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- Woman, learn to read and write! - Oh, Mother! If you were literate, you would help me! A poster by Elizaveta Kruglikova advocating female literacy. 1923.

Likbez (Russian: ликбе́з, Russian pronunciation: [lʲɪɡˈbʲɛs]; from a Russian abbreviation for "likvidatsiya bezgramotnosti", ликвида́ция безгра́мотности, [lʲɪkvʲɪˈdatsɨjə bʲɪzˈɡramətnəsʲtʲɪ], meaning "elimination of illiteracy") was a campaign of eradication of illiteracy in Soviet Russia and Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. The term was also used for various schools and courses established during the campaign. Nowadays this term is sometimes used in Russian as a slang for answers on common questions.


In 1897, the overall literacy rate of the Russian Empire was an estimated 24%, with the rural literacy rate at 19.7%.[1] There were few schools available to the population, particularly in rural areas. Until the early 20th century, there were still no specific curricular plans or guidelines in the zemstvo schools.[2] In 1891, the literacy schools came under church administration, and maintained a largely religious curriculum, which emphasized the teaching of old Church Slavonic.[3] The peasantry was largely self-educated, and often relied on schools run by political dissidents for the latter period of tsarist rule. Facing a growing opposition from the general populace, Tsar Alexander II announced a decree that would raise the tuition fee for schools, thus preventing further social mobility for serfs who were allowed free mobility.[4] During the reign of Tsar Nicholas II (1894–1917) liberals pushed for a universal education system, which scholars predict may have expanded if it were not for World War I.[5]

The Bolshevik literacy campaign[edit]

Learning to reading and writing of the population. Cheboksary, 1930s.
Learning to reading and writing of the population. Shorkasy (CASSR), 1930s.

When the Bolshevik Party came to power in 1917, they faced a crumbling empire infamous for its perceived backwardness and poor education system. In 1917, within the remaining Tsarist territories, an estimated 37.9% of the male population above seven years old was literate and only 12.5% of the female population was literate.[6] Lenin's views on literacy were rooted in its economic and political benefits. "Without literacy," he declared, "There can be no politics, there can only be rumors, gossip and prejudice."[7] The Likbez campaign was started on December 26, 1919, when Vladimir Lenin signed the Decree of the Soviet government "On eradication of illiteracy among the population of RSFSR" ("О ликвидации безграмотности среди населения РСФСР"). According to this decree, all people from 8 to 50 years old were required to become literate in their native language. 40,000 liquidation points (ликпункты) were arranged to serve as centers for education, and achieving literacy.[8]

Fighting for time and funding during the ensuing Russian Civil War of 1917–23, Narkompros, the Soviet Ministry of Education, quickly assembled the Cheka Likbez (an acronym for the "Extraordinary Commission for the Liquidation of Illiteracy") which was to be responsible for the training of literacy teachers as well as organizing and propagating the literacy campaign.[9] From the peasantry to trade unions, specific literacy percentage quotas were made for different sectors of Soviet society. For example, the trade union campaign aimed for 100% literacy for its workers by 1923.[10] The Bolsheviks also believed that through literary campaigns they could easily promote Party ideology and shape the population's outlook. Women, given their low literacy rate, were regarded as having the highest potential for becoming the "modernizers" of Soviet society. Through the education of peasant women, the Bolsheviks hoped to break down the patriarchal domination of rural society. The Bolsheviks, however, were not freed of their own prejudices towards women. Lenin had written in The Emancipation of Women that a woman's illiteracy would impair the "fighting spirit" of male party members and prevent wives from grasping their husbands' ideals.[11] To further extend their reach to the peasant community, the Bolsheviks built reading rooms in villages across the country. Serving as a propaganda center rather than library, a literate peasant would act as the room's "Red Reader" and lead discussions on texts sent by the Party directive with members of the local community. Attendance was most often mandatory, as the reading rooms proved to be one of the Party's most successful propaganda tools, where campaigns would take shape and the locals would hear about happenings in the outside world.[12]

By 1923, however, it was clear that the campaign had its shortcomings. For one thing, Narkompros was having difficulty competing for funding from the Politburo.[13] The Narkompros budget for literacy education dropped from 2.8% in 1924-5 to 1.6% in 1927–8.[14] Likbez literary schools were not established locally by order of Party elites—instead, they relied heavily on grassroots demand.[15] Narkompros also found it hard to find educated teachers actually willing to live in the isolated conditions of the countryside.

In many cases, peasant and proletariat students met their educators and literacy teachers with hostility due to their "petty bourgeois" backgrounds.[16] To solve this problem, local governments established a system of rewards for workers who attended class, granting special privileges to those who did.[17] In some extreme cases, during the 1922 famine, many districts required their illiterate male and female populations to attend literacy school in order to earn their food points.[18] Fearing they were not reaching out to the population and making the popular reading frenzy that they had hoped, the Politburo decided to heavily fund and promote clubs and societies such as the "Down with Illiteracy" society.[18]


With the October 1917 Revolution, governmental standards regarding what was considered "literate" also changed. Although all army personnel in the tsarist period eligible for conscription were required to be functionally literate, most men who could simply read the alphabet and their own name were deemed as fully literate. Although census takers were given rather strict orders on what was deemed fully literate and even semi-literate, in remote provinces and parts of Central Asia standards were somewhat laxer than in locations with a closer proximity to Moscow.[19] The campaign was not the success the Bolsheviks had originally envisioned mainly because it lacked teacher volunteers, funding, and organization. The likbez campaign was most effective for people between the ages of 9 and 35. For anyone over 35, the Bolsheviks believed they were utterly unreachable.

In 1926, however, only 51% of the population over the age of 10 had achieved literacy. Male literacy was at 66.5 while female literacy lagged behind at 37.2. By 1939, however, male literacy was at 90.8 and female literacy had increased to 72.5%.[20] According to the 1939 Soviet Census, literate people were 89.7% (RSFSR, ages 9–49). During the 1950s, the Soviet Union had become a country of nearly 100% literacy.

There is speculation that had the peasant tradition of self-education been able to continue, the peasantry may have reached the level of education that it did by the mid-1930s, independent of government efforts.[21] By the 1950s, with a stable education system and an entire generation that had at least completed some form of lower level education, the Soviet Union had reached a literacy rate of 100%.

Campaign for non-Russian speakers[edit]

In non-Russian speaking areas of the Soviet population, Narkompros promoted the policy of Korenizatsiya (literally "putting down the roots") within the separate autonomous regions and republics to the extent that teaching Russian was considered a counter-revolutionary crime.[1] For the separate nationalities, the ABCD Hierarchy, a system which ranked the 120 languages of the Soviet Union according their communicable significance, charted out a specific plan for each nationality's achievement of literacy. In 1924 textbooks were printed in only 25 languages of the Soviet Union. However, by 1934 they were printed in 104 languages.


  1. ^ a b Grenoble, p. 46.
  2. ^ Brooks, pp. 48–49.
  3. ^ Brooks, p. 47.
  4. ^ Trotsky, p. 33.
  5. ^ Clark, p. 16.
  6. ^ Foley.
  7. ^ Roucek, p. 481.
  8. ^ Nar, p. 140.
  9. ^ Clark, p. 23.
  10. ^ Clark, pp. 72–73.
  11. ^ Clark, p. 115.
  12. ^ Kenez, pp. 137–138.
  13. ^ Fitzpatrick, p. 248.
  14. ^ Kenez, p. 160.
  15. ^ Clark, pp. 98–99.
  16. ^ Fitzpatrick, pp. 248–249.
  17. ^ Clark, p. 19.
  18. ^ a b Clark, p. 172.
  19. ^ Grenoble, p. 142.
  20. ^ Grenoble, p. 56.
  21. ^ Clark, p. 109.


  • Brooks, Jeffrey (1985). When Russia Learned to Read: Literacy and Popular Literature, 1861–1917. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 
  • Clark, Charles E. (2000). Uprooting Otherness: The Literacy Campaign in NEP-Era Russia. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses. 
  • Fitzpatrick, Sheila (1970). The Commissariat of Enlightenment. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Foley, Kerry. "Literacy and Education in the Early Soviet Union". Retrieved 8 May 2011. [dead link]
  • Grenoble, Lenore (2003). Language Policy in the Soviet Union. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers. 
  • Kenez, Peter (1985). The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization, 1917–1929. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-30636-2. 
  • Nar, Nina (1957). "The Campaign Against Illiteracy and Semiliteracy in the Ukraine, Transcaucasus, and Northern Caucasus, 1922–1941". In Kline, George Louis. Soviet Education. New York: Columbia University Press. 
  • Roucek, Joseph Slabey (1971). The Challenge of Science Education. U.S.A.: Philosophical Library. ISBN 978-0-8369-2070-3. 
  • Trotsky, Leon (1980). The History of the Russian Revolution. New York, NY: Pathfinder Press.