Chapbook Literature

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Chapbook literature (Lubochnaya literatura, narodnaya literatura ) refers to inexpensive books produced for lower-class readers, which were often associated with Moscow's Nikolsky Market, center of the chapbook industry in late imperial Russia.

The proliferation of chapbook literature in nineteenth-century Russia was linked to the steady rise of literacy after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and the appearance of a mass market for affordable reading material. As had earlier been the case in Britain, France, and the German states, the growth of the reading public in Russia was paralleled by the expansion of the commercial publishing industry, which produced increasing numbers of titles intended mainly for newly literate lower-class readers. In the first half of the nineteenth century, chapbook publishing was centered in St. Petersburg, but in the second half of the century, the most successful chapbook publishers were the Moscow firms of Sytin, Morozov, Kholmushin, Shaparov, and Abramov. By 1887 over three million copies of 336 chapbook titles were published, and more than 21 million copies of 2,028 titles in 1914. The chapbooks were usually written by people of peasant or lower-class origins, and sold by city hawkers or rural itinerant peddlers.

Folktales, chivalrous tales, spiritual and didactic works, historical fiction, war stories, and stories about merchants were the predominant subjects of commercial chapbooks for most of the nineteenth century, but by the beginning of the twentieth century, stories about crime, romance, and science accounted for a large share of the chapbook market. Lurid tales of criminal exploits were extremely popular, featuring heroes such as the bandit Vasily Churkin or the pickpocket "Light-fingered Sonka." Sonka eventually migrated from the pages of the chapbooks to the silver screen, becoming the heroine of a movie serial. Other stories celebrated individual success in achieving material wealth through education and hard work. Serial detective stories of foreign origin or inspiration, especially those recounting the thrilling adventures of the American detectives Nat Pinkerton and Nick Carter, enjoyed tremendous success in the late 1900s.

Many Russian intellectuals were dismayed at the popularity of the commercial chapbooks, which they viewed as expressions of a degenerate urban culture that was corrupting the hearts and minds of the Russian peasantry. Some, like Leo Tolstoy, tried to combat the chapbooks by producing a special "people's literature," others by publishing low-priced works from the contemporary literary canon. Literacy committees and zemstvos also produced cheap editions of belles lettres and popular science. The most successful commercial chapbook publisher, Ivan Sytin, began printing works by Tolstoy and other literary figures for a mass readership in 1884. The Orthodox Church, while condemning the harmful influence of the commercial chapbooks, published inexpensive editions of saints' lives, prayer books, the scriptures, religious stories, and even some works by secular authors. The state also subsidized the publication of religious, moralistic, and patriotic literature for soldiers and the common people.

Chapbooks, like other publications, were subject to censorship in tsarist Russia. Although the state was concerned about the potentially subversive impact of commercial chapbooks on the common people, there was never a special censorship of publications intended to be read by the lower classes. The state did, however, impose restrictions on the titles that were available in libraries and reading rooms for the common people, or that could be read to popular audiences. Most restrictions were relaxed after the 1905 Revolution, when the preliminary censorship of publications was abolished.

During World War I, commercial publishers, with the encouragement of the state, produced chapbooks glorifying the exploits of Russian soldiers. After the February Revolution brought an end to the tsarist autocracy, there was a brief upsurge of often lascivious stories about Rasputin and the imperial family. Following the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks nationalized the commercial publishing houses and suppressed the chapbooks as part of their effort to transform popular tastes.

See also: censorship; lubok.


Brooks, Jeffrey. (1978). "Readers and Reading at the End of the Tsarist Era." In Literature and Society in Imperial Russia, 18001914, ed. William Mills Todd III. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Brooks, Jeffrey. (1979). "The Kopeck Novels of Early Twentieth-Century Russia." Journal of Popular Culture 13:8597.

Brooks, Jeffrey. (1985). When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 18611917. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kelly, Catriona, and Shepherd, David, eds. (1998). Constructing Russian Culture in the Age of Revolution: 18811940. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

E. Anthony Swift