If you’ve read our previous story on Russian writing, you already know that by the 10th century the Cyrillic alphabet had already been established and widely used. But it’s one thing to have a complete set of letters and another – to be able to combine them into words smoothly so that the text would not only be comprehensible but also nice to look at. In other words, it was the time to come up with a script for handwriting, which was done around the 11th century.

Russian calligraphy began with a form of writing called ustav (derived from stavit’, ustanavlivat’ – to establish), which was widely used throughout the Medieval period in Russia. Most ancient manuscripts known to us today, such as the Ostromir Gospels (1056-1057), were written using it.  

This form of writing was inspired by the uncial script, used in Greek and Latin languages. Both weren’t made for everyday use, but rather for various religious books. Therefore, you may notice that such writing looks very neat and solemn.

Later on, the need for writing increased, and a less complicated script called poluustav (“half-ustav”) appeared. As the name suggests, it’s less demanding. It requires less precision and provides more choice for how to write this or that letter. Its lines can look a bit rougher than those used in ustav. You can see an example here.

However, this solution didn’t suffice: poluustav was still not that easy to use, whereas the need to write continued to grow. That’s why a third type of writing, called skoropis’ (fast writing), appeared around 16th century. It was quicker to use, since even less precision was required and the writer could improvise more.

But convenience isn’t everything. Aside from the need to write quickly, there was also a longing for beauty; so, in the late 14th century, scribes came up with vyaz’ (from svyazyvat’ – to connect). It’s a much more intricate and ornate type of writing, mostly used to highlight the headline or the first letter of the text by adding ornaments and ink of different color – typically red.

By the 18th century, as book-printing was gaining steam, the above-mentioned forms of handwriting became obsolete, and the so-called civil font (гражданский шрифт) was introduced by Peter the Great. However, it was used for printing, not writing, whereas most documents, like parish or confession registers, were still hand-written until well into the 20th century. So, the art of writing didn’t end there. To this day, most writing in Russian is done using cursive, which at times may look pretty confusing.