Volume: 5, Issue: 4


Pavel Petrovich Blonsky: an outstanding educator and child psychologist
Богуславский М.В. [about]

KEY WORDS: life story, moral principles, an integrated approach, practice-oriented research, pedology, labor school, Academy of Socialist Education, anthropological pedagogics, children’s sexuality.
ABSTRACT: In this paper Professor Boguslavsky turns his attention to the personal life and professional achievements of a very talented and tragically forgotten for a number of years Russian psychologist and educator Pavel Blonsky who definitely changed a number of research approaches in Russian child psychology and formulated quite a number of theoretical concepts. One of the most famous among them is his research in the field of ‘labor schools’ as well as his pioneer ideas in the sphere of children’s sexuality.

Among significant Russian educators, Pavel Petrovich Blonsky (1884-1941) certainly stands out as a person of such remarkable qualities as profound scholarship, broad erudition, deep knowledge of philosophy, psychology, physiology and pedagogics. At the same time Blonsky was full of maximalism, arrogance, and deep belief in his own significance, as well as of impatience and intolerance.

As an educator, Pavel Blonsky was sure that anyone would preserve the type of a personality he/she acquired in the early childhood. This can be fully applied to his own development.

Blonsky was born on May 14, 1884, in Kiev, in an impoverished noble family with diverse ethnical roots. One of his grandfathers was Spanish, the other – Polish, one of the grandmothers was Russian, the other – Ukrainian. In fact, Pavel Petrovich liked such a mixture. The educator’s father, Sigismund (by some unknown reason preferring to be called Peter) was a quiet and modest employee, who was teaching his son the ideals of honor and moral dignity. He would always repeat, “Hold your banner high!” Later on this phrase had become Blonsky’s life motto and his essential moral principle.

Looking back at Pavel’s childhood and adolescence spent in a quiet Ivanovskaya Street, covered with poplar seed tufts, one would realize that it was Blonsky’s destiny to experience hardships and to develop into an extremely strong and equally controversial personality.

As a child, Pavel was observant and prudent beyond his years. He seldom left his house where the family was leading a solitary life. Lack of peer fellowship was made up by avid reading – he actually devoured dozens of fiction and popular science books. Pavel suffered from TB that took the lives of his two brothers and a sister. He grew up in the family that did not experience real hunger but still always remained very frugal. As a result, Blonsky came to some serious conclusions quite early in life, one of which was, if you want to achieve anything, rely only on yourself.

Influenced by literature and life circumstances, Pavel’s heart became increasingly inflamed with religious ambitions. He was only six when he decided to pursue a career of a priest and then endured a week of rigorous fasting that even his mother, who was known to possess a very strong and unyielding nature, could not stop. Later on, a firm belief in himself and a desire “not to waste his life” became Pavel’s ultimate goal.

Gifted and all-round boy, Blonsky turned out to be a brilliant student. He was educated in Kiev, first, in a classical secondary school - gymnasium No. 2, which he finished with the highest credentials (a gold medal), and then at the Kiev University. He graduated from School of History and Philology. Though majoring in the history of philosophy and having a serious publication, a study on Plotinus' philosophy [11], still being a student, Pavel Blonsky decided to focus on psychology and attended a very prestigious university seminar taught by a renowned psychologist Georgy Ivanovich Chelpanov.

Of course, that choice was not accidental. Later, Pavel Blonsky wrote in his memoirs: “I have been interested in human psychology since I was twelve or thirteen. In everything I read – fiction or popular science books – I always tried to find and take in anything related to human psychology and psychopathology. I used to observe people and look into their characters, feelings, and thoughts” [3].

The seminar in Psychology, available for any university student who was fluent in German, turned out to be a truly creative research laboratory. It had an excellent library and a separate room with equipment for studying experimental psychology. “Being part of a psychology seminar,” Blonsky wrote later, “was quite impressive and became a key that would open doors to the intellectual students’ aristocracy” [3].

In spite of Pavel Blonsky’s indulgent attitude to Georgy Chelpanov (in fact, Pavel treated most people in a similar way, considering Chelpanov more of a systematizer and popular narrator type than that of a scholar), the latter spotted a talented young man. Later on, when Georgy Chelpanov received his PhD and was invited to teach at Moscow State University, he brought Blonsky along with him. Soon after that, Chelpanov founded and became head of the Institute of Psychology. That was the time when Georgy Chelpanov produced the greatest influence on Pavel Blonsky’s life and future. Chelpanov insisted on Blonsky’s obtaining his Master’s degree, helped Pavel to receive a position of an associate professor, and fostered the young man’s interest in research and organizational activity.

From 1908 to 1914 Blonsky taught psychology and education in various Moscow schools. Being a wonderful teacher, Blonsky found teaching burdensome. He was constantly searching for better ways of self-realization. This is how Blonsky expressed his teaching philosophy: “I always tended to see human beings in my students, not just creatures learning some issue in pedagogics” [3]. However, time passed but recognition did not come to the ambitious Blonsky due to his unaccommodating nature and the fact that he was always a stranger among philosophers, psychologists, and university faculty.

The turning point occurred in 1914-1915 when Pavel Blonsky began to contribute regular papers to the best educational periodical of the time – The Bulletin of Education. Blonsky’s brilliant and original works immediately drew attention to the young author. His first books on theory of education, preschool upbringing, national educational values, and history of education – lively, witty, fine and persuasive – proved that a bright star had risen in the Russian educational sky.

Even those first publications strongly revealed two dominants characteristics of Blonsky’s creative work as a whole. On the one hand, it was an integrated approach to interpret philosophy, natural science, psychology and education as interrelated phenomena. On the other hand, his ideas had a strong practical tendency aimed at dramatically reforming current school system.

Gradually Blonsky became more popular among educators, and not only due to his publications. He was involved in community professional development courses for local teachers and supervised the activities of the so-called “Moscow circle of female teachers” where the first integrated school curricula were developed for elementary grades.

At that time Blonsky was shaped into a very observant and serious scholar with a sharp analytical mind, fluent proficiency in several foreign languages, a researcher who absorbed and implemented creative achievements of the Russian and international educational thought. Based on his knowledge and experience, Blonsky developed his own philosophy of education within the framework of the so-called labor school. Moreover, Blonsky became the most prominent proponent of labor education ideas, and a far-sighted creator of the school of the future.

Two seminal papers of the brilliant futurologist – Goals and methods of a public school and How to comprehend a secondary school [1] – produced the greatest impact on his contemporaries. The key idea of both could be expressed the following way, the goal of any public school is to educate people and foster their independent, creative, and active life position.

This is how Blonsky defined the school of the future: “It is a school of thought, humanism, social labor, and poetic feeling. It is based on a child’s activity and gradual self-development by means of independent and creative actions facilitated by the teacher. The primary aspect in a public school must be social and labor life of people. A public school is a school of social labor and a child’s practice in socially useful work” [3]. It is quite evident that in those papers Blonsky formulated a brief concept of a labor school which was later developed and enriched.

It is also of great interest how Blonsky wrote his papers. Here is a typical example from his memoirs: “Those were very hard days in my life. After a long, almost 11-hour working day I went to bed. But soon I woke up with a start, as if pushed by someone. My brain was in a feverish activity, and the first lines of the paper were born, as if on their own, as if coming from my whispering mouth. I started to write the paper late at night, and then the lines lay on paper without my own will” [3]. All this reveals Blonsky’s outstanding gift, his unusually creative and in many respects, irrational personality.

In 1918, Blonsky published his most famous book, The Labor School, where he raised the problem of thorough school education reevaluation so that school could graduate truly modern and highly educated people [1].

Very soon Blonsky realized that in order to implement his projects of labor education, he needed qualified teachers trained in this spirit. In the fall of 1919 he was appointed Head of such a professional institution – Academy of Socialist Education. It was undoubtedly a unique school for training future teachers. The first year offered comprehensive education. Students studied technology in the so-called “technical” (vocational) schools: textile, metal processing, and chemical. Theory of manufacture was offered along with practical work at factories, laboratories, carpentry and metal processing shops. Besides, students attended various studios to learn arts and politics.

The second year was devoted to general teaching methodology focusing on such primary disciplines as psychology, juvenile anthropology, history of pedagogics and pedagogics. In the final year, students concentrated on their majors, which included specific theoretical courses and appropriate field practice in schools.

Blonsky wrote that “the students were delighted with the academy. They did acquire new knowledge. They were developing; practically each day brought them more knowledge. All of them were ready to stand up for the academy. The academy invited various professionals to teach: engineers, economists, politicians, artists, and philosophers. The academy was known all over the country, it was flooded with applications from prospective students and visitors” [3].

All this stressful and versatile activity and unfavorable life conditions undermined Blonsky’s health. His TB became aggravated, and in the winter of 1921 doctors gave him their verdict – no more than two months of life left. Blonsky spent the spring and summer of 1921 in a TB sanatorium. It was at that time that Nadezhda Krupskaya, Deputy People's Commissar (minister) for Education and Vladimir Lenin’s wife, came to see Pavel Blonsky in his sanatorium. She invited Pavel Blonsky to become a member of a newly established center of Soviet educational thought – the scientific education section of the State Academic Council (GUS). That was the beginning of the most important period of Blonsky’s life and activities, his acme.

1922 became Pavel Blonsky’s climax year: his version of the school curricula received an enthusiastic support from Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky, the Soviet Narkom (People's Commissar, Minister) of Education. They became the foundation of the united labor school.

Till 1925 Blonsky acted as the major designer of the curricula for the so-called schools of the first level (practically, elementary grades). He published his famous work – Krasnaya Zor'ka (Red Dawn), a reader for elementary school children. Each of the book’s sections was followed by specially designed questions and assignments that directed children not only to apply their knowledge in practice but also towards creative self-study and search for answers in additional sources. For the first time in the history of Russian education, Blonsky implemented the idea of a child’s mental “immersion” into the surrounding reality, its critical analysis and, based on that, the enrichment or the student’s personal experience.

Pavel Blonsky was undoubtedly the most famous national educator of the 1920s whose books were extensively studied by teachers and educators. He was a key speaker at multiple conventions and conferences. Blonsky’s books and papers were widely published abroad where he was named “the Soviet Pestalozzi”.

However, along with the merits of Blonsky’s exuberant activity, that time also revealed rather dangerous tendencies – Pavel Blonsky was too quick to implement his scientific concepts and theoretical ideas directly in the school reality, causing serious negative consequences.

This was deeply troubling for a very ambitious Blonsky. Besides, another specific feature of Blonsky’s vulnerable creative nature revealed itself: he could not to write anything on commission and when he did, such papers turned out to be weak and upset the author. Only what he to wrote off his own bat was appealing and talented. Blonsky found the way out of this mental crisis and decided to return to child psychology or, as it was called at that time, ‘pedology’. Starting from 1925, the scholar focused mainly on studying the problems of pedology and psychology and wrote a number of fundamental works. Blonsky explained his interest in pedology by the fact that education would remain ineffective if it was not based on physiology, child’s psychology, and socializing factors of the environment. In Blonsky’s opinion, only anthropological pedagogics could become the essential instrument of child development and provide children with an access to world cultural achievements. Moreover, Pavel Blonsky was naive in his belief that ‘pure science’ would save him from ideological accusations and dangerous life misfortunes. Unfortunately, Blonsky’s life and fate demonstrated how mistaken he had been.

The 1930s witnessed Blonsky’s fruitful activities at the Institute of Psychology. He wrote his fundamental work Memory and Thinking (1935) [6], for which he received his PhD in Education without writing a doctoral thesis. Blonsky’s other major psychological works – Difficult Pupils [10] and The Development of Thinking in Pupils [14] – were also created and published at that period.

Apart from this, Pavel Blonsky is the author of fundamental works in pedology: Developmental Pedology; Pedology, etc. In 1935, Essays on Children’s Sexuality [1] were published which proved to be the first study of sexual development and education in the USSR. The book offered a scientific interpretation of such matters as the sexual experiences of boys and girls of different ages, the influence of childhood sexual experiences on the adult sexual life, the psychology of love, first love, etc.

The resolution On Pedological Perversions in the System of Education Commissariats [12] issued by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) in 1936, was the beginning of persecution against Pavel Blonsky. He was no more allowed to publish papers or deliver lectures. His two sons were arrested.

For the next several years Blonsky remained a primary target of criticism against “pedological perversions;” being the only major living ‘pedologist’ (child psychologist) after Lev Vygotsky, Mikhail Basov, and Aaron Zalkind were gone. One can only imagine how hard it was for an ambitious and extremely vulnerable Blonsky. Shortly before his death he managed to publish a short and the last paper Psychological Analysis of Recollection [8].

…On February 15, 1941, Pavel Blonsky died in isolation, forgotten by everybody, in a small local hospital. During the following twenty years his name was a taboo in the Soviet theory of education, and the publication of his works was resumed only in the early 1960s.

Reflecting upon Pavel Petrovich Blonsky’s life and work, we cannot but pay tribute to his brilliant personality, his amazing capacity to be goal-oriented and working hard, and an unshakeable belief in his own mission and uniqueness. No doubt, Pavel Blonsky was well aware of the scale and caliber of his gift. It is quite impressive how another famous Russian writer and educator Simon Soloveychik depicts Blonsky in his Hour of Schooling: “Blonsky’s portrait in a large sweater with the collar up to the chin is hard to resist. His glance is both strong and gentle, and it gives you an immediate impression of a very talented man…” [13].


  1. P.P. Blonsky,  Izbrannye pedagogicheskie i psikhologicheskiye proizvedeniya [Selected Works on Education and Psychology], Vol.1., Vol.2., Moscow, 1979.
  2. P.P. Blonsky, Kurs pedagogiki [Teacher-training Course], Moscow, 1916.
  3. P.P. Blonsky, Moi vospominaniya [My Memoirs], Moscow, 1971.
  4. P.P. Blonsky, Noviye programmi GUSa i uchitel’ [New Curricula of the State Academic Council (GUS) and the Teacher], 3nd ed., Moscow, 1925.
  5. P.P. Blonsky, Osnovy pedagogiki [Basics of Pedagogics], Moscow, 1925.
  6. P.P. Blonsky, Pamyat’ i Myshleniye [Memory and Thinking], Saint Petersburg, 2001.
  7. P.P. Blonsky, Pedologiya [Pedology], Moscow, 1934.
  8. P.P. Blonsky, Psikhologicheskiy analiz pripominaniya [Psychological Analysis of Recollection], Moscow, 2008.
  9. P.P. Blonsky, Reforma Nauki [The Reform of Science], Moscow, 1920.
  10. P.P. Blonsky, Trudniye Shkolniki [Difficult Pupils], 2nd ed., Moscow, 1930.
  11. P.P. Blonsky, Filosofiya Plotina [Plotinus' Philosophy], Moscow, 1918.
  12. O pedologicheskikh izvrashcheniyakh v sisteme narkoprossov. Postanovleniye TsK VKP(b) [On Pedological Perversions in ihe System of Education Commissariats. Resolution by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks)] dated 4 July, 1936. URL: http://www.zaki.ru/pagesnew.php?id=1933
  13. S.L. Soloveychik, Chas uchenichestva [Hour of Schooling], Moscow, 1973.
  14.  Vozrastnaya i psikhologicheskaya psikhologiya. Khrestomatiya [Developmental and Psychological Psychology. Collection of Works] / Ed. by I.V. Dubrovina, A.M. Prikhozhan, V.V. Zatsepin. URL: http://www.gumer.info/bibliotek_Buks/Pedagog/hrestomatia/index.php


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