Literacy in Russian Peasant Society at the end of the Eighteenth Century

There are two interpretations of literacy – the first implies the possibility of only being able to read, while the other means to be able to both read and write. My understanding of peasant literacy in this paper is the latter. There have been two tendencies in discussions of peasant literacy in the historiography. One approach argues that Russian peasants were quite literate and the average literacy level was about 15% of the population.[1]

The opposing view is that the overwhelming majority of peasants were illiterate and only the children of the clergy and the nobility obtained such an education. This different approach to literacy considers it one of the attributes of social inequality. For example, according to Mironov, only 4% of peasants were literate, albeit without giving exact details of province or uezd.[2] For Marker, the figure is between 3% and 5%.[3]

Literacy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries amongst different social estates can be broken down along the following lines: among landowners – 65%; tradesmen – 96%; townsmen – c.40%; strel'tsy and Cossacks – roughly 1% (according to Sobolevskii's figures).

The sources of literacy skills for these groups included the following: 1) education at home; 2) education through the Church; 3) education from former soldiers; 4) schools, organized by the State or landowners. Peasants were not admitted to official or State schools, such as those organised at the residences of archbishops (Архиерейский дом) or the Petrine Цифирные школы (1701-44). The latter were established by Peter the Great to obtain a sufficient number of literate men for use in the army or other forms of service.

The question of universal education in Russia was only raised in 1802, with the creation of the Ministry of National Education, although Jankovich de Mirievo’s project during the reign of Catherine the Great should also be noted). In the middle of the nineteenth century, the activity of 'Zemstvo schools' broadly changed the situation across Russia, although the final elimination of illiteracy began with the sustained State activities from 1919 onwards.

For studies of literacy, European archives have preserved many types of sources, including: 1) marriage subscriptions; 2) testaments; 3) tax collection records; 4) conscription records; 5) commercial records. Such sources are limited at best in Russia during the same period and are further complicated by the larger geographical distribution.

However, this kind of information is the distinctive and very useful feature of the materials gathered by the 'General Land Survey' (Генеральное межевание), especially the initial documents of boundary – 'ground notes' (полевые записки Генерального межевания). This enormous state operation was undertaken for the more efficient arrangement of state lands and the resolution of disputes over land. It began in 1754 and continued until 1917, encompassing two-thirds of Russia’s territory. It resulted in the creation of more than 600,000 maps and over 1.3 million documents. These maps did not only deal with the frontiers between different properties, but also the features of the land's usage, whether arable, grassland, swampy, forested, mountainous, and so on.

The Survey's documents also contained the imprinted subscriptions of each person who had participated in the boundary process. These imprints include some interesting details, such as: the type of the document; their name; their place of residence; their function(s) during the General Land Survey (i.e. as Attorney or Witness); a note of the act of signing or reasons for its absence (for example, illiteracy, unwillingness, absence, death, too busy, etc).

(RGADA, fond 1321, opis' 1, delo 1621, list 22)

There were two main categories of peasants, who participated in the General Land Survey.

The first category was the attorneys, who took part in the boundary process, when the landowner was: 1) away at state service; 2) too old or ill; 3) involved in the measurement of their other possessions; 4) didn’t want to participate in the survey. The attorney received special permission to represent interests of his master – referred to as a верющее письмо. In general, such attorneys represented the top tier of peasant society.

The other major category was the witnesses, who were taken from neighbouring settlements to observe the survey process during the period of agricultural work. Therefore, witnesses can usually be identified as ordinary peasants.

For a meaningful comparative investigation of these materials, my research chose to examine several districts outside the two capitals (in the capitals, there was a practice of using professional lawyers). These districts were: Dorogobuzh, Kashin, Kineshma, Balakhna and Uglich. The other limitations in using this method are connected with: lack of accuracy in fixation of boundary process, absence of subscriptions or additional information necessary for identification (like in many documents in the province of Tver’) and specificity of social structure (as in the Slobodsko-Ukrainskaia province).

Due to absence of patronymics and surnames, the identification of individuals has proven difficult. In order to determine the affiliation of a particular subscription with one peasant or another, my research has used several criteria, including: any mention of their landowner; their place of residence; their position in the list of signatories of specificities of signature; their status during the General Land Survey (i.e. Attorney or Witness); and other ways of identification. However, necessarily, some abridgement of the subscription information took place.

Abridgement of the Signature
Part of the Signature / District Dorogobuzh Kashin Kineshma Balakhna
Cause of the absence of the Signature 95% 81% 99% 85%
Type of peasantry 21% 13% 73% 65%
Place of residence 17% 27% 22% 73%
Identification 7% 24% 11% 65%

Literacy of Witnesses
District Types of peasantry
Economic Private Of the Palace Unidentified
instr. total instr. total instr. total instr. total
Balakhna 4 (21,1%) 19 1 (0,7%) 142 1 (3,4%) 29 4 (50%) 8
Kineshma 0 174 0 5 0 56
Dorogobouzh 0 36 0 169 0 6
Kashin 0 18 0 78 0 3
Tula 0% 0% 0%
Uglich 16% 0% 0% 0%

Witnesses – in other words, ordinary peasants, according to the subscriptions in the 'ground notes' – were almost completely illiterate, except in Balakhna, where several colonies of Old Believers were located.

Literacy of Attorneys
Uezd Types of peasantry
Economic Private Of the Palace Unidentified
instr. total instr. total instr. total instr. total
Balakhna 9 (56%) 16 25 (20,3%) 123 4 (66,6%) 6 11 (20%) 55
Kineshma 3 (1,78%) 112 1 (33,3%) 3 1 (1,96%) 51
Dorogobouzh 0 2 0 38 0 10
Kashin 0 5 1 (2,56%) 39 0 1

Attorneys were chosen from the upper tier of peasant society, but it should be noted that their literacy level was considerably higher. However, the results obtained from cannot be compared with information about European peasantry. The fixation of literacy of Western peasants to read and write was assessed on the basis of writing only their name without any additional data, as in the 'ground notes' of the General Land Survey. It can be contrasted with the boundary process, when the Russian peasant was able to complete several elements without writing, so the literacy rate could be underestimated.

The superposition on maps of roads and settlements, which were created also during the General Land Survey, provides the possibility of finding factors related to the expansion of literacy.

1. Proximity to major commercial routes – large rivers like the Volga or the Oka, or major roads (the correlation between proximity to major rivers and minor ones was different);

Correlations between number of literate peasants and distance to rivers
Quantity of literate peasants Distance to Volga Distance to Volga or Oka Distance to Volga, Oka, or smaller river
Number of literate witnesses — 0,20 — 0,20 — 0,11
Number of literate attorneys and witnesses — 0,01 — 0,30 — 0,17
All literate persons — 0,03 — 0,30 — 0,18

For ordinary peasants, proximity to major rivers led to weak increase of literacy, while for the upper tiers of peasant society, literacy was more valuable in remote villages, where these peasants could exercise the power of landowner in relations with the Economy Board (Коллегия экономии), Palace Board (дворцовое ведомство), and other official organs;

2. Economic reasons – related to seasonal work (отходничество);

3. Religious factors – Old Believers (старообрядчество), as some groups of them (согласия) transmitted information via books, in the same manner as some communities in Europe during the Reformation;

4. Belonging to non-private type of peasantry.

The amount of arable land per one male person also had an influence on the rate of peasant literacy.

Quantity Literate witnesses Literate attorneys and witnesses All person capable to make subscription by themselves
Amount of arable lands per one male person — 0,2 — 0,23 — 0,21

With the decreasing of tillage, it is possible to observe a slight increase in the quantity of literate peasants.

Unfortunately, the participants in the General Land Survey do not represent the full age range of the peasantry. This is shown in the materials of 2nd and 3rd Census Revisions (Вторая и третья ревизии), in which the majority of the peasants surveyed were middle aged.

Overall, my research shows that the literacy level amongst Russian peasants was unequal and was influenced by a number of important factors. These factors could include religious affiliation (i.e. belonging to an Old Believers community), their specific social/legal status (privately-owned peasants were almost all illiterate), and the location of their residence (whether by province or by proximity to major communication or commercial routes). Thus, while the Russian peasantry was – for the most part – illiterate, it nevertheless contained a small, but significant section that were able to read and write. As a result, this section was able to participate in a major state endeavour, such as the General Land Survey.

- Алексей Голубинский, Российский государственный архив древных актов


[1] А. И. Соболевский, Образованность Московской Руси XV – XVII вв. Изд. 2-е. (СПб, 1894).
[2] Б. Н. Миронов, 'Грамотность в России 1797 – 1917 гг.', История СССР, 4 (1988), 140–49.
[3] Gary Marker, 'Literacy and Literary Texts in Muscovy: A Reconsideration', Slavic Review, 41, 1 (1990), 174–89.

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