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Inaugural Lecture: Professor Stephen Lovell

Edmond J Safra Lecture Theatre King’s Building Strand Campus
13/05/2014 (18:30-20:00)

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Radio in the Soviet village, late 1920s

Courtesy of A. S. Popov Central Museum of Communications, St Petersburg

From Stenography to the tape recorder: An alternative history of communications in Russia

One of the most compelling stories in European cultural history is that of how Russia learned to read. From the 1860s onwards, St Petersburg and Moscow developed a vibrant newspaper press and popular publishing industry. In the late imperial era more and more people of unprivileged background gained access to the written word, while in the early Soviet period their number rose still further as the Bolsheviks made it their mission to 'liquidate' illiteracy.

This lecture argues, however, that our understanding of Russian society and culture remains inadequate if we limit ourselves to the written word. The 1860s also saw an explosion of public talk – in universities, municipal and local assemblies, and law courts. For the following hundred years, during which Russia underwent its peculiarly accelerated and stressful version of modernization, the spoken word became more rather than less important as a medium of communication. It turned out that Russia, even as it tried to sever its 'traditional', pre-literate roots, needed orality as much as ever. Working its way from the adoption in the 1860s of Russia's first technology for recording speech (stenography) to the advent of the tape recorder in the mid-20th century, the lecture explores the role of the spoken word in the social imagination and in political rhetoric. It also quite simply tells the story of how Russians – men and women, peasants and nobles, Bolsheviks and bourgeois – 'learned to talk'.

Stephen Lovell is Professor of Modern History at King’s College London. He studied at King’s College, Cambridge and the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London. After holding a postdoctoral fellowship at St John’s College, Oxford, he arrived at King’s in 2002. His books include The Russian Reading Revolution: Print Culture in the Soviet and Post-Soviet Eras (2000), Summerfolk: A History of the Dacha, 1710-2000 (2003), Destination in Doubt: Russia since 1989 (2006), The Soviet Union: A Very Short Introduction (2009) and The Shadow of War: Russia and the Soviet Union, 1941 to the Present (2010). He has written on topics in Russian social and cultural history ranging from marriage advertisements to death. He is now completing a history of Soviet radio.

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