By the early twentieth century, literacy rates in Russia substantially increased among urban workers and peasants as a result of extending public education to previous illiterate sectors of the population. This drive toward adult education was not only driven by earlier Tsarist reforms to the education system, but also by a voluntary movement of popular education introduced through alternative schools set up by the liberal intelligentsia. In the larger cities in particular, literacy rates exploded, with over 40% of “peasants” in the Moscow region becoming literate versus 25% in the hinterlands (this legal definition of “peasant” In urban areas was defined narrowly by place of origin and many of these “peasants” were in fact factory workers.)
Within the urban workforce, literacy rates also reflected divisions of skill. Literacy rates among metal workers and other skilled tradesmen in Moscow rose to 66%, with unskilled workers lagging behind. Rising literacy also reflected gender disparities, with 74% of working-class men in St. Petersburg able to read and write, while only 40% of women workers met minimum literacy requirements. Age differentials also arose, with younger workers achieving literacy more than older. Workers began spontaneously forming self-education clubs to further their desire for knowledge. As one observer noted, when asked what they wanted to learn, the average answer was similar to the reply of one worker who said, “I want to learn everything!”
Out of this cultural ferment in urban areas, a new type evolved: the worker-writer or plebeian intelligentsia, as it was labeled. This layer admittedly was small compared to the overall number of literate urban workers, but through writing, they exercised an outsized influence on the cultural politics of the left. All wings of the Russian radical movement, from Bolsheviks to Socialist Revolutionaries, supported this movement, hoping that writing would further extend political consciousness among the vanguard minority willing and able to express themselves with the written word. Many workers’ educations clubs rejected outside assistance, demanding that workers should determine every aspect of learning themselves.
Soon, a network of worker-written publications spread. Nearly all were small circulation with crude layouts; some in fact were hand-copied and the writing seldom attained the standards of “high” literature. To militants of political parties, this growth of workers’ self-education clubs and periodicals appeared to be the first tentative and fragile offshoot of a genuine proletarian culture. Yet it is equally important not to over-estimate this layer’s social weight. Out of over a half-million factory workers in St. Petersburg, for instance, only 7,000 at best participated in workers’ self-education.
But what workers wrote about was not the same as what militants hoped for. For the minority who set pen to paper, their writing displayed, as Mark Steinberg, the historian of the movement, notes, “a sense of individual personhood. They wrote about the humiliation of factory work and demanded dignity from bosses and supervisors.” The worth and importance of the human individual was expressed in most writing and not the anonymous collective worker-bee aiming for the bright red dawn of the future.
Many themes were melancholic, inwardly focused, and almost proto-existential: workers wrote about their despair at being trapped in factory work with no escape. They questioned the meaning of life and what it meant to live. Some implicitly wished for death to liberate them from the danger of the workplace; the crudity, lack of interest in culture and rampant drunkenness of fellow-workers; the disease, overcrowding and filth of urban slums, and the unyielding rigidity of the class structure. Others contrasted the hell of the factory to the simple joys of nature they experienced as children in the countryside. As Steinberg notes, “Worker-publicists and worker-poets typically directed their critical voices not against the class structure per se, but rather against the harm it inflicted on people’s lives and spirits-the damage it caused to workers’ personalities . . .” Representative of these themes was the poem of one worker-writer:
“I am a bard of the working masses/No one envies my song/I sing not of flowers or of the sun/Of twilight I sing.”
The irony, not lost on many observers, was that access to culture increased the plebeian-intelligentsia’s alienation not only from the official world, but also from their fellow workers. They felt themselves alone and misunderstood in a hostile world, where obtaining culture meant the onset of a profound personal crisis and a sudden sense of aloneness, compounded by the fact that such workers could rarely rise above their status as workers and join the middle-strata intelligentsia. All avenues of escape appeared blocked; there was truly no exit. As one worker-writer wrote, a worker’s lot meant “They lie in vacant lots and go out of their minds. They lie in railway stations and take their own lives, throwing themselves under trains. They fill the prisons and they fill the madhouses. And they fill the factories and shops.”
Bolshevik intellectuals especially were exasperated at such themes and wondered why workers seemed so consumed by “bourgeois individualism.” But overlooked in such assessments by political militants was the subversiveness of declaring one’s individuality and expressing it in the master’s own language. This awakened individuality, the sense of a self capable of suffering and feeling, often, paradoxically, was an expression of incipient class consciousness. As Peter Sloterdijk noted in The Critique of Cynical Reason, “when the worker says ‘I,’ everything begins to change.” Steinberg too points to how this seeming individualism, in a complex dialectic, primed many workers to “see their “I” in others.”
The 1905 Revolution changed things, not by causing worker-writers to jettison themes of suffering and personal awareness, but by their linking such themes to more open critiques of society and oppression. A good example is the worker’s essay that appeared In the Baker’s Union newspaper starting off with “Baker! You are a Human Being. From now on, you will be a Human Being. Consider 1905 the year of your creation.” Here, we see themes of individual awakening feeding fertilely into a movement of collective liberation.
After October 1917, this expression became more confident and publicly assertive. For a few short, heady years, workers’ drive toward self-expression and social critique became part of the early revolutionary-era Prolecult movement, though never completely subsumed under it. But already, the forces of conformism and regimentation were growing and by the early 1920s, crude “proletarian” propaganda took over. As the last independent worker-writer clubs dissolved or were merged with state propaganda agencies, the only officially sanctioned expressions were those extolling the factory, machines and blissful sacrifices for the future; the sort of inwardness and self-reflection in the pre-1917 years were labeled signs of “bourgeois decadence” and repressed. A typical example of the new norm was the following poem:
“Suddenly transformed/Into a melodious, happy temple/ Steel leaves, like icons, /Shine in golden fires . . . /The fiery hearths boiled/Like cups of red wine/And the smokestacks, black with encrusted soot/Is filled with intoxicating juices . . . /And even the brick furnaces/Bloom with a luxurious flower.”
But even paeans to brawny workers merging with their machines in forging a radiant Red future, on the surface dreary in their uniformity, contained a subversive critique, a critique sharpened by over-compensation. Because Soviet reality was in such conflict with the ideal, workers’ writing almost seemed an intentional exaggeration, drawing attention to the unhappy circumstances of their present lot – a fact that secretly worried more perceptive Party officials.
While a minority of worker-writers rose to assume positions in state newspapers and publishing houses, the majority of pre-1917 writers lapsed into anonymity and silence; a silence that still didn’t protect them from the waves of exile, executions, and anonymous graves that rolled over the Soviet Union during the Great Purge of the 1930s. Their small journals gathered dust in official archives and musty file cabinets, occasionally exhumed only when politically expedient to score polemical points, until rediscovered several generations later.
Mark D. Steinberg (1994). “Worker Authors and the Cult of the Person.” In Stephen P. Frank and Mark D Steinberg (eds.) Cultures in Flux: Lower-Class Values, Practices and Resistance in Late Imperial Russia. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mark D. Steinberg (2002). Proletarian Imagination: Self, Modernity & The Sacred in Russia, 1910-1925. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.