By 1905, the working class [in Russia] had begun envisioning a better life. And these visions began with books. “When I came in from work, I did not lie down to sleep immediately,” recalled a weaver named Feodor Samilov. “Instead, I picked up a book, lit a candle that I had bought with my own savings, and read until I could no longer keep my eyelids from closing.”
He wasn’t alone. The speed with which factory workers learned to read “was a little short of astonishing,” noted one historian. By 1905, six out of every ten laborers in Moscow were literate—an increase of twenty percent in less than ten years. And in St. Petersburg the number of working men and women who could read was three times greater than in the rest of Russia. Now the factory worker in St. Petersburg who could not read was the exception. The opposite was still true back in his peasant village.
These readers had almost no access to political writings. Censorship laws made such literature illegal, and newspapers faced stiff fines and forced closings if they included material considered offensive by the government. The result was that they steered clear of such writing. As for books, only those deemed appropriate by the tsar’s censors were allowed on library shelves. “I read Jules Verne…and James [Fenimore] Cooper, and was captivated by their descriptions of journeys and discoveries,” said weaver Samilov. “Over a period of five to six years, I read through the most diverse assortment of books imaginable…but I never encountered one that could have awakened my class consciousness.” Even so, he added, “Books taught me how to think.”
These literate workers were now able to picture a government more responsible to their needs; they had “caught sight of a new life,” recalled factory worker Semën Balashov, “one very different from our life of servitude.” In January 1905, he joined ten thousand other men, women, and children who had abandoned their jobs. Taking to the streets, they refused to return to work until their demands were met. What did they want? A living wage, an eight-hour workday, affordable housing, and public education.
From The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & The Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming, pages 61-62.