Estonian education during the Soviet occupation

It is estimated that during the 1940s and 1950s, Estonians lost approximately one fifth of their population through the dead of the Second World War, those who fled to the West from the Soviet regime, and the deported and murdered in the course of the Stalinist repression. These losses largely involved the educated classes who had become established over the brief period of independence. Those who remained were compelled to adopt some kind of survival strategy, and it may be assumed that the experience of history, obtained over centuries under alien occupations, was of at least some use.

Strange as it may seem, a few things in education actually improved, especially its accessibility. The main reasons for this were the needs of industry, particularly the military industry. In 1949, an obligatory 7-year education was established, which, between 1958 and 1963, became an 8-year education. According to statistics, all post-war generations, almost without exception, acquired basic education. The proportion of those who continued their education at a secondary or vocational school witnessed a steady increase. This process was proclaimed a law with the establishing of general secondary education in the 1970s. As a result, in the early 1980s, 99 per cent of 18-year-olds had acquired secondary education (secondary and vocational secondary education taken together, either at daily or evening school, or by distance learning).

Estonia, like other Baltic countries, managed to retain their mother-tongue higher education, although new Russian-language courses had to be set up at all university departments with the increase of the Russian population. Already in the mid-1950s, the number of students exceeded 10 000. Comparing this with the total of Tartu University graduates (5751) between 1919 and 1939, the number of highly educated young people showed a considerable increase. Free and easily accessible education was bearing fruit.

Although the Soviet educational policy was egalitarian, not to say equalising and levelling, selective mechanisms were very much operating here as well. The descendants of the intellectual elite of the independence period whose ‘papers failed to meet the requirements’, had a limited chance to acquire higher education during Stalinist times. Those formerly of lower social standing were now granted various privileges. During the so-called Khrushchev’s Thaw in the late 1950s — early 1960s the direct political pressure somewhat lessened, but the inner selective mechanisms of education began functioning the more intensely.

In the 1960s, secondary education as such provided a chance to ascend to the social elite; the lack of it, on the other hand, meant a decisive reduction in further educational or other kinds of opportunities. In 1960, of those possessing a secondary education diploma, about 40 per cent proceeded to institutions of higher education; in 1970 it was 43 per cent. By the early 1980s, when the transition to universal secondary education was fully achieved, a certificate to prove completion of secondary education was no longer sufficient to gain entry to higher education. Entrance to institutions of higher education was just as restricted as had been before. Young people now fell into different categories according to the type of secondary education they had received: those who could continue at the same school after obtaining their basic education, found themselves in a much better position than those who were compelled to change schools. Further studies increasingly depended on whether the school was in a larger city or in a smaller provincial town.

Regarding the chances of going on to further study, vocational school was practically a dead end. Social class played an ever-growing part in whether young people chose secondary or vocational school at age 15. At secondary schools, the children of white-collar workers with higher or secondary vocational education clearly predominated. Upper secondary (gymnasium) and secondary-vocational education not related to industrial production (schools of music, education, medicine), thus functioned as a mechanism of generating specialists, whereas vocational schools added to the ranks of the working class.

The deepest divide between young people was caused by the type of upper secondary school they attended: schools specialising in an academic subject (e.g. languages or science) were primarily oriented to those who wished to continue at universities, and most of them — over twice more than ordinary school leavers — were successful. It should be mentioned here that in the main, children started in such schools from year one (completing their basic education and secondary education in the same school). For young people with secondary education facing further choices, of most importance, therefore was the kind of class in the kind of school their parents had managed to get them accepted in the first place.

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