A Precarious Position of Power: Soviet School Directors in the 1930s

E Thomas Ewing. Journal of Educational Administration and History. Volume 41, Issue 3. 2009.


In September 1931, the Communist Party Central Committee, the highest political authority in the Soviet Union, declared that ‘single person rule’ (edinonachalie) should prevail in the administration of schools. This allocation of authority was echoed repeatedly throughout the decade that followed, as in this 1939 article: ‘The school director bears complete and sole personal responsibility for the ideological‐political direction of teaching in the school and for the communist education of pupils’. Yet this authority was also susceptible to abuse. Published reports from the 1930s criticised directors who abused their power, neglected schools, and retaliated against critics. School director Kunakh, for example, in a village in central Russia, was accused by his own teachers of drinking in public, skipping lessons, and neglecting political work with pupils. When several young teachers complained about Kunakh’s ‘scandalous behaviour’ to the district educational department, he issued this violent threat: ‘If you keep talking, I’ll rip your heads off’. While this threat illustrated the potential for abuses of power, a former school director recalled that increased authority also meant heightened vulnerability: ‘Everyone fears responsibility, because responsibility means that you can be arrested’.

The tension in these perceptions and practices of power shaped the history of Soviet school directors in the decade between Stalin’s ‘revolution from above’ and the German invasion in 1941. During this transformative period, the expansion of enrolment from 12 million pupils in 1929 to more than 30 million in 1939 not only brought many more children into schools, but also made primary and secondary education into a more pervasive part of Soviet life: more facilities were built in villages and expanding cities, children attended school for more years, acquiring advanced education was increasingly required for social mobility, and teachers became a more significant professional category. The number of teachers nearly tripled, from 365,000 in 1929 to 1,027,000 in 1940. The number of school directors also rose significantly in this period, although less dramatically than other professional categories. While exact personnel figures are not available, the number of directors’ positions rose from 133,000 in 1929 to more than 170,000 by 1939. Assuming one director for each school, these figures indicate a 30% increase in a decade, less than the growth rate of teachers or pupils, but nevertheless a significant expansion in this crucial sector of educational cadres.

The history of school directors was shaped not only by rapid expansion in numbers, but also by fundamental changes in the distribution of power in society. Already by the late 1920s, the Soviet Union was dominated by a Communist Party firmly under the control of the dictator, Joseph Stalin. Following the model of the Communist Party and Soviet government, the regime implemented a system of ‘one person rule’ (edinonachalie) in factories, the military, social organisations, and educational institutions. At the same time that power was being concentrated in the hands of ‘bosses’, however, these same officials were subjected to the escalating cycles of suspicion, accusation, denunciation, and repression that would culminate in the Great Terror from 1936 to 1938, when millions of Soviet citizens lost their positions and in many cases their lives. In this context, occupying a position of responsibility meant acquiring great power as well as tremendous vulnerability. During the Stalinist 1930s, individuals wielding any kind of power inevitably occupied a precarious position, which meant that directors experienced both authority and vulnerability as they exercised their responsibilities in a time of political repression.

The exercise of power in Stalinist education has attracted considerable analysis and interpretations. One of the most influential Western approaches used Stalin’s statement that the school was ‘a weapon’ to accuse Soviet leaders of transforming education into ‘an instrument in the hands of the regime’. But this interpretation has been challenged by social historians, who examine factors such as the internal dynamics of schools, competing policy objectives, teachers’ professionalisation, and contests over educational practices. Within this social history paradigm, however, school directors have generally been considered in the same category as teachers, thus overlooking or obscuring their distinct responsibilities within the school and different situations of accountability in the political system. An important exception is Larry Holmes’ study of Moscow school No. 25, which devotes particular attention to director Nina Iosafovna Groza. Although she ‘ruled over the school with an iron hand, demanding unquestioning obedience’, teachers and pupils in this elite school also regarded the director as someone who ‘commanded respect but never abused her authority’. While Groza and the rest of her school staff ‘willingly thought of their school as an extension of the state and themselves as its agents who valued the discipline they intended to inculcate in their young charges’, Holmes also argues that becoming a ‘Stalinist school’ meant more than ‘blind obedience and numbing routine’, as the director and teachers ‘acted autonomously in a way consistent with their own sense of proper instruction’. Yet the public criticism of Groza in 1937 for her ‘inconsistent, incorrect, and unprincipled position’ and then her dismissal, as a result of abrupt changes in government policy and in‐fighting within the educational administration, leads Holmes to conclude that Groza and her colleagues ‘became victims of their own achievements, requiring their sacrifice to the false gods of Soviet egalitarianism’. The present study builds on Holmes’ interpretation of this single school to explore the broader experience of the approximately 100,000 men and women who, like Groza, occupied a precarious position of power in the Stalinist system.

Understanding Soviet school directors provides insights more generally into the comparative history of principals. Despite the intensely political nature of Soviet education in the 1930s, Stalinist school directors shared certain attributes with their colleagues in other historical contexts. Kate Rousmaniere argues that the school principal in North America occupied a mediating position, with obligations and responsibilities both to the educational administration ‘above’ and the teachers, pupils, and other employees of school ‘below’. Soviet school directors also experienced the ‘ambiguity’ of the principal’s office, where increasing prestige was accompanied by exclusion from policy making, where the support, respect, and even affection of teachers existed in tension with supervisory, evaluative, and even enforcement obligations, and where the school principal was, in Rousmaniere’s phrase, ‘both and neither administrator and teacher’. Exploring similar themes in the unique conditions of the Stalinist 1930s provides evidence of how educational structures shaped the practices of individuals even as the actions and perceptions of school directors shaped their profession in these demanding circumstances.

This article draws broadly from different kinds of historical sources. The first category addresses the question: who were the Soviet school directors of the 1930s? While Soviet statistical reports were partial, inconsistent, and unverifiable, they nevertheless provide important insights into the ways that professional expansion, demographic character, and social position shaped the ambivalent political location of school directors. The second kind of sources, like the 1939 article quoted above, are prescriptive texts, issued by the Soviet government and Communist Party, which clearly define the normative role of the school director. While censorship and propaganda exclude any dissenting interpretations, these texts illustrate the complexities of the director’s role, and thus are useful for exploring how this position was shaped by multiple and to some extent contradictory expectations. By contrast, newspaper articles, a third category of sources, provide a far more critical view of the actions and inactions of school directors, as long as such criticism was framed in politically acceptable terms. These sources must be read carefully, for their publication served specific ends, but they nevertheless provide important information about the practices and perceptions of school directors. The most obvious gap in the published sources, the infusion of political content into directors’ actions and statements, can be filled by a final set of sources, the first‐hand recollections of school directors interviewed by American researchers after World War Two. This article draws on full‐length interviews with school directors as well as observations and evaluations from teachers, pupils, and parents involved in pre‐war schools. By comparing and contrasting these sources, this article demonstrates how school directors occupied a precarious position of power, in which the authority they claimed was always conditioned, often compromised, and sometimes even contested, by the interventionist actions of an arbitrary and intrusive state.

Who Were the Stalinist School Directors?

The term ‘school director’ encompassed two different categories in the Soviet educational system. The elementary school (nachal’naia shkola), which provided instruction for grades 1-4, was administered by a zaveduiushchaia shkoloi (a male director was zaveduiushchii shkoloi). The incomplete secondary school or seven‐year school (nepolnaia sredniaia shkola or semiletka) and the secondary school or 10‐year school (sredniaia shkola or desiatiletka) were administered by a direktor shkoly. Both terms can be translated into English as school director, principal, or headmistress/headmaster. In the Soviet context, however, these terms reflected different levels of responsibility. The elementary school director administered a much smaller school, usually in a rural region, and often served as teacher as well as director. In fact, approximately one‐quarter of elementary schools as late as 1939 had just one teacher, which meant this person was also the school director. Almost one‐half of elementary schools had just two teachers, which meant that the teacher who also served as director had only one teacher to supervise. Schools with one or two teachers averaged less than 60 pupils, further illustrating the limited scope of the elementary director’s responsibilities. While directors of village schools had fewer pupils and teachers to administer, often they had more extensive responsibilities outside the school, such as leading political organisations, conducting propaganda, and even assisting with agricultural campaigns. Directors of secondary schools, by contrast, were responsible for many more students and teachers, and although they did teach as well, these responsibilities were usually limited to just one class (often history or social studies). In 1939, the almost 50,000 secondary schools averaged 15 teachers and more than 400 pupils per school. Urban 10‐year schools were even larger, averaging almost 30 teachers and more than 800 pupils per school. Some urban schools had more than 1500 pupils and 50 or more teachers, thus illustrating the breadth of the director’s administrative jurisdiction. The term ‘school director’ accurately described all these positions, and while used appropriately in this all‐encompassing manner, it is important to recognise how differences shaped the exercise of power and the experiences of individuals.

The range of professional qualifications, personal characteristics, and political affiliations further illustrates the basic continuities and significant differences in the position of school directors. In 1933, a survey of approximately 30,000 school directors (one‐fifth of the total) found that less than 2% of elementary directors and 14% of secondary directors had a completed higher education. The majority had a completed secondary education, but more than 40% of elementary directors and 15% of secondary directors had a seventh‐grade education or less. Elementary directors were on average only slightly better educated than their teachers, whereas secondary directors actually averaged qualifications below their teachers.

The qualifications of secondary school directors increased more markedly during this decade of educational expansion. The proportion of secondary directors with less than a 10th‐grade education decreased from 52% in 1933 to 30% in 1935 and then to 17% by 1940, while the proportion with a higher pedagogical education rose from 6% in 1933 to 14% in 1935 and then to 27% in 1940. While these numbers suggest significant improvements, the simultaneous improvement in teachers’ qualifications reveals the continuing tension in the authority of directors: if their professional training was comparable, or perhaps even inferior, to teachers, what was the basis for their enhanced power and responsibility in the school? A former school director, who had completed a higher education in a pedagogical institute, offered this blunt statement of how the director’s authority depended on a perception of superiority: ‘I was a director, but the director of a school had to know more than the teachers in his school or he would have no authority among them’.

Gender composition reflected the distribution of power among men and women in Soviet society. In 1933, women made up approximately 41% of elementary school directors and 15% of secondary school directors. Six years later, these proportions had changed little: women were 42% of elementary school directors, 9% of incomplete secondary school directors, and 14% of secondary school directors. The gender composition of school directors varied not only by school level, but also by location. Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Armenia, and Azerbaijan reported fewer than 5% women among elementary school directors, due to a combination of strong cultural bias against placing educated women in positions of authority and the real shortage of women with necessary qualifications. Yet women made up a slightly higher proportion of secondary school directors in some of these same regions, indicating how gender arrangements were different among an urbanised, multi‐ethnic population. In general, schools with more women teachers also had more women school directors, thus reflecting continuity in gender distribution within schools, but the lower proportion of women among all school directors suggests that positions with more power were still perceived as more masculine.

Male elementary school directors tended to have less experience and education than their female counterparts. According to a 1933 survey, 46% of male elementary directors and 30% of female elementary directors had less than three years of experience; 49% of male elementary directors and 29% of female elementary directors had less than an eighth‐grade education. Among secondary directors, however, the distribution of experience and educational levels was more even for men and women. Among all school directors, the average length of experience was two years greater for women than for men. While these aggregate differences were slight, the pattern suggests that the appointment of school directors reflected the influence of gender as well as professional qualifications.

One of the most important attributes of any Soviet social category was membership in the Communist Party or its youth affiliate, the Komsomol. According to the 1933 survey, 18% of all school directors were Communist Party members. The rate was higher for secondary directors (38%) then elementary directors (8%). Men and women had similar rates of Party membership at the secondary school level, but a significant gender disparity was found among elementary school directors, as 10% of men and just 5% of women belonged to the Communist Party. Membership in the Komsomol was higher, 16% of all school directors, reflecting the generally youthful character of this profession, as one‐quarter were less than 23 years old and thus unlikely to have qualified for Communist Party membership. Perhaps the most important insight from these figures, however, was that two‐thirds of school directors were ‘non‐Party’, that is, not members of either the Communist Party or the Komsomol. This category accounted for a higher proportion among women (78%) than among men (60%).By the end of the 1930s, the proportion of Communist Party members had actually decreased, to 11% of all school directors, while the proportion of Komsomol membership increased more significantly, rising to 33%. Even with the latter increase, however, almost one‐half of school directors were not members of the Communist Party or the Komsomol.

These numbers indicate that Communist Party directors certainly did not numerically dominate Soviet schools in the 1930s. In rural elementary schools, three‐quarters of school directors were ‘non‐Party’. The only category where an absolute majority of school directors were Communist Party members was urban secondary schools – and even in these schools, the rate was only 52%. This distribution of Party affiliation stands in sharp contrast to the recollections of former school directors, who repeatedly claimed that virtually all school directors were Communists. Thus the former school director quoted in the Introduction described himself as ‘one of the very small percentage’ of school directors who was not a Party member. Another former school director who was a Communist stated that all the secondary directors that he knew were also Party members. More self‐critically, this same respondent stated that he got his first appointment as director of a seven‐year school ‘only because I was a Party member’. At another point, he declared even more frankly: ‘I obtained my first school directorship in 1929 simply because I had a [Party] card in my pocket although other people were more qualified than I’. As he acquired experience, however, he became more confident, leading to this self‐assessment of relations with teachers: ‘I knew that I was winning the respect of other people’. While demographic markers of age, gender, educational level of Party membership provide evidence of the multiple factors that defined this position in the Soviet system, the latter comment also testifies to the influence of more subjective factors in shaping the power available to, but also brought to bear upon, Stalinist school directors.

Policy and Practice in the Work of School Directors

The position of school directors was strengthened not only in terms of professional qualifications, as these numbers suggest, but also in terms of responsibilities. Prescriptive texts spelled out the duties of a Soviet school director. The most important task was to exercise full responsibility for all educational activities, the management of school facilities, and supervision of teachers and other employees. Soviet authorities stated that the work of the director was ‘complex and multi‐faceted’, because this one person was responsible for ‘ensuring the operational, concrete, and differentiated leadership of each school’. Repeated phrases in these prescriptive statements included managing all aspects of the school, ‘down to the smallest trifle’, in order ‘to encompass all aspects of school life’. These management and administrative duties included ensuring that all children in the district attended school, allocating classroom resources such as desks, tables, chairs, textbooks, and writing materials, and supervising the school’s physical plant, fuel supply, and necessary repairs. Directors advised teachers on their methods of instruction, evaluated achievement, and approved programmes for each grade, in accordance with Communist Party and Soviet government policies and curricula. School directors thus exercised supervisory authority over their teachers. The school director ‘not only controls the work of teachers, but also offers them assistance in organising and correctly carrying out their work’. School directors were supposed to make sure that teachers were correctly marking all the work done by pupils by reviewing notebooks and monitoring examinations. The lesson, notebook, and exam thus became means of verifying the work of teachers as well as pupils, while also deepening the directors’ direct involvement in assessment practices.

Descriptions of school directors emphasised constant engagement and perpetual responsibility. D.V. Sergeev, an elementary school director in central Russia, guided teachers on how to use the textbook, visual aids, and other instructional materials. At the end of the school year, Sergeev held a meeting for parents, where he reported on achievements and deficiencies, arranged presentations by pupils, and encouraged questions about proper upbringing methods. V.G. Kashits, another elementary school director, kept track ‘daily’ of school maintenance, supervised teachers’ efforts to keep order, and ‘from the first day of school’ ensured that all school rules were obeyed. Kashits also involved parents through regular meetings, lectures, and discussions, which were ‘eagerly’ attended. Lykhina, a school director in western Russia, began her day before 8 am by walking the school corridors, checking to see if there was dust on the furniture, making sure each classroom had supplies, and greeting teachers, pupils, and parents as they entered the school. She observed lessons ‘every day’, met with teachers to review methods, and kept ‘in her field of vision’ those pupils who need extra attention. School director Tumanova described how observing lessons became a source of self‐education as well: ‘Teaching them, I learn myself’. School director Sumarokova closely reviewed quizzes, thus evaluating the work of pupils, the methods of teachers, and the achievements of classes.

Interviews with former school directors confirm the diversity as well as scope of these responsibilities. A former school director echoed this prescriptive formulation when he described his primary areas of responsibility as supervising the work of teachers and monitoring instructional methods. Another former director stated that in a typical day, he spent three hours teaching classes, two hours observing teachers and classrooms, two hours dealing with administration, and three to four hours on political activity, including lectures, meetings, and other out‐of‐school tasks related to his roles as school director and Communist Party member. A former teacher described the duties of the school director as political instruction, school administration, and ‘the state of the teaching process’. The fact that one school director was publicly criticised for allowing too much dust to accumulate on portraits of Lenin and Stalin, according to a later recollection, provides clear evidence of the importance attached to seemingly minor aspects of school administration. The normative texts and first‐hand recollections thus concur on the multi‐faceted obligations that ‘encompassed all aspects’ of schooling.

Both the normative texts and the émigré interviews reveal agreement on the political significance of directors’ duties. These tasks included supervising Communist youth organisations, preparing celebrations of revolutionary holidays, scheduling field trips to theatres and museums, and visiting pupils’ homes. School directors were not supposed to be ‘confined within the walls of the school’, as they should participate actively in public life by connecting instructional materials to ‘contemporary life’ in ways that demonstrated love for the homeland, pride in communist accomplishments, and Soviet patriotism.

Former school directors echoed this perception of the school as primarily a political organisation, although they offered a far more critical assessment. A former teacher recalled that his school director, a Communist Party member, would check over his lessons and observe his classrooms, ‘to see how and what I was teaching’. Yet the political role of the school director developed in response to changing government policies as well as relations within the school. One former school director recalled that in the late 1920s, ‘directors had little power’, as Communist Party officials dictated the work of teachers, but by the early 1930s, political organisations could no longer reassign teachers to work on campaigns outside the school: ‘But the party could still call teachers to account’. Examples of such intervention included demanding explanations for why so few pupils were members of the Communist youth organisations or why teachers did not include enough political content in their lessons. As with the evidence of demographic composition cited above, these complicated responsibilities illustrate how the position of school director was shaped by the intersection of the normative expectations imposed by the regime and the subjective perceptions and practices of individuals.

The Precarious Power of the Stalinist School Director

While Soviet publications of the 1930s were subjected to censorship and filled with propaganda, they also revealed problems in ways that cast blame on subordinate officials and diverted attention from policies imposed by Communist leaders. While newspaper articles must be read critically, they clearly illustrate the precarious position of Stalinist school directors who sought to uphold seemingly contradictory demands of exercising strong leadership while also paying attention to trifles, maintaining academic standards, and showing concern as well as vigilance in regard to teachers and pupils. Exploring the tension between responsibility and vulnerability exposes underlying structures of the director’s position as well as the unique experiences of individuals in the 1930s.

School directors who abused subordinates, especially younger teachers, were often singled out for public criticism. At about the same time as the abuses committed by Kunakh, as cited above, seven teachers in the Black Sea region complained that their school director, Vysotskii, was extremely rude towards his teachers, dividing them into factions of older and younger members, and threatened the ones who tried to make public their accusations. After citing these complaints from teachers, the newspaper declared that ‘Vysotskii must be removed from the school’. In a similar fashion, another teacher’s complaints of harassment by a school director were published under a headline stating: ‘Kolosovskii has no place in the Soviet school’. In Kazakhstan, school director Nazarenko allegedly developed her own ‘false understanding of one person rule’, including neglecting her own history classes while threatening teachers with shouts and curses. Eight teachers, in a remarkable act of collective petitioning, sent a letter protesting this ‘leadership’ that led the school to ‘complete collapse’. School director Taran, from southern Russia, was dismissed for public drunkenness and misuse of school funds. In the Leningrad region, school director Zaikin allegedly allowed facilities to deteriorate, neglected political education, made anti‐Soviet comments, even had a portrait of the Romanov family hanging on his office wall, and threatened teachers who spoke out against administration. School director Tsukerman, in the region around Kiev, was dismissed in 1935 on the grounds that he ‘surrounded himself with alien people and ruined the work of the school’. School director Belov of the Chuvash region was reprimanded for neglecting the school, including failing to take measures against teachers who beat pupils.

As these accounts suggest, school directors could be sanctioned, dismissed, and even face criminal charges for their administrative actions. These accounts rarely acknowledged, however, that school directors could also be repressed for actions, statements, or affiliations deemed to be ‘anti‐Soviet’. One such example appeared in early 1933, when school director Islamov was accused of concealing his anti‐Soviet beliefs and practices. In Moscow, honoured school director Efimova was ‘exposed’ (and presumably dismissed) for her allegedly anti‐Soviet views. A former school director confirmed the operation of repressive power when he stated that ‘so many directors were purged, it became necessary to appoint party members with little preparation as director’. Another former school director recalled that he was denounced by three teachers for poor management, anti‐Soviet statements, and dangerous associations. He was soon expelled from the Communist Party.

Yet school directors faced other threats that illustrated the complex distribution of power in Stalinist education. When a school director in Siberia refused to obey when the local Komsomol organisation ordered older pupils to help with the harvest, his efforts to ‘implement the resolutions’ of the Communist Party were endorsed by the educational newspaper. A former school director recalled that pupils, backed by the Komsomol organisation, could denounce those in positions of responsibility, which upset the expected patterns of authority: ‘a director is supposed to be in charge of his particular branch or unit, and he must have authority in the eyes of his pupils’, but in Soviet schools, ‘the director’s authority is purely artificial’. This director also complained about the weaknesses of his position relative to teachers, especially the Communist Party members:

[T]he teachers who belonged to the party held their own party meetings behind closed doors. I did not attend these … Formally I was their boss, but when they made, those who belonged to the party made decisions behind closed doors, I didn’t know why they made decisions of the type they made but I simply had to go along. Yes, we disagreed sometimes, but only internally and never on the surface. I could never say that I disagreed with them. I could never tell them that I disagreed.

His weakened position relative to Party teachers meant ‘in fact I was not the director’.

When the school director was a member of the Communist Party, however, these dynamics were reversed, leading to much greater leverage over subordinates. A former Communist director recalled that the obligation ‘to check on all of these teachers and give information about them’ ensured that directors were not respected: ‘They were feared and teachers could not be frank with them’. School directors could also use their authority over teachers to exact revenge as well as carry out the repressive power of the state. A former teacher recalled how a colleague had complained at a teachers’ meeting about the overload of work and difficult living conditions. The school director told the teacher he would be ‘sorry for it later’, and by the end of the year, the teacher had been fired.

The position of Stalinist school directors was compromised by the conflicting imperatives of professional responsibility and political vulnerability. Declaring that he had ‘a responsible job as well as a dangerous job’, the former director cited in the Introduction declared that his position was perceived as ‘important’ because he was ‘developing young people’s views regarding the party, the state and politics’. Whereas some officials, like an engineer or plant manager, could remain ‘quiet’ while they did their job, his position precluded this option: ‘I, on the other hand, couldn’t keep quiet it was my duty to talk, but also I had to say the right thing’. A former teacher felt the same tension between responsibility and vulnerability when he was encouraged to seek promotion to be a school director: ‘I was afraid of administrative work because I knew that this would place me under the attention of the [security police]’. Rather than advancing into administration, he instead left for an entirely different city, because ‘I had learned that to get along in the Soviet Union, one should not warm the same seat for too long’.

Despite this caution, this same individual, just a few years later, did become a school director. Based on these experiences, he recalled a different level of Communist Party intervention in the pre‐war Soviet school:

The atmosphere among the teachers was very good and friendly and I enjoyed working with them. The Party did not mix directly into our work. Of course, our programme and our text‐books were dictated by the Party, but the Party organisations as such did not ever in these years interfere directly into our educational work. The Party organisation in the school was non‐existent, there was only one teacher who belonged to the Party. The local Party organisations did not keep an eye on our work except for the execution of mass propaganda. The local Party organisations did not interfere in our educational work as I said before.

This perception was echoed by another former school director, who stated that the Party intervened little in schools. The director received instructions from the district educational department, but not from the local Party organisation. As with the discrepancy in reports on the proportion of Communist directors, these contrasting recollections and evaluations illustrate the complexities of the school director’s role in a dictatorship. While variables such as location, chronology, and circumstances certainly shaped the scope of external control, these divergent views also suggest that school directors practised their roles in distinctive ways, which in turn generated a range of interpretations of their political location. Although directors perceived and experienced their situations differently, the underlying precariousness of their positions was actually accentuated by the uncertainty as well as ambiguity of the competing factors shaping their professional locations.


The position of school director involved personal interactions with pupils as well as professional relations with teachers and administrators. While official reports offer normative definitions of proper relations, the rare descriptions of school directors by pupils further illustrate both the power and the ambivalence of this educational position. A former pupil offered this summary account of people and perceptions in the pre‐war school:

I liked the stern teachers, the ones who knew what they were doing. There was one (female) teacher who never raised her voice or shouted at us. We all respected her. She taught botany and natural sciences. True, she was the school director.

The school had three members of the Communist Party, including the history teacher, the Pioneer leader, and the school director. When the interviewer asked how the children knew who was a Party member, the former pupil recalled that this knowledge came just ‘from talk among the students’, except regarding this one respected woman: ‘In the case of the director it was pretty clear, because she often spoke of keeping order and of how we must behave and study if we want to become Party members’.

This recollection is striking precisely because of the way it reflected the blend of attributes, practices, and perceptions involved in constructing the authority of the school director. This woman had the respect of pupils, she effectively taught academic subjects, she maintained order in the school, and yet she was an agent of the political indoctrination and ideological conformity embodied by the Communist Party. Like the ideal school directors described in prescriptive texts, and in ways that diverged strikingly from the more critical accounts visible in both newspaper sources and school directors’ own memories, this single account illustrates how a precarious position of power could be sustained and enacted only by a complex and subtle blend of perceptions, attributes, and achievements. To what extent this school director was more of an exception or a representative of her profession, of course, is difficult to ascertain given both the sources and the position, but this example provides some sense of the precarious possibilities inherent in the role of school director.