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Smolny Institute


Catherine II (the Great) founded the Smolny Institute for Girls, officially the Society for the Upbringing of Noble Girls, in 1764. Its popular name comes from its site in the Smolny Monastery on the left bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg. Inspired by Saint-Cyr, a boarding school for girls in France, Smolny was part of Catherine's educational plan to raise cultured, industrious, and loyal subjects.

Ivan Betskoy, the head of this reform effort, was heavily influenced by Enlightenment theorists. Drawing on the ideas of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Betskoy's pedagogical plan for Smolny emphasized moral education and the importance of environment. Girls lived at Smolny continuously from age five to eighteen without visits home, which were deemed corrupting. As at all-male schools such as the Corps of Cadets and the Academy of Arts, Smolny stressed training in the fine arts, especially dance and drama. The curriculum also included reading, writing, foreign languages, physics, chemistry, geography, mathematics, history, Orthodoxy, needlepoint, and home economics. The range of subjects led Voltaire to declare Smolny superior to Saint-Cyr. In 1765, a division with a less extensive curriculum was added for the daughters of merchants and soldiers.

Catherine held public exams and performances of plays at Smolny, and took her favorite pupils on promenades in the Summer Gardens. Portraits of these favorites were commissioned from the painter Dmitry Levitsky. Smolny also became a stop for visiting foreign dignitaries. Its graduates were known for their manners and talents and were considered highly desirable brides. Some became teachers at the school, and a few were promoted to ladies-in-waiting at court.

Peter Zavadovsky, who directed Catherine's commission to establish a national school system, succeeded Betskoy as de facto head of Smolny in 1783. He replaced French with Russian as the school's primary language and altered the curriculum to emphasize the girls' future roles as wives and mothers.

After Catherine's death in 1796, Maria Fedorovna took over the institute and made changes that set Smolny's course for the rest of its existence. The school's administration became less personal and more bureaucratic. The age of admittance was changed from five to eight, in recognition of the importance of mothering during the early years of a child's life, and the rules forbidding visits home were relaxed.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Smolny maintained its reputation as the most elite educational institution for girls. Its name was regarded as synonymous with high cultural standards, manners, and poise, although sometimes its graduates were considered naive and ill-prepared for life outside of Smolny. The many references to Smolny in the Russian literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries attest to the school's cultural significance.

In October 1917, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks appropriated the Smolny Institute and made it their headquarters until March 1918. Since then, the Smolny campus has continued to be used for governmental purposes, eventually becoming home to the St. Petersburg Duma. Several rooms have been preserved as a museum of the institute's past.

See also: catherine ii; education; enlightenment, im pact of; st. petersburg


Black, Joseph L. (1979). Citizens for the Fatherland: Education, Educators, and Pedagogical Ideals in Eighteenth Century Russia. New York: Columbia University Press.

Nash, Carol. (1981). "Educating New Mothers: Women and the Enlightenment in Russia." History of Education Quarterly 21:305306.

Anna Kuxhausen

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