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Educational Publishers in 19th Century Russia

Posrednik and Svobodnoe Slovo

Those who were not, like the Narodniki, directly concerned with spurring the Russian people to revolution and resistance, but rather simply desired to travel the steady road of information and education encountered inevitable obstacles along their path. Maybe there was somewhat less to fear from the police and censors at the time, but the problem of bringing the people to read and of making the books accessible to rural communities was significant. Emotions would also run high about the question of what the people should and should not read.

Posrednik: simple yet inspirational

Sunday Reading in a Village School, ca. 1899

Following the abolition of serfdom in 1861, the number of schools in villages increased significantly, there was much interest in 'vneskol'noe obrazovanie' (extra-scholarly development) and the number of village libraries also increased significantly, even though there seldom was any actual reading matter in the villages. The few farmers who were able to read had to content themselves with writings on holy people (hagiographies), published by the Orthodox Church, and so-called 'lubki'; cheap, popular prints reviled by those in Intelligentsia circles. A functioning network of publishing houses, printing companies and libraries was also lacking.

Posrednik ("Negotiator") publishing house, founded by Leo Tolstoy and his ideological ally Vladimir Chertkov in 1884, committed itself to fill this gap by the distribution of simple, informative booklets written in plain language, with a morally uplifting message. Tolstoy wrote numerous educational stories for the publishing house, and even though their moral effect was limited mostly to matters such as a the non-violent pursuit of good, being content in simplicity and the promotion of community spirit, his stories were still often rejected by the censors, though he himself was left alone.

Tolstoy and Chertkov, 1905-1906Tolstoy and Chertkov, 1905-1906

In 1885, Pavel Biryukov became a co-publisher for Posrednik. He worked very closely with Tolstoy in the following years and became his biographer. Nikolai Rubakin, who became noted as a bibliographer and who was a fervent propagandist in favour of the establishment of village libraries, was also a long-time contributor for Posrednik. In his manual for establishing and organising such educational libraries called Sredi knig, he writes: "The book is one of the most powerful instruments in civilizing and educating the people, in schools and elsewhere, in the struggle for truth and justice" (note 1). He wrote nearly two hundred easily readable books intended for the people. Unlike Tolstoy, he greatly valued combating ignorance and superstition by promoting exact knowledge, the provision of concrete information; about the natural sciences, for example (note 2). His more revolutionary minded contemporaries, like Georgi Plekhanov, one of the founders of Russian social-democracy, and literary critic Nikolay Mikhaylovsky, were very negative towards Tolstoy's stories and in general towards publications by Posrednik. They accused them of spreading superstition and encouraging the passive acceptance of one's fate. The journal Russkaja Mysl' criticized the booklets for focussing on individual virtues: modesty, patience and the banishment of evil within the individual person rather than fighting social ills.

Pavel BiryukovTitle page of Sredi knig, 1906

Practical obstacles: censorship and distribution

The government enforced strict supervision over the nature of the people's libraries. Literary works approved by the censor for the general reading public could still be designated as unauthorized for inclusion in village libraries, thereby exposing them to a form of double censorship. The Ministry of Education compiled a comprehensive list of books falling under that category annually (note 3). In a brochure about people's libraries, S. Stakhanov summarizes a series of humorous situations, in which a library manager could find himself if he follows these censorship rules: Is he permitted to possess a book designated as approved last year, but no longer so this year? May the library make a bundle of stories available, if one of those stories has appeared in a separate, unauthorized publication? (note 4) Another problem involved the distribution of Posrednik's releases. Russia's vastness combined with its poor infrastructure generally made the distribution of goods problematic, though the publishing house managed to successfully resolve this issue for its booklets by employing an existing network of 'ofeni' (pedlars). Following the example, and with the help of the commercial publishing house Sytin, these travelling merchants proved to be willing to carry Posrednik's booklets with them in their baggage. Posrednik would eventually become one of the most successful publishing houses for this type of reading material, boasting more than a thousand titles in huge volumes. In rural areas, they presented a welcome counter to the detested 'lubok' pamphlets.

From Posrednik to Svobodnoe Slovo

Posrednik Publishing House would continue to exist into the 1920s. However, Chertkov and other followers of Tolstoy's ideas were forced to leave Russia by the end of the 19th century (note 5). In the words of editor Pavel Biryukov: "[...] our publications were subjected to such strict censorship that it became utterly impossible to continue our work [...]. Everything that Tolstoy, our most important colleague, wrote was so reviled that the censors were filled with panic and fear at the mere sight of his name" (note 6). They were eventually exiled from Russia in 1897, partly because they had helped a group of Duchobors to establish themselves in Canada with Tolstoy's financial support. This religious sect was persecuted in Russia, amongst other reasons because they refused military service on account of their non-violence principles. Chertkov afterwards founded the publishing house Svobodnoe Slovo (The Free Word) in Christchurch, England, which he established with the intention of publishing Tolstoy's banned works in Russia and "to make known the facts regarding Russia's political and social reality, which on account of censorship cannot be released in Russia" (note 7). A journal of the same name was also released, with Biryukov as editor (note 8).  The publishing house quickly became very successful. During the period between 1897 and 1900, "via a variety of avenues, some 23,777 pages of print, a weight of about 15 pood" were smuggled into Russia (note 9). Biryukov settled in Geneva, where he founded the journal Svobodnaja Mysl,  "The Free Thought" (note 10), which existed until 1901. The journal Svobodnoe Slovo existed until 1905 (note 11).


note 1: N.A. Rubakin, Sredi knig (Among Books) St-Petersburg, 1906, p.I. (IISH call no. R1/10M,  copy originally from the Lavrov-Goc Library, nr. 2649)

note 2: N.A. Rubakin, "Uslovija rasprostranenija estestvenno-naučnych znanij v Rossii. (Doklad, čitannyj na II s"ezde russkich dejatelej po techničeskomu i professional'nomu obrazovaniju v Moskve". In:  Novoe slovo, 1896, nr. 7, April, p. 86 ev. (IISH call no. ZO 22159). See also A.E. Senn, Nicolas Rubakin. A life for books (Newtonville, Mass., ORP, 1977), p.11-12. (IISH call no. 133/224)

note 3: V.R. Lejkina-Svirskaja, Intelligencija v Rossii vo vtoroj polovine XIX veka. (Moskva: Mysl', 1971), p.271-272. (IISH call no. 36/138)

note 4: S. Stachanov, Narodnaja biblioteka-čitalnja i ee posetiteli (Moskva, Obščestvo rasprostranenija poleznych knig, 1900), p.17-20 (IISH call no. R349/30)

note 5: Some archive material about Tolstoy, Čertkov and the Tolstoyans can be found in the War Resisters' International (WRI) archives ( (inventory numbers 496 and 497) and the Charles William Daniels Company ( (inventory numbers 111-144).

note 6: From the introduction of the first edition of  Svobodnoe Slovo. Periodičeskij sbornik, pod red. P. I. Birjukova. (Purleigh, Essex, Čertkov, 1898-9), nr. 1-2, p.3. (IISH call no. ZO 22285)

note 7: Otčet knigoizdatel'stva 'Svobodnago Slova' V. i A. Čertkovych za period 1897-1900 gg. (Christchurch, A. Tchertkoff, 1901), p. 19. (IISH call no. R3/9)

note 8: Svobodnoe Slovo, Periodičeskij sbornik, pod red. P. I. Birjukova. (Purleigh, 1898-1899, 1-2) (IISH call no. ZO 22285) and Svobodnoe Slovo, Periodičeskoe obozrenie, pod red.  V.Čertkova (Christchurch, 1901-1905) (IISH call no. ZK 22226)

note 9: Otčet knigoizdatel'stva 'Svobodnago Slova' V. i A. Čertkovych za period 1897-1900 gg. (Christchurch, A. Tchertkoff, 1901), p. 15. (IISH call no. R3/9). A single list (pečatnyj list) is 16 to 20 pages, a pood is about 16 kg.

note 10: Svobodnaja Mysl'. Izd. Švejcarskago otdela Svobodnago slova. Ežemesjačnoe obozrenie. (Ženeva, 1899-1901) (IISH call no. ZO 22166)

note 11: In nr. 16 of 1901 of Svobodnaja Mysl' , there is an announcement by Biryukov that the journal will subsequently be edited by Chekhov and that the independent publication [Svobodnaja Mysl' ] will be retired, and that he will remain a Svobodnoe Slovo employee. In no.17-18 of May 1905, the editors write in the epilogue: "With this edition of 'Svobodnoe Slovo', we are forced – hopefully merely temporarily – to cease the continued publication of this journal, on account of a lack of materials."

Text and compilation: Els Wagenaar, June 2011

This presentation was created under the project "Memory of the IISH". See also: Els Wagenaar, 'Publications of Posrednik and Svobodnoe Slovo Publishing Houses in IISH's Russian Collections' in: A Usable Collection. Essays in Honour of Jaap Kloosterman on Collecting Social History (Amsterdam 2014) 310-317

12 November 2014