The “Working Alphabet”: a linguistic and visual delight from celebrated Russian creators

This “Working Alphabet” is a linguistically witty and visually stunning delight. You would expect no less from its great Russian creators –  the 1987 Nobel prize laureate Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) and the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award winner Igor Oleynikov (born 1953).

Joseph Brodsky was born in 1940 in Russia’s Leningrad (now St Petersburg). He survived the WWII siege of Leningrad, the military blockade of the city by the Nazi’s which lasted almost 900 days. Some of Brodsky’s family members died of hunger in the siege. Joseph’s interest in poetry developed from a young age and at 15 he has been writing his own poems. Anna Akhmatova, a prominent Russian poetess of the silver age, has recognised great talent in Brodsky and became his mentor.

Sadly, Brodsky has been betrayed and denounced to the Soviet authorities by his close friend at the time, the betrayal spurred by jealousy as the friend was interested in the same woman that Brodsky started a relationship with. Ever since Joseph Brodsky has been persecuted by the Soviet authorities for the daring ironic wit, idealism and the raw spirit of independence in his poetry as well as for being Jewish. He ended up being condemned to a Soviet mental institution and later sentenced to a 5 years long exile in a labor camp in the Arctic Siberia. In 1972 with the help of some prominent figures and intellectuals from both the Soviet Union and the West (such as the Soviet composer Shostakovich, poets Evtushenko and Akhmatova and the American poet W. H. Auden) Brodsky has immigrated to America and has never returned to his native country. He has been quoted saying: “The Last Judgement is the Last Judgement, but a human being who spent his life in Russia, has to be, without any hesitation, placed into Paradise.”

Being duly appreciated by the literary establishment in the West and regarded as one of the finest poets of his times, Brodsky continued writing in Russian and often translated his own work into English. His courageous, heartfelt and eloquently articulate oeuvre has eventually won him the Nobel Prize.

The “Working Alphabet” is Brodsky’s poem in Russian with a four-line verse for each letter. Its rhythmic stanzas would be hard to translate without losing the awesomeness of this most gifted poetic voice. Despite its mundane subject, this alphabet of jobs covers some rare occupations –  like the agronomist, reindeer herdsman, trumpeter, the sentry and (possibly extinct now) the Soviet “upravdom”, an occupation whose scope is closest to that of the strata title manager in the West. Brodsky’s alphabet verses are apt, sharp, laconic and witty, in keeping with his entire literary output.

Whilst the poetic beauty of the “Working Alphabet” is hard to appreciate unless you comprehend Russian, the magnificent illustrations by Igor Oleynikov are there to enjoy by all. Igor is presently one of the most prolific contemporary Russian illustrators. His award-winning work is sought after by most reputable publishers in Russia and overseas. Originally educated in Chemical Engineering, he has quickly quit his engineering occupation and went on working as an animation artist for “Soiuzmultfilm”, the most prestigious animation studio in the Soviet Union.  

Experience with animation has greatly influenced Igor’s approach to illustrating. The dynamism of his scenes and compositions and his characters animated through movement, gesture and expression make you feel as though you’re in a cinematic setting rather than between the covers of a book. He usually paints in gauche and refers to using anything handy to work with: for example, small broom, rugs, old paint brushes. He loves creating a variety of textures and enjoys illustrating texts that leave space for imagination. His illustrations are never a literal representation of the text; the allegories, visual puns and unusual compositions and scenes in unexpected settings make for a rewarding visual journey. The “Working Alphabet” is a fine testament to his talent.

The book’s illustrations are packed with words beginning with a corresponding letter, similar to the “Animalia” alphabet created by Graeme Base (read about it here). But unlike “Animalia” which does not reveal all solutions to its puns and riddles, the “Working Alphabet” includes a complete list of those at the end (a comforting inclusion for the likes of me who like to dot the i’s and cross the t’s).

The illustration below shows the street janitor clearing a path through snowdrifts, making his way across the snowed under courtyard surrounded by the monotonous high-rises of the Soviet type architecture. This (minus the dinosaur emerging from behind a building) is one nostalgic scene from the depths of my childhood memories; it feels like Igor Oleynikov referenced the very courtyard in Kishinev of the Soviet Moldova, which I have grown up in.

The "Working Alphabet": a linguistic and visual delight from celebrated Russian creators Alphabet, Hans Christian Andersen Award, Junior Fiction (6-12 years) Home Library Essentials 20210107 224737

Click on “Continue reading” link at the end of the post for more full-spread images of the “Working Alphabet’s” grand illustrations.

For other Alphabet books reviews click on this link.

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Sandra Severgnini
3 years ago

I don’t read Russian but art is universal. So beautiful.

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