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When Education was Dogma

Teachers enjoyed stature, but facts and creativity were absent in the communist classroom. Pусская версия

by Irena Jurjevic, Nino Chimakadze, Grigore Brinza, and Ksenia Korzun 24 August 2011

Throughout this month, Transitions will present a series of articles marking the anniversary of the fall of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. 


As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Croatia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1991. This collection of interviews with teachers is the third in the series that resulted.




A professor of agronomy and agricultural economics at the universities of Zagreb and Zadar


The communist society was a society without freedom. Whether you wanted to or not, you needed to edit your own views. Not just the personal ones, but the scientific ones too. … At first glance, the society ruled itself, but in reality all the moves were made by the ruling party. Some of those restrictions came from constant changes in the system, so professors needed to use caution all the time and to watch daily happenings, especially who was the latest key person in decision-making so they could act in accordance with the current political decisions.


Today we have great personal freedom, but we have responsibility too. So today, as a university lecturer, you can be publicly called upon to defend your views, and that’s something we didn’t have before. Also, today’s system provides us with a lot more possibilities academically. For example, we can work at several different universities or institutes, or we can connect with institutions abroad. Nowadays it’s much easier to network with the scientific world, which, in communism, was possible only with the institutions in countries with the same ideological background.


I censored myself a lot, just as a lot of my colleagues did. We always had to be careful if someone is watching and listening. For example, I was reported to the secret police twice: for teaching capitalistic views and for teaching strictly in the Croatian language, which was forbidden.


That kind of pressure sowed fear among me and my colleagues. I couldn’t express myself as a professor or a free person. I felt thwarted, without any hope that I could change my situation. The only way out was to leave the country, as a lot of my colleagues did. I know a lot went to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to lecture, but I chose not to. I wasn’t brave enough. When I got my first passport at the age of 27, and it was really hard to get one, I thought a lot about leaving, but I decided not to, because of my family and friends.


The literature used in science, as well as for lectures, was limited, sometimes even prescribed. For example, you could use only Marxist literature, and some writers were proscribed, especially right-wing Croatian writers or authors who were convicted and prosecuted in the communist system. The only positive thing I saw in communism was the emergence of self-managing socialism [worker-managed workplaces] in the 1980s, when there were possibilities of broader choice and political influence, especially for the so-called labor class, which was heavily manipulated in earlier times. At that time workers’ unions had some sort of independence and that was positive, but with little or no chance to change the system.


Today we have the opportunity for free expression and freedom of choice. Croatia’s declaration of independence was the result of our freedom of national choice. I’m glad that in transition Croatia increasingly recognizes work and competence as the basic values of civic society. Also, I see a lot more interest in studying by young people than before. As a result, a wealthier life follows, in a material sense, but also in the sense of personal growth.


Still, I see an inability in people to cope with the changes in some areas, especially in economics. In communism when you got your job you were economically secure for life. If you weren’t politically prosecuted, you never had to fight for your daily bread. These days, the possibilities for employment are much wider, but it’s also a lot easier to lose your job. Back then the state was the employer, and now you have thousands of employers who autonomously make their decisions about your career destiny. But, consequently the material possibilities are much better.


Actually, for the first time since the seventh century we have our own state. We control our own destiny and rely on contributions from each citizen. That is why I can say that now, as I enter the 70th year of my life, I’m a happy man.






A historian at the National Center of Manuscripts and lecturer at various universities and colleges.


I graduated from the faculty of history in 1972 and of course we didn’t study real history then. Everything was under the pressure of the regime and history was written the way the communist government considered correct. Some of our lecturers told us about some details, if we asked, but not publicly. We were taught that the communist regime was the best in the world and the Soviet Union was the best country to live in. We didn’t study the history of Georgia then. We studied Soviet history in detail, but that of course was not a real history.


From the end of the 1970s, I started to give some lectures at different institutes. I taught them the same way I used to study. Sometimes I wanted to tell the truth and tell the students that most of these books were false, but I couldn’t. I taught them the history that didn’t say anything about the occupation of Georgia by Russian Bolsheviks. There was no word about the rebels and protests against Soviet Union; about resistance from Georgian people; about the tragic results of repressions in the 1930s that took the lives of the best intellectuals in Georgia. We only read in those books how good socialism was, how the Soviet Union helped people to break free from slavery and defend their rights and how bad it was to live in capitalist countries. We had to teach all this nonsense to new generations.


But after the Soviet Union collapsed, everything changed immediately. During last years of the regime, there was the rise of a national movement in Georgia and more and more people started to protest against the communist government and Russia. So when the system collapsed, the truth was unveiled very quickly. We all started to change our thinking and attitudes. History books were rewritten quickly. Most of the archives were opened, and since then we can teach history based on real facts. Then we started speaking about all the difficulties and tragedies Georgia went through during those 70 years. The repressions, occupation, dictatorship, and censorship – these topics were no longer taboo.


The generation that was raised in the 1990s studied the real history and our real past. We also had access to emigrants’ archives, where we found many interesting and unknown stories there. Teachers at school and at universities started to adapt to the new reality and deliver the knowledge in totally different ways. Now we had all the information that was hidden before and we could speak about it loudly. In 1991, Georgia started an absolutely new life with an absolutely new history.





A teacher of Romanian at the prestigious Mircea Eliade High School, Bolocan holds a doctorate in pedagogy. In 1999 she won a national Teacher of the Year award.


Until 1991 – closed borders, barbed wire. Immediately after, it was like it never happened. After this we had much more access to [literary] works of true value that we had not had access to before.


At first, we all enjoyed the freedom to say what we thought and not be afraid. We didn’t have to hide when asking for or reading a certain book. We could travel, discover things, not be shut up behind borders anymore.


During the totalitarian regime we were forced to follow an imposed curriculum, and some poets, writers, or works were not permitted. The curriculum was supposed to celebrate the society of that time, to praise that regime. Therefore, we weren’t familiar enough with contemporary Romanian literature. You had to travel to Cernauti, Ukraine, or St. Petersburg to buy some books. There were no bookstores and we borrowed from one another.


At that time, a student was bringing me books from her father’s library. He had bought them in 1957 or 1958, when a bookstore called Friendship was still open in Chisinau. All the books were wrapped in white paper, so that if anyone came to visit, they couldn’t see them.


Even then Romanian [literature] was taken very seriously, but the possibilities are much greater now. Professional development is widely available and teachers have lots of trainings, including in Romania.


I didn’t suffer in the Soviet period. I didn’t feel the dictatorship or maybe we knew how to defend, to protect, ourselves. We knew what could be said and what couldn’t. I think everyone knew it was a fraud.


However, teaching methods were quite effective at that time too. Of course we have now access to teaching literature from around the world, but even back then we had the freedom to choose the best teaching methodology, because quality education was valued.


In that time the emphasis was on repetition, whereas now the stress is on collaboration, creativity, and communication. The pupil-teacher distance isn’t so great anymore. Pupils are now the center of education. They’ve been set free, they don’t hide their curiosity, they’ve started to question and learn more. It’s a visible change. And fortunately there’s no more need to learn certain slogans by heart.  


Nevertheless there’s still too much emphasis on information. Some teachers still focus on acquisition of information by default and that doesn’t work very well. You have to stimulate the pupil to search and communicate. I really appreciate team work and the pupils like it, because many beautiful things happen there. 


In the past 20 years, we realized all over again that by offering pupils the chance to think freely, we gain a lot.





A history and law teacher at a Kyiv high school, Chervinskaya has been an educator for 34 years.


There were good things and bad things about the teaching profession during the Soviet era. The methodical preparation of teachers in institutions was very sound. A young teacher could soon build a lesson correctly, using all kinds of teaching methods. Unfortunately, now the methodological training of teachers is poor. The teacher in the Soviet Union had status; it was a prestigious and highly paid profession. Whatever else you might say, now the teacher is a man with a low salary, and it’s an unpopular profession.


Of course, there were many more negative aspects of the work than positive. History was very politicized. The system of teaching history was built on ideology. Everything was recorded, programmed, and painted. All of history was built around the leader, Stalin. … It was simple and comfortable for the teachers who didn’t want to think, but not for me. Thoughtful people saw the gaps in these invented tales that we were taught. Teachers couldn’t work with documents and know what the story was fact. For example, topics such as dissidents, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, were just missing. We taught children an ideology, not history. Children were taught about Brezhnev and Lenin.


1991, the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, was very difficult. After all, everything crashed: the ideology and the history that we taught. People who had worked in the Soviet system for a long time couldn’t readjust and accept the changes. Many teachers simply didn’t have their own point of view. And they couldn’t fit into the new framework, to find that view. These people have left the profession. Others left because wages dropped, and others just couldn’t handle the massive amount of new information that became available.


We have learned that much was hushed up, and, on the other hand, that some facts were invented by the Communist Party. And that much of what we were taught was not true. In the 1990s schools were facing difficult times: there were no [suitable] elementary textbooks and literature.


Now teachers are confident in the knowledge they impart to their students. I work with primary sources, documents, and I can draw conclusions. I think that teaching a subject simply by the textbook is unprofessional, it’s nonsense. There are different classes, different children who have different perceptions of the information. The teacher should know how to inspire students. ... Now I’m developing as a teacher, exploring new possibilities. For example, I attended a program where I learned how to work with databases and documents. Now so many sources of information are open! It should give impetus to the reinterpretation of history teaching in the Ukraine.


Students haven’t become more industrious. Children are the same. But now, to learn something, to acquire knowledge, you have to work twice as hard. However, there is now the issue of morality. Children are less ethical, less well brought up. The basis of the relationships among children is often financial. It’s more important than what you know. If in the Soviet Union all kids were equal, now the social divide is huge. Now teachers are often treated like servants to the students. A gap between the material situation of students (who are rich) and teachers (who receive a modest salary) feeds this attitude.


At the same time this generation has become more practical. They want a good career, they think about the future and understand that knowledge - real, not on paper - is very important.

Irena Jurjevic is a journalist in Zadar. Nino Chimakadze is a reporter for Liberali magazine in Tbilisi. Grigore Brinza is a journalist in Chisinau. Ksenia Korzun is a journalist in Kyiv. Homepage image: Detail from The Russian Schoolroom by Norman Rockwell.
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