Early Soviet children’s books, 1924-1932

The Young Polytechnician: Housing

the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools001 the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools002 the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools003 the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools004 the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools005 the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools006 the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools007 the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools008 the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools009 the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools010 the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools011 the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools012 the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools013 the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools014 the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools015 the-young-polytechnician-housing-al%ca%b9bom-dli%ef%b8%a0a%ef%b8%a1-raboty-v-shkole-i-stupeni-a-workbook-for-elementary-schools016

Out with bourgeois crocodiles!
How the Soviets rewrote children’s books

Stuart Jeffries
The Guardian
May 4, 2016

In 1925, Galina and Olga Chichagova il­lus­trated a two-pan­el poster that called for a re­volu­tion in chil­dren’s il­lus­tra­tion in the new So­viet Uni­on. The left pan­el fea­tured tra­di­tion­al char­ac­ters from Rus­si­an fairytales and folk­lore — kings, queens, the Fire­bird, the witch Baba Yaga and, my fa­vor­ite, a cro­codile in el­eg­ant night­cap and dress­ing gown. “Out,” read the cap­tion, “with mys­ti­cism and fantasy of chil­dren’s books!!”

Mean­while, the right pan­el de­pic­ted what the sis­ters thought fel­low artists should be il­lus­trat­ing to im­prove the first gen­er­a­tion of little So­viet cit­izens. Un­der the be­ne­fi­cent eye of Len­in were im­ages of young pi­on­eers in red necker­chiefs, work­ing on col­lect­ive farms, as well as il­lus­tra­tions of Red Army cav­alry troops rid­ing in­to battle, factor­ies, and air­craft. An­thro­po­morph­ized cro­codiles, ap­par­ently, wer­en’t suf­fi­ciently re­volu­tion­ary.

“Give a new child’s book,” went the cap­tion. “Work, battle, tech­no­logy, nature — the new real­ity of child­hood.”


This call to re­vo­lu­tion­ize chil­dren’s il­lus­tra­tion was part of so­cial­ism’s big­ger polit­ic­al struggle. “In the great ar­sen­al with which the bour­geois­ie fought against so­cial­ism, chil­dren’s books oc­cu­pied a prom­in­ent role,” wrote one L. Kormchii in the Bolshev­ik news­pa­per Pravda in 1918, “The bour­geois­ie, well aware of the force of chil­dren’s books, took ad­vant­age of them to strengthen their own power … We struggle and we die, but be­fore we drown in our own blood, we must seize these weapons from en­emy hands.”

“The idea was to ab­ol­ish fantasy lit­er­at­ure and il­lus­tra­tion be­cause they were seen as bour­geois and un­help­ful to the re­volu­tion,” says Olivia Ahmad, cur­at­or of A New Child­hood: Pic­ture Books from So­viet Rus­sia. Ima­gine if Harry Pot­ter or Ju­lia Don­ald­son and Axel Scheffler’s Room on the Broom were deemed un­ac­cept­ably counterre­volu­tion­ary.

In one cau­tion­ary tale called Ice Cream, by writer Samuil Mar­shak and il­lus­trat­or Vladi­mir Le­b­ve­dev, a bour­geois cap­it­al­ist eats too much ice cream and freezes to death. In Red Neck, a poem by Nicolia Aseev, a faith­ful Young Pi­on­eer (the So­viet youth group) re­fuses to take off his red necker­chief even when at­tacked by a ra­ging bull, thus demon­strat­ing doughty re­volu­tion­ary com­mit­ment even in the face of an un­pleas­ant gor­ing.

So­viet chil­dren’s lit­er­at­ure was fun in the 1920s and early 30s, even while it pro­pa­gand­ized for so­cial­ism and helped So­viet chil­dren to do what many of their par­ents could not, namely read. Just as the So­viet Uni­on needed to be elec­tri­fied and in­dus­tri­al­ized at break­neck pace, so the chil­dren of the re­volu­tion needed to be edu­cated fast if their home­land was to sur­vive in a hos­tile world. Cheaply pro­duced, cap­tiv­at­ingly il­lus­trated books were the an­swer. Early So­viet pic­ture books, ex­plains Ahmad, were prin­ted litho­graph­ic­ally on to cheap pa­per, then fol­ded and stapled to cre­ate 10-15 page pa­per­backs.

Chil­dren’s books were, then, part of the So­viet polit­ic­al struggle. But the re­volu­tion is not so much in the text as in the im­ages. What Wal­ter Ben­jamin wrote of Mo­scow dur­ing his 1927 vis­it — “Each thought, each day, each life lies here as on a labor­at­ory ta­ble” — is true of the thrill­ing changes in il­lus­tra­tions for chil­dren’s books dur­ing the early years of the So­viet ex­per­i­ment.

The il­lus­tra­tions for Red Neck, for in­stance, were done by Natan Alt­man, a theat­er de­sign­er and cubo-fu­tur­ist sculptor. Here Alt­man’s fig­ur­at­ive line draw­ings were laid over an­gu­lar ab­stract shapes, a design which we are fa­mil­i­ar with, but in the 1920s must have been dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing to Rus­si­an eyes.

The great Rus­si­an artist El Lis­sitzky went fur­ther. In About Two Squares: a Su­pre­mat­ist Tale in Six Con­struc­tions, he riffed on re­cent Rus­si­an av­ant-garde ex­per­i­ments by bor­row­ing Kazi­mir Malevich’s black square. In the story, the black square joins a red square that rep­res­ents com­mun­ism and both head off on a dia­lect­ic­al space trip. The two flat shapes crash to Earth caus­ing de­struc­tion in three di­men­sions — a kind of ab­strac­tion­ist de­pic­tion of the Bolshev­ik re­volu­tion — from which emerges a new Earth built in the red of com­mun­ism.

The book format it­self was the scene of re­volu­tion­ary ex­per­i­ment. In Isaak Eber­il’s il­lus­tra­tions for A Cinema Book About How the Pi­on­eer Hans Saved the Strike Com­mit­tee, our hero alerts strikers about the ap­proach­ing po­lice. But what’s ex­cit­ing is not the mes­sage but the format: the im­ages were prin­ted as mock film reel, which kids were en­cour­aged to cut out and project them­selves (some­how).

Sim­il­arly, Aleksei Laptev’s book The Five Year Plan il­lus­trates the state of farm­ing, coal and iron pro­duc­tion in 1927, but what’s won­der­ful about it is that each page can be fol­ded out to re­veal planned ex­pan­sions in each sec­tor by 1932. When fully opened, the book is two meters long. If I’d been a 10-year-old Rus­si­an child in 1927, I would so have wanted that for my bed­room wall.

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My fa­vor­ite works in the show are Al­isa Poret’s il­lus­tra­tions for How the Re­volu­tion was Won, fea­tur­ing scenes from Oc­to­ber 1917, not least be­cause she uses an el­ev­ated per­spect­ive bor­rowed from So­viet film pi­on­eers like Dziga Vertov and Ei­s­en­stein to give an epic ten­or to her ma­ter­i­al.

Such works were in an ideo­lo­gic­al struggle with earli­er, il­lus­trated chil­dren’s books. Ahmad shows me some sump­tu­ous prerevolu­tion­ary il­lus­tra­tions by Al­ex­an­der Benois for his 1904 Al­pha­bet in Pic­tures series. One frame il­lus­trates a let­ter along­side a teem­ing ar­ray of ex­pens­ive look­ing dolls. You can al­most smell the priv­ilege, hear nanny pad­ding across the nurs­ery car­pet. An­oth­er let­ter is il­lus­trated with some toffs in powdered wigs look­ing at the stars through their tele­scopes from their St Peters­burg ter­race. Though charm­ing, these im­ages de­pict a world that Bolshev­ism sought to over­come.

Con­trast Benois’s il­lus­tra­tions with Vladi­mir Lebedev’s 1925 Al­pha­bet, in which each let­ter is starkly prin­ted in black and dec­or­ated with tersely ex­pressed, yet vi­brant an­im­al fig­ures. It’s an al­pha­bet for a new era — for the chil­dren of the re­volu­tion.

One of the ex­hib­i­tion’s her­oes is the artist Vera Er­molaeva, a Rus­si­an pi­on­eer of non-ob­ject­ive art, su­pre­mat­ism, and con­struct­iv­ism. In 1918 she foun­ded the first So­viet chil­dren’s book pub­lish­er, a col­lect­ive called Se­gon­dia [Today]. She and her fel­low artists used ba­sic ma­ter­i­als, flat per­spect­ive and dis­tor­ted pro­por­tions, thereby for­ging a link between prere­volu­tion­ary av­ant-garde art, old de­pic­tions of Rus­si­an folk­lore and the re­volu­tion­ary de­mands of the day. Er­molaeva’s il­lus­tra­tions are among the most en­dear­ing in the show. One is a poster for a poem called Cock­er­el, an­oth­er the cov­er il­lus­tra­tion for a volume of Walt Whit­man’s poem O, Pi­on­eers!

But her story is tra­gic. In 1934, she was ar­res­ted for “anti-So­viet activ­it­ies” and sent to a work camp in Kaza­kh­stan, where she was shot in 1937. Re­cently, she was honored by Rus­si­an wo­men, in­clud­ing mem­bers of Pussy Ri­ot, who foun­ded the Vera Er­molaeva Found­a­tion to sup­port fe­male artists.


The era hymned by this ex­hib­i­tion came to an end, Ahmad ar­gues, in 1934 when the All-Uni­on Con­gress of So­viet Writers ad­op­ted so­cial­ist real­ism as the only tol­er­able aes­thet­ic style. Non-ob­ject­iv­ism? Con­struct­iv­ism? Su­pre­mat­ism? Sur­real­ism? Prim­it­iv­ism? All these isms, which had been so im­port­ant in the flour­ish­ing of chil­dren’s il­lus­tra­tion in the pre­vi­ous dec­ade and a half, were deemed in­im­ic­al to the So­viet state.

By then, cen­sor­ship and great­er state con­trol over pub­lish­ing was be­com­ing more in­tense. For in­stance, El Lis­sitzky’s Yid­dish-lan­guage book The Only Kid be­came one of the first titles to be des­troyed fol­low­ing re­newed state cen­sor­ship in the 1930s of the lead­ing lan­guage of Rus­si­an Jews.

In­creased cen­sor­ship promp­ted the ex­ile of many av­ant-garde artists who had re­vo­lu­tion­ized chil­dren’s il­lus­tra­tion dur­ing the pre­vi­ous dec­ade and a half. Rus­si­an emigrés Nath­alie Parain and Feodor Ro­jan­ovsky, for in­stance, went to France where they cre­ated the be­loved Père Castor series of il­lus­trated chil­dren’s books. Oth­er artists, such as Mar­shak and Lebedev, stayed and tailored their work to fit the new Sta­lin­ist or­der.

The ex­cite­ment of the early years of the So­viet ex­per­i­ment in chil­dren’s books may have been over, but it had an im­port­ant af­ter­life. So­viet books brought to Bri­tain in­spired the cre­ation of the Puffin Pic­ture books in 1940. And now there is this ex­hib­i­tion, the first of its kind in Bri­tain, to re­mind us of that scarcely con­ceiv­able, uto­pi­an mo­ment when chil­dren’s books were a place for av­ant-garde ex­per­i­ment and re­volu­tion­ary polit­ic­al struggle.

Kuznets Metallurgy Plant: A Socialist Giant

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A Book for Children about Lenin

Roman Karmen, Aėrosani (1931)


Georgii Echeistov, Detskii internatsional (1926)


Olga and Galina Chichagova, Dlia chego krasnaia armiia (1927)

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Nikolai Smirnov, Egor the electrician (1928)

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Aleksandr Nikolaev, The Second May Day (1930)

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