Illegal popular education in nineteenth century Russia:
the Narodniks


Many hidden treasures can be found in the IISH collections. Here we shed light on one of them. It concerns some 20 illegal Russian brochures used in the 1870s by the 'going to the people' movement.

'Going to the people'

Some ten years after the abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861 the 'going to the people' movement started among students and young intellectuals. Faced with the restrictions of a severely autocratic regime, where gathering in small groups to discuss social subjects or possessing certain printed matter that had been produced without the approval of the censor was enough to result in imprisonment or exile, the Narodniks (narod = people) considered it their duty to devote their lives to the improvement of the people's fate. Among these revolutionary Narodniks supporters of different currents could be found. Some of them addressed the workers as the potentially most revolutionary class, others saw in the Russian circumstances the peasants as bearers of the germs of a new, more just society. Some of them felt that propaganda should be aimed at immediate revolutionary activities, others thought it important, that the young revolutionaries first gather enough knowledge and necessary expertise themselves.

In this period Mikhail Bakunin and Petr Lavrov were the most influential theoreticians, Bakunin being the most popular among young people in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. They found his calls to immediate action more sympathetic than the ideas of Lavrov, who was afraid of premature revolutionary outbursts and considered a long period of self study necessary before undertaking any propaganda activities. In his opinion the social revolution should be accomplished by the majority, by the people itself. It was the task of the minority (the intelligentsia, the students) to systematically pave the way. Their role should be to initiate, to educate and to unfold new ideas. An important practical problem in this respect was how to create the link between the 'revolutionaries from the privileged circles' (the title of an article by Lavrov's collaborator Valerian Smirnov note 1), and the masses of the people.

Reading to the peasants

In 1873 and the spring of 1874 thousands of young people interrupted their studies and left for the countryside in order to live among the people, dressed in clothes that should be like those of the peasants, and armed with illegal educational pamphlets to read to the mostly illiterate countrymen and to use as a means to start conversations about a more just, socialist society. Sometimes they were met with mistrust or were even handed over to the authorities. But they also had good experiences. Sergei Stepniak-Kravchinskii note 2, one of the participants of the 'going to the people' movement and author of some of the pamphlets, wrote in his memoirs: '[…] as soon as a propagandist arrived in the village, the peasants left their occupations and came to listen to him' and 'All [of the village people], young and old, after a long working day gathered around [the propagandist] in a dark sooty hut, where by the weak light of a chip of wood he told them about socialism or read something from a pamphlet he brought.' note 3

After a couple of years the 'going to the people' movement, which had begun on such a large scale and with so much idealism, was powerless against the harsh reality. The propagandists were arrested by the hundreds and sentenced in large trials (the 'Trial of the fifty' and the 'Trial of the 193') to hard labor or exile, while some died in prison even before the trial.

A message in disguise

There were divergent views on the content of the pamphlets that were intended to spread the message and narrow the gap between activists and the agrarian community. The final goal was to establish socialism in some way or another, there was no doubt about it. But how should the message be disguised to be effective? Should it ignite the struggle against the authorities (czar, church, landowners) straightaway? Or should the initial goal be to disseminate basic education to enable the peasants to read and decide for themselves? Would it be advisable to denounce the czar and the church in a time when the populace had great and boundless trust in them? Or should these religious feelings be used or rather abused in the propaganda, for instance by claiming that the socialist ideal in its own right sprouted from some divine power?

The members of the Chaikovskii group, who frequently visited the countryside and published some of the pamphlets, argued that it was not right to hurt the peasant's feelings for their czar and church, but rather rally against the government and the landlords. Lavrov refused to publish the pamphlet O pravde i krivde (On Truth and Falsehood) written by Kravchinskii, as it 'equalizes early Christianity to a doctrine of socialism'. note 4 And N. Rubakin, who would later become famous as a bibliographer, warned against depicting the devil on the book covers, because the peasants would interpret this as the apostle of adversity. Petr Kropotkin wrote in his Programma that there was a demand for books 'that breathed the spirit of independence and administered the sense of power to the people.' note 5 Quite often, the pamphlet's message was disguised in a fairytale and borrowed elements from folklore.

Clandestine reading

Making and distributing this printed matter was complicated and often hazardous. In Russia, printing facilities were extremely limited. Usually the booklets were printed by Russian emigrants in the West and then smuggled into Russia with a great deal of trouble. The group around Lavrov in Zürich (as of March 1874 in London) had a nabornja, machinery to set up the type of publications. The majority of the pamphlets mentioned in the list below were set up here. The group consisted of about eight persons dwelling in a commune who devoted all their time to this work. The actual printing job was carried out by trusted printers. With the help of various networks, the texts were smuggled into Russia, either across land frontiers or overseas by reliable sailors. Lavrov's magazine Vpered! (Forward!) was produced and distributed in this way. The first relatively productive underground printing office in Russia proper was Vol'naja Russkaja Tipografija in Saint Petersburg, 1877, called Peterburgskaja Vol'naja Tipografija since 1878. Five editions of 1500-3000 copies of Zemlja i Volja were printed there.


note 1: V.N. Smirnov, Revoljucionery iz privilegirovannoj sredy, in: Vpered!: Neperiodičeskoe obozrenie. Cjurich, 1874, t.2, p. 122-155 (IISH callno. ZO 22395 and ZO 52676)

note 2: It was common practice among revolutionaries in tsarist Russia to publish under a pseudonym. Afterwards they often used a double name, consisting of the pseudonym, followed by their proper name. In this case Kravchinskii is the proper name and Stepniak the pseudonym.

note 3: S. Stepnjak, Podpol'naja Rossija (London, 1893), p.13-14. (IISH callno. R313/300)

note 4: B.M. Sapir (red.), Vpered 1873-1877: Materialy iz archiva Valeriana Nikolaeviča Smirnova. Dordrecht, 1970, t.1, p.92 (IISH callno. 57/1A)

note 5: Agitacionnaja literatura russkich revoljucionnych narodnikov. Potaennye proizvedenija 1873-1875 gg. (Leningrad, 1970), p. 23 (IISH callno. 27/206)


Text and compilation: Els Wagenaar, May 2011
This presentation was created under the project "Memory of the IIISH"