Letter by letter: The Honest Mirror of Youth and six more ancient alphabet books

June 16

Russian Language Day is marked on 6 June, the birthday of Russia’s favourite poet Alexander Pushkin. In honour of the holiday, let’s take a trip into the history of Russian alphabet books. This article, written together by mos.ru and the Mosgortur travel agency tells the story of the most remarkable ancient study books from the collections of Moscow’s museums.

First alphabet books

Reading manuals began to appear in Russia with the emergence of printing. The first such study book was Ivan Fyodorov’s ABC, published in Lvov in 1574. Today, a copy of it is stored at the Harvard University library. The first alphabet book in Moscow appeared in 1634 thanks to the efforts of Vasily Bursov-Protopopov, who used Fyodorov’s ABC book as a model. The printer, who came from the family of a clergyman, was dubbed “the scrivener of ABCs”.

Until the middle of the 19 th century, alphabet books were based on the syllabic system, according to which the pupils first memorised the letters, then syllables, and only then words. To help rote learning, the alphabet was printed in the direct, reverse, and mixed order, with lists of two- and three-letter syllables, and words for numbers and punctuation marks. Alphabet books also included information about declination, conjugation and the passive voice. The practical part was composed of prayers.

The Russian word for the ABC book, azbuka, has two meanings. It can refer to the alphabet and is derived from the first two letters of the Old Slavonic alphabet, “az” and “buki”, the same way the English word alphabet is made up of the first two letters o the Greek alphabet, “alpha” and “beta”. In addition, the word can also mean a study book.

Karion Istomin’s Alphabet Book (1690 s)

Russian alphabet books didn’t have any illustrations until the end of the 17 th century. They first appeared in the alphabet book by the hieromonk of the Chudovsky Monastery, Karion Istomin. This masterpiece of book illustration featuring a multitude of colours as well as gold was handwritten and intended for royal children. One book was presented to the mother of Peter the Great, Tsarina Natalya (Naryshkina) in 1692, to teach her grandson Alexei. The following year, a similar ABC was presented to Tsarina Praskovya (Saltykova), the wife of Tsar Ivan, the elder brother and co-ruler of Peter the Great. The tsars’ daughters also learned to read using this beautiful book.

The main part of the alphabet book had 38 sheets of Old Slavonic alphabet. IThe upper left corner of each sheet has an elaborate drawing of the letter, represented by “images of human beings and other animals, or of tools in different positions, so that the names of these things start with the given letter of the alphabet”. Different ways of writing the letter are shown as well: printed uppercase and lowercase, handwritten, as well as their analogues in Latin, Greek and Polish alphabets. Below there are images of things and animals whose names begin with this letter-an amazing innovation for that time. At the very bottom of the page, there are educational poems by Istomin containing words that start with the same letter.

The names of the artists who made the illustrations are unknown.

In 1694, Leonty Bunin, an engraver at the Armoury, produced a printed version of Karion Istomin’s alphabet book in Moscow. It was reprinted many times after that: for example, a copy from the collection of the Moscow State Integrated Art, Historical, Architectural and Natural Landscape Museum-Reserve, depicted in the photo below, was released after 1719.

The Honest Mirror of Youth (1717)

Peter the Great carried out the first reform of the Russian alphabet in 1708. The resulting script for the use in secular publications was much easier to read than the Church Slavonic half-uncial script, which was based on handwritten letters. After the reform, the half-uncial writing, having survived the launch of printing, was used only for church books.

It is believed that the progressive monarch personally participated in the creation of the new script, which was developed based on Western European patterns. The novelty was called the Amsterdam alphabet, because the first set of "the newly invented Russian letters" was cast in the capital of the Netherlands. The first book printed using this script was the textbook called “Geometry, or land measurement” (1708).

Peter’s language reform eliminated diacritical marks and some letters of the Cyrillic alphabet, introduced the letter “э” and the Arabic numerals. All these innovations were used in the popular book The Honest Mirror of Youth, or Indications for Worldly Manners, Collected from Various Authors, which was published in St Petersburg in 1717. One of the surviving copies of the book is kept in the collection of the Moscow State Integrated Art, Historical, Architectural and Natural Landscape Museum-Reserve.

The book opened with a section on grammar, which included "an image of old and new Slavic printed and hand-written letters", a listing of two- and three-letter syllables, as well as " Teachings from the Holy Scriptures alphabetically ordered." This section also included Arabic numerals and the Cyrillic characters that were used to denote numbers before Peter’s reform.

The second part of the manual was an etiquette guide, which ensured the popularity of the publication. It was a collection of tips for young men and women on how to behave at home and in public in accordance with the standards of the nobility during the age of Peter the Great.

A Gift for Children in Memory of the Events of the Year 1812 (1815)

The first Russian satirical study book for young people was called A Gift for Children in Memory of the Events of the Year 1812, an illustrated alphabet book, published in St Petersburg in January 1815. A copy of this amazing book is kept in the collection of the Battle of Borodino Museum Panorama.

People called it “Terebenev’s ABC” after Ivan Terebenev, a graduate of the Imperial Academy of Arts who became famous during the Patriotic War of 1812 for his “flying sheets” with caricatures designed to raise the morale of Russian soldiers and civilians. The artist’s sudden death from illness at the age of 35 almost coincided with the appearance of the “A Gift for Children” in bookshops.

The alphabet book consisted of 34 pages, each of which contained one etching of a cartoon and coloured with watercolours. All the stories have to do with the war of 1812. Thirty-two of the 34 cartoons were copied from Terebenev’s early originals, one image was borrowed from forefather of Russian caricature Alexei Venetsianov and another was created by artist Ivan Ivanov.

Each cartoon corresponded to each letter of the alphabet. The drawings were accompanied by satirical couplets that began with each letter of the alphabet. Some letters in the Cyrillic alphabet don’t appear at the beginning of any words, and in those cases the couplets ended with them. The author of the couplets was presumably Terebenev himself.

The Peoples of the Russian Empire and the Globe (1810-1820)

At the turn of the 19th century, a new type of an illustrated alphabet book emerged in Russia, where drawings played a more prominent role than the letters. As a rule, such alphabets did not contain any texts, only laconic captions to drawings. The illustrations were united by a single theme, selected for each letter of the alphabet and arranged in the alphabetic order. A copy of such an alphabet book with 37 coloured pages depicting representatives of different nations is kept in the collection of the Alexander Pushkin State Museum.

Most of the figures are depicted standing in pairs (male and female), holding traditional household items. There are "Greenlanders," "the wild people of Canada," "Pontagonians," "the people of New Holland," "the Unalaskians" and "Eskimoes from Labrador." These images were probably intended to be used as a guide to geography.

Ethnography became popular after German scientist Johann Gottlieb Georgi, a member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences and Arts, published in 1776-1777 his book “Description of all peoples living in the Russian Empire, their living, beliefs, customs, domiciles, clothes and other differences,” which was highly praised by Catherine the Great. This is also reflected in many porcelain figurines of the Peoples of Russia series, which were produced by various manufacturers until the 1917 revolution.

Yelizaveta Boehm’s alphabet book (1913-1914)

An original Russian-style alphabet book, conceived as a story in pictures, was created at the beginning of the 20th century by Yelizaveta Boehm (nee Endaurova), one of the first women in Russia to be awarded a Fine Arts degree.

A graduate of the art school at the Society for the Encouragement of Artists, she achieved recognition in various areas of fine arts. At the start of her career she became interested in silhouettes, which were popular in Russia from the age of Catherine the Great. Unlike the masters of the past, she did not cut them out of black paper with scissors but painted images on stone and then made prints. In total, she published 14 silhouette albums, which were published several times.

Great artists of the time, such as Ivan Kramskoi and Ilya Repin, expressed great admiration for her work. Repin gifted her one of his painting as a mark of respect. On the back of the canvas, he wrote a dedication: “To Yelizaveta Merkuryevna Boehm as a sign of my deepest admiration for her talent. I love her “little black ones” more than many, many “little white ones.”

Boehm’s watercolours won medals at international exhibitions and were acquired by Pyotr Tretyakov and other collectors. When her brother Alexander became the director of the famous Maltsov Crystal Factory, she began to create sketches for glass art.

The artist was inspired by the world of children. She became very popular thanks to book illustrations, as well as more than 300 postcards made in the so called sentimental realism.

Boehm’s regular customer was printer Ivan Sytin, and it was largely thanks to him that her drawings won such great popularity. Sytin published popular literature and other printed materials in large volumes, using the work of the best artists of the time.

Tragically, Boehm began to lose her vision, and her last big project was a watercolour alphabet book brought out in 1911 by major publisher Ivan Lapin.

“Diverse and unusually beautiful handwritten letters from the Historiated Initials book from the time of Alexei Mikhailovich served as an inspiration for this alphabet book. This gave me the idea to select drawings for each of the letters, adhering to the spirit of the time, in a fairy-tale or folk style,” the book begins with these words.

The alphabet was to be published in five parts, with six illustrations in each. In total, four issues were released (24 letters), the last one was published after Yelizaveta Boehm’s death.

In the 1920s, the alphabet book was published twice in Prague as a series of postcards for the children of Russian emigrants. Some pages are kept in the House of Russia Abroad.

The Soviet Alphabet by Vladimir Mayakovsky (1918)

In 1918, a spelling reform was carried out in the Soviet Russia, which involved a change in the spelling and the elimination of some letters. Its goal was to increase literacy in the country. The reform was planned before the revolution, formally announced by the Proovosional Government, but was always associated with the Bolsheviks, who carried out these transformations.

In the autumn of 1919, Vladimir Mayakovsky published his agitprop Soviet Alphabet. It was meant for the Red Army soldiers leaving for the front; as a result,  this 30-page publication on thin paper became an enormous rarity. Today, one of the surviving copies is on display at the Vladimir Mayakovsky State Museum.

A two-line ditty on a current interest theme corresponded to each letter of the alphabet, caricatured of one or more human figures. Each line began with this letter. “There were some quips that were not very suitable for salons, but which worked very well for the trenches,” Mayakovsky recalled later.

The poet not only wrote the poems for the book but also made all the drawings and personally lithographed them at the Stroganov School printing house . Several thousand copies were painted by the poet himself, assisted by his muse Lilya Brik and artist Yekaterina Turova. “This is a truly hand-made object produced at the time of the most sinister besiegement of the Soviet Union. This book did its job,” Mayakovsky said.

As for artist design, the Soviet Alphabet was, on the one hand, a reference to the traditions of lubok, and on the other, a manifestation of the avant-garde. It is made in the style of a self-written book of the Russian futurists who strove for a unified technique of texts and drawings.

The Anti-Religious ABC (1933)

The Anti-Religious ABC, another ideological study guide, was created by a friend of Mayakovsky, poster artist and cartoonist Mikhail Cheremnykh. He crossed paths with Mayakovsky while working on the famous ROSTA Windows. The first issue of the groundbreaking poster magazine, which quickly responded to acute topics with satirical poems and drawings, was produced by Cheremnykh in the autumn of 1919, and soon Vladimir Mayakovsky, Mikhail Volpin, Vasily Khvostenko and other writers and artists joined him.

In 1922, Cheremnykh became one of the founders of the Krokodil (Crocodile) satirical magazine, in which the artist’s works were published until his death.

In 1933, he illustrated the Anti-Religious ABC, which, as its name implies, reflected the Soviet policy on the Church. Today, a copy of Cheremnykh’s ABC is stored in the collection of the Museum of Moscow.

A coloured drawing corresponds to each letter of the alphabet, with a cheerful boy with a red-star-topped budyonovka cap on his head as a recurrent character. The drawings are accompanied by thematic couplets of two or four words that start with the corresponding letter of the alphabet. The author of the captions was the artist’s wife Nina Cheremnykh.

There was another interesting episode in the leading Soviet cartoonist’s life that is worth mentioning, although it doesn’t have anything to do with fine art. In the spring of 1918, the Moscow government decided to repair the chimes on the Kremlin clock, which had been damaged during the battles in the city. Before the revolution, the chimes played the anthem “How Glorious Is Our Lord in Zion” and The March o the Preobrazhensky Regiment. Vladimir Lenin wanted to replace them with proletarian melodies, such as The International and “You fell victim to fateful struggle...” But the government could not find anyone who would be able to set the clock to play the new music. Eventually, Mikhail Cheremnykh rose to the challenge: he loved music since he was a young man and even dreamed of becoming an opera singer at one time.

Source: mos.ru

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