Enlightenment ideology of the 19th century
And the formation of the attitude to reading the Bible in a contemporary Russian village

Katya Melnikova

Department of Ethnology, European University at St. Petersburg
Paper presented at the Fourth Nordic Conference on the Anthropology of Post-Socialism, April 2002


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Table of contents

The concept of reading
The role of peasant reading within secular Enlightenment discourse
The role of peasant reading within Orthodox Enlightenment discourse


In the paper I rely on the notion that reading is a cultural practice: its functions and the way of realization depend on the norms accepted by the community. The goal of the study is to give a brief characteristics of the conceptions shaped during the 19th century within official publicistic discourse that have affected the attitude to reading of The Bible in the Russian village.

I proceed from the assumption that the notion of reading The Bible in the peasant culture is conditioned by the idea of reading itself, on the one hand, and by the idea of The Bible as other principle religious book, on the other. A question becomes appropriate how these notions interact.

The Concept of Reading

One of the few anthropological definitions of the concept «reading» was offered by A.I. Reitblat in his famous book dedicated to the history of reading in Russia at the second half of 19th century. He writes:

«An ability to read is a technical skill that may be used with different goals. In some cases the reader acts only as a reader <Russian 'chitatel'' differs slightly from 'chtez' that may be translated as 'elocutionist' or 'someone who recites'>, a peculiar retransmitter who pronounces the written text for the illiterate; in other cases he must read by virtue of his social duties (reading of official papers by the officials and financial documents by merchants, cramming (oral recitation) in classes at school); finally thirdly - to satisfy spiritual <intellectual> demands and requirements. Each of the listed types of reading has a different meaning for the reader; below we call mainly the latter as reading. It is prevailing at the situations of crisis of traditional, customary way of the world, when a reader tries to find support in his life and, to solve his problems with the help of the book (i.e. people far away in the space and time but mentally close)» (Reitblat 1991: 8).

The definition offered by A. Reitblat reflects the ideas already formed in the research tradition. Reading is understood as a deliberate practice used by a person for the specific aims. In most cases (just as in Reitblat's case) the main goal of reading is considered as «satisfying intellectual demands and requirements», which presupposes that the reader has such demands and requirements and is aware of them.

The role of Peasant Reading Within Secular Enlightenment Discourse of the Second Half of the 19th century

An interest to a peasant reading and peasant literacy arose in Russian social press at the middle of 50th years of XIXth cent. This period is connected to popularity of romantic ideas within the educated strata of society. The concepts of 'narodnost'' (Russian ethnic consciousness) and 'narodnyj duh' (national spirit) became attractive and their bearers became attractive as well.

This time was connected to the preparation for reforms in the field of education that were incarnated in 1864. Province newspapers and journals demonstrate a striking and unanimous enthusiasm apropos of peasants' enlightenment.

It isn't difficult to see that two attitudes toward the «common people» that prevailed this period look a bit contradictory. Romantic conception supposes that «Russian narod» (common people) is a source of «duhovnost'» (spirituality) but enlightenment ideology considered common people as an ignorant and retrograde class of the society that should be educated and instructed.

The discussion apropos of the issue of peasant literacy that occurred at the pages of metropolitan journal illuminated a collision of two points of view. It included the most famous public figures of the time: N. Dobrolubov, N. Chernyshevskij, M. Saltykov-Schedrin, F. Dostoevskij, K. Aksakov. Brief article by Vladimir Dal in «Russkaja Beseda» (Russian talk) of 1856 where he treated the attention drawn to the problem of peasant literacy in a social politics provoked the debate. He emphasizes that literacy itself doesn't provide for enlightenment and what is more it may have a deleterious effect on peasants. Vladimir Dal was publicly condemned for his opinions and all the critics unanimously called him the adversary of peasant literacy. The very person who seconded him was Lev Tolstoj, published later an article titled «Who should be student of whom: peasant children of us or we of peasant children?».

This discussion illuminates some very important ideas accepted by educated elite of the time. Literacy and enlightenment are treated as different phenomena: literacy as a technical skill, and enlightenment as a specific system of attitudes and values. Majority of public figures consider the correlation between two concepts diachronically: literacy is an indispensable condition for enlightenment. Vladimir Dal understands it in another way: literacy and enlightenment should supplement each other and one doesn't make sense without other.

Lively discussion of the literacy issue made for appearance of a quantity researches on reading demand in the rural area. The most famous among them are those of N. Rubakin (1889), A. Prugavin (1888-1891), S. Rappoport, L. Kleinbort, Kh. Alchevskoj (historiography review of these investigations see in: Bank 1969). The purpose of the works was to carry the analysis of the books the Russian people read and to give appropriate recommendations to potential authors of the literature for «common people». In point of fact a research of peasant reading was aimed to demonstrate an «enlightenment level» of peasants and to indicate the ways of further enlightenment.

The role of Peasant Reading within Orthodox Enlightenment Discourse of the Second half of the XIXth century

The concept of enlightenment has no less importance for representatives of Orthodox Church, though it was understood in different terms. Enlightenment activity was considered as a missionary one oriented towards liquidation of peasant illiteracy in the sphere of the Christian doctrine. The issue of correlation between literacy and enlightenment even within the clergy was under discussion, but the dominating attitude was rather close to the ideas of Vladimir Dahl than to the prevailing secular position. The attitude to reading of Holy Books was considered as one of the key issues of disagreement between Orthodox and Protestant doctrines. The Archpriest Bobrov who arranged book trade in his parish stressed in his brochure:

«In Russia in contrast to Protestant West not only Holy Scripture is acknowledged as a source of faith and moral teaching but Holy Tradition equally» (Bobrov 1908: 35).

From the Orthodox point of view peasant education should be aimed at upbringing of «the soul». Here are the words of the famous priest of the time Ostromyslenskij:

«One should distinguish education internal, spiritual, evangelic from education present, worldly, scientific» (Ostromyslenskij 1861: 5). «By the word education I mean here evolution itself and improvement of human nature by means of religiously-moral upbringing and education» (ibid: 6).

Through its missionary activity Orthodox clergy traditionally put more weight to the priestly sermon than to the knowledge peasants could obtain from the book. Moreover, the opportunity to just read Holy Books was considered questionable. The debate on the occasion of The Russian Biblical Society (1812-1826) illustrates this aspect. The activity of the Society (organized after the model of the British one) was connected to the spreading of The Bible in regions (with respect to peasantry) and translating The Bible into vernacular languages. At the first period after its organization The Biblical Society gained popularity among secular and church elite, but in 1826 it was closed. One of the main reasons was pronounced by vicar Afanasij:

«There are people who beware that if The Bible, this treasure of Heaven, were passed into the hands of common people, it would loose its considerable value; beware that its content, particularly the content of the Old Testament, would be tempting for inexperienced people» (quot. under Pypin 2000: 89).

Universal circulation of The Bible without other means of sowing piety, to use the words of Metropolitan Seraphim, may resulted in a rise of schism (ibid: 263).

The idea of so called «smirennomudrie» (something like a 'humble wisdom') opposed to «vysokomudrie» ('high wisdom') is known in Orthodox writings from an earlier period. The exemple of medieval books present the cases of punishment for the sin of «vysokomudrie» and for the teaching and interpreting of Holy Books without Holy Will.

In this case we are facing the same opposition of literacy and enlightenment that we watched in the sphere of secular discourse. But enlightenment is considered now as an inner piety and finally as Holy Will.

After the discussion of opportunities for the ordinary people to read The Bible, in 1820-30s there prevailed an opinion according to which «a permission to read The Bible for everybody without any distinction is dangerous owing to possibility of misinterpretation». Then measures were taken to «interdiction of home reading of The Bible for the peasantry», it was considered sufficient to hear reading of the Gospel in church (Evseev 1990: 68).

In the second half of the 19th century Orthodox clergy became more loyal to this, but the described ideas nevertheless remained actual. The Archpriest Bobrov, who organized book trade in Vladimirskaja province and appealed to other priests to follow his experience, quoted in his own book the words from «Patriarchal Letters» to Synod where it was emphasized that «any pious person is allowed to hear Holy Writ for he could trust with heart in truth and with his mouth could profess for a salvation; but not every one is allowed to read some parts of Holy Writ, particularly of an Old Testament» (ibid: 69).

* * *

Thus we are facing a curious picture. Those public interests that determine an achievement of educational reform consider the literacy an indispensable condition for enlightenment which, in turn, should be carried by means of book supply in the village. Orthodox Church that is oriented towards Christian enlightenment, nevertheless, makes an effort to control the peasant reading.

At the end of the 19th century there was a qualitative change in the sphere of literacy in the Russian peasantry that meant not only increase of number of people who were able to read and write but a forming of social motivations for being literate. J. Brooks, who analyzed reading in Russia in 1861 - 1917, indicated:

«To them <common people in Russia> literacy was a form of higher learning, a science, but it was also a skill their children could acquire quickly during a couple of winters of formal or informal schooling. The popular understanding of what literacy meant was bound up with a sense of its worth. People became literate because they valued it, and when they sacrified to gain literacy for themselves or their children, they expected future rewards» (Brooks 1985: xiv).

The role of printed word in the rural area increased and up to the early 20th century printed secular books and newspapers gained popularity among peasants (ibid: 28).

Religious literature remains untouched by this process. Those social motivations J. Brooks is writing about do not cover the case of reading Holy Script. Psalter that had been one of the main books for education at the first half of the 19th century lost its role in the early 20th. The Gospel readings in church were still practiced.

Up to the 20th century the situation was as following. Reading of secular printed books was considered as prestigious and «modern» among village youth. Reading of spiritual and religious literature was referred to a priest and elderly men.

The 20th century and the secularization of many spheres of culture fixed this situation. Anti-religious propaganda that became a credo of the Communist ideology led to formation of the stable idea that reading of religious text should be veiled. Secular reading was popular and was associated with scholarship. Practice of reading The Bible did not correspond to the norm. The Bible wasn't considered a source of religious information. These are the main aspects of contemporary attitude to Bible in peasant Russia.

Folk tradition conditioned on mifologization of The Bible as Holy Book, the idea that is connected to the traditional stories about The Book felt from Heaven.

The analysis of contemporary data demonstrates that reading of The Bible only in a few cases is connected with a wish of «satisfying intellectual demands and requirements». Usually the person who tells his neighbors what he read in Bible presents himself as a peculiar one, knowledgeable, a person who is able to tell the future.

The issue of sincerity level of such appellation to Bible still remains rhetorical.


Bank B.V. (1969) Izuchenie chitatelej v Rossii (XIX v.) - Moskva

Bobrov A.A. (1908) Krestjanin i kniga (Iz lichnyh nabludenij za 27 let truda na pol'zu gramotnogo krest'janstva. 1877-1905). - Vladimir

Brooks J. (1985) When Russia learned to read. Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861-1917. - Princeton.

Evseev I.E. (1990) Ocherki po istorii slavjanskogo perevoda Biblii. Chast 2. Vyp. 2 // Komissija po nauchnomu izdaniju Slavjanskoj Biblii (Russkaja Biblejskaja komissija) 1915-1929. - Leningrad

Ostromyslenskij E. (1861) Ob obrazovanii sel'skogo prostanorod'ja // Strannik. Prilogenie. Kn. X. - Sankt-Peterburg

Porudaminskij V. (2001) Iz zametok daleveda // Voprosy literatury. N.6

Pypin A.N. (2000) Rossijskoe Bibleiskoe obschestvo. 1812-1826 // Pypin A.N. Religioznye dvigenija pri Alexandre II. - Sankt-Peterburg

Reitblat A.I. (1991) Ot Bovy k Bal'montu. Ocherki po istorii chtenija v Rossii vo vtoroj polovine XIX veka. - Moskva