Irina Vasil’evna Pozdeeva on the history of Muscovite printed books

Daniel Waugh's picture

I[rina] V[asil’evna] Pozdeeva. Chelovek. Kniga. Istoriia. Moskovskaia pechat’ XVII veka. Moskva: Fantom-press, 2016. 576 pp. + 24 pp. color plates. ISBN 978-5-86471-745-5.

In the pantheon of the important scholars who have contributed over the decades to our knowledge of early Slavic printing, no name gleams more brightly than that of Irina Vasil’evna Pozdeeva. She is now in her 84th year, and, judging from her bibliography, still actively publishing and teaching (see This well edited collection of her previously published essays provides an excellent overview of what she has accomplished and a clear indication of her, granted not uncontroversial, interpretations of the evidence she has assembled over a career dating back half a century. Even though most of the essays are reprinted unchanged, notes have been added pointing readers to more recent research and publications. There are two short, previously unpublished essays that serve as a conclusion.

As with many of the scholars who have expanded our knowledge of the distribution and possession of early books in Russia, both manuscript and printed, she was long involved in “archaeographic” expeditions to Old Believer villages, where the teams would register the holdings of private libraries, persuade the owners of the books to part with them for the benefit of academic collections, and, among other things, record oral history and folklore. The trove of such material is huge and essential for any research into the culture of many regions of rural Russia.

Beginning around 1980, she initiated and was co-director of a project under the auspices of Moscow University to locate and describe book collections in the Russian provinces, which resulted in the publication of catalogs of the rich holdings of libraries in the Tver, Rostov-Iaroslavl’ and Perm’ regions. The introductory essays to some of these volumes are included in the book here under review (pp. 307-409). This work and the study of other collections unearthed a good many copies of publications that A. S. Zërnova had not come across when compiling her otherwise authoritative catalog of 16th-17th century Muscovite imprints. One of Pozdeeva’s projects shed new light on book printing in Kazan’ (pp. 488-534).

Pozdeeva has also devoted serious study to the archive of the Moscow Printing House, which previously had not received such close attention, its records still intact for the period from about 1615-1652. This then supplemented and substantially expanded the database about the size of print runs and the sales of the books, where a record had been kept of who the purchasers were and how quickly the stock was exhausted.

Not the least of Pozdeeva’s concerns in all this was to pay attention to all the inscriptions on the extant copies of the Muscovite imprints, wherever they may now be. Such evidence attested to how widely the books were disseminated within and in some cases outside of Muscovy, who the owners were, what prices the books fetched, and so on. In her work in the provincial repositories (and, as well in the courses she has continued to teach at Moscow University), Pozdeeva has helped to train cadres in the nuances of proper bibliographic work on old imprints. When she had first arrived in some of the regional centers, there had been no one on the local staffs who had such training. So the impact of Pozdeeva’s work will live on beyond just the catalogs whose compilation she supervised.

One of the fruits of all this labor has been the accumulation of impressive statistics, demonstrating how a significant portion of the output of the Moscow presses made it even to the far reaches of European Russia and often very quickly. Dozens of even the remotest towns may have been the destination of one or another of the books. Furthermore, the evidence indicates that the books passed through the hands of a broad cross-section of Muscovite society. And, perhaps most impressively, insofar as the acquisition of literacy in Muscovy traditionally involved learning from three basic texts—the Primer, the Breviary (Chasovnik) and the teaching Psalter—the data show that huge numbers of such books were printed, usually in larger editions than those of other books required by Russian Orthodoxy, and those print runs quickly sold out. Between 1615 and 1652, some 350,000 books came off the Moscow presses, of which more than 100,000 were “instructional” books (knigi dlia obucheniia—the three noted above plus the Kanonnik) (p. 57). From 1652 to 1700, some 35% of the editions put out by the Printing House were “instructional” books, a total of over half a million copies, of which nearly 260,000 were primers (pp. 154, 206, 213).

What is one to make of such evidence? For Pozdeeva, who argues this with a passion, it is evidence of how the printed word in Muscovy was really the dominant force in shaping Russian culture. When she first began writing about this, her conclusion contested official orthodoxy about Russian book culture, which had emphasized manuscripts, many of which had “secular” content, in contrast to the print books, which for the most part have religious content. As Pozdeeva stresses, religious belief and rituals touched every part of the daily life of Muscovites at all social levels; so the content of the books produced by the Moscow presses was indeed not just very relevant but the most relevant factor in shaping belief and conduct. The fact that so much of the printed output was devoted to instructional books reinforces this conclusion and suggests that there was a much higher premium on education and then presumably a higher level of literacy in Muscovy than many have been willing to admit. An interesting aspect of her argument comes out in the attention she has devoted to the afterwords included in many of the printed books, which articulate forcefully the idea of the divinely sanctioned political order in Muscovy (pp. 96-117). Apart from everything else, the output of the Printing House was one of the main instruments of political propaganda.

Statistical evidence can dazzle, as it does here, but it also has the potential to mislead. Whether the Muscovite presses produced one book for every three or five inhabitants of the state is neither here nor there (cf. p. 49). As Pozdeeva makes very clear, apart from learning precisely about the output of printed books, one must learn about their “consumers”, something in the first instance can be established only by examining sales records, owners’ inscriptions and library inventories.  Here the evidence can be quite equivocal. What are we to make, for example, from the fact that often a large part of a print run was purchased immediately by members of the staff of the Printing House?  Or if a hundred or so copies of a primer were bought by one individual to take to Kostroma? The obvious answer would be that there was demand, and certainly in the case of the printers, the likelihood, as she suggests, that they were making some money in re-selling volumes that at the official price were often relatively inexpensive. In fact, as her statistics show, prices for the “instructional” books were set quite low, which probably made them affordable even in some of the lower echelons of Muscovite society. Yet tracking the books beyond the initial purchases can be difficult. Few copies of the smallest and cheapest instructional books (the primers) have survived, as presumably they ultimately were worn out from use and disintegrated. In cases where there may be a series of owner’s inscriptions in a single book, we generally cannot know whether the owners (whose names could have been inscribed for them) were literate or whether they read the volumes. Many such inscriptions tell us the books were donated to a church or monastery, which may have been the purpose in acquiring them to begin with. However, while cautioning in passing (p. 87) that purchase or ownership may not indicate readership, at very least she is tending to imply more than what I think the hard evidence of itself should enable us to conclude.

She recognizes that inscriptions on books are of several kinds (see pp. 234-51), where the ones most likely to tell us about actual reading are marginalia that often are very cryptic, and whose significance cannot really be understood unless subject to careful scrutiny in a broader context of examining other writings that may somehow be connected with a given text and/or demonstrably were kept in the same location as the annotated book. To do this kind of detailed research was not the task of the projects in which Pozdeeva has been involved, even if one goal was to record any and all inscriptions. Granted, I am oversimplifying here a rather complex issue of how to establish readership and the impact of books. I think Pozdeeva clearly understands what is needed to do just that.

What I take away from her work then is a much greater appreciation than I had before about the potential significance of the printed book in Muscovy. I am willing to accept the idea that efforts to obtain basic literacy were quite substantial, even if education beyond just basic literacy may have been quite limited and for most Muscovites arguably was irrelevant. (Interestingly, in this connection, there were no full grammars printed in the second half of the 17th century, a fact which somewhat mystifies Pozdeeva. See p. 217.)  However, I am less willing than Pozdeeva to put the manuscript culture on a back shelf or to prioritize the written (much less, the printed) word over oral culture, a significant component of which clearly had little to do with the tenets, rituals and texts of Orthodoxy, even as what was contained in the written word would have been in the awareness even of those who could not read it.

Her work has served as an incredibly valuable corrective to other arguments about what was important in Muscovite culture and merits the closest attention. We are very much in her debt.

Daniel Waugh’s review raises many important issues related to early printing in Muscovy. One of them is the complex relationship between printed books and manuscripts. I could not agree more with Dan’s assessment of I. V. Pozdeeva’s enormous contribution to our understanding of this problem. However, the whole idea of juxtaposing printed and manuscript cultures, and correspondingly the debate about which culture had a greater impact on Muscovy seem to become increasingly irrelevant. As Simon Franklin has demonstrated, the boundaries between printed matter and manuscripts were blurred as Muscovites often produced manuscript copies of printed books and images (Canadian-American Slavic Studies, 2017, vol. 51, issue 2-3).

Simon deals primarily with the fascinating transfer of Western printed material to Muscovite manuscript culture. But even seemingly straightforward ownership inscriptions in Muscovite imprints are in fact complex borderline cases. On the one hand, such inscriptions are part of a printed book and are usually included in the bibliographical descriptions of early printed editions. On the other hand, these inscriptions are handwritten and should therefore be treated as manuscript sources, including palaeographic analysis. I was often astonished at the amateur hands of many ownership notes which are notoriously hard to read. This makes me wonder whether we have any hard evidence corroborating Dan’s assertion that ownership inscriptions were executed by professional scribes on behalf of illiterate book owners. As for pre-modern oral culture, I think the best a historian can do is to leave this ethereal matter to folklore enthusiasts.

With best wishes,
Sergei Bogatyrev

I am delighted to see that finally one of the interminable postings I do about books has provoked a response and hope that this exchange will not be one of the last on EarlySlavic, if no one has stepped forward to take over being the list moderator.

I certainly agree with Sergei about the problematic nature of "juxtaposing printed and manuscript cultures" and hope I was not suggesting otherwise. In things I am currently writing (invoking among others Pozdeeva and Franklin), I am trying to deal with that issue. Your point about how inscriptions be treated is very interesting, though I would hesitate to conclude very much from scrawled handwriting. Many (most?--we would have to see hundreds of them to know, of course) such inscriptions are certainly quite consistent with what those used to writing Muscovite cursive would have produced, even if sometimes, yes, Muscovite cursive is hard to read. To scrawl such an inscription is a different task from undertaking to produce a clean, professional copy of a text, even if one and the same literate scribe might do both. We do have some interesting cases, perhaps neither here nor there as far as this particular discussion goes, where members of the late Muscovite elites who perhaps were dabbling in Polish or some other foreign language, would inscribe, often I think rather awkwardly, owner inscriptions in Latin letter transcription of Russian. When I think about the way I sometimes sign a credit card receipt these days, in a hand that surely might be "notoriously hard to read", I wonder what this tells about my literacy.

Lastly, regarding what you say about the study of oral culture, the subject is worth a serious debate (perhaps others on this list would chime in here!). I remain to be convinced this "ethereal matter" is only for "folklore enthusiasts", even if trying to figure out what to do in analyzing such material is a perhaps impossible challenge. But when have historians ever hesitated to hold forth on subjects about which they may know little? I can speak only for myself here, of course, but I have the unfortunate habit of doing so all too often.