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Reading Russia, vol. 1

Damiano Rebecchini
Raffaella Vassena

Part I. The Long Eighteenth Century

Reading the Streets: Encounters With the Public Graphosphere, C. 1700-1950

Simon Franklin

Texte intégral

1The history of reading in Russia is mainly considered in relation to books, journals and newspapers, or, latterly, electronic media. Rather little attention has been paid to a very different kind of text, in a very different kind of communicative context. By the late nineteenth century, as Jeffrey Brooks has noted:

  • 1   J. Brooks, When Russia Learned to Read. Literacy and Popular Culture, 1861-1917 (Princeton, 1985) (...)

The city with its shop signs and street names, window displays and price tags, newspapers and kiosks, announcements and bookstalls exhibited the written word to all who walked its streets.1

2Reading the words on the streets is not, by and large, a sustained act comparable to reading a novel or even a newspaper article, yet the study of such reading has its own complexity. Urban graphospheres vary hugely, as do the modes of interaction with them. They can be dense or sparse, homogenous or diverse. The balance of their constituent elements may veer towards the commercial or towards the institutional and official. And in any given place at any given moment there may be multiple nuances in the human awareness and perception of public writing. The texts on display may simply be ignored, or may barely registered as background visual noise, or they may be skimmed for practical information, or scoured as cultural curiosities, or as instruments of expression, or as manifestations of design, or as evidence for social structures and practices, and a great deal more. Although the spread of public writing may, to some extent, both presuppose and be conducive to the spread of literacy, public urban texts are distinctive for the fact that that they are by nature positioned in the field of vision of the lettered and the unlettered alike.

  • 2   For surveys up to the mid nineteenth century, including some of the material covered in the prese (...)

3A comprehensive history of Russia’s urban textual spaces has yet to be written.2 The present study focuses on three indicative and contrasting episodes in that history and, in particular, on the evidence for types of reading (‘readership texts’). The three episodes are chronologically and culturally some distance apart. The first episode relates to official cultural initiatives of the early eighteenth century, the second episode relates to readings, in the period c. 1835-1850, of texts generated by commercial activity, while the third highlights the re-orientation of public writing away from the commercial and towards the political, and the subsequent (and consequent) emergence of a characteristic Soviet system of shop signage by the mid 1930s. In the first episode public writing was imposed on the urban landscape by the state, and the “readership texts” are those which, likewise “top-down,” gave guidance and instruction as to the correct way of perusing and interpreting. In the second episode the public texts were produced independently of the state, and the “readership texts” reflect observers’ responses to a phenomenon
which they had played no part in creating. In the third episode the balance again shifts towards “top-down,” state-imposed street-texts, with different implications for the function of reading. The episodes represent three major phases in the formation and mutations of public verbal display in Russia: from the earliest attempts, under Peter I, at constructing a systematically inscribed cityscape, through the period of the diversification of commercial urban textuality on the eve of the period described by Jeffrey Brooks, to the mid-Soviet project for a new systematisation and standardisation. Each of the three phases implies a distinct dynamic of reading.

  • 3   See S. Franklin, “Printing and Social Control in Russia 2: Decrees,” Russian History, 38, 4 (2011 (...)

41. Before the turn of the eighteenth century displays of writing in Muscovite public spaces had been rare. By contrast with the inscription-rich cities of antiquity, the stones of the medieval city were, by and large, mute. Regular, systematic displays of writing were confined to the interiors of churches, and to some extent to other internal spaces for the performance of ritual, such as the “Golden Hall” of the Moscow Kremlin. Otherwise there were occasional plaques recording the foundation of buildings (particularly churches), plus an assortment of inscribed objects periodically visible in public places (bells, large cannons). The use of urban spaces as settings for the programmatic display of verbal messages began under Peter I. Among his measures was the significant expansion of the practice of displaying the texts of official decrees as one of the means for their dissemination, especially after 1714 when he insisted that all decrees of general applicability must be printed.3 However, his most dramatic initiatives related not to flimsy sheets of paper, but to monumental edifices that transformed, albeit temporarily, the urban landscape: triumphal arches.

5In Russia the practice of constructing triumphal arches to record victories began in 1696 after Peter’s Azov campaign. These were not permanent additions to the city. They were stage props constructed for one-off performances, for the triumphal entries of the ruler and his troops. They were made of wood, painted to resemble marble, and copiously decorated. Though the triumphal arches themselves were transient, Peter made sure that they were recorded for contemporaries and for posterity, both in pictures and in words: in engravings and in published descriptions. The engravings capture the monuments as a whole, the descriptions record their decorations in meticulous detail, scene by scene, line by line.

6The Petrine triumphal arches were not just imposing structures to be admired and to create a general sense of grandeur appropriate to the ceremonial. They were texts to be read; or rather they displayed texts to be read. The texts were both visual and verbal: classical, mythological, biblical, historical and allegorical scenes, together with captions or mottoes. The sources for the arches were broadly, in a kind of generic sense, classical: they were reminiscent of Roman triumphal arches. But the more proximate sources were recent and West European. In Russia such spectacles were deeply unfamiliar in virtually all their aspects, from the monumental structures to the pictorial and verbal decoration. To say that they were “reminiscent” of Rome or of Western Europe is fine for those whose cultural horizons extended that far. But in Russia these were cultural texts in a virtually unknown cultural language. It was a complex language whose nuanced decipherment would, in principle, require a range of skills and cultural referents: some knowledge of the ancient tongues, an awareness of classical and contemporary triumphal architectural conventions, familiarity with the visual and verbal conventions of emblems. The spectacle was of course magnificent, and Petrine magnificence was an important message in itself. But if Peter wanted his cultural texts to by understood more specifically, then viewers needed to be educated in their language, needed to be told what they meant, how to read them. Hence the production of written explanations, both in manuscript and in print.

  • 4   For the list see D. D. Zelov, Ofitsial’nye svetskie prazdniki kak iavlenie russkoi kul’tury konts (...)

7Seven extant explanations of the Petrine triumphal arches and ceremonies have been identified, at least six of which were printed:4

  1. A description of the arch erected at the Slavo-Graeco-Latin Academy, in honour of Peter’s entry into Moscow on 11 November 1703 following victories over the Swedes (Torzhestvennye vrata, vvodiashchaia v khram bessmertnyia slavy).5
  2. A description of a new arch at the Academy, in honour of a triumphal entry in December 1704, written in 1704 by Iosif Turoboiskii (Preslavnoe torzhestvo svoboditelia Livonii).6
  3. An explanation of the arch erected in front of the residence of Aleksandr Menshikov, also for the triumphal entry of December 1704 (Tolkovanie vratam pred dvorom ego prevoskhoditel’stva gospodina Aleksandra Danilovicha Menshikova…).7
  4. A very extensive account of the arch erected at the Slavo-Graeco-Latin Academy in 1709 in honour of the victory at Poltava: the idiosyncratically titled Politikolepnaia apotheosis (the latter word printed in Greek letters), by Iosif Turoboiskii with Feofilakt Lopatinskii. This was by far the longest in the sequence of works, running to 178 pages in the original edition. It was also among the earliest books to be printed in the Russian “civic typeface.”8
  5. A description of the arch at Menshikov’s residence in the same year (Sostoianie vrat torzhestvennykh, kotorym byt’ u ego siiatel’stva svetleishago kniazia Aleksandra Danilovicha ego milosti Menshikova).9
  6. A description of another of the triumphal arches erected in honour of the Poltava victory in 1709, the “Merchants’ Arch,” because funded by St. Petersburg merchants (Sen’ bessmertnyia slavy, torzhestvennaia vrata).10
  7. A description of four arches erected in Moscow on the occasion of Peter’s triumphal entry following the Treaty of Nystadt in 1721 (Vrata triumfal’nye v tsarstvuiushchem grade Moskve…).11

8What did these prescriptive readings of the monuments consist of? Our examples are taken from three of the earliest texts, which describe arches at the Slavo-Graeco-Latin Academy (nos 1, 2 and 4 in the above list). There were arches outside the Academy partly because of its central location at the Zaikonospasskii monastery on Nikolskaia ulitsa, just a few hundred metres to the northeast of the Kremlin (and, as it happens, adjacent to the Print Yard, where the descriptions were published). More important for present purposes, however, is the fact that the Academy was closely involved in the conceptualisation and explication of the project. The printed descriptions were written by teachers at the Academy, who presented and explained, sometimes in very great detail, the schemes of depiction and inscription that they themselves had devised for the purpose. The works were written in the first person plural: “we painted,” “we depicted,” “we represented,” and so on. These were the creators’ guides to their own creations, authoritative readings as expounded by the authors. Most prominent among them, as a designer of the motifs on triumphal arches and as an author of their explanations, was Iosif Turoboiskii. Turoboiskii had taught at the Mohyla Academy in Kiev, whence he was recruited by Peter in 1701. From 1703 he was “prefect” of the Moscow Slavo-Graeco-Latin Academy.

9The three descriptions of triumphal arches at the Academy proceed in a kind of crescendo of rhetorical elaboration. The first, from November 1703, is the plainest. It begins with a brief preface stating that the arch was created by the teachers in honour of Peter, Russia’s “New Hercules.” The main text consists of a systematic guide around the depictions on the monument, scene by scene, according to a consistent pattern. First, each figure or location is identified, often with a sentence or two about who they were in history or mythology. Next the relevant inscription is cited, usually in Latin and with a Russian translation; and finally, in several instances the teachers add a brief interpretation of what the scene is intended to signify—that is, of how it was meant to be read—in the context of the celebration of Peter’s triumph. This is the basic structure common to all the descriptions.

  • 12   Iu. K. Begunov, “‘Opisanie vrat chesti…’: a Seventeenth-Century Russian Translation on William of (...)

10The immediate precedents for such descriptions were West European. A likely model was the Russian translation, from Dutch, of the detailed account of the triumphal entry of William of Orange into The Hague on 5 February 1691.12 This work, whose translation into Russian has been attributed to Ilia Kopievskii, describes several triumphal monuments, including not only arches but also banners outside specified houses along the route of the procession. The accounts of each of the monuments consist of a fairly standard set of elements: the shape and main architectural features; the pictorial representations, and their accompanying inscriptions. In all the work contains translations of approximately 140 Latin inscriptions.

11The basic pattern of description, listing the pictures and their adjacent texts, can be illustrated from the first of the Russian texts, dated 1703:

  • 13Na gzemze: gzymz/gezimz = cornice; from German Gesims, perhaps via Polish Gsyms: one of many borr (...)
  • 14Panegiricheskaia literatura, 136.

On the cornice13 are the following: first, Mars, with the inscription ferro metuendus, which is to say “fearsome on account of his weapon.” Next Jason, who with the other Argonauts sailed to Colchis for the Golden Fleece; with the inscription tulit pretium non vile laborum, which is to say “he received no mean recompense for his labours.” For this signifies our most majestic monarch, who in this age, first among his ancestors, the Tsars of Russia, conquered the Enemy by sea—indeed, the Finnic sea—for which he received as his desired recompense two Swedish ships.14

  • 15   Tiukhmeneva, Iskusstvo triumfal’nykh vrat, 178.
  • 16   Ibid., 181.
  • 17   Ibid., 185.
  • 18   Ibid., 194.
  • 19   E.g., Ibid., 193.

12The Politikolepnaia apotheosis of 1709 went far beyond this formula. Not only were the Poltava monuments of 1709 themselves far more elaborate and magnificent than their predecessors in 1703, but their rhetorical description was also far more expansive. The Politikolepnaia apotheosis was a substantial book, not an occasional pamphlet. Besides the core elements of description, inscription and interpretation, its authors digressed into comparisons, thematic amplification, and further literary allusions and citations. Thus, for example, following the description of the image of Castor and Pollux, the author adds in justification of his version: “I have depicted these two together on white steeds ahead of a chariot, since the ancients believed that they used such steeds, as Pindar writes…,” followed by a citation from Pindar in Greek.15 A detail from the life of Hercules is justified with a quotation, in Greek, of a dozen lines from Theocritus.16 A symbol of virtues is interpreted with reference to several classical authors including, for example, half a dozen lines in Latin from Ovid’s Metamorphoses,17 while elsewhere the theme of the virtue of the ruler (princeps, rendered into Russian as monarkh) is expanded with quotations (in Latin) from Aristotle’s Ethics, Iamblichus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Carolus Paschalius.18 In the inscriptions themselves, Greek sometimes figures alongside Latin (and Slavonic).19

  • 20   Zelov, Ofitsial’nye svetskie prazdniki, 143.

13The level of polyglot rhetoric begs the obvious question: for whom were such descriptions written? Not for the masses, of course. If Peter or Turoboiskii had imagined that the printing of the descriptions would release a pent-up flood of demand, they were disabused by the fate of the first in the sequence, which was issued in a print-run of 1200 copies, most of which lay unsold.20 There were no intellectual, cultural or linguistic concessions to what might be reckoned the average or unenlightened local spectator. How many people in early eighteenth-century Moscow could inspect every Latin motto, scan every hexameter and appreciate every classical allusion in situ? Very few indeed, beyond the alumni of the Slavo-Graeco-Latin academy and their teachers. Turoboiskii’s implied reader was from his own rarefied cultural milieu. In other words, even the ostensibly outward-facing act of explanation was esoteric.

  • 21   For the engravings see Tiukhmeneva, Iskusstvo triumfal’nykh vrat, illustrations between pp. 96 an (...)
  • 22   Begunov, “‘Opisanie vrat chesti…’,” 71-72.
  • 23   On inscriptional verse see e.g. L. I. Sazonova, Literaturnaia kul’tura Rossii. Rannee Novoe vremi (...)

14Within these limits, the descriptions could function on several levels. Insofar as they might indeed have served as practical aids to the viewing and detailed inspection of public monuments, they can be counted as Moscow’s earliest printed guide-books. Insofar as they also served to perpetuate the presence of Peter’s temporary, occasional edifices, they were verbal equivalents to the engravings that Peter also commissioned to record his triumphs.21 Moreover, they were perhaps designed to be read not just alongside the monuments themselves, but as supplements to the relevant engravings. There was precedent. The Dutch author of the original of the description of William of Orange’s triumph of 1791 stated explicitly that his text was to be read alongside the set of engravings that he had already issued.22 Insofar as the accounts of the arches were rhetorical texts relating to inscriptions, they also nicely fit the “inscriptional” culture of Russian baroque writing.23 With the exception of dedicated emblem books, the highly detailed accounts of the decorations on the triumphal arches constitute by far the most extensive Petrine printed descriptions and decipherments of emblems. In their own right, simply as verbal edifices, they add to the store of specimens of westernising, classicising panegyrical composition. On many counts, therefore, they fit nicely into the multi-media rhetoric of the early Petrine project.

15Nevertheless, all of this still skirts round the question of a wider contemporary readership of the Petrine inscribed edifices that so dramatically, albeit temporarily, transformed the urban landscape. Obviously a direct textual reading of depictions and inscriptions was only accessible to a minuscule subset even of the relatively literate. However, unlike a printed leaflet, which potential readers could choose to open or to ignore, the arches themselves were unavoidably open books thrust in the faces of anybody who happened to be on the relevant streets at the relevant periods. I am not aware of a body of direct evidence for wider public responses, but some of the potential readings are refracted in, or were anticipated by, Iosif Turoboiskii. In the second of the three texts here considered, before proceeding to describe and interpret the decorative and inscriptional schemes on the Academy’s arch of 1704, he pauses to consider and refute what he reckons to be misreadings and misinterpretations. He alludes, in effect, to a kind of negative implied reader of the monuments, one who interprets the display in the context of old, unenlightened categories and assumptions.

16Turoboiskii warns his own reader against just such an imagined figure:

  • 24Panegiricheskaia literatura, 156.

You, my honourable reader… do not emulate the ignorant, those who know nothing, who have been nowhere and have seen nothing, but who like the tortoise stay under their shell and never emerge, and who, when they see anything new, are startled and spew forth all kinds of profanities.24

  • 25Slovar’ russkogo iazyka XI-XVII vv. Vypusk 11 (Moscow, 1986), 27.
  • 26   On perceptions of Peter’s “anti-culture” see e.g. B. A. Uspenskii, “Historia sub specie semiotica (...)

17Turoboiskii designated such imagined negative readers of the monuments as “the ignorant.” The word he uses, neveglas, has a particular resonance. Traditionally in Church Slavonic it refers not just to people who happen not to know certain facts, but to people who are ignorant of truth—specifically, ignorant of Christian truth.25 To be labelled neveglas was often tantamount to being called a pagan or a heretic. Turoboiskii’s use of the word is surely deliberate. The saturation of public spaces with classical forms, depictions and allusions could obviously be perceived, from within traditional Muscovite culture, as a pagan excrescence (one of Peter’s many cultural reversals).26 In his defence of the pagan imagery Turoboiskii positions himself firmly on the Christian high-ground. It is the critics who are the neveglasy.

  • 27Panegiricheskaia literatura, 154-155.

18What, specifically, were the potential misreadings that Turoboiskii was so keen to deflect? Part of his argument was a defence of allegory. He announced his intention to explain “all these pictures with their symbols and emblems, […] for you should know, dear reader, that those who strive for wisdom often depict one thing by means of a different image.”27 His larger point, however, was about categories of culture. He insisted that such images and edifices, though not in themselves Christian, had an honourable place within Christian cultures. His implied negative reader was assumed to believe, first, that monumental public buildings should serve religious functions (as, in Muscovy, had generally been the case) and, second, that a religious building that is not Christian must be heretical or pagan. Turoboiskii introduced a different contrast, which by implication may have been unfamiliar to his wider Muscovite audience: not the contrast between Christian and heretical or pagan, nor even a contrast between the religious and the secular, but a contrast between the devotional and the civil:

  • 28   Ibid., 154. For these meanings of politicheskii and politichnyi see Slovar’ russkogo iazyka XVIII (...)

This [arch] is not a temple, or a church built in the name of some saint. It is a political, which is to say a civil, tribute (politicheskaia, siest’ grazhdanskaia pokhvala) to those who have laboured for the integrity of their fatherland and who by their labours have, with God’s help, conquered their enemies. [Such arches] have been set up from ancient times (as in Rome when the Emperor Constantine defeated Maxentius) among all civilised rather than barbarian peoples (vo vsekh politichnykh, a ne varvarskikh narodakh), in order that virtue, thus praised and honoured, may grow.28

19Turoboiskii exploits the semantic slippage between cognate forms. The triumphal arch is not a pagan affront to Christianity. It is a civil homage to a Christian ruler; and furthermore, in marking out a civil sphere of prestigious culture it is also a mark of a civilised people. Let the erudite delight in their erudition (as Turoboiskii certainly does), but the larger statement, for all to see and understand, lay not in the micro-reading of the images and inscriptions but in the physical and rhetorical declaration of a new kind of cultural space with its own unfamiliar but entirely legitimate visual and verbal and pictorial idioms sanctioned by prestigious Christian precedent. For Turoboiskii, the monumental triumphal arches were both embodiments and symbols of the creation of a new, civil space for prestigious culture. They were, in the most literal sense, part of a process of making civil: that is, of civil-isation.

20We cannot know how many people responded the arches and their depictions and their inscriptions in the ways imputed to Iosif Turoboiskii’s implied negative reader. In their day such display in Russia was radically innovative, and the effort expended on interpretation suggests an expectation of widespread misinterpretation (that is, of interpretation according to a different cultural paradigm). Nevertheless, in common with several of Peter’s initiatives, their contemporary dissonance did not necessarily impede their longer-term resonance. Strange and esoteric in the age of their introduction, decorated and inscribed triumphal arches became, over the following decades, traditional and habitual, alongside firework displays, among the public rituals of imperial display, of the performance of power.

21These works by Turoboiskii and others were instructions on how to read. They assume an audience (or readership) deeply unfamiliar with the idiom and interpretation of the monumental texts that suddenly appeared in public spaces. They expound the meanings as intended by the authors. In this they are integral components of the ‘top down’ cultural project. They seek to create and shape a readership, not to reflect one.

222. Our second episode involves a quite different dynamic of ‘readership texts’: the emergence of autonomous, articulate responses to public writing from those who have no role or stake in the processes of its production. It coincides with the proliferation of a different type of public text: not the official messages of grand monuments, but the self-promoting initiatives and incursions of trade and commerce.

  • 29Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi imperii (St. Petersburg, 1830), nos. 8674, 9350, 10032.
  • 30   Originally in Severnaia pchela, June 14, 1836; cited in G. Kaganov, Images of Space. St. Petersbu (...)
  • 31   See K. Bowers, “Experiencing Information: An Early Nineteenth-Century Stroll Along Nevskii Prospe (...)

23The chronology of the spread of shops signs and trade signs cannot be tracked precisely. Early concerns about unsightly signage were expressed in decrees from the mid eighteenth century, as were instructions for the precise wording displayed by establishments selling tobacco and alcohol.29 However, contemporary illustrations of street scenes suggest that the main period of rapid proliferation and diversification of signs covered roughly the first three decades of the nineteenth century. Approximately from the mid 1830s, having emerged as a phenomenon, street signage became an object of description and reflection, of cultural “readings.” 1835 saw the completion of the popular and widely admired lithographed panoramas of Nevskii Prospekt in St. Petersburg, derived from the slightly earlier watercolours by Vasilii Sadovnikov. Reviewers at the time were especially impressed by the accuracy and precision of its representations of the shop signs,30 and even today the panoramas (one of the “sunny” side, one of the “shady” side) can still serve as useful sources for their subject.31

  • 32   F. Distribuendi, Vzgliad na moskovskie vyveski (Moscow, 1836).
  • 33   Tsentral’nyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Goroda Moskvy (TsGA Moskvy), f. 32, op. 5, d. 102. I am grate (...)

24Our focus here, however, is not on pictures of words but on words about words. The earliest detailed description of shop signs in Russia was published in Moscow in 1836. It was written by Fedor Distribuendi—presumably a pseudonym—about whom nothing appears to be known apart from his authorship of a 68-page booklet entitled A View of Moscow Signs.32 The archives of the Moscow Censorship Committee reveal that the manuscript was submitted in September 1835 by a certain Ensign Brazhnikov, which possibly gives us a name if not a biography.33 Distribuendi was aware of being the pioneer of a new sub-genre in the literature about Moscow:

  • 34   Distribuendi, Vzgliad na moskovskie vyveski, 3-4.

Much has been written about the white-stoned city of Moscow, about its memorable monuments and the diverse curiosities that can be found there. Much has been written about its golden-domed churches, about its ancient monasteries, about its walks and its varied views. Praises have been sung to its boulevards, and to the parks that adorn Russia’s first capital city. Yet nobody, until now, has directed their curious gaze towards the signs, whose colourful diversity (pestreiushchie) lines Moscow’s streets. […] This is what has prompted the publication of the booklet that is here offered for the delectation of curious readers, be they inhabitants of Moscow or, in particular, inquisitive visitors from other cities.34

  • 35   Ibid., 25.
  • 36   Ibid., 17.

25Distribuendi makes it clear that, by the mid 1830s, shop signs and trade signs in Moscow were no longer just occasional exotic features. They had become widespread on all the main streets of the capital; so widespread and so diverse, indeed, that they could be confusing.35 Distribuendi represents his main task as providing a clear classification, a systematic guide, since “system is the soul of any scholarly work.”36 For this reason his booklet seems more thorough, objective and reliable than the overtly opinionated works of many of his successors. His declared aim was to impose order on variety, to reveal the regularities behind the motley surface impressions:

  • 37   Ibid., 4-5.

What colourful diversity (pestrota), what variety greets you when you survey Moscow’s shop signs! You won’t find even five of them that are absolutely identical. The tasteful and the tasteless, the rich and the poor, the gigantic and the minuscule all mingle with each other in these indicators to Moscow’s commerce.37

26Pestrota —variegation, motliness, colourful diversity, a kind of disorderly profusion— is a word which crops up regularly in descriptions of the signs both of Moscow and of St. Petersburg. In the face of such motliness, Fedor Distribuendi attempted to create a taxonomy. He devised two kinds of classification. His most detailed set of categories was tied to content or context: signs were differentiated according to the types of establishment that they adorned. He thus arrived at a list of 25 types of sign, which he further subdivided into two groups, the “numerous” and the “less numerous.” The “numerous” types of sign were those which related to: tailors, cobblers, inns and restaurants, barbers, vegetable stalls, bakers, alehouses, taverns and various kinds of drinking establishments, clockmakers, midwives, milliners. The “less numerous” signs advertised apothecaries, makers of musical instruments, boarding houses, jewellers, tobacco stalls, bookshops, glassmakers, painters, locksmiths, carriage-makers, confectioners, bathhouses, plus the purveyors of sundry merchandise.

  • 38   Ibid., 54-62, 63-68.

27Distribuendi’s second type of classification was aesthetic. The main focus of his work was on what he called “normal” signs (vyveski obyknovennye), but he also introduced the categories of “curious” (kur’eznye) and of “elegant” (iziashchnye) signs. His “curious” signs were either visually grotesque or verbally idiosyncratic and ungrammatical. His “elegant” signs were either particularly skilled or ingenious in design (e.g. with anthropomorphic lettering), or else they flaunted their foreignness. However, Distribuendi allocated rather little space to the curious and the elegant.38 To be distracted by the deviant would have detracted from his principal aim of ordering what he regarded as the normal.

  • 39   Ibid., 26.
  • 40   Ibid., 47-48.
  • 41   Ibid., 38-40.

28Fedor Distribuendi’s descriptions of “normal” signs favour regular elements and common variants with respect to shape, pictorial representation, and verbal inscription. So, for example, tailors’ signs were usually made from square or oblong sheets of metal; they depicted either a pair of scissors in the centre of the panel, flanked by the first name and surname of the craftsman (or with the first name above the scissors and the surname below); or they depicted two pairs of scissors, one down either side of the panel, with the names in the centre; the inscriptions were in gold or silver or in various colours.39 Or: tobacco booths (“such as one can see at every crossroads”) had small, modest, square signs depicting two yellow jars (“which one presumes to indicate snuff”), between which a man dressed like Harlequin sits rubbing tobacco. Beneath the depiction was the inscription “tobacco booth.”40 And so on. Distribuendi allows himself the occasional lyrical digression, as, for example, on how moved he is whenever he sees a sign advertising the services of a midwife—though he would rather not speculate on the reasons for the recent proliferation of such signs in the Arbat area.41 For the most part, however, the tone is factual and undramatic.

  • 42   Ibid., 60.

29Orderliness, for Fedor Distribuendi, was important not just in the arrangement of description, but in the appearance of Moscow’s streets. His introductory comments might suggest that his work was intended to be a celebration of the expressive variety of Moscow’s signs, but this was not the case. On the contrary, it turns out that even his descriptive objectivity is an illusion. He was selective. The overwhelming preponderance, in his text, of “normal” signs reflects his own strong preference, not the actual configuration of signs on the streets. A few examples of the “curious” and the “elegant” were added at the end, although he himself acknowledged that in reality one could encounter “thousands” of them.42 In Fedor Distribuendi’s presentation almost all signs were “normal,” almost all were inscribed in Russian, and almost all the inscriptions were factual in their messages and correct in their grammar and spelling. He presented a selective reading of the city as he would have liked it to be, not necessarily as it was.

30Eventually Distribuendi brought his opinions into the open. The multifariousness of Moscow’s signs was an eyesore, a scar on the beauty and harmony of the city. Pestrota was not to be admired but to be overcome. If uniformity could be imposed by regulation, Moscow would only benefit:

  • 43   Ibid., 61.

Variegation and ugliness [of shop signs] disfigure Moscow’s streets and make them look rather like galleries of caricatures that are wearisome to the eye. Why could one not, as far as possible, harmonize the signs? Why could one not introduce uniformity and consistency? Then the eye would no longer be bedazzled by diversity (pestret’), nor would the gaze be wearied by the mixture of good taste and vulgarity, and Moscow’s adornment would be yet more beautiful.43

31I do not see traces of irony here. It is our good fortune that Fedor Distribuendi had somewhat prosaic preferences, that he valued the ordinary above the quirky, that he tried to impose a grid of descriptive regularity on the unspectacular everyday signs. For him, the main function of shop signs and trade signs was that, through their depictions and inscriptions, they should be factually informative. They should show what was being sold, or what services were being offered, and by whom. If they could fulfill that function tastefully, so much the better. Many of his successors were more egregiously tendentious in their readings of the city’s commercial textscape.

32While Distribuendi concentrated on the “normal,” others were drawn towards describing and interpreting signs that were, for him, deviations: those which he would have called “curious” or “elegant.” Such signs were at opposite ends of a linguistic spectrum: at one end, non-standard, ungrammatical Russian (the “curious”); at the other end, French (“elegant,” of course). We begin with readings of the latter.

  • 44   K. N. Batiushkov, “Progulka po Moskve,” in Idem, Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh (Moscow, 1989), vol. (...)
  • 45   A. S. Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii v desiati tomakh, ed. D. D. Blagoi et al. (Moscow, 1959-1962), (...)

33The prominence of French, or, to a lesser extent, of other foreign languages written in the Latin alphabet, was a leitmotif of responses to urban signage. For some it was a delight, for others an abomination. As early as 1811 or 1812 the poet Konstantin Batiushkov, in an essay entitled A Stroll through Moscow (Progulka po Moskve), noted the combination of French and unsightly disorderliness in the shop signs plastered along Moscow’s central streets such as Kuznetskii Most and Tverskaia, with their “French bookstalls and fashion shops, whose monstrously ugly signs screen entire buildings.”44 Shortly afterwards, in the face of Napoleon’s invasion, French shop signs were banned on the orders of the military governor of Moscow, Fedor Rostopchin. Twenty one years later, in a letter to his wife, written from Moscow on her 21st birthday (27 August 1833), Aleksandr Pushkin cheerfully conveyed the “important news” that French shop signs were reappearing on Kuznetskii Most.45

  • 46   P. Vistengof, Ocherki moskovskoi zhizni (Moscow, 1842), 130-133.

34For some, this was a welcome development. Foreign shops and shop-owners brought multiple benefits. According to Petr Fedorovich Vistengof, who published his Sketches of Moscow Life (Ocherki moskovskoi zhizni) in 1842, the elegance of foreign shops was contributing to a general improvement in standards of display and presentation in Russian shops as well.46 Moreover, Vistengof saw a correlation between the quality of the sign (whether foreign or otherwise) and the quality of the goods:

  • 47   “Keresberg” appears to have been pseudo-Germanism current in the mid 1840s: cf. the “Keresberg” h (...)
  • 48   Vistengof, Ocherki moskovskoi zhizni, 134-135.

Have you noticed how, very often, just as you can tell a person by his clothes, so you can tell a craftsman by his shop sign? You should avoid like the plague shops with hideous signs, such as those that depict foppish young men striking peculiar poses (attitiudy) with inscriptions like “The Most Modern Tailor from Keresberg.”47 Seek out instead [a sign depicting] plain but respectable scissors […] If you want the boots that you ordered in Summer to be ready by Christmas, then go to a Russian cobbler, and pay no attention to his sign showing a boot of gigantic proportions, with the inscription “Rewarded for Excellence.” For this your own reward will be gigantic blisters. […] If you want a truly well shod foot, go to Bruno or to Pironnet on Kuznetskii Most, or to Tacke on Dmitrovka.48

35By the later 1840s, however, such delight in francophone visual fashion had become unfashionable among some literati. The prominence or dominance of French on shop signs in some areas was no longer read as a mark of sophistication and taste. On the contrary, it was satirised, even reviled, as a symptom of cultural subservience, almost as a national affront. The spectrum of readings runs from mild irony to biting polemic. At the gentler end of the spectrum was the young essayist Ivan Kokorev, whose collection of sketches on Moscow in the 1840s (Moskva sorokovykh godov) included a section on the signs with which central Moscow was saturated:

House upon house, doorway upon doorway, window upon window, everything from the bottom to the top is strewn with signs, covered in them like wallpaper. Sign links to sign, each pressing on the other…

36Apart from the sheer quantity of signs, what particularly struck Kokorev was the impact of the inscriptions, which transformed the Russian city into something quite un-Russian, or transported the viewer into quite another place:

  • 49   I. T. Kokorev, “Publikatsii i vyveski,” in Idem, Moskva sorokovyh godov. Ocherki i povesti o Mosk (...)

Inscriptions, inscriptions… That’s what makes the heart race. Such progress! Such rapid development! Such precociousness!... You look and can barely believe it, you begin to think and your thoughts scatter at the joy of it! Many a respectable person has been vexed by the spirit of Russia, but here there’s no sight or sound of it, and Baba-yaga is free to go off wherever she chooses. Paris! Truly, this is Paris! Or rather, Paris’s most enticing district, cased and behind glass, to make sure that our northern frosts cannot play havoc with the guests from afar.... A la mode du jour, au pauvre diable, à la coquête, à la renommêe, à la confiance, à la locomotive, au Rocher de Cancale, à la ville de Paris, à la ville de Lyon, à la ville de Moscou...49

  • 50   See the remarks of A. M. Konechnyi in his introduction to Chuvstvitel’nye progulki po Nevskomu pr (...)

37Kokorev’s rhetoric on the banishment of the “spirit of Russia” from central Moscow is more bantering than polemical. A sharper-edged polemical reading of the French street-texts of central St. Petersburg was launched in a near-contemporary essay by Egor Rastorguev, whose Strolls Along Nevskii Prospekt was published in 1846. Rastorguev was of a somewhat older generation than Kokorev.50 His book begins with several introductory chapters containing background information about Nevskii Prospekt. Then he goes out into the street for a series of walks, during which he records his observations and impressions. And his very first set of impressions, as soon as he embarks on his first stroll, was formed by the profusion of signs. His initial reaction is in familiar mode, as he is struck by their ubiquity and diversity:

  • 51   E. I. Rastorguev, Progulki po Nevskomy prospektu (St. Petersburg, 1846), repr. in Chuvstvitel’nye (...)

Such a colourful diversity (pestrota) of signs! All the private buildings are covered, swathed, strewn (so to speak) with signs, inscriptions, images, figures, frames—high and low, on walls and on doors, over windows and under windows and behind windows.51

38However, as he progressed from general impression towards specific textual observation, Rastorguev became increasingly distressed; and the cause of his distress was language:

But the peculiar thing, the offensive thing, is that every single sign on Nevskii Prospekt is in French. Very rarely is there also a Russian translation. Oh, our glorious Russian capital! Does your renown really depend on this?

39For Rastorguev the predominance of French suggested neither elegance nor sophistication. It was humiliating. He was indignant at the asymmetry of attitudes: Russians went abroad in the spirit of appreciation, and took pains to learn the relevant languages; these foreign traders came to Russia in order to make profits, and were quite shameless in their ignorance of the Russian tongue:

When we Russians set off for alien parts, we strive not merely to equal but even to surpass native foreigners (prirodnye inostrantsy) in the purity of our language and the correctness of our enunciation. When we travel to Paris or London, it is surely not for the purpose of making profit for ourselves from the local inhabitants. But these Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, these Englishmen and Englishwomen, these Germans and Dutch, and all the foreign traders who flock to our glorious capital with the sole aim of dealing on credit and enriching themselves without investing—they are utterly unembarrassed by their ignorance of our language.

40The longer Rastorguev pondered the implications of this linguistic landscape, the darker his thoughts became. Paris has no foreign-language shop signs whatever; St. Petersburg’s main thoroughfares have only foreign-language shop signs:

Where in Paris could you find even one shop sign in a foreign language? Yet here, in Russia, in the capital city, and not just on Nevskii Prospekt but on all the main streets of St. Petersburg, all the shop signs are in French. It is as if St. Petersburg is not a Russian city at all.

41The spectacle would have been bad enough if it had merely indicated the preponderance of foreigners too arrogant to be bothered with Russian, but for Egor Rastorguev the most galling aspect was that even the Russian traders had become infected by the fashion for the foreign:

Surely it is both pitiful and absurd to see how even traders in our native Russian goods, traders who know not a word in any foreign language, nevertheless imitate custom and fashion by having their shop signs in French? How can one avoid being both amused and indignant at the sight of signs such as Tailleur Ivan Moschalof, Boulanger Timofey Ivanof, Magasin du thé par Sidor Blohin, Coiffeur Evgraf Semenof and the like. […] Surely it is absurd, the blindness that, out of love for all things foreign, induces us to demean our own language in our own country!

42Such abject and in many cases fraudulent francophilia went beyond language. Everything was declared to be de Paris:

  • 52   Rastorguev, Progulki po Nevskomy prospektu, 141.

Here all the hair stylists turn out to be from Paris, the tailors, shoemakers and bootmakers are from Paris, the dentists and podiatrists are from Paris, the florists and the perfumers are from Paris, the bronze-casters and the clockmakers are from Paris, the upholsterers are from Paris, the lithographers are from Paris. In short: all the artists and craftsmen are from Paris—according to their own shop signs, at any rate.52

43In central Moscow in the mid 1830s Fedor Distribuendi had noticed (or had wished to draw attention to) almost exclusively Russian signs, although we know that French signs were there to be described if he had chosen to do so. In central St. Petersburg in the mid 1840s Egor Rastorguev noticed (or wished to draw attention to) exclusively French signs, although we know that the linguistic landscape was not in fact so monoglot, or so mono-scriptal, as he asserts. Each read and responded to the urban text of his choice: in the one case according to his desires, in the other case according to his fears.

  • 53   Cited here from the edition published as Fiziologiia Peterburga (Moscow, 1984), 132-152 and 107-1 (...)

44At the other end of the cultural spectrum, likewise outside Distribuendi’s notion of putative normality, were the signs that he had classed as “curious”: signs in non-standard Russian, signs with apparently quirky wording, signs which he had dismissed as tasteless and illiterate. Distribuendi himself admitted that there were “thousands” of such signs in central Moscow. As we shall see, they were no less widespread in St. Petersburg. In a sense, therefore, it was they that constituted the norm, or a norm, even if Distribuendi, and Kokorev and Rastorguev, preferred (for different reasons) to treat them as marginal. For more direct, less judgmental readings of the ordinary signage of the city, we have to turn to a different genre of writing: not to the works of the earnest taxonomist or of satirical essayists, but to the “physiological” sketches whose avowed aim was to explore the anatomy of the city as it actually was (albeit—perhaps paradoxically—mainly through the medium of fiction) without hierarchy or pre-judgment. Here, as examples, we can consider the readings of urban signage in two of the works published in the 1845 collection The Physiology of Petersburg (Fiziologiia Peterburga): “The Recesses of Petersburg,” or “Petersburg Nooks and Crannies” (Peterburgskie ugly) by Nikolai Nekrasov, and “The Petersburg Side” (Peterburgskaia storona) by Evgenii Grebenka.53 The titles themselves declare a sharp contrast with stories of Nevskii Prospekt or Kuznetskii Most. The “Petersburg Side” was the “other” side of the river, the unfashionable side, expressly not the place for dandified strutting amid signs of frenchified affectation, while Nekrasov’s “recesses” imply precisely those parts which needed to be sought out, which did not put themselves on display. Except that, as we discover, display was no less important even in the “recesses.” They were not “recesses” for the people who lived there, only for the people who had conventionally written about Petersburg display.

  • 54Fiziologiia Peterburga, 132.

45Nekrasov’s story begins with a sign: not a brightly painted shop sign, but a simple handwritten note attached to a gateway into a somewhat insalubrious courtyard. In Russian the note reads: At daetsa vnaimy ugal, na vtorom dvare, vpadvale, a o tsene sprasit’ kvarternai khoziaike Akuliny Fedotovne.54 Translation here is a problem. An English rendition can be either literate or literal, not both. A literate rendition might read “Basement apartment for rent, in the second courtyard. Questions about the price should be addressed to the supervisor, Akulina Fedotovna.” Or some such. But this version misrepresents the point, for the notice is not literate, or at any rate its spellings are patently non-standard. Unstressed vowels are mostly rendered as they are pronounced, not as they are supposed to be written. A prepositional prefix is written as a separate word (at daetsa should be otdaetsia), while, conversely, a separate preposition is elided with the following word (vpadvale should be v podvale). And so on.

46A text like this poses intriguing questions for reading. How was it read by Nekrasov’s narrator? How did Nekrasov’s implied author intend it to be read by the reader of the story? How, extrapolating from text to life, do we think such texts are likely to have been read by those who encountered them on the streets of St. Petersburg? On the one hand, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that there is a hint of condescension and amusement on behalf of the author-intelligent who reproduces (or creates) the egregious misspellings. On the other hand, the ostensible stance of the “physiological” writer is objectively ethnographic or anatomical rather than evaluative. We have to be careful, too, about our own categories. The spelling is non-standard. From a normative perspective it might be labelled semi-literate, but this can be inappropriate and misleading. The sign was communicatively adequate for its purpose. Indeed, as we shall see, in this kind of context, away from the bustle of the main commercial thoroughfares, this kind of inscription could even be said—pace Fedor Distribuendi—to have constituted a kind of norm. The narrator understood it, and acted upon it. He walked into the yard in search of the advertised lodgings.

47The courtyard is no quiet residential enclave. The narrator’s first impression is that it mirrors the street outside: not in the form of a swish retail emporium, but as a densely packed hive of workshops, of craftsmen, of individuals offering their diverse services. The scene can be taken in at a glance because of the immediate impact of the main visual marker of such activity: again, the profusion of signs:

  • 55   Ibid.

The building was crammed with people working at open windows, and singing. My gaze was struck by the colourful diversity (zapestreli) of the fragments of inscription on the signs that festooned the inner façade as prolifically as the outer one: mourning stuff and coffins made and for hire; brass and tin plated; Trofimov, from abroad; Caterina Bragadini, Russian certificated and examined midwife; pension; Aleksandrov, in private Kupriianov. By each sign was a representation of a hand pointing to the entrance to the relevant shop or apartment, as well as an image of something to explain what the sign meant: a boot, scissors, a sausage, a leg of meat in bay leaves, a settee, a samovar with a broken handle, a service uniform.55

48For Nekrasov’s narrator, therefore, the shabby courtyard was adorned with trade signs no less liberally than Nevskii Prospekt. The differences were in language (no fancy French here), to some extent in the nature of what was on offer (a preponderance of individual services rather than formal shops), and in the fact that the physical arrangements meant that the signs functioned as pointers to entrance-ways rather than as labels on shop-fronts. Even off-street, away from the more ostentatiously commercial hubs, Nekrasov’s narrator in the mid 1840s reads the building through perusing the signs by which it is abundantly, albeit somewhat haphazardly, indexed.

49The copious signage assumes a sufficient readership even here, although the narrator makes it clear that by no means all his fellow lodgers were literate. A former domestic serf (dvorovyi chelovek) objects emphatically when a drunken ex-teacher shows him some verses. Literacy is not for the likes of him—not because he dare not aspire to it, but because he reckons it positively harmful:

  • 56Fiziologiia Peterburga, 145.

Don’t you poke that in my face! Why are you poking that in my face? I’m not one of your gentry folks. I can’t read. What’s the point of letters for the likes of me? Learn to read and we’d forget how to do our own jobs.56

50Over on the “Petersburg side” Evgenii Grebenka’s narrator was less impressed by the communicative efficacy of signs. He was particularly keen to find notices that, he hoped, may have told him where he could get a decent meal. Usually the quest ended in disappointment:

  • 57V khod vzavedenie: again with non-standard word divisions.
  • 58Fiziologiia Peterburga, 123-124.

On the Petersburg side there is not a single tavern or café or restaurant where one can breakfast or dine. True, on Bolshoi Prospekt or at the Sytnyi Market and on Bolshaia Dvorianskaia there are miscellaneous signs saying “Entrance to Establishment,”57 but these are just places where coachmen and ordinary folk drink tea. One such “establishment,” just near the Sampsonievskii Bridge, calls itself the “Cape of Good Hope.”58

51Nevertheless, his ingenuity did enable him to decode and follow up the promise of one rather unusual sign, a board nailed to a free-standing post on a street corner:

  • 59Ibid., 120. The word here translated as “preparates” is priugotovliaet.

Travelling along one of the larger streets on the Petersburg side you will see, on the corner of a side-street that leads off at a right angle, a large pole, to which is fixed a dark-blue-greyish-greenish signboard. And on the signboard, in big yellow letters, is written: “Kukhmister –ov preparates.” Nothing more. What exactly is “preparated” by the kukhmister? The object or the victuals preparated by “-ov” remain a mystery to the public. However, the perceptive reader may turn off the main street onto the narrow sidestreet, and will find his way to the abode of the kukhmister more by smell than by sight.59

52There the reader will encounter the heartily patriotic kukhmister, who will loudly assure customers that he can “preparate” better than any Frenchman, and who is quite unabashed if they happen to find cockroaches in the soup.

53Evgenii Grebenka’s Petersburg Side seems like a transitional zone in urban textual display. The signage is less dense even than in Nekrasov’s “recesses,” let alone in the main shopping streets. And the genre of commercial sign seems less thoroughly embedded. The idiosyncrasy of the wording consists of more than merely quirky spelling. Meanings are implied but not imposed, as if the conventions and methods of advertising have not yet been thoroughly assimilated.

  • 60   “Peterburgskie vyveski,” Illiustratsiia 1848, no. 30 (28 August), 81-82; text at http://tiam-tula (...)
  • 61   For more remarks on “T” see K. Bowers, “Experiencing Information,” 401-403.

54We cannot, at a distance of more than a century and a half, freeze the frame of observation so as to catch the variegated textures of signage across the various zones of the city (or of the two cities). In some respects and in some locations by the 1830s and 1840s traditions had become established, in other respects and in other locations the emergence of signage was still in flux. Thus, for example, in 1848, almost contemporary with the sketches by Nekrasov and Grebenka, a brief anonymous article on “Petersburg signs” appeared in the weekly magazine Illiustratsiia.60 The author, who designated himself simply as “T,” seems to have been unaware of previous publications on the subject, and writes with the enthusiasm of a pioneer.61 “T,” like his predecessors, relishes some of the non-standard spellings. However, he also suggests that perhaps the golden age of quirkiness was waning, that signs were becoming more uniform, more standardized, that the glory days of ungrammatical inventiveness now lived mainly in the memory:

Now we should say a few words about the inscriptions on the shop signs. We can still remember when these inscriptions were written in an illiterate hand. Any long-term resident will recall oddities such as: V khot, Vkhot v zavedenie, Renskovoi pogreb, Zdes’ priugatavliaetsa tobak, Lafka kuptsa Kopustena, Vechnova tsekhu master Ivanov, and the like. These days educated merchants and manufacturers no longer risk ingenuity either in the depiction of goods or in the composition of inscriptions: their shop signs simply convey their name and the number of the shop.

55It is noteworthy that “T” picks out some of the same phrases and habits as were highlighted by Nekrasov and by Grebenka: the separation of prepositional prefixes (compare V khot with Nekrasov’s At daetsa); irregular a for o in unstressed positions; -tsa for –tsia in the suffix of reflexive verbs, etc. “T” even echoes some of the same phrases as had been highlighted by Grebenka: the use of the rare imperfective priugotovliat’ in a non-standard sense; the formulaic vkhot v zavedenie (cf. Grebenka’s version, v khod vzavedenie). Such correspondences between seemingly unrelated texts call into question the notion of the non-standard. Insofar as one can generalise from such a mixture of journalism and fiction, spelling may have been fluid, but the types of fluidity were fairly regular, even predictable. Fluidity according to a pattern, or within identifiable parameters, can be seen as a kind of norm. The non-standard was, in its own ways, relatively standard for this non-elite language of signage. Even “T,” in a revealing footnote, points out the paradox whereby initially sub-standard inscriptional versions could become their own conventions, some of which were already accepted as normal through a social acceptance of usage.

56We cannot tell to what extent “T” is accurate in his contention that quirky inscriptions were, in general, on the decline. He does not tell us how thoroughly or systematically he had explored. One might imagine a continually recurring cycle of flexibility and normalisation as signage expanded into ever new areas, first in the capitals, then into the provinces and across the empire. If “T” was accurately observing the near-completion of such a process of autonomous, un-legislated homogenisation, at any rate in parts of St. Petersburg, then perhaps the fears of Fedor Distribuendi were being resolved of their own accord.

  • 62   N. V. Gogol’, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 14 tomakh, ed. V. L. Komarovich, vol. 3 (Moscow, Lenin (...)

57The literature on reading shop signs had covered a lot of ground, both cartographic and conceptual, since the start of this sequence of texts in 1836. In 1835, the year of the completion of the lithograph panorama of St. Peterburg’s main shopping street, and a year before Fedor Distribuendi’s pioneering survey of signs, Nikolai Gogol’ published his short story “Nevskii Prospekt.” The story contains just one reference to the shop signs. At midday the street is populated by tutors walking with their young charges, to whom they explain meticulously that “the signboards over the shops are made so that, with their help, one may find out what is inside the shops.”62 The remark is uncharacteristically deadpan (or characteristically ironic). It represents signs merely as sources of factual information, with no meaning beyond their verbal content. This perhaps makes sense as initial instruction for a child just learning to read, or just learning about basic orientation in urban space, but it is of course a long way from the more aesthetically, culturally and ideologically loaded readings articulated by journalists and essayists over the next couple of decades. But even this brief reference in Gogol’s story is already indicative of the fact that, by the mid 1830s, the shop signs were objects that routinely drew the gaze, even for the young as part of their elementary induction into practices of reading the city.

583. Our third episode in this overview of street reading is Soviet. The Revolution of 1917 transformed street writing in Russia. There was a radical shift in the balance of production: away from “bottom up” and back to “top down;” away from an urban graphosphere generated by private enterprise, back (or forward) to an urban graphosphere generated by the state. This involved not only a change in the institutional dynamics of production, but a fundamental re-orientation of priorities from commercial advertising to political agitation, education and propaganda. The pre-revolutionary urban textscape was dominated by signs announcing and promoting goods and services. The post-revolutionary urban textscape was dominated by political messaging. This process critically affected shop signs in at least four ways. First, they eventually became a state monopoly, so that private signage shrank almost into non-existence. Second, they became homogenised in form and style. Third, their visibility was hugely reduced, as they were pushed from the foreground to the background. And fourth, in function they focussed only on conveying basic information rather than on brand promotion and competitive advertisement.

59These changes were not instantaneous. For a decade after the Revolution, the Soviet urban graphosphere was in some respects still more cluttered and diverse than previously. The new did not immediately supplant the old, but supplemented it and jostled for space with it. Private commercial signage even gained fresh impetus and legitimacy during the period of the New Economic Policy (NEP) from 1921 to 1928. The transition from sometimes raucously polyphonic co-existence to what became the characteristically Soviet configuration can be traced through the early to mid 1930s.

  • 63   See e.g. S. White, The Bolshevik Poster (New Haven, London, 1988); V. E. Bonnell, Iconography of (...)
  • 64   L. Vostretsova, “Iskusstvo na ulitsu!,” in Iskusstvo v zhizn’, 1918-1925 (St. Petersburg, 2017), (...)
  • 65   Over 150 of them are illustrated in the catalogue Iskusstvo v zhizn’ 1918-1925, 30-83.

60The appropriation of public space for political messages was a vital component of the communications strategy of the Soviet government from its very earliest days.63 Main streets became saturated with posters and placards, banners and billboards and newspaper stands (“wall-newspapers” - stengazety) and murals, some bearing verbal texts alone, others with punchy combinations of text and image. From civil war to public hygiene, from electrification to sovietisation, from railway stations to factories, from parades to facades, fixed in place or travelling the country on the slogan-emblazoned agit-prop trains, the messages were on show—rhetorical, brash, unmissable. Anniversaries and public celebrations prompted the particularly dense and intense saturation of outdoor spaces with temporary, mock-monumental, message-bearing structures. The scale and ambition can be seen, for example, in the 1918 Petrograd festivities marking the first anniversary of the Revolution. These were devised and planned months in advance. Over 150 artists and designers were involved in the preparatory work. Nearly 90 streets, squares, buildings and bridges were earmarked for decoration.64 Over 300 of the sketches and drawings for the various installations are preserved in the collections of the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.65

61Peter I himself would have recognised the triumphal genre, though the specific idiom was of course new. By contrast with the eighteenth-century precursors, the balance of visibility between monumental edifice and text-bearing image had shifted a long way in favour of the latter. Eclectic in its sources and references—drawing on such diverse traditions as, for example, religious iconography, emblems, or popular lubok prints—current and urgent in its messaging, futurist in its orientation and energy, for a while this early Soviet explosion of public image-making and text-making engaged and was visually shaped by some of the most innovative and talented artists of the Russian avant garde. Not surprisingly, it is this aspect of the Soviet public graphosphere that has been of particular interest to historians of art, textuality and visual culture, and indeed of politics. It has stimulated exhibitions, collections, popular and scholarly publications.

  • 66   E.g. Red Star Over Russia. A Visual History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Death of Stalin. (...)

62Also not surprisingly the other side of the equation—the downgrading of the commercial, the shrinkage into homogeneity of the humble shop sign—has receded into the background of historiography and cultural awareness, as it receded into the background of the living street. After the brief revival of commercial signage during the NEP period, Soviet shops no longer had cause either to advertise their owners (all were owned by the state) or to compete with rivals for custom (all were assumed to be meeting shared needs). Hence the reversion to shop signs that were reduced to plain statements of what was on offer: “BREAD,” “VEGETABLES,” “FURNITURE” (KHLEB, OVOSHCHI, MEBEL’). If the political posters and placards were a medium for loud and dynamic self-assertion, Soviet shop-signs can seem like a medium for almost wilful self-denial. The political posters contribute to one cliché of the Soviet streetscape, an image of bombastic propaganda. The new shop signs contribute to a contrasting image: the cliché of Soviet visual drabness and uniformity. On special occasions even the political placards and slogans on the outside of a labour camp could be far more copious, varied and eye-catching that the signs on a shop.66

63Here we focus on the latter, on the more reticent genre of Soviet street writing. The visual, rhetorical and ideological boldness of Soviet political signage has tended to distract attention from the transformation in shop signage that was, in a different way, no less dramatic in its effect on the experience of visible words in public spaces. Indeed, one could argue that Soviet political posters and slogans, for all their inventiveness, were actually less innovative, less transformative. Political street writing could be said to have emerged in some respects from the commercial, appropriating and expanding its spaces, developing its techniques. Soviet shop signs, by contrast, represent a radical break. They are surely at least as significant as their more brash political conterparts in creating the distinctive character of the Soviet urban textscape.

64After a brief outline of how and when Soviet-style shop signage became established as the norm, we will consider the peculiar problems of studying how it was, or might have been, read. As in the previous two episodes, we cannot extrapolate a general reader. In each case the particular nature of the material and its contexts, together with differences in the types of available sources, requires a shift in method and perspective in the approach to the problem of readership.

65The typically laconic Soviet shop sign developed in two stages: first, in practice, then in law. The shift in practice was a characteristic feature of the changing public graphosphere in the late 1920s following the abandonment of NEP and the consequent collapse of private retail. The close regulation of such shop signs dates from the mid 1930s.

66Writers are readers, and responses to the emergence of the Soviet shop sign can, to some extent, be tracked in literature. Among the most popular evocations of late-NEP and early post-NEP commerce are the two satirical novels by Il’ia Il’f and Evgenii Petrov, The Twelve Chairs (Dvenadtsat’ stul’ev) and The Golden Calf (Zolotoi telenok). Like Fedor Distribuendi, they wrote pseudonymously: their “real” surnames were Fainzilberg and Kataev. Unlike Distribuendi, Il’f and Petrov became household names, and their two novels about the arch-wheeler-dealer (a rough translation of his self-designation as the velikii kombinator) Ostap Bender were among the classics of Soviet satire.

67The two novels straddle the process rather neatly, and suggest a chronology of awareness or response. The Twelve Chairs was written in 1927 and published in 1928, The Golden Calf was completed in 1931. Thus The Twelve Chairs is a NEP novel, while The Golden Calf is set in the age of collectivisation. Ostap Bender is a kind of parody of a quintessential “nepman,” an entirely unscrupulous philosopher-spiv. In The Twelve Chairs he is, so to speak, in his element, while in The Golden Calf he and his associates are already relics, trying to survive against the tide of change.

68In the two novels of Il’f and Petrov, shop signs matter. They are not just background details. They are prominent, thematic, sometimes even highlighted typographically in the design of the printed page. Moreover, of particular relevance to the present topic, there is a clear progression from the first novel to the second, a reflection of the fundamental change in circumstance and setting, and hence of “reading.” The Twelve Chairs opens with a shop sign. In the third paragraph of the novel we are introduced to the sight of a patch of wasteland where a calf is “tenderly licking” a rusty sign propped up against a gateway:

  • 67   I. Il’f, E. Petrov, Dvenadtsat’ stul’ev, in I. Il’f, E. Petrov, Sobranie sochinenii v piati tomak (...)


  • 68   Il’f, Petrov, Dvenadtsat’ stul’ev, 51, 81-82, 88.
  • 69Chelovek s kinoapparatom: e.g. at 18 minutes and 57 minutes.

69In The Twelve Chairs shop signs can be amusing, incongruous, pathetic or neutral, but in general they reflect the coexistence of state and private enterprise: a state insurance office, an Odessa bakery, B. M. Polesov’s hats and fashionable attire, a primus repair shop.68 The profusion of mixed Soviet and private signs was a fact of the urban scene, colourful and contradictory. For a contemporary visual evocation one could cite, for example, the shots of signs plastered like external wallpaper—above, below, around and between shop windows—in Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom).69

  • 70   Il’f, Petrov, Zolotoi telenok, in Idem, Sobranie sochinenii v piati tomakh, vol. 2 (Moscow, 1996) (...)
  • 71   Il’f, Petrov, Zolotoi telenok, 136
  • 72   Ibid., 298.

70The later novel, by contrast, regularly draws attention to the transition from the mixed economy of NEP to the dominance of generic Soviet signs. The change becomes thematised, focuses attention on itself, intensifies the act of reading. A haberdasher by the name of B. Kulturtriger lives through the whole sorry process. Once the proud occupant of his own shop, he is first squeezed by a series of other small businesses, until all of them are superseded by a Soviet organisation. The transitions are reflected in the sequence of signs. The first stage is a kind of hybridisation, as parodic Soviet-style stump compounds are added to the signs alongside the names of the owners: “Purveyor of haberdashery. GALANTPROM. B. Kulturtriger” (a stump compount from which one extrapolates an assumed full form galantereinaia promyshlennost’); “KANTSBUM. Everything for the artist and the office worker. Lev Sokolovskii” (from a notional full form kantseliarskie bumagi).70 One by one the various enterprises collapsed or were inspected out of existence until, in their place, “above the former ark of private traders, there appeared a small, neat sign: ‘The Black Sea Section of the Arbat Office for the Preparation of Horns and Hooves’”71 —also a racket, but an official-sounding racket. Eventually this is translated into yet more solid officialese: “The State Company (gosob”edinenie) Horns and Hooves,” now a large sign spanning the width of the building.72

71One of the central characters, Aleksandr Koreiko, mourns the passing of the old economic order (that is, the New Economic Policy):

  • 73   Ibid., 52.

But he already knew that in the Soviet land to strive openly for enrichment was unthinkable. And with a smile of superiority he contemplated the pathetic remnants of nepmen rotting away under the shop signs: “For sale: Products of the B. A. Leibedev Worsted Company,” “Brocade and Utensils for Churches and Clubs,” or “Kh. Robinson and M. Piatnitsa, Grocery Store.”73

  • 74   Ibid., 76.
  • 75   Ibid., 134.

72The monarchist Fedor Nikitich Khvorobev laments the impossibility of escaping from the ubiquitous reminders of the Soviet system, and he wanders the streets looking mournfully at the Soviet placards and signs.74 Ostap Bender himself looks at nothing mournfully, but always has an eye for the profitable opportunity. So, naturally, among the 400 schemes that he ponders for potentially “honest” profiteering (none of which satisfies him) is the idea of obtaining a concession for the removal of old shop signs.75

  • 76   Iu. Olesha, Izbrannoe (Moscow, 1987), 419-420.
  • 77   V. Sazikov, T. V. Vinogradova, Naruzhnaia reklama Moskvy. Istoriia, tipologiia, dokumenty (Moscow (...)

73The writer Iurii Olesha wrote a brief fantasy recollection about his attempt to open a metaphor shop. Eventually the shop had to close because customers were not prepared to pay for the high-quality but expensive metaphors. They snapped up the cheap clichés, but nobody could make ends meet by trading in such shoddy goods (shoddy as the phrase “to make ends meet,” or indeed to “snap up”). But what Olesha recalls most wistfully is the sign, painted by an artist friend of his, in deep red lettering on a light blue background such that, when viewed from an angle, it looked as if someone in a blue dress was eating cherries.76 By the mid 1930s such individuality was explicitly banned and Olesha would not have been able to put up his sign in the first place. Signwriting workshops closed.77 Standardisation needed little creativity.

74Thus faded the “colourful diversity” (pestrota) of shop signs that had by turns intrigued and irritated “readers” of Russia’s urban shopping streets since the early days of commercial signage, from Catherine II through Fedor Distribuendi to the “physiological” writers and journalists of the mid nineteenth century and beyond. The Golden Calf captures through parody a moment of change in the city textscape, a moment of defamiliarization that cannot but draw attention to itself. However, over time the unfamiliar becomes familiar, becomes the norm. And when it becomes the new norm, even small deviations can, in their turn, draw attention to themselves. In the mid 1930s it was not enough for the norms merely to have emerged. They were still read (from “above”) as too messy. They needed to be formally normalized. In the view of the central authorities, standards should be made explicit; norms should be defined through normative regulation.

  • 78   Narkomvnutorg Instruction no. 660: text published in Sazikov, Vinogradova, Naruzhnaia reklama Mos (...)
  • 79   On criticism and parody of unfamiliar abbreviations well before Il’f and Petrov, see Pospelova, “ (...)

75On 25 July 1935 the USSR Commissariat of Internal Trade (Narkomvnutorg) issued an instruction on the form and content of shop signs and shop windows. It decreed that, by 15 August (that is, almost immediately) all regional and district trading authorities were to ensure compliance with the stated regulations for signs and windows, as specified in the Appendices to the instruction.78 The appended set of fourteen rules for shop signs included stipulations regarding their contents, their location relative to the entrance, their minimum dimensions, the permitted materials, uniformity across each trading organisation, and on cleanliness. Rule 3 permitted (but did not require) that signs could include an “elegantly made depiction of the goods traded in the relevant shop.” Rule 5 insisted that signs should be designed attractively (krasivo), with clear lettering, and—perhaps with the dangers of parody in mind—that abbreviations and stump compounds were to be used only when already well known to potential customers.79

  • 80Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi imperii, no. 13,421; cf. Franklin, “Information in Plain Sight (...)
  • 81   Text in Sazikov, Vinogradova, Naruzhnaia reklama Moskvy, 352-355.

76The rules of July 1935 were not, in a sense, breaking new ground. Generically they are eerily reminiscent of the rules on the shape and appearance of shop signs promulgated by Catherine II in 1770.80 The difference is that Catherine had been fighting against the rise of diverse commercial signage which eventually overwhelmed attempts at regulation, while Narkomvnutorg was on the other side of history, mopping up pockets of residual laxity after the private shops and signs had already been vanquished from the streets. In the following year the legislative standardisation was pressed to its logical conclusion. On 3 May 1936 the head of Narkomvnutorg issued a decree “On the Change of Shop Signs.”81 This decree did not merely require, in general terms, that the signs should indicate the type of goods on sale in the relevant shops. It appended a table that specified exactly what each sign was to say. The first column consisted of a list of types of combinations of goods that might be on sale. Next to this, in the adjacent column, was the appropriate wording of the sign for shops with each set of goods. The list consisted of 45 permitted types of sign, from Univermag through kul’ttovary, Sport-okhota and Moloko to the humble Produktovaia lavka. No further variations were envisaged.

  • 82   See above, note 63.

77The brave new world of shop signs, so curiously explored by Fedor Distribuendi, was formally brought to an end. The Soviet regulation isolated and foregrounded the plainest informative function of signs as articulated in Gogol’s “Nevskii Prospekt” almost exactly a century earlier: “the signboards over the shops are made so that, with their help, one may find out what is inside the shops.”82

  • 83   See J. Gronow, Caviar with Champagne: Common Luxury and the Ideals of the Good Life in Stalin’s R (...)
  • 84   On the phasing out of rationing and its associated problems see E. Osokina, Our Daily Bread. Soci (...)
  • 85   Randall, The Soviet Dream World, 26-28, 62-63; also S. Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism. Ordinary (...)
  • 86   See the copious reproductions in A. E. Sopkov, P. A. Sopkov, A. F. Shkliaruk, Sovetskii reklamnyi (...)
  • 87Ob ispol’zovanii metodov reklamy dlia rasshireniia tovarooborota: extracts in Sazikov, Vinogradov (...)

78There is an apparent paradox here. If one were to judge from the evidence of shop signs alone, one might suppose that the mid 1930s was a period of an increasingly austere and puritanical attitude to consumption; as if shopping was merely a necessity, not an activity to be encouraged or celebrated. In fact, the opposite was the case. Through the 1930s consumption was actively promoted by the state.83 Post-NEP rationing, instituted in 1931, was phased out in the mid 1930s.84 The number of “open” shops—not limited either by rationing or by closed distribution—grew significantly through the decade.85 In 1935 Narkomvnutorg removed consumer cooperatives to the villages and brought all urban shops under its own control. In a speech to a convention of Stakhanovites in November of that year Stalin uttered his famous declaration that life had become better, more cheerful. The mid 1930s was the period of the legitimation of an approved culture of consumption—indeed, of Soviet consumption as a means of developing an appropriate mode of culture (kul’turnost’). And as part of the policy, consumer advertising flourished. Catalogues of advertisements show an abundance of bright posters of happy shoppers.86 On 29 December 1935 Narkomvnutorg issued a document “On the use of Advertising Techniques in Order to Increase the Turnover of Goods.” It asserted that “all forms of advertising, such as price-lists, leaflets, prospectuses, labels, posters, announcements, window displays, radio etc. should be filled with content that makes manifest, in graphic and generally accessible form, the qualities and features of the relevant goods.”87 A special agency, Torgreklama, was created for the purpose.

  • 88   E.g. Randall, The Soviet Dream World, illustrations on pp. 34, 35, 39.
  • 89   R. Cox, “All This Can Be Yours!: Soviet Commercial Advertising and the Social Construction of Spa (...)
  • 90   Cox, “All This Can Be Yours!,” 136.

79The paradox, therefore, lies in the fact that the shop sign regulations of 1935 and 1936, which in retrospect look like officious attempts to impose a drab and somewhat puritanical austerity through centralised uniformity, can in context be interpreted almost as the opposite: as measures to ensure the consistent quality of signage while urban retail outlets proliferated. The unified system of signage emphasized the establishment of a unified network of state shops, replacing the mixture of cooperatives, closed-distribution stores and “open” state shops, Yet, regardless of intention, the result was plain (in all senses). Soviet consumer advertising of the 1930s emerged in a distinctive spatial pattern. The interior spaces of the shops could be densely hung with placards and posters,88 and newspapers were strewn with consumer-related announcements.89 However, consumer advertising made strikingly few incursions into public open spaces. Some influential voices did advocate its wider display. In February 1936, for example, M. I. Khlopiankin, the deputy commissar at Narkomvnutorg, argued that, if it was to be optimally effective, advertising had to be ubiquitous.90 But the prevalent view seems to have been that consumer advertising belonged in shops or in newspapers and magazines, not in the streets. Exterior consumer advertising could be read as vulgar, bourgeois, to be tolerated (or even encouraged) within limits in the ambiguous space of the shop window display (an interior space facing outwards), but rarely beyond. The larger consequence was a reconfiguration of the ecology of the urban graphosphere, a shift in balance between the commercial text and the political text, between the functional label-sign as everyday necessity (byt) and the vast rhetorical texts and images of political campaigns or factory hoardings or anniversary parades. The public graphosphere was generally the preserve of the political, and to some extent the cultural (theatre posters, cinema posters). Shop interiors became spaces for the active promotion of the culture of material consumption. The modestly functional shop sign mediated the liminal space between the two.

  • 91   E. Glinternik, Reklama v Rossii XVIII – pervoi poloviny XX veka. Opyt illiustrirovannykh ocherkov(...)
  • 92   Sazikov, Vinogradova, Naruzhnaia reklama Moskvy, 197.

80But what of reading? What did the standardized signs mean for those who encountered them in daily life? How were they viewed or discussed? Here there is a problem of sources; or rather, of a lack of sources. Until the mid 1930s signs and advertising were topics of public debate in journals and newspapers. From the mid 1930s open discussion appears to have ceased, giving way to a public near-silence that lasted for two decades.91 Diaries, correspondence, and archival records of committee meetings, may perhaps reveal more, but for broader debate the question of shop signs was closed. And that was the point. It flowed from the reorientation of the function of shop signs. They were no longer media of advertisement in a world of competitive commerce. Their purpose was to inform, not to promote. They had no need to draw attention to themselves.92 In the transition from NEP, the spread of Soviet-style signs had still stimulated a degree of active reading through unfamiliarity. The regulations of the mid 1930s assumed the desirability of familiarity, of habit. The shop sign, like the street sign, was a routine reference point of urban topography. It was not to be made strange, perhaps not even to be made interesting. It was designed for automatised recognition rather than for active reading.

  • 93   See e.g. P. Frances, I Worked in a Soviet Factory (London, 1939), 64-77; A. Smith, I Was a Soviet (...)

81For one type of reader, however, the system was indeed strange and curious: the foreign reader. Foreign residents writing for outsiders knew that the Soviet shopping experience needed to be explained. Explanations mostly involved the various categories of shops, and the complexities of multiple pricing and exchange rates,93 but the signs, too, presented mysteries of their own. Peter Frances spent seven months working in the Soviet Union in 1937. Despite the simplifications decreed in the previous year, the decipherment of stump compounds was a particular enigma:

  • 94   Frances, I Worked in a Soviet Factory, 65. The compound NARKOMPISHCHEPROM is printed in Cyrillic, (...)

Shopping in foreign countries is always a difficult business at first, but Soviet Russia has invented a few special difficulties of her own. I first tried shopping on my third day in Dubrovka. […] The weather was so bitterly cold that the shop windows were all frosted over and I couldn’t see what they sold. There was, admittedly, the name of each shop on top, but НАРКОМПНЩЕПРОМ left me about as wise as when I had started to decipher it. I had to peep into each shop till I found what I wanted. I first looked for a baker’s, imagining that I should see “B. Bunn, Baker,” over the door. But when I eventually found one it was called “The Central Bread Trust of the People’s Commissariat of the Provision Industry.” They sold bread.94

82In advertising, too, outsiders could pick up nuances of local cultural readings. For example, despite the official acceptance of in-store advertising both as a fact and as a concept, another anecdote from Peter Frances catches the hint of fastidiousness about how to interpret what might appear to be advertising in public spaces. Just because something looks like an advertisement doesn’t mean that it should be read as such:

  • 95   Frances, I Worked in a Soviet Factory, 73-74.

Competitive advertising campaigns are not allowed as they are considered unproductive expenditure. I saw some posters which I should have called advertisements in England and asked [my interlocutor] whether they were or not. “Oh no,” he said, “those are not advertisements at all. You see, we are putting on the market many goods which the Russian people have never known before, new foods, different types of clothing and suchlike things, and we must enlighten them as to their use.” I pointed out an enlightenment for butter in one of the Metro stations, and he told me that the Russian peasant had always used sunflower seed oil.95

  • 96   G. M. Pospelova, “Moskovskie vyveski 40-50-kh godov,” Russkaia rech’, 5 (2014), 88-95.
  • 97   A. Ivanova, Magaziny “Berezka.” Paradoksy potrebleniia v pozdnem SSSR (Moscow, 2017).

83A slight shift in the direction of more deliberately alluring (if not more informative) signage began from the late 1940s, with the practice of labelling organizations with evocative names, such as the names of places, flowers, trees, precious stones, stars—anything except personal names, which might suggest private ownership.96 This was an acknowledgement of the “brand” principle, with names intended to be atmospheric rather than simply descriptive. Such names were informative only to those who already knew, such as the “Berezka” (“Birch tree”) brand for shops with restricted, privileged access.97 There was also more encouragement for aesthetic components of signage, made more striking by the spread of the use of neon. However, not until the post-Soviet era was there a decisive re-orientation of the urban textscape away from the political and towards re-saturation with commercial signage.

84This survey has focused on three sample episodes—perhaps indicative, but far short of comprehensive. There is, as yet, no substantial history of the production of Russian street writing, let alone of its reception, of its readership. It would in any case be near impossible to encapsulate adequately the subjective responses of those who, with hugely varying degrees of engagement, may have encountered, observed, admired, been outraged by, interpreted, misinterpreted, ignored or in other myriad ways “read” the street texts across the centuries. The three selected episodes highlight moments of critical change in the existence and infrastructural dynamics of the urban textscape: first its initial emergence through the “top-down” state-directed projects in the early eighteenth century; then the “bottom-up” rise of commercial signage in the first half of the nineteenth century; and finally the re-assertion of the political dominance of street texts, along with the concomitant relocation of sales advertising to interior spaces. For each of the episodes we have considered different types of evidence for different modes of reading. With regard to the Petrine celebratory structures we looked at the official texts that explained how the street-writing was meant to be read. The proliferation and—most notably, in the accounts of contemporary commentators—the variety of commercial signage in the second third of the nineteenth century provoked a range of literary and journalistic readings. The transition from NEP to post-NEP signage was a conspicuous change that left its traces in literature, but, once established, the standardised state versions were not for discussion and gave little scope for reading beyond their function as labels (except for outsiders, for whom they constituted an unfamiliar and hence informative Soviet cultural text).

  • 98   Arkhitekturno-khudozhestvennaia kontseptsiia vneshnego oblika ulits, magistralei i territorii gor (...)

85Patterns of reader response do not always map neatly onto the patterns of production. Aesthetic fashion can move in different cycles, depending on the balance of competing notions of what the urban graphosphere ought properly to look like. Some were exhilarated by the dynamism of colourful diversity (pestrota), others regretted any threat to good order. Among the latter one can count not only Catherine II and Narkomvnutorg, but the enigmatic Fedor Distribuendi himself. And the struggle between order and diversity continues, even amid the seemingly irrevocably variegated graphospheric profusion of the post-Soviet era. In April 2013 a design firm produced a report commissioned by the Committee on Architecture and Construction of Moscow City Council. The report analysed the “external appearance” of the city.98 In fact, it was almost entirely about the design and positioning of signs—above all, shop signs—and was extensively illustrated with examples of what its authors regarded as good or bad practice. The purpose was, yet again, to inform new planning regulations.


1   J. Brooks, When Russia Learned to Read. Literacy and Popular Culture, 1861-1917 (Princeton, 1985), 12.

2   For surveys up to the mid nineteenth century, including some of the material covered in the present chapter, see S. Franklin, “Information in Plain Sight: The Formation of the Public Graphosphere,” in S. Franklin, K. Bowers (eds.), Information and Empire: Mechanisms of Communication in Russia, 1600-1850 (Cambridge, 2017), 341-367; also S. Franklin, The Russian Graphosphere, 1450-1850 (Cambridge, 2019), 143-167.

3   See S. Franklin, “Printing and Social Control in Russia 2: Decrees,” Russian History, 38, 4 (2011), 467-492, esp. 473-481.

4   For the list see D. D. Zelov, Ofitsial’nye svetskie prazdniki kak iavlenie russkoi kul’tury kontsa XVII – nachala XVIII veka. Istoriia triumfov i feierverkov ot Petra Velikogo do ego docheri Elizavety (Moscow, 2002), 140.

5   In V. P. Grebeniuk, O. A. Derzhavina (eds.), Panegiricheskaia literatura petrovskogo vremeni (Moscow, 1979), 135-149. According to the text the arch was completed on 9 November, and the print-run was completed on 10 November. See T. A. Bykova, M. M. Gurevich, Opisanie izdanii, napechatannykh kirillitsei. 1689-ianvar’ 1725 g. (Moscow, Leningrad, 1958), no. 28 (pp. 90-92).

6Panegiricheskaia literatura, 150-180; Bykova, Gurevich, Opisanie izdanii, napechatannykh kirillitsei, no. 36 (pp. 106-108).

7   Bykova, Gurevich, Opisanie izdanii, napechatannykh kirillitsei, no. 41 (pp. 110-112); text in E. A. Tiukhmeneva, Iskusstvo triumfal’nykh vrat v Rossii pervoi poloviny XVIII veka (Moscow, 2005), 154-156.

8   T. A. Bykova, M. M. Gurevich, Opisanie izdanii grazhdanskoi pechati, 1708-ianvar’ 1725 g. (Moscow, Leningrad, 1955), no. 26; text in Tiukhmeneva, Iskusstvo triumfal’nykh vrat, 157-212.

9   Bykova, Gurevich, Opisanie izdanii grazhdanskoi pechati, no. 27; text in Tiukhmeneva, Iskusstvo triumfal’nykh vrat, 213-216.

10   Apparently only in manuscript: text in Tiukhmeneva, Iskusstvo triumfal’nykh vrat, 217-222.

11   Bykova, Gurevich, Opisanie izdanii grazhdanskoi pechati, no. 649; text in Tiukhmeneva, Iskusstvo triumfal’nykh vrat, 223-230.

12   Iu. K. Begunov, “‘Opisanie vrat chesti…’: a Seventeenth-Century Russian Translation on William of Orange and the ‘Glorious Revolution’,” Oxford Slavonic Papers. New Series, 20 (1987), 60-93.

13Na gzemze: gzymz/gezimz = cornice; from German Gesims, perhaps via Polish Gsyms: one of many borrowed neologisms that would surely have added to the sense of estrangement.

14Panegiricheskaia literatura, 136.

15   Tiukhmeneva, Iskusstvo triumfal’nykh vrat, 178.

16   Ibid., 181.

17   Ibid., 185.

18   Ibid., 194.

19   E.g., Ibid., 193.

20   Zelov, Ofitsial’nye svetskie prazdniki, 143.

21   For the engravings see Tiukhmeneva, Iskusstvo triumfal’nykh vrat, illustrations between pp. 96 and 97; also M. A. Alekseeva, Graviura petrovskogo vremeni (Leningrad, 1990), 72-75, 117-122; M. A. Alekseeva, Iz istorii russkoi graviury XVII – nachala XIX v. (Moscow, St. Petersburg, 2013), 142-151, 188-194

22   Begunov, “‘Opisanie vrat chesti…’,” 71-72.

23   On inscriptional verse see e.g. L. I. Sazonova, Literaturnaia kul’tura Rossii. Rannee Novoe vremia (Moscow, 2006), 320-331.

24Panegiricheskaia literatura, 156.

25Slovar’ russkogo iazyka XI-XVII vv. Vypusk 11 (Moscow, 1986), 27.

26   On perceptions of Peter’s “anti-culture” see e.g. B. A. Uspenskii, “Historia sub specie semioticae,” in Idem, Izbrannye trudy. Tom 1. Izd. vtoroe, ispravlennoe i pererabotannoe (Moscow, 1996), 71-82.

27Panegiricheskaia literatura, 154-155.

28   Ibid., 154. For these meanings of politicheskii and politichnyi see Slovar’ russkogo iazyka XVIII veka. Vypusk 21 (St. Petersburg, 2015), 171-172.

29Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi imperii (St. Petersburg, 1830), nos. 8674, 9350, 10032.

30   Originally in Severnaia pchela, June 14, 1836; cited in G. Kaganov, Images of Space. St. Petersburg in the Verbal and Visual Arts, transl. S. Monas (Stanford, 1997), 82.

31   See K. Bowers, “Experiencing Information: An Early Nineteenth-Century Stroll Along Nevskii Prospekt,” in S. Franklin, K. Bowers (eds.), Information and Empire, 369-407.

32   F. Distribuendi, Vzgliad na moskovskie vyveski (Moscow, 1836).

33   Tsentral’nyi Gosudarstvennyi Arkhiv Goroda Moskvy (TsGA Moskvy), f. 32, op. 5, d. 102. I am grateful to Abram Il’ich Reitblat for pointing out this reference, and for the information that in the 1830s “Ensign Brazhnikov” (or “retired Ensign Brazhnikov”) also appears to have submitted at least three other works to the Censorship Committee, none of which was published.

34   Distribuendi, Vzgliad na moskovskie vyveski, 3-4.

35   Ibid., 25.

36   Ibid., 17.

37   Ibid., 4-5.

38   Ibid., 54-62, 63-68.

39   Ibid., 26.

40   Ibid., 47-48.

41   Ibid., 38-40.

42   Ibid., 60.

43   Ibid., 61.

44   K. N. Batiushkov, “Progulka po Moskve,” in Idem, Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh (Moscow, 1989), vol. 2, 288.

45   A. S. Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii v desiati tomakh, ed. D. D. Blagoi et al. (Moscow, 1959-1962), vol. 10 (1962), 135.

46   P. Vistengof, Ocherki moskovskoi zhizni (Moscow, 1842), 130-133.

47   “Keresberg” appears to have been pseudo-Germanism current in the mid 1840s: cf. the “Keresberg” hotel in a provincial town in Aleksandr Herzen’s novel Who is to Blame? (Kto vinovat?), written between 1841 and 1846: A. I. Gertsen, Sobranie sochinenii v tridtsati tomakh, vol. 4 (Moscow, 1955), 113.

48   Vistengof, Ocherki moskovskoi zhizni, 134-135.

49   I. T. Kokorev, “Publikatsii i vyveski,” in Idem, Moskva sorokovyh godov. Ocherki i povesti o Moskve XIX veka (Moscow, 1959), 73, 74. On attitudes to shops in Vistengof and Kororev see also Alexander M. Martin, Enlightened Metropolis: Constructing Imperial Moscow, 1762-1855 (Oxford, 2013), 284-289.

50   See the remarks of A. M. Konechnyi in his introduction to Chuvstvitel’nye progulki po Nevskomu prospektu, ed. A. M. Konechnyi (St. Petersburg, 2009), 17.

51   E. I. Rastorguev, Progulki po Nevskomy prospektu (St. Petersburg, 1846), repr. in Chuvstvitel’nye progulki po Nevskomu prospektu, 139.

52   Rastorguev, Progulki po Nevskomy prospektu, 141.

53   Cited here from the edition published as Fiziologiia Peterburga (Moscow, 1984), 132-152 and 107-131. Note that Nekrasov’s story was extracted, with some alterations, from his unfinished and largely unpublished early novel The Life and Adventures of Tikhon Trostnikov (Zhizn’ i pokhozhdeniia Tikhona Trostnikova): see N. A. Nekrasov, Proza, nezavershennoe 1841-1856 (Moscow, 2014), 104ff.

54Fiziologiia Peterburga, 132.

55   Ibid.

56Fiziologiia Peterburga, 145.

57V khod vzavedenie: again with non-standard word divisions.

58Fiziologiia Peterburga, 123-124.

59Ibid., 120. The word here translated as “preparates” is priugotovliaet.

60   “Peterburgskie vyveski,” Illiustratsiia 1848, no. 30 (28 August), 81-82; text at (accessed December 10, 2020).

61   For more remarks on “T” see K. Bowers, “Experiencing Information,” 401-403.

62   N. V. Gogol’, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 14 tomakh, ed. V. L. Komarovich, vol. 3 (Moscow, Leningrad, 1938), 11.

63   See e.g. S. White, The Bolshevik Poster (New Haven, London, 1988); V. E. Bonnell, Iconography of Power. Soviet Political Posters under Lenin and Stalin (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1997).

64   L. Vostretsova, “Iskusstvo na ulitsu!,” in Iskusstvo v zhizn’, 1918-1925 (St. Petersburg, 2017), 5-11.

65   Over 150 of them are illustrated in the catalogue Iskusstvo v zhizn’ 1918-1925, 30-83.

66   E.g. Red Star Over Russia. A Visual History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Death of Stalin. Posters, Photographs and Graphics from the David King Collection (London, 2009), 260-261.

67   I. Il’f, E. Petrov, Dvenadtsat’ stul’ev, in I. Il’f, E. Petrov, Sobranie sochinenii v piati tomakh, vol. 1 (Moscow, 1994), 27-28.

68   Il’f, Petrov, Dvenadtsat’ stul’ev, 51, 81-82, 88.

69Chelovek s kinoapparatom: e.g. at 18 minutes and 57 minutes.

70   Il’f, Petrov, Zolotoi telenok, in Idem, Sobranie sochinenii v piati tomakh, vol. 2 (Moscow, 1996), 135-136. On the spread of stump compounds in signs see G. M. Pospelova, “Moskovskie vyveski v poslerevoliutsionnoe vremia,” Russkaia rech’, 2013, 5 (2013), 90-97. For a classic example from around the time of The Golden Calf, see the large PRODMAG (Prodovol’stvennyi magazin) on the Arbat in Moscow: Vse na prodazhu! Istoriia russkoi vyveski (Moscow, 2013), 161.

71   Il’f, Petrov, Zolotoi telenok, 136

72   Ibid., 298.

73   Ibid., 52.

74   Ibid., 76.

75   Ibid., 134.

76   Iu. Olesha, Izbrannoe (Moscow, 1987), 419-420.

77   V. Sazikov, T. V. Vinogradova, Naruzhnaia reklama Moskvy. Istoriia, tipologiia, dokumenty (Moscow, 2013), 197.

78   Narkomvnutorg Instruction no. 660: text published in Sazikov, Vinogradova, Naruzhnaia reklama Moskvy, 346-350.

79   On criticism and parody of unfamiliar abbreviations well before Il’f and Petrov, see Pospelova, “Moskovskie vyveski v poslerevoliutsionnoe vremia.”

80Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi imperii, no. 13,421; cf. Franklin, “Information in Plain Sight,” 362-363.

81   Text in Sazikov, Vinogradova, Naruzhnaia reklama Moskvy, 352-355.

82   See above, note 63.

83   See J. Gronow, Caviar with Champagne: Common Luxury and the Ideals of the Good Life in Stalin’s Russia (Oxford, New York, 2003); A. E. Randall, The Soviet Dream World of Retail Trade and Consumption in the 1930s (Basingstoke, 2008).

84   On the phasing out of rationing and its associated problems see E. Osokina, Our Daily Bread. Socialist Distribution and the Art of Survival in Stalin’s Russia, 1927-1941, ed. and transl. K. Transchel (Armonk, London, 2001), 133-154.

85   Randall, The Soviet Dream World, 26-28, 62-63; also S. Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism. Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (Oxford, 1999), 54-58, 90-93.

86   See the copious reproductions in A. E. Sopkov, P. A. Sopkov, A. F. Shkliaruk, Sovetskii reklamnyi plakat 1923-1941 (Moscow, 2013).

87Ob ispol’zovanii metodov reklamy dlia rasshireniia tovarooborota: extracts in Sazikov, Vinogradova, Naruzhnaia reklama Moskvy, 350-351.

88   E.g. Randall, The Soviet Dream World, illustrations on pp. 34, 35, 39.

89   R. Cox, “All This Can Be Yours!: Soviet Commercial Advertising and the Social Construction of Space, 1928-1956,” in E. Dobrenko, E. Naiman (eds.), The Landscape of Stalinism. The Art and Ideology of Soviet Space (Seattle, London, 2003), 125-162 (esp., 134-141). On newspaper advertising in particular see Gronow, Caviar with Champagne, 79-86.

90   Cox, “All This Can Be Yours!,” 136.

91   E. Glinternik, Reklama v Rossii XVIII – pervoi poloviny XX veka. Opyt illiustrirovannykh ocherkov (St. Petersburg, 2001), 298.

92   Sazikov, Vinogradova, Naruzhnaia reklama Moskvy, 197.

93   See e.g. P. Frances, I Worked in a Soviet Factory (London, 1939), 64-77; A. Smith, I Was a Soviet Worker (London, 1937), 127-130.

94   Frances, I Worked in a Soviet Factory, 65. The compound NARKOMPISHCHEPROM is printed in Cyrillic, including the misprint “–ПНЩ-” for “–ПИЩ-.”

95   Frances, I Worked in a Soviet Factory, 73-74.

96   G. M. Pospelova, “Moskovskie vyveski 40-50-kh godov,” Russkaia rech’, 5 (2014), 88-95.

97   A. Ivanova, Magaziny “Berezka.” Paradoksy potrebleniia v pozdnem SSSR (Moscow, 2017).

98   Arkhitekturno-khudozhestvennaia kontseptsiia vneshnego oblika ulits, magistralei i territorii goroda Moskvy, vypolnennaia v pilotnom rezhime (v chasti razmeshcheniia informatsionnykh konstruktsii) (Moscow, Studiia Artemiia Lebedeva, for the Komitet po arkhitekture i gradostroitel’stvu goroda Moskvy, April 2013):


Simon Franklin is a Professor of Slavonic Studies at the University of Cambridge. Main research interests: medieval and early modern Russian culture, in particular the social and cultural history of writing, and the history of material texts and technologies of the word. Principal publications include: Sermons and Rhetoric of Early Rus’ (Harvard UP, 1991); (with Jonathan Shepard) The Emergence of Rus, 750-1200 (London, 1996); Writing, Society and Culture in Early Rus, 950-1300 (Cambridge, 2002); (ed., with Emma Widdis) National Identity in Russian Culture: an Introduction (Cambridge, 2004); The Russian Graphosphere, 1450-1850 (Cambridge, 2019).


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