History of literacy in Russia


Nowadays, the ability to read and write is considered the norm, and the literacy of the population is the most important resource of many states. But this was not always the case. Today we will tell you about literacy in Russia.

History of literacy in Russia

First Russian alphabets

In the year 862, one of the future creators of the Cyrillic alphabet Cyril discovered a Gospel written in Old Slavic letters in the Crimean Chersonesos. This indicated that literacy existed in Russia before the creation of the alphabet by Cyril and Methodius. Today, this system of pre-Christian Old Slavic letters is lost and only its name – “traits and cuts” – stayed.

In 863, Cyril and Methodius, by order of the Byzantine emperor Michael III, created the first Slavic alphabet and began to translate Christian texts into it. This alphabet, called “Glagolitsa” (Glagolitic alphabet), completely replaced the Old Slavic writing system after Russia adopted Christianity.

Today, we know about at least two alphabets used in ancient Russia: the obsolete Glagolitic one and now living Cyrillic one (“Cirillitsa”). If the Glagolitic alphabet was created by Cyril, then the Cyrillic one, according to some sources, was created in Eastern Bulgaria by Preslav scribes.

Glagolitic alphabet with the phonetic correspondence to the Cyrillic alphabet
Glagolitic alphabet with the phonetic correspondence to the Cyrillic alphabet. Source: Wikipedia.

Literacy in ancient Russia

Archaeological studies show that about a thousand years ago, Russia began a noticeable and steady increase in the literacy of the urban population which continued until the Mongol invasion. They used mostly the Cyrillic alphabet and a little less the Glagolitic one. Birch bark letters and other written findings testify to the wide spread of literacy among the religious and secular nobility, merchants and elites of skilled artisans.

As a result of the Mongol-Tatar invasion and yoke and the general crisis of statehood, literacy in Russia declined. If some Kiev rulers (before 1240) could speak several languages ​​and studied in Constantinople, the first princes of Moscow (starting from 1389) were totally illiterate. Later, Ivan the Terrible (reigned from 1547 to 1584) and his addressees by correspondence demonstrated excellent education and enviable intelligence, but at the same time, half of the Russian nobility remained completely illiterate.

For the first time in the history of Russia, the idea of creating secular educational institutions rose under Boris Godunov (reigned from 1598 to 1605), but the Time of Troubles (period of Russian history during the interregnum in the Tsardom of Russia from 1598 to 1613) did not let those plans come to life. Therefore, the first institutions of this kind appeared only a century later, under Emperor Peter the 1st.

Literacy in Imperial Russia

Peter the 1st established the first schools for the sons of nobles and officials in 1714. At that time, the clergy preferred hierarchical schools, and merchants and artisans taught children at home, although they also had the opportunity to send them to school. The peasants were not educated at all, but the soldiers (90% of whom were from peasant families) were taught to read and write.

Over the course of a quarter of a century, Tsar Peter tried to create a centralized system of schools, so that each provincial city had two schools — one secular and one clerical. By the end of his reign, there were about a hundred schools in Russia. In 1727, a little more than 2 thousand people studied in secular schools, and about 3 thousand people studied in 46 clerical ones. This was, of course, very very little. In the Kingdom of Prussia, in the same year of 1727, the population was exactly 14 times less than in the Russian Empire, but there were only half as many pupils in the local school system.

Russian Pod 101

Starting from 1786, schools began to open all over the country, but mainly urban population could access them.

At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, Russia occupied one of the last places in literacy statistics in Europe. In 1800, about half of the population in Great Britain was able to read, almost 40% in Prussia, about 30% in France, almost a quarter of the population in Italy, and 8% in Spain. In Russia in 1800, the number of people who could read, according to various estimates, ranged from 3 to 5% of the total population. That year, the Russian Empire had 315 schools, with 790 teachers and 19,915 students.

For the first time in the world, the idea of ​​the universal, free and equal for all primary education was expressed at the state level in revolutionary France in 1791, although the wars slowed down its introduction. But the most successful educational reform took place in Prussia, where in 1819 the law on compulsory universal education was passed, and if the children were not attending the school the parents were sanctioned. By 1840, Prussia, with a population of 15 million, already had 38 teaching colleges that trained teachers for nearly 30,000 public schools. For comparison, in 1842, there were only 748 similar parish schools in the Russian Empire, in which less than 10,000 students studied. In other words, in Russia there were three times less pupils than schools in Prussia.

In Russia, the first attempt to teach the peasants was made in 1804, when primary schools opened at church parishes. Parish schools were maintained from the funds of the parishioners themselves, and only state peasants who did not belong to the landowners could attend them. In the 1850s, more than 23 million (out of the 70 million) inhabitants of the empire were landowner peasants, i.e. in fact and legally they were a commodity. For a living commodity, the question of universal primary education, of course, was not relevant. This category of the population gained access to education only after the abolition of serfdom in 1861.

In 1864, Zemstvos (local government in pre-revolutionary Russia) were established and the three-year schools introduced in them. Those schools played a significant role in raising the literacy rate in Imperial Russia. According to the results of the first Russian census of 1897, the number of literate people has already increased to 21.1% (29.3% of men and 13.1% of women) and almost doubled during the next 20 years.

Literacy in pre-revolutionary Russia

In 1907, in St. Petersburg, for the first time, a draft law “On the Introduction of Universal Primary Education in the Russian Empire” was introduced to the Duma. This bill has been under consideration for more than three years. As a result, universal primary education in Imperial Russia was never introduced: in 1915, universal free primary education operated only in 3% of Zemstvos.

Despite the impressive efforts of the imperial authorities to develop public education at the beginning of the 20th century, on the eve of World War I, just over 40% of children of the corresponding age attended primary schools in Russia. At the same time, the spending on education per capita allocated in Russia was ten times less than in England.

Russian Pen Pal

The lack of broad elementary literacy had a disastrous effect during the First World War. In the course of hostilities of unprecedented scale, soldiers and junior officers were killed en masse. But if the soldiers could be summoned from numerous villages, then the officers could not be “bought” or appointed from the ranks – the majority of the soldier peasant mass of Russia were either illiterate or hardly able to read. From 1915, they began to appoint to the posts of junior officers anyone with a sufficient education, including people who were under the supervision of the police due to their belonging to antimonarchist organizations. As a result, by February 1917, the junior officers of the Russian Imperial Army were no longer loyal to the ruling dynasty.

Literacy in Soviet times

By 1917, the year of Bolsheviks’ Revolution, already half of the population of Central Russia were literate, but in the whole country this figure did not exceed 30–35%.

The Bolsheviks almost immediately addressed the problem of literacy. In December 1919, the Council of People’s Commissars adopted a decree “On the elimination of illiteracy in the RSFSR”, according to which the entire population aged from 8 to 50, who could not read or write, was obliged learn to read and write. Moreover, the People’s Commissariat of Education got the right to forcibly mobilize all competent people to train illiterate people. This campaign to eradicate illiteracy is now remembered as “likbez” (ликбе́з / ликвида́ция безгра́мотности – liquidation of illiteracy). Special attention was also paid to teacher training.

In 1927, the government introduced the uniform school programs. Close attention was paid to the study of the Russian language and the languages of the national republics. Calligraphy became a mandatory subject for many years. From the 1930s, all children had to attend four-year schools, and later seven-year schools. As a result, according to the census of 1939, the number of literate among residents of the country aged 9–49 considerably increased to 87.4%.

While the Second World War made significant damage to the Soviet education system (more than 40% of schools were destroyed), the modernization of the school system continued despite the war and devastation. New subjects were taught in schools: logic, psychology, Latin. A school uniform was introduced, and the children now started the school strictly from 7 years old.

The first post-war decade was a period of sharp growth not only in the quantity but also in the quality of Soviet school education. Thanks to the backlog of the 1930s, the shortage of qualified teaching staff that was characteristic of previous decades was already overcome.

The next census was in 1959 confirmed that illiteracy was almost completely eliminated in the USSR: 98.8% of people aged 9–49 years could read and write. Thus, just before the first manned space flight, the issue of universal secondary education in Russia was resolved.

Literacy in Russia today

One hundred percent literacy rate in Russia is not achieved to this day. According to the UN data for 2007, Russia is among the twenty most literate countries in the world with a literacy rate of 99.5%.


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