The First Letter-Writing Manual Published in Russia

Lina Bernstein, Franklin and Marshall College

Russian letter-writing manuals of the eighteenth century have been largely neglected by historians and literary scholars alike. However, they constitute an invaluable source of cultural and social history. This paper analyzes the first published Russian letter-writing manual, Priklady kako pishutsja komplimenty raznye na nemeckom jazyke, to est' pisanija raznye ot potentatov k potentatam, pozdravitel'nye i sozzhaletel'nye, i inye; takozhde mezhdu srodnikov i prijatele. Priklady was translated from German in 1708 by Mixail Shafirov by order of Peter the Great. For Peter, Priklady was a weapon in his arsenal for advocating social reform. The second book to be published with Peter's mandated simplified orthography and new typeface that more closely resembled roman letters, Priklady portrayed less rigid modes of interaction in polite society. It also prepared the ground for a shift in attitudes toward language.

The publication of this book was among the measures undertaken by Peter to Europeanize Russian society and popularize new morals, more liberal social relations, and rules of etiquette. Priklady implied a new social order. It introduced a new mode of written interaction between benevolent civil rulers and their subjects; letters to clergy were conspicuously absent from this collection. It simplified the language deemed appropriate for such correspondence, and eliminated the longstanding custom in Russia whereby a petitioner presented himself as a "slave." Priklady aimed to form a Russian polite society and to teach good, "European," manners. Before the Petrine reforms, which "feminized" society, women had been largely secluded. Priklady aimed to end this seclusion: The most striking model letters of this collection are those addressed to women, women who are not family members of the writer and are perhaps even unknown to him.

The novelty of the world created in Priklady is also apparent in the group of letters from students to their parents. These letters are clearly ideological: Peter's ambitions for the Westernization of Russia required that many Russian young men acquire a European education. Parents willing to send their sons to distant countries to study were not legion; besides which, the sons were not so eager themselves. In these letters the students proclaim their boundless gratitude to their fathers for the financial support that has allowed them to undertake their studies. These letters also point out that supporting students is in the interest of the family, because a well-educated son will add glory to his father's name and provide him security in his old age. Such letters endeavored to extol the advantages of learning, which in Peter's time was still considered demeaning by many in high society. The student characters of the model letters exhibit their ability to be independent yet mindful of their families left behind. They combine their private interests with concern for the public good, just as Peter's own behavior and many of his policies made little distinction between the private and public spheres.

Priklady went through four printings and remained on the market through the end of the eighteenth century and beyond. It was a harbinger and model for a series of letter-writing manuals that flourished especially during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. While the later books had much wider circulation and found an audience among a broader stratum of society, their multifaceted functions remained similar. Like the Priklady, they offered model letters written without rhetorical hyperbola, gave examples of model social interaction, instructed on behavior between the sexes, aimed to teach, and strove to entertain.