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06 December 2020
Science of Reading: 100 Years of the Komi Primer

One hundred years ago, on December 6, 1920, the first ABC book in the Komi language was printed, compiled by Vasiliy Molodtsov.

Лыддьысьны велöдчан (Science of reading) - this is how Molodtsov named his schoolbook. A gifted scientist from the village of Tentyukovo near Ust-Sysolsk knew from his own experience how difficult knowledge came to peasant children. Throughout his life, he was an ardent scholar: first, the Totem Teachers’ Seminary, then a general education course in St. Petersburg, the St. Petersburg Teachers' Institute and, finally, postgraduate studies at the Research Institute of the Peoples of the East. He wrote his dissertation on the topic of the emergence and development of social terminology, based on the word corpora of all Finno-Ugric languages, already being a solid authority in scientific circles, known as Sandro Vasӧ. He never completed his ambitious sociological and linguistic research. Convicted in 1938 for "national chauvinism", two years later he died in Verkhny Chov prison camp, less than ten kilometers away from his childhood home on the Vychegda River.

Molodtsov's contribution to the development of school education and literature in the Komi language cannot be overestimated. Immediately after the socialist revolution, when the movement for the equal status of his native language began, he was one of the leaders of public education in the Komi region. Already in the summer of 1918, at a teachers’ meeting in Ust-Vym, he presented his invention - the Komi alphabet, as well as the Komi grammar he compiled. In fact, he gave an impetus and a practical instrument for school teaching in the Komi language.

Molodtsov's alphabet was based on a simple principle – spell the way you hear. 33 letters corresponded to 33 phonemes of the Komi language, of which the author borrowed 21 letters from the Russian alphabet, 3 letters from the Roman characters; the letter ӧ was inherited from academician G.F. Miller, who first used it to write Zyryan words in the 18th century. The other 8 letters had a new style - with hooks and folds. It was these new letters that delayed the publication of the first textbooks - printed fonts for them did not yet exist, and the creator of the alphabet had to write his primer by hand. In order not to waste time, the handwritten book was hand copied several times; then, hectograph copies were made and sent to all schools in the Zyryan region. The hectograph, a duplicator invented in the 19th century, served well for the first revolutionaries to produce leaflets. It served that time too – for the cause of the language revolution.

The order for the production of a typeface for the Molodtsov alphabet was sent to the Petrograd type foundry, the former Osip Lehman workshop - one of the best and oldest type foundries in Russia. The produced font arrived in Ust-Sysolsk in the winter of 1920, when the school year was already in full swing, and the children were still using handwritten primers which by that time had turned rather shabby. On December 6, 1920, the Molodtsov's schoolbook emerged from the printing press. At the same time, the Komi Book Publishing House was born, so that schoolchildren and adults in the Zyryan region would learn the “science of reading” in their native language.

According to the 1897 general census, 136,499 people in Ust-Sysolsk, Yarensk and Pechora Districts (within the current borders of the Komi Republic) called the Zyryan (Komi) language their mother tongue. Of these, literacy extended to an insignificant proportion of urban residents, not to mention that those who could read at least syllable by syllable were considered literate. The next census of 1926 determined literacy not only by the ability to spell words, but also write one's own surname. It is not known exactly how many such people lived then in the Autonomous Region of Komi, but the fact that they could learn to read in the Komi language, particularly due to the primer created by Sandro Vasӧ, is indisputable.

"The purpose of spelling is to achieve the unity of the optical word writing, which is a necessary condition for the existence of any literature ..." - wrote V.A. Molodtsov in his work, Some principles of Zyryan spelling, in 1926. It seems that he achieved more - uniting Komi writers around the new printed word.

Handwritten poetry in Komi by Tikhon Podorov, Molodtsov alphabet
V. Molodtsov. Some principles of Zyryan spelling, texts for schoolchildren, 1926
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