The illiterate person is like a blind man, or books vs. smartphones
People who think that all Russians do in their spare time is have dinner parties or go to the banya are very wrong. The myth does not line up with reality. And the reality is that Russians love to read, maybe more so than any other nation in the world!
According to a recent poll conducted by the Russia Public Opinion Research Center, over 90% of Russians read books. Just 22% of survey respondents said they read rarely. For the most part, these are people who haven’t completed secondary education.
So what are Russians reading these days?
According to sociologists, children’s books are the most popular among Russians – 31% of those polled say they read them. About the same number of people prefer history books, along with historical novels. Russians also like books about maintaining the home, working on the land, and growing fruits and vegetables, along with Russian and foreign classics, fantasy novels, professional literature, detective novels, and books about beauty, health, and psychology. Fiction and poetry are the least popular among Russians today.
The poll results show that 87% of Russians have a home library of some kind. 44% of respondents said their home libraries contain up to 100 books, 23% said they housed from 100 to 300 books, and 10% have between 300 to 500 books at home. Every twentieth Russian (5%) have home libraries that number between 500 and 1,000 books.
1,600 respondents over the age of 18 were polled for the survey. The respondents were interviewed over the phone, and the margin of error for the results is no more than 2.5%.
The poll results illustrated that Russia is still a nation of avid readers. Smartphones and other tech innovations were no substitute for real books in Russia. People in Russia started reading en masse in the beginning of 1939, when the country eliminated illiteracy – a large-scale project that began right after the revolution, in 1919. Prior to this, illiteracy was horrifyingly common in Russia. According to official records, the entire population of Russia between the ages of 8 to 50 couldn’t read or write back then! Alexei Radakov’s bright, famous poster could be found all over the country after the Revolution. “The Illiterate Person is Like a Blind Man, on All Sides Failure and Misfortune Lie in Wait for Him,” the poster read.
Typography first came to Russia in 1553, during Ivan the Terrible’s reign. That’s when the first three books with religious content were printed in Moscow.
But book reading became a real fetish in the Soviet Union. In public libraries, people read constantly. In books stores, it was almost impossible to get one’s hands on an interesting book. There was a shortage of books, same as with sausages. Books by popular authors could only be purchased on the black market, for very high prices. Some of these books cost up to 120 rubles – an astronomical price, considering that the average salary was just 160 rubles a month. Even Nikolai Shchelokov, the powerful Minister of Internal affairs of the USSR, had to resort to using the black market for books.
In one note to members of the Politburo from 1975, he wrote: “Profit making on books, which are in high demand among the population, has become widespread in a number of cities in the past few years. For the most part, this is memoirs, children’s books, adventure and detective novels, science fiction, as well as other books by popular authors.”
According to him, the profiteers acquired the literature from employees at bookstores, warehouses, and the book-sale network, or bought them from people and then resold them at higher prices. For example, the French novel “Angelique,” which was worth 2 rubles, was resold by profiteers for 50 rubles, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s book, which was worth 1rub 53 kopeks, was resold for 75-80 rubles.
There is an explanation for why the black market for books was growing. There was a shortage of everything in the country back then. Judge for yourself. The population of the USSR was over 200 million back then, but only 100,000 copies were printed for interesting books. However, hundreds of thousands of copies were printed for editions of communist classics – works by Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and books written by the country’s leaders, such as Leonid Brezhnev. Of course, very few people read these political books.
And of course, there was a blanket ban on books by authors who were considered a danger to the Soviet system. This included Boris Pasternak, Vladimir Nabokov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky, and many other Soviet writers whose books were published abroad. It’s no surprise that many of these writers were expelled from the USSR due to their writing. Yevgeny Yevtushenko was right when he wrote: “A poet in Russia is more than a poet.” Can you say the same thing about a poet in America or somewhere in Europe?
But the writers weren’t the only ones penalized. Readers who read these banned books were punished too. If these authors’ books somehow made it into the USSR, they were confiscated It may seem unreal, but people could end up in jail for having a copy of Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago” or Nabokov’s “Lolita.” Today, all of these books are freely sold in nearly every store. The range of different books you can find in Russian stores now is unbelievable: you can get anything you want. And this is wonderful. As Joseph Brodsky, who received the Nobel Prize in 1987, once said: “Man is what he reads.”