Academic journal article Indiana Slavic Studies

"Romanov's University": Libraries, Books, and Learning in Imperial Russian Prisons

Academic journal article Indiana Slavic Studies

"Romanov's University": Libraries, Books, and Learning in Imperial Russian Prisons

Article excerpt

Many comrades in prison regarded their stay as a temporary respite from revolutionary work and considered it necessary, finding themselves incarcerated, to flesh out their knowledge so as to be the better armed to renew the revolutionary struggle. One could, without exaggeration, say that for the greater number of the political prisoners, prison was a great "Romanov's University." (1)


Imperial Russia's prison system has, in Western and even Russian eyes, long suffered from a particularly gruesome image in popular imagination as well as scholarly discourse. This perception has been remarkably durable for the more than a century since Western attention began to focus on Russia's jails and the treatment afforded there to political prisoners. From visiting and exiled Russian radicals, Western Europe heard tales of unmitigated horror, deprivation, and cruelty. The few observers from Western countries who reported on the situation confirmed and extended this impression, and furthered the already significant sympathy afforded the often educated and eloquent victims of tsarist brutality and oppression. Later reports from Soviet sources further developed, both domestically and abroad, the dreariest possible impression of Imperial Russia's prisons, often with the aim, sometimes implied but often explicit, of comparing the compassion, wisdom, and justice afforded by their Soviet successors. (2) Against this background, the idea that libraries and reading had a meaningful place in prisoners' lives appears at least surprising.

The existence of libraries in Imperial Russia's prisons perplexes even some specialists. The very low level of basic literacy among the empire's overwhelmingly peasant population makes even the proposition seem unlikely. Despite this perplexity, prison libraries were, in fact, widespread by the early twentieth century, and a few had managed to amass and organize extensive and wide-ranging collections. The proposition that both the prison populations and administrations valued these libraries is shown in a variety of sources, including prisoners' memoirs published chiefly after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, official government discourses and policy pronouncements published in Tiuremnyi vestnik, the journal of the Main Prison Administration, and the very small body of theoretical and practical literature on penology that appeared in Russia in contemporary educational and legal journals.

How these libraries came into being, how they were used, and how both jailers and jailed regarded them brings up larger issues of the social and political context in which these developments occurred: what do the facts and the course of the development of prison libraries say about cultural attitudes towards crime, punishment, censorship, reading, education, and literacy? What role did the state and emerging civil society play in creating and regulating prison libraries? This discussion traces the development of a belief in the process of reading as a transformative force to influence the heart, mind, soul, and, ultimately, the body of the reader. Both contemporary and projective discussions expressed this belief within official Russia, and the retrospective assessments of the inmate population who used the libraries and have left a record concur.

To study the development of libraries in Russian prisons, as well as the meanings and uses of reading and literacy therein, it is necessary to examine the sociology of reading and literacy in Russian society from both from the standpoint of the prison administrations and the inmates. For this inquiry, a prison library refers to a collection of books and other printed materials available for use with or by inmates in any category of residential penal detention. The variations in the attention given to active development and organization of book collections for the prisoner population are central to the discussion.

The sources available for this study are fragmentary and problematic. …

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