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The ABC of a Poor and Naked Man


This work, which appeared not later than the middle of the seventeenth century, has come down to us a number of very different redactions, but all of them are constructed according to the same plan: the remarks of the nameless hero, which taken together form a kind of monologue, are set out in alphabetical order from az to izhitsa (the names of the first and last letters in the Old Russian alphabet, Az also meaning “I” in Old Russian).

The choice of form is no accident. Ever since ancient times the alphabet was considered to be a model of the world: the individual letters reflected individual elements of the universe, and the letters taken together the world as a whole. The ABC of a Poor and Naked Man also offered the reader a concise and all-embarcing picture of the world, but an “inside-out” picture, a caricature, at once comic and bitter. The outlook of the hero is that of the outcast injured by life. There is no place for him in Old Russian society with its strictly regulated estates and rigidity. “I am hungry and cold, and naked and barefoot… My yawning mouth has not eaten all day and my lips are stiff and blue… I see people living in plenty, but they give us, hungry ones, nothing, the devil knows what they are saving their money for.” The hero who utters this “alphabet monologue” has been cast out of the world of the well-fed and has no hope of entering it: “Barefoot and naked— that is my beauty.”