Volume:6, Issue: 3

Dec. 15, 2014

Vasily Vodovozov as a remarkable promoter of literacy
Boguslavsky, Mikhail V. [about]

KEYWORDS: dissemination and propagation of literacy, teaching language arts at high school, teaching methods, promotion of public education.
ABSTRACT: The paper is devoted to a renowned Russian educator and philologist Vasily I. Vodovozov who made an enormous contribution to both - dissemination and propagation of literacy in Russia and development of teaching philology.

It is not uncommon in the history of education that one outstanding name attracts everybody’s attention and outshines other brilliant and prominent educators. This may undoubtedly be applied to Vasily Ivanovich Vodovozov (1825-1886), a remarkable promoter of literacy and a great contributor to the development of public education in Russia.

Vasily Vodovozov has long been known not as an independent researcher but as a close associate and theoretical successor of Konstantin Dmitrievich Ushinsky whose name stays behind all major achievements in the Russian theory of education between the 1850s and 1860s. Such a view is only partially true. The study of Vasily Vodovozov’s legacy reveals bright and original historical pages of literacy dissemination and formation of the Russian schooling. Moreover, it enriches teachers, public educators, and researchers with exciting and challenging ideas.

Vasily Ivanovich Vodovozov was born on September 27, 1825 in Petersburg, to a family of an impoverished small tradesman. Vasily’s father died early leaving his 42-year-old widow to take care of four daughters and three sons, with the youngest, Vasily, just being under four. The boy was raised and brought up in poverty and constant need for money. The family was left without means for survival because all the property was sequestrated and sold to pay their debts.

Having finished a trade school in 1842, Vasily Vodovozov entered the university, School of Philology. He dreamed of gaining solid knowledge which would help him to become useful to people. In this regard Vodovozov wrote to one of his professors, “I intend to enter not the university but knowledge of all that is available in my subject. Public benefit will always be my motto, and I will use all my diligence and become hopefully of some use…, and apart from diligence, I also have love for research” (see: 14). Vasily Vodovozov remained loyal to this motto through his whole life.

Studying philology at the university, Vasily Vodovozov was greatly attracted to Russian Philology, Greek Literature, and General History. He threw himself wholeheartedly into these areas of knowledge, and already in his senior uiversity years Vasily made some translations to other languages and did independent research. Fluency in French, German, English, Italian, Polish, Greek and Latin gave Vodovozov access to a wide choice of books. Thus, even being a student, Vasily Vodovozov wrote a research paper on Byron and Sophocles, and translated in prose the first part of Goethe's Faust, etc. This exceptional educator and philologist knew 10 languages (13).

Those were not only university lectures which shaped Vasily Vodovozov’s outlook. The crucial influence was made by life itself, the epoch, the public movement of the 1840s. That was the time when the famous phrase – the fateful forties – was coined.

Vasily Vodovozov graduated from the university in 1847. In that same year, he started his educational career being a junior teacher of the Russian language at a Warsaw practice-oriented gymnasium. From the very beginning of his professional career Vasily Vodovozov encountered significant difficulties which he overcame thanks to his love to teaching and his creative attitude to work. Students loved his classes.

This helped Vodovozov later, in 1851, to obtain a position of a senior teacher of language arts at the 1st St. Petersburg Gymnasium. He was searching for ways to improve Russian language teaching and language arts at the high school level. Vasily Vodovozov tried to create and implement such a type of teaching Russian language and literature which could develop students’ intellectual abilities and equip them with systematic knowledge.

That period is related to Vodovozov’s active literary and educational activity which was closely connected with the advance democratic educational movement launched by Nikolay Pirogov’s 1856 paper Issues of Life. Vasily Vodovozov used progressive educational and literary journals as a tribune to promote his own ideas. The world learned about Vasily Vodovozov after the publication of his papers On Teaching Russian Language and Language Arts at the High School (1856), Does the Theory of Language Arts Exist and What are the Possible Conditions for Its Existence (1859), and Thesis on the Russian Language (1861) (1).

Vasily Vodovozov was also an active member of St. Petersburg Pedagogical Society where he suggested reconsidering goals and objectives of education in the spirit of genuine national roots, increasing the amount of knowledge taught to students in the Russian literature, introducing new teaching methods, and a major reconstruction of public education.

Vodovozov’s extensive activity at the 1st St. Petersburg Gymnasium, his prolific literary and educational works made his name widely known among the educated community in Russia. By the early 1860s, he gained fame as one of the best language masters in the Russian capital; Vodovozov’s publications attracted Konstantin Ushinsky’s attention when the latter was successfully reforming academic activities at the Smolny Institute.

It was not by chance that Vasily Vodovozov was among the first pedagogues invited by Ushinsky to work at the Smolny Institute. This is a very significant fact considering that Ushinsky ignored ranks and titles when he selected his teaching staff – it was essential that the teacher should be gifted and have “a pedagogical intuition”. Thus, Vasily Vodovozov began to combine educational activities at the 1st St. Petersburg Gymnasium and teaching Russian language arts at the Smolny Institute. Here Vasily met his future wife, Elena Nikolayevna, who would become his close companion and also a remarkable educator.

However, Vodovozov’s work at the Smolny Institute did not last long. In 1862, Konstantin Ushinsky was dismissed from the Institute. To express his protest against that act, Vasily Vodovozov left Smolny followed by Dmitry Semenov, Mikhail Semevsky, and other outstanding pedagogues.

At that time he thought about is as an unpleasant but temporary circumstance. Nobody could predict that Ushinsky’s dismissal was the sign of a starting governmental shift towards conservatism which would only in a few years change Vodovozov’s life irreversibly. In fact, bad things were just about to come. In February 1865, the teaching activity at the 1st St. Petersburg Gymnasium underwent thorough revision. In their report, government inspectors pointed to the impermissible fact that the gymnasium students were fond of Nikolay Nekrasov’s poetry and were learning his verses by heart. The inspectors underlined that “it was harmful to feed young people with irony and satire or teach them political and social ideas which should have nothing to do with the youth while the youth should have nothing to do with those ideas.” Vasily Vodovozov was blamed for “developing critical thinking skills in his students, introducing them to contemporary literature and plunging his students into the dirt of the unhealthy social environment” (13).

Vodovozov continued teaching at the 1st St. Petersburg Gymnasium until 1866, combining it with his litarary, social, and pedagogical activities. When the Statutes of primary and secondary schools were under discussion, Vodovozov used his professional experience to suggest a new system of Russian literature teaching while providing detailed recommendations on how to teach Russian language.

Vasily Vodovozov believed that there were two causes which explained the drawbacks in language arts’ teaching methods and teacher’s guidelines: they lacked a system which is always required in science, and some teaching method. At the same time Vodovozov did not separate the system from the scientific method while equating the latter to the teaching method. In his opinion, it was “only way of analysis which could lead to solid knowledge” while this type of analysis could go hand in hand with comparison. In order to awake students’ creative thoughts and develop their independence, teachers must use all kinds of tools available at school. Among such tools Vodovozov named teaching methods which encourage more speaking activity on behalf of the student rather than the teacher as well as visual methods in all their forms including children’s impressions of nature. 

Vodovozov also developed an eight-year gymnasium curriculum which reduced teaching classical languages while increasing the amount of classes devoted to the native language and literature, mathematics, natural sciences, geography, history, and contemporary languages.

However, Vasily Vodovozov was soon dismissed from his position at the 1st St. Petersburg Gymnasium without any explanation and without a permissison to teach even in private schools. After his dismissal Vodovozov continued his active participation in the work of St. Petersburg Pedagogical Society where he conducted public lectures on different topics: On available visual teaching aids, On Russian ABC Books, On the influence of German education on the Russian school (14).

Though doors of educational institutions were closed to Vasily Vodovozov, he kept thinking and working on how to improve the gymnasium course and methods of teaching Russian language and literature. Some time before his dismissal from a teaching position, Vasily Vodovozov began to publish series of articles in the Educational Bulletin entitled Teaching language arts to teenage students. Later they made into a book under the title,  Language arts in samples and analysis with explanation of common characteristics of written composition and main types of prose and poetry (2). Vodovozov’s method of interpreting works of arts was new for his time. The book was welcomed by progressive teachers and stood six editions (the last came out in 1905). It became one of the best teachers’ manuals of its time.

At the same time Vodovozov kept writing, his new works were related to the history of literature: New Russian Literature (7), and Ancient Russian Literature (8). These works reflected the author’s views from early 1860s on the development of literature (high value of the folk arts, national roots as the main criterion of books artistic merits, promotion Russian identity in literature, and criticism of  the Indo-European theory of language origin). Vodovozov’s Ancient Russian Literature and New Russian Literature enjoyed much popularity and stood several editions.

It is absolutely obvious that persecution and restrictions did not destroy the educator’s spirit. Vasily Vodovozov was known for his outstanding ability to work hard. He used to devote 12-14 hours per day to writing and would usually work on 2 or 3 papers simultaneously. That is why many of his works were published without any intervals. The first part of the Book for Elementary Reading at Public Schools (4) was produced in 1871. It consisted of stories from natural history, geography, and Russian ethnography about major trades, persons, events, and customs of the old Russia. The book also included narratives, fairytales, verses, sayings, and riddles. Most of them were written by Vasily Vodovozov himself. The book contained extensive educational materials from various areas of knowledge including grammar exercises.

The same year Vodovozov published a supplement to a aforementioned edition entitled Teachers’ Book: guidelines for work with the Book for Elementary Reading (5).Both works were highly appreciated by St. Petersburg Pedagogical Society which awarded Vasily Vodovozov with a prize named after Konstantin Ushinsky. Then, in 1872 the Literacy Committee of the Free Economic Society awarded Vodovozov with a gold medal for these two books. Three years later, in 1875, he was granted with a gold medal by the Scientific Committee of the Russian Ministry of of State Property. The Book for Elementary Reading (Part I) stood twenty editions within a relatively short time (14).

Vodovozov’s Russian ABC-Book for Children (10) was out of press in 1873 followed by its supplement, Teacher’s Guidelines to the Russian ABC-Book (11) in 1875. The latter contained sample lesson plans, conversations, phonetic analyses, writing and reading tasks for school beginners. The ABC-Book was built on the sound-based analytical and synthetic method of teaching literacy. The Special Department of the Scientific Committee of the Ministry of Public Health recommended the Russian ABC-Book for Children for elementary schools as “one of the best ABC books both in its methodology and practical realization.”

In 1873, Vodovozov punlished a teacher’s manual entitled, Subjects at Public School: Methods of Teaching Literacy, Arithmetic and Other Sciences (12).

As a result of such productive activity, Vodovozov’s financial situation and his status improved significantly. He was invited to supervise various philological teacher courses in different parts of Russia. He made regular trips abroad to study advanced teaching theory and practices related to literacy. By the way, the fact that Vasily Vodovozov managed to achieve fluency in English within two weeks of his stay in London, demonstrates his extraordinary linguistic abilities.

Vasily Vodovozov took an active part in social and pedagogical activities by defending zemstvo (local council) schools from attempts to replace them with parish schools.

It was typical for Vodovozov to respond to immediate needs of education, especially the needs of public schools. In his opinion, public schools needed teachers equipped with various knowledge in such areas as farming, hygiene, rural way of life, veterinary services, local trades and manufacturing (as well as general technical knowledge related to major trades and manufacturing in Russia). Vasily Vodovozov was consistent in his idea of incorporating national and local or regional factors both in education and teacher training.

Vodovozov continued working on his Book for Elementary Reading at Public Schools. The second part, designed for senior students and adult learners (3), was published in 1878. However, this book got criticism from the Scientific Committee of the Russian Ministry of Public Education. First of all, the author was required to replace historical materials from the chapter about the life of Russian ancestors with the formally approved essay about the development of state organization and monarchy in Russia.

Vasily Vodovozov continued his fruitful work to promote literacy through the 1870s and 1880s. He was undoubtedly the promoter and guardian of progressive educational tradition. Vodovozov consistently continued and significantly enriched ideas put forward by Konstantin Ushinsky.

Vasily Ivanovich Vodovozov died on May 17, 1886. Immediately on the same day, a famous educator Viktor P. Ostrogorsky wrote, “Today we are burying one of the last most noble and educated idealists. These people have never aimed at an automatic transfer of dry and formal knowledge. Instead, they have always taught young people to be inquisitive and have passion for everything noble and beautiful, they have turned boys into men. Such whole-hearted and poetic people, devoting their whole lives to the noble pursuit of makig our society better, are extremely scarce. That is why the loss of such people is especially hard” (See: 14).


  1. Boguslavsky, M.V. (2005). Vasily Ivanovich Vodovozov. In: Podvizhniki i reformatory rossijskogo obrazovanija (Vasily Ivanovich Vodovozov. In: Promoters and Reformers of Russian Education). Moscow: Prosveshcheniye, 28-34.
  2. Slovesnost' v obrazcah i razborah s ob’jasneniem obshhih svojstv sochinenija i glavnyh rodov prozy i pojezii (1868). [Language arts in samples and analysis with explanation of common characteristics of written composition and main types of prose and poetry], St. Petersburg.
  3. Vodovozov V.I. (1861-1864). Rasskazy iz russkoj istorii [Stories from Russian History], Volume 1-2. St. Petersburg.
  4. Vodovozov V.I. (1871). Kniga dlja pervonachal'nogo chtenija v narodnyh shkolah [A Book for Elementary Reading at Public Schools], Part 1, St. Petersburg; Second edition, 1878.
  5. Vodovozov V.I.  (1871). Kniga dlja uchitelej [Teachers’ Book]. St. Petersburg.
  6. Vodovozov V.I. (1871). Detskie rasskazy i stikhotvorenija [Stories and Verses for Children]. St. Petersburg.
  7. Vodovozov V.I. (1866). Novaja russkaja literatura (Ot Zhukovskogo do Gogolja vkljuchitel'no) (New Russian Literature (From Zhukovsky to Gogol). St. Petersburg.
  8. Vodovozov V.I. (1872). Drevnjaja russkaja literatura. Ot nachala gramotnosti do Lomonosova (Ancient Russian Literature. From Early Literacy Times to Lomonosov). St. Petersburg.
  9. Vodovozov V.I. (1883). Russkie skazki v stihah (Russian Fairy Tales in Poetry). St Petersburg.
  10. Vodovozov V.I. (1873). Russkaja azbuka dlja detej (Russian ABC-Book for Children). St. Petersburg.
  11. Vodovozov V.I. (1875). Rukovodstvo k russkoj azbuke (Teacher’s Guidelines to the Russian ABC-Book). St. Petersburg.
  12. Vodovozov V.I. (1873). Predmety obuchenija v narodnoj shkole. Metodika obuchenija gramote, arifmetike i drugim predmetam (Subjects at Public School. Methods of Teaching Literacy, Arithmetic and Other Sciences). St. Petersburg.
  13. Vasily Ivanovich Vodovozov: Biograficheskij ocherk V. Semevskogo (Vasily Ivanovich Vodovozov: Biographical Sketch by V. Semevsky) (1888). St. Petersburg: F.S. Sushchinsky Printing House.
  14. Vodovozov V.I. (1958). Izbrannye pedagogicheskie sochinenija [Selected Papers in Pedagogy] / V.I. Vodovozov [compiled by V.S. Aransky]. Moscow: Printed by the RSFSR Academy of Education.

Boguslavsky, Mikhail Viktorovich [In Russian: Михаил Викторович Богуславский], Ph.D, Associate Member of the Russian Academy of Education, Professor, Head of the Department of History of Pedagogics and Education, Institute of Strategy and Theory of Education of the Russian Academy of Education; Head of the Scientific Council on Issues of History of Education and Pedagogics of the Russian Academy of Education, Moscow, Russia.



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