The universe of early Soviet children’s literature is now accessible thanks to a digitilized collection of Princeton University Library, opening a world of absurd humour and dry moralism.
In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, children’s books helped to familiarize the youngest generation of Soviet citizens with Bolshevik ideas and the new revolutionary aesthetic. A collection of these books has now been made available online by Princeton University Library. This is great news for entusiasty of early Soviet popular culture, neo-Marxist parents and their reluctant children.
Among the works in the collection are several children’s rhymes by Vladimir Mayakovsky (like ‘The Soviet ABC’ or ‘What is good and what is bad?‘). In a poem about the animal world, for instance, supremacist lions and elephants appear along messily placed letters and words. The lion, it reads, “is not at all a Tsar, just a chairman”.
Electrification was one of the hallmarks of the new time. Power stations were built all over the country, such as the Volkhov hydroelectric plant with the astonishing power of 80.000 horses ( see cover page on the left). Often, the books’ illustrators were among the country’s best – like Alexandr Deneika drawing the work of an electrician, a hero of modernity (right):
In the new society, the life and habits of workers – and their children – had to be civilized. Learning to read was an important task of ‘enlightenment’ (prosveshenie) and children were often the first in their family to acquire literacy; very much like Yegor, who learns about electricity in school. When the Bolsheviks bring electricity to his home, he is finally able to read in the evenings:
Or conscript Vanya, who learns to read in the army and now avidly reviews the Party paper. After finishing service his commander hands him some books as a present:
The family was transformed as well and “a million working mothers” were taking part in the colossal effort of building a new country. In one book, children taught why (and where) their mothers are now working:
New cities called for a new page layout:
With illiteracy widespread among the population such books were not exclusively written for pioneers and Komsomoltsy but also for their parents (here is a reading and writing guide for adults). Its ideological emphasis – although nothing uncommon – can be read as testimony to the lack of political steadfastness among the masses.
Like fairytales, the stories were essentially morality tales in a world of good communists and evil capitalists. For the young readers this world was their socialist motherland and they had to think accordingly – by learning about the heroic victory of the working class now defending their country from wrath-seeking Kulaks at home and imperialists abroad.
“How the revolution triumphed” recalls the year 1917 from a bird’s eye perspective. On this page, the provisional government (made up of “Cossacks and landlords”) is depicted cracking down on workers’ and soldiers’ demonstrations in October 1917:
See how General Budonny’s “Red cavalry” defeats white cavalrymen during the civil war (note the monarchist moustaches!):
The authors needed to sell the monumental story of capitalist exploitation and communist liberation to Soviet children. The result was a mix of absurd humor and dry moralism, such as in Mayakovsky’s tale about “Pudgy Pete and thin Simon”. Pete is a greedy trader’s son who eats everything from sweets to a bike until he bursts. Simon and his pioneer squad then judiciously share Pete’s riches among them.
In another poem, a bull attacks a pioneer, provoked by the boy’s red necktie. But the pioneers risk their lives for their red necktie and heroically drive the bull away.
The children’s encounter with Soviet power was a prominent topic. One book depicts giant Narkomy (People’s commissars) visiting a kid at home. The reader learns what each of the commissars contributes to society’s welfare, like Lunacharsky, “the people’s commissar of enlightenment who makes sure that you are not a fool”:
Of course, the most progressive country in the world was a place of refuge for progressive children from the capitalist abroad. Jimmy Joy, a young American, wants to go with his father on a business trip to Leningrad in order to join the pioneers. When his father doesn’t let him, Jimmy hides in his father’s trunk. During a storm on the Atlantic, the trunk flies overboard and wandering the seas in his boat-turned-suitcase, Jimmy reaches an island full of ‘Kulak’ apes, who refuse to save the shipwrecked communist.
Suddenly, by heavenly circumstance (or Lenin’s intervention), a Soviet hydroplane arrives to save the red-flag waving boy. On landing in Leningrad, he is greeted by those very pioneers he was eager to join when he set off for the dangerous trip. They celebrate Jimmy, ‘the brave boy’ (khrabryi Mal‘chik) for his exemplary lifestyle: He “does not eat seeds, washes his hands before dinner and never drinks tap water”!
The oppressed children of the colonies are brothers (Bratishki) of the children in the Soviet Union:
In “Our enemies and our friends” the Soviet Union is a haven for oppressed peoples in the colonies (The caption on the left states: “Colonised peoples: The fighting reserves of the Proletariate” in contrast to the “barking dogs” of Imperialism at the Polish border on the right). The Soviet Union, after all, would not teach its children the values of humanism or enlightenment, but of class struggle and capitalist encirclement: In the book, there are 5 times more instances of enemies than friends:
Enemies necessitate defence, and – judging by the children’s books – the Soviet Union had a mighty and beautiful army. Deneika dedicated two picture books to the topic. This is from the “Parade of the red army” and “The Red Army“:
Despite the standardization and restriction of the artistic space (and eventually the execution of some of its most prominent representatives) after 1928, the world of children’s books exposes an extraordinary aesthetic diversity and a surprising degree of ideological permissiveness (at times to the point of outright mockery of communist rhetoric). And indeed, for Daniil Kharms, the playwright of absurd theater who died in prison in 1941, writing children’s rhymes was his refuge when his works for an older public fell victim to censorship.
After Arthur Koestler travelled the Soviet Union 1932 – a time when the ‘golden age‘ of NEP culture had already passed – he remarked: “I found life in Russia terribly depressing. (…) the grim pomposity of everything said and written, the all pervading atmosphere of a reformatory school. (…) The feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world. The boredom of newspapers, which contained nothing critical or controversial. The constant exhortations, the stereotyped uniformity of all and everything, the eternal portrait of Big Brother following you everywhere with his eyes. The overwhelming bleakness of an industrialized Neanderthal”. He had not read the children’s books.