What did Russian Spelling look like before the Revolution?

What did Russian Spelling look like before the Revolution?
10 July 2023

Russian spelling hasn’t always looked the way it does now. Even a brief look at old documents reveal variations in spelling and unfamiliar letters. So where did this change happen? And why is the Russian Spelling reform significant?

Last summer, looking for a Russian culture trip, I was encouraged by my history professor to read Dostoyevsky’s Demons in English translation. The classic novel represents a full-frontal assault on the dangers of nihilism, and is thought to number among the great works of the Russian tradition. But the first thing that struck me was a discrepancy in the title. 

In Russian, the novel is called ‘Бесы’ (Bésy). As a new learner of the language, I was pleased to recognise the letters of the Cyrillic script and be able to transliterate them into English. But a cursory Google-search revealed that, when the first edition of the work was printed in 1873, the title was not ‘Бесы’ at all, but rather ‘Бѣсы’. I stared down the second letter with an odd sense of betrayal. Having trusted my teachers to educate me on the ins-and-outs of Russian spelling, I was faced with a letter they had never deigned to mention. 

Reading on, the strangeness of the spelling persisted. The novel was not by the familiar ‘Федор Достоевский’ (Fyodor Dostoevsky), but instead a certain Ѳедоръ Достоевскій—with the initial ‘Ѳ’ and the penultimate ‘і’ absent from the alphabet given in my textbook, and the hard sign ‘ъ’ inexplicably appearing at the end of the forename. What was to explain this? 

The answer can be found in a decree of the People’s Commissariat for Education issued on December 23rd, 1917. With this document, the Bolshevik government, power-heady in the early days of its rule, sought to push through reforms to the Russian language that had been in the works for decades.  

The reasoning for the reforms was simple: Bolshevik education policies aimed to make literacy more widespread, a goal impeded by the arbitrary complexity of the script. The new orthography removed redundant letters and replaced them with equivalents: 

  • Yat (Ѣ, ѣ) became Ye (Е, е), because a distinction between the sounds had disappeared in the 18th century. 
  • Dotted I (І, і) became simply I (И, и), or occasionally Yot (Й, й), depending on the context. 
  • Meanwhile, the use of the hard sign ‘ъ’ was significantly reduced. 

And so ‘Бѣсы’ became ‘Бесы’, giving us the title used today. 

Many people welcomed these changes. In a later Soviet book, linguist Lev Uspensky described Yat as a letter “washed with the tears of countless generations of Russian schoolchildren,” giving a sense of the difficulty inherent to pre-reform orthography. However, others were not won over. Symbolist poet Vyacheslav Ivanov called the new writing “aesthetically unpleasant and psychologically unnatural,” while émigré Russians associated the reforms with Bolshevism and continued using the old orthography until after WWII.  

You can find out more about the history of the Cyrillic Script here. Nowadays, old works of Russian literature are printed with the modern orthography. But if you find an original edition printed before the revolution, or any historical document from that period, you will need to get to grips with these old letters.

Luke is a history and languages student interning at Liden & Denz, Riga.


(Photo credits to unsplash.com on Creative Commons)

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