All about Soviet schools
This article takes you into the lives of Soviet schoolchildren. Soviet Union, or USSR, is a country that doesn't exist anymore, and Soviet schools are a relic of the past. Our children often ask us about stories from our childhood. This is the story of my childhood. What was the Soviet school classroom like, what did Soviet schoolchildren study, what kind of uniform did they wear, what holidays did children celebrate in the USSR - you will discover all of those stories and more.
Schools in Russia, Ukraine and over a dozen independent countries that Soviet Union has become are different now, and schools of the Soviet Union exist only in the stories we tell our children and ourselves.
Here you will find all the colorful and interesting details and experiences of a Soviet school child. It will entertain you and your children, and teach a bit of living history along the way.
Did you know?
There was a portrait of Lenin in every Soviet classroom
Soviet school classroom
A typical classroom in a Soviet school was about the size of an American classroom. It had a blackboard in the front, chalk, eraser rags, and a teacher's table facing the classroom.
There were three rows of wooden desks with benches or chairs. Each desk sat two students, and the teacher assigned the seats. Some teachers would sit trouble-maker kids in front; others would put them in the back. In the elementary grades, teachers usually sat shorter kids closer to the front, and taller kids towards the back.
In the back of the classroom behind the desks there were usually several cabinets or bookshelves that stored books or school supplies.
Students in grades one through three had all their classes in the same classroom, taught by the same teacher. Starting from grade four, students would change classrooms for different classes (subjects), and each subject class was taught by a different subject teacher.
On the wall above the blackboard, in every classroom, there was a big portrait of Lenin. Sometimes there was also a big round clock.
Vladimir Illytch Lenin was one of the founders of the USSR and the first Party Secretary (equivalent of the President). His portrait, much like the one found in Soviet classrooms, is shown on the left.
Books about Soviet life on Amazon
Soviet school uniform
Every child had to wear uniform to class in the former USSR. The uniform for girls was a brown dress and an apron. The apron was black for every day, and white for holidays and special days. The dress had shorter sleeves for the summer, and long sleeves in the winter. The dress had white, often lacy or trimmed with lace, collar and cuff covers. The white collar and cuff covers were removable (they were sewn on with a running stitch), and usually removed, laundered and sewn back on weekly.
Boy's uniform was a blue suit - pants and single breasted jacket - made of wool, and a white shirt to wear under the jacket. Sometimes the boy's uniform suits also came in brown.
Third grade Soviet students Â© AnnaWiseIn this picture, you can see a boy's and girl's holiday summer uniform. These children are starting third grade, they are ten years old. The red ties are Pioneer ties, they signify that the children belong the the Pioneers (a sort of a Communist scout organization).
Uniforms were sold in stores, but some families made their own. It was hard to procure the right color fabric to make your own uniform.
Typically a soviet student had one uniform set, or for girls, one summer and one winter uniform dress, and one black and one white apron. Uniforms were worn with undershirts, and could be washed weekly or even less often.
Soviet school supplies
In the Soviet Union, there wasn't much variety of consumer products. Every school child in every republic, in every large city, small town, or a tiny village, had access to basically the same handful of stationery and school supply products.
School bag carried by Soviet children was made of leather, looked like a small briefcase, and was called either "portfel" (if it didn't have shoulder straps), or "ranec" if it could be worn like a backpack and had shoulder straps. Senior grade students often carried messenger bags and other kinds of bags to school, but elementary and middle school students had their "portfel'" or "ranec". I carried the same school bag for many years, at least five or six grades, until I upgraded to a more fashionable bag. School bags were used by most students until they broke or fell apart, and were not replaced every year.
Soviet pencil box from bosonogoe.ru
Inside the school bag, there was a pencil box called "penal", with pens, pencils and erasers inside.
There were two types of notebooks. There were thin school notebooks with paper covers and few pages for elementary and middle school students, and there were thick bound notebooks with sturdier covers for older students. Notebooks were lined for language and writing, or quad ruled for math.
For students learning to write, there were notebooks lined in a special way, with slanted guides for script, and height guides for lines of letters.
Propisi from gakish.com
Clear plastic covers for notebooks and textbooks were also indispensable products for every student.
Soviet school year
Soviet school year started on September 1. September First was a festive day; children wore their holiday uniforms, and brought flowers to school to give to their teachers. The day started with the ceremony of the "First Bell". Many proud parents attended this event. A tenth-grader carried a small first-grader, who rang a decorative brass bell. There were speeches and congratulations, and an organized line-up of all the grades. Then students went to their classrooms.
School year was divided into four quarters, each quarter was a grading period, and students got their grades in an official transcript called "tabel'". Between each school quarter was a school break. There were four school breaks - a fall break, a winter break (which always included the New Year holiday), a spring break, and a three months long summer break.
School year ended at the end of May, and students in middle and high school had exams at the end of each year. Not all subjects were tested every year. Exams at the end of the last grade were called "graduation exams".
Did you know?
Soviet schools had a six-day week - Saturday was a school day!
Soviet school day
Soviet school day typically began early, between seven and eight AM. In the beginning there was a lineup of all the grades in the hallway, and all students did some morning exercise.
Some schools were too full, and worked in two or more shifts. Second shift started in the afternoon, when most students from the first shift when home. I was a student in such a school, and for some of my elementary grades, my class was assigned to the second shift.
Soviet school lesson
Each class in the Soviet school lasted 45 minutes. Each class period started with a school bell, and ended with a school bell. The bell in my school was electronic and heard in all the classrooms.
There was a small break between each class period, called "peremena" (literally, "change" in Russian). One break was longer and was for lunch. Children could go into the hallway during breaks, or visit the restroom.
Soviet school diary - Shkol'nyj Dnevnik
A school academic diary was in every student's schoolbag, from the first grader to the senior.
School diary is a pre-printed notebook for recording daily assignments, classes schedule, and grades.
A school week record was on two pages; the page on the left was for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and the page on the right was for Thursday, Friday and Saturday (Soviet schools worked six days a week). Pictured here is the right page of the weekly record - it includes classes and grades for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and space at the bottom for a teacher's and a parent's weekly signature.
Each day's space had a date on the left, a schedule of classes in the left column, and a space for recording a homework assignment for each class. On the right, there was a column for a grade entered by a teacher, and teacher's signature. At the end of the week, a teacher and a parent signed the school academic diary on the bottom of the right page.
Subjects taught in Soviet schools you would not learn anywhere else
In higher grades, there was a class called "NVP", which stood for "Nachal'naya Voennaya Podgotovka", or "Introductory Military Preparedness". This class was taught for both boys and girls, and my teacher was a retired officer who had all the habits of a drill seargeant.
In the Initial Military Preparation class, we learned about chemical, biological and atomic weapons, we learned to hide in a bunker and go through an obstacle course, we learned to use a gas mask, and we even learned to load, service and shoot a real rifle! Yes, we had a stock of rifles in our school and targets for practice just for this class. We also has a bunker where we could hide in the case of an atomic war.
There was another interesting subject taught in Soviet schools, called "Labor", probably similar to a "Home Ed" class in American schools. It was a class where for many lessons, boys and girls were taught separately. Girls were taught to cook, to sew. Boys learned woodwork and metalwork skills. Labor classroom was equipped with several sewing machines, and there was a workshop for boys with the necessary equipment for metalwork and woodwork.
In one of the last years of school there was another subject called "Ethics and Psychology of Family Life". I don't know what was supposed to be taught during this class, because our history teacher taught it, and she was above those matters, so she used the time to reinforce our history lessons.
I think "Ethics and Psychology of Family Life" class was supposed to be a combination of psychology and sex ed for Soviet schoolchildren. It is important to understand that the majority of Soviet youth married early, many right after high school or during college.
History of the Soviet Union" or "History of the Soviet Communist Party" is another subject that you will never study in another country. Our history teacher was very thorough; she read thick tomes of proceedings of Soviet Union Communist Party yearly conferences, and regularly quizzed us on them! Everyone cheated on those quizzes, it was not humanely possible to pass this class otherwise!
Gym class in a soviet school
Gym class in a Soviet school is different than in America. In Soviet Union, students get number grades in gym, not just pass or fail grade.
Things that children are taught and tested on in a gym class are also different than in America. Also, boys and girls have different standards for achieving a certain grade.
Students in Soviet school did the following things in a gym class:
- Climb a rope hanging from the ceiling to the very top
- Boys would have to do a certain number of pullups; girls didn't do pullups at all
- Long jump after a run-up to a line
- Jump over a bar of a certain height without kicking it down, after running up to a line in front of it
- Jump over a leather apparatus similar to a pommel horse in gymnastics, after a run up to it
- Do a certain number of push-ups
- Throw a ball a certain distance
- Run short, medium and long distances for time
- Run 100 meters competing with a classmate
- In the winter, instead of running outdoors, Soviet students in many places would cross-country ski a timed distance. My school had enough skis for everybody in the class; but you could bring your own skis. I brought my own because they were waxed right for the weather, and fitted to me well
Grading system in Soviet schools
Soviet grading system was a five-point based system. Children got marks starting at the very beginning of school, in the first grade.
5 was the highest grade, meaning "excellent"
4 means "good"
3 means "satisfactory"
2 means "unsatisfactory"
1 means "fail"
A student who got mostly fives was called "otlichnik", from the word "otlichno", meaning "excellent". A student who got mostly 4 was called "horoshist", from the word "horosho", or "good" in Russian. A student who got mostly threes, was called "troechnik", from the Russian word "tri" that means "three". A student who got twos and ones was called "dvoechnik", from the Russian word "dva", meaning "two".
Soviet school rules
School rules varied by location, but those are some of the rules in the school I went to.
Girls could not wear makeup of jewelry. Students in younger grades could not even wear watches.
If girl's hair was longer than shoulder length, it had to be braided or put away in a ponytail. If a pony tail was too long, it had to be braided.
Students had to stand up when the teacher entered the classroom, and could only sit down when the teacher allowed.
Students had to greet the teacher loudly when the teacher entered.
Students had to raise their hand when they wanted to talk, and could only speak when called upon.
Students could only write with a blue pen; a red pen was reserved for the teacher.
Students had to use a pen for writing, and a pencil for drawing figures in math.
Did you know?
Soviet school children started school at seven years old
Soviet school events and activities
In Soviet schools, there were drives to collect paper recyclables ("makulatura") and metal recyclables "metallolom". Picture on the right shows Soviet students with bags and packages of recyclable papers.
Another common event was a "subbotnik", "Saturday event" in Russian. Those were volunteer events to clean or beautify the school or school grounds. They were not mandatory officially, but everyone was expected to participate. They were usually held on Saturdays or Sundays.
School choir was not compulsory, but almost everyone who could carry a tune was recruited for it and forced into frequent rehearsals and competitions.
Academic and sport competitions for the region, city, republic and whole country levels were called "Olympiads". Strongest students in each subject were sent to the subject Olympiad for the local region, and if they won, they would move up to the next level. Olympiads were always held on Sundays, the only school-free day of the week.
Sometimes Soviet students went on class trips out of town. Those trips were mostly in higher grades.
"Voluntary" youth organizations in Soviet schools
Oktyabryata, Pioneers and Komsomol
Soviet students in first through third grades (7-9 year old) were members of Oktyabryata. Oktyabryata comes from the Russian name of the month October, when the Soviet Socialist Revolution occurred. Oktyabryata wore a pin with a red star and a portrait of young Lenin in the middle of it (shown on the right). Small groups of Oktyabryat were called "Stars" and consisted of five students, with one designated as a leader, and the rest assigned different roles. This organization was a step before becoming a Pioneer.
Soviet Pioneer pin
Pioneers were Soviet scouts, but with an ideological Communist bent. A student could become a Pioneer in the third grade if he or she were especially deserving, and the rest joined Pioneers in the fourth grade. Pioneers had a pin in a shape of a red star with a profile of Lenin in the middle, and flames on top of it, and a Pioneer slogan response written across the bottom. Pioneer slogan was "Be ready!", with the response "Always ready!". Pioneers also had a uniform - white top and blue bottom, a skirt for girls and pants or shorts for boys. Pioneers wore a red Pioneer neck scarf. There were Pioneer summer camps where many Soviet children spent their summers.
At 14 years of age, Pioneers became eligible to join Komsomol. Komsomol was abbreviated as VLKSM, which stands for All-Union Lenin Communist Union of Youth. Komsomol was a young Communist organization. Joining it wasn't compulsory, but not becoming a member could bar a student from entering college, getting a good job, and in fact most were compelled to join Komsomol.
Interesting facts about Soviet schools
Schoolchildren in the former USSR had to carry an extra bag with a pair of shoes to change into inside the school during the winter, called "smenka" (or "change" in Russian).
School week in the Soviet Union was six days - school was held on Saturday, and Sunday was the only day off school during the week.
Schoolchildren in the Soviet Union often shared lunches, or shared "just a bite" of their sandwich or fruit or a treat. To say "no" to a request to share from a classmate was risky, the student would be teased as greedy and selfish.
Most students let other students copy their homework when asked. Saying "no" could lead to bullying and most A-students were expected to let others cheat with their hard work.
Every class had a student or a pair of students responsible for helping the teacher every day, it was a rotating position, called "dezhurnyj" ("on duty" in English). Dezhurnyj student had to do small chores for the teacher, like erase the blackboard, help carry the books, and stay later to clean the classroom after the school day.
Parent-teacher conferences were called "parent meetings" and were not individual; a whole class of parents would meet in the classroom, and the teacher would discuss all the students publicly.
There were ten grades in Soviet schools, and children started school at seven. (until the late 1980ies, when there was 11th grade added, and kids started school a year earlier, at six years old).
Only eight years of secondary school were mandatory. Children could leave school after the eighth grade, if they didn't plan to go to college or wanted to learn a trade.
A student who graduated Soviet school with all excellent marks got a gold medal at the end. A student with two "good" marks and the rest excellent got a silver medal. Of course they were not made from real gold or silver.
Children in the Soviet schools spent their whole schooling in the same class with the same children - classes were not mixed up like they are in American schools.
In a Soviet school, all grades from first to tenth (or later eleventh) were in the same building.
Most children walked to school or took public transportation. Even elementary school children walked to school unescorted. There were no school buses in the Soviet Union.
Interesting facts about Soviet school curriculum
Children in Soviet schools learned to write script right away, no typed letters were taught.
Soviet schoolchildren memorized muliplication table in second grade, at eight years old.
Children in the Soviet Union started learning a foreign language in the second grade. There was no choice of language; usually a school offered one foreign language choice.
In the second grade, learning elementary swimming skills was part of the curriculum, and several gym classes were conducted at a local (or closest) pool.
Text of the USSR anthem from chronik.ruIn the elementary grades, every year started with memorizing the lyrics of the Soviet National Anthem.
Soviet schoolchildren had to memorize many poems, and recite them from memory during tests.
Students could not choose the classes to take; class schedule and subjects were the same for every student in each grade.
It was possible to be medically excused from the gym class for the duration of the schooling, with a note from a doctor.
It was possible to be excused from studying the language of the republic where the school was located, if the child was from a military family that was not a native of the republic (military families moved often). In my grade in my Ukrainian school, there were several students excused from studying Ukrainian language and literature.
USSR National Anthem on Youtube
Soviet school cafeteria food
Soviet school cafeteria food was the same everywhere you go! The recipes were standard, and if the cooks were honest and didn't steal much milk, butter, meat and other school lunch ingredients for their families, the food was nutritious and not too bad tasting.
Soviet school omelet, pictured on the right, was exceptionally tall and didn't lose its thickness when cool.
In USSR, a student could bring their own lunch, or buy cafeteria lunch or breakfast for nominal price.
September 1st from kalendar-prazdnikov.ruSchool year started on September 1st with a ceremony of First Bell. September First was always a festive day for children and their parents; in 1984 it was officially proclaimed a holiday of a Day of Knowledge (Den' Znanij).
Soviet schools were off on major Soviet holidays, and often held holiday celebrations prior to the holidays. There is just one Soviet holiday that matches one of the American holidays - it is New Year's Day. Some of the Soviet holiday celebrations in schools resembled some American holidays.
March 8Just like American schoolchildren write cards and give small gifts to their classmates on Valentine's Day, Soviet schoolchildren wrote cards and gave gifts to the girls in the class on March Eight, the International Women's Day, and gave cards and gifts to boys in the class on February 23rd, the Soviet Army Day. Even though small boys don't serve in the army, they would in the future, because of mandatory draft.
Major Soviet holidays celebrated by everybody, and in every school, were November 7th - Revolution Day, January 1st - New Year's Day, May 5th - International Labor Day, and May 9th - World War II Victory Day.
New Year's Day was a major Soviet Holiday. The celebrations started on New Year's Eve, December 31st, with a holiday meal at home. In the morning of January 1st, children would find their gifts from Father Frost under the decorated New Year's Tree. New Year holiday in Soviet Union held no religious significance. Schools were off for winter break during this time. Often there were New Year holiday shows in schools before the winter break, with students presenting skits, songs, reciting poetry and showcasing their talents.
Seventh of October was a major Soviet holiday, Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution.
May holidays were May First, Day of International Solidarity of Workers, and May 9th, Victory Day, or Day of Victory over German Fascist Occupiers. These were major Soviet holidays, and are still widely celebrated in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
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