Education and science are normally front and centre in any modern country, and Russia is no exception. This is why the quality of Russian education and science is quite high. Up to 20% of the working population — approximately 7 million people — is employed in the educational sector and in science, more than in any other sector of the economy.
In 2013, more than 6 million students were enrolled in 2,649 higher educational institutions, including approximately 1 million students at more than 1,000 private universities.
The Russian educational system dates from the eighteenth century, because prior to that there were no secular educational institutions in Russia. Only one educational establishment met the standards of higher education. People were mostly educated in church schools or were self-educated. However, schooling was limited to the basics of reading, writing and mathematics. In 1685, the Slavic Greek Latin Academy was founded, officially becoming the first higher educational institution. However, it was a purely church institution, and even performed some censorship functions.
The situation changed when Peter the Great came to power. It was under his rule that the first secular educational institutions were established in Russia, albeit mostly those specializing in engineering and the technical and naval sciences, such as the School of Mathematics and Navigation Sciences or the Engineering School. The first full-scale university — the Academic University at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences — emerged in Russia as late as 1724. At first, a limited number of disciplines were taught to a limited number of students, and classes were irregular. By the middle of the eighteenth century, though, the university had become a full-scale educational institution offering its students a complete academic course. It was transformed into the Academic School in 1770, while Moscow University, founded in 1755, became the main university in Russia. The university in St. Petersburg was reopened in 1819. In 1764, the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens was established in St. Petersburg, paving the way for women’s education in Russia (females were taught considerably fewer disciplines than males for quite a long time, though). The first pedagogical educational institution — the Teachers’ Seminary at Moscow University — was founded in 1779.
Russia’s educational reform, put in place at the beginning of the nineteenth century, introduced a full-scale system of education. Under the 1804 Code, an education could be gained, successively, at parochial schools, district schools, governorate gymnasiums and universities. Schools of the first two categories were free of charge. However, they were quite scarce at that time. In addition, educational districts were established, led by their respective universities.
Under Nicholas I of Russia, a new reform was introduced depriving the system of education of independence and downgrading universities to a mere type of educational institution. The next major reform developed in the 1860s under Alexander II. Universities were given back their independence, and the universal availability of primary education was reintroduced for everyone, irrespective of social class. For their part, secondary educational institutions were divided into classical gymnasiums and non-classical (real) secondary schools. Theoretically, they were available to anyone who passed entrance examinations. However, in practice the former type was mostly for well-to-do citizens, while the poor were mostly educated at real schools.
So-called higher women’s courses were established at universities to offer classes that were very close to a university curriculum. This structure of education was retained until the 1917 Revolution.
One of the first decrees of the new government was the one cancelling the social stratification of educational opportunities and equalizing men and women in their right to obtain an education. A major campaign against illiteracy was launched in 1919, which made it possible to increase the literacy rate in Russia to the average European level during a very short period of time. However, science needed much longer to recover from the 1917 shocks, when many scientists had to leave the country, suffered from political repression, or were prohibited from doing research because of «unsuitable» biographies.
The scientific potential of the country had been restored, albeit partially, by the 1930s, although many branches of knowledge remained in decay for decades. Engineering sciences were the ones to receive the most support from the state, because the economy and the military sector of the isolated Soviet Union called for new developments and skilled engineers. Fees for high school education were repeatedly introduced — first in 1923, and then in 1940. Nevertheless, the number of students kept growing.
During World War II, the scientific and educational potential of the country suffered terribly. However, the reserves accumulated prior to the war enabled the Soviet state to make a remarkable comeback. Specifically, the USSR developed a nuclear bomb in 1949, a crucial scientific effort that called for the well-coordinated work of many leading specialists. The post-war achievements of the Soviet Union included its leadership in space exploration — the world’s first artificial satellite was launched in 1957, and in 1961, the USSR put the first man in space. The space race between the USSR and the United States lost its intensity, although it never stopped (the most recent breakthrough achieved by the USSR, and later Russia, was the orbiting Mir space station, which was placed into orbit from 1985 to 1997).
The Soviet system of education was among the top-rated in the world. In addition to general schools, a network of specialized secondary schools was established (focusing upon mathematics, physics, chemistry, linguistics, etc.). Crucial scientific achievements were reported every year, and the number of research institutions kept growing.