Research help: History of Cyrillic letterforms

Flickerdart's picture

I'm researching these for a class, and it's incredibly difficult to find books on the history of Cyrillic letterforms after the origins of the thing way back in the IX century. I'm specifically interested in Peter the Great's reforms, the 1917 reforms, and anything on Ivan Fyodorov. Most of the things I have found so far are not in my university's library or don't help very much. One good article by Zhukov I've seen referenced is in Typographic Papers 1, but the library only has 2-7... It seems like the actual letterforms get ignored in favour of pretty much everything else. Does anyone know of some good resources on this topic?

blank's picture

The essay “Civil Type” by Vladimir Yefimov, published in the book Language Culture Type discusses the Petrine reforms and how the original Civil Type was produced. There’s also some commentary about a contemporary Cyrillic by Yefimov.

The Zhukov article is a splash of historical information, some images highlighting common aspects of the typographic forms, and tables examining shape relationships across the Cyrillic, Green, and Latin alphabets. The last item is something that one can figure out by looking at a good multi-script font. There are two copies of the Zhukov article at libraries in New York, one at the public library and one at Columbia University’s Butler library. Both are unfortunately in appointment-only rare books collections. The public library makes rare book access a huge PITA and won't let researchers make copies. Unless you’re having a really hard time wrapping your head around Latin/Greek/Cyrillic type design it’s probably not worth the effort it takes to access a copy.

clauses's picture

Aha! The ever elusive Typography Papers No. 1.

Flickerdart's picture

The "Book of Letters", as far as I can see, is impossible to get anywhere, but I'll try to track Language Culture Type down. Would you say it is worth buying?

blank's picture

Language Culture Type is only worth buying if you have a strong interest in the subject matter or find a cheap copy. Only about half the essays are especially good. Half the book is type specimens from the year 2000, a great deal of which are novelty fonts that time forgot (although there is a nice specimen of H&FJ’s Retina, which isn’t so easy to get in print). At $25 it’s not a bad deal, at $50+ it’s overpriced.

Maxim Zhukov's picture
I’m specifically interested in Peter the Great’s reforms, the 1917 reforms, and anything on Ivan Fyodorov.
One good study of the origins of the contemporary Cyrillic is Ivan Káldor’s essay “The genesis of the Russian grazhdanskii shrift or Civil Type” (Cleveland), printed in The Journal of Typographic Research, no. 3.4, of October 1969, and no. 4.2, of April 1970.
More recently, James Cracraft wrote about Peter’s typographic reform in his monograph The Petrine Revolution in Russian Culture (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004), pp. 257–275.
Strictly speaking, there was no “1917 reforms” in Russian typography. There was a spelling reform decreed by the new, Soviet government: it legally went into effect on January 1, 1918. Curiously enough, that decree, dated December 23, 1917, was published only on October 13, 1918.
dezcom's picture

If you get to New York, The NYPL has a great collection in their rare books room. Maxim gave a wonderful tour there a few years ago. I don't remember the librarian's name but he was happy to have us there.

quadibloc's picture

The 1918 spelling reform of the Soviet Government, however, could be deemed as much a typographical reform as the 1708 one by Peter the Great, because both of them removed several letters from the alphabet. Peter the Great went from the Old Slavonic alphabet to the Russian alphabet of 36 letters - and, in 1918, the Russian alphabet was deprived of І, Ѣ, Ѳ and Ѵ.

Maxim Zhukov's picture
Peter the Great went from the Old Slavonic alphabet to the Russian alphabet of 36 letters — and, in 1918, the Russian alphabet was deprived of І, Ѣ, Ѳ and Ѵ.
True, after both the reform of 1708–10 and the orthographic reform of 1917–18 a number of obsolete letters had been dropped from usage. But Peter also effected the typographic reform: he laid the foundation for the forms of Russian and other Cyrillic writing and printing that we are familiar with today. Kindly compare:


Peter acted in a capacity of a self-proclaimed type designer—unlike Louis le Grand who had his Romain du Roi designed by committee. That was a whole lot more radical than what the Bolshevik government did in 1917–18.

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