Today is celebrated in parts of Russia as Old Permic Alphabet Day. The Old Permic script (Komi: Важ Перым гижӧм), sometimes called the Abur or Anbur after the first two letters (an + bur), is an idiosyncratic adaptation of the Cyrillic script once used to write medieval Komi (Permic). It was created by St Stephen of Perm (Russian : Стефан Пермский, also spelled “Stephan”, Komi: Перымса Стефан, a 14th-century painter and missionary credited with the conversion of the Komi to Christianity and the establishment of the Bishopric of Perm. Because today is his saint’s day, it was chosen as the date to celebrate the alphabet he created.
Stephen was probably from the town of Ustiug. According to a church tradition, his mother was a Komi woman. Stephen took his monastic vows in Rostov, where he learned Greek and learned his trade as a copyist. In 1376, he traveled to lands along the Vychegda and Vym rivers, and it was there that he engaged in the conversion of the Zyriane (Komi peoples). Rather than imposing Latin or Church Slavonic on the indigenous populace, as all the contemporary missionaries did, Stephen learnt their language and traditions and worked out a distinct writing system for their use, creating the second oldest writing system for an Uralic language. Although his destruction of some non-Christian religious symbols earned him the wrath of some Permians, he became the first bishop of Perm, and was very popular.
Stephen’s conversion of the Vychegda Perm threatened the control that Novgorod had had over the region’s wealth and tribute payments, so in 1385, the Archbishop of Novgorod Aleksei (r. 1359-1388) sent a Novgorodian army to remove the new establishment. But the new bishopric, with the help of the city of Ustiug, was able to defeat it. In 1386, Stephan visited Novgorod, and the city and its archbishop formally acknowledged the new situation. Subsequently, the region’s tribute money went to Moscow. These events had immense repercussions for the future of northern Russia, and was one part of a larger trend which saw more and more of the Finnic North and its vital fur trade passing from the control of Novgorod to Moscow, and the general consolidation of Russia as a nation.
The Komi are a Uralic ethnic group whose homeland is around the basins of the Vychegda, Pechora and Kama rivers. They mostly live in the Komi Republic, Perm Krai, Murmansk Oblast, Khanty–Mansi Autonomous Okrug, and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in the Russian Federation. They belong to the Permian branch of the Finno-Ugric peoples, divided into eight sub-groups. Their northernmost sub-group is also known as the Komi-Izhemtsy (from the name of the river Izhma) or Iz’vataz. This group numbers 15,607 (2002 census). This group is distinct for its more traditional, strongly subsistence based economy which includes reindeer husbandry. Komi-Permyaks (125,235 people) live in Perm Krai and Kirov Oblast of Russia.
There have been at least three names for the Komis: Permyaks, Zyrians (Russian: пермяки, зыряне) and Komi, the last being the self-designation of the people. The name Permyaks firstly appeared in the 10th century in Russian sources and came from the ancient name of the land between the Mezen River and Pechora River – Perm – often called “Great Perm” (Russian: Пермь Великая). There are several possible etymologies for the Russian term, but the most commonly accepted amounts to, “the back of beyond.” The name Komi is the endonym (a group’s name in its own language) for all groups of the peoples of the region. It was first recorded by ethnographers in the 18th century. It originates from the Finno-Ugric word meaning “man, human”: Komi kom, Udmurt kum, Mansi kom, kum, Khanty xum.
Komi is a member of the Uralic family of languages, sometimes called the Finno-Ugric family whose better known members are Finnish and Hungarian. Komi can be considered either a single language with several dialects, or a group of closely related languages, making up one of the two branches of the Permic branch of the Uralic family. The other Permic language is Udmurt, to which Komi is closely related.
Of the several Komi dialects or languages, two major varieties are recognized, closely related to one another: Komi-Zyrian, the largest group, serves as the literary basis within the Komi Republic; and Komi-Permyak (also called Permyak), spoken in Komi-Permyak Okrug, where it has literary status. A third variety, Komi-Yodzyak is spoken by the Komi to the north-west of Perm Krai and south of the Komi Republic.
The alphabet developed by Stephen of Perm shows some similarity to medieval Greek and Cyrillic. In the 16th century this alphabet was replaced by the Russian alphabet with certain modifications. In the 1920s, the language was written in Molodtsov alphabet, also derived from Cyrillic. In the 1930s it was switched to the Roman alphabet. In the 1940s the Komi alphabet was simply changed to the Russian alphabet, with the addition of І, і and Ӧ, ӧ. Letters particular to the Molodtsov alphabet include ԁ, ԃ, ԅ, ԇ, ԉ, ԋ, ԍ, ԏ, where the hooks represent palatalization.
I won’t stray into the technicalities of linguistics too much (and will be annoyingly simplistic for those who know the subject), but let’s talk a little about alphabets. When it comes to learning how to read and write, alphabets are the most basic way to represent sounds in writing, and are, therefore, the simplest to learn. At one end of the scale are pictograms, pictures representing basic ideas as in this photo:
Pictograms of this sort are independent of language, so they can be very useful, but they have limited linguistic utility. Next are logograms, such as Chinese characters or Egyptian hieroglyphs, which use a symbol to represent a word or idea. They can be used to express complete thoughts, but in consequence are restricted in their language use. But the restriction is not total. Cantonese and Mandarin are mutually unintelligible when spoken but both can use the same traditional Chinese characters, and speakers of either language can read them with equal fluency. Even when the Japanese use Chinese characters to write Japanese (kanji) a Chinese speaker can understand the writing to a degree – not perfectly because Japanese has altered some characters.
Next along the line are syllabaries, which break the sounds of a language into syllables (often consonant + vowel) for writing. Many Asian languages such as Japanese, Korean, and Burmese, now use syllabaries because they are simpler to learn than systems of characters. You may need to know a mere 40 characters in a syllabary to be literate, but in Chinese, for example, knowing 2,000 characters makes you barely literate; 10,000 is normal for educated readers. Scholars and bureaucrats in imperial China were expected to know around 50,000.
Alphabets simplify reading down to its most basic sounds, and some languages, such as Italian and Spanish, can be pronounced with reasonable accuracy, through reading out loud, by people who do not even know the languages as long as they know the relationship between letters and sounds. Sadly, English is not in this group because it has never had an academy to enforce basic (and simple to understand) rules, so that the jumbled history of the language is reflected in the convoluted spelling. If every language in the world used the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), pronunciation of the written word would be a snap. You would not have to learn the whole alphabet, just the letters that represent the sounds of your own language. It’s never going to happen though, not least because a culture’s way of writing is a very basic aspect of its identity. Chinese, for example, can be written in Pinyin, which is based on the Roman alphabet, and makes reading quite simple. But it obscures the depth and complexity of meaning that Chinese characters convey, and Westernizes writing the language. Some Chinese use Pinyin on cell phones, but most smartphones nowadays can send in Chinese characters, which the Chinese prefer.
When Stephen developed an alphabet for the Komi his first intention was to develop literacy among the people so that they could read the Bible (which, of course, had to be translated into Komi). If you can’t write the language, you can’t translate anything into the language that is as long and complex as the Bible.
Komi cuisine is varied region by region. In the northern reindeer-herding and hunting areas, meat is eaten daily, but not in the more agricultural south, where fish holds a more important place on tables. Pigs and poultry are kept, but are eaten less often. The Komi are fond of baking fish pie (черинянь)” on festive family occasions. The highly popular “Fish Pie Festival” (Черинянь гаж) is held annually on the last Sunday of June in the village of Byzovaya, Pechora Raion. Komi fish pie is a lot like some fish pies that I make – a cooked fish mixture, topped with a mix of mashed potatoes and other vegetables that is baked. Here’s a fairly standard recipe which incorporates leeks into the potato topping: a real favorite of mine. The filling uses a mix of fresh and smoked fish which is delightful.
Komi Fish Pie
300ml heavy cream
450g white fish fillets
225g smoked fish fillets (haddock or cod)
3 hard-boiled eggs, shelled and roughly chopped
100g butter, plus a little extra (as needed)
45g plain flour
3 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
1kg floury potatoes, peeled and diced.
1 leek, washed well and thinly sliced (green and white parts)
75g melting cheese, coarsely grated
salt and pepper
Put 450ml of the milk and the heavy cream into a large saucepan and bring to a low simmer (boiling will cause the mixture to rise and spill over the pan. Add the white and smoked fish and cook gently for 5-6 minutes, until the fish is just cooked through. Don’t overcook. Using a slotted spoon, remove the fish from the liquid and let it cool slightly on a platter. Strain the liquid and let it cool.
Using a fork or wooden spoon, break the fish into large flakes, and discard any skin and bones. The smoked fish may need careful inspection for small bones, which you need to remove with tweezers. Spread the fish over the base of an ovenproof dish and scatter the chopped eggs over the top.
Melt 50g of the butter in a pan and make a blond roux with the flour, cooking and stirring, for about 1 minute. Take the pan from the heat and, using a whisk, gradually stir in the cooking liquid making sure there are no lumps remaining. Return to the heat and slowly bring back to a simmer, stirring all the time. Cook until the sauce thickens, stirring occasionally. Season to taste, stir in the parsley, and pour the sauce over the fish. Leave to cool to room temperature.
Boil the potatoes until they are soft enough to mash (25 to 35 minutes). Meanwhile, melt the remaining 50g butter in a skillet, add the sliced leek and cook gently until tender.
Drain the potatoes and mash them. How smooth you want them is up to you. I usually leave them a bit lumpy, but this is cook’s choice. You can also add a little butter as you mash, if you like. Stir in the leeks with their butter and the cheese. Season to taste, and spread over the top of the fish in an even layer.
Preheat the oven to 400˚F/200˚C. Dot the top with a little butter, and bake until the potato topping is crisp and golden, by which time the filling will be heated through and bubbling (15 to 20 minutes).