitalism to break out of the chains of material culture. Krupskaya emphasizes this constantly.

A Polytechnic Education

So how does education sit in the center of this? Lately, calls have been made to reform education to include programs like work-preparedness for higher education and the addition of vocational schools to accommodate more technically-inclined students. For Krupskaya, education is both ideological and technical. Children do not learn simply from curriculum, but also acquire knowledge by exploring the world around them through work. One could observe how this reflects Plato’s classical theory of eudoaimonia, where experience builds character and, in turn, brings forth the fulfillment of happiness. But Krupskaya’s theory is rather in the vein of Robert Owen’s utopian theory of nineteenth century communal education. Like Owen, Krupskaya believed that children will absorb and mimic their elders as they watched them work and would gradually begin to assist as they grew older. This kind of observational behavior is imperative for cognitive development.

Understanding how vocation intersects with standardized pedagogy (as we know it) upends the traditional educational process and prompts new mechanisms of learning. It also urges parents to be part of their children’s education and children to eventually grapple with the idea of social class. This is why she emphasized “polytechnics.” Krupskaya states,

The difference between polytechnical and vocational schools is that the former’s centre of gravity is in the comprehension of the processes of labour, in development of an ability to combine theory with practice, to understand the interdependency of certain phenomena, whereas in vocational school the centre of gravity is the acquisition by pupils of working skills.[6]

Work-preparedness, henceforth, is fixed with comprehensive education in both political awareness and technical practice.

In 1923, Krupskaya helped commission a campaign called Down With Illiteracy!. Her push for national education reform catalyzed government programs and nation-wide propaganda to help move her initiative along. The long-term effects would appear groundbreaking, as the program resulted in over 60 million adults being taught to read and write between 1920 and 1940. This work is what led to her being appointed to the position of Deputy Minister of Education. [5]

Long term data illustrates that 65% of Soviet women in 1960 were serving as teachers, university graduate assistants, librarians, and cultural education workers. Wages for teachers gradually increased in 1932 across the board, and workers and peasants began enrolling in pedagogical colleges, thus, increasing their status in society. Also, the growth in educational and professional attainment meant college-ready women on collective farms could achieve an urban education, an affirmative action goal of the state. [1]

Krupskaya specifically believed women should carry out mobilization tactics among other women workers and peasants who were unable to conceive class consciousness through a means of education. In fact, through the aggressive implementation of Krupskaya’s reeducation theories and writings concerning labor productivity, women began commanding respect within the agricultural space and other sectors of the economy. [2]

Most would argue that capitalism historically produced a greater share of equality, across categories of race and gender. However, in the 1940s, the contrary was true. For instance, 15% of Soviet women in 1941 were engineers, as opposed to 1.2% of women in the United States in 1950. Another data point illustrates how 15% of Soviet women were lawyers in 1941 as opposed to 3.5% in the United States during 1950. Soviet women and American women in both 1941 and 1950 share a significant presence in the teaching profession with Soviet women obtaining almost 50% of teaching positions. [1]

Not only were these reforms meant for the educational and professional advancement of individual women, but also to help bolster the goals of the greater community. These programs helped in fulfilling state-wide goals that led to industrialization, which had been lacking under the previous Tsarist regime. Not to mention, it also paved the way for a stronger institutionalization of Soviet governance and identity. Women had been at the center of these efforts and were consequential actors in bringing about such change, even during the more conservative years of the late 30s and 40s.

Building Socialism Through Building Community

Aspirations for the future encompassed collective goals of building the socialist state in romantic ways that sometimes seemed quixotic, but always found the individual possessed with personal ambitions to help achieve goals larger than themselves. Through memoirs, we can discover that passions of romance and self-gratification delayed for determination to build an idealistic future. Merging was a socio-cultural process as well. In that, it meant engaging in rhetorical and practical methods to achieve knowledge of humanity. For example, often times immigrant students teamed up with Soviet students to fully grasp new academics and understand Soviet culture in greater depth.[4] Thus, merging becomes the catalyst that drives socialist political culture forward for the Soviet Union.

In an increasingly isolating society, the idea of merging assists in mitigating the alienation that manifests within unbridled capitalism. This should teach us an invaluable lesson about some of the goals of socialism, broadly. More so, learning about how socialism built a pedagogy that harnessed community and employed political introspection for the sake of enriching labor capacities is beneficial in todays late stage capitalism. There is a dual motivation in education, as taught by Krupskaya — one residing in the ‘awareness of class consciousness’ and the other concerning ‘activism or civic engagement’ en masse, a public and private merging. This merging as outlined by Krupskaya is a method that can result in the advancement of those most alienated in society today, as women’s contributions in the Soviet Union transcended every application of social process.

The system described here was not always perfect. Certainly, the Soviet Union experienced many tumultuous periods, especially seen in Stalin’s consolidation of power. These occurrences are well documented in a spate of research that is most common. The point of this piece, however, is to refrain from exhausting the scholarly consensus in liberal discourse that can sometimes oppress the progressive nuances in Soviet history. Every nation’s history contains periods of injustice. Of course, these moments cannot be overlooked. Yet, it is also noted that Russian history and culture have suffered greatly from the perennial Cold War polemic, Communism’s shadow, and Russophobic attitudes in the West. All of which have hampered a great amount of scholarly exploration that deserves greater attention, and perhaps, recognition. No one need not look beyond Edward Said’s insight of the patronization of Eastern identities by Western superiority to understand this simple defense.

At bare minimum, therefore, I want to demonstrate how education and labor can coexist at the center of society and drive some of the most transformative social change the world has ever seen. And that can come from any determined society seeking to strengthen the bonds of community.

References

[1] Kathryn M. Bartol and Robert A. Bartol, “Women in Managerial and Professional Positions: The United States and the Soviet Union,” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 28, no. 4 (1975).

[2] Ljubov N Denisova, Rural Women in the Soviet Union and Post-Soviet Russia (London: Routledge, 2013).

[3] Mary Buckley, Women and Ideology in the Soviet Union. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989.

[4] Masha Gessen, Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace (New York, N.Y.: Dial Press Trade Paperbacks, 2008).

[5] Mihail S. Skatkin and Georgij S. Tsov’janov, “Nadezhda Konstantinovna Krupskaya,” Prospects 24, no. 1–2 (1994).

[6] Nadezhda Krupskaya, How Women Can Help and other selected writings (The Anarcho-communist Institute, 1925).

[7] Nadezhda Krupskaya, “On Communist Ethics” Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/krupskaya/works/ethics.html

**Also published in Cosmonaut

M. A. Iasilli is receiving his doctorate in history at St. John’s University in Queens, NY, where he also teaches World History. His research investigates state-formation in the Soviet Union and the intricacies of revolutionary socialism.

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M. A. Iasilli

M. A. Iasilli

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Vi veri universum vivus vici: politics, history, and the occasional pop-culture.