by Michael Erdman, British Library, London

As a Curator at the British Library, people often assume that I get to spend hours each day leafing through and reading rare books. It’s true that I, and my colleagues, have access to one of the best collections of materials in the widest spectrum of languages in the United Kingdom. It isn’t quite accurate, however, that we spend our days reading. In fact, cataloguing materials, both new and old, is a process that can become fairly automatic. We look for key information about dates, pages, authors, content, and publishers, all of which goes into the creation of metadata about books. On occasion, a book will be rare enough, or its metadata difficult enough to capture, to draw us in. This is especially the case with Soviet Turkic materials published in the 1920s and 30s. While their rarity is reason enough to stop and contemplate them, it is their covers that I truly find arresting. And it is these monuments of early Soviet Turkic design that I’m going to look at in the current piece.

These first impressions are visually enthralling for two reasons – at least, there are two reasons why I find them enthralling. The first is the display of text, which incorporates both typographical creativity and orthographic experimentation. The second, and the rarer of the two, is the imagery on the covers. I’ll start with the written word, given its general appeal and relevance to discussions of linguistic change and management, and then move onto the topic of the graphic arts.

As a reader’s first encounter with a given text, book and magazine covers are a wonderful way to highlight change. Texts themselves can incorporate new words and syntactic turns, but it is the covers that lure potential consumers into such experimentation in the first place. Even today, many Turkic and Mongolic publishers are keen to make use of non-dominant scripts and typographies as cover art to signal political and cultural orientations, including when such scripts and typographies aren’t included in the work itself. Soviet Turkic publications from the 1920s and 30s straddle the momentous change from Arabic to Latin scripts, and thus feature a number of such signals in both systems. It’s worthwhile taking a look at them chronologically.

In 1924, Azerbaijan adopted officially the Latin alphabet, although it wasn’t imposed uniformly on all publications. The same was true for the remaining Turkic communities in the Soviet space in 1927, with implementation pursued gradually over the years up to the 1930s. Latinization, while an important watershed, was not the only form of orthographic innovation during the period. As the cover for Osman Aqçoqraqlı’s Qırım’da Tatar Tamğaları (1926) shows, authors and editors experimented with greater phoneticization of spellings, introducing Turkic phonemic elements into Arabic-origin words (see, for example, munasebetiyle in the subtitle). That this is an innovation can be seen when compared against a contemporary publication from Baku, Əli Bəy Hüseynzadǝ’s Qərbin iki dastanında Türk, printed in Baku in 1926. The difference in orthographic principles, as well as the use of stylized headers was clearly a choice that can only be rationalized partly by resource allocation. Clearly, the manner in which book covers were rendered was a signal of something else, an orientation to a different vision of language and script.

Without a doubt, the introduction of the Latin script in 1927 and its gradual implementation implied a new flurry of publications. Some were clearly aimed at spreading knowledge and use of the new writing system. These rarely, it seems, featured creative approaches to its application. Other items, however, focused as they were on different topics, spotlight a different approach. My favourite is Mǝjit Ghafuri’s Tormьş Basqclarь, published by BashGyz in Ufa in 1930. Not only does it make use of typography that clearly alludes to a Constructivist sensibility (then on the out with Stalinist cadres), but it also demonstrates the graphical flexibility of Yangalif and the Uniform Alphabet. Other publications were evidently not quite worthy of the Constructivist treatment, but nonetheless exemplify a similar desire for formal experimentation with the Latin script.

Latin script was gradually phased out in favour of modified, and divergent, Cyrillic scripts for each of the Turkic languages in the late 1930s and early 40s. Some publications, of course, do still exist from the late 30s and early 40s that show the use of highly stylized Latin typographies. One of the most eye-catching, in my opinion, is a biography of Alisher Navoiy dedicated to the 500th anniversary of the great writer’s birth. Non-Russian national identities and nationalisms were occasionally used by the Soviet authorities to bolster support for the regime, and I think that this cover helps elucidate the myriad of ways in which such policies trickled down to everyday life. Unlike Ghafuri’s Constructivist wonder from 1930, Əlişer Navaij: Zamani, Hajati, Icadijati va Olumi (1939) has distinct Orientalist traits that complement the nativist design ringing not only the title but also a sketch of the poet’s likeness.

            Speaking of imagery, it is about time that I moved onto some of the illustrated covers in the British Library’s holdings. These are only a small fraction of the books from this period that form part of our collections. This undoubtedly reflects the impact of crushing supply and materiel shortages in the earlier 1920s across the USSR as described by both Dr. Katerina Romarenko (“Photomontage for the Masses: The Soviet Periodical Press of the 1930s”) and Dr. David Shneer (“Who Owns the Means of Cultural Production: The Soviet Yiddish Publishing Industry in the 1920s”). Nonetheless, those that were produced show a great creativity and diversity of approaches to reflecting content in graphic form.

Among the most interesting example on hand is a 1926 publication of Hüseyn Cavid’s Uçurum in Arabic script. Unlike other works from the same period, the typography of the title is highly stylized. It is reminiscent of curling Maghrebi or Divani forms, but in a way that wouldn’t be alien to Art Deco designs either. Below this, most of the cover is taken up with a cross-hatched image of a man falling headfirst beside a rocky cliff. His long hair is dangling back behind his head, and his suit and tie are disheveled. But his posture and what little of his expression we can see suggests that this fall is purposeful, that he is willfully flying into “the abyss”, as the title suggests. Sadly, the illustrator’s name is not mentioned, either on the cover or in the bibliographic information on the title page, and we are only left to wonder about the identity of the image’s creator, and their contributions to other aspects of graphic culture in early Soviet Azerbaijan.

In recent years, a greater number of publications, including those with high-quality colour photography, have been devoted to histories of graphic design and book culture in Turkic republics and regions. These usually feature text in Russian and/or Tatar, occasionally providing English summaries or parallel text. A keen interest is growing in the critical art history of 20th century Turkic cultural production. But, so far, it is largely restricted to Russophone and Turkic academic spheres. As much as I am keen on purchasing such publications for the British Library’s holdings, it is my hope that their inclusion will gradually broaden Anglophone scholarships views about art and its history among non-Russian speakers in the early days of the Soviet Union.

            At issue here isn’t just a shallow approach to diversity and representation. Curators in Europe and North America are frequently keen to add a dollop of exoticism to their shows about Constructivism or Agitprop by including a poster or two in Uzbek, Azerbaijani, or Tatar. But to do so without contextualizing the growth and korenizatsiia of certain aesthetics among these communities subsumes these developments to a mere pastiche or imitation of (Great) Russian creativity. By learning more about the everyday spread of new forms of expression among the Turkic communities of the former Soviet Union, we understand more profoundly the fundamental changes that took place and the processes that underpin then. And, hopefully, a few more names to add to the Pantheon of early Soviet-era artistic expression.