Friday, September 18, 2009

Sukhomlinsky's Heroism

As I make preparations for my trip to Ukraine, I have been reading a book sent to me by Sukhomslinsky's daughter, Olga Sukhomlins'ka, who is a professor at the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences in Kyiv. Her book, entitled "Studies on V.A. Sukhomlinsky: Pedagogical Apocrypha", documents a debate that sprang up around her fathers work during the last three years of his life, and which continued for decades. The book reminded me of how difficult Sukhomlinsky's life was, from beginning to end.

Sukhomlinsky was born in 1918, during the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. He lived through social unrest, famine, serious illness, and war. He was seriously wounded in battle, with his arm nearly severed and schrapnel in his lungs. While he was at war his home was occupied, and his wife and baby were tortured and killed. Somehow he rose above all this, and returned to help the children in his region to recover from the terrible suffering and loss of the Nazi occupation. He built a system of education founded on humanity, kindness and the appreciation of beauty. The famous musical educator Dmitry Kabalevsky thought that Sukhomlinksy incorporated ethical and aesthetic education thoughout a child's education, in a way that was unprecedented.

Then, in 1967, when Sukhomlinsky was apparently at the height of his fame and influence, he was suddenly subjected to ideological attacks in the press, which appear to have been directed from the highest levels of the communist regime. It would appear that his emphasis on universal humanistic values was not to the taste of more narrow-minded ideologues who held positions of greater power and influence. He was accused of "abstract humanism", and of putting the interests of the individual ahead of the collective.

Sukhomlinsky's health was already failing. Fragments of schrapnel from his old war wounds had remained in his chest and travelled to his heart. He was operated on, and one fragment was removed, but another remained. The attacks on him in the press greeted him as he returned from hospital, and affected him deeply. Sukhomlinsky's daughter is quite certain that they had a detrimental effect on his health and hastened his death three years later. In spite of his failing health, Sukhomlinsky set about writing the books which have secured his reputation for posterity. Sukhomlinsky continued in his post as principal of the school at Pavlysh until his death in September 1970, and during this time produced several remarkable books describing his experience at the school, and his educational theories. I will discuss these in more detail in later posts, starting with the most famous: "My Heart I Give to Children".


  1. This is very interesting. I'm looking forward to your visit to Pavlysh.
    It shouldn't really matter to our modern-day assessment of his work, but I wonder how far he can be described as a political outsider...according to wikipedia he was awarded the title "Hero of Socialist Labor" in 1968

  2. Sukhomlinsky was someone who tried to change the face of communism from the inside. Soviet society was not as monolithic as it seemed from the outside, and that at certain times debate raged within the party about the way forward. Sukhomlinsky rose to prominence during the Krushchev "thaw" of the early 'sixties, but when Krushchev was toppled and Brezhnev came to power more conservative elements in the party became dominant. It was at this time that Sukhomlinsky was attacked in the press, and he was genuinely hurt and surprised by this. He had always been a loyal member of the party, but had interpreted communist ideology in his own humanistic way. His ideas continued to be popular, in spite of the attacks, and after his death his influence increased. Under Gorbachev a new group of teacher innovators rose to prominence, many of them influenced by Sukhomlinsky.