Russia’s national educational project of Emperor Nicholas II


The educational accomplishments during the reign of Russia’s last tsar were nothing short of impressive. It was during the years 1894-1917, that illiteracy rapidly declined. In 1914, 40 per cent of the population was literate. The institutions of higher learning were turning out considerable numbers of loyal bureaucrats, skilled professionals and eminent scholars. To this extent, educational reform had been highly effective under Nicholas II.

NOTE: this 2-part article has been researched exclusively from Russian sources, translated, and presented in English for the first time – PG

The reign of Nicholas II was a period of unprecedented growth for Russia in all areas from economy to culture. It is foolish to deny this growth, especially since in the USSR this growth was recognized and even in 1913 was considered the standard of development with which the Soviets compared their own achievements. This unprecedented growth in Tsarist Russia was obvious to both contemporaries and people of the Soviet period.

The Romanov emperors – from Alexander I to Alexander III – wasted much of the 19th century, missing opportunities for the evolutionary modernization of Russian society. As a result, Russia’s last emperor Nicholas II inherited a rotten feudal medieval state with an illiterate peasant indigenous population, degenerate nobility, frontier townspeople and even more backward rural and remote areas, where the population lived well even in feudal order.


Nicholas II identified his personal desires and dreams with those of the Russian people. The era demanded drastic reforms and the destruction of the rotten past of the empire and its modernization.

Let’s look at the problem of education, which under Nicholas II achieved unprecedented success. His detractors claim that everything during the reign of Russia’s last emperor was bad, particularly education. Let’s see what the statistics say . . .

According to statistics published in the popular «Справочник патриота (Руксперт)» [Handbook of the Patriot (Rukspert)], the number of literate and educated people grew significantly under Nicholas II:

– There were 78 thousand elementary schools in 1896, and 119.4 thousand in 1914
– The number of elementary school students in 1896 was 3.8 million, in 1914 – 9.7 million.
– The number of gymnasiums (secondary schools), was 239 in 1892, and 2300 in 1914.
– The number of secondary school students in 1890 was 12.5 thousand, in 1914 – 127 thousand.
– The number of teachers in 1896 was 114 thousand, in 1914 – 280 thousand.
– Thanks to these measures adopted by the tsarist government, the number of literate people in the country steadily increased. In 1894 there were 37.8% of literate conscripts [enlist (someone) compulsorily, typically into the armed services], in 1901 – 50%, in 1913 – 67.8%. 


Regardless of the denial by the Bolsheviks and later the Soviets, the Russian Empire experienced a quantitative increase in literate people under Nicholas II. This in itself is also confirmed by the increase in the number of books published in Russia:

According to В. Кожинов «Россия, век ХХ. 1901-1939». [V. Kozhinov Russia, XX Century. 1901-1939], in 1893, 7783 titles were published in Russia (with a circulation of 27.2 million copies), and in 1913 – 34,006 titles were published (with a circulation of 133 million copies).

In order to correctly compare these numbers with those of other nations: in 1913 almost as many titles were published in Russia in the same year as England (12,379), USA (12,230) and France (10,758). Germany alone competed with Russia in this respect (35,078 titles in 1913), but, having the most developed printing base, German publishers executed numerous orders from other countries and, in particular, Russia itself, although these titles (more than 10,000) were taken into account as a German product.

According to the “Patriot Handbook”: “In 1893, a total of 43 million rubles were allocated for education, which amounted to 4.1% from the State budget, and in 1914 – approximately 270 million rubles, which amounted to 8% of all budget expenditures.”

In 1914 there were 91 universities with 112 thousand students in the Empire, and 295 technical schools, where 36 thousand students studied.

In 1913 the Empire had 13.9 thousand libraries, with a total of 9.4 million books.

The situation in education under the reign of Nicholas II can be best described as successful. Historians can now only speculate what further advances Russia could have made had the First World War, and revolutionary activity in 1917 forced Nicholas II from the throne and the Russian Empire to collapse. 



On 16 May 1908, the Russian Empire passed a law on compulsory primary education to be phased in over a period of 10 years.

The beginning of the twentieth century was one of the most dramatic and turbulent periods in Russia’s history. The revitalization of the revolutionary movement, driven underground, together with a heavy war in the Far East, undermined internal stability in the country. The Revolution of 1905-1907 determined its own path of development for the country – the path to the collapse of the established centuries-old state system, which would plunge the country into an abyss of general chaos. The supreme power, having suppressed revolutionary speeches, proposed an alternative – the path of the quiet development of the empire through progressive reforms. 

It was for this purpose that Emperor Nicholas II put at the head of the government Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), discerning in him a talented, energetic reformer. The joint work of the emperor and the prime minister over five years made it possible to work out a series of government reforms. It is interesting to note that despite Liberal opposition, which, during the years of the revolution, repeatedly called for the need for reform, however, could not offer any concrete ideas to such. Moreover, even in the Duma, they were pushed into a corner, believing that they had no choice but to publish angry attacks in the press against the supreme power. The period from 1907 to 1914 was marked by stormy legislative activity. The State Duma, at last, became an efficient body, and not a hotbed of frantic revolutionaries. Unfortunately, many initiatives made by the authorities were not brought to fruition, due to the outbreak of the First World War.

One of the most important changes was the reform in primary education. Western society still held a long-standing stereotype that the population in the Russian Empire was practically illiterate, and the government spent insignificant amounts on education. Universal primary education is generally presented as the achievement of the Soviet government, however, this is incorrect.

In order for the empire to develop evenly in all regions, skilled personnel were required. With the direct participation of Emperor Nicholas II, a number of new laws on the development of public education were introduced. One of them was the law of 3 (16) May 1908 on the introduction of universal primary education in Russia.


The Law of 3rd May 1908, signed by Nicholas II, also provided for additional financing (credit) of 6.9 million rubles for the needs of primary education, which contributed greatly to its accelerated development. At the same time, according to the decree of 3rd May 1908, education in all schools, to which additional state funding was extended (including in rural schools), was free. Nearly 10,000 schools were opened annually, and by 1913 their total number exceeded 130,000 [including parish schools]. Although the discussion of the bill in the Duma was delayed for three years, and amended several times, universal primary education in the Russian Empire became a fait accompli.

Throughout the reign of Emperor Nicholas II, the supreme power contributed to the planned development of primary education. Of course, the results were not long in coming. We give the most popular indicator – the literacy rate, which critics of the imperial power so willingly operate on. Yes, in 1897 the literacy rate was quite low – 21.1%. However, by 1917, this figure is estimated at around 40-43%. By simple calculations we come to the conclusion that the growth of the literacy level in the empire was slightly more than 2% per year.

Thus, a fairly fair conclusion can be made: universal primary education, the creation of which in Russia is still considered by the overwhelming majority of citizens to be an achievement of Soviet power, dates back to the 1890s. In the last ten years of the reign of Emperor Nicholas II, a “national project” was carried out – an extensive network of schools was created, access to which was provided to all children of the empire. Such measures were quite consistent with the global trends in the development of primary education.

© Paul Gilbert. 8 July 2020

Recommended Reading

Education and the State in Tsarist Russia, by Patrick L. Appleton. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1969.

Please help support my research by making a donation to my project The Truth About Nicholas II

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