Speaking Soviet – The Marriage of Soviet Linguistics and Literacy in the Early Soviet Period

By Kate Martin

With the advent of the early Soviet period, the idea of literacy and language was one which was at the forefront of the minds of the Bolshevik leadership. Although work had begun in the late 19th and early 20th century by the previous regime to make education and literacy more available to the population, it had moved at a very slow pace: in 1914, only 41% of the population was literate[1]. To combat this, the Soviets mobilised a variety of new literacy schemes, including the successful Obshchestvo doloi negramotnost’ – The Society for the Eradication of Illiteracy.

‘We are not slaves’ – Soviet Illiteracy Eradication Campaign Poster

Parallel to this, in the upper echelons of Soviet sciences, work was being undertaken at a lightning pace as linguists raced to find a ‘true’ theory of Marxist Linguistics. One such individual was Boris Larin, who argued that language users could move between several metalanguages in their own mother tongue. He focussed on the language of the state, language of the family group and language of the workplace. Per his theory, the same word might have different connotations depending on the metalanguage being used at the time.

While he did not suggest that his theory could be used in terms of language planning, a study of literacy campaigns shows how they can be used to influence language use by interlinking and homogenising the metalanguages of each language user. The campaigns were quickly put into action by an army of teachers and volunteers. Figures from the Central Moscow State Archive, TsGaMo, show the scope of the Society for the Eradication of Illiteracy.

Numbers of Illiterates Educated                                 Numbers of Semi Literates Educated

Year In Moscow In the Counties Total in the Moscow Region In Moscow In the Counties Total in the Moscow Region Total
1920/21 12000 21000 33000 3300
1922/23 3155 4500 7655 2400 1500 3900 11555
1923/24 5000 10000 15000 3710 3500 7210 22210
1924/25 5399 22953 28352 5945 7756 13701 42053
1925/26 6095 29435 35530 4746 8931 13675 49205
Total 31649 87888 119537 16801 21687 38486 158025

Figure 2: Numbers of Literate and Semi-Literate Citizens Educated in the Moscow Region between 1920-26[2]

However, literacy, to the Soviets meant more than the ability to read books and newspapers. As one early literacy scheme curriculum stated on its sign-up sheet, as a way of repaying the debt that they owed to the freedom afforded to them by the Great October Revolution all citizens “Can learn and must study the national economy”[3]. This focus on national economy greatly influenced the curricula of the literacy classes.

As well as learning about grammatical structures and reading skills, students in these schemes also learned about the different industries of the USSR. Indeed, the curriculum above stated that. “The economy is made up of production, for example that of textiles, metallurgy, mining industries and farming.”[4]

So how does the linguistic theory link to the literacy campaign, and how does it teach citizens to speak Soviet? Interestingly, the answer to this lies in newspapers. One of the main skills in the literacy curriculum was the ability to read and understand newspapers. This appears to be a rare case of the Soviet powers successfully joining the dots between their different schemes: newspaper articles often focussed heavily on the efforts and ‘successes’ (to be taken with a large grain of salt) of the various industries in the USSR.

Thus, Larin’s ‘the political’ and ‘the workplace’ metalanguages became much more closely connected. The extended definition of literacy created an impetus for more people to learn to read. The design of the curriculum meant that learners were exposed to a wide variety of topics relating to industry, and were instructed in how to read about these subjects in the newspapers. As the topics in the curricula were broad in range, people could access a much wider variety of information, and indeed compelled to read on more topics than they would have previously.

The state, as controllers of the content of the media, was able to control the ideological content of the newspapers. Words from the work metalanguage could be imbued with ideological colourations from the political.

While this is just one small part of the language planning operation which was put in place by the Soviet government during the early period of the USSR, the use of this theory demonstrates the ways that they were able to implement state goals through a trickledown effect.

Kate Martin is a third-year PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Her doctoral research is a multidisciplinary project which brings together Soviet linguistics, censorship and translation theory. Her research interests include the development of the Russian language and Soviet linguistics in the 1917-34 period and the translation of anti-utopian novels from this period.


[1] Ben Ecklof, ‘The Myth of the Zemstvo School: The Sources of the Expansion of Rural Education in Imperial Russia: 1864-1914’, History of Education Quarterly, 24 (1984), 561-84. p.142

[2] TsGaMO (Central State Archive of the Moscow Region) f.966, o.4 d.2408 l.6

[3] TsGaMO f.966 o.4 d.945 l.7

[4] Ibid.



‘Girls with Low Social Responsibility’: Putin, Pre-Revolutionary Policing, and Prostitution in the Language of ‘Immorality’.

by Siobhán Hearne

Last month, the internet went wild about Vladimir Putin’s defence of Donald Trump, particularly his dismissal of the validity of the Trump-Russia dossier. Observers seemed most amused by Putin’s comments regarding Moscow sex workers, particularly his remark that they are ‘of course, the best in the world’. This has been quoted again and again in online news outlets, and the soundbite has been retweeted thousands of times on Twitter.

What was, more interesting about this portion of the speech, were Putin’s comments about the connections between prostitution and morality. Referring to sex workers as ‘girls with low social responsibility’ (devushki s ponizhennoi sotsial’noi otvetstvennost’iu), he suggested that they were somehow disinterested in engaging with society and instead, ostracise themselves from their wider communities by engaging in sexual labour. He also claimed that those who write so-called ‘fake news’ in an attempt to damage political regimes were ‘worse than prostitutes’. Here, sex workers’ ‘immorality’ apparently makes their political and social disengagement somehow deliberately subversive.

With these remarks, Putin seems to suggest that the only way to be socially and politically engaged in an appropriate manner is to be supportive of the current government. Crucially, Putin failed to mention the detrimental impact that corrupt policing practices, poorly funded health services and homophobic legislation have on the safety of Russian sex workers, especially those who identify as LGBTQ.

This classification of sex workers as ‘immoral’ and ‘removed from society’ helps Russian law enforcement agencies to justify their regressive policies and policing practices. This is by no means new. These ideas were replicated in official and popular discourse at a point when prostitution was legally tolerated in Russia. From 1843 until 1917, the tsarist authorities regulated prostitution under a system often referred to simply as nadzor, or supervision. Prostitutes could work legally as long as they registered their details with their local police and attended weekly gynaecological examinations.

Registered women then received an alternative form of identification, known as the ‘medical ticket’ (meditsinskii bilet). The system was implemented with the official aim of preventing the spread of venereal diseases, but the medical ticket’s accompanying regulations suggest that the authorities also endeavoured to control prostitutes’ movement and visibility within urban space. The system also rigidly defined prostitution as a transaction between a female prostitute and a male client.


List of women registered as prostitutes in Tallinn in 1908. The columns ask for her name, social class, occupation before prostitution, nationality, age, address, where she was registered as  a prostitute, how long she had worked as a prostitute, and the name of her current brothel. (Source: EAA.21.2.5037)

The vast majority of registered prostitutes in late imperial Russian cities were lower class female migrants, either peasants, lower-class urban dwellers or soldiers’ wives born outside the city in which they worked. Removed from their husbands and fathers, these women fell outside the patriarchal authority of traditional family structures.

Regulation allowed the authorities to monitor the lives and bodies of these ‘unheaded’ women. Due to the prevalence of lower class women on the police lists, policing practices and discourses on prostitution in this period also reflect assumptions about gender, class and morality. In light of this, ‘lower’ class women were often typecast as morally lax and in need of state surveillance.

Headshots of prostitutes in Tartu c.1900. (Source: EAA.325.2.585)

Despite ‘prostitute’ being a distinct legal identity and a recognised profession, moral condemnation permeated official discussions of prostitution. Regulatory legislation used the terms prostitute (prostitutka) and ‘woman engaged in debauchery’ (zhenshchina zanimaiushchaiasia razvratom) interchangeably. Local officials in charge of implementing regulation often conflated prostitution and extramarital sexual activity (considered ‘promiscuity’), using women’s sexual behaviour as evidence for their need to be registered onto the police lists.

In May 1915, a Riga police agent conducted a raid on a suspicious property and found Agaf’ia Iuran naked and sleeping in a bed with her partner, Aleksandr Ianulevich.[1] As Agaf’ia had worked as a prostitute two years previously, they ignored the couple’s objections and registered her back onto the police lists. Likewise, in January 1911, Elena Lukshanova was registered onto the Riga police lists after a local police officer found her in a rented room with a ‘strange man’.[2]

Divorce cases granted by the Holy Synod in the early 1900s show how the authorities linked apparent sexual immorality, as well as taboo behaviour, such as drinking, with prostitution. In September 1914, Pavel Baranov, a peasant from Astrakhan province in southern Russia, was granted a divorce from his wife Evfimiia. Three eyewitnesses claimed that she led an ‘adulterous life’, drinking heavily and having sex with various men ‘like a prostitute’.[3]

Urban residents also linked immorality and prostitution. On 20 November 1915, the Riga police received a petition from a city pharmacist, protesting against the forced registration of Amaliia Soo.[4]  The pharmacist insisted that Amaliia was an ‘honest and moral’ woman, who was not working as a prostitute. Another petitioner wrote about her niece, Elena Vannag. She asked the police to remove Elena from the lists and promised to ‘monitor [her niece’s] morality personally’.[5]

By typecasting women who worked as prostitutes as immoral, the imperial authorities were able to legitimise police repression and interference into the lives of lower class women. These ideas worked to further stigmatise women who worked as prostitutes, meaning that the authorities often dismissed cases of prostitutes’ abuse at the hands of law enforcement agents. Unfortunately, ideas about the ‘immorality’ of sex workers continue to influence policing practices today, in Russia as elsewhere across the world. By closely reading the language used by leaders like Putin, we can see how contemporary speech mirrors the political conditions of the past.

Siobhán Hearne is a third-year PhD student at the University of Nottingham. Her thesis ‘Female Prostitution in Urban Russia, 1900-1917’ explores how prostitutes, their clients and wider urban communities experienced, and resisted, the system of regulated prostitution that remained in place until 1917. She is also interested in early Soviet campaigns to eradicate prostitution and venereal disease in the 1920s, and is part of the Peripheral Histories? editorial team. 

Next month, Siobhán will be hosting the two-day conference ‘Gender and Sexuality in Russia, Eastern Europe and Eurasia: Past and Present, to mark International Women’s Day.


[1] LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23557, l. 238.

[2] LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23539, l. 38.

[3] RGIA, f. 796, op. 199, otd. IV, st. 3, d. 547, l. 2, 3, 5.

[4] LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23557, l. 597.

[5] LVVA, f. 51, op. 1, d. 23477, l. 666.