his letter was written many years ago. It so happened that for quite a while I have been living far away from Moscow. And yet, I have been keeping a close watch on the on-going developments, and, to the extent possible, assisting in those, which I find interesting and promising. The addressee of this letter, Vladimir “Volodya” Yefimov, I knew, and was friends with, for a very long time. After I left we kept in touch, by way of more or less regular correspondence. Our paths often crossed, in Russia and worldwide. We had a number of joint design ventures. In addition to the profound mutual amity what drew us together was an almost identical outlook on the priorities that exist in the development of Cyrillic typography.
Volodya died two years ago. In his passing, I lost a kindred spirit, and a true friend. I know that many people who knew him share the pain of this loss. As a professional—an expert, a scholar, and a mentor—Volodya has left a deep imprint in the history of Russian type design. He died a premature death, but he has managed to do so much. I consider Vladimir Yefimov the central, focal figure in the process of reviving the nearly lost traditions of Russian typography, which commenced in the late 1980s. My letter to him, which follows, reflects the spirit of enthusiasm and excitement we felt back then. For us those years were not “the raucous 1990s” but a time of hopes and great expectations. We have seen that the future has come to pass—in our own lifetime.
New York, 15 September 1995
Remember, last fall, when you came here, I told you that—for quite awhile, on and off—I am writing you a letter. A lengthy monologue message, a kind of broodella. Somehow I feel. I need it.
And I need it probably, to figure out what it is that we’ve been doing all these years. To put it better, it’s certainly you doing it; as to myself, I am rather into a “con-” thing: concocting, connecting, consulting; sometimes condoling, conciliating; trying to—con-tribute. We know each other for a long time; and we work together since forever. With time, though, our cooperation became of special significance for me. And the nostalgia is not all that there is to it.
All of a sudden, after all these years, a feeling developed that our stuff—typography —matters. And a sense of belonging to the process of revival of the bygone traditions of Russian culture (one thought bygone for good) is somewhat soothing the pain of the new. It just so happened that in our, rather murky, times typography has become—at least for myself—a sign of hope, a blink of light in the end of a tunnel.
Yes, typography certainly belongs with culture. But not exclusively. Being part of the art (or the trade) of printing, it automatically falls into the sphere of attention of the powers that be. And in the case of Russia (and not just Soviet Russia)—of a most intent one. And of control.
Let’s recall. In the not so distant past the book artists, gung-ho on the “integral whole” of the book layout, had to deal with the entire chain of the lesser bosses of typography: copy preparers, design editors, text editors, with the staff and the management of production departments. And the most obnoxious ones, known as dizaynery (let them burn in hell), used to hang around printing houses. They were pussyfooting compositors, clickers, strippers, the darkroom personnel, retouchers, foremen, the shop, unit and shift managers, and, again, the dispatchers and the managers of production departments. The print designer was quite safely insulated from type, fenced off from it by multiple rows of ramparts, ditches, barbed wire and stakes. For fairness, there was no high voltage engaged; no sentry-manned watchtowers were there (though checkpoints with “non-affiliated” security guards were).
But when you and I decided to involve ourselves in typography, it was all taken quite firmly, and the practice of our dizayn (or better, “art of the book”) was to typography what masturbation is to the real thing. This is not to say that hand-lettering emulating display typography was a Soviet invention; however, nowhere else was that technique explored with such passion and pathos of self-assertion as in our land. And remember our “phototype cases” for paste-up lettering! We indulged in that thing with such a pride. As if there were a kind of mission to it.
MOSKH (Moscow Chapter of the Artists Society) and Goskomizdat (State Committee for Publishing) were twisting ONSH’s (Type Design Department of the Printing Research Institute) hands, trying to have its barren venter inseminated by “the masters of the book”, veterans of MOSKH, while ONSH had its own pride and a terminal immunity to the ideas of outsiders—both domestic and (even more so, God forbid) foreign. Though at the same time that feigned indifference to the “trends” and ideas foisted on from outside nicely coexisted with quietly peeping at the sparse tramontane specimens. Again, like those old used “girly” magazines…
I still remember the rebuff that Kurbatov and I were met with by comrades √ and ‡ (‡ is still alive) when in 1964 (thirty-something years ago, damn it!) we were applying for pre-graduation internships at ONSH. We were hoping to bring to the “right condition” our project, an amateurish Cyrillic version of Helvetica Medium (known to us back then as Neue Haas Grotesk) which we saw back then as the type of our times. “This is a Western typeface of the advertising kind”, we were reprimanded, “It is absolutely unsuitable in our conditions. It won’t catch on here”. That opinion, rather predictable, managed to delay the development of a Helvetica Cyrillic for a good two decades here. (I mean your Pragmatica, another bourgeois face of the advertising kind, and it also bestowed on us a whole heaps of various Cyrillic Helveticas, all designed abroad—of which none truly suited us…) The same can be said about Univers, Baskerville, Times, etc.
Though, if you remember, Monotype, Linotype, Compugraphic—they all have been trying to reach out for us. They’ve been writing, they’ve been asking. Me too, I was writing, soliciting, insisting, bustling… All of no avail. When comrade Ω was trying to prevent my sending an entry to a Letraset competition he yelled he did not want to lose his job at Goskomizdat because of me. And how about our own generation? I still remember with amazement how I tried to couple § (he was managing ONSH at that time) with some foreign company – which one I don’t remember – and that was already in the 1980s! Just like Gogol’s Podkolesin, § resisted – physically. I was dragging him by his sleeve, and he was jibbing, skidding on the slippery linoleum.
Let’s remember them all, our dear daddies, our patrons and benefactors all those bosses of Soviet typography: √, #, ¤, ‡, §, ∞… What a gallery! And it appears that every one of them, taken separately, is a normal human being, and that nothing human is alien to him. But as a whole—they are the very embodiment… And like all and everything with us—it’s like no one is there to blame. That’s how it is.
And now, old chap, after all these years (the best years of our lives, by the way!), to use Gorbachev’s favourite môt, Protsess poshol (“the process has finally taken off”). I have a feeling that only now, when I in in my fifties, I have finally gotten, or I am getting, my hands on the tools of the trade—the most basic and rather unsophisticated ones. The tools for the work I used to do with my “bare hands” all my life. As if all these years (or even decades, oh my!) I was imitating the trumpet-playing by blowing in my fist (almost like Dizzi, no kidding!), and now, by the dusk of my days, I’ve been made a gift of a trumpet – no, of a boy scout bugle… “Go play to your heart’s content”. And the thirty years of simulating typography now look like a total waste. But from another point of view, tell me, did we really have a choice? Maybe. Doing illustration, painting, and similar self-sufficient métiers. Though those had their own pitfalls, too: réalisme vs. formalisme, the theory of representation, the truth of life vs. the truth of art (all categories of the socialist realist aesthetics).
By force of the circumstances which marked the main part of our lives, our “typography” was uprooted from the global context. That in its turn, led to a very special shift in priorities in print design, to a fetishization of hand-lettering, and to a demotion of typography to the junior league of “the art of the book”. It was consigned to the sphere of technical editing, “Sovietspeak for copy preparation. A rather silly term, but logical: censorship—literary, visual and typographic—was not at the bottom of the editor’s (literary, art, technical) job description.
Moreover, if a designer resorted to typographic media in building a book (a most natural choice), he was incriminated as a formalist and accused of the vainglorious ambition of “playing an engineer”. Meanwhile, the art of the book was steadily becoming a showcase genre, an art for the art’s sake. Critics, in concert with the Artists Society, with a straight face, asserted the primacy of a sexy-looking comp, handcrafted with the hard-to-get Talens gouache and the handmade French torchon paper. In general, they proclaimed the supremacy of the layout over the printed product itself, and sometimes most compellingly. Referring to the sacrosanct 1920s and Russian Avant Garde was the favourite method. The realization of design in print used to be bitterly disappointing, and that was considered normal and acceptable in the art community. The success of the designer was judged by intentions rather than deeds. The same approach applied to industrial design, architecture, etc. Remember Mayakovsky’s famous line “I love our designs’ grandeur”. The development of book design, as well as other design arts, was frozen in time, halted at a stage which was the starting point in the world design history of the 20th century. It prolonged the existence of a sort of decorative handicraft, as a remote province of the socialist realist fine arts.
At the same time the process which turned book design into a self-serving vocation was somehow playing to the artists’ pride. This process exploited, and partly soothed, their frustration as professionals, but it substituted false values for the true goals of the design trade. Raving over the technical mastery of the comp’s handiwork while savouring the originality and wit of the concept itself was exchanged for the joy of watching the concept turning into a product. Thus, whole decades have passed.
While the masters of the Soviet book were killing each other in arguing what was of more relevance to The Book—“the integrity” or “the image”, the authorities, most quietly and surely, were tightening their grip over all the technical media that our foreign colleagues were routinely using in their work. They had the real, commercial jobs, and not fictitious “social orders”. Their projects stemmed from the actual needs of society and not from the subject plans of the publishers, or the exhibit schedules of the Artists Society, all cleared by the Goskomizdat and the Communist Party Central Committee of the Communist Party. The equipment was tightly controlled—photocopiers, darkroom gear, photolettering and strike-on machines, even the typewriters, whose keys were purposefully vandalised (marked) and put on record as “per the established procedure”, The typeface specimens existed “for office use only”, and to look at them in a design studio, or at home (good God, no!), one had to beg and whine for them real hard.
Remember, at one point bringing in computers from abroad was declared illegal, and later they allowed it but established such an exorbitant fee that nobody would even think about it… There also was a moment of inspiration when importing computers was declared okay but, guess what, without printers! That was when the new technology proved really confusing: how on Earth would one mark the type?! À la guerre comme à la guerre though (even if that guerre happens to be froide); the situation became quite ridiculous: on “their” side selling PCs with the strategically important 286 and 386 chips to the Evil Empire was forbidden by the ever vigilant COCOM, and with us importing them was also against the law!
The new times shattered the greenhouse of the socialist art, and the lives of many masters of the “industry of dreams”, sometimes top-notch professionals, went down with it. The government stopped foddering them and subsidizing their discussions of “the integrity” and “the image”. Suddenly, all found themselves left to their own devices. It looked like “the most-read nation in the world” stopped reading at once. It gave up subscribing to periodicals and buying books. The printing trade started looking for its own ways to survive. As to the free word, it found its rostrum and its mouthpiece in a personal computer. Thus, it justified the worst suspicions of the old régime, which managed, for many decades, to contain and/or to neutralise the development of information media—shortwave and FM broadcasting, satellite TV, cordless phone communications, photocopying, and all such. I saw some studies, quite fundamental, on “how the PC did in communism”… It is significant that the needs of computerised text processing kicked off the typographic revival in Russia. In the USSR, the government-owned graphic arts had no real need for new typefaces (just like the Soviet trade needed no advertising, and merchandise needed no product design nor packaging). Volodya! What a great feeling it must be to know that your work is wanted not for “logging out the quarterly job assignment”, but for… the society!
So, ParaGraph set the word of glasnost in type, or more precisely, in computer fonts, and this is quite remarkable. No less remarkable is the story of the very origin, development and success of ParaGraph, founded by a group of enterprising programmers, who led all those who were able-bodied away from the desert of the Soviet R&D; system. And from the business standpoint, against the background of the uncouth Russian capitalism, ParaGraph looks, at least from a detached point of view, like a kind of “First Model Team of Capitalist Labour”. It makes its money the old-fashioned way—it earns it through honest, productive, skilled labour. Its production is good quality, and most useful. It adheres to the international copyright laws, and it enjoys great authority in the industry—both at home (now, that is most incredible) and abroad (the latter is what I happen to know best, and firsthand). Now, isn’t it all incredible, under the circumstances?!
The expansion of international communications is the sign of our times. Its scale, its speed and variety stun the imagination. Globalization of information exchange presents more and more challenges to communication design. It revises its visual features and its vocabulary. One of the newest directions of its development is exploring the extended set of typographic characters for transmitting and receiving of text messages. The number has grown from 256 to 652 for Windows 95. And then there is the matter of applying the 16-bit encoding to characters of various writing systems (Unicode).
In this technological context graphic convergence of different systems of writing is inevitable. It presents the only practical solution to designing “superfonts” containing characters of several writing systems in the same set. It so happened that Russian designers proved to be ready for such job a lot better than their foreign colleagues most of whom habitually considered the design of non-Latins as something exotic.
Coordinated typeface design for multiple scripts (most often for Latin and Cyrillic) was considered routine at the Type Design Department (ONSH) of the NIIPoligrafmash (Printing Research Institute), the alma mater of all senior designers of ParaGraph. NIIPoligrafmash provided for typographic composition in all languages of the enormous USSR, where five scripts were in daily use (Cyrillic, Latin, Armenian, Georgian and Hebrew). An extensive programme of Arabic and Indian typeface design was the pride and glory of ONSH.
It is quite revealing that the everyday practice of the ONSH designers was very much at variance with their slogans proclaiming Soviet type’s national exclusivity and class distinction. I recall the late √’s Jesuitical homily: “You see, young man, in Russian the ‘o’ sounds differently from the French, and therefore it shall have a distinctive letter shape, different from the French one”; and Helvetica, “the Western typeface of the advertising kind” (© ‡, 1964)?
O brood of vipers! The most popular Soviet types were all none other than Cyrillic extensions of well-known Western faces: Literaturnaya = Lateinisch (Romana), Akademicheskaya = Sorbonne (Cheltenham), Shkolnaya = Century Schoolbook, Zhurnalnaya = Excelsior, etc. Bannikova Roman, an ONSH original which enjoyed a well-deserved popularity with the Soviet publishing community, was probably the only achievement in Cyrillic typography inspired by the “anti-cosmopolite” campaign of the late 1940s with its national heritage hype. Ironically, Peter the Great’s civil type, the historical model of Bannikova Roman, had been fashioned after the Dutch romans of the 17th century.
ParaGraph’s cooperation with ITC, International Typeface Corporation, is symbolic of an open acknowledgement of relevance of the Western tradition—as well as a recognition of our typography being part of the global development. In a few years we have managed to come up with a sizeable package of very good typeface designs, at the level of international standards. It is great that this work keeps going on full speed. Feels like it served a good model for working with other foreign partners, and provided ParaGraph with a reliable bridgehead for expanding its presence in the world typographic marketplace.
In recent years we have been working hard developing Cyrillic “extensions” to many popular Latin-based typefaces. This work proved prerequisite to the whole effort of reviving Russian typography. A number of optimistic conclusions can be driven from this experience: (1) our designers have a good potential for a full-scale partnership on equal terms with foreign colleagues—following all “rules of the game” that exist for that matter in the civilised world; (2) we are certainly able to understand, to appreciate, and to fathom the original design concept of a typeface created for a different (non-Cyrillic) alphabet; and (3) we are capable of applying that concept to our native Cyrillic—while observing every convention and rule that exist in Russian typography.
The “convention and rule” thing certainly deserves an asterisk. Cyrillic typography is much younger than its Latin sister (or cousin?). Its letterforms are not set as firmly, as those of its Western counterpart: “alternatives exist”. The same is true for other younger typographical scripts, like Arabic, Hebrew, Indian, etc. That is why there is no, or very little, agreement among designers doing non-Latins, on what are the “correct” shapes of such and such characters.
It takes time for a tradition to form. Typography has to have a chance for a free, natural development. It takes a couple of centuries. Cyrillic never had such a chance. History shows that like “a poor girl” it “can be interfered with by just about anyone” (remember Bernard Shaw?). Even its conception was not quite natural, but rather in a test tube. It was invented. Then Peter Alexeyevich (the Great) had it, most graciously, made over in a Dutch fashion. And, later, it was revised and reformed countless times—both by our people, and by the strangers.
In Soviet times, with the “type assets” put on special register by the KGB, the development of typography had been cut short. Like sex, typography had no place in USSR… At the same time, with the spread of hand-lettering the book designers developed a unique, exquisite “feeling of command” of type, and drawing it became an intimate instrument of self-assertion. In the absence of a true school, in the unnatural circumstances of simulating typography with improvised means, type graphics became a racetrack of artistic ambitions, unique for its fervour and jealousy. The heat of that competition is still hanging in the air.
Nihilism and irreverence to tradition, to our own heritage, so typical for Russian mentality, have reached catastrophic proportions in the 20th century. Recall the line from a popular song of the 1930’s, “In our darings we’re always right!” It was only natural that in our art which used to live and die by the rigid rules set up from on high, everyone was looking for an opportunity to feel not like a slave (or a hired labourer) but like someone in charge, or even better, like a dictator. Bossing around letterforms was a good way to make up for one’s frustrations. Who of those drawing letters did not feel like a mini-Peter the Great, fit for judging, revising, correcting and improving the Cyrillic? Pathetic … Today this whim, a fruit of another whim (and ignorance) has gotten a powerful technological base—computer programs for font design and editing. In the hot little hands of an enthusiast they provide for quick generation of design monsters in unlimited quantities.
It is comforting to see that ParaGraph manages to stick to a certain style—conservative and objective—in the design treatment of Cyrillic letterforms, the style consistent with the interrupted tradition of the leading prerevolutionary foundries. In general, this policy of succession is especially dear to me in our stormy times. Equally touching is the fact that you guys do not renounce your historical link with NIIPoligrafmash, from whose arid depths, like the Jews from the Egyptian slavery, all leading designers of ParaGraph had come.
Volodya, in all honesty, I can hardly imagine what it takes to ParaGraph to stay on the chosen course. No less puzzling is how you manage to combine the commercial and the missionary—in the unstable and unpredictable circumstances of the post-Soviet economic habitat. One thing I know for sure: ParaGraph was chosen to become one of the pioneers of the breaking up of fallow lands of Russian culture. Its merits in this calling are exceptional. Indeed they are. Hallelujah.
Come to think about it. Today, all Russian business speaks English. It is its lingua franca. There is more Latin script in the streets of Moscow these days than in Kiev or Minsk “under the Germans” during WWII. And indeed, it would be a shame to forget about our very own, unborrowed graphical legacy, of which the exploration could constitute a significant contribution to the world treasury of typographic art. Of course, there is more to it than the pre-Petrine Cyrillics like vyaz’, ustav, etc. The reformed (romanised) Russian type of 18th-19th centuries was marked by an oftentimes quite charming je ne sais quoi (a sort of Rushian eksent), worth both research and creative exploration.
Oh yes. Looks like fate leaves you no time to rest (not even to take a nap) on your laurels. It’s that our life, both past and/or new, is in fact still guided by the same formulae: “waiting and catching up”. And it is not that in former times we’ve only been waiting; rather we’ve been running—in sacks, without making much headway. And now we are into catching up (and not as much with the rest of the world, as with ourselves: we’d have been that much far off, if not for…). Feels like we are making it. And I am just thinking to myself, would we ever get to live and work not in an accelerated or “strictly enforced” but in ordinary, regular mode? Have we at last reached that benchmark from which the normal pace starts off? Would there be enough strength. Enough faith, hope and love. Looks however like you’ve got plenty of those. Brodsky put it so very well:
But as long as forgiveness
and print endure, we’re alive.
Hugging you all guys.