I just finished When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861-1917, by Jeffrey Brooks, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in Russian cultural history. It describes the kind of thing people without much education liked to read in the final decades of tsarist Russia and the production and distribution networks that got it to them, and besides resurrecting many long-forgotten writers, publishers, and stories (Brooks must have done a tremendous amount of reading for this project, and clearly enjoyed it judging by the brio with which he summarizes the tales of knights, maidens, ambitious peasants, and wicked foreigners) he brings to light a whole world that’s been forgotten in the canonization of High Culture. What I particularly like, besides the information itself, is his democratic take on it; he dislikes as much as I do those nanny types who want to control what the “little people” read and think, and is forthright in his belief that people should be able to have the kind of cultural input they prefer. I’ll quote a passage from his Epilogue:

The existence of cheap popular reading material was a prerequisite for the spread of literacy in Russia. Such material had to be of a sort that the newly literate were eager and able to read. In the Russian case, the market proved an effective means for identifying and satisfying the demand of the common reader. Ordinary people showed their preference for commercial popular literature by spending their hard-earned and very few rubles to obtain it. What was extraordinary about Russian popular commercial literature in contrast to Western European and American was its peasant character. Written for peasants and former peasants by people who were close to their world and concerns, it served these often first-generation readers with information and ideas they could readily absorb as they sought to make sense of the changing world around them. To create such a literature, popular writers had to develop a new language for ordinary people, with a shared if limited vocabulary and a common stock of clichés, symbols, and ideas. The establishment of this language of popular communication meant that many ordinary people were able to receive and exchange information through the printed word for the first time. The popular commercial materials in particular contained a fund of shared information that ordinary people could seek out as they needed it. To peasants and former peasants with new expectations and unfamiliar problems to solve, reading about fanciful characters and situations was a crude but simple way of acquiring useful ideas and symbols.

In her 1972 Russian Journalism and Politics, 1861-1881: The Career of Aleksei S. Suvorin, Effie Ambler (who never seems to have written anything else) writes “One must bear in mind that most present-day studies of the mid-19th century press commence from a conceptual framework derived from the views of the radical publicists of the time”; after Brooks’s work, one cannot commence from that conceptual framework without ostentatiously putting on blinders.


  1. Bill Walderman says:

    Wasn’t a dramatic rise in the literacy rate one of the major achievements of the first ten years of the Communist regime in Russia?

  2. The Communists were dedicated to minimizing any and all achievements of both the tsarist and provisional regimes and inflating their own. Yes, they improved literacy, but not as drastically as they claimed, and one has to bear in mind that literacy would have increased under almost any conceivable regime during the twentieth century (short of the Khmer Rouge, of course).

  3. michael farris says:

    I’ll just quickly mention some things related to expanding literacy, in any language where it has not been the norm, second hand direct from a specialist in the field (not me, but someone whose name I will withhold).
    - many literacy campaigns for languages fail for a simple reason, there’s not enough interesting stuff to read. This is still a problem in Sub-Saharan Africa where most reading materials for most languages are limited to religious tracts.
    - the single biggest factor for literacy isn’t a perfect (or even very good) orthography or tradition of literacy, it’s _authors_. Writers will willingly do the work to get people to read their magnum opuses (nb I don’t want to know what the proper latin plural form is). If you want to develop literacy in a language, don’t encourage reading, encourage writing.

  4. Well, that’s one thing Russia didn’t lack.

  5. So interesting to see your thoughts on this book! I was thinking of picking it up, as am fascinated by the rise of literacy in Russia, so it’s good to find an endorsement of it.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    Magna opera.
    (I’m feeling unusually sadistic tonight.)

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