From Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2014), Kindle Loc. 242-270:
Until the development of rural schools and networks of communication, nationalism remained an élite urban movement for native language rights in schools and universities, literary publications and official life. Outside the towns its influence was limited. The peasants were barely conscious of their nationality. ‘I myself did not know that I was a Pole till I began to read books and papers,’ recalled a farmer after 1917. In many areas, such as Ukraine, Belorussia and the Caucasus, there was so much ethnic intermingling that it was difficult for anything more than a localized form of identity to take root in the popular consciousness. ‘Were one to ask the average peasant in the Ukraine his nationality,’ observed a British diplomat, ‘he would answer that he is Greek Orthodox; if pressed to say whether he is a Great Russian, a Pole or an Ukrainian, he would probably reply that he is a peasant; and if one insisted on knowing what language he spoke, he would say that he talked “the local tongue”.’
The growth of mass-based nationalist movements was contingent on the spread of rural schools and institutions, such as peasant unions and cooperatives, as well as on the opening up of remote country areas by roads and railways, postal services and telegraphs—all of which was happening very rapidly in the decades before 1917. The most successful movements combined the peasants’ struggle for the land (where it was owned by foreign landlords, officials and merchants) with the demand for native language rights, enabling the peasants to gain full access to schools, the courts and government.
This combination was the key to the success of the Ukrainian nationalist movement. In the Constituent Assembly elections of November 1917, the first democratic elections in the country’s history, 71 per cent of the Ukrainian peasants would vote for the nationalists—an astonishing shift in political awareness in only a generation. The movement organized the peasants in their struggle against foreign (mainly Russian and Polish) landowners and against the ‘foreign influence’ of the towns (dominated by the Russians, Jews and Poles). It is no coincidence that peasant uprisings erupted first, in 1902, in those regions around Poltava province where the Ukrainian nationalist movement was also most advanced.
Throughout Russia the impact of modernization—of towns and mass communications, the money economy and above all rural schools—gave rise to a generation of younger and more literate peasants who sought to overturn the patriarchal village world. Literacy rose from 21 per cent of the empire’s population in 1897 to 40 per cent on the eve of the First World War. The highest rural rates were among young men in those regions closest to the towns (nine out of ten peasant recruits into the Imperial army from the two provinces of Petersburg and Moscow were considered literate even by 1904). The link between literacy and revolution is a well-known historical phenomenon. The three great revolutions of modern European history—the English, the French and the Russian—all took place in societies where the rate of literacy was approaching 50 per cent. Literacy promotes the spread of new ideas and enables the peasant to master new technologies and bureaucratic skills. The local activists of the Russian Revolution were drawn mainly from this newly literate generation—the beneficiaries of the boom in rural schooling during the last decades of the old regime, now in large enough numbers to pass on the new ideas to those still illiterate. In its belated efforts to educate the common people, the tsarist regime was helping to dig its own grave.