Looking at Literacy in a Multi-Ethnic Russian Empire

While Kappeller discusses several different aspects of ethnicity in the nineteenth century in the eighth chapter of The Russian Ethnic Empire, the portion discussing the growth of literacy most definitely stands out.  When discussing literacy, Kappeller first explains that the censuses taken in the latter half of the century, he notes that literacy was defined by reading, but not necessarily writing.  Additionally, only the ability to read and write Russian was recorded, making literacy rates among certain ethnic populations lower.  Kappeller notes this could be one of two things: either education in the ethnic school systems were oral and repetition-based (or as Kappeller calls it, “parrot fashion”), or the census may not have taken into account foreign languages such as “Arabic, Tatar, Hebrew, Yiddish, or Mongolian” (Kapeller, pg. 310).  Additionally, he compares literacy between Protestant and Jewish populations with Protestants in Russia having more literacy, primarily because women were more literate in these communities than in Jewish communities.  This can be tied to the differences in educational beliefs, like that in Jewish communities, education was geared toward men.

1. Although Kapeller mentions that had the census recorded the ability to write along with literacy, it would have made the numbers for literacy in Russia as a whole significantly decrease, the bigger question is not why writing was not recorded in the census, but rather why were so many people literate yet not able to write?

2. Why wasn’t literacy still widespread with the general population of Russian women at this point in time, and mostly just in Protestant communities?

Life in Post- Kievan Rus’

The evidence of the growth of literacy among the population in post- Kievan Rus’ breaks ground for many reasons. First off, it shows an attention to the youth and the next generation- not only so that they could have the ability to utilize these resources, but also as the investment to further generations. The fact that there were young people learning to write shows that society wanted further preservation of it’s culture past the point of the monks and the church. The second point that this evidence makes is about the standard of living for these people. If there was investment in the literacy and writing for the youth then perhaps this shows that the standard of living was increasing so that children could spend time studying in addition to their work with their families. Although seemingly unrelated, this raises questions for me regarding the family structure; such as if more concentration on the academics and quality of life of one child was evidence of smaller households at the time (where maybe there were more investments that could be made for each child). Certainly all of this could be an exaggerated analysis as most likely only the very elite had the ability to teach their children writings, but it simultaneously brings into question at what point the general public reached the standard of living that they would be educated as well.

Culture in Post-Keivan Rus

Due to several factors, most of which were a result of the Mongol invasion, there is very little evidence detailing the day-to-day culture which existed in Post-Keivan Rus. What we do have, however, does provide interesting clues about literacy, the arts, and entertainment of the day.

One source is a doodle by a boy distracted in the middle of practicing his alphabet. The boy, Onfim, provides a drawing of an unidentified man atop a horse stabbing another unidentified man lying upon the ground. One of the reasons that this is interesting is its implications about education and literacy of the time. It’s likely that this student was being formally educated from the nature of his work. Because literacy was rare amongst the common people we can assume that he was not being taught in a school-like setting, so he may have been working with a tutor of some sort. Onfim’s education may indicate that literacy was more important to the culture than previously believed, if his parents were concerned enough to start his learning at a young age.

A popular but controversial form of entertainment for the common people was the minstrels, or the skomorokhi. The skomorokhi did a variety of things for the entertainment of others, including animal training, acting, juggling, playing music, and dancing. They were easily identifiable by the bright colors of the costumes that they wore. Though loved by the common people, they were not so popular in the church. In a collection of sermons called the Zlatoust they are condemned for “preparing the road to perdition for themselves and their followers”. Even after being put down by the church their popularity rose still in spite of it. It’s interesting that the people seemed to care more about the entertainment the minstrels provided than the opinion of the church on that form of entertainment, judging from  the fact that the people were still listened to the group that the church looked down on. It’s also interesting that the people who made up the skomorokhi held positions all along the social hierarchy, some being  well off, others being poor.

Literacy in Post-Kievan Rus’

The readings, focused on culture during the fourteenth and fifteenth century, shed light on literacy rates and leisure. Birchbark charters show evidence of literacy among children, while artifacts (instruments, masks and manuscript initials) are indicative of traveling minstrels. Despite the information provided, however, the author and compiler speaks of many things we don’t know or have evidence of (possibly due to the Mongol occupation). Art and architecture are almost absent, prior to what Sakharov notes as a ‘cultural renewal.’

The birchbarks were particularly interesting, providing some evidence to the notion that literacy was spreading. The picture, drawn by Onfim, displayed a drawing of a boy (or man) riding a horse and slaying some type of villain. While at first the age of the creator could be drawn into question (how can the age of Onfim be established?), there are several key aspects that point towards what the author suggested. While style can’t really be taken into account (the shaky lettering would suggest someone new at penmanship), the proportions of the drawing seem more child-like. As children grow and develop, their perception changes. The length of the arms and and legs in relation to the torso could support this theory.

While the birchbark charters do display evidence that literacy was increasing, how widespread was it? In previous readings in lectures, it’s been noted that Novgorod was particularly special, due to its relationship and interaction with other nations. What does the author define as ‘formal instruction’?

Daily Life and Culture in Post-Kievan Rus’

Although many aspects of daily life in Post-Kievan Rus’, both during the Mongol invasion and directly after, have been lost in the intervening centuries, scholars have been able to determine several valuable insights into Post-Kievan culture. Literacy was not widespread at all during this time period–even some princes were illiterate. However, “birchbark charters” c. 1220 show us that some non-royal children did learn the alphabet and to write their names. Furthermore, the Mongols, through their violent occupation, destroyed buildings and left little market for artists to sell their goods. However, Andrei Rublev (c. 1370-1430), one of the most famous painters in Russian history, lived during this time and managed not only to create art, but also to develop new strategies and modes of painting. Peasants had few forms of entertainment besides traveling minstrels, who sang, danced, juggled, and tamed animals. The Church managed to destroy most records of these entertainers, but a few of their masks and images of them survive to today.

I found the Novgorod Birchbark Charters particularly interesting. Scholars tend to take them as evidence of children learning to read. However, I wonder how–or even if–scholars are able to determine that the document pictured in our text (p. 129) belonged to a small child versus an adult. To that point, how do they know that the drawing of a man on a horse was Onfim “distracted to depict is how imaginary conquests” (“Evidence for Literary” 128), and not a peasant adult–or even a boyar–drawing a picture of his personal, violent feat? I find it difficult to believe that, in such a largely illiterate society, children would be taught to read and write before adults.

I’d like to know what sort of impact, if any, the Mongols had on literacy in Post-Kievan Rus’. The readings explain how they impacted art and architecture, but what about education? In a broader sense, all of these readings make me wonder if there are still very large gaps in our knowledge of Post-Kievan culture and daily life. What don’t we know?

Feodossi’s Enduring Faith and Literacy in Ancient Rus

Christianity’s arrival to Rus was a major event that shaped Russia’s history as we know it today. Its heavy influence is explicitly stated in the Primary Chronicle and had an immense impact on Rus’ society. When Prince Vladimir brought Christianity to Rus, the way people lived their day to day lives changed dramatically. One story that served as a portrayal of an ideal Christian life was the Life of St. Theodosius.

Named Feodosii as a child, Theodosius’s life was devoted to modeling the behavior of Jesus Christ. Born into a family of wealth, Feodosii was a servant of Christ from a very young age. He would wear patched, ragged clothing to humble himself despite his mother insisting on him wearing fine clothes that were available to him. He would not listen to his mother when she said that by being like the poor, he was bringing dishonor to his family name. He would go to church daily and pray as much as possible. Despite being severely abused by his mother when he would do things such as selling bread that he made himself and then giving his profits to the poor, his faith was steadfast. He saw his suffering as something necessary, just as Christ had suffered. 

Despite how extreme and seemingly irrational St. Theodosius’s faith was, it served as an example for society. I don’t think the church expected anyone to completely adhere to this type of lifestyle but was something that it wanted its members to constantly to keep in mind. During times of hardship and tribulation I think this tale could be something to keep in mind and express the idea that suffering is a necessary part of life.

The uncovering of things such as birchbark writings and cathedral grafitti shows that literacy was to some extent prevalent in ancient Rus. The fact that there are writings on things as simple as birchbark leads me to believe that literacy was somewhat prevalent. I don’t think that people with high status would choose to write messages on things so easily accessible. Also, the types of messages seen on some of the barks are very simple further explaining that it could have been a prevalent practice. If literacy was so rare, I feel that more complex and sophisticated messages would have been left behind.