On January 31, 1714, Russian Emperor Peter I, aspiring to boost the literacy level amongst teenage members of the nobility, issued his decree only allowing the young men to get married after they had completed their studies.
In the strictest sense, it was not until Peter’s coming to power that formal state-run educational establishments began to emerge in Russia. Before that, aside from minor attempts to set up schools undertaken by various Russian leaders, the youth in Russia was homeschooled, attended classes at church, or received a special education, mastering one of the trades.
Peter, after his Grand Expedition to Europe in 1697-98, was deeply impressed by the developments of European industry and science and wanted to evoke the thirst for knowledge and science in the younger noble generation.
The rather witty decree provided that “to every region should be dispatched a number of persons keen in mathematics, to teach the noble offspring arithmetic and geometry and those who disobey are to be punished, as they are not to get married until all sciences are comprehended.”
However, in the times of Peter, to feed his vast military campaigns, educational establishments were majorly focused on preparing staff for the army. Peter’s demands toward education were very high, therefore, some schools did not even have a fixed graduation date – the students were only allowed out after they displayed a decent knowledge of all taught disciplines. Very often, Peter himself actively oversaw the entire educational process, coming to classes and field practices and personally honoring the best students. According to Peter’s decree of 1701 general education was available for people regardless their rank.
The teachers to schools were invited from abroad, as well as transferred straight from the army and navy with real-life experience to share. The so-called first stage of studies was devoted to the basics of the Russian language and arithmetic, while the next stage included higher levels of trigonometry and geometry, and the final stage was about astronomy and navigation science. Though admission was open to everyone, only those higher on the social hierarchy could resume their education further than the first stage. Besides which, the higher educational establishments did not admit common people anyway. The lower-class graduates could later become orderly room clerks or do a variety of other supplementary jobs in the Admiralty. The noble graduates were sent to the Navy, to the artillery, or to the infantry regiments.
Every educational establishment under Peter was very focused on discipline; an unexcused absence could be punished by punitive labor or even death – however, such fatal punishment was never actually carried out. These strict measures were brought about by the fact that, along with the tangible advantages, the educational system brought obvious complications. The military service slacking on the part of the young nobility significantly increased due to a list of reasons: first, the actual service was now a lot harder and more complicated; besides this, another decree issued by Peter demanded that for entering the compulsory military service, the noble youth had to have a certain educational background, which automatically became compulsory, too; on the other hand, the landownership had become hereditary, rendering the practice of allotting the good servicemen amounts of land obsolete. As a result, the increased difficulty of the military service was aggravated by the simultaneous decrease of material remuneration. Unwillingness to serve in the army spawned the unwillingness to study in the first place. Slacking service and schools had become the nobility’s major vice and social disease, bringing about harsh and usual punishments, like punitive labor or ban on marriage.
Schools were nevertheless established, more and more over time, and all across Russia, stretching deeper into the Urals and other Russian regions, forming the basis for the state educational system of the youth and giving ground to opening higher educational establishments.