How Russia Made 100 Million People Literate

What changes were made to improve the astonishingly low literacy rates in the USSR?

By Ethan Friend
Dec 13, 2019

It was vitally important that the Communists improved the literacy rates of the Soviet Union, and to do so they had to focus not only on the children but also the adults.

It was key that people had basic numerical and literacy skills as it is the foundation upon which people are able to interact with the world, educate themselves, and thus contribute to society as well as their wellbeing.

The Literacy programs offered parents the tools they required to help their children develop early language capabilities and literacy.

Early Soviet Era

When the Bolsheviks came to power, the majority of adults lacked secondary education, so they set out to address this problem.

Short courses were offered at first to teach adults basic numeracy and literacy, including those in work often. In 1919, the Bolsheviks launched a campaign to bring about ‘the liquidation of illiteracy’.

This programme aimed to make all Soviet citizens up to the age of 50 literate. This was deemed necessary by the government to ensure modern technical skills could be taught and learnt. It also meant opening up the population to more communist propaganda, as well as to help loosen the hold of religion and superstition among the rural population.

The so-called ‘Liquidation points’ were arranged all over in town and rural areas wherein which people could take basic literacy courses. Five million people completed these in the first half of the 1920s.

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Rabfakis (where Bolsheviks who had dropped out of education previously were educated on basic literacy and numeracy) was set up for workers who had dropped out of school to teach them basic numerical and literacy skills.

Also, the red army played a key part in this campaign, all soldiers recruited into the army had to attend literacy classes. Women were focussed on heavily in these programmes. 14 million of the 17 million people who were illiterate in Russia in 1917 were women. Zhenotdel, the women’s branch of the central committee, provided these courses for women.

Late Soviet Era

By 1939, literacy rates were at 94 percent of the urban population and 86 percent of that in the countryside, this was a drastic improvement, and by 1959, these figures had improved to 99 and 98 percent.

Despite the possible exaggerations of statistics by officials, there is no doubt that the government had made a remarkable success in improving literacy rates in the Soviet Union.

Under Khrushchev, this was furthered as he recognised its importance as being a former Rabfaki student himself. During his rule, he, therefore, allowed the expansion of opportunities to enable adults to return to education. In 1964, around two million people were attending these.

Adults could continue their education through an extensive programme by the 1970s. Diplomas and degrees were offered by colleges and gave a useful strategy for updating workers’ skills along with providing a route for those who dropped out of secondary school early into higher education.

Courses for adults were mainly studied part-time in the evenings and correspondent courses were also popular which was a sign that many people saw education as a way of securing a more fulfilling job.

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Overall, the socialist government saw an astounding improvement in the literacy rate of the Soviet Union.

Not only was the urban population at 99 percent literacy, but the rural population was at 98 percent. This improvement of all areas of the country meant there was less inequality and thus gave the poor a ‘fighting chance’.

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