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How Russia Learned to Talk: A History of Public Speaking in the Stenographic Age, 1860–1930
How Russia Learned to Talk: A History of Public Speaking in the Stenographic Age, 1860–1930
By Stephen Lovell
352 pp, Oxford University Press, 2020
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Lovell delves into the history of public speaking in Russia, where governments have been inherently hostile to free speech and deliberative democracy. His concise and lively narrative begins in the early 1860s, when Tsar Alexander II launched liberal reforms, and ends in the early 1930s, when Stalin established systems for the total censoring of the oral word. The intervening period was “the stenographic age”: the skills of shorthand (which evolved in Russia primarily as a woman’s job) played a major role in allowing Russian society to hear itself. The introduction of jury trials in the second half of the nineteenth century spurred the rise of courtroom eloquence; Russian Orthodox priests abandoned the traditional, scholastic language incomprehensible to uneducated worshipers and spoke to parish­ioners about pressing social issues in a direct manner. The longest chapter focuses on the proceedings of Russia’s short-lived parliament, from 1905 to 1917, including fascinating portraits of Duma deputies such as Vladimir Nabokov (the famous writer’s father), “who combined Russian aristocratic poise with the robustness of an English parliamentarian.” The victory of the Bolsheviks in the subsequent revolutionary upheaval owed much to their unparalleled ability to whip up agitated crowds with passionate speeches.